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With 3 COVID-19 Vaccines Available, Is 1 Better Than The Other?


Now, the first doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine were administered just yesterday, days after it was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. About 4 million doses are being distributed this week. It's kind of amazing, the scale of this thing, isn't it? And as Tamara just mentioned, rival pharma company Merck will help scale up production. But with three different vaccines now available, people naturally ask if one vaccine is better than another. So NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been looking into that aspect of the story. Selena, good morning.


INSKEEP: Isn't it true that these vaccines have performed differently in testing?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's right. You may have heard the top-line efficacy number for the vaccines that are authorized right now. The mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna have vaccine effectiveness around 95%. For Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, you've probably heard something around 66% effectiveness overall.


SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So obviously, if you hear that, you're like, whoa, that's a big difference. Maybe the Pfizer and Moderna ones are better. But it's just not that simple. Dr. Robert Drummond has looked closely at this data. He's an urgent care physician in Los Angeles. And he says Johnson & Johnson's clinical trial was impressive.

ROBERT DRUMMOND: I've looked at it. Looked at the positives, negatives - whole picture. And I'm going to tell you, it's not inferior.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says you have to remember that Pfizer and Moderna's trials were done months ago, before these concerning variants had cropped up, before the huge winter surge. And when you look at the Johnson & Johnson data on preventing severe COVID, it's much closer to the numbers you see with Pfizer and Moderna numbers. He is just adamant that this vaccine is just as good. And also, for people who are afraid of needles or have trouble getting to appointments, there are convenience advantages as well, since this is just one shot instead of two.

INSKEEP: Convenience advantages, but there are all these questions about equity that people will naturally ask. Is it fair to me? Am I getting the best vaccine? Are there marginalized populations for whom it's more convenient to give the one-shot vaccine? All kinds of questions like that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, there's a danger of that. I think it's too soon to say that that is what's happening with this vaccine. Christine Finley is the immunization manager in Vermont, and here's what she told me.

CHRISTINE FINLEY: There's a lot of discussions going on about where it could be used most effectively.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Like which populations or locations this vaccine might be used for. It's all up in the air at the moment. And also, the convenience isn't just relevant for marginalized groups. What about college campus drives? Dr. Drummond mentioned church and barbershops. He did say that this is a question he's getting from people, though.

DRUMMOND: Are they just going to give the worst vaccine to the Black people? Like, that is what I've heard from Black people.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Drummond says he explains that this is not inferior. He's even involved in the It's Up to You ad council campaign encouraging people to get vaccinated.

INSKEEP: But you're underlining the difficulty here. This is not a simple story. The simple message makes the J&J vaccine seem worse. It's the more complicated story that people need to hear.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. That's true. It's something I talked about with Dr. Leana Wen, who's an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University. Here's one thing she mentioned to me.

LEANA WEN: I want to ask people if they know what is the manufacturer of their flu vaccine. We don't ask for other vaccines because what we care about is, is this safe and is it effective?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She also made the point that the first vaccine you receive is probably not going to be the only one. There may be boosters for new variants. You might be able to get an annual COVID shot, like the flu shot. We just don't know how this is going to look. So everyone I talked with said with conviction, these are all highly effective, safe vaccines, and as soon as you get the chance to get vaccinated with any of them, you should take it.

INSKEEP: Selena, thanks for the update.


INSKEEP: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.