The U.S. government’s recommended pause on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine due to a rare side effect will remain at least another week, after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel decided Wednesday it needed time to evaluate more data.
With more than 3.7 million J&J shots administered in the two and a half weeks before the April 13 halt, additional information on the rare blood clotting condition is expected. But some health experts fear prolonging the pause may do more harm than good.
“When you have a long pause that’s not rapidly resolved, it stirs worry and fear on the part of people who are already vaccine hesitant,” said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
Health experts not only worry people will become more hesitant about getting the J&J vaccine but fear people may avoid COVID-19 vaccines altogether. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are a different technology from J&J’s and one by AstraZeneca, which also has been associated with similar blood clots in Europe.
“You got to worry about that,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “I’m not sure that everyone out there distinguished between the mRNA vaccines (from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) and the adenovirus vaccines (from J&J and AstraZeneca).”
So far, six women out of more than 7 million people who’ve received the J&J vaccine reported developinga rare combination of blood clots and low platelet counts within two weeks of getting vaccinated. One died and another is hospitalized in critical condition.
One man developed the same condition in an earlier trial, and health officials say an eighth case in a woman with similar symptoms is under investigation.
“The pause on some level doesn’t make sense,” said Dr. Jonathan Baktari, medical director and CEO of e7 Health, a preventive health and wellness company. “The risk of the J&J vaccine is minimal compared to the risk of dying from COVID if you get it.”
The CDC and Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the blood clots appear to be rare and recommended the pause out of an “abundance of caution” to alert health care providers and investigate the cases.
“Did we pull the trigger too soon on this because it was such a rare event?” said Dr. Anthony Fauci during a Tuesday White House briefing. “Our FDA is internationally known for their capability of making sure that we have the safest products out there. … You want to make sure that safety is the important issue here. … So, I don’t think it was pulling the trigger too quickly.”
But a pause sends a serious message to the public, Caplan said, which makes it hard for someAmericans not to panic. Instead of recommending a pause, health officials could have announced the investigation and alerted health officials but allowed individuals to decide if they wantedto take the small risk and take the J&J vaccine.
“If (the CDC’s advisory panel) finds out there’s a one in a million chance of dying from this vaccine … I’d still be using it even if I knew it was associated with a blood clot,” Caplan said.
The halt sends an alarming message not only to people in the U.S. but also to countries around the world where J&J’s is the only vaccine available to combat the coronavirus, Emanuel said.
“The U.S. can afford to have a pause because we have other vaccines, which are doing 95% of the work, but the world can’t afford (it),” he said. “The AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines are critical because of their ease of storage and their one-stop approach.”
The longer the pause lasts, Caplan said, the more it could damage the public’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccines and ultimately hinder government efforts to combat the pandemic.
“I’m really worried that it will cause grave damage in the effort to get close to herd immunity with vaccines,” he said. “I don’t think the message has been clear that these are minor risks with this blood clot issue and that the prudent thing to do is to keep vaccinating.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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