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

A health care worker holds doses of J&J vaccines

A health care worker holds doses of J&J vaccines at the Gandhi Phoenix Settlement in Bhambayi township, South Africa, on Sept. 24. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

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 healthcare 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 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 proven 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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