Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine could soon join fight against pandemic

The FDA is reviewing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine and it could get emergency authorization by the end of the week. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, this one only requires only one shot. Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, joined “CBSN AM” to discuss the significance.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: All right, a third COVID-19 vaccine could be approved as soon as the end of the week for use in the US, offering a potentially significant boost in access and immunization in this fight over this pandemic. The FDA is reviewing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And the company hopes that once it gets the green light, it can start distributing millions of doses nationwide. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer versions, people only need one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. So it could be a bit of a game changer.

I want to bring in Josh Michaud to discuss the vaccines and the state of the fight against the pandemic here in the US. He's the associate director for global health policy at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. Thanks for joining us. And it's nice to get a little bit of good news, considering we're marking such a tragic and sad-- I guess, the number of deaths, I should say-- getting to the point where we're looking at half a million deaths is tragic and sad.

And to know that at least there is some good news is heartening. So Josh, there are several differences between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the other vaccines. Can you sort of spell them out for us?

JOSH MICHAUD: Sure, well, it's always great news to have access to a new vaccine. And we'll see what the FDA says. But all expectations are that we will see another authorization for this vaccine. And the way that it's different from the vaccines that have already been authorized, the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, are several.

So one, it's a different type of technology. So as we know, the other vaccines already authorized are mRNA vaccines, this technology mRNA. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different type of technology which has shown to be effective.

And the fact that it's a single shot and that it can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures makes it a much more easier to handle vaccine than both the Pfizer and Moderna. As we know, those vaccines require some very strict cold chain requirements and freezing.

So the other thing to note is that these studies of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have shown that it is highly effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths. In fact, none of the people who were vaccinated in the trials with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had hospitalizations or deaths, which is the same as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Now, when you start to compare the efficacy of the vaccine in reducing moderate to severe infections, the efficacy was shown to be a little bit lower than what we saw with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And so there's going to be some discussion, both at the FDA and at the CDC and outside of those agencies, exactly how is the best way to utilize this vaccine, given that it has a lot of pros and also has some differences with the vaccines that we already have on hand.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So here's sort of my concern. With all the vaccines, there's kind of been evolving information. With the first two vaccines, first, it was you had to take them whether it's four weeks apart or six weeks apart. And then we heard, oh, maybe you can stretch that time. Or maybe in a pinch, you could get a Moderna vaccine for your first shot. And then you could get the other shot, the other Pfizer version for your second shot.

I think when people hear information changing, it makes them really nervous. So the Johnson & Johnson vaccine sounds great. One shot, it doesn't need the special freezing sort of technology. It's great. But then I think people start to wonder, well, could it be as good as the other ones? Why didn't we have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine first then? How do you tackle the vaccine hesitancy when people are just increasingly more confused about the information surrounding vaccines?

JOSH MICHAUD: Yeah, it's a real challenge, for sure. And I think public health authorities are going to have to think carefully about how the messages about these different vaccines are conveyed to the public.

I think the top line message here is that any vaccine that is authorized is going to be a major benefit to anyone who receives it. So if you have the ability to access one of these vaccines, whichever one of these vaccines it is, it is in the best interest to be vaccinated. I would recommend my family members, people that I know, if they had access to any of these vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, assuming everything goes well with the FDA review, that they should get that vaccine because of the reasons that we talked about.

It prevents the most severe complications of COVID-19. But that said, it can get confusing for the public when you have different vaccines based on different technologies and seemingly have different efficacies. And so what we might end up having-- and I think this is going to be the topic of discussion quite a bit at FDA and CDC-- is perhaps there is something that is in the clinical trial data for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which shows that it's particularly effective with certain age groups.

There are certain considerations attached with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that make it amenable to be used in certain locations or certain populations. And therefore, the recommendations might come out to direct that vaccine in different ways than you would direct the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

So I think there is a job to be done to both convince people that any of these vaccines is a fantastic tool. And I think everyone should be using that as their top message. But then when you start to get down to it, in order to reduce confusion and to stem any sort of hesitancy that people have about getting a different vaccine, carefully craft these messages based upon what we know about the science of the vaccines.

And then we'll see how they roll out. And I think we will have to face some challenges. If the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is used in certain geographic areas-- it's often been raised that perhaps it would be used in rural areas, where it's harder to get that cold chain and the freezing capacity for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Or people who are bedridden might not be able to make a two-dose regimen for the other vaccines. There are certain populations for which it would seem this new vaccine would be well-suited. But again, you do have that messaging issue.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I want to ask you about another debate that's sort of happening across the country. It has to do with who should be next in line to get this vaccine. I've heard people say, well, all kinds of front line workers-- people who work in grocery stores, they should have access to this vaccine.

What about educators? There's this call to reopen the schools. But a lot of educators feel very uneasy about going back into the classroom without a vaccine. What's your take on it? Should teachers be next in line?

JOSH MICHAUD: Yeah. Well, this is a very important discussion. And even when the first clinical trial data was coming out for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we knew that it was going to be a challenge because what we are faced with is a lot of demand for a little supply. And so our demand for these vaccines outstrips the supply. And so you have to apply some sort of prioritization to who receives the limited number of doses that we have.

And so early on, it was clearly-- most people agreed that it was health care workers and those who lived in nursing homes, long-term care facilities should be the highest priority. And most states have followed those recommendations. But then when you start to go beyond those populations, we see states-- and this decision about prioritization does rest primarily at the state level.

They've taken different routes on prioritization. And some of the populations that you mentioned, essential workers, teachers-- our latest look at KFF at the prioritization of different states has shown that, for example, about half of states right now include teachers among the priority groups for vaccination. So that means around half of states don't. And that discrepancy opens up a lot of questions.

And because the federal government can't come in and say, this shall be the group to be vaccinated, I think it raises concerns in people's minds about what is the right prioritization. And right now, that's going to be different across different states.

I think these are problems that don't have an easy solution. And there are reasons why different states come down on different ways on prioritization. So there's no simple, straightforward, and right answer here. But if your priority is to get children back in school and that you want to make sure that teachers feel safe back in a class environment, then prioritizing teachers might be a good idea. But then you have to weigh that against all of the other very important priority groups that you would perhaps not be emphasizing, so essential workers and those who have a high risk for severe disease, all of whom are very, very important to be vaccinating.

And it makes for a very challenging situation. And the more vaccines that we have on hand, the more that we can expand our vaccination to reach as many groups as possible.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah, yeah. Well, you sort of map it out very clearly. We're operating in kind of the gray spaces in between. And what's happening in your community may make all the difference. And in many cases, it's not a one-size-fits-all, though there are some general guidelines that fit all of us. Wash your hands. Wear that mask, social distancing, that's the same across the board. Josh Michaud, thank you.

JOSH MICHAUD: Very nice to speak with you. Thanks.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: A quick programming note. Join us this Thursday for CBSN's hour long coronavirus special, A Shot of Hope, Vaccine Questions Answered. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts will join my colleague Tanya Rivero. That's going to stream Thursday at 8:00 PM Eastern, right here on CBSN.