J&J’s Science Is Well Positioned To Deal With Coronavirus Variants

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CNBC Exclusive: CNBC Transcript: Johnson & Johnson Chairman & CEO Alex Gorsky speaks with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” today about their science being well positioned to deal with coronavirus variants.

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MEG TIRRELL: Hey Joe. That special guest is J&J Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky. Alex, thanks for being with us this morning. You know, I was just watching our interview from last January with Dr. Paul Stoffels when he told us that you guys had started working on this vaccine for this new virus, a little more than a year later, here you are, and you've designed this as a pandemic vaccine, one shot, fridge stable. What do you hope and expect this vaccine will do in terms of having an impact on this pandemic.

ALEX GORSKY: Well Meg, Becky, Joe, Andrew, it's great to be with you today and look this is an incredibly proud day for Johnson & Johnson. To think that only 12 months ago, these were literally numbers that came across in an email, discussing the genomic sequencing of COVID-19, and here we are a year later, on the cusp of literally having 100 million doses delivered in the United States by the end of June, close to a billion around the world by the end of this year is a, is just a remarkable achievement and while our doctors, our scientists, our engineers are incredibly proud and humbled, I think it also gives a lot of hope to our country and to the world to know that look that means 100 more people as Joe just outlined are actually vaccinated. It requires minimal refrigeration and we're doing it on a not-for-profit basis to make sure that we can get as much access and availability as we can. And of course, the faster we can get everybody vaccinated, we lower the chance for these mutations and variations and hopefully bring an end to this pandemic.

TIRRELL: Well speaking of getting this out fast, you know the manufacturing here, we understand that almost 4 million doses are going out this week and it's going to look a little lumpy over the next couple of weeks here in the US, none going out next week, but 20 million by the end of March, you know, ramping up the manufacturing supply chain in a year is no simple feat, either. Have there been bumps in the road and are you confident now that despite this kind of lumpiness at the beginning, those bumps are ironed out

GORSKY: Well Meg, as you mentioned, look while the science and the biology, the chemistry is certainly challenging in, in bringing a vaccine out and discovering and developing under these timelines, the engineering feat of actually producing it is just as challenging and, and we've been working very, very closely with partners around the world, you know as you just mentioned we're literally on the in the process of delivering about 4 million doses here in the United States as we speak, that'll go to 20 million doses by the end of March, and 100 million by the end of June, and we'll see it progressively increase. Whenever you do something like this, it's never a linear shot you're always going to have but I think more than anything else that should reinforce our commitment to quality, to following the right processes, and we're very confident in our ability to hit the objectives that I just mentioned. And, and again this is when we're talking, the nice part about our vaccine is that when we're talking doses, that's actually the numbers of patients that are ultimately going to get a shot in their arms so we're, we're absolutely committed and we won't stop till we make it happen.

TIRRELL: How does J&J look at the situation of comparing these vaccines. We’re told by public health officials, Dr. Fauci and others, the important thing is this prevents hospitalizations and deaths, but you hear the conversations from folks saying, 95% versus 72%, I want the 95%. How does J&J look at that dynamic.

GORSKY: Well look, all of these vaccines are incredibly effective and if you would have asked, I believe any of the companies would we achieve these kind of efficacy endpoints, I think it would have been on the top end of our expectations 12 months ago. What, what I really think is important to know about our vaccine is number one is that our clinical trial, as you know, started in September of 2020. If you look at the incidence rate of COVID-19, not only in the United States but around the world, that's unfortunately when we really started seeing that second wave so the incidence rate went up at a very, very high rate. Secondly, we conducted our clinical trial on a global basis so about 40 plus percent of our patients were here in the United States, but almost 40% were in Latin America and 15% were in South Africa. And what's really important to know is that of those patients in South Africa, over 90% have the South African variant, which, of course, you know, prior to this point in time in the summer of 2020, the incidence rate was much lower, the same with the P .2 variant, as you know Dr. Scott Gottlieb has talked about it here on this program, it occurring in Latin America was also at a very high rate. So, our data actually includes these most challenging pernicious virulent strains and what we saw was an 85% effectiveness rate in the severe disease and really importantly when you think of what do you want from a vaccine, you don't want to go to the hospital, and you certainly don't want to die, and what we have seen as far as 100% efficacy in those parameters again with a single shot. So, as you well know, all of you talk to analysts on this program each and every day, there's a lot of different ways to try and do comparisons but when you really look at what's the objective here, keeping people out of the hospital, keeping people from dying, we believe this is an incredibly important tool to be added to healthcare systems, let alone for patients around the world.

JOE KERNEN: Hey Alex, a couple of things, the coronavirus variants that are bound to happen, that we see now and into the future. We're so agile at all this molecular biology now. Is there an advantage to the messenger RNA in terms of quickly adapting to different strains or can you do it with, with the adeno vector, and then I have a follow up on that.

GORSKY: Yeah, well, Joe, I think, I think both of these platforms, as you well know from your background, the great news is the agility, the flexibility that we have to actually literally be designing software real time to help address some of these new and emerging coronavirus variants . So in this case, I believe the other companies are already working on options for the variants, again we're quite confident based upon the clinical data that we already have with our vaccine that we're going to see a very robust response but we're simultaneously doing the exact same thing. You know, not knowing what exact path this virus will take longer term.

