AILSA CHANG, HOST:
To date, more than 7 million people have received doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. This afternoon, an advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused on six of those people. They're the six women who developed rare and serious blood clots after getting the shot. Those cases prompted a pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met today to discuss how to move forward. Dr. Anne Schuchat is the principal deputy director of the CDC and joins us now.
ANNE SCHUCHAT: Thank you so much.
CHANG: So it sounds like the committee decided for now to wait to get more data and analysis before providing a recommendation. What does that mean for your guidance to states and to medical providers right now?
SCHUCHAT: Well, we're in the midst of a pretty difficult pandemic right now with tens of thousands of people being diagnosed with COVID-19 each day and hundreds of people dying from it. And we're also in the midst of this enormous vaccination effort with more than 3 million people getting vaccinated each day. The committee wanted to have a more robust risk-benefit analysis presented so they could understand - it's really the opportunity cost. If there's restriction of this vaccine in some or large groups of people, what will that mean?
SCHUCHAT: And can we better refine what the actual risk is? - six out of many million or will there be additional cases? So I think what it means for CDC right now is a continued effort to educate providers about how to diagnose and manage and treat this and to educate the public about what to look for if they've recently gotten the J&J vaccine and, of course, to work on that analysis that the committee wanted. They also asked to reconvene very quickly. So as soon as that additional analysis can be done...
SCHUCHAT: We'll be reconvening.
CHANG: OK. Well, some scientists have criticized the pause, pointing out that even if the blood clots are caused by the J&J vaccine, the risk seems very, very small, much smaller than, say, your risk of contracting or dying from COVID-19 if you don't get a vaccine. So given the urgency to get people vaccinated, do you have any regrets about this pause?
SCHUCHAT: I think it's very important for us to take a careful look at safety signals and to take them seriously. I think the public expects that of us. We're lucky in the United States that as of today, we're sitting on reasonable amounts of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines so that many people can be vaccinated with one or the other of those while we expeditiously work on the additional data for the J&J vaccine. But as we heard at the meeting today, you know, there were a number of comments made about the convenience, the one and done, the...
SCHUCHAT: ...Limited storage requirements. So I think there's a real dilemma for both the committee and for the public. And what I'm committed to is leading with science and transparency so that we are not ignoring safety signals and that we can put them in the right context so that clinicians, patients, the public and policymakers have the tools they need. But, you know, we're working day and night to try to get data pulled together.
CHANG: Well, let's talk about the comparative convenience of the J&J vaccine. It requires just one dose. It has less intense refrigeration requirements than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, so it's been kind of this go-to option for populations that are transient or harder to access, like homebound people, people in rural areas, students. I want to play a clip from today's meeting from Nirav Shah. He's president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NIRAV SHAH: Any extension of the pause will invariably result in the fact that the most vulnerable individuals in the United States, who were prime candidates for the giant Johnson & Johnson vaccine, will remain vulnerable. The most at risk will remain at risk, and those who would benefit immediately from vaccination will remain unvaccinated for an unknown period of time.
CHANG: Tell me, Dr. Schuchat, what do you make of his concern?
SCHUCHAT: You know, I think it's a very real concern. There are really compelling arguments around continuing to have access to the J&J product and also to the severity of these very, very rare symptoms and what can be done to mitigate their occurrence or the damage that they cause. So I think everyone involved is taking this very seriously, you know, again, trying to outrace the variants, trying to protect people and trying to sustain confidence in vaccines, vaccinations and the system that provides them.
CHANG: And in just the 30 or so seconds we have left, do you think the CDC and FDA could decide to go ahead and restart the vaccine, even though the committee declined to act today?
SCHUCHAT: I can't comment on that right now. You know, I can tell you that we're working hard to educate clinicians and to make sure that we can get the best information out to the public. A comment, though, is that we recommended a pause, but the providers can use the vaccine...
SCHUCHAT: ...If they have an individual discretion to.
CHANG: All right. Dr. Anne Schuchat is the principal deputy director of the CDC.
Thank you very much for joining us today.
SCHUCHAT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.