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Yet more extremely unhelpful vaccine coverage


The nation has a third weapon to wield against the coronavirus, and this one doesn’t need to be kept frozen or followed by a booster shot.

Those attributes of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, which gained regulatory clearance on Saturday, promise to help state and local officials quell the pandemic punishing their communities. First, however, they will need to determine its place in an expanding anti-virus arsenal, where it joins vaccines with sky-high efficacy rates that are still inshort supply.

Decisions to send the shots to harder-to-reach communities make practical sense, because Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine is easier to store and use. But they could drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines — with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product.AD

The issue came up on a recent call between governors and Biden administration officials coordinating the country’s coronavirus response. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Massachusetts Republican and former health insurance executive, stressed the need for prominent health officials to communicate clearly about the benefits of the one-shot vaccine, according to three people who heard his remarks and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine proved safe and effective in a clinical trial, completely preventing hospitalization and death, including in South Africa against a more transmissible variant.When moderate cases were included, however, it was 66 percent protective, compared to efficacy of more than 90 percent reported for a vaccine jointly developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech and one from U.S. biotech company Moderna. Trials were conducted at different points during the pandemic, and in different countries with different transmission rates, which makes head-to-head comparisons impossible.

The apparent differences, Baker said, could nonetheless create uncomfortable questions for state and local leaders promoting the new vaccine to people who might ask, as one person paraphrased his comments, “Why didn’t you give us the good stuff?”

A spokeswoman for Baker declined to make him available for an interview. But the apprehension he articulated is shared by governors, as well as state and local health officials, throughout the country, even as they celebrate the third vaccine and acknowledge that the United States faces an embarrassment of riches compared with many countries.

“J&J is going to be a challenge for all of us,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said in an interview.

The “perception” that the J&J vaccine is less effective than Pfizer and Moderna in any epidemiologically meaningful sense is false: it’s 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, which are the metrics that count.

And, given that it’s much easier to store and distribute, it’s far from clear that’s it’s not ultimately a superior option from a public health perspective than its two predecessors.

Again, the coverage of the vaccine rollout in the US continues to be bad, in part because public health officials keep saying unhelpful things like “just because we have these vaccines that doesn’t mean we can go back to a normal life any time soon.” Yes it does actually mean that — assuming we can get 80% or more of adults vaccinated in the next few months.

And advertising in an unambiguous way that we could go back to a pretty much completely normal pre-COVID existence if people would just take any one of these three vaccines would be a very useful message, given that there’s no reason we can’t reach that level of vaccination before fall, especially with 100 million doses of the single shot J&J product slated to be available in the US before then.

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