By Jacob Derin
The federal government is considering revoking the halt on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Its distribution was halted after a small cluster of clotting disorders was linked to the vaccine. While this is undoubtedly good news, the fact that the decision is necessary indicates a problem in how the government is thinking about vaccine distribution.
While the pandemic in the United States has significantly improved since the vaccine rollout has increased, hundreds of Americans are still dying daily due to COVID-19. And even though the rate of vaccine production and distribution is much better than it was, every dose counts.
To be sure, the clotting cases are concerning. Still, they are an exceedingly rare side effect, and according to the BBC, only eight Americans have been identified as having experienced it. No medical intervention is without the risk for side effects; the critical question is always, “do the benefits outweigh the risks?”
Other countries have been faced with similar questions as the AstraZeneca vaccine has produced similar clotting cases. But, the presence of these rare side effects does not outweigh the benefits. Every shot that gets into an arm reduces the population’s vulnerability to a disease that is still very much out of control.
We need to be raising the standard for what constitutes sufficient grounds for halting or altering the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. These vaccines have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives over the coming year, and the speed of the distribution matters. Remember that the vast majority of vaccines produced in the last year have gone to wealthy, first-world countries.
As the race to vaccinate America comes to a close, much of the rest of the world will still be struggling, and as the number of vaccinations increases, some small number of those people will experience side effects. We need to think of this as an acceptable risk.
That’s not to say, however, that side effects don’t matter. It might turn out that the clinical trials missed a serious side effect that’s prevalent enough to warrant halting distribution. After all, if we’re giving these vaccines to millions of people, it’s incumbent on us to ensure that they’re safe for them. The important thing is to keep a sense of proportion and balance these risks against the risks of slowing down the vaccination process.
As America hopefully enters the home stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic, some real introspection is in order. How did the wealthiest, most technologically powerful society on Earth allow a public health disaster of this magnitude?
To be sure, there were “bottom-up” failures, and the refusal of the population to comply with public health measures was a significant factor. But the disorganized and frankly chaotic federal response deserves serious scrutiny.
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we experience. It probably won’t be the most serious one either. When the next one comes along, particularly if it’s significantly more deadly than this one, we have to do better. That includes getting better at weighing the risks and benefits associated with vaccination.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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