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Johnson & Johnson Says Booster Shot Makes Their COVID Vaccine More Effective


Now some news for folks who got Johnson & Johnson's one-shot COVID-19 vaccine. Turns out a second shot of the J&J vaccine significantly reduces the risk of getting severely ill. That's according to new data released by the company today. Joining us now with the details is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hi, Rob.


FADEL: So all the news lately about boosters has been about another Pfizer shot. But now this update from Johnson & Johnson - what's the latest?

STEIN: Early this morning, Johnson & Johnson released data that the company says supports the idea that a second shot can provide people with even stronger protection against getting really sick. The company says giving people a second jab two months after the first looks like it can boost protection against moderate to severe disease from about 75%, where it is right now, to about 100%. I talked about this with Dan Barouch at Harvard. He worked with Johnson & Johnson.

DAN BAROUCH: This is the first data showing that a second dose increases effectiveness in terms of actual prevention of disease.

STEIN: The company says additional research shows that waiting longer for that second shot could provide even better protection. Waiting six months instead of two months boosts antibody levels even more by twelvefold versus just four- to sixfold. So that's good news for everyone who got their first shots many months ago.

FADEL: OK, that sounds really encouraging. How strong is the evidence?

STEIN: You know, it's important to note that the company put this out in a press release this morning. None of this has been published in a scientific journal or reviewed by other scientists, so that makes it hard to really fully evaluate. But I've been in touch with other researchers who say that it does look like this supports giving people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a booster. And they say that's important because while protection from the J&J vaccine seems to hold up over time, it's turned out to be weaker than the other vaccines. Saad Omer is a vaccine researcher at Yale.

SAAD OMER: This is overall good news for those who had received a single dose of J&J vaccine that - first of all, the high protection with the single dose seems to last for a while. But on the other hand, an additional dose provides further protection.

STEIN: But Omer says he'd like to see a lot more of the, you know, nitty-gritty details about this research to answer some really important questions like, you know, will the protection from the booster wane over time?

FADEL: OK. Just so we can keep things straight, remind us. Where do things stand now with boosters for all three vaccines?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So Johnson & Johnson says it's submitting the new data to the Food and Drug Administration to consider. Moderna has also started submitting data for its vaccine booster. But the big announcement that we're expecting at any time now is about the Pfizer booster, which is the most widely used COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. On Friday, FDA advisers recommended that the agency authorize a booster for people age 65 and older and for people at high risk. Now, that recommendation fell far short of the Biden administration's original announcement to start offering boosters widely and the company's request for a green light for people as young as 16. But the FDA would still significantly increase the number of people officially eligible for boosters. Right now, it's limited to people with weak immune systems.

FADEL: OK, so what's the next step?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So tomorrow, CDC advisers will start a two-day meeting to further refine who should get boosters, who exactly should be considered at high risk. During the FDA meeting, there was a lot of talk that health care workers should be eligible for boosters, especially because hospitals are running short of staff and maybe teachers, too. So it'll be interesting to see who makes the cut. Once the CDC accepts the group's recommendations, booster shots could start rolling out more widely as soon as later this week.

FADEL: Thanks.

That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.