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Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine May Soon Be Available In The U.S.


Another COVID-19 vaccine may soon be available in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration could decide as soon as this weekend to authorize a vaccine made by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson for emergency use. The FDA today released its evaluation of the new vaccine, and NPR's Joe Palca joins us to describe what they found.

Hi, Joe.


SHAPIRO: So there were a lot of details in the FDA's evaluation, but bottom line, was it positive or negative about it?

PALCA: Well, they don't exactly give conclusions like that. But generally, you'd have to say that the analysis was positive. The FDA based its judgment on a large study involving some 40,000 participants that was carried out primarily in the United States, South Africa and Brazil. Now, this vaccine only requires a single shot, so participants either got the vaccine or a placebo. And what researchers found was that overall, the vaccine efficacy was about 66% in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 and 85% against more serious disease. Stacey Schultz-Cherry is a professor of infectious diseases at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and she took a look at the FDA analysis.

STACEY SCHULTZ-CHERRY: I did not see anything that would make me pause in recommending that somebody would go get the shot.

SHAPIRO: Joe, tell us more about that 66% number, because a lot of people have zeroed in on that to say, wait, does this mean it's less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which reported close to 95% efficacy?

PALCA: Yeah, the numbers suggest that. But you have to have a little context here. First of all, you have to remember that initially people would have been satisfied with a vaccine that was just 50% of efficacy. So this is the first vaccine to come - if this had been the first vaccine to come along, people would have been thrilled. Second, vaccines behave differently when they're rolled out to millions of people. And so there may be changes in the numbers going forward. And third, variants have popped up around the world. And Schultz-Cherry says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the first to be tested against those and it did well.

SCHULTZ-CHERRY: Good efficacy against the virus circulating in the U.S., good efficacy against the South African and the Brazilian variants as well.

SHAPIRO: And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is easier to store and distribute than the other two. Tell us about that.

PALCA: Well, yes. I mean, the first obvious thing is that it only requires one shot, and that means people don't have to come back. You don't have to chase after them to make sure they get a second shot. So that makes logistics easier. And second of all, it's not as - it's easier to store. It doesn't require the special freezers that the Moderna vaccine requires.

SHAPIRO: And so what happens next? We said there could be emergency authorization as soon as this weekend?

PALCA: Well, the process works like this. The FDA receives a bunch of material from the company and then they evaluate it. And that's what they released today. And then before they make a decision, they convene a group called the Vaccine Advisory Committee. And they will meet on Friday to discuss and evaluate and chew over the data. And by the end of the day, they'll issue some sort of a recommendation to the FDA. And the FDA generally follows the recommendations of this advisory committee.

SHAPIRO: And how much of a difference is this likely to make in the supply situation if there are three circulating rather than two now?

PALCA: Well, it's going to make a difference, maybe not right away. There's going to be a few million, 3 or 4 million doses released almost immediately if the vaccine is approved or authorized - 20 million they expect by the end of March and 100 million by the end of June. So it's not going to solve the problem right away, but it will certainly help.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joe Palca, thanks a lot.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.