What Does Johnson & Johnson’s Shot Mean for Our Vaccine Timeline?

12:10 minutes

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

The U.S. now has a third COVID-19 vaccine in our arsenal, as Johnson & Johnson’s shot got emergency approval last weekend. This one is different from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already in use: It’s only one dose, it’s inexpensive, and it doesn’t require very cold temperatures for storage. This means rural communities might get vaccinated faster, and our timeline to possible COVID-19 herd immunity could improve.

Scaling up vaccinations will be critical as the homegrown U.S. COVID-19 variants are taking hold. Variants from California and New York are becoming more widespread, though it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to change our strategy for fighting COVID-19 yet.

Ira is joined by Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, to talk about these stories and other big science news of the week.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about gray wolf conservation now that they’re no longer considered an endangered species, and Oregon’s experimental rollback on drug laws. But first, the US now has a third COVID-19 vaccine in our arsenal. Johnson & Johnson’s shot got emergency approval last weekend. However, this one is different from Pfizer and Moderna vaccines already in use.

So, what does that mean for how well it works? And will more vaccines be available soon? Well, I’m going to put those questions to Umir Irfan, staff writer at Vox based in Washington DC who covers this. Welcome back.

UMIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back, always good. Let’s talk about this Johnson & Johnson vaccine. What makes it different physically from what’s already available?

UMIR IRFAN: Well, the biggest thing is that this is only a one-dose vaccine. The Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines require two doses spaced several weeks apart. So this is something that can really speed up the distribution of it.

Another factor is that this is a vaccine that can be stored at ordinary refrigerator temperatures. It doesn’t require the ultra cold or freezer storage that the other vaccines require. This one’s also cheaper. It costs about $10 a dose, where the other mRNA-based vaccines cost about twice as much.

And this is also the first vaccine that uses this platform to be authorized in the US. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA. This one, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, uses an adenovirus as its vector. Basically, it’s a modified virus that carries genetic information into the cells. And then the cells read that information to manufacture a part of the virus.

IRA FLATOW: So, this uses DNA instead of mRNA. And DNA is more robust than able to survive. That’s why it can last longer or doesn’t need to be deep frozen.

UMIR IRFAN: Well, also this vaccine because it uses a vector, a virus that exists in nature. It’s also more shelf-stable. So the packaging is also a big factor for why this is a more robust in the wild.

IRA FLATOW: And its efficacy on par with other vaccines?

UMIR IRFAN: Well, on the most important metric, which is preventing hospitalizations and deaths, yes, it is just about as good as every other vaccine that’s on the market. It’s about 100% in terms of preventing people from getting sent to hospitals and preventing them from dying from COVID-19.

It’s slightly less effective in terms of preventing severe disease, about 85%. And the efficacy number overall in terms of preventing disease at all to begin with, it hovers anywhere between about 65% to about 75%, depending on which market they tested. And this is actually a little bit lower than the other vaccines as you were hinting at.

And this has caused a little bit of concern, but the researchers I talked to about this be careful about reading too much into this number. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested in three different countries. And it was also tested later in a later stage of the pandemic when we had far more spread, and it was also tested against the new variants that are spreading. So, it’s not a strictly fair comparison to just look at that top line efficacy number across these vaccines.

IRA FLATOW: Because there’s really that bottom line number about deaths and hospitalizations, that’s really important.

UMIR IRFAN: And that’s right. And that’s why public health officials say the vaccine you should get is the first one that you’re offered regardless of which one it is.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Umir, since the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only one dose, does that mean it’s faster to produce?

UMIR IRFAN: Well, it does mean that it’s faster to administer to people at the full capacity. So the company has said that they will deliver about 100 million doses by the end of June, and that means 100 million people will be vaccinated. And so this is something that can be rolled out quite quickly, especially to rural areas or far-flung parts of the country with fewer resources.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about another vaccine that most people probably have not heard of, and that’s from India– Covaxin?

UMIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. This is a vaccine that has already begun distribution. It started being authorized back in January in India. But we actually only got results this week about how well it works.

In a trial of about 26,000 participants, the vaccine was reported to have an 81% efficacy against symptomatic disease. And this is also another different type of vaccine. This is a whole inactivated virus vaccine. So, much more traditional in terms of the platform.

IRA FLATOW: Do we think that other countries are going to start using this one?

UMIR IRFAN: Well. I think a lot of other countries are a little bit hesitant at this point because the full results are not yet out. These are interim results. And there was actually a lot of controversy in India as well about authorizing this vaccine before all the data was available.

The Indian government to date has already vaccinated about 16 million people and is aiming to vaccinate 300 million people by August. So they have a huge task ahead of them because they already have a population of about 1.3 billion. But if they do have excess doses, then, yeah, this is something that they would definitely export. India is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding. I don’t think I knew that or many people did. Let’s talk about variants because lots of people keep hearing of new variants in the news, especially the New York variant and the California one.

UMIR IRFAN: Right. And it’s important to emphasize that the virus is mutating all the time and there’s a variation, subtle variations, between all the strains that are circulating. But once the virus accumulates a certain suite of mutations, then it’s classified as a variant, and it turns out the US has a couple of homegrown variants at this point in the pandemic. And so, as you noted, there’s one in California and one in New York.

The California variant seems to be more transmissible than the classic version that’s been circulating, but it’s not as transmissible as the UK variant you may have heard of the, B117 variant that is already spreading in the US. The CDC expects that the B117 variant will become the dominant strain in the country. The New York variant, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily seem to spread more readily, but it does look like it weakens the protection offered by the vaccines. It has a mutation in common with the South Africa variant and the Brazil variants. And it also, at this point, seems to lead to a slight increase in hospitalizations.

IRA FLATOW: So these are not probably going to impact our strategy for tackling COVID-19.

