UB's top expert on infectious diseases weighs in on Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause

Posted at 1:32 PM, Apr 14, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — As the CDC and the FDA investigate concerns surrounding Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, which is now on pause following several cases of vaccine recipients who experienced serious blood clotting, local health leaders are offering some insights.

Dr. Thomas Russo, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, says the pause being put in place is an encouraging sign. He explained that the quick action taken by the CDC and FDA shows the extremely high levels of scrutiny of the vaccine are working to keep people safe.

Still, he believes the latest setback, coupled with similar issues reported with the AstraZeneca vaccine overseas, may be a cause for some people to hesitate to get any COVID vaccine.

"Even though this an extremely uncommon potential consequence of the vaccination with the J&J vaccine, I think it is going to increase concerns about hesitancy," Dr. Russo said, adding, "Having said that, I think it's critically important for people to realize that there's no association of this potential adverse consequence with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines."

Russo says the reason health leaders do not think the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are correlated to potentially serious blood clotting in the way AstraZeneca's and Johnson & Johnson's are is because of the way each vaccine works.

Both Pfizer and Moderna used mRNA technology to produce their vaccines. But what is mRNA technology and how does it work?

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines teach your body's immune system how to make the protein that triggers an immune response.

It does this by giving your immune cells part of the genetic proteins of the virus (mRNA), so the cells can then create the protein and the antibodies needed to identify the virus and fight it off.

But Dr. Russo says because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is what is known as an adenoviral vector vaccine, it works differently to achieve the same goal.

These COVID-19 vaccines use a different, but harmless, virus to inject the COVID-19 virus' genetic signature, called a "spike protein," into other cells in your body. Your body's immune system recognizes it as foreign material and creates antibodies to fight it off, triggering an immune response.

But what Dr. Russo says investigators are trying to figure out with adenoviral vector vaccines is whether that immune response is ultimately directly linked to the platelets being activated in the bloodstream, causing clotting.

To date, only six of the more than 6.8 million Americans to have gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have experienced serious clotting.

Dr. Russo calls that an "extremely uncommon" potential consequence, and says that even if federal regulators were to completely halt the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it would not dramatically hurt the country's ability to vaccinate everyone.

"The good news is we have already reserved 600 million doses of the RNA vaccines, which would be sufficient to vaccinate the country, which is our major goal and priority," he said, adding that until everyone does get the vaccine, it is imperative that people continue adhering to health guidances like social distancing and wearing masks to slow down the spread of COVID-19.