The White House said Tuesday that the recommended pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine will “not have a significant impact on our vaccination plan,” as the United States has access to millions of Pfizer and Moderna doses that will help uphold the Biden administration’s vaccination goals.
“Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes up less than 5 percent of the recorded shots in arms in the United States to date,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a statement. “Based on actions taken by the President earlier this year, the United States has secured enough Pfizer and Moderna doses for three hundred million Americans. Over the last few weeks, we have made available more than twenty-five million doses of Pfizer and Moderna each week, and in fact this week we will make available twenty-eight million doses of these vaccines.”
The statement comes after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abruptly paused use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine earlier on Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution” as the agencies are reviewing six cases of rare and severe blood clots in individuals who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States. All mass vaccination sites and other facilities in more than two dozen states and the District of Columbia have temporarily stopped administering injections of the vaccine for the time being.
Although there have been only six reports of blood clots out of about 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, carving a rate of nearly 1 in 1.1 million vaccinations, the type of blood clot that uncovered was not featured on the vaccine’s list of potential adverse side effects. In the meantime, Zients said the White House was “working now with our state and federal partners to get anyone scheduled for a J&J vaccine quickly rescheduled for a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.”
Despite the White House’s pledge to stay on track with the administration’s vaccination plan, the announcement has sparked fears that the pause would, in fact, interfere with President Joe Biden’s goal of vaccinating two hundred million Americans by the end of April.
The United States has purchased a combined total of six hundred million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which would be enough to inoculate three hundred million people since both require two shots. But, the demand for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has recently grown since it only requires one shot and doesn’t need ultra-freezing temperatures for storage, unlike the other two vaccines.
Health policy and management experts suggested, however, that it’s likely the Biden administration will stay on target with meeting its vaccine goals.
“Without [Johnson & Johnson], I would expect 200 million doses to be fully administered by next Monday at the latest,” Dr. Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics at Yale University, said, adding that he does “not see this having any impact.”
Dr. Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health management and policy at The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, noted, “We don’t know how long this pause will be. But even if it is extended, there should be a good enough supply of Pfizer and Moderna to reach the goal, assuming the supply chains are working well. This may be more of a logistical problem than a supply problem, given that different strategies are needed for the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine than the others.”
As of Tuesday, CDC data reported that more than a third of the country has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and nearly 23 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, figures that are already higher than expected.
The United States is also averaging more than three million injections per day.
“This is a very rare event. Every drug has serious adverse events: some are rare; some are not rare. If there are no new earth-shattering news on this topic, I think we should have greater confidence in [Johnson & Johnson], the CDC, and FDA,” Forman said.
But a greater, looming concern that has developed since the announcement is how the pause will impact vaccine hesitancy, an issue that already exists, particularly in underserved communities and young Americans.
“The [government] needs to continue to reinforce the efficacy of all the vaccines, and [Johnson & Johnson] need[s] to work quickly to assess the cause and remediate the blood clotting,” Mark Capofari, who was director of global logistics at Merck and currently lectures on supply chain management at Penn State University, said.
For several months, Americans sounded the alarm over the speedy approval of the emergency use authorization for coronavirus vaccines and whether the vaccines would impose health complications. Now that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout has been halted, health experts are certain it will fuel the “skepticism” surrounding the shots.
“It will certainly add to the skepticism that already exists among some Americans. However, it's important to point out that this observation of blood clots linked to the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine has not been seen with the mRNA vaccines,” Dr. Lee W. Riley, professor and chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said. “Blood clots have also been linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
AstraZeneca, a vaccine that hasn’t been authorized in the United States, reportedly caused similar health risks of blood clotting.
“For those concerned about whether the FDA is adequately monitoring a new vaccine, this should actually be reassuring and might reinspire confidence,” Levi said. “For those looking for a reason to say no, this might become a deterrent. But FDA and CDC are doing the right thing to make sure we fully understand the risk. Nothing is risk-free, but Americans should understand what the real level of risk is.”
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.