Canadian regulators have given the green light to Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Friday’s (March 5) approval marks the fourth COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by Health Canada and the first requiring only one dose.
The move comes exactly one week after the AstraZeneca plc vaccine was approved for use in Canada and six days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine produced by subsidiary Janssen Inc.
The first 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India arrived in Canada within days of approval.
But Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said only that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would begin arriving sometime in the second quarter.
Canada has an initial order in for 10 million doses to be delivered by September, with the option of ordering 28 million additional doses.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hesitant to commit to the possibility Canada could move up its goal of offering vaccines to all Canadians by the end of September.
“We have reasons to be optimistic we’re going to be able to move things forward but at the same time we also know that these are global supply chains that are being set up and there’s always the possibility for disruptions,” he said during a briefing in Ottawa.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government will continue to update its forecasting as it gains more certainty around future shipments.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended on Wednesday that provinces should consider significantly delaying administering first and second doses if they’re facing a limited supply of vaccine.
Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. recommend intervals of three to four weeks, but B.C. had been administering doses six weeks apart since January amid ongoing vaccine shortages.
The province is now administering doses 16 weeks apart to vaccinate more people sooner, albeit with lower levels of protection.
In clinical trials, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine proved to be 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, according to Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser.
“What’s important for you to know is the efficacy rate does not mean that following vaccination with a vaccine with a 66% efficacy that you will have a 34% chance of contracting COVID-19. If you get vaccinated by any of the five vaccines, your chance of getting COVID-19 is greatly reduced,” she said during a technical briefing, making reference to the separate approvals given to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the identical vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India.
"Not one person who was vaccinated as part of the various trials has died of COVID-19."
Of the nearly 40,000 people who participated in the clinical trials, 464 subjects developed moderate to severe symptoms of COVID-19.
But 348 of those subjects had taken a placebo, while 116 had taken the vaccine itself.
About half the subjects in the clinical trials were given a placebo.
“The thing that has sort of threatened us the most about COVID-19 is its ability to kill,” Sharma said.
“All the vaccines, for all intents and purposes, squash that.”
Like the AstraZeneca vaccine, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine can be stored at standard fridge temperatures rather than the ultra-cold temperatures required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
This allows for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be transported to various sites with more ease than the first two vaccines approved for use in Canada.
Meanwhile, Trudeau also revealed Friday that Pfizer is accelerating deliveries of vaccine doses.
An additional 1.5 million doses are expected to arrive by the end of this month, while one million additional doses will arrive in April followed by an additional one million doses in May.
Those 3.5 million doses were originally due to arrive in the summer, Trudeau said.
With the additional AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccine doses, the country is set to accept eight million doses by the end of the first quarter. The federal government had originally anticipated six million doses total, all of which were being sourced from Pfizer and Moderna.
While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only a single dose, trials have been underway since November 2020 in other countries examining the efficacy of administering two doses with a 56-day interval in between.
Sharma said data from those trials will not be ready “for a number of months.”
“If it shows that, for example, that the efficacy is higher, the safety profile is better … we’re going to make a change to the utilization of that vaccine,” she added.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are what are known as messenger RNA — or mRNA — vaccines, which provide instructions to cells in the human body to create a protein that our immune system can recognize and respond against.
AstraZeneca is a viral vector-based vaccine, which uses a harmless modified version of the virus to trigger instructions for a response in the immune system.