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Johnson & Johnson vaccines halted across the U.S. over possible links to rare blood clots

COVID vaccination centers have begun suspending the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine after federal health officials recommended the move. The CDC and the FDA say they are reviewing extremely rare and severe blood clots in six women, out of nearly 7 million people who have received the vaccine in the U.S. Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On this day with several big news developments, including the aftermath of another police killing in Minnesota and President Biden's announcement of when U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan, we begin with the COVID story.

    A number of vaccination centers have begun suspending the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after federal health officials recommended the move. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA said today that they are reviewing extremely rare and severe blood clots in six women. That's out of nearly seven million people who've received the vaccine in the U.S.

    Dr. Anne Schuchat is the principal deputy director of the CDC. And she joins us now.

    And, for the record, Johnson & Johnson is a "NewsHour" funder.

    Dr. Schuchat, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    What can you tell us about the blood clots and how dangerous they are?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    Thank you, Judy.

    We're taking this very seriously. As you said, almost seven million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the United States. And, right now, we have six reports of serious blood clots, including one fatality, unfortunately.

    There is an unusual pattern to the blood clots, in that there is a very low platelet count, in addition to the clotting event. And that unusual pattern tipped us off that we really needed to take this seriously. We have recommended a pause for three reasons, because we wanted to give the health care community time to learn how to recognize, diagnose, and manage this condition, because if you treat this condition with the usual treatment for clotting, it can get worse.

    So, that was a critical reason to get the word out. The second one was to urge more reporting, so we could get a better understanding of the pattern and whether this is limited to women, certain ages, or just how frequent it is.

    And then the third reason for the pause was to give time for our Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, our group of independent scientific experts, to review the data carefully and give us their advice. And that meeting will be happening tomorrow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Schuchat, is it certain there are only — not only, but there are six women and there are no more women who have developed these clots?

  • Anne Schuchat:

    We don't know that yet. We are actively urging reporting both by clinicians and by patients or their families through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, VAERS, which is how we detected these cases.

    So, we are very interested in understanding whether there are additional cases or possible cases. And it takes a bit of time to validate, to review the records and so forth.

    This is — these are a rare set of symptoms, not the usual kind of blood clots or strokes that people see. And it is unusual enough that we really want to get to the bottom of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm asking about the number, because,, the reporting may be delayed, and six out of seven million is such a small number.

    I think people want to be reassured that it is that small.

  • Anne Schuchat:

    Yes, that's right.

    This is an extremely rare event that we're tracking right now. But because the usual treatment for people presenting with this rare event is different than what clinicians might think of, we wanted to talk a pause and give time for clinicians to get up to speed on this.

    In fact, we will be doing a call for a broad group of clinicians on Thursday to try to help them learn how to recognize, manage, and respond. But you're right. This is extremely rare right now, based on what we know. And we have to learn more.

    But I just want to say how important it is to the CDC, the FDA, and the federal government for us to take vaccine safety seriously. We know that we are vaccinating on average of over three million people a day, mostly with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and those vaccines are proving to be very safe and effective.

    And we haven't seen this problem of the low platelet count and the blood clots with those other two vaccines, but with the J&J vaccine, we want to keep our eye on it and have this pause while we take time to learn about whether there are more cases, and whether they really are linked to the vaccine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We know there was investigation, there was a lengthy process before the FDA approved the J&J vaccine for emergency authorized use.

    Why wasn't this discovered then?

  • Anne Schuchat:

    There are a couple of things to say.

    First off, when we have retrospectively looked back at the clinical trials, there was one episode of an event that looks a lot like this. It was actually in a man. And, at the time, a single episode, it is very difficult to understand what that might be.

    But, of course, we have been actively monitoring the safety as the vaccines get given out more broadly. But you can imagine, when you have an event that might be as rare as one in a million, that may not show up in a clinical trial even as large as the trials were before the FDA authorization.

    And that's why we take very seriously monitoring safety, as well as effectiveness, after vaccines go into large-scale use, because you really can't detect something very rare in vaccine trials, even with 50,000 or 60,000 patients.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, how long do you think this pause may last? And what's the effect on the availability of vaccines overall to Americans?

  • Anne Schuchat:

    Well, the good news is that there is supply of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and we expect not to see a challenge with supply in the short-term future based on this.

    In fact, we're expecting 28 million doses of those other two vaccines for this next week. I can't say exactly how long the pause will go on. I can say that we're working very quickly to get as much information as we can, and we're holding that first Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices emergency meeting tomorrow.

    We will know more after that. And I commit that we're going to get back and update the American public about this as we know more.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I know everybody is paying very close attention, Dr. Anne Schuchat, who is the principle deputy director of the CDC.

    Dr. Schuchat, thank you very much.

  • Anne Schuchat:

    My pleasure, Judy.

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