Johnson & Johnson begins giant study of one-dose COVID-19 shot
Johnson & Johnson has begun dosing up to 60,000 volunteers in a study of its COVID-19 vaccine, marking the first big U.S. trial of an inoculation that may work after just one shot.
J&J became the fourth vaccine maker to move its candidate into late-stage human studies in the U.S. If enrollment goes as expected, the trial could yield results as soon as the end of the year, allowing the company to seek emergency authorization early next year, should it prove effective, according to Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels.
"A single dose could be a very efficient tool to combat the pandemic as it is faster acting," he said Wednesday in an interview. Animal models and early human studies showed that one shot of its vaccine generated a strong immune response in just 15 days, he said.
The final-stage study will pit the vaccine against a placebo injection, with a goal of showing whether it reduces cases of moderate to severe COVID-19, "the most important part of the disease to prevent," Stoffels said. J&J is also looking at whether the shot curbs the virus's spread.
The company's shares rose as much as 2.3 percent in New York.
The New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company published detailed trial plans on Wednesday. Front-runners Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc have already done the same in a broader transparency push.
"It is likely that multiple COVID-19 vaccine regimens will be required to meet the global need," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a statement. J&J's vaccine "may be especially useful in controlling the pandemic if shown to be protective after a single dose."
The study is nearly two months behind those of Moderna, working with NIAID, and Pfizer, partnered with BioNTech SE, whose final-stage trials started in late July. Pfizer has said it could get efficacy results by the end of October. Those vaccines use two-dose regimens.
J&J's vaccine could offer an advantage in distribution over those inoculations, which require vaccination sites to ensure recipients return for their second dose. The company also said its vaccine can be stored at refrigerator temperatures for three months, far longer than the Pfizer vaccine that requires deep freezing for long-term storage.
"In countries where there is less health care infrastructure, it can be much better used at a very large scale," Stoffels told Bloomberg. "Single dose, easy to use in the field are the main characteristics that make it different."
The J&J product is made from a cold virus, called an adenovirus, that's modified to make copies of the coronavirus's spike protein, which the pathogen uses to enter cells. The altered virus can't replicate in humans, but it induces an immune response that prepares the body for an actual COVID-19 infection. The vaccine was developed with researchers at Harvard University who have spent years working on the adenovirus vaccine platform, which is also used in J&J's Ebola vaccine.
The health care behemoth is running the study in conjunction with NIAID and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at sites in the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and other countries. It will include significant representation among those over the age of 60, as well as minorities at disproportionate risk of becoming infected, including Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples, according to a statement.
J&J has also agreed to collaborate with the U.K. on a separate phase 3 clinical trial that will test a two-dose regimen of the vaccine in multiple countries, with two months between each dose, according to Stoffels. That booster could be critical to providing long-term protection, he said.
The decision to begin the final-stage trial was based on data from an earlier human study that showed a single shot was safe and stimulated a strong immune response, Stoffels said.
Like other final-stage vaccine trials, J&J's study is monitored by an independent board of doctors and statisticians who wait for a certain number of coronavirus cases to accumulate before looking at the data.
The trial aims to accumulate 154 cases for a final analysis. If the vaccine turns out to be more than 90 percent effective, the study could produce results after just 20 cases, Stoffels said. He said that scenario is unlikely, though.
J&J's trial appears to have stringent criteria for declaring early success that prevent a readout based on very short-term results in patients with relatively moderate symptoms. Based on discussions with U.S. regulators, the data won't undergo its first analysis until at least half of participants have been vaccinated for two months or more.
The study will also have to accrue at least five severe cases for an early readout. And to be considered a success, the absolute number of severe cases needs to be half of that in the placebo group, along with other benchmarks, according to documents posted on J&J's website.
Still, the study will take less time to complete than it would with two doses. Scientists will start counting cases just 15 days after patients get their inoculations or placebo shots.
Despite accelerated timelines, Operation Warp Speed won't cut corners in confirming vaccine safety or efficacy, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said on the Tuesday media call. "That absolutely will not be allowed to happen," he said.
Stoffels said J&J will continue to clinch new manufacturing partnerships to meet its one billion dose production goal for 2021. The company has already kick-started at-risk manufacturing in hopes the shot will prove successful in the clinic.