Geneva, 29 January 2021
Pharmaceutical corporation Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced today that preliminary data from a phase 3 trial testing a potential COVID-19 vaccine suggest that the vaccine is 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 28 days after vaccination, with 57% efficacy in South Africa where 95% of cases were from the SARS-CoV-2 variant from the B.1.351 lineage. However, there needs to be a more in-depth analysis of the full clinical trial data before conclusions on the vaccine’s efficacy and utility can be made. The vaccine could be a potential gamechanger in the world’s response to this pandemic – including in low-resource settings where Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) works – since unlike the other COVID-19 vaccines being used today, it could require only one dose and could be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.
MSF urged J&J to first prioritise fulfilling its pledge to the COVAX Facility – a global COVID-19 vaccine purchasing mechanism aimed to improve equity of vaccination. Although J&J has pledged to supply up to announced 500 million doses to COVAX over the next few years (only 100 million doses in 2021), the agreement remains a non-binding memorandum of understanding. Meanwhile, nearly 1.5 billion doses of J&J’s potential vaccine are already tied up in advance purchase agreements, the majority of which (56%, or 801 million out of 1.439 billion doses) are committed to high-income countries.*
MSF is deeply concerned by the lack of equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines today. WHO recently noted that 39 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been given in high-income countries, while only 25 doses had been distributed in the world’s poorest countries.
J&J received US$1.5 billion from the US government for research and development of their potential COVID-19 vaccine, and the UK government is co-funding a global clinical trial testing a two-dose regimen of the vaccine. From early on in the pandemic, and in light of this significant public investment, MSF has called for any potential future COVID-19 vaccines to be priced at cost. J&J has committed to a $10 ‘non-profit’ price for emergency use during the pandemic. In a US Senate hearing last year, J&J committed to having its prices audited externally, and MSF urges the corporation to open its books.
MSF has also called for corporations producing COVID-19 vaccines to share all the necessary intellectual property (IP), technologies, data and know-how, so that as many companies as possible can produce these potentially lifesaving vaccines. The company has so far failed to commit to sharing their technology openly with other vaccine manufacturers.
Dr Manuel Martin, Medical Innovation & Access Policy Advisor, MSF Access Campaign
“It is shocking to see that nearly two months after the first COVID-19 vaccines started to be injected into arms of healthcare workers and others in high-income countries, there is still virtually no vaccination taking place in the lowest-income countries. Healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic response in the poorest countries of the world remain unprotected from the disease. This inequity is shameful and unacceptable and isn’t how the world is going to emerge from this pandemic.
J&J must help level the grossly unfair playing field of vaccine access by making their vaccine accessible and affordable for healthcare workers and high-risk people, whether or not they live in a country that was able to strike a deal with the company. If the vaccine is approved, J&J should send its first shipments to the COVAX Facility, in order to make good on its pledge of up to 500 million doses over the next couple of years. Right now, the majority of J&J’s vaccine doses are promised to high-income countries, which is plainly unfair.
J&J conducted part of their vaccine trials in South Africa, where 300 million doses of the vaccine are also being filled in vials and packaged by a commercial partner this year, yet it is not clear when the country is slated to get the mere 9 million doses they’ve been promised. The second wave of the pandemic is raging across southern Africa, and frontline healthcare workers and people at greatest risk from severe disease and death remain without the protection of a COVID-19 vaccine.
J&J must also take swift action to open up their books so that they can be held accountable on important details like pricing and supply. The corporation should follow through on its commitment to have their supposed “not-for-profit” price externally audited and must urgently publish in full the terms and conditions of the deals they have struck with countries and the COVAX Facility, not least considering the public money that paid for the development of the vaccine and the resources and people in countries around the world that have made their clinical trials possible.”
* According to data from AirFinity (27 January 2021)