A: The active ingredient in the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson-Janssen (also called the J&J vaccine) is a genetically modified version of a virus that normally causes the common cold.
The vaccine also contains two ingredients to balance its pH, ethanol, two ingredients that keep it from getting clumpy, salt, and water.
It does NOT contain human cells (including fetal cells), the virus that causes COVID-19, any animal by-products including pork products, any common food allergen (including shellfish, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, etc), latex, aluminum, preservatives, or microchips. It is not grown in eggs. For a list of more things that it does NOT contain, scroll to the bottom. This vaccine is manufactured using a human fetal cell line. More below on what that means, too.
The J&J vaccine received Emergency Use Authorization from the United States FDA, and is recommended by the CDC for persons age 18 years or older, including people who are immunocompromised, pregnant, breastfeeding, and have comorbidities. The only people the CDC does not recommend this vaccine for at this time are those under age 18 and people who have a known severe allergy to one of its ingredients (which are detailed below).
What’s in the J&J/Janssen vaccine:
🧪 The active ingredient in the J&J vaccine is a genetically modified virus (adenovirus type 26, specifically).
This is a virus that normally infects humans, causing the common cold. The genes of the adenovirus have been manipulated in two ways. First, it cannot replicate (or make copies of itself–that is, it can’t give you a case of the common cold). Second, some genes have been inserted into the adenovirus’ genetic code. These allow it to serve as the delivery system to get a copy of the critical spike protein in front of the cells of our immune system, which memorize it. If your immune system ever finds this specific protein floating around your body again, it will go into destroy-with-prejudice mode, reducing the chances that the *real* COVID-19 virus can infect you.
The virus in the vaccine is the adenovirus, not SARS-COV-2. This vaccine (and all the vaccines for COVID-19) cannot give you COVID-19. It’s biologically impossible.
🧪 The J&J vaccine includes two ingredients to balance the pH of the vaccine to match that of your body:
– citric acid monohydrate: a mild organic acid, and notably what makes lemons taste tart.
– trisodium citrate dihydrate: also sometimes known as sodium citrate, a mild base most often used as a food flavoring. Check the ingredients of Jell-O or lemonade mix to find it. It’s also used to remove limescale from boilers! So versatile!
🧪 The J&J vaccine contains 3 ingredients called stabilizers. These keep the various components from separating or breaking down.
– Ethanol: Keeps the adenovirus from breaking down before it’s injected. That’s the same type of alcohol in a martini. It is a very tiny amount of ethanol. It will not make you feel intoxicated.
– Polysorbate 80: an emulsifier commonly found in foods and cosmetics. Emulsifiers keep mixtures from separating.
– 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD): a sugar molecule that helps keep things liquid.
🧪 And, the J&J vaccine contains water and salt, specifically:
– sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid. These two chemicals combine in the vial to form water and sodium chloride, aka table salt.
Note that these buffers, stabilizers, and salts are also ingredients in many other drugs, including other vaccines. The general methods used to create this vaccine are similar to those used to manufacture several other vaccines that have been on the market for a long time.
Other human vaccines using recombinant DNA tech include ones for pneumonia and meningococcus, as well as a couple of the flu vaccines currently available (specifically, FluBlok Quadrivalent–which you might have gotten if you’re allergic to eggs). A vaccine for Ebola that uses this very same virus as a vector was approved for use in Europe in July 2020.
From the FDA briefing docs, “The Ad26 vector expressing the SARS-CoV-2 S protein is grown in PER.C6® TetR Cell Line, in media containing amino acids and no animal-derived proteins. After propagation, the vaccine is processed through several purification steps, formulated with inactive ingredients and filled into vials.”
What does that mean? J&J’s vaccine is manufactured using a human cell line to make the modified adenovirus. This is necessary because we don’t have the technology to just “3D print” viruses. We need to recruit some kind of cell to host them, because viruses are obligate parasites. They require a host cell to replicate in. In this case, the cells used to make the virus are a human fetal cell line. In 1985, scientists copied a cell from the retina of an 18-week fetus. That cell has been copied in a lab over and over all these decades. This is called a cell line. Cultures of this cell line are literally a bunch of identical replicated cells growing in a dish in a lab. 🧫 They are used today to host the production of the modified virus.
This is quite different from the process used to make the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which do not use cells of any kind in manufacturing–a first in the vaccine world.
The cells used to make the J&J vaccine do not actually contain any cells from the original fetus, are not alive, and are certainly *not* cloned fetuses! After the cells produce the modified virus, the virus is extracted from the cell culture and purified before being incorporated into the vaccine formula with the other ingredients. The final product contains no human cells, cell fragments, or human tissue at all.
We recognize that this is a difficult issue for some. The Vatican has issued formal guidance stating that the use of these vaccines is ethically permissible and does not constitute cooperation with abortion. For those people who find the use of human cell lines objectionable, the vaccine from Pfizer has used no fetal cell lines in any stage of development or production.
What IS NOT in the J&J/Janssen vaccine:
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no human tissue or cells, including fetal cells, blood products, etc. It is manufactured using a human cell line but the final product does not actually contain any of those cells or parts of them.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no other animal tissue or any derivative of animal tissue.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no SARS-CoV-2 virus. You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine does contain a genetically modified adenovirus, but it cannot replicate in your body or give you the common cold.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or anything similar to it.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no common food allergens such as milk, wheat, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, or shellfish, or their by-products.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no pork products or by-products.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no thimerosal, mercury, or aluminum.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no preservatives.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no egg and is not manufactured using eggs.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no latex, and the vials do not have latex stoppers.
⛔ The J&J/Janssen vaccine contains no microchips. Sometimes, depending on your health system, syringes have a microchip on the outside that is scanned for quick input to a digital health record. This microchip is permanently attached to the syringe and can not enter your body.
For this post, we drew on the great work at @Unbiased Science Podcast, who have an infographic about the J&J vaccine ingredients!
As well as the FDA briefing documentation for the vaccine
The Vatican statement on the use of COVID-19 vaccines involving fetal cell lines
And if you want to know what’s in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we did those ones previously.