It’s a difficult choice, but the government has opted for the second option. The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are recommending that distribution of the vaccine be paused while the effects of the vaccine are studied and to “ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required.”
The government will obviously aim for as brief a pause as possible, given the ambitious time frame the Biden administration has outlined for vaccinating American adults and the need to quickly build immunity in the population. When it resumes distribution, though, it’s important to remember just how rare these incidents are.
Since you opened this page, the interactive below has been adding virtual “vaccinations” at a rate of 100 per second. If you see a little red dot, that’s an adverse incident of the type that spurred the pause. Given that about 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered and there have been only six such incidents, the rate at which those red dots occur is about 1-in-1.1 million vaccinations. On average, a red dot will show up below every three hours and 10 minutes.
The side effect cases
That’s another way of saying that the frequency of these incidents is remarkably low. By way of comparison, every year about 12 out of every 100,000 Americans dies in a car crash.
Since the pandemic emerged, more than 561,000 people have died from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That’s about 1.8 percent of the 31.2 million people who have contracted it. Given the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in preventing serious illness and death, vaccinating 6.8 million people could have prevented 123,000 deaths. That number is certainly too high, given that many of those deaths preceded a robust understanding of how to treat the disease and given that many of the most at-risk individuals were vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna shots that were approved earlier. But it is still the case that protected millions of individuals likely prevented thousands of deaths — with six problematic incidents.
Nearly everything we do is a balance between risk and reward. Driving down the street, as mentioned above. Walking outside, where a meteorite could suddenly slam into your skull. Sitting on your couch, where your floor could give way or an electrical fire could break out or a bear could crash through your window. None of these things is likely, so we don’t worry about them, but they could. We draw a balance.
That’s the debate that occurred at the CDC: what’s the balance of the risk of the clots with the reward of vaccinations? Perhaps more importantly, how does the presentation of that balance affect how people perceive the risks and rewards?
The interactive above shows just how rare the identified problems have been. You probably noticed that it also include blue circles. If we assume that 1-in-10 of those who were vaccinated would have been infected with the virus if they hadn’t been protected (about the national rate at this point) and that 1-in-100 of them then died of covid-19, those blue circles are the lives that the vaccine saved.