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Would you get a COVID vaccine that’s less effective than other ones?

February 4, 2021, 11:19 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

I’d like to use today’s column to pose a question I’ve asked many of my own friends and colleagues: Would you be willing to get a COVID vaccine that’s less effective but perhaps more convenient to receive?

One week ago, Johnson & Johnson unveiled results from a global trial finding that its COVID vaccine is about 66% effective. That’s significantly lower efficacy than the approximately 95% effectiveness of Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines.

But there are some critical differences and societal factors which will shape which vaccines someone gets. Location is everything in health care, especially given the complexities and unique needs of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

For instance, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is a more conventional one and it only requires on shot, whereas the mRNA vaccines require two. The mRNA vaccines also have ultra-cooling requirements (particularly Pfizer’s) which may not be easy to achieve in developing nations without the specialized storage capacity. So, in that sense, people who live in poorer nations may not have much of a say in which vaccine they get.

But there’s another consideration: Time and complexity of vaccine administration versus prioritizing the more effective vaccine. If Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine wins Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization, as many public health experts expect it will, you might be able to get it faster and only deal with having to get a single dose. And 66% is nothing to roll your eyes at when it comes to the vaccine world, as former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb noted on Twitter.

Ultimately a vaccination campaign of this scale will require the deployment of multiple vaccines, and local needs and capabilities (medical, political, or otherwise) will dictate much of which ones go where. But if you had the chance to get a less effective vaccine if it meant you could get it soon, would you do so? I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee


Google Fit will be able to measure heart and breathing rates through a camera. Google Fit, part of the Google Health line of products, is learning a new trick: Being able to measure users' heart and respiratory rates through the use of Android cameras, beginning on Pixel phones. The feature requires a stable surface that offers a clear, unobstructed view from the waste up for the front facing camera and detects changes in how your chest moves. That's for the breathing rate function. For cardiac rate, you use the other camera on the back and apply pressure with a finger on it. Evidently, the feature susses out little changes to the color of your finger to measure blood flow. Of course, as tends to be the case with these digital health apps, Google states this isn't meant to provide professional, medical-grade advice on how to treat a certain condition. You still need a human for that. (9to5Google)


Biosimilar competition is eating into Roche's topline. Biosimilars are generic versions of drugs made from biological materials, aptly dubbed "biologics." These are some of the more expensive treatments in the life sciences industry dur to their underlying complexity. But while the biosimilar market in the U.S. is still in its infancy compared to many other nations, they are having a tangible effect on drug giants around the world. Take Swiss biopharma Roche for example. On Thursday, the company said that its topline sales for three blockbuster cancer drugs (Herceptin, Avastin, and Rituxan) had taken an estimated $5.6 billion sales hit across the U.S., E.U., and Japan in 2020 due to biosimilar competition. This is why drug makers try to put as many patents as possible on biosimilar products in the U.S. in order to ward off the cheaper competition. (FiercePharma)


Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond... The COVID vaccine rollout, while improving in the U.S., is still far from perfect. But the U.K. seems to have its act a bit more together, as my colleague Katherine Dunn reports. "On Thursday, the Bank of England (BOE) projected long-term optimism for the country’s economic recovery, saying that GDP is expected to “recover rapidly” toward pre-COVID levels over the course of this year, as the vaccination program led to an easing of restrictions," she writes. This is despite the fact that one of the main contagious COVID variants stems from the U.K. One reason the vaccination campaign appears to be going more smoothly in the U.K. is a controversial decision to wait as long as 12 weeks between administering the first and second doses of the vaccine (it's typically supposed to be more like three or four weeks), allowing manufacturers more time to ramp up the supply. (Fortune)


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