Chalk up another victory for America’s innovative pharmaceutical sector in the battle against Covid-19. An FDA analysis has found that Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine is both safe and effective, setting up a likely emergency-use authorization for the product. This would add a third vaccine to the American market, following the introduction of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna in December. The J&J vaccine will not only add much needed supply but also offer some significant advantages over the other two shots.
The top-line number for the J&J vaccine—67 percent effectiveness in decreasing moderate to severe Covid-19 illness—might seem to suggest that it is inferior to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which boast more than 90 percent effectiveness. But the vaccine trials are not directly comparable. The Pfizer and Moderna trials were conducted earlier, when fewer and probably less dangerous virus variants were extant. More importantly, J&J’s vaccine is very effective at preventing severe illness: 77 percent effective in reducing cases occurring 14 days after vaccination and 85 percent for cases 28 days after vaccination. Notably, no deaths or hospitalizations occurred among the trial’s vaccine recipients. As with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, side effects were mostly minor and brief.
The J&J vaccine also offers important advantages. First, it is a single dose rather than the currently required two doses for Pfizer and Moderna. This makes it far more likely people will sign up for it, since a single dose is less of a time commitment and inconvenience than a two-dose regimen. A single dose also eliminates the logistical difficulties of scheduling second doses and ensuring that they are given.
The J&J vaccine can also be transported and stored for up to three months using regular refrigeration, unlike the freezers needed for the other two vaccines. This will make it much easier to get doses to rural areas and countries with less well-developed distribution systems.
Finally, the J&J vaccine is significantly less expensive than its competitors. Based on U.S. government purchases, it will cost $10 per dose, while Pfizer comes in at $19.50 per dose and Moderna at $25 to $37 per dose. And since the latter two require two doses, the relative product cost of vaccination is $10 for J&J, $39 for Pfizer, and $50–$74 for Moderna, plus the added labor costs of administering second doses.
J&J’s vaccine uses a relatively new technology: an adenovirus vector, which cannot replicate or cause illness, inserts genetic material (DNA) into patients’ cells, instructing them to manufacture the coronavirus spike protein, which then elicits an immune response. This differs from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which both rely on a new mRNA technology. That all three could be developed, tested, and made available in hundreds of millions of doses within a year of the pandemic’s onset is a testament to the power of the free market to find innovative solutions to pressing human problems.
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