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This is how the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is different from Pfizer and Moderna’s shots

The first two COVID vaccines approved in the U.S. both use first-of-a-kind technology called messenger RNA. Johnson & Johnson’s new vaccine is different, and the technology it uses may have helped give it two advantages: It only requires a single dose, and it can be stored for months in a refrigerator instead of an ultra-cold freezer.

All three vaccines are based on the genetic instructions for building the COVID spike protein, the part of the virus that invades human cells. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna inject a solution containing RNA into your arm, which instructs your body to begin making a harmless piece of the protein that then triggers the immune system so it can mount a strong response if you later encounter the actual virus. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine works in a similar way, but stores the genetic instructions in DNA instead. The gene is inserted in a modified cold virus called an adenovirus. The company used the same approach to make its new Ebola vaccine.

Because DNA isn’t as fragile as RNA, and the adenovirus around it provides extra protection, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is sturdier than the other vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have to be frozen for long-term storage, but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored in a regular refrigerator for as long as three months. That makes logistics easier everywhere, but especially in the developing world. “We know that if we can get enough of this manufactured it’ll be much easier to send out into the field, not only in the U.S., but across the globe, which is really important,” says Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and professor at Virginia Tech who previously worked at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Because this pandemic isn’t over for us until it’s over for everyone.”

The vaccine was also designed to work with just a single shot, another crucial factor that can help speed up the pace of vaccinations. “In other vaccines that we use it in, the adenovirus vehicle tends to really help a person mount a pretty substantial response that that is fairly lengthy,” Lee says. “So we have some more experience with that to know that we can expect enough with one shot.”

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