Following Tuesday’s decision by federal health officials to pause the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine due to six reported U.S. cases of a severe type of blood clotting, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is encouraging Americans to keep things in perspective.
“For now, these are rare events,” Murthy said in an interview with Spectrum News National Health Reporter Erin Billups, noting there is less than a one-in-a million chance of Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients experiencing this type of blood clotting complication.
“We don’t know if there’s a connection yet, and there are millions and millions of people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the U.S. who thankfully are doing just fine.”
More than seven million Americans had been administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of Tuesday, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration issued a joint statement saying they were pausing the vaccine “out of an abundance of caution.”
Murthy said the federal pause on the so-called “one and done” vaccine is “to investigate whether there is in fact a connection between those clots and the vaccine itself, and if there is, then the FDA and CDC will make decisions on what precautions need to be taken.”
On Wednesday, the CDC will convene a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to review the blood-clotting cases. In each case, the women experienced a type of blood clot known as a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST. All six occurred among women aged 18 to 48, whose symptoms took place 6 to 13 days after receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot. The FDA plans to review the CDC’s analysis in its investigation of the blood clotting cases.
Murthy said there are a handful of potential outcomes to the ACIP meeting. They may decide further steps are needed to be taken to fully understand the picture.
“Ultimately that process may result in determining there’s no connection between these events and the vaccine,” he said.
Alternatively, they could determine there is a connection and potentially change the federal guidance around who might be at risk of receiving it based on their age or gender or some other variable. It’s too early to know the outcome, he said.
“Part of the reason you’re seeing such a quick and broad response from government in reaction to what some people might think is a small number of cases is because safety is so important,” Murthy said.
“With these vaccines, we know they are highly effective. We also want people to feel confident in their safety, and that's why we want to investigate every potential signal there is, whether it turns out to be real or not, to make sure that people have confidence the system is working for them and is also communicating openly and transparently.”
Federal officials’ decision to pause the Johnson & Johnson vaccine comes one day after the White House COVID response team announced that 28% of American adults had so far been vaccinated.
Murthy said that even without the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there is still enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to inoculate every American adult by the end of July.
The CDC and FDA recommend that people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine who develop a severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after their vaccination contact their physician.
“The safety and well-being of the people who use our products is our number one priority,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement responding to federal health officials’ decision Tuesday, noting that the company is working closely with medical experts and health authorities.
The New Jersey company said it has been reviewing the cases with European health authorities and will proactively delay the rollout of its vaccine in Europe.
Whatever the outcome of the CDC and FDA analysis of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Murthy said the federal guidance for Americans remains the same.
“Get vaccinated as soon as you can,” he said, adding that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are still available. “Continue to wear a mask, wash your hands and avoid indoor gatherings because we’re starting to see COVID spread more in the country. We just need to hang on a little bit longer because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Watch the full interview with Dr. Vivek Murthy and Erin Billups above.