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3rd COVID-19 Vaccine May Be Available Soon In The U.S.


It looks like we're about to get a third coronavirus vaccine and not a day too soon, as current vaccine supplies are short. This morning, the FDA - the Food and Drug Administration - released its evaluation of an application from Johnson & Johnson for emergency use authorization for its vaccine. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is following all this and joins us this morning. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. We have been here before.

PALCA: Great. Yeah.

MARTIN: We have had this conversation before. And every time, it's good news. What does the FDA say about this vaccine?

PALCA: Yeah, it is. It's pretty good news. Data - the data come from three countries, the U.S., South Africa and Brazil. These are big studies, some 40,000 volunteers who had no evidence of having been infected with COVID before joining the study. They got a single shot of the vaccine. And they looked to see who got sick and who didn't. And the efficacy after 14 and 28 days was close to 66%. So that's preventing moderate disease. And after 28 days, there was - I'm sorry, 85%. There were no serious COVID cases and no vaccine-related deaths in that group.

MARTIN: So 66...

PALCA: I'm sorry, COVID-related deaths. My...

MARTIN: COVID-related deaths, right.

PALCA: Right, that's what I mean.

MARTIN: So 66% efficacy for moderate to severe disease. So it's not as good at preventing COVID as the other two, Moderna and Pfizer. But we have come to understand that even 66% is still very good, right?

PALCA: Yeah. That's true. And I think a bit of perspective would be called for here. I mean, at first, everybody would have been ecstatic to get 66%...

MARTIN: Right.

PALCA: ...Because they were hoping to get at least 50%. So first of all, this is good. Second of all, the numbers for preventing serious disease and death are very encouraging, this 85% efficacy. And third, the nature of the pandemic is changing. New variants have popped up. And they have popped up since Pfizer and Moderna were tested. So we don't know how well those vaccines will work against the new variants. And, in fact, part of this study was done in South Africa, where there's a new and very concerning variant that has come up. And the vaccine seemed to do relatively well there. So that's a good thing to consider.

MARTIN: Yeah. So the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also just one shot, right?

PALCA: Yes. And we've talked a lot about the logistical problems of getting this vaccine or getting any vaccine to people. And it's certainly more complicated when you need special freezers and what have you. And it's also more complicated when you have to have people come back for a second shot. So having a single-dose vaccine that doesn't require extraordinary refrigeration is a very good thing.

MARTIN: So after this, I mean, the FDA still has to make a final decision, right?

PALCA: Yes. And the way it works is that the FDA has said, look; we're going to get advice from this independent committee that we have, a standing committee that reviews such things. And we will wait to make any decision before - until we hear from them. The whole idea is to reassure people that it's not just the FDA saying go ahead with this. It's FDA plus independent advisers who are taking a harsh look at this or a careful look at this. And the - this committee meets on Friday. And you could have an approval the day after. You don't know. That's about the timing of the last vaccines.

MARTIN: So I nodded to this in the intro. But vaccines have been in short supply. I mean, winter storms have made delivery worse. How many doses of vaccine does Johnson & Johnson have ready right now?

PALCA: Well, they're talking about 4 million, I think, is about the number, some few millions, anyway, to begin with. But they've promised that by the end of June, they will have 100 million ready. And remember, that's 100 million doses that can be used in 100 million people. So as you say, we don't need to come back for the second dose. One dose will do it.

MARTIN: Good news. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.