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Biden officials warn Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout may be slow

March 1, 2021, 6:36 PM UTC

With coronavirus variants running rampant throughout the United States and abroad, Johnson & Johnson’s newly authorized single-dose vaccine has come at a crucial time. But rollout of the third COVID-19 vaccine may be slow, according to senior officials in the Biden administration. 

Approximately 3.9 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will arrive as early as Tuesday morning to health care providers across the country. After this initial rollout though, it may be some time before there’s more.

Processed at the company’s factory in the Netherlands, the initial 3.9 million doses represents the entirety of Johnson & Johnson’s supply. Moving forward, vaccines will be produced and distributed from the company’s Baltimore plant, according to the New York Times.

Another 16 million doses should be available by the end of March, but the rollout is not expected to be steady, and Biden officials said the doses will mostly be delivered toward the end of the month. 

Last year the U.S. government signed a $1 billion contract with the company, which in turn pledged to deliver 100 million doses total and 37 million doses by the end of March. But before Sunday’s emergency approval of the vaccine, Dr. Richard Nettles, the vice president of U.S. medical affairs at Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the drug development arm of Johnson & Johnson, told lawmakers to expect far fewer. 

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was shown to be about 72% protective against moderate to severe COVID cases in clinical trials, whereas the two existing vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer were each proved to be about 95% effective in protecting against the virus. 

But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one shot and can be stored in standard refrigerators instead of freezers, differentiating it from the existing vaccines and making it easier to distribute. 

This could also help in making vaccine distribution more equitable. Being easy to store, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is simpler to distribute to people in rural or more hard-to-reach areas. And because the new vaccine requires only one dose, it could make it easier to vaccinate people who don’t regularly see a doctor or may be hard to reach twice, like the homeless communities in urban areas. 

“This vaccine could make it easier to reach some disproportionately affected groups,” said Sarah Oliver, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a meeting over the weekend.

And when tested for hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine reported 100% effectiveness, making its approval another huge step in the country’s fight against the pandemic. 

In a survey reviewed by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, only 7% of respondents said they’d choose the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when given a choice of the three. But of the 58% who said they preferred the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, approximately half said that they would take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if it meant they didn’t have to wait.

Still, Biden officials said distribution of the new vaccine will be proportional to states’ populations, the same plan used with Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines.