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Epidemiologist’s tweet about Johnson & Johnson vaccine sets off a ‘pun party’

A vial of the Johnson &  Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
A vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

After an exhausting year filled with bad news, Julia Marcus wanted to give people something to chuckle about on the Internet.

But she had no idea that the response to a tongue-in-cheek tweet she posted this week about the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would capture so much attention.

Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, shared a picture of a graph on Twitter Wednesday that showed how the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “against Severe/Critical COVID-19″ increased over time in the 56 days after vaccination.

It was a screen shot from a 75-slide presentation posted to the US Food and Drug Administration’s website, which was shared with her by a friend who attended a recent meeting about the emergency authorization of the vaccine.

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The image featured a thin black line, surrounded by heavy gray shading rising toward the top of the graph.

None of that sounds all that funny. The image, however, looked conspicuously like an anatomical part that can’t be repeated in a family newspaper. That wasn’t lost on Marcus, or the hundreds of commenters with double entendres at the ready.

“J&J vaccine is rising to the occasion,” Marcus wrote with a wink. Who said epidemiologists don’t have a sense of humor?

Within hours, the post had been shared more than 6,000 times, and tipped beyond 30,000 “likes.” Hundreds of people started weighing in and making their own lighthearted comments about what, exactly, the image resembled. You can read all of the replies here (be warned, many are NSFW).

Reached by phone, Marcus said since everyone has been talking about COVID-19 and vaccines for months on end, and the news has been relentlessly bleak, she wanted to lighten people’s spirits.

“People are struggling right now, and I think people need to laugh. That was really my sole intention,” she said. “I think people love a good pun.”

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But the response, she said, was a bit surprising.

“I hadn’t really predicted that,” Marcus said. “I can’t really keep up with the response. But it looks like a pun party.”

Her tweet had an unanticipated benefit many commenters noted. By using a bawdy joke to convey important information about the effectiveness of the latest vaccine, it could boost people’s confidence in getting the shot.

“You laugh,” one person tweeted, “but I argue this chart is gonna reach more people who need to see it than a chart that does not look this way!”

Another person said it was a clever way to promote the vaccine, while a third applauded the use of humor in a public health message.

Marcus’s research primarily focuses on HIV. But during the pandemic she’s been writing about the “importance of a harm reduction approach to the prevention of coronavirus transmission, with lessons learned from the HIV epidemic,” according to Harvard Medical School’s website.

Marcus said her tweet was merely meant to bring a bit of levity to a dark time. But if the graph helps spread information about getting vaccinated and draws attention to the “very impressive data,” it’s a win-win, she said.

“The more people who are seeing the amazing efficacy data on these vaccines the better,” she said, “and I’m happy to do my small part.”

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It’s not that small.

Steve Annear is in pursuit of stories so odd or unconventional you’ll want to bring them up at dinner parties. Have you seen something you’d like answers to? A giant door? Or perhaps a graveyard of rocking horses, a strange stone marker on an island, or old trophies under a bridge? Let us know by reaching out.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.