Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine scores longer shelf life just as millions of doses were set to expire

Just as states were scrambling to administer millions of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 doses set to expire by the end of June, the FDA has swooped in to give the jabs a bit more time on the shelf.

The U.S. FDA has extended the shelf life for J&J’s single-shot vaccine from three months to four and a half, the drugmaker said Thursday. The agency based its decision on ongoing stability studies that found the vaccine could last longer when kept at refrigerated temperatures.

Dwindling demand for COVID-19 vaccines, coupled with safety concerns clouding J&J’s shot, have led to a larger-than-expected stockpile of doses after the U.S. halted the shot in April, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. In order to work through the backlog, the federal government has suspended shipments of the vaccine so states can catch up, the newspaper later reported

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Of the more than 21.4 million J&J doses delivered to states, just about half of them have actually been used, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show. The gap is far wider than those reported for mRNA rivals Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.  

While it’s unclear how many doses were set to expire by the end of the month, Reuters reported 13 lots had an expiration date of June 27 or sooner. Simply shipping them to places in greater need or administering them quickly is easier said than done. 

Although states are responsible for ordering the doses they think they’ll need, stockpiles of the jab began to accumulate after providers were forced to cut appointments in April following the nationwide pause. Many people never rescheduled their appointments, the WSJ reports. 

As a result, states have been left to plead with unvaccinated residents to get the jab before the doses spoil. Many have offered incentives, like Powerball tickets and cash prizes, to get more jabs into arms. A senior White House official Tuesday instructed states with expiring doses to work with the FDA to extend their shelf life. 

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Earlier this week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine urged people to “take action now” before roughly 200,000 J&J shots in the state expired June 23. Ohio had no legal way of sending the doses to other states or countries in need, he said.

Now that nearly 64% of the adult U.S. population has at least one shot, the Biden administration has recently ramped up its efforts to send more of its doses abroad. Thursday, Pfizer said it sold 500 million doses to the U.S. government to support worldwide donations.

This isn’t the first time the FDA has extended the shelf life for a pandemic shot. In May, the agency said the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which has had stringent cold-chain storage requirements, could be kept at refrigerator temperatures undiluted for one month, up from five days.