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Vaccine Update: Making Sense Of The (Critical) Data On The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

Last year did a lot to crush my usually optimistic outlook on the future. I experienced a level of cynicism I haven’t felt since high school, a time when I only ever assumed things would get worse and rarely made an effort to change that. It was bad. Global pandemics have that effect on people.

I still made it a point to note when positive things actually happened, especially when it came to news of the vaccine. That marked the ultimate turning point. A vaccine was always going to be our best weapon in terms of ending the pandemic, regardless of what the anti-vaxx crowd says. The fact that we now have two vaccines at our disposal is genuinely encouraging.

Yes, I know the distribution of these vaccines has been a mess, to say the least.

I also don’t deny that the emergence of new mutant strains of the virus could hinder their effectiveness.

Those are legitimate concerns. We should all be worried about how this will impact our ability to finally end this awful pandemic that has caused so much damage. At the same time, we should also be hopeful. Believe me, I’m trying.

That hope got another boost recently when it was announced that a third vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson had completed its final round of trials. Having a third weapon against this virus can only help. In addition, this one has the advantage of being a one-shot vaccine, as opposed to the two required by Moderna and Pfizer.

While that’s good news for those who hate needles, there is a trade-off. According to the research reported by the media, the vaccine is effective. However, the numbers aren’t quite as promising as what we got with the first two. This is what CNN reported.

CNN: Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is 66% effective in global trial, but 85% effective against severe disease, company says

Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 single-shot vaccine was shown to be 66% effective in preventing moderate and severe disease in a global Phase 3 trial, but 85% effective against severe disease, the company announced Friday.

The vaccine was 72% effective against moderate and severe disease in the US, the company said.

It’s a striking difference from vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, and it may give pause to people uncertain about which vaccine to get or when they can get one. The vaccines already on the market in the US are about 95% effective overall against symptomatic Covid-19, with perhaps even higher efficacy against severe cases.

But experts say the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will still be useful against the pandemic in the United States and around the world.

I know the numbers are the only thing that stands out in this piece. That seems to be the main sticking point for most reports about this virus.

Those numbers are still good. The 66% may not be as promising as the 90% promised by the other two, but that’s still more effective than a standard flu vaccine. On top of that, being a one-shot vaccine that can be easily stored in a typical refrigerator will help even more. It means more of this vaccine can get to people, especially in places with less-than-ideal health infrastructure.

This will definitely help in terms of ending or at least mitigating this pandemic. However, there’s one other critical point of data that’s worth highlighting with this vaccine. It’s in some of the reports, but it’s often difficult to discern, mostly because the media’s track record with reporting science is not that great.

For this vaccine, it’s boils down to certain degrees within the data. It’s true the Johnson & Johnson vaccine won’t give you the same protection you’d get from the other two. There’s a good chance that, even after getting this vaccine, you could still become very sick with COVID-19. However, and this is the key, it will help ensure that you don’t become severely ill and die.

That’s not just a sales pitch. According to the research, there were no hospitalizations or deaths among people in the vaccine arm. That may mean some did get sick. Some might have even spread it. However, they didn’t get so sick that they ended up in the hospital. They all survived.

To me, at least, that’s the most important result. Getting sick is one thing. Getting so sick that you die in a hospital bed is something else entirely. One is a bad flu. The other is debilitating illness. That alone makes this vaccine a critical tool in the effort to end this pandemic.

I admit that if I had a choice between the three, I would choose Moderna or Pfizer. I actually know someone who got the Pfizer vaccine and their experience gives me great assurance that it works as intended.

However, if those two were not available and all I could get was the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, I’d take it in a heartbeat. It could mean the difference between being sick and being deathly ill. In a pandemic, that’s the only difference that matters. To all the doctors, nurses, participants, and health care workers who were part of this effort, I sincerely thank you. A lot of lives will be saved because of this vaccine. That makes you true heroes in a world that badly needs them.

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Small Silver Linings: The Pandemic Is Killing The Flu

Things are pretty awful right now. Let’s not underscore that.

A global pandemic is still raging and world is in turmoil because of it. Even with multiple vaccines available, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can honestly say it’s over.

