Health Panel's Emergency Meeting Considers Status Of J&J Vaccine

Apr 23, 2021
Originally published on April 24, 2021 1:23 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, a group of vaccine experts that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is holding an emergency meeting. They're considering whether to recommend lifting the pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine after a rare but serious side effect emerged. NPR health reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to tell us more. Good morning, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this was big news last week when health agencies announced that they were going to put the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on pause while they looked into these rare cases. Remind us what happened.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So federal officials recommended a pause after about a half dozen cases emerged. Now, this is out of 7 million shots given. So just to underscore, this is very rare. But what happened in these cases is that within three weeks of getting a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, these patients got a serious type of blood clot, mostly in the brain, and low blood platelets. And that's an unusual combination. It requires different treatment than regular blood clots. Most of the cases were in women. They were all under age 60. And there may be more information in the meeting today. CDC wouldn't confirm for me the exact number of cases or the outcomes. We did learn last week that one woman died in March. Three were still hospitalized, and two patients had been discharged. And yesterday, the Oregon Health Authority reported another death in a woman similar to these cases. We are expecting to get a lot more information in the meeting today.

MARTIN: So do we know anything about the process of how this meeting is going to go?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes, there is an agenda posted. It is a public meeting of the Advisory Committee of Immunization Practices, or ACIP. It's made up of 15 voting members - they're mostly physicians - who specialize in vaccination. And today, the agenda shows that they'll get briefed by the vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson. They'll hear from federal officials who will give a detailed risk-benefit analysis on the use of this vaccine. So it seems to be a serious side effect, but it is rare. And COVID-19 is still killing hundreds of people every day across the country. And then at the end, the committee is planning to vote on whether to change the current recommendation that all adults over 18 can get this vaccine.

MARTIN: So because most of these side effects have happened in women under the age of 60, is it possible that they could vote to lift the pause, resume the administration of the J&J vaccine, but with maybe limits on who could get it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's possible. But I would say it's not very likely because, as of now, there are just too few cases to extrapolate from. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was asked this week whether there were more cases that had come to light since last week, and she said there were a handful they were looking into, but not a flood, which is great, which means they don't - but it also means they don't have a huge data set they can use to target exactly who might be at risk for this apparent side effect. And what may happen is they will suggest restarting the use of the vaccine with a warning and guidance to providers and patients about what to look out for. And that was the recommendation of the European Medicines Agency, which looked at these cases earlier this week.

MARTIN: What do we know about the effect that the pause on the J&J vaccine has had on the overall vaccine rollout in this country?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, we know that the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. appears to be slowing. It had been whizzing along at around 3 million shots a day. Some state officials did say this week in press conferences that the slowdowns in their states were because of the J&J pause. But this vaccine hasn't been relied on too much in the vaccine campaign across the country. It's only about 5% of what's been distributed. It is also much simpler to use than the other two authorized vaccine. It doesn't have to be kept frozen. It's only one dose. It can be ideal for harder-to-reach groups that might not be as sure about getting vaccinated or as willing to deal with the two doses. So many public health officials would really like to have this vaccine as a tool in their toolbox. And we'll have to see what happens today.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.