Jain: Could this third vaccine finally be the solution we have been waiting for?

Nikhita Jain, Staff Columnist

It has now been a year since COVID-19 spread to our country and severely altered our way of life. What was once considered new and unexpected has now become so mundane and ordinary that life beyond the pandemic almost seems unimaginable. Even the introduction of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines did little to quell the hopelessness caused by the virus’ devastation due to these vaccines’ drawbacks. However, this is not the end, and there may still be hope yet. 

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about a third vaccine: the Johnson and Johnson (J&J)  COVID-19 vaccine. Those who have heard about this, I am sure your mind is stirring with several questions. How does it work? What makes it different from the other COVID-19 vaccines? As a single-dose vaccine, how will it impact rollout? When will it be authorized for use?

Do not fret because all of these questions will be answered soon enough.

To begin with, the J&J vaccine is known as a non-replicating viral vector vaccine. Scientists concocted this vaccine by extracting a minute amount of genetic material that codes for a piece of the novel coronavirus and integrating it with a weakened version of a common cold virus called adenovirus-26. They then engineered this adenovirus to enter cells and prevent replication so that it does not make the recipient sick. 

The adenovirus serves as a vehicle to transport a gene from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that invades cells. When introduced into the body, the altered adenovirus injects the gene into cell nuclei to produce the spike protein, a part of the coronavirus. However, the spike protein versions created by viral-vector vaccines are enough to fool the body into triggering an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 without causing an infection.

According to Dr. WIlliam Schaffner, an internist and infectious disease specialist with Vanderbilt University’s Department of Health Policy, the vaccine is essentially a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” and when your immune system sees it, it responds and creates protection for it, which in the future translates to protection against SARS-CoV-2.

Now that you know how it works, you are probably wondering about its effectiveness. According to J&J, the efficacy rate of the single dose vaccine is 72% in the United States. Though the efficacy rate is lower than the 95% rates boasted by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it harbors many advantages that could help correct the currently sluggish and disorganized vaccination distribution campaign. 

Firstly, the J&J vaccine is given in a single dose, while the Pfizer and Moderna versions are both given in two doses. A single dose would be much easier to administer and would mean more people could be vaccinated, as none would need to be set aside for someone’s second shot.

“If it’s a single-dose vaccine, then a billion vaccine doses would translate into a billion people vaccinated,” said Dr. Dan Barouch of Harvard Medical School.

The convenience of the single dose approach could also increase vaccination rates. The reality is that this single dose might correspond with more compliance and, frankly, more ease, as people will only have to make one appointment to gain immunity.  

The J&J vaccine also has no strict temperature requirements, but instead can be stored in a regular refrigerator for up to 3 months. On the other hand, the Pfizer vaccine must be stored in deep freezers at -94 degrees Fahrenheit and lasts only 24 hours in a refrigerator; Moderna’s version is shipped frozen and lasts up to only 30 days in a refrigerator. Hence, the J&J vaccine could mean increased access across health systems and communities, especially clinics in lower income areas or rural neighborhoods, which have refrigeration, but no freezer space. 

Another important advantage of the new vaccine is that J&J relies on the viral vector approach which has previously been used in Ebola vaccines. In contrast, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on messenger RNA technology, which has only recently emerged. J&J’s attested vaccine technology could thus provide the necessary reassurance for people to sign up for the shot.

Evidently, this newest vaccine could prove very beneficial for our country.

Moving forward, J&J will request what is known as an “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early February. The FDA and advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will thoroughly review the data submitted by J&J. They then will schedule a public meeting composed of independent science and public health experts, known as the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. Following the meeting, FDA staff consider the committee input along with their evaluation of the company’s data and will make a decision about whether vaccines should be authorized.

Shortly after an EUA, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) goes through the data too. Once they have made a recommendation and it has been approved by the CDC director, J&J intends to ship the vaccines immediately.

The authorization process is expected to take roughly the same time as that of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, which was around 2-3 weeks.

Lastly, the company stated that they can meet their 100 million dose commitment by June, helping to quicken the vaccination process. 

So, could this vaccine be the COVID-19 solution that we have been waiting for? It may very well be.