With J&J Vaccine Restrictions, Experts Say We Need More Options Beyond mRNA

COVID-19 vaccines

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Key Takeaways

  • The FDA recently limited its use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. It is only authorized for certain people. 
  • Experts say the J&J vaccine can benefit people allergic to mRNA vaccines like Pfizer or Moderna and people with religious/social objections.
  • It’s essential to have different vaccine options to reach more people, especially those with health restrictions to currently available vaccines.

Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines are now limited to only a select group of people, according to an announcement made by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The vaccine is now only authorized for people 18 and over whom Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not accessible or clinically appropriate and to those who would not get a COVID-19 vaccine otherwise.

The FDA said the restriction was due to the risk of a rare and life-threatening blood clot called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) after receiving the vaccine.

However, the agency said people who had a severe allergic reaction to an mRNA vaccine or personal concerns about the mRNA vaccine may still get a J&J shot. With the new limits placed on J&J, experts say it's important for the FDA to authorize other COVID-19 vaccines like Novavax and Sanofi/GSK to offer more options beyond mRNA.

According to a phase 2 clinical trial by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found rare cases of severe allergic reactions to the two mRNA vaccines, mainly in people with a history of allergies and anaphylaxis, and among those with certain blood disorders. 

What Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The most common allergens that can trigger anaphylaxis are foods, insect bites, medications, and latex.

“These cases are rare, and research shows that the majority of them are mild, treatable, and triggered not by the mRNA, but other ingredients added as stabilizing agents,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, DrPh, MPH, director and founding dean at the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health.

What Makes J&J Vaccines Different from mRNA Vaccines?

The mRNA technology teaches the cell to create a protein that can trigger a response in the immune system. Unlike mRNA vaccines, J&J uses viral vectors that are genetically altered to produce an immune response, but they do not cause illness, Boden-Albala said. The viral vectors are a modified, non-harmful version of the virus that delivers instructions to the cells. This then triggers the immune system to produce antibodies to fight off an infection.

Some Ebola vaccines have also used viral vector technology, and there are ongoing studies of using viral vector vaccines against other infectious diseases such as Zika, flu, and HIV.

More Vaccine Options Are Needed

Boden-Albala said the recent restrictions on the J&J vaccine call for a more speedy authorization of Novavax and Sanofi/GSK, two non-mRNA vaccine candidates.

Both Novavax and Sanofi/GSK have recently requested emergency use authorization of their COVID-19 vaccine. They are both protein-based vaccines, which are similar to vaccines used to protect against the flu and those used in routine childhood vaccinations like those that protect against meningococcal infection, Boden-Albala said.

She explained these vaccines also contain purified pieces of the spike proteins found in the virus that causes COVID-19, which are delivered along with an adjuvant, an ingredient that boosts the immune response by keeping antigens at the injection sites for longer periods.

“We’re still learning more about the Novavax and Sanofi/GSK vaccines, but early research suggests that it may have some advantages over existing COVID-19 vaccines in some cases,” Boden-Albala said. “One distinct advantage is its ability to be more easily stored and transported than its viral vector and mRNA counterparts since it can be stored in standard vaccine fridges.” 

It is important to have different vaccine options, especially for people who cannot have the mRNA vaccine due to medical reasons like allergies or for those who struggle with access, said Niket Sonpal, MD, an adjunct professor of clinical medicine at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem.

Having different vaccine options can also be beneficial for people who may have vaccine distrust toward certain vaccines, Sonpal added.

“There’s a lot of misinformation across the Internet, so it’s always good to have an alternative,” Sonpal said. “But again, there are side effects with everything, though rare, it is important for the population to know about it.”

Boden-Albala said expanding access to mRNA vaccines and other vaccine options nationwide can potentially reach more people to help prevent the risk of infection and severe disease.

“The risks associated with COVID-19 infection are vast and can be severe—often much more so than any of the known or potential risks of the vaccines—so we need to prevent disease as much as possible,” Boden-Albala said. “Providing options is one way to do that.”

What This Means For You

Even though the FDA is scaling back the use of the J&J COVID vaccine, it is still an option, especially for people who are allergic or have limited access to the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Understanding viral vector COVID-19 vaccines.

  2. Australian Government Department of Health. Nuvaxovid (Novavax)

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.