WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. is getting a third vaccine to prevent COVID-19, as the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday cleared a Johnson & Johnson shot that works with just one dose instead of two.
Health experts are anxiously awaiting a one-and-done option to help speed vaccinations, as they race against a virus that already has killed more than 510,000 people in the U.S. and is mutating in increasingly worrisome ways.
The FDA said J&J’s vaccine offers strong protection against what matters most: serious illness, hospitalizations and death. One dose was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19 illness, in a massive study that spanned three continents — protection that remained strong even in countries such as South Africa, where the variants of most concern are spreading.
J&J initially is providing a few million doses and shipments to states could begin as early as Monday. By the end of March, J&J has said it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer.
J&J also is seeking authorization for emergency use of its vaccine in Europe and from the World Health Organization. The company aims to produce about 1 billion doses globally by the end of the year. On Thursday, the island nation of Bahrain became the first to clear its use.
“This is exciting news for all Americans, and an encouraging development in our efforts to bring an end to the crisis,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “But I want to be clear: this fight is far from over,” he added, encouraging people to stick with masks and other public health measures.
On Sunday, a U.S. advisory committee will meet to recommend how to prioritize use of the single-dose vaccine. And one big challenge is what the public wants to know: Which kind is better?
In the U.S., the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna shots were 95% protective against symptomatic COVID-19. J&J’s one-dose effectiveness of 85% against severe COVID-19 dropped to 66% when moderate cases were rolled in. But there’s no apples-to-apples comparison because of differences in when and where each company conducted its studies, with the Pfizer and Moderna research finished before concerning variants began spreading.
The FDA cautioned that it’s too early to tell if someone who gets a mild or asymptomatic infection despite vaccination still could spread the virus.
There are clear advantages aside from the convenience of one shot. Local health officials are looking to use the J&J option in mobile vaccination clinics, homeless shelters, even with sailors who are spending months on fishing vessels — communities where it’s hard to be sure someone will come back in three to four weeks for a second vaccination.
The J&J vaccine also is easier to handle, lasting three months in the refrigerator compared to the Pfizer and Moderna options, which must be frozen.
“We’re chomping at the bit to get more supply. That’s the limiting factor for us right now,” said Dr. Matt Anderson of UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, where staffers were readying electronic health records, staffing and vaccine storage in anticipation of offering J&J shots soon.
The FDA said studies detected no serious side effects. Like other COVID-19 vaccines, the main side effects of the J&J shot are pain at the injection site and flu-like fever, fatigue and headache.
An FDA fact sheet for vaccine recipients says there is “a remote chance” that people may experience a severe allergic reaction to the shot, a rare risk seen with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Such reactions are treatable, and vaccine recipients are supposed to be briefly monitored after the injection.
The vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in adults 18 and older for now. But like other manufacturers, J&J is about to study how it works in teens before moving to younger children later in the year, and also plans a study in pregnant women.