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[OPINION] Another effective vaccine for the PH, this time from Johnson & Johnson

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States has recently released the results of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It confirms earlier news reports that this single-dose adenovirus vaccine is efficacious, with an overall rate of 66%. This is not as high as the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which have efficacy rates around 95%, but it exceeds the 50% standard established by the WHO and is comparable to efficacy rates found with the AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines.  

Importantly, the J&J vaccine was also able to prevent severe COVID-19 infections, with an efficacy of 85%. All hospitalizations were prevented 28 days after vaccination. This is significant because we will be able to end the pandemic if the vaccines reduce COVID-19 to an ordinary cold or mild flu-like illness that does not require hospitalizations. This would also dramatically decrease the number of deaths. This would allow us to reopen our society and reinvigorate the economy. 

Like the other vaccines made in Europe and the USA, the efficacy of the J&J vaccine decreases when it is tested against several of the new SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the variants that are in community transmission in South Africa and Brazil. Nonetheless, the vaccine was still able to protect immunized individuals from severe disease.

There was also solid evidence for the safety of the vaccine. Among the 20,000 or so vaccinated with the vaccine, there were no vaccine-related deaths. There were 7 instances of serious but non-fatal side effects including one report of Guillian-Barre syndrome, which is an auto-immune reaction usually associated with viral infections. Like the other COVID-19 vaccines, this vaccine also triggers common side-effects including fatigue, headache, muscle pain, nausea, and fever. 

There are news reports that the Philippines will acquire the J&J vaccine for its COVID-19 vaccine portfolio. Unlike the other COVID-19 vaccines, this vaccine is a single-dose vaccine, which will be helpful to vaccinate individuals who are unlikely to return for a second dose. These include Filipinos living in remote islands of our country where it will be difficult to store the second dose for vaccination a few weeks after the first dose.

One of the questions I often get from people is my opinion on the best COVID-19 vaccine. I always tell them that there is no best vaccine. Each vaccine brand has its strengths and its weaknesses. Pfizer and Moderna may have the highest reported efficacy numbers but it remains unclear if it can protect well against several of the emerging variants from South Africa and Brazil. In contrast, Sinopharm and Sinovac do protect individuals from these variants even though their overall efficacy is below their Western rivals. In this case, the J&J vaccine has the advantage that it is a one-shot vaccine that can be stored in a regular freezer rather than the supercold freezers that are needed by the Pfizer vaccine. 

Therefore, my advice to people is easy: when you are called to be vaccinated during our national vaccination campaign, please go and receive your shot regardless of brand. 60% protection is better than 0% protection, and you will be able to pick a vaccine of your choice next year when the global vaccine supply will be more than adequate to meet the demand. 

For now, we need every single Filipino to be vaccinated as soon as possible so that we can end the pandemic. This will allow our children to return to school and our lolos and lolas to leave their homes. It will allow us to reopen our society and allow our economy to recover. We will be able to celebrate pasko again, in the way that we Filipinos are used to celebrating Christmas: with large family gatherings, with crowded churches, and with much dancing, singing, and laughing. This is the goal of our vaccination campaign. This is the goal of our hopes and our prayers. – Rappler.com

Reverend Fr Nicanor Austriaco, OP is Visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas, and an OCTA Research Fellow.