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Dr. Patel: Why lead COVID vaccines – even with lower efficacy – are a success across the board

Kate Murphy
·Producer
·3-min read

On Thursday, Johnson & Johnson submitted its COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in the United States. If greenlit by the Food and Drug Administration, it could be the nation’s third COVID vaccine producer, joining Pfizer and Moderna.

Between the three manufacturers, there could be enough COVID vaccines to inoculate the whole adult U.S. population by summer, according to Johnson & Johnson board member Mark McClellan, MD.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson said in a press release that its single dose vaccine is 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19, 28 days after vaccination. (The FDA’s cutoff point for a COVID vaccine’s effectiveness is 50%.)

That number stands in stark comparison to the nearly 95% efficacy rates of two-dose vaccines offered by Pfizer and Moderna – both of which are being administered across the nation under an emergency use authorization.

It’s also important to note how these coronavirus vaccines hold up against the presence of new, more transmissible variants, like B.1.351, from South Africa. Anthony Fauci, MD, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the current vaccines approved for emergency use (Pfizer and Moderna) might be less effective against that strain of virus. But Fauci added that “it still is well within the cushion of protection.”

Johnson & Johnson, which performed its clinical trial before the South African variant emerged, found that its COVID vaccine drops down to 57% effectiveness against the B.1.351 variant.

Yahoo News Medical Contributor Kavita Patel, MD, believes that comparing Pfizer and Moderna to Johnson & Johnson is like comparing apples to oranges because the clinical trials were done at different times. “[Johnson and Johnson] took into account the fact that they were in clinical trials with the evidence of these variants in their trial participants, so that reduced efficacy is probably driven from the effect of these variants,” Patel said.

Fontana, CA - February 02: Jacquelyn Zaval, RN, prepares Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine at a super site COVID-19 vaccination event held by San Bernardino County health at Auto Club Speedway on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 in Fontana, CA.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A nurse in Fontana, Calif. prepares to administer a dose of the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine earlier this month. (Irfan Khan/Getty Images)

Fauci also addressed the question of whether or not one should just wait for the next generation of vaccines if the current ones aren’t as effective against these variants. “The answer is, you need to get vaccinated when it becomes available as quickly and as expeditiously as possible throughout the country,” Fauci said. He also gave Americans a blunt bottom line on COVID vaccines. “There’s a lot more to protection than just preventing from getting infected,” Fauci said last week. “We want to keep people out of the hospital and we don’t want people to die.”

The New York Times reported that out of the nearly 75,000 people who took part in one of five vaccine trials (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and AstraZeneca), none died of COVID. And only a few appear to have been hospitalized.

“The ultimate goal of any vaccine is to really prevent the worst-case outcomes for that disease. In this case, death and hospitalizations, and we've achieved that,” Patel said. “I think we're all expecting what seems like near perfection, but these are incredibly good across the board efficacy rates, and we should be happy to take any of these vaccines.”