'You will be just fine,' says surgeon general of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, though pause continues

WASHINGTON — Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had a message Friday afternoon for the 6.8 million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine and who, in recent days, have read concerning reports about blood clotting: “The vast and overwhelming likelihood is that you will be just fine,” Dr. Murthy said during a briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team.

He added that the response team was quite confident in that assertion, which is in keeping with what scientists know about the vaccine.

Vivek Murthy
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Biden administration told states on Tuesday to stop using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after six reports of blood clotting, including one death. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top science adviser to the Biden administration, has urged people who have already gotten the vaccine to “pay attention” to potential symptoms of clotting, such as body aches or headaches.

Murthy’s reassurance to Johnson & Johnson recipients came just moments after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that a key advisory board would take another week to study the vaccine. That board, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, met earlier this week but reached no conclusion, with one member calling for “more robust information.”

The committee will reconvene next Friday, Walensky said, which would give it time to “review any additional cases that might come in and for them to conduct a complete risk assessment and to evaluate the emerging science.”

The Biden administration finds itself in a challenging political and scientific conundrum, hardly the first of the pandemic. Even as its top experts project confidence in the vaccine, they are taking pains to show that safety and transparency are paramount. The Trump administration was often criticized for not being forthcoming about the pandemic, especially when it came to politically inconvenient truths.

“We want people to know what we know,” Murthy said. “This is your safety system working for you, what you are seeing right now,” he added, expressing the hope that “being told what’s going on” would instill confidence in the American population. That could be a risky calculation, especially with conspiracy theories about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine proliferating rapidly on Facebook.

Murthy is relatively new to the response team briefings, which have tended to primarily involve Fauci and Walensky.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from left, David Kessler, chief science officer of Covid response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), look at a document before the start of a Select Subcommittee On Coronavirus Crisis hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
From left, Drs. Anthony Fauci, David Kessler and Rochelle Walensky before a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Thursday. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Top scientific advisers to the president are in universal agreement with the surgeon general that the risk from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is vanishingly small, especially when compared with the looming risk of the coronavirus. Trying to put the blood clotting issue in context, top White House science adviser Andy Slavitt said during Friday’s briefing that not only are such cases “incredibly rare,” but it is imperative to “face the fact that we have lost 560,000 Americans and that vaccines save lives.”

A similar problem emerged in Europe last month after reports of blood clotting caused some countries to pull the AstraZeneca vaccine from rotation. That vaccine was engineered similarly to Johnson & Johnson’s, by using an adenovirus vector. The European Medicines Agency found there were 86 cases of blood clotting among 25 million people across the continent who had been given the AstraZeneca vaccine. It urged nations to resume using the vaccine because, as the agency put it, “the overall benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects.”

The two other vaccines used in the United States — those developed by Moderna and Pfizer — use a different technology, called messenger RNA, which has not been associated with cases of blood clots. After reports of the Johnson & Johnson cases first arose, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients quickly pointed out that those two companies provide 95 percent of the vaccine doses given so far to Americans and that any shortfalls in Johnson & Johnson’s distribution would not affect the Biden administration’s vaccination benchmarks.

The greater concern is that the Johnson & Johnson pause will be used by vaccine skeptics to more broadly question the vaccination effort. That forces public health officials into a delicate dance, as on Friday, when they avowed the fundamental safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while also promising to follow whatever conclusions scientists eventually reach on their own.


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