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A Tulane scientist reacts to efficacy of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine; local institutions could help La. do surveillance for COVID-19 variants

Published: Jan. 29, 2021 at 7:28 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Johnson & Johnson says overall its COVID-19 vaccine is 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe coronavirus infection and some local residents helped the company reach those results. Meanwhile, as variants of the virus emerge the Louisiana Department of Health is working to expand in-state genome sequencing.

Dr. Lisa Morici is a Tulane University microbiologist.

“The Tulane, New Orleans community helped get this vaccine and get us results,” said Morici. “They really did a great job of testing in many races, genders, and age groups.”

Tulane served as one of the sites for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinical trial.

Dr. Morici said she was not involved in the trial at Tulane and she expects the efficacy of the vaccine to give some in the public pause. “And their initial reaction is going to be, oh no it’s not as good as Pfizer and Moderna’s 94- 95 percent efficacy,” Morici said.

But she says when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines in general, Johnson & Johnson’s shots should not be frowned upon.

The company says its testing in the U.S. showed 72 percent effectiveness, higher than the global testing results of 66 percent and 85 percent efficacy in preventing severe disease, and says the vaccine demonstrated complete protection against COVID-19 related hospitalization and deaths 28 days after the shot.

Morici expounded on that data.

“Although that 66 percent efficacy rate takes into account reduction in symptomatic disease in all of the participants across the world who were tested in the Phase 3 clinical trial, the numbers that were really encouraging were the 85 percent efficacy in terms of preventing severe disease and a hundred percent efficacy in terms of preventing hospitalization and death,” she said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different platform than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines known as adenovirus.

“The Johnson & Johnson Janssen platform is based on adenovirus vector vaccine. So, it’s similar to the Messenger RNA vaccines in that the instructions in the adenovirus encode for the spike protein,” said Morici.

Spike proteins are what the virus uses to invade human cells.

Morici said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not give people who receive the virus.

“These adenoviruses I should point out are modified in such a way that they can’t replicate in our bodies and they can’t cause disease. And adenoviruses just naturally cause a common cold and so they’re very safe platforms,” Morici stated.

Still, as the virus continues to mutate Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases say the variants deserved serious attention.

“This is a wake-up call to all of us that we will be dealing as the virus uses its devices to evade pressure, particularly pressure that we will continue to see the evolution of mutants,” said Fauci.

Morici was asked if the composition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine lends itself to be tweaked, considering the virus mutating.

“It sure does. The mRNA vaccines and the adenovirus vaccines are what we refer to as plug and play vaccines. And what we mean by that is they’re highly amenable to quickly change them,” said Morici.

In the face of virus variants, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health says LDH is in talks to engage with its partners to expand genome sequencing in the state.

And LSU Health New Orleans, LSU Health Shreveport, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center confirmed to FOX 8 that their institutions are in talks with LDH about sequencing.

LSU Health Shreveport says as of this week, it has provided 63 percent of Louisiana’s genome sequencing for COVID-19. LDH says every two weeks the Office of Public Health lab in Baton Rouge sends 22 samples of the virus collected in the state to the CDC.

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