FDA panel endorses Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel on Friday endorsed Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine and recommended the agency grant emergency authorization, moving the nation's third vaccine one step closer to getting into Americans' arms.

The panel voted 22-0 that the benefits outweigh the risks for adults age 18 and older. 

FDA could give the green light to the single-dose vaccine as early as Saturday.

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Vaccinations will begin once a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) panel recommends the vaccine and the CDC accepts that recommendation. The CDC panel is scheduled to meet Sunday.

"We are at the precipice of having another vaccine in our toolbox," CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFauci says trick-or-treating this Halloween ok Overnight Health Care — Presented by EMAA — Pfizer requests FDA authorize COVID-19 vaccine for 5 to 11 year olds CDC director urging flu shots ahead of potentially 'severe' season MORE said Friday. "Having an additional safe and effective vaccine will help protect more people faster."

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is different from the other two already on the market and could be a potential game changer. It is administered in a single dose, and does not need to be frozen when shipped and stored. 

“We need vaccines that are effective and well-tolerated. And importantly, ones that are simple to deploy,” said Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine research group, who spoke to the panel as part of Johnson & Johnson’s presentation. 

The vaccine was 66 percent effective in protecting any cases of moderate to severe illness. It was 85 percent effective against severe cases of COVID-19 and completely prevented hospitalizations and death four weeks after inoculation.

The endorsement from the FDA panel of experts comes as federal officials are warning about the effect of recent highly contagious variants of the coronavirus, urging people not to grow complacent.

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The rise of variants makes vaccination more important than ever, CDC officials said. 

CDC epidemiologist Adam MacNeil told the FDA panel said he expects the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the United Kingdom, has likely spread throughout the entire U.S., and could become the dominant virus in mid-to-late March. 

However, inadequate genetic sequencing means we may never get the true picture.

"We may not ever know the full situation in terms of what is going on with the virus,” MacNeil said. “These variants are probably much more widespread through the country. These variants could probably exist throughout the entire United States.”  

While the pace of vaccinations has been steadily increasing, MacNeil said the U.S. is still "nowhere close" to herd immunity. He emphasized the effectiveness of current strategies including masking and physical distancing.

To date, supply has been the primary constraint to the ramping up of the U.S. vaccination effort. 

A vaccine by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and another by Moderna were both authorized in December. Pfizer has only shipped about 40 million doses, while Moderna has shipped about 45 million doses. 

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine will only be available at a relative trickle at first. The company will only have about 4 million doses available to ship immediately upon authorization, but that number will increase to 20 million by the end of next month.

Johnson & Johnson has a deal with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of June, and White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff ZientsJeff ZientsOvernight Health Care — Presented by The National Council for Mental Wellbeing — NIH study finds mix-and-match boosters effective More than one-third of eligible seniors have received boosters, White House says White House tells states to prepare plans to vaccinate kids in coming weeks MORE said this week the federal government will do “everything we can” with the company to ramp up production.

The company asked the FDA to authorize the use of the vaccine in people aged 18 and older, but there were some concerns over the lack of data on recipients older than 75. There were also concerns over the effectiveness in people over the age of 60 with certain pre-existing conditions, like obesity and diabetes. 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine hasn’t been tested yet in children and teens under the age of 18, so it was not authorized for their use. A trial to study the safety and efficacy of the company’s vaccine in teens ages 17 and younger will begin late next month or early April. 

While the two coronavirus vaccines already on the market may appear to be more effective than Johnson & Johnson's, experts say it is difficult to compare them head-to-head because of different clinical trial designs and different endpoints.

"I really think we need to be careful not to read into the data, to look across studies when they are so different, and instead look at each vaccine individually," CDC's Nancy Messioner said Friday during an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association.