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Johnson & Johnson Dealt Another Blow As Vaccine Is Linked To Rare Nerve Syndrome

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been a bumpy road for the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, which has been viewed as an important part of the U.S. vaccination strategy during the pandemic. But production problems and safety issues have dampened enthusiasm for the J&J vaccine, and unused doses are piling up. Here to talk about this is NPR's Pien Huang. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Just this week we heard the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is associated with a rare autoimmune disorder. What do we know about that? How is that going to impact demand for the vaccine?

HUANG: Well, it certainly doesn't help. The FDA announced that there's a very slight risk that people getting the vaccine could develop Guillain-Barre syndrome. It's a neurological issue that can lead to muscle weakness, sometimes paralysis. And it's not good, but it is very rare. About 100 cases have been reported to the CDC out of almost 13 million people who got the J&J vaccine. Even so, Mollyann Brodie, who directs public opinion research at Kaiser Family Foundation, says it does not inspire confidence.

MOLLYANN BRODIE: Overall, it feeds into the unvaccinated's concerns about what's not known about the vaccines.

HUANG: Research shows that for the 30% of adults that are not yet vaccinated, their top concerns are safety and side effects. Now, the J&J vaccine has been through a couple of hard knocks before. Earlier this spring, there were contamination issues at their Baltimore factory. In April, a rare blood clotting disorder caused the vaccine to be put on pause. So this latest news kind of piles onto a vaccine that was already languishing in the U.S.

KELLY: Yeah. So how much of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply - how much is still being used?

HUANG: Not very much, especially in comparison to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. I mean, states have been sitting on stockpiles. Just 60% of their J&J doses have been given out versus 85 to 90% of the other vaccines. And for the J&J vaccine especially, there is a looming time issue. It has a limited shelf life. Claire Hannan, head of the Association of Immunization Managers, says they're supposed to be tossed after 4 1/2 months.

CLAIRE HANNAN: And we do have programs trying to make sure the vaccine that has already been distributed in the communities is moved to places where it can be used before it's expired.

HUANG: She says the J&J vaccine is still considered a good, safe option for most people, and its main selling point is convenience. It takes just one shot. She says it's being offered at subway stations in New York, at mobile clinics, at concerts, block parties, baseball games. It's still really useful in places where it makes sense to give out one quick shot without requiring a return visit.

KELLY: And what about outside the U.S.? I'm thinking if American states have stockpiles of this stuff and there's not that much demand for it from Americans, would it make sense to send some of it abroad?

HUANG: And that is definitely something that the global health community has been pushing for. Saad Omer - he's director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. He says that if the U.S. doesn't want them, there's plenty of demand in other countries. And wasting vaccine doses right now, he says, is a real tragedy.

SAAD OMER: Every week we wait, there are actual lives being lost. They're not being lost in our hospitals, so therefore, it is out of sight, out of mind. But these are real people - people's parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters that are dying.

HUANG: The Biden administration has pledged to give away 80 million vaccine doses, mostly to a program called COVAX, which distributes them among poor countries. But the vaccines that have already gone out to states - there's no real mechanism for reclaiming them. If they're not used before they expire, they're probably going to be destroyed.

KELLY: Pien, before we let you go, there is some other Johnson & Johnson not vaccine news. They are recalling some of their sunscreen products after they found traces of benzene, which is a carcinogen. What do we need to know there?

HUANG: That's right. So Johnson & Johnson has recalled five products, all aerosol sprays, including Neutrogena's Beach Defense and Aveeno's Protect and Refresh. Now, benzene is not an ingredient in any of these products, and the company doesn't really know why trace amounts of these chemicals were found. But prolonged exposure to benzene can cause cancer, so the company says that it's acting in an abundance of caution, and it's urging people to get rid of these products and pick up some alternatives.

KELLY: Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: NPR's Pien Huang.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "SKY COULD UNDRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.