J&J's next COVID-19 vaccine challenge? Hurdling the '66%' perception to win over a vaccine-hesitant public

COVID-19 vaccine
As J&J readies its COVID-19 vaccines for rollout this week, it's also tackling the shot's effectiveness rate questions. (Getty/Meyer & Meyer)

With an FDA green light for emergency use, Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot now faces a communications hurdle. How will the company handle the comparisons with its vaccine rivals?

Already, there's wide and spreading chatter on social media and real-world word-of-mouth discussions about the J&J shot's 66% overall effectiveness rate. The company's response has been communication—and lots of it, with some help from its friend in public health.

J&J CEO Alex Gorsky, government officials—and even Pfizer board member and ex-FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, M.D.—took to multiple media outlets on Sunday and Monday to lay out the detailed facts and nuances in the data.

Gorsky hit the media circuit Monday morning, appearing on CBS’ "Good Morning America," NBC’s "Today" show and CNBC news.

His repeated answer to the 66% question when compared to Pfizer and Moderna’s 95% and 94% effectiveness rates? Different trial timing—namely, after new variants emerged—and the global nature of J&J’s testing delivered different outcomes.

While 40% of its trial participants were in the U.S., another 40% were in Latin America and 15% were in South Africa, where almost all trial participants faced the more-contagious B.1.351 variant.

Plus, in all his interviews, Gorsky pointed to the vaccine’s 85% effectiveness rate against serious illness and 100% effectiveness at preventing death.

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“Our data actually includes these most challenging, pernicious, virulent strains and what we saw was an 85% effectiveness rate in the severe disease,” Gorsky said on CNBC.

On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, NIAID chief and the White House's chief medical adviser, appeared on "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" with a similar message about reductions in hospitalizations and deaths.

The White House COVID-19 Response Team released a social media video featuring Fauci answering questions about the J&J vaccine. He opens the video by saying, “I would definitely take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”

Gottlieb called the J&J vaccine effective in a media appearance on CBS’ "Face the Nation" Sunday. He said he would take the shot himself and urged people to be confident in its worth.

While J&J’s vaccine may face greater communications challenges than the first two COVID-19 vaccines did, the company and public health officials should continue to aim for transparency and simple, clear messages, experts said.

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“One of the most important things is not overgeneralizing the message and saying ‘Oh, you should just get it whatever it is,’” said Rob Jekielek, managing director at The Harris Poll. “Because there are people who are hesitant because they don’t think they have enough access to information or they don’t understand it. So it’s really important to be specific. … [M]ost important, across the board, is that the vaccines directly address severe COVID-19.”

Vaccine makers should also look to make sure physicians and nurses on the front lines are informed, because they remain American’s most trusted sources of vaccine information, according to Harris Poll data.

“As you have new drugs coming in and new data being released, it’s going to cause confusion with people, but it’s particularly critical you don’t have that confusion with healthcare providers,” Jekielek said.