The corona vaccine has been from Johnson & Johnson a fourth vaccine to fight the coronavirus approved in the EU. The preparation has a special feature: it only has to be administered once. How well does the vaccine work? What are the side effects? And does it also protect against mutants? An interview with Johan van Hoof, who leads Johnson & Johnson’s global vaccine development.
Mr. van Hoof, how well is your vaccine working?
Almost 44,000 people in eight countries on three continents took part in our study. A third of the subjects were older than 60 years. It was not planned that way, but our investigation fell into a high phase of the pandemic, with the largest spread of the virus to date and enormously high and continuously increasing incidences, for example in the USA, Brazil or South Africa. During this time, new variants of the virus also spread. This is important when interpreting our data.
Using all of the data, we calculated an effectiveness of 66 percent at preventing moderate and severe illnesses. There were, however, regional differences: in the USA it was 72 percent, in Brazil 68 percent and in South Africa about 64 percent. But we also observe that the effectiveness increases over time, because the immune response builds up over time.
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Does the vaccination protect against fatal diseases?
With one dose, we have seen a protective effect of over 85 percent against severe and critical courses with hospital stays and ventilation measures. The protective effect can be measured 14 days after vaccination. Four weeks after vaccination, the vaccine showed 100 percent protection against hospitalizations and death. It is a very good protection that works against the decisive factors in an outbreak: protection against severe courses with hospitalization and against death.
Are there any side effects of the vaccination?
We have already vaccinated over 200,000 people with vaccines on the same basis. This gives us very good data from which we can assume. In our studies, adverse effects only occurred to the extent that they also occurred in the general population. We all know that if we vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people, cases will arise. The challenge is to distinguish whether this is due to vaccination or not. From our point of view, based on our data, there is nothing to worry about. But of course we continue to monitor whether side effects occur.
Does it also protect against the circulating mutants?
We genetically examined virus samples from our study areas. In South Africa, 95 percent of the illnesses could be traced back to the South African variant B.1.351. This means that the protective effect that we have observed is the protective effect against this variant. These are very positive data, as we know that the variant can spread across national borders. The vaccine can be very useful in fighting the virus.
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Could you adapt the vaccine so that it also works against previously unknown variants?
We have been able to show that there is a high level of protection against the South African variant, which is currently considered the most dangerous variant. It carries several mutations that can also be found in other variants. The South African variant has all the mutations of the British variant and also some other changes and shortenings of the genome.
The protective effect is encouraging. In a sense, the vector of our vaccine is plug-and-play capable. We are already preparing the next stage of development of the vaccine in preclinical studies. During development, we adhere to the requirements of the pharmaceutical authorities. It makes sense to start with the South African variant, as it shows some adaptations that are apparently advantageous for the virus.
Only one dose of your vaccine needs to be injected. How will this affect vaccination programs?
In a very high transmission rate pandemic as we are now witnessing, the single dose vaccination approach, of course, has advantages. We want to have one billion doses available worldwide by the end of the year, 200 million of them from the EU. That means we can vaccinate a billion people.
You can vaccinate twice as many people as you would with a two-dose vaccine. It also takes the pressure off the vaccination centers when there is no need to give a second syringe. These advantages convinced us to initially pursue the single-dose approach. We are also investigating the effectiveness of a two-dose vaccination schedule so that we can compare them.
They’re launching a new product, governments are launching mass vaccinations. Did that affect your work?
We have not taken any abbreviations that could endanger the safety of the vaccinated or the quality of the product. But we developed the vaccine faster than ever before. To achieve this, we really worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are fighting a virus and we want to help win this fight.
Will you also be shipping your vaccine to developing countries?
Together with 15 other research-based companies, we have committed ourselves with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to give all countries worldwide access to affordable Covid-19 diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. We have committed to contributing to the Covax program, which distributes vaccines around the world.
It has been our goal from the start that this vaccine should be available wherever it is needed worldwide. During the acute pandemic, we will make our vaccine available for emergency use at cost. It can be stored for two years at 20 degrees Celsius below zero and probably more than three months at two to eight degrees Celsius. This means that it can be distributed like other vaccines, such as the polio vaccine.
So for many countries their vaccine may be a better choice than other manufacturers’ vaccines.
I am pleased that there are several proven vaccines against Covid-19 because the world needs more than one vaccine. We don’t fight competitors, we fight a virus.