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Advisory Group To The CDC Is Reviewing The Safety Of The Johnson & Johnson Vaccine


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened an emergency meeting today to review the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. Yesterday, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration put a pause on giving out the vaccine. NPR health reporter Pien Huang followed the deliberations today and joins us now.

Hi, Pien.


CHANG: So I understand that this meeting was organized with just a little over 24 hours' notice. Before we get into what happened at the meeting, tell us more about this pause that was recommended by the CDC and the FDA.

HUANG: Sure. Well, like you mentioned, you know, yesterday, the CDC and FDA issued a pause in using the J&J vaccine after six cases of a rare blood clotting disorder were found in women who had gotten that vaccine. And today, we've heard a little bit more behind the scenes about how this pause happened. These six cases were reported to the CDC in the past month, and the agency has been following up and investigating. And while these cases are very rare - you know, so far, it's been found in fewer than 1 in a million people who got the shot. They wanted to tell people about the serious side effect, even as they're learning more about it, so that people can watch for symptoms and clinicians can recognize and treat the problem.

CHANG: OK, so what did the committee discuss and decide today?

HUANG: Well, on a high level, the committee punted any decision-making today. They said they needed more time and information to make a recommendation on whether the vaccinations with the J&J should be restarted, so the pause is probably continuing for at least another week or so. Part of the issue is that there are so few cases to analyze. The committee heard more about the six cases of a rare blood clotting disorder that affects the brain. These were in women 18 to 48, and all of them received the J&J vaccine. They got headaches a few days later, and the headaches got worse and worse to the point of them getting hospitalized. Of those six cases, three are still in the hospital, two have been discharged and one, a 45-year-old woman in Virginia, has died. Now, the CDC has pointed out that with the publicity that's happening, more cases may emerge, so the committee agreed to get back together in 10 days or less to see what new information comes through and to try and make a recommendation then.

CHANG: OK, but put all of this into context for us because these cases are incredibly rare, right?

HUANG: Right, they're very rare but also serious. And so health officials have been telling people who recently got the J&J vaccine to watch out for symptoms. Like if somebody gets a really bad headache, it might be smart to seek medical attention. They've also been stressing that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is one of three COVID vaccines available in the U.S. and the only one to be linked to these serious side effects. More than 115 million people have gotten the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in the U.S. without having these side effects, so health officials have stressed the importance of continuing to vaccinate people against COVID with those other two vaccines during this pause.

CHANG: Well, with this ongoing pause, will that affect the goal of getting as many people vaccinated in the country as possible?

HUANG: Well, the White House is hoping not. I mean, earlier today, White House COVID director Jeff Zients said there's no real disruption to the vaccine supply. People who had J&J vaccine appointments will be shifted to Pfizer or Moderna while this is going on. But given that this is a serious safety concern, people are wondering whether it might make some who were already on the fence less likely to actually show up and get a vaccine. Health officials are hoping that their bid to be really transparent here to raise concerns and to share information as it becomes known will help maintain the public's trust in COVID vaccines.

CHANG: That is NPR's Pien Huang.

Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.