At one point, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) seemed to have a pretty good shot at becoming the leader in the COVID-19 vaccine market. Unlike rival vaccines, J&J's vaccine required only a single dose. The company even committed to selling its vaccine at cost during the pandemic, giving it a big price advantage compared to the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
But Murphy's law struck Johnson & Johnson with a vengeance. The administration of its COVID-19 vaccine was temporarily paused due to concerns about blood clotting issues. J&J's manufacturing partner, Emergent BioSolutions, had major quality control issues at its Baltimore facility, resulting in the production of J&J's vaccine being interrupted.
Because of these problems, the number of doses of J&J's vaccine given so far is only a tiny sliver of the doses given compared to the other vaccines that have received emergency use authorizations. There's a possibility that could change, though. Here's how J&J's COVID-19 vaccine is making a comeback.
Good news from Europe
Last week, a spokesperson for the European Commission told Reuters that several European Union (EU) countries have ordered 36.7 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine. This number is in addition to the 200 million doses previously ordered by EU members.
Granted, one factor behind this additional order is that AstraZeneca has faced even bigger issues than J&J has. The EU filed a lawsuit against the British drugmaker for allegedly failing to meet its supply commitments. A top European Medicines Agency official even issued a public warning that the EU avoid using AstraZeneca's vaccine because of potential blood-clotting issues.
However, the latest purchase from J&J also appears to reflect increased confidence in the company's vaccine. The healthcare giant confirmed to Reuters that discussions were being held about potentially supplying even more doses to the EU.
Johnson & Johnson also announced encouraging data last week for its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. The company reported that the vaccine generated strong neutralizing antibody levels against the delta variant and other prevalent coronavirus variants. It also said that the vaccine has provided a durable immune response through at least eight months.
The potential protection against the delta variant was especially good news. J&J stated that its vaccine produced neutralizing antibody levels against this variant that were even higher than those found for the beta variant first identified in South Africa. Chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels said: "This adds to the robust body of clinical data supporting our single-shot vaccine's ability to protect against multiple variants of concern."
It should be noted, though, that J&J's data was from blood samples obtained from only eight participants in its phase 3 clinical study and has not yet been peer-reviewed. The results showing that its vaccine provided immune response through at least eight months came from a phase 1/2a clinical study with 20 participants. This data also hasn't yet been peer-reviewed.
Even with these caveats, Johnson & Johnson's latest data are certainly positive. The company's COVID-19 vaccine could very well be proven to be effective against the delta variant and other variants of concern with long-lasting immunity.
It seems likely that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine will play an increased role in the global fight against COVID-19 over the next year or more. That's great news in light of the challenges posed by the emerging coronavirus variants.
However, don't expect the comeback for J&J's COVID-19 vaccine to make a big difference for the company's bottom line or for the performance of the healthcare stock. As previously mentioned, J&J is selling the vaccine at cost during the pandemic. Its profits won't increase over the near term as a result of the improving scenario for its vaccine.
What about over the longer run after the pandemic is over? I suspect that it's still unlikely that Johnson & Johnson will be among the top winners in the COVID-19 vaccine market.
For one thing, its efficacy doesn't compare well against the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Other companies, including Moderna and Novavax, also plan to develop combo COVID-flu vaccines. If they're successful, J&J could be left behind. But with a massive product portfolio that generates over $80 billion in revenue each year, Johnson & Johnson can easily weather being a laggard in one market.