The news that the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine may trigger blood clots in extremely rare cases has dealt a new blow to the global vaccination campaign, coming just weeks after similar questions were posed about the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Johnson & Johnson announced on Tuesday that it would halt vaccinations around the country as federal health officials investigated a small number of unusual clotting incidents, a development that some experts say would erode vaccine trust. Clots occurred in just six out of more than 6.8 million Americans, or less than one in a million. All of them were female.
Outside of the United States, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would postpone the European introduction of its vaccine, which was set to begin this week in many countries. As a precaution, South Africa, which has been struck hard by a more infectious strain of the virus, has stopped using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Australia has confirmed that it would not buy any doses from the company due to reservations about the vaccine’s similarity to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s clotting problems are similar to those posed by the AstraZeneca vaccine, which also uses adenovirus vector technology to induce an immune response. It’s unclear if the technology triggers blood clots.
Drug authorities in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia started looking into the AstraZeneca vaccine last month after some patients developed rare blood clots with low platelet counts, close to the Johnson & Johnson patients.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) concluded on April 7 that there was a potential correlation between the AstraZeneca Covid-19 shot and rare blood clots, but did not suggest that its use be limited. It goes on to say that the benefits of the shot outweigh the costs, and that Covid-19 is a “very serious disease.”
Good adults under the age of 30 should be given other vaccines, according to UK regulators. The change was characterized as a “course correction” that would not jeopardize the country’s rapid vaccination program.
In the meantime, Australia has released a blood clot alert for people under the age of 50 who are taking the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the United States, AstraZeneca has not yet been approved for emergency use.
The Johnson & Johnson postponement is yet another setback for Europe’s vaccination efforts, which have been hampered by supply chain challenges, logistical problems, and questions about the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite the EMA’s advice, several European countries have limited or suspended AstraZeneca’s use in children and adolescents, while Denmark has completely stopped its distribution.
Working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration, the EMA said Wednesday that it was “expediting” the review of “extremely rare cases of irregular blood clots with low platelets” that occurred in the US, and that a recommendation will be issued next week.
While the agency’s investigation is continuing, it has told EU member states that the benefits of putting shots into weapons outweigh the chance of side effects. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) defers to the bloc’s 27 member states when it comes to national vaccination campaigns.
The EU ordered 200 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in 2021 and approved its use on March 11, but delivery has not yet begun. The European Commission is seeking “urgent clarification” from Johnson & Johnson over the company’s “unexpected” delays in deployment across Europe, according to a Reuters source.
France announced on Wednesday that it would proceed with the distribution of the 200,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses it has received. The United Kingdom has placed an order for 30 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but has yet to approve its use.
The discovery that both the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines could have unusual side effects may have far-reaching consequences for low- and middle-income countries. These two vaccines, which are less expensive and easier to store and transport than Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccines, are seen as critical for immunizing developing countries. Via the COVAX project, a vaccine-sharing program associated with the World Health Organization, both companies have promised to sell hundreds of millions of doses.
South Africa was forced to abandon its AstraZeneca vaccine program in February after a limited preliminary trial revealed that the shots provided minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the country’s dominant virus variant. The government rapidly shifted its attention to the Johnson & Johns case.