KERNEN: And the other question, all along people have wondered whether the messenger RNA delivery system would get the same T cell response that we know that adeno-mediated vaccines get, and I've even had it pointed out to me that the people that are still alive, there are a few from the Spanish Flu, they still have T cell immunity to the Spanish so it's more longer lasting. Is it better, the adeno. Do you know is there any data that shows the adeno vector is better at T cell immunity than the messenger RNA or are they the same.

GORSKY: Well Joe, we're really encouraged by some of the early data that we have and the clinical data that we develop about the T cell and B cell response. Because you're right, there doesn't always seem to be this exact correlation between antibodies and T cell and B cell response, particularly with some of these coronavirus variants. So, look, this is an area that's going to need additional study before we understand it completely. But as we know these are very complex systems. It's not just one aspect that you know is having the impact on the virus. But we think this combined approach with the Adenovirus, combined with a spike protein is clearly related to the very robust results that we're seeing even in these most challenging strains.

BECKY QUICK: Hey Alex, we mentioned that this is different than Pfizer and Moderna’s in that you only need one shot, not two. But it's also different because it doesn't need to be held at some of those same deep freeze levels, some of the things that we've talked about that make it a little more complicated for some of those other shots. We know that this is really good news for places like rural communities where maybe you don't have that. Maybe for a doctor's office where you can give vaccinations versus some of the other places that they're held. Maybe for other countries that don't have the same resources that we have. I know right now you're rolling this out in the same way that Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines are already being rolled out, but is there any movement afoot of any government officials or anybody else talk to you about eventually targeting Johnson & Johnson's for places that all of those different things would be maybe a benefit?

GORSKY: Well you know, Becky, from the very beginning, our scientists were focused on how could we best address the pandemic. And in the parameters that we came up with, we needed to have a safe vaccine, we needed to have an effective vaccine, we needed to have a convenient vaccine ideally with one dose, and clearly one that logistically would require minimal refrigeration over what's ordinarily expected with a vaccine. And so when we were selecting our first candidates, you know, we use the, you might say, carpenter’s approach where you try to measure about 10 times and cut once or twice. We did our very best to really maximize all of those different aspects and I think that's what's resulted in the kind of profile that we see right now. And absolutely, we're working with the U.S. government, we're partnering and collaborating with them, and certainly in the United States if you're talking rural areas – but think of it outside the United States, think of it, particularly in some of the developing parts of the world, we're working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, where you know that kind of logistical challenge is almost insurmountable. The administrative challenge of having to monitor and track multiple doses. So again, we think today's news is certainly great for America, but we think it's equally great news for countries around the world. And we also know that really until we vaccinate as many people as we can around the world, we're not going to be going back to the kind of travel to the kind of life that we knew before this pandemic.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: Hey Alex, curious what you think of this. You know, and I recognize that the efficacy studies that you've done relative to Moderna and Pfizer may be apples to oranges in certain respects and getting this vaccine just into arms broadly is the ultimate goal. To the extent, though, that there's anybody watching right now that's having any reluctance or reticence and thinking you know what maybe I want to get the Pfizer, Moderna because I'm hearing that the efficacy is better if I can get the second shot and whatnot. I've also heard from doctors who say you know what, get the Johnson & Johnson shot now, I know they're working on a booster potentially later, that may be something that you'd get later or potentially even that you might boost it with a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine later, depending on the results of these tests. What do you say to that?

GORSKY: What I would say, Andrew, is get the first shot that you can get. I mean consistent with what Dr. Fauci even said this week and Peter Marks of the FDA, other experts in this field, it's all of these vaccines are incredibly safe and very, very effective. And what's most important right now at this particular point in the virus to stop these other mutations – you know, every time this virus replicates itself, it's going to likely change to a certain degree. And so the faster that we can get people vaccinated – and by the way, the effectiveness results on all these is very, very high. And we know that that can reduce these additional variations. I think it's great news, I couldn't be more proud of the biopharmaceutical industry. What a golden moment for our industry that's invested billions of dollars over decades to be here, where we're now in a position to Joe's earlier comment, where we can simultaneously be working on additional formulations that, you know, we know could actually increase potentially, you know, what we're currently seeing. So, again, I would say get your first shot. These are all very effective. Know that the industry, and certainly us at Johnson & Johnson, we're committed to being prepared as well for the future. And look longer term, Andrew, I'm also excited about the potential application for these in areas such as cancer or in areas such as Alzheimer's disease. We're learning so much about these platforms as somebody that's been in this industry for more than 30 years, If I see the partnering the clinical development, and again, the potential of some of these new approaches, I couldn't be more excited.

TIRRELL: Well, Alex we're just about out of time with you so I'm going to bundle up two quick questions for you right here at the end. One is that you showed some tantalizing data suggesting the vaccine might actually reduce asymptomatic infection. Maybe cut down on transmission. When do you expect to have more definitive data on that and also, when are you going to get your shot?

GORSKY: Well of course that's the Holy Grail. If we can show that our vaccine let alone the other vaccines actually stopped transmission, you know, for asymptomatic patients that will really demonstrate that, you know, we can put a major dent in this pandemic going forward. Our early data is quite encouraging, but we've got to gather more. We would expect to gather that literally in the coming months as we continue to follow these patients in the trial. And look, I'm going to get my vaccine as soon as I possibly can. Of course, I'm going to wait or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But as soon as I'm authorized based upon the parameters established by the CDC and the government, I'll be first in line. And look, I hope everybody in our country follows and again, the more people that we can get vaccinated around the world, the better we're all going to be.

TIRRELL: Alright, Alex, we really appreciate you being with us this morning. Thanks so much.

GORSKY: Thank you very much. Have a great day.