An update to my last post on coronavirus vaccines in the United States:
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine did receive emergency use authorization over the weekend and is currently being distributed. Because the company had manufactured some doses in advance through Operation Warp Speed, there will be some large shipments going out followed by a lag as Johnson & Johnson ramps up their manufacturing operations.
President Biden announced on Tuesday that another large pharmaceutical company with vaccine expertise, Merck, will be helping Johnson & Johnson to manufacture its vaccine. Merck ended a couple of vaccine trials it was conducting due to ineffectiveness and will be aiding the country in manufacturing its rival’s vaccine under the Defense Production Act. This Act is also being used to increase production of other needed items, such as vials.
Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines, the J&J vaccine is a more conventional vaccine, using inactive adenovirus to carry the vaccine into the body and activate the immune system. It only requires one dose and can be stored at refrigerator temperatures, so it is much easier to distribute to more rural areas.
While President Biden had previously said that any adult who wanted to be vaccinated would be able to be by the end of July, he now expects that to be possible by the end of May. This would allow most of us to resume what we have been calling “normal life,” although I think that some changes from our old ways of doing things will probably be in evidence indefinitely.
However, there are some big ifs. The first is that individuals would need to almost universally accept the vaccine to prevent it spreading in the community and to minimize the impact of new, possibly more dangerous variants. This would need to happen in every state – and in every country, if unrestricted international travel is allowed to resume. The second is that people would need to continue masking, distancing, limiting gathering size, etc. until most of the adults in the community were immunized or could be rapid-tested to show they were not likely currently infectious. New York is currently piloting holding sporting events using technology to screen for immunization/negative tests to allow higher occupancy for fans.
Another consideration is teens and children. Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for use in 16- and 17-year-olds; it is currently being tested in 12-15-year-olds with plans to test in younger children after that. Other companies are also now beginning to study their vaccines in children and teens. Wide adoption of the vaccine among adults is the quickest route to protecting children, given that widespread vaccine use is unlikely for them until 2022.
The wild card continues to be how long-lasting vaccine effects are and how well they prevent serious illness from current and future variants. To that end, spouse B and daughter T are having blood draws this week to evaluate how their immunity is holding up as part of the Pfizer Phase III trial. They received their immunizations in August 2020 and will continue as part of the study into 2022. It’s also possible that Pfizer will be piloting the use of booster shots or of new vaccine formulations to better deal with variants, using the subjects already enrolled in Phase III. They have begun some of this research with Phase I/II participants.
Other vaccine researchers are continuing to study boosters and new vaccines, as well as longevity of immunity. Part of the story about Merck helping to produce the J&J vaccine and other similar partnerships around the world is that the extra doses may be needed as boosters in the future. If not, the surplus vaccines can be distributed through the COVAX initiative internationally to reach underserved populations.
All in all, it’s a hopeful time, but only if people are informed, thoughtful, and community-minded. Please, observe safety measures, get vaccinated when it is your turn, and be kind. We can end the pandemic sooner if we all work together.