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How Johnson & Johnson's Vaccine Became the Hot Shot

What first looked like an inferior option has become popular, with many people seeking it out over Pfizer or Moderna’s jabs.
Used vials of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Thornton, Colorado. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

When Erica Hall secured a COVID-vaccine appointment, she was happy to discover that she would be getting the Johnson & Johnson shot. Hall, an accountant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a busy mother of three, preferred that option because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine confers full immunity with a single dose.

“I agree the best vaccine is the one you’re able to get, but — all things being equal — Johnson & Johnson seems like the best option,” Hall, 53, said.

In Missouri, Steven Wagner, 67, a retired schoolteacher, said he sought out the Johnson & Johnson shot to make things easier on his family. “My son will be taking off work to take me,” he said. “I only want him to have to take off work once.”

They are among the people who say they would prefer to get the Johnson & Johnson shot over Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines, despite what initially looked like bad news about its effectiveness. At first glance, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might look like an inferior option compared to Pfizer and Moderna’s candidates, both of which were reported to be around 95 percent effective in clinical trials compared to 72 percent for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. (That was the rationale for Detroit mayor Mike Duggan’s decision to initially turn down 6,200 doses for his city. “Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best,” Duggan, a Democrat, said, before walking back the decision after getting intense blowback from as high as the White House.) But that picture is more complicated: Johnson & Johnson’s jab appears to be 100 percent effective, like Moderna and Pfizer’s, at preventing severe COVID cases that lead to hospitalization and death. The lower top-line number may be because it was tested against emerging variants from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa not circulating during the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials. And on the plus side, its side effects tend to be milder. “To me, the shot’s benefits outweigh those numbers,” Hall said.

February’s approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a potential game changer because not only is it a single dose, it doesn’t need to be frozen like doses from Moderna and Pfizer. That makes it a boon for hard-to-reach areas, such as Co-op City in the Bronx, one of the largest elderly communities in the nation. New York City sent teams armed with Johnson & Johnson shots for seniors at Co-op City, aiming to vaccinate 1,000 people each day.

“Getting from Co-op City to Yankee Stadium with public transportation is a pain in the ass, especially for seniors,” Representative Jamaal Bowman, who represents parts of the Bronx, told Intelligencer. “Co-op City was a hotbed for the virus, so it was essential to bring a vaccination site there.”

Bowman said the response from the residential development’s over 44,000 residents, who are 92 percent nonwhite, was overwhelmingly positive. The city also rolled out a door-to-door COVID-19 vaccination program for homebound seniors with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he added.

Public-health experts have been concerned that recommending Johnson & Johnson’s shot for specific groups could suggest there was a two-tiered vaccine system, with marginalized communities being targeted with what some might consider an inferior vaccine. “That concern is rooted in the history of the African American community with the medical community,” Bowman said. “There is anxiety and tension as we engage with the medical profession, but we’re talking about a very small percentage of people who have that concern. Black Americans have shown, time and again, what they need is access.”

Despite the demand for Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s, there have been problems with supply. At the beginning of the month, the White House allocated 3.9 million doses to states. But since then, the drugmaker has doled out doses sporadically: As of Friday, Johnson & Johnson has delivered 4.8 million of its vaccines to states, according to the CDC — well below its promise to deliver 20 million shots by the end of the month. That same day, the White House coronavirus response coordinator said the drugmaker would deliver 11 million shots next week. Biden officials had warned that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine rollout would be rocky in the beginning as there was a limited supply, Politico reported, but the administration hopes a deal between the company and rival drugmaker Merck will help scale up production.

Still, with growing vaccine supply across the board, people are starting to be more selective about what jab they get. “I’m searching for Johnson & Johnson in Connecticut,” said one post in Facebook’s New York / Connecticut Vaccine Hunters and Angels group from a user who is trying to track down a site with the one-shot vaccine. “Where is the Johnson & Johnson one-and-done vaxx? Any info would be greatly appreciated,” another user wrote in Facebook’s NOLA Vaccine Hunter group. But public experts warn against such vaccine shopping: “I think it is not appropriate — understandable, but not really appropriate — to be shopping around,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in a panel earlier this month. “Which particular candidate you get is really not nearly as relevant as getting it as soon as you can.” In the middle of a pandemic, Fauci says, get whatever protection you’re offered.

A few Catholic leaders across the country have urged parishioners not to take the Johnson & Johnson shot they call “morally compromised,” because the vaccine was produced with cell lines derived from aborted fetuses decades ago. Wagner, who is Catholic, said he doesn’t understand that objection. ‘“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic here,” he said.

In practice, though, Americans who are able to get a COVID-19 vaccine generally have no choice about which one they receive. Lori Shaffer of Pearl River, New York, spent weeks looking for a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because the 70-year-old retired restaurateur was devastated to learn she is among a small group of people who cannot take the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, due to an allergy to a preservative used in small quantities in the vaccines. Shaffer’s daughter made three appointments to get her mother vaccinated, only to have to cancel each one after she found out the locations were providing only Moderna shots. After calls to a dozen local pharmacies, Shaffer found one giving the Johnson & Johnson shot. “I’ve never been so excited to get a vaccine in my life,” she said.

Erica Hall agrees, and was happy to roll up her sleeve and take the shot. “I didn’t even feel the poke and it’s nice not having to worry about getting anyone else sick,” she said. She’s excited to do things she didn’t do before being vaccinated, such as going to the dentist and having her hair cut professionally. Mainly, though, she is now focusing her energy on getting her kids vaccinated. “Then I’ll breathe a sigh of relief.”

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