The city’s first supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to arrive in a matter of days but some are still expressing concerns about whether it’s as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna options that spearheaded the first months of the rollout. Mayor Bill de Blasio and top city health officials said at a press conference Monday that they want to change people’s perceptions about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which they say has unfairly gotten a bad wrap.
“We do understand this is going to be a communication challenge,” said Dr. Jay Varma, senior public health advisor to the mayor’s office. “The single most important message is that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 100% protective against people dying from COVID and almost 100% protective against people being hospitalized.”
This level of protection against severe disease, reported last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paralleled the findings from clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines. But a reporter from NY1 questioned whether, in trying to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to reach people in marginalized groups, they might worry they’re getting an inferior product.
That’s because the FDA found the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be about 66% effective when moderate cases were considered alongside the worst cases of the disease. That mark is closer to 90% for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Look closer at the results for severe disease, and one would find that Johnson & Johnson’s efficacy is 90% for younger adults, but drops to 70% for those older than 60.
Varma said he believed the disparities in effectiveness were overstated, a point echoed Monday during the second session of a review hearing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials said keeping people from dying is the utmost priority, which the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is poised to do while also reaching more people because it only requires a single dose.
Mayor de Blasio said the one-shot requirement is a gamechanger, particularly for hard-to-reach populations. If he’s offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine once he’s eligible to get vaccinated, he said he would jump at the chance to take it.
“The only way we’re going to reach homebound seniors is with a vaccine that does not require as much refrigeration and is easier to use,” he said. “Our elders need to be vaccinated so we have to encourage people, not discourage them.”
Varma argued that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was at a disadvantage because the clinical trials testing its efficacy took place after new variants of COVID-19 began to emerge, namely in Brazil and South Africa where the drug company held some of its global trials. This point is not entirely accurate, as one arm of the J&J trial took place in North America and began well before the variants were discovered. That North American trial found the vaccine to be about 72% effective. Still, public health experts agree that it is important to focus on the vaccine’s ability to prevent serious illness and death.
“I believe very much that our hospitals will see decreases in numbers of hospitalizations and deaths if people take the first vaccine they have available,” Dr. Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals, said at the press conference Monday. “I intend to recommend [the Johnson & Johnson vaccine] for my patients, especially my homebound patients.”
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will arrive amid the city’s ongoing efforts to address disparities in access to the precious shots.
Moving forward, de Blasio said his administration aims to rely on smaller, “grassroots” vaccine sites in places like churches, public housing, and high schools. He said supply should be moved away from large sites that are not targeting specific populations, citing the state-run sites touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Non-city residents have so far made up 75% of people vaccinated at the state-run Aqueduct Racetrack site in Queens and 42% of people vaccinated at the state-run Javits Center site, according to city data presented by the mayor. De Blasio distinguished these sites from large vaccination hubs that target specific populations, such as the city-run sites at Citi Field in Queens, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and the Empire Outlets on Staten Island.
"Going forward, [getting] more and more of the vaccine to the sites meant for people from each borough to the sites down to the grass roots in communities—that's what's going to help us achieve more and more equity," he said.