J&J "pause" to continue for another 7-10 days as poll shows most are now more confident in vaccines, not less

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Be patient, Johnson & Johnson fans. It’s coming back. Just not for a week or two.

Experts who spoke to the Atlantic yesterday were also skeptical that the vaccine would be recalled entirely, emphasizing that “they’d need to see many, many more clotting events to even consider pulling an otherwise highly successful and effective vaccine from the global market, especially while many countries struggle to acquire, store, and administer vaccines.” Given the currently known rate of clotting, one virologist put the risk this way: “If I thought I was going to get a blood clot, I would also buy a lottery ticket.”

So, yeah, it’ll almost certainly be there for you in May, possibly with a new restriction based on age or sex.

If you want to wait that long for a vaccine, that is. And if you’re still willing to get it.

I’ve showed you this YouGov poll from March twice in the last two days but I’ll give it to you one more time in case you missed it to illustrate why data nerds are so nervous about the FDA’s “pause.” They’re not just spitballing when they speculate that pausing the J&J vaccine due to safety concerns will sour the public on it. We’ve already seen this movie in Europe. European governments paused AstraZeneca, which operates similarly to J&J’s product, due to a similar fear of blood clots and, well…

Catastrophe. Public confidence in AZ dropped so far, so fast, that the lines on the graph are almost vertical. The J&J pause was destined to have the same effect in the U.S. Wasn’t it?

Nope, says Echelon Insights. To the contrary:

That result seems to vindicate the experts who argued that transparency by the FDA about the clot data and a “safety first” ethic of pausing the vaccine until they felt confident that the risk was low would do more to shore up public confidence in the regulatory process than diminish it. As a Twitter pal said yesterday, if you’re worried about Americans thinking that corners were cut in bringing the vaccines to market so quickly, the last thing you’d want to do when hitting a bump like the blood-clot evidence is to cut corners by concealing it and/or continuing to administer the vaccine without stopping to assess the risk.

But hold on. How sure are we that Echelon’s numbers vindicate the experts without knowing who the 58 percent and the 23 percent (and the 20 percent) are? It could be that the 58 percent who feel more confident about the process after the pause were all gung-ho pro-vaxxers to begin with. Nothing’s going to put them off getting their shots. Meanwhile, the 23 or 20 percent could — and probably does — contain a meaningful number of people who are in “wait and see” mode about the vaccines. They’re not hardcore, unreachable anti-vaxxers, they’re persuadable. But as they’re waiting, what they’re now seeing is that J&J had to be yanked from the market for fear of a serious undetected side effect.

Which means they may no longer be persuadable. Despite the 58/23 split above, there very well could be more anti-vaxxers following the pause than there were before.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Americans might be more resilient in their confidence in a vaccine once they get bad news about it than Europeans are, though. Europeans are warier of vaccines than we are as a baseline proposition. It may also be that there are more pro-vax messages circulating in U.S. media than European media. Fauci and other public-health experts like Scott Gottlieb and Leana Wen have been ubiquitous on American television for months and they’re all enthusiastically pro-vaccine despite their exasperating habit of underselling it by constantly urging other precautions. I don’t know if Europe is getting the same media diet of vaccine cheerleading as we are, or if they’re getting as much of it. Few people are saturated in media as much as Americans.

Beyond that, American support for the vaccines may be more durable due to simple national pride. Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J are all U.S. companies; the success of the vaccines is “our” triumph to some degree, particularly in contrast to how mediocre China’s vaccines appear to be. Our pharma industry’s going to save the world. And so we don’t want to believe that J&J is a bust, as we’re invested emotionally in its effectiveness to a degree that other countries aren’t. The same phenomenon may help explain why the UK’s confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine in the YouGov poll up above didn’t waver the way it did on the continent. It’s true that the UK never paused AZ, which may have contributed to shoring up confidence. But national pride may have been a factor too: AstraZeneca’s product was developed at Oxford, remember. The Brits don’t want to believe their big victory is flawed any more than we want to believe the same about ours.

I’ll leave you with this from the AP, which may or may not be a clue to the cause of the clotting. Is the vaccine interacting with other medication? Quote: “On Wednesday, the CDC said four of the six women with the unusual clots were treated with a blood thinner named heparin — a treatment the government is warning doctors to avoid.”