Vaccines Are Still Overwhelmingly Our Best Weapon Against COVID

The national and global vaccination effort to combat COVID-19 suffered a notable setback on Monday morning. According to The New York Times, production of the vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson has been put on hold over health concerns for those who have already received this specific inoculation.

“Federal health officials on Tuesday called for a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, saying they are reviewing reports of six U.S. cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in people after receiving the vaccine,” reports the Times. “All six cases occurred among women between the ages of 18 and 48, and symptoms occurred six to 13 days after vaccination, according to a statement issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

While officials from those agencies state these occurrences are “extremely rare,” they have recommended that anyone who has received the Johnson & Johnson injection who experiences severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks of being vaccinated should contact their doctor.

Later on Monday morning, the Biden administration announced that all vaccination sites in the U.S. will temporarily suspend the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The FDA and CDC held a press conference on Monday seeking to assure the population that the risk to them is extremely low, and that all steps are being taken to address the issue. Some 190 million doses have been administered to date, according to the CDC (although many of these still require a future second shot). The number of people adversely affected so far, while of great concern, is a fantastically small fraction out of the main.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been popular for a number of reasons. It requires only one injection to reach maximum protection — around 86 percent — and does not require the deep cold storage of vaccinations manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna. This makes it easier to bring to recipients in remote and rural areas of the country. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine appeared to be the optimal choice for the vaccination of children, whenever that next stage is deemed safe, because of its one-shot effectiveness.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet tomorrow to discuss the significance of these developments, and investigations will continue. “Until that process is complete,” reads the FDA and CDC statement, “we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution. This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the second to confront issues of blood clotting in patients. The vaccine manufactured by AstraZeneca has spent the last several weeks wrestling with blood clotting issues within its own vaccine program. “In Europe, at least 222 suspected cases have been reported among 34 million people who have received their first dose of the [AstraZeneca] vaccine. More than 30 have died,” reports the journal Science.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, called Vaxzevira, is currently being analyzed to see if it might be safer for use in specific groups, such as older people. Some countries are limiting the use of Vaxzevira to that group, and in the meantime, work continues to determine whether this vaccine should continue to be used.

“Researchers stress that the troubles by no means spell Vaxzevria’s end,” continues Science. “In the vast majority of cases, its benefits outweigh the risks, and the cheap and easy to store vaccine is still the best hope for vaccinating large numbers of people in low- and middle-income countries. And some scientists suggest a simple strategy could reduce the risk while stretching supplies: Cut the vaccine dose in half.”

The concerns over the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines will not have a significant impact in the U.S., which is flush with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Globally, however, the clotting issue could become an anchor on the effort to inoculate the world against COVID.

“Between them,” reports the Guardian, “the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines were the best chance for many developing countries. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being produced at no profit and is easy to transport and store at room temperature. That was deliberate — the university and the company have pledged to make it highly accessible. The J&J vaccine is the other great hope, because it is given as one dose, not two, cutting the cost and making it easier for countries with shaky health systems to mass-vaccinate.”

There have been no reports of these types of side effects in the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, each of which uses the new mRNA technology as the basis for their effectiveness.

Certainly, the developments with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are not something anyone wants to hear at this juncture. Vaccines have provided the first real sense of hope for many people in more than a year, and flies in the ointment are not welcome.

Moreover, anti-vaccination advocates will use this pause as a weapon to frighten an already-spooked population. I dread what Tucker Carlson and that lot over at Fox News will do to distort this situation, but the moment speaks to a far larger concern regarding mass media’s ability to successfully deliver the actual facts in this post-Trump/post-truth age.

“I am extremely skeptical of the ability of public messaging to disaggregate ‘the J&J vaccine is under review as a precaution’ from ‘the J&J vaccine is not safe and the others may not be either’ in the minds of normal people,” tweeted Media Matters for America Senior Fellow Matthew Gertz early Monday morning.“An incredibly crucial, high-stakes test for the press.”

We shall see.

More than 190 million individual doses of COVID-19 have been injected in this country as of today. The percentage of side effects has been astonishingly low, while the rate of effectiveness has exceeded even the wildest dreams of the researchers who developed them. By orders of magnitude, COVID-19 is more deadly than any of the vaccines crafted to destroy it.

I am deeply grateful for having received my inoculation. I still wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash my hands like a surgeon on his way to remove an appendix. Because of the variants that are still out there, and because understanding of how long these vaccines work is still under study, I am not starry-eyed about the Band-Aid on my arm. But I am safer than I was, and as this vaccination technology develops, we will all become safer still if we participate.

I am comforted by my inoculation, and careful, because I believe in science but nothing is perfect. As soon as possible, you should get the shots. Once you do, be mindful of yourself, and go to a doctor with any concerns if you can. We are into a fourth-wave inflection point with COVID. This is no time to disdain the best weapon we have in this fight.