Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine may pose a “small possible risk” of a rare but potentially dangerous neurological reaction, U.S. health officials said Monday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement it has received reports of 100 people who got the shot developing Guillain-Barré syndrome, an immune system disorder that can cause muscle weakness and occasionally paralysis.
That number represents a tiny fraction of the nearly 13 million Americans who have received the one-dose vaccine. Most cases of the side effect were reported in men — many 50 years old and up — and usually about two weeks after vaccination.
Guillain-Barré syndrome causes the patient’s immune system to begin attacking their own nerve cells. This generally leads to a tingling sensation in the extremities, but in severe cases, it can result in complete paralysis or even death. The Mayo Clinic reports that the exact cause of Guillain-Barré is unknown, but it’s most commonly reported in patients who suffered some sort of viral infection in the weeks preceding onset, frequently involving the Zika virus or the common flu. It has a mortality rate of between four and seven percent.
Based on that information, it makes sense that this might be coming up as a result of a vaccination. It’s a syndrome involving your immune system malfunctioning and the vaccine is designed to trigger an immune response. It’s known to crop up after exposure to the flu (which is another type of coronavirus) or the Zika virus, and Zika is a flavivirus, or positive-strand RNA virus that we still don’t have a vaccine for. Given the similarities, I suppose it’s natural for medical professionals to be looking at a possible connection here. Fortunately, only one person of the 100 vaccine recipients who experienced this effect died.
But at the same time, the CDC reports that an average of between three and six thousand people develop Guillain-Barré each year across the country. Only one hundred patients receiving the J&J dose have come down with this syndrome. With nearly 13 million shots having been administered, doesn’t it seem like we would have seen more of this by now if there was a causal relationship? (I’ll include my regular disclaimer here that I’m not a doctor and have no medical training, so do your research carefully.)
Last month we learned that hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of J&J doses were close to reaching their expiration dates and might need to be discarded. The reality is that after the FDA put a nine-day pause on the distribution of J&J after a warning about blood clots forming in some patients, enthusiasm for the product declined and more pods were requesting the two other options.
Between the blood clots and now this possible nervous system damage, J&J has been taking a beating in confidence among patients. It’s still probably far ahead of the AstraZeneca product which they’re having trouble giving away in Europe, but it still sounds as if either Pfizer or Moderna are the go-to choices in most places. Perhaps we should consider shipping the J&J vials to less-developed countries before they go bad.