U.S. health officials lifted an 11-day pause on COVID-19 vaccinations using Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose shot on Friday, after scientific advisers decided its benefits outweigh a rare risk of blood clot.
The government uncovered 15 vaccine recipients who developed a highly unusual kind of blood clot out of nearly 8 million people given the J&J shot. All were women, most under age 50. Three died, and seven remain hospitalized.
But ultimately, federal health officials decided that J&J’s one-and-done vaccine is critical to fight the pandemic — and that the small clot risk could be handled with warnings to help younger women decide if they should use that shot or an alternative.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the J&J vaccine has important advantages for some people who were anxiously awaiting its return. And the Food and Drug Administration updated online vaccine information leaflets for would-be recipients and health workers, so that shots could resume as early as Saturday.
“This is not a decision the agencies reached lightly,” FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock told reporters late Friday.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky added that the pause should increase confidence in vaccine safety, showing “that we are taking every one of those needles in a haystack that we find seriously.”
The U.S. decision — similar to how European regulators are rolling out J&J’s shot — comes after advisers to the CDC debated in a daylong meeting just how serious the risk really is. Panelists voted 10-4 to resume vaccinations without outright age restrictions, but made clear that the shots must come with clear warnings about the clots.
“I think we have a responsibility to be certain that they know this,” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University College of Medicine, who voted against the proposal because she felt it did not go far enough in warning younger women.
The committee members all agreed the J&J vaccine “should be put back into circulation,” panel chairman Dr. Jose Romero, Arkansas’ health secretary, said in an interview after the vote. “The difference was how you convey the risk … It does not absolve us from making sure that people who receive this vaccine, if they are in the risk group, that we inform them of that.”
European regulators earlier this week made a similar decision, deciding the clot risk was small enough to allow the rollout of J&J’s shot. But how Americans ultimately handle J&J’s vaccine will influence other countries that don’t have as much access to other vaccination options.
Dr. Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, pledged that the company would work with U.S. and global authorities “to ensure this very rare event can be identified early and treated effectively.”
At issue is a weird kind of blood clot that forms in unusual places, such as veins that drain blood from the brain, and in patients with abnormally low levels of the platelets that form clots. Symptoms of the unusual clots, dubbed “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome,” include severe headaches a week or two after the J&J vaccination — not right away — as well as abdominal pain and nausea.
With a green light from federal health officials, many states resumed use of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine on Saturday.
States ordering or recommending a resumption include Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.