UMIR IRFAN: Right. The same suite of tactics that we’ve been using throughout the pandemic are still effective now– social distancing, wearing masks to prevent transmission. And the vaccines still remain to be effective in the vast majority of these cases. And so getting vaccines out as fast as possible is our best bet to contain variants and to prevent new ones from arising.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to talking about if someone gets COVID-19 now. Is it likely that they’ve got one of these variants at this point versus the original version we had last year?

UMIR IRFAN: I think it’s going to be increasingly likely. Like I said a little bit earlier, the CDC’s expecting that the B117 variant that was first identified in the UK, that’s going to become the dominant variant in the US. And so it is going to make a greater and greater share of new infections. And over time, this is going to be the most common one we find.

And so, yeah, we are definitely going to start seeing a change in the genetic makeup of the virus. And if we continue letting it spread, we’ll see even more variants starting to arise too.

IRA FLATOW: And despite COVID-19 still being a big risk, we are seeing some states rolling back mask mandates. Where is this happening?

UMIR IRFAN: Right. This week, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, and the governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott, both announced that they were lifting mask mandates in their respective states. Abbott said that Texas is open 100%. And it’s true that both of these states have seen a decline in COVID-19 cases, and this is part of a national downward trend.

But both Texas and Mississippi have a relatively high positivity rate. When you test for COVID-19, the percentage of tests that come back positive is an indication of how much the virus is spreading. The national average is around 4%, but both of these states have positivity rates above 10%, which indicates that the disease is still spreading there even though it’s on a downward trend. And a lot of health officials are concerned that this might be a bit premature.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And there are some states other states that are rolling back their restaurant capacities and opening for more business, but they’re still saying you should be wearing your masks.

UMIR IRFAN: Right. There’s a bit of a contradictory message going out here. Yes, there’s some states and some local cities have been relaxing restrictions on restaurants, on indoor dining, on indoor businesses, and so on, and capacity restrictions being set back to 100%.

But as you noted, the US is not out of the woods yet. Right now, we do still have these more contagious variants of the virus spreading. And while the rate of vaccination has picked up, not enough Americans have been vaccinated yet to reach so this so-called herd immunity. And so that’s why we still have that recommendation that even if you are vaccinated, that you should still be wearing masks in public because the risk of transmission is still very high right now.

IRA FLATOW: And there is still concern that if states are rolling back their rules, it could lead to another spike.

UMIR IRFAN: That’s exactly right. And so that’s why health officials are trying to stay on their toes and still cautioning that people should be taking precautions at this point.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s shift gears to some non-COVID news. One that I caught peripherally was that Google is changing how they track data. Tell us about that.

UMIR IRFAN: Yeah. So, if you’ve been to just about any website in recent months, you’ve probably noticed that they’re asking you to accept cookies. And so, cookies are these little trackers that websites place on your computer, and they sort of monitor your browsing habits, and they’re used to sell you targeted ads.

And Google said that it’s going to start eliminating third-party ads across its platforms, particularly its web browser Chrome. And so they’re saying that this is part of its initiative towards moving towards greater and greater privacy and anonymized user information to protect its users. But Google will still allow first-party cookies, basically the cookies that it gives you through its main function. So, mainly its search website and through YouTube.

And it will still use that information to sell you ads, but they say that they will do it in a more anonymized way. Rather than targeting you as an individual, they’ll place you in a category and use that as a way to sort of gauge what your interests are and try to market to you.

IRA FLATOW: So this does not mean that Google is going to stop collecting personal information.

UMIR IRFAN: That’s right. I mean, Google itself will still be paying attention to what you’re doing, but they’re saying that it’ll be done in a way that will better protect your personal identity online. And they will also limit third parties, these other advertisers, from doing it.

And this is going to have some big ripple effects throughout the ad industry because much of the internet runs on these ads. And so it’s going to be interesting to see how other websites start adapting to what they’ll probably need as a new business model.

IRA FLATOW: Ah, so just when we think we make two steps forward, then one step back.

UMIR IRFAN: It’s always like that, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] OK, well, let’s end on a happy note about something we love here on Science Friday, cephalopods. And we love our cuttlefish. Turns out there’s some new fun cuttlefish news. Tell us about that, please.

UMIR IRFAN: Right. You may remember the marshmallow test, the famous experiment where you put a marshmallow in front of a child and tell them that if they can wait 15 minutes, they could have a second one, but they could eat the first one right away? It’s supposed to be a test of patience. And later on, researchers said that this would also reflect future success in life and business.

Well, it turns out cuttlefish can pass that test, too. And researchers decided to test them by putting two kinds of treats in front of them in a plastic transparent box– one that they really like to eat and one that they don’t like as much. And their favorite snack was placed under a timer.

Basically, that if they were willing to wait, they could get the tastier snack, but they could have a less favorite snack right away. And they found that if they allowed the cuttlefish to have this choice, they would wait. They wanted the tastier snack. And it shows some pretty sophisticated thinking on the part of the animal. It shows that they can exercise self-control, but it also shows that they can understand past, present, and future.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. We know how they are related to the other cephalopods, especially the octopus, which I think is really, really smart. So that’s not very surprising, is it?

UMIR IRFAN: Yeah, we’ve seen these kinds of sophisticated hunting and thinking techniques and other animals. And yeah, you’re right, octopuses have been another organism that’s been demonstrated to do these kinds of sophisticated tasks.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I wonder what a marshmallow is for a cuttlefish. That’s the topic for another discussion, Umir.

UMIR IRFAN: Well, their more preferred meal was a live grass shrimp. So that’s the equivalent of a marshmallow for a cuttlefish.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] There you have it. Always great details, Umir. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

UMIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Umir Irfan, staff writer at Vox based in Washington DC.

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