For many people, the announcement that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine was being temporarily pulled from use in the United States was a jarring reminder that modern medicine, with all of its marvels, is not infallible.
On the morning of April 13, 2021, a joint statement from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the two organizations were recommending the pause “out of an abundance of caution.” Reports of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) along with low blood platelet levels (thrombocytopenia) in six women between the ages of 18 and 48 first raised alarms. That number has since risen to 15 women, three of whom have died.
The CDC and FDA have since lifted this recommended pause, reaffirming that the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine should be resumed, and that the “known potential benefits outweigh its known and potential risks.”
While it is frightening, especially for young women, to think that this vaccine could potentially have serious adverse effects, the CDC and FDA’s brief pause shows that our public health infrastructure is working.
In the days since the recommended freeze, some have accused the two agencies of fear-mongering; publicly admitting that a vaccine could have such adverse effects, even potential death, would surely affect public perception and trust in the vaccine. However, the alternative case, in which our top public health officials ignored these adverse side effects, would have been even worse. In a country where misinformation, specifically surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccines intended to prevent it, is rampant, it is important for the government to be clear and honest with its citizens. If the agencies had instead ignored the reports of additional side effects, or had affirmed the safety of it upfront and without thorough medical review, the public would have deemed our government irresponsible and reckless. Such actions would have sown even more distrust into a country that has always been (in many cases, rightfully so) wary to trust its government.
Without professionals constantly and consistently monitoring these vaccines and their performances, we would have virtually no way to affirm their safety. All vaccines would be 100 percent effective and harmless in a perfect world. But as this pandemic has proven in the past year and a half, our world is far from perfect. The fact that the CDC and FDA were able to so quickly and efficiently identify these adverse effects and issue a statement recommending a pause is proof that our top public health officials are doing what they are supposed to do as scientists, not just politicians. More impressive still is the speed with which the vaccine’s safety was reviewed and affirmed. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with it’s one-dose and more agreeable storage temperature, is crucial to getting the country and the world vaccinated, as it is much more accessible than its two-dose companions. Although in the United States, the current vaccination rate outpaces the new infection rate, COVID-19 continues to terrorize millions, both in the country and around the world. Countries such as India are breaking daily records for new infections, and as such, lack access to affordable and transportable vaccines. In order to combat the continuing global rise of the pandemic, it is imperative that we are able to utilize all of the vaccinations that are available in our arsenal, provided they have been proven safe to use.
The truth is that no vaccine comes without its negatives. For my family and friends who received the other two widely available vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, the second shot, and even sometimes the first shot, was often followed by a fever, chills and other symptoms of general malaise. Symptoms such as these may mean taking days off of work to recover—something many people are unable to afford, especially in an economy ravaged by the pandemic. I myself have experienced fatigue and aches after other vaccinations in the past. Vaccines are not, and have never been, the perfect medical invention, designed to take away our greatest illnesses without any consequences, and it is irresponsible to present them as such. Hailing vaccines as perfect marvels of modern medicine does nothing but sow fear and distrust in people such as those part of the anti-vaccination movement, and those on the fence about the risks versus the rewards. What is needed is accessible education to teach that while vaccines are not perfect, the rewards greatly outweigh the dangers. The rise of Facebook and other online platforms has made it deceptively easy for people to believe claims that are entirely unsubstantiated by science. In order to get closer to a reality mirroring life before COVID-19, it is important to get as many people vaccinated as possible. And this can only be accomplished by affirming public trust in science.
In the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, when the CDC and FDA lifted the recommended pause, it came with an addendum. An additional warning was issued for women under the age of 50 taking the vaccine about the potential risks surrounding blood clotting issues. The two agencies once again affirmed that the risks surrounding COVID-19 and potentially contracting the disease far outweighed the potential risks of the vaccine, and that anyone who was eligible should get the shot. People in the risk category concerning the vaccine are able to take an alternative vaccination if they wish.
Although the announcement of the potential side effects and the pause may seem at first glance to be proof that modern science is not effective, it actually proved the opposite. Science is working. Scientists remain, as always, vigilant and willing to protect the public. It is our responsibility to listen to their expertise and to participate, if we are able, in the current effort to get the United States vaccinated and closer to a new normal.