As bad as that is, it’s still important to find some silver linings. You don’t want to undermine how bad things are, but you also want to embrace whatever positives you can. Even if they don’t warrant the suffering, they can help us process the overall impact.

To that end, I want to highlight something that’s easy to overlook in the midst of a raging pandemic. This disease we’re fighting is awful. It’s killing way too many people and our efforts to stop it have been mixed, at best. However, those efforts have brought other indirect benefits.

One of them has to do with the seasonal flu. Every year, it seems, some nasty bug seems to go around in certain areas. I’ve certainly experienced it. I’ve endured the flu before and most people agree. It’s not fun. It’s an experience we can all do without.

Now, due to the efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the flu has been effectively kneecapped this season. According to some recent data from the Center for Disease Control, this has been the mildest flu season in years.

CDC: Decreased Influenza Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Following widespread adoption of community mitigation measures to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the percentage of U.S. respiratory specimens submitted for influenza testing that tested positive decreased from >20% to 2.3% and has remained at historically low interseasonal levels (0.2% versus 1–2%). Data from Southern Hemisphere countries also indicate little influenza activity.

Again, and it’s worth belaboring, this silver lining does not make up for all the terrible things the COVID-19 pandemic has incurred. An overall decline in flu cases hardly makes up for all the suffering we’ve endured in this pandemic.

At the very least, it shows that there’s real merit in embracing these public safety measures. There’s real benefit to regularly washing your hands, wearing a mask, and not congregating in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

It has certainly changed how I look at public health. In the past, I’ve actually been sick and gone to class or work. I tried to endure the illness, not understanding just how much it affected others around me. This pandemic has changed that.

Now, when I’m sick, I’m making damn sure I stay home. I’m also washing my hands a lot more regularly and thoroughly. I imagine I’m not alone in that sentiment. These are all hard lessons that we’ve all paid a terrible price to learn. At the same time, we have that much more reason to endure and overcome this awful pandemic. Beyond simply beating this dreaded disease, emerging in a world where the flu is lesson common is definitely a more appealing world overall.

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A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

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As a general rule, I always watch the news with a skeptical eye. That’s not just because we live in an era of fake news, misguided outrage, and conspiracy theories about shape-shifting lizard people. I’ve learned from time, experience, and observation that the news can only ever tell part of a story as it’s happening. The full story never comes out until much later. Sometimes, it’s years later.

That’s not easy when following stories like the coronavirus. Unlike other major news stories that make headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a serious issue. This is something the public needs to know about. The coronavirus is not just a nasty cold. It’s killing people all over the world. That’s an indisputable fact and one that warrants serious concern.

At the same time, there’s a context worth noting. As bad as the coronavirus is, it’s not the second coming of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. This is not the kind of disease that will turn the planet into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the mold of a Stephen King novel. It’s still serious, but it’s not a global cataclysm. Even if it ends up killing millions, there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet.

Human beings adapt.

Human beings survive.

It’s one of the few things we’re good at.

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

We know this because in late 2019, the first vaccine for Ebola was approved for use by the FDA and it barely showed up in the headlines. Considering how much panic the Ebola outbreak caused several years ago, this is quite a triumph. It shows just how quickly our current system can respond to these diseases.

Again, there’s still room for improvement and accessibility to medicine is a major issue, but the coronavirus is not some new form of disease. It’s a virus. We know what viruses are. We have the technology to study, treat, and combat them, more so than we have at any point in human history. Considering how much better we’ve gotten since the heyday of the AIDS pandemic, I say that’s reason to be hopeful.

That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. When the CDC issues a warning about the coronavirus, we should take it seriously. At the same time, we should take comfort in the knowledge that we live in an era where human ingenuity has limited the suffering caused by these devastating plagues.

As with Ebola, we will eventually develop a treatment for the coronavirus. It won’t be perfect, but it will limit the death and suffering it causes. It also won’t make the news because it’s just not scary or dire enough. At this point, finding effective treatments for diseases is so mundane it barely qualifies as news. That’s an objectively good thing.

I hope that helps provide a bit of context and hope to the news surrounding the coronavirus. It’s still worth taking seriously, but we shouldn’t let grim headlines distract us from the great things that humanity achieves when faced with a challenge.

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