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J&J vaccine: Fight against COVID-19 gets another shot in the arm

Vaccination efforts to fight the pandemic got another shot in the arm. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to rollout soon after the FDA nod, will speed up inoculations against COVID-19, but it might be a while before the efforts make a big difference. Kaiser Health News Correspondent Rachana Pradhan joins to discuss the vaccination efforts, bottlenecks and long-term impact

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So Rachana, this week, we've heard a lot about Johnson & Johnson and the promise that it holds the single shot, there's supposed to be millions of doses and people are kind of expecting a quick fix here. Put this in perspective for us.

  • Rachana Pradhan:

    Well, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will definitely add to the US's arsenal, if you will, of available shots for people. But I think that it's also important to acknowledge that we are far from being able to vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated.

    Initially, Johnson & Johnson says upon receiving the necessary authorizations from federal officials, they'll be ready to ship immediately about four million doses. And by the end of March, they say, they'll be able to provide 20 million doses. Now it's a one to one ratio because it's a single shot, as you said. So that's 20 million people who could get vaccinated by the end of March with Johnson & Johnson.

    But as with our earlier vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, these things don't come at the flick of a light switch. It takes time, a lot of effort and a lot of very tight regulations and scientific precision to vaccinate as many people as we need to and to produce the doses we need.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So Dr. Fauci has famously said this is not like producing shoes. Give us a breakdown, for example, of the supply chain that's required to get the vaccines made.

  • Rachana Pradhan:

    So they now, depending on the kind of technology that's used, this does vary slightly, a little bit. Pfizer and Moderna shots, of course, rely on a particular type of technology called mRNA or messenger RNA. Now, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is different in that regard.

    But we do know that historically with vaccine production, you need raw materials, you need capacity in your manufacturing plants. And we know that there are certain bottlenecks that are likely to happen or that the pharmaceutical companies need to overcome. And one of the big ones is, a challenge historically, has been kind of toward the tail end of the process. When you get to finishing your doses, putting them in vials and packaging it that we know is and has been an issue for Pfizer and Moderna both and with Johnson & Johnson.

    They've also, Biden administration officials have said that Johnson and Johnson was behind on their manufacturing, in part because of needing to source raw materials, but also equipment. So I think these things are it's not necessarily a fatal problem, but they do need to be addressed in order to get the doses that we expect.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The administration set out some ambitious goals early on and saying what they hope to accomplish, how many people they hope to have vaccines accessible to, are we likely to hit those goals? I mean, put the number of vaccines into perspective here. Even if Johnson & Johnson cranks out four million vaccines, that sounds like a lot. But let's say you add that to what Pfizer is producing and what Moderna is producing, the best case scenarios.

  • Rachana Pradhan:

    I do think that the goals that the Biden administration have announced for how many Americans they want to vaccinate in the first 100 days of President Biden's presidency are doable.

    But that being said, especially when we look at Pfizer and Moderna, they have openly acknowledged and they will have to significantly ramp up their manufacturing capacity compared to what they have been doing historically.

    Pfizer, for example, has about six weeks to provide 80 million doses, they provided 40 million doses in roughly two months to the US government. That's significant and is not a given. A lot needs to occur in order for that to go right, right? No kinks in the process, which is asking a lot.

    Moderna's is similar compared to what they were manufacturing in January. We know that they made about 19 million doses and that's not enough. If that doesn't increase for them to meet their promised 100 million doses by the end of March. So it's definitely a challenge.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We've talked quite a bit about the vaccines themselves, but what about just availability? But we hear from lots of different parts of the country that it's not nearly as accessible as it should be if not getting deployed as fast as it can.

  • Rachana Pradhan:

    Right. I mean, I think in order to get a vaccine to an actual person, there's a lot of time, resources and people that we need in order to do that. And I do think that we have seen a shift in strategy under the Biden administration to prioritize certain populations and organizations to get vaccines. So hopefully that will start to improve things.

    But that being said, we are far from the point where it will be easy for everyone to get a vaccine. And I think one of the unique challenges that I want to highlight here, states now increasingly are moving toward opening up vaccinations to broader segments of the US population, but the supply is not there. So it's going to become potentially for the foreseeable future, even more of a so-called Hunger Games type situation where you're making significantly more people eligible.

    But the pool of shots is not growing that much. And so I do think it's going to be a challenge for the for the next couple of months and then hopefully toward late spring and summer, we'll start to see some greater progress.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Rachana Pradhan from Kaiser Health News, thanks so much.

  • Rachana Pradhan:

    Thank you so much.

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