Is the report on Johnson & Johnson's vaccine good or disappointing?
The first day reaction was conflicting. Harvard Medical School professor and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande tweeted, "The JNJ vaccine results indicate we miraculously have at least 3 safe, highly effective vaccines. Headlines focus on the 66% overall efficacy. But the big deal is that the single-dose vax was 100% effective against severe disease after day 49, and 85% effective by day 28."
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted, "The J&J vaccine turns in a fantastic result. We now have 3 highly effective vaccines. This vaccine showed sustained (and increasing!) immune protection over time, perhaps from a robust early induction of memory immune cells (CD4 and CD8). The protection was strong and durable. This one shot vaccine was highly effective at preventing severe disease, even with new variants. The milieu of disease now is more complex; even in U.S. - trials done today are running into more mutated cases. Make no mistake: this is an important and wonderful development."
Meanwhile Stat news reports:
Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, called the results "disappointing," but added that a vaccine that prevents the most serious outcomes, such as hospitalization and death, is still valuable. "It reinforces how lucky we were that the first two were more effective," he added.
Who is right, the "disappointing" guy or the "fantastic" and "miraculously" people? One way to tell might be to allow the market and price mechanism to work. I—and a lot of other people—would happily pay significant money to be vaccinated with a 95 percent effective vaccine like the Pfizer or Moderna shots. I'd also pay to be vaccinated with a 66 percent effective vaccine like the Johnson & Johnson one, but I'd pay less, since it would make me less confident in my ability to do things without getting Covid-19.
How much less? The difference in price between two items is an imperfect but nonetheless often useful measure of how useful the items are. The price carries information about value. If people will pay about as much for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as they will for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, then it's a pretty good sign that the "3 safe, highly effective" interpretation is accurate. But if people will pay a lot less for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than they will for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, then that's a pretty good sign the "disappointing" interpretation is accurate.
As things are currently structured, the vaccine buyers aren't individuals seeking personal protection but rather governments seeking population-wide control of the virus. From a government perspective, 66% may be almost as good as 95%, but from an individual perspective, things may look differently. There may be equity or efficiency reasons for having these vaccines bought and distributed by governments rather than by individuals. But a downside of suspending the price mechanism and the individual-level market for this product is that it makes it harder to get a definitive answer about just how the Johnson & Johnson vaccine compares in value to the competing alternative products.