COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

J&J CEO still optimistic COVID-19 vaccine could come as early as this year

October 14, 2020, 9:56 PM UTC

Alex Gorsky, chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, remains upbeat about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine arriving as early as this year, despite the health care giant suspending a late-stage clinical trial for one of its own candidates after a patient fell ill this week.

“If you just look at the sheer number of compounds that are in development right now, there is a very good probability that late this year or early next year, we will have options for vaccines,” Gorsky told members of the CEO Initiative, a group of corporate leaders convened by Fortune that met virtually on Wednesday.

Any eventual vaccine will likely be distributed in a tiered approach. Assuming regulators grant approval, vaccines will first be administered to caregivers, emergency responders, and health care facilities, potentially by year’s end. Then vaccines will be made available to everyone else.

“As we move through the course of 2021, most experts would agree that we should be in a position where we can go to a much broader population at that time,” Gorsky said. He didn’t comment on the status of the company’s halted candidate vaccine, saying only that it is adhering to regulatory and safety protocols.

Fortune CEO Alan Murray, who hosted the conversation, asked whether it would be safe enough for companies to call back knowledge workers en masse into city-based offices by next summer. (Incidentally, that is the time frame he last communicated to Fortune staffers.)

“Most people who try to predict this disease have gotten it wrong,” Gorsky replied with dose of expectation-tempering humility. “But I would think that, yes, by that point in time next year,” enough information and treatment options should be available to make people comfortable enough to return, he said.

Johnson & Johnson is just one company pursuing a coveted inoculation against the coronavirus. More than 170 candidate vaccines are in development at pharmaceutical giants such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer, according to the World Health Organization.

Johnson & Johnson isn’t alone in its cautious approach to testing. Eli Lilly recently stopped a clinical trial for an antibody drug owing to safety concerns. A month ago, AstraZeneca paused a vaccine trial after two patients became ill.

Medical experts caution that early vaccines may offer only limited protection. Others fear they could have unknown adverse effects.  

The achievement of a vaccine, commonly viewed as a silver bullet, should be considered just one tool in society’s kit for curbing the pandemic, Gorsky said. It is the third prong in a “holistic, comprehensive approach,” he said, whose other components are basic hygiene (social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing) and therapeutics (like antibody cocktails and steroids).

“We’re going to find out a lot in Phase Three”—the final stage before approval, which involves large-scale efficacy testing—“as we’re finding out right now,” Gorsky said, alluding to the company’s own recent findings.

More must-read tech coverage from Fortune: