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Johnson & Johnson CEO says a COVID-19 vaccine is only ‘part of the puzzle’

July 8, 2020, 9:44 PM UTC

Even as Johnson & Johnson pushes toward its goal of producing a billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021, CEO Alex Gorsky warned on Wednesday that it would not be enough to return society to the status quo.   

“There can be some mythology that the moment we have a vaccine, life is going to go back to normal—that we can do a high-five and go back to the way we always lived,” he said at Fortune Brainstorm Health Virtual conference on Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Gorsky said that in a positive scenario where there are several vaccine candidates at the beginning of 2021, the right education and distribution systems would still need to be in place to deliver a vaccine. He called the efforts underway to do in five to seven months what normally takes five to seven years “a moonshot” and “unprecedented.”

“The world has never attempted something quite that large or quite that complex,” he said. “That’s why I think a vaccine, while a very critical element to bringing an end to this pandemic, is part of the puzzle.” Therapeutics, hospital system protocols, mask wearing at certain times, good hygiene, and social distancing are all still going to be necessary, he said. “It’s going to take a combination of all of those things to ultimately bring an end to this virus,” he added.

Gorsky said the company recently selected a final candidate for its vaccine and plans to do clinical testing in the coming weeks so that it can produce hundreds of millions of doses in the next several quarters, and billions by the end of 2021.

Johnson & Johnson is pursuing the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis, but Gorsky did not dismiss the need for some companies to benefit financially from their efforts. That more than 200 companies are working on very novel approaches to a vaccine on an aggressive timeline is “only possible because of the tremendous amount of research and development and investment that has gone into the biopharmaceutical world over the last several decades,” he said. He added that “maintaining an environment where there is a reward for innovation is critical.”

Gorsky said that he has never seen the level of partnership, collaboration, and sharing of information and data that he’s seeing today between companies, government entities, and NGOs.

“Hopefully some of the lessons we’re learning now between these different entities can be the kind of collaborations we continue in the future,” he said. “That could be one of the silver linings in the long term that the industry and health care systems take away.”