A WSU bioethicist's take on pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine | KNKX

A WSU bioethicist's take on pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Apr 19, 2021

The use of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine remains paused this week as U.S. regulators study a possible link to rare blood clots. They’re expected to review the pause on Friday.

In the meantime, there are a lot of questions. To help us think through some of them, KNKX got in touch with bioethicist Thomas May of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University.

He spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. Listen to the conversation above, or read some excerpts below.


On the decision to pause: “I think that pumping the brakes [on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine] is a good move. … There’s the short-term agenda of wanting to get the most people vaccinated quickly, and then there’s the long-term agenda of wanting to build trust with the public. And I think in some cases we might see a balance needing to be drawn between those two agendas. In this case, I think there’s not a need for moving forward with the short-term agenda, because we have plenty of mRNA vaccines [such as Pfizer and Moderna] that have not suggested any sort of side effects of this type. … Our confidence level in the mRNA vaccines is very high in their safety, and those are available, and that allows us to be even more cautious.”

On trust and vaccine safety: “It’s important to point out that things like this pause are not a sign that we are being unsafe, but are precisely the opposite – that we are pausing not because we know these to be unsafe, but because there is a slight suggestion that perhaps there is this very rare side effect. And we want to stop to understand exactly what this is, if it’s connected to the vaccine, how serious it is, what steps might be taken to avoid it, and then re-engage. So I think this whole process has been an illustration of a commitment to safety.”

On facing the big questions around the vaccine rollout: “Keep in mind that all of these questions will not be simple questions. There won’t be one non-complex answer to any of these questions. We know that people’s lives can be affected by their health. We also know that people’s lives can be affected by their economic conditions and that having strong lockdowns that last too long can affect their economic condition. So all of these things have to be taken into account. What’s important to realize is that these decisions can’t be made without a sensitivity to context. We have to take that into consideration in the context of the risks posed by the disease itself.