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New COVID studies show promise for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine booster

A health care worker holds doses of J&J vaccines at the Gandhi Phoenix Settlement in Bhambayi township, South Africa, on Sept. 24. A study of the J&J booster shot in the country had promising results against the omicron variant.
Rajesh Jantilal
/
AFP via Getty Images
A health care worker holds doses of J&J vaccines at the Gandhi Phoenix Settlement in Bhambayi township, South Africa, on Sept. 24. A study of the J&J booster shot in the country had promising results against the omicron variant.

Two new studies of a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine booster showed promise against the omicron variant at a time when public health officials are urgently recommending booster shots against the fast-spreading variant.

One study was conducted in some 69,000 health care workers in South Africa. Results showed the vaccine reduced hospitalizations by 85% when comparing people who got two doses of the J&J vaccine to people who had a single dose.

Unlike Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two initial doses before a booster six months later, Johnson & Johnson is a single shot that can be followed by a booster dose after at least two months for people 18 and older.

The booster study was done at a time when omicron was the dominant variant in South Africa.

"This data should reassure health care workers who have not taken their booster to get vaccinated as soon as possible," said Dr. Nicholas Crisp, the deputy director general of the South African National Department of Health.

A second study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston showed that blood from people who had received booster doses of the J&J vaccine had strong immune responses to omicron in the lab — stronger even than the response produced by a booster dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The stronger the immune response in the lab, the more likely the vaccine will prove effective at preventing serious illness in the real world.

Neither study has yet appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Booster shots of Pfizer and Moderna have proved crucial to protecting against severe disease with omicron, which is causing a high rate of breakthrough infections among people who are vaccinated. Unvaccinated people remain at much higher risk of hospitalization and death.

It is still unclear how long booster protection lasts, however.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.