For public health experts across Virginia, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a more-than-welcome addition to the state’s weekly allocation.
The one-dose shot boosted Virginia’s shipments by 69,000 this week, spurring a slew of new mass vaccination events. It doesn’t have the same cold storage requirements, making it easier to ship and redistribute. And at the national level, it’s prompting a new wave of optimism, with President Joe Biden promising a vaccine “for every adult in America by the end of May.”
But state health officials also worry the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an image problem. When trial data was released, many reports honed in on the numbers: 72 percent effective against COVID-19 infections in the United States, 66 percent effective in South America and 57 percent effective in South Africa. Pfizer’s, by contrast, showed 95 percent effectiveness at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses. Moderna’s showed 94.1 percent.
Those numbers don’t tell the full story. Dr. Costi Sifri, the director of hospital epidemiology at UVA, said that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were studied before the discovery of more infectious new coronavirus variants, making the results hard to compare with Johnson & Johnson’s.
“The bar went higher for this vaccine,” he said. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, like Pfizer and Moderna’s, is virtually 100 percent effective against severe disease-causing hospitalizations and deaths.
“Even if we’re saying it’s less efficacious than Pfizer or Moderna, it’s still better than most of the other freaking vaccines we’ve ever had,” said Dr. Robert Winn, director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center (flu vaccines, for example, generally range from 40 percent to 60 percent effectiveness).
“And I get why people are confused,” he said. “But while it may not be the Bentley, it’s still the very good Ford that gets you from Point A to Point B.”
Concern over optics, though, has played a heavy role in how Virginia is distributing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the first several weeks of its rollout. Of particular concern is that the vaccine will be viewed with suspicion in many low-income communities and communities of color, where discrimination — and unethical research — has contributed to mistrust of the medical system.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.