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6 things to know about the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

For starters, the Johnson & Johnson shot uses a weakened common cold virus, called an adenovirus, as a vehicle to deliver a single coronavirus gene into human cells. And it cannot give you a cold or COVID-19.

Photo credit:© Jatuporn Tansirimas – gettyimages.com

Millions of people have now received the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer, but most Americans are still waiting for an available vaccine. Fortunately, more vaccines are on the way.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorization for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 27, 2021. This means we now have a third option.

You may be wondering about the differences between the vaccines and which one is best for you. Here are six things we know about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

1. It teaches your immune system to recognize and destroy the coronavirus.

Different vaccines work in slightly different ways. The Johnson & Johnson shot uses a weakened common cold virus, called an adenovirus, as a vehicle to deliver a single coronavirus gene into human cells. That gene then provides the instructions for making the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. When the body makes the spike protein, the immune system reacts by making antibodies; later, if exposed to COVID-19, the immune system remembers what the spikes look like and how to destroy them.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a vector to get the information into the person being vaccinated so the immune system will recognize it and build an immune response in order to protect that person,” says UNC Health Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Joseph J. Eron Jr. “It’s a little different than the current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but it’s the same kind of idea: It gets that message inside the body so that the body can see it and respond.”

It’s important to know: The adenovirus has been genetically modified so that it cannot duplicate. It cannot give you a cold or COVID-19.

2. It’s a one-dose vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot as opposed to the other current available vaccines, which require two doses.

That could make a difference when it comes to getting as many people vaccinated as possible, Eron says. “It’s easier to administer because you only have to do it one time.”

It’s also easier to store and ship. This means the vaccine can be better distributed in more rural areas or underserved areas that may not have the resources or infrastructure to house the current vaccines, which require super-cold storage, Eron says.

3. It is 85% effective in preventing severe disease.

Like the other COVID-19 vaccines currently in use, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will help prevent COVID-19. In clinical trials, it was 85% effective in preventing severe disease and essentially 100% effective in preventing hospitalization and death. In fact, when it comes to these most serious cases, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “was very, very similar to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in protecting people from serious illness,” Eron says.

4. It is more effective against some COVID-19 variants than others.

Viruses are constantly changing, and new versions — called variants — often arise.

“The virus’s job is to keep going and infecting more people, so if it changes over time, it can still spread, and that’s what we worry about,” Eron says.

Variants from Britain and South Africa have changed the virus enough to alter its impact. Early research has found them to be more contagious. For example, the British variant appears to spread more easily, and scientists are working to understand whether serious COVID-19 disease is more common with this variant.

“As best we can tell, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine protects as well from the variant that’s appeared in England as it does for the predominant variant that’s here in the United States,” Eron says.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66% overall effective in preventing people becoming sick with COVID-19, including new variants from Brazil and South Africa.

5. The new vaccine is now available in the United States.

Johnson and Johnson received emergency authorization use for its vaccine in the United States. Before the FDA authorizes this, it reanalyzes the clinical trial data.

“FDA scientists and statisticians review the data and see if they can reproduce the results using the data from the company. It’s a very rigorous assessment,” Eron says. “It may be a little bit slower, but it gives me comfort about the safety of a vaccine.”

6. If you’re eligible for a vaccine now, you shouldn’t wait.

When the vaccine becomes available in the United States, it means it has been through every stage of clinical trials that would normally take place for a vaccine. It is very important to understand that it is not possible to get a vaccine into humans without taking all the necessary steps.

“Millions of people have been vaccinated, and we’re getting a very good sense of the safety of these vaccines,” Eron says. “Getting vaccinated sooner rather than later is better. It’s so important to be vaccinated to protect yourself from this really serious illness. We believe that if enough people get immunized with the vaccine, there’ll be less infection in the community and the better off all of us will be.”

Joe Eron

Dr. Joe Eron

 

Joseph J. Eron Jr., M.D., is a professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, director of Clinical Core at UNC Center for AIDS Research and associate director of the General Clinical Research Unit at UNC School of Medicine. He is also an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Gillings School of Global Public Health.