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A Look At The Latest Data On Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 Vaccine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There may soon be one more coronavirus vaccine in the mix. Today, Johnson & Johnson released results from a global study of its vaccine candidate. The company found the one-dose vaccine was 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe illness.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is racing to ramp up vaccinations after an initial rollout plagued by logistical hiccups and slim supply. Four thousand people in the U.S. died from the coronavirus yesterday alone, and the death toll is expected to keep climbing. Now a worrisome variant first seen in South Africa is spreading in the United States, too.

CHANG: We're going to turn now to chief scientific officer at Johnson and Johnson, Dr. Paul Stoffels. Welcome.

PAUL STOFFELS: Thank you.

CHANG: I just want to start with what this shot does. The vaccine was tested across the U.S., South Africa and Latin America. It was proven 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19. What exactly does that mean? Like, what can people expect if they take your vaccine?

STOFFELS: If you dive deeper into the data, then we get to what is really important. It's 66% overall on the globe, but what is happening at the moment is there is a very challenging time of huge number of infections, as well as different variants running through the world. You have U.K. variant, the Brazil, the South African variant. And what we learn is that some of that has significant effects on efficacy.

But when we look to the severe disease in the study, then we showed that there was an 85% efficacy against severe disease and a complete protection against hospitalization and complete protection against death. And that's across all the regions, including in South Africa. And when we looked into South Africa, then we sequenced all the strains, and we saw that 90% of the strains were the South African variant, but there we also saw a very high efficacy of protecting for severe disease, death and hospitalization.

CHANG: I think the bottom line of what I want to know is, you know, we're looking here at the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine, which are about 95% effective. Is it comparing apples to oranges to say, well, those vaccines are 95% effective, but Johnson & Johnson's, if you're talking about moderate to severe COVID-19, that's only about 66% effective? I mean, to people who may not understand all the science, it just sounds like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not as effective. How would you answer that?

STOFFELS: That is - it's difficult to compare. The study was done at different times in different environments against a background of different strains. And so the circulating virus today is so intense that it is much more attacking the immune system. This is not a direct comparison of vaccines. But what's most important is getting protected against dying and getting hospitalization and severe disease. And that worked extremely well. So getting, with a single dose, to protecting for deaths, hospitalization and severe disease is what matters in this pandemic. And you can do it everywhere in the world in a very simple way.

CHANG: OK, so you feel confident to say that, yes, while some people might still get sick, even after getting vaccinated by the Johnson & Johnson shot, that overall this vaccine really will help ease the burden on the health care system because it's proven completely effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, one month out.

STOFFELS: Absolutely. But we recruited also high-risk populations, including in the favelas in Brazil, including in the townships of South Africa and that across all ages. And we had a very diverse population all over the world. And also, what we saw was the vaccine was equally efficacious in all ages, which is also a very strong feature because mostly the elderly people are the highest risk of dying or hospitalization.

CHANG: Now I want to focus a little more closely on the variants. Your shot was 72% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in the U.S., but only 57% percent effective in doing the same in South Africa. So what does that signal to you about the variant that was first identified in South Africa?

STOFFELS: Yeah, it signals that it needs more immune response before you're protected. But in the severe, we have 89% prevention of severe disease. So - and it's well known in vaccination that preventing severe diseases is typically very good. Like, in influenza, what you do is you prevent - with vaccination, you prevent severe disease. And that is what is happening here in COVID, too. While the - preventing moderate, which is light symptoms, is more difficult to show, but it was lower in South Africa - most likely due to the strain, but still preventing the very severe cases was possible with the vaccine, which is a big relief that this can be done.

CHANG: And when will Johnson & Johnson apply for emergency use authorization from the FDA?

STOFFELS: So we will submit a file in the course of next week. And then, of course, the FDA as well as other authorities will have to do their evaluation work. And we expect, like, in about a month that could advance to an advisory panel. But the FDA has to decide when they want to organize that.

CHANG: And what about production of this shot? I mean, how much of the shot can Johnson & Johnson make and how soon?

STOFFELS: We started last year in March, when we knew that this was going to be needed. Never in history so many vaccines have been needed. And the production capacity was not available, so we started building plant. And we are committed to deliver a billion dollars in the course of the year. We will gradually be able to deliver more throughout the year. And we'll work with each of the individual governments and communicate to the population when our vaccine can be available in particular countries.

CHANG: All right. Well, I want to circle back to something that we talked about earlier in this conversation, given that there could be soon three different vaccines available to people in this country - Johnson & Johnson's, Moderna's and Pfizer's. I still want to know - which vaccine should people get? I mean, would you recommend your vaccine for certain groups of people versus others?

STOFFELS: Well, it's up to the health care authorities to do that in each of the countries. But what's very essential is that the most vulnerable people, the elderly, those with comorbidities, get vaccinated very fast because they are the highest risk of getting sick and dying. But I'm very happy, actually, as a person, as a father, as a family member, that there are so many vaccines available because probably multibillion people have to be vaccinated before this will be over. And it's only with the collection of vaccines and the collaboration of all of the pharmaceutical companies here that it will be able to combat this disease in the world. And that's where our vaccine will have its place. But every other vaccines will have their place in combating this pandemic.

CHANG: Dr. Paul Stoffels is chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson. Thank you very much for your time today.

STOFFELS: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.