Use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine has been paused in multiple states after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control issued an advisory recommending they do so "out of an abundance of caution." The reason is a tiny handful of unusual blood clotting events — just six of them, to be precise, out of a total of 6.8 million doses administered in the United States thus far.
This is an incomprehensible decision. As Helen Branswell writes at STAT News, every single clotting event involved a woman aged between 18 and 48 with a condition called thrombocytopenia (or low blood platelets). It isn't even clear yet that the vaccine actually caused the clots — the background rate of this particular kind of clotting is about five per million people, per year.
Now, of course public health authorities should be vigilant about potential side effects, and they should inform the medical and scientific communities about any troubling data that comes up. It would be understandable to pause a treatment that was just a precaution for some rare disease. But we are still right in the middle of a deadly viral pandemic, and cases are increasing: up from about 55,000 per day in mid-March to 70,000 per day, thanks mainly to an exploding outbreak in Michigan. Deaths are falling, but still coming in at about 750 per day. COVID-19 is a serious disease, even for younger people — indeed, one of the common complications is dangerous blood clots.
It might be reasonable to recommend that women under 50, or anyone with thrombocytopenia, get one of the other vaccines while scientists try to figure out what is going on. But pausing all use of the J&J vaccine will certainly prevent many thousands of people from getting vaccinated so long as the pause lasts, and will likely do long-term damage to the reputation of all the vaccines. The anti-vaccine crowd on Fox News is going to to go nuts with this, spreading fear and paranoia and increasing the resistance of Republicans to vaccination. This decision is the opposite of caution.