News from the FDA/CDC

J&J COVID-19 vaccine wins unanimous backing of FDA panel


An FDA advisory panel lent their support Feb. 26 to a rapid clearance for Janssen/Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to quickly provide an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the vaccine following the recommendation by the panel. The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted 22-0 on this question: Based on the totality of scientific evidence available, do the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine outweigh its risks for use in individuals 18 years of age and older?

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to offer more convenient dosing and be easier to distribute than the two rival products already available in the United States. Janssen’s vaccine is intended to be given in a single dose. In December, the FDA granted EUAs for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which are each two-dose regimens.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine can be stored for at least 3 months at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2°C to 8°C (36°F to 46°F). Its shipping and storage fits into the existing medical supply infrastructure, the company said in its briefing materials for the FDA advisory committee meeting. In contrast, Pfizer’s vaccine is stored in ultracold freezers at temperatures between -80°C and -60°C (-112°F and -76°F), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moderna’s vaccine may be stored in a freezer between -25°C and -15°C (-13°F and 5°F).

But FDA advisers focused more in their deliberations on concerns about Janssen’s vaccine, including emerging reports of allergic reactions.

The advisers also discussed how patients might respond to the widely reported gap between Johnson & Johnson’s topline efficacy rates compared with rivals. The company’s initial unveiling last month of key results for its vaccine caused an initial wave of disappointment, with its overall efficacy against moderate-to-severe COVID-19 28 days postvaccination first reported at about 66% globally. By contrast, results for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines suggest they have efficacy rates of 95% and 94%.

But in concluding, the advisers spoke of the Janssen vaccine as a much-needed tool to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The death toll in the United States attributed to the virus has reached 501,414, according to the World Health Organization.

“Despite the concerns that were raised during the discussion. I think what we have to keep in mind is that we’re still in the midst of this deadly pandemic,” said FDA adviser Archana Chatterjee, MD, PhD, from Rosalind Franklin University. “There is a shortage of vaccines that are currently authorized, and I think authorization of this vaccine will help meet the needs at the moment.”

The FDA is not bound to accept the recommendations of its advisers, but it often does so.

Anaphylaxis case

FDA advisers raised only a few questions for Johnson & Johnson and FDA staff ahead of their vote. The committee’s deliberations were less contentious and heated than had been during its December reviews of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In those meetings, the panel voted 17-4, with one abstention, in favor of Pfizer’s vaccine and 20-0, with one abstention, on the Moderna vaccine.

“We are very comfortable now with the procedure, as well as the vaccines,” said Arnold Monto, MD, after the Feb. 26 vote on the Janssen vaccine. Dr. Monto, from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, has served as the chairman of the FDA panel through its review of all three COVID-19 vaccines.

Among the issues noted in the deliberations was the emergence of a concern about anaphylaxis with the vaccine.

This serious allergic reaction has been seen in people who have taken the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Before the week of the panel meeting, though, there had not been reports of anaphylaxis with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Macaya Douoguih, MD, MPH, head of clinical development and medical affairs for Janssen/ Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines division.

However, on February 24, Johnson & Johnson received preliminary reports about two cases of severe allergic reaction from an open-label study in South Africa, with one of these being anaphylaxis, Dr. Douoguih said. The company will continue to closely monitor for these events as outlined in their pharmacovigilance plan, Dr. Douoguih said.

Federal health officials have sought to make clinicians aware of the rare risk for anaphylaxis with COVID vaccines, while reminding the public that this reaction can be managed.

The FDA had Tom Shimabukuro, MD, MPH, MBA, from the CDC, give an update on postmarketing surveillance for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as part of the review of the Johnson & Johnson application. Dr. Shimabukuro and CDC colleagues published a report in JAMA on February 14 that looked at an anaphylaxis case reported connected with COVID vaccines between December 14, 2020, and January 18, 2021.

The CDC identified 66 case reports received that met Brighton Collaboration case definition criteria for anaphylaxis (levels 1, 2, or 3): 47 following Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for a reporting rate of 4.7 cases/million doses administered, and 19 following Moderna vaccine, for a reporting rate of 2.5 cases/million doses administered, Dr. Shimabukuro and CDC colleagues wrote.

The CDC has published materials to help clinicians prepare for the possibility of this rare event, Dr. Shimabukuro told the FDA advisers.

“The take-home message here is that these are rare events and anaphylaxis, although clinically serious, is treatable,” Dr. Shimabukuro said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, FDA panelist Patrick Moore, MD, MPH, from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, stressed the need to convey to the public that the COVID vaccines appear so far to be safe. Many people earlier had doubts about how the FDA could both safely and quickly review the applications for EUAs for these products.

“As of February 26, things are looking good. That could change tomorrow,” Dr. Moore said. But “this whole EUA process does seem to have worked, despite my own personal concerns about it.”


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