Greenlight on J&J: Science Behind the Vaccines

April 27, 2021

5 Min. Read
Custom holding COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

April 27, 2021
By Lisa Smith, Senior Director, Clinical Excellence, Health & Wellness, Walmart U.S.

As we start a new week there are many questions running through my head: What do I need to do to help my kids prep for school and extracurricular activities? How can I help my team be successful at work? And of course, the never-ending question, what’s for dinner?

One thing I’m not questioning is the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and the processes in place to ensure it is safe, and I hope you don’t either. Throughout the past week, I’ve listened in on updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), spoken with manufacturers and consulted other Health and Wellness experts at Walmart as we navigate the pause on the J&J vaccine. I think it’s important to share insights on the science behind the Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, about which we still receive questions.

As you have probably heard, CDC and FDA recommended a pause in the use of J&J COVID-19 vaccine. I know pausing a vaccine can seem pretty concerning, so I spoke with my colleagues on the Clinical Excellence team here at Walmart, starting with Dr. Chinni Pulluru, who supports Clinical Innovation, Transformation and Operations for Walmart. She gave some good insight:

The pause is a good sign that the health community is taking side effects seriously. Existing safety systems detected a small number of reports of low platelets combined with a rare and severe type of blood clot among people who had received the J&J vaccine. Out of more than seven million vaccines, the CDC/FDA were able to detect and quickly respond to a handful of reported blood clot events. That means our reporting system is working. CDC and FDA recommended a pause in vaccine administration. The pause allowed the medical community to review the best ways to detect and treat a rare blood clot known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST).

I also connected with Dr. Tom Van Gilder, our Chief Medical Officer (and my boss), to get his thoughts on what this means for other vaccines. He shared the following:

Technology has allowed us to speed up the process and create three safe and effective vaccines to fight COVID-19. There are two types of vaccines from three suppliers currently available.

The first, mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, contain material from the virus that causes COVID-19 that gives our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. These vaccines do not contain any live virus, and they cannot give someone COVID-19. Our cells make copies of the protein and destroy the genetic material from the vaccine. Our immune systems react to the protein and create a defense system that will fight the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected in the future. The health and wellness community has increased its interest in these types of vaccines because they can be developed in a laboratory using readily available materials and technology, which means although some hesitation comes from the idea that this vaccine was developed too quickly, mRNA vaccines have been studied and worked with for decades, and technology helped us develop the COVID-19 vaccine faster. It’s a bit like comparing typewriters to word processors or laptops. Once you have a template that works, you can reuse it over and over —even copying and pasting specific parts you like, rather than having to start over again every time you want to create a document. Everything is moving faster due to technology, and lucky for us, so are health and wellness solutions. You can learn more about mRNA vaccines from CDC here.

Secondly, we have viral vector vaccines like J&J. Viral vector vaccines use a modified, harmless virus (not related to the virus that causes COVID-19) to enable cells in our body to produce a protein from the COVID-19 virus. The protein is harmless and cannot cause COVID-19, but stimulates our immune systems to fight future infections. In that sense, they are similar to the mRNA virus. Also, like the mRNA vaccines, viral vector vaccines can be created and modified rapidly, so if boosters are required in the future, say, to protect us against variants that the original vaccine doesn’t protect against, we will be able to manufacture and administer such boosters quickly.

On Friday, April 23, we learned that the decision was made by the CDC and FDA, with recommendation from the independent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to resume use of the J&J vaccine.

The extensive safety system that we have in place to monitor events following vaccinations continues to function well. Experts at CDC and FDA gathered and reviewed all available data on the reported events possibly related to the J&J vaccine and concluded that the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19. The risk of the specific health condition characterized by low platelets and unusual blood clots is considered very low. Also, health care providers administering the vaccine have additional information about the condition—how to identify and treat, for example—so our safety monitoring system has been further enhanced. This is good news: We should have even more confidence in the safety of the vaccines, and an effective vaccine can resume administration, which will boost our efforts to end the epidemic.

All of us in the health care community have safety as a top priority, and we know COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority for the federal government. All reports of health problems following COVID-19 vaccination are taken very seriously, which should bring us relief and faith in the process. Personally, I appreciate the government’s commitment to transparency as CDC and FDA reviewed this data. It has been communicated to us that the COVID-19 vaccines have undergone and will continue to undergo the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history. Today, we will resume administering the J&J vaccine in our stores and clubs with allocation on-hand across the country. We hope you will take any of the vaccines with confidence, and we’ll do our best to answer any other questions we’re hearing from our customers and associates.