Minnesota accelerates COVID vaccines with Johnson & Johnson shot, new variants on horizon

Minnesota's coronavirus vaccination efforts accelerated dramatically this week, as the threat of new virus variants looms and a third vaccine candidate moves forward.

Minnesota had given at least first doses to 345,367 people as of Tuesday, the latest date available because of reporting lags. That's a 130,000-person improvement from the previous week, after the state had a slow start to the vaccination process.

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson came forward with early results that show its single-dose vaccine is effective against the virus, though it doesn't offer as much protection as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently being used.

"This really tells us we have a value-added additional vaccine candidate," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, told reporters Friday morning.

Johnson & Johnson plans to seek an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next week, the company said in a release. Approval could come in late February.

Johnson & Johnson said its vaccine prevented 66 percent of moderate to severe illnesses and was 85 percent effective in stopping the most severe cases. The single-shot vaccine has long been considered a game-changer because it doesn't require second appointments and can be stored at refrigerated temperatures.

Minnesota trial

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was one of two that had Minnesota trials, the other being a HealthPartners trial with AstraZeneca. 

Dr. Frank Rhame, the Allina Health infectious disease specialist who ran J&J's Minnesota trial, said the preliminary results suggest it's far more effective than the flu shot, which Americans are encouraged to get every year.

But will people want a single-dose vaccine that's effective, or wait for a two-shot vaccine that offers more protection?

"There's a benefit in this vaccine, for sure," Rhame said. "Obviously if you’re six months away from Moderna or Pfizer, you’d snap at the chance at a vaccine fast. If you’re a month away, what are you going to do?"

Whether people who take the J&J shot would later be eligible for a different vaccine will also be a factor, he said.

'Wake-up call'

The Johnson & Johnson news comes as Fauci issued a "wake-up call" about virus variants circulating in the country, at least one of which -- the South Africa variant -- appears to be tougher to vaccinate against. 

Another variant from the United Kingdom could be the dominant strain of virus in the U.S. by late March, health officials cautioned.

"I believe we should be treating every case as if it's a variant during this pandemic right now," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.

Rhame said the variants "immensely" complicated the race for vaccines. Minnesota identified the first known U.S. case of the Brazil variant.

"The more we can shut down the total number of transmissions, the better off we're going to be with respect to variants," he said.

Minnesota has lagged in first doses

Minnesota has lagged other states in using first doses of the available vaccines. As of Friday, it ranked 41st in the country in the number of first doses used per capita, according to the CDC's tracker.

Minnesota is better at using second doses, ranking 15th.

The state's health commissioner, Jan Malcolm, said Thursday that health officials were re-evaluating Minnesota's pilot sites for seniors, teachers and child care workers. She did not commit to using the lottery system again next week, after 226,000 seniors signed up for 9,425 shots this week.

Instead, state officials are trying to get more shots to clinics and pharmacies, Malcolm said.

About 6,000 Minnesotans got their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at the state’s mass vaccination sites, including 3,200 teachers and child care workers at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, according to a state official. 

The state aims to vaccinate 15,000 Twin Cities teachers and child care workers at the pop-up vaccination site at Roy Wilkins Auditorium over the next few days. The site is not open to the general public, but only those teachers and child care workers who were contacted by their district to set up an appointment in advance.

Thousands of additional teachers, child care workers and seniors will get their shots at other community vaccination pilot clinics across the state through Monday.