Don't expect Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine to quickly lift U.S. supplies. Early shipments will be small, officials say

Johnson & Johnson's easier-to-use, single-dose COVID-19 vaccine is nearing a rollout, theoretically promising a major boost to the frantic U.S. immunization campaign. But J&J's early supplies are extremely limited, a White House adviser said Wednesday.

After the vaccine’s expected FDA emergency authorization in early March, the company will have just “a few million” doses ready to go, President Joe Biden's coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, said at a press briefing, as quoted by The New York Times.  

J&J’s contract with the federal government, inked last summer, calls for the drugmaker to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. But it's now looking like deliveries will be “back-end loaded,” Zients said.

Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, said the government expected “considerably more” doses immediately, as quoted by CNBC. He said he’s “a little disappointed that the number of doses that we’re going to get early on are relatively small,” but that the numbers will increase throughout the spring.

The government has known for weeks about J&J’s expectations for limited initial supply. Janssen representatives previously said “approximately 2 million doses will be delivered at the time of emergency use authorization,” according to a Government Accountability Office report (PDF) published last month. Zients this week said officials are “doing everything we can to accelerate the delivery schedule.”  

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Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine is stable at refrigerated temperatures, offering a distribution edge over authorized mRNA shots from Pfizer and Moderna. J&J's program is set for an FDA hearing to review data next week.

During an earnings call with analysts last month, J&J execs didn’t mention any problems that could disrupt its delivery plans. CFO Joe Wolk said the drugmaker was “very comfortable” meeting J&J’s dose commitments in the U.S. and elsewhere, but that there’s “still some fluidity with respect to timelines.”

J&J wouldn't address Zients' statements specifically on Thursday. The company “expects to supply 100 million doses to the U.S. in the first half of 2021," a spokesman said, and it “expects to have product available to ship immediately following authorization.”

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In phase 3 results released last month, J&J’s vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S. and 66% effective overall at preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19. The vaccine also offered “complete protection” against COVID-related hospitalization and death at day 28.

A potential U.S. rollout for the shot would bolster the nation’s immunization effort at a crucial time. Cases have been falling from a high in January, but experts are encouraging rapid vaccinations to get ahead of variants that could elude immunizations. Biden this week said all Americans who seek a vaccine should be able to get one by the end of July.