‘It’s great news’: Health leaders look forward to prospective third vaccine, say it will speed up distribution

MADISON, Wis. – With limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines, health leaders in Wisconsin say a Johnson & Johnson vaccine that will potentially be approved for use as soon as next month will speed up distribution.

“Because the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that are available currently are not available in large enough quantities to vaccinate everyone, it’s great news to have a third vaccine,” said Mo Kharbat, VP of pharmacy services at SSM Health.

Johnson & Johnson is releasing its Phase 3 trial results, showing its vaccine to be 66% effective globally and about 72% effective in the U.S against moderate and severe disease.

That’s a good amount lower than the effectiveness rates of Moderna and Pfizer, which boast rates topping 90% at preventing symptomatic cases, but health experts say that doesn’t mean the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be thought of as a worse option.

“The flu vaccines we use every year are somewhere between 50 and 60% effective, so now in the United States with the 72-75% effectiveness, that’s still pretty much a home run. It’s still very exciting,” said Dr. William Hartman, who is leading UW Health’s AstraZeneca vaccine trial. “This is a very different vaccine from the other two that have been on the market.”

Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use mRNA to create spike proteins, to which people then develop antibodies. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a weakened common cold virus called adenovirus to give the body instructions to create spike proteins and prompt an immune response.

Hartman said no vaccine is preferable to another for a patient.

“They won’t be able to tell the difference,” Hartman said. “The body will still react the same way.”

“The end result is the same, to provide protection against COVID,” Kharbat said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose compared to the two shots necessary to achieve maximal immunity from Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

“Currently, to vaccinate a person it takes two injections and two appointments,” Kharbat said. “It will save time and enable us to vaccinate more individuals over the same period of time.”

It’s easier to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to more people since it doesn’t have to be stored at as cold of temperatures as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

“So, this can reach the far corners of our state,” Hartman said. “It can reach all over the world and really be a work horse vaccine.”

In a media briefing Friday morning, state health officials said it’s not realistic for people to choose the vaccine they get, and the goal is to get as much vaccine out to vaccinators as possible.

“The sooner we can get vaccines, the sooner we can vaccinate more individuals and the sooner we can stop the pandemic,” Kharbat said.

“These are all close to 100% effective in preventing severe diseases and COVID-related hospitalizations and death,” Hartman said. “As long as they continue to be safe and effective, the more people we can get vaccinated, the more vaccine we have available for them, the better we’re going to be and the quicker we can get back to living as close to a normal life as we can.”

Hartman said the AstraZeneca vaccine trials in the U.S. are about two weeks behind the Johnson & Johnson trials, but it was approved by the E.U. for use in adults Friday morning. The AstraZeneca vaccine is two doses but also does not have to be stored at as cold of temperatures as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.