With a third vaccine now available in the U.S., you may be wondering what makes it different from the others and which one you should get. Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine (Janssen) was recently granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is celebrating its arrival.
Although all of the vaccines work to the same end in effectively preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection, Johnson & Johnson’s is different from the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. We spoke with Denise Erickson, senior director of Banner Pharmacy Services in Phoenix, AZ, to answer a few common questions about the technology and unique benefits of vaccines like this one.
Which vaccine is best for me?
“The best vaccine is the one that is available to you,” Erickson said. “All three of these vaccines are effective in preventing severe COVID-19 hospitalization and death; therefore, there is no preference for one over the other. Whichever vaccine you have access to should be the one you receive as soon as you are eligible.”
For a quick cheat sheet of vaccine differences, we’ve created this helpful guide.
It’s yet to be proven if these vaccines prevent asymptomatic infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Even without symptoms, it may be possible for vaccinated people to transmit the virus if they become infected. However, recent studies have shown less transmission from those who are fully vaccinated.
How do the vaccines work?
All three vaccines are designed to produce an immune response against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. None of the vaccines are live vaccines and they cannot give you COVID-19.
The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are made using messenger RNA (mRNA). Messenger RNA teaches your immune system to develop spike protein which results in the development of antibodies in your body to fight COVID-19.
Viral vector vaccines, like Johnson & Johnsons, use a modified version of a different virus (the vector) to deliver important instructions to our cells. For COVID-19 viral vector vaccines, the vector—not the virus that causes COVID-19, but a different, harmless virus—will enter a cell in our body and then use the cell’s machinery to produce a harmless piece of the virus that causes COVID-19. This piece is known as a spike protein and it is only found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. The cell displays the spike protein on its surface, and our immune system recognizes it doesn’t belong there. This triggers our immune system to begin producing antibodies and activating other immune cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection.
Scientists have been creating viral vector vaccines since the 1970s. Johnson & Johnson employed this same approach to make an Ebola vaccine that has been authorized for use by the European Medicines Agency. The company is also running trials on viral vector (adenovirus based) vaccines for other diseases, including HIV and Zika.
How effective is the Janssen (J&J) vaccine?
Like its predecessors, the Janssen (J&J) vaccine is highly successful. In testing, it was 85% effective in preventing severe COVID-19 infection globally (28 days post vaccine), including in the U.S. It was equally effective in places like South Africa, where the COVID-19 variant B.1.351 is highly prevalent. Most importantly, the Janssen (J&J) vaccine was shown to be 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. This effectiveness was consistent across all groups, including age, comorbidities status, sex, race and ethnicity.
Jason Brown, MD, the chief medical officer for Banner Pharmacy Services commented on the success rates of all three vaccines.
“The development of these vaccines is a monumental medical feat. All three far surpass the FDA’s minimum of 50% success rates,” said Dr. Brown. “Differences between the study design/endpoints, geography in which the vaccines were studied and the timing of the vaccine trials make final comparisons between the vaccines difficult. While there were differences in vaccine efficacy rates, all three are highly effecitive at preventing severe COVID-19 disease.”
How to get vaccinated
Getting vaccinated protects you, your loved ones, and the community at large. Full adoption of the vaccines, regardless of the brand, is the fastest path back to the normal, social lives we long for. With more vaccines becoming available and production ramping up, the availability of vaccines is growing quickly. However, supplies are still limited. Check your eligibility according to local rollout recommendations and learn more about how distribution is being organized. If you are eligible for the vaccine, schedule an appointment at locations throughout your community.
Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines:
- COVID-19 Vaccines: 6 Vaccine Myths Explained
- What to Expect When You Get the COVID-19 Vaccination
- Should You Worry About COVID-19 Vaccinations and Your Medication?
- What Can I Do After My COVID-19 Vaccination?