Local doctors weigh in after FDA adds warning to J&J vaccine

Local doctors are sharing their thoughts with Channel 11 after the Food and Drug Administration announced it is adding a warning label to the Johnson and Johnson shot.

That warning comes after about 100 recipients developed a rare disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). Most cases were reported about 2 weeks after receiving a dose, and mostly occurred in males aged 50 and older. One case was fatal.

Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology, said the news shouldn’t discourage people from getting vaccinated.

“The bottom line is that all 3 of the vaccines that we have remain really safe,” he said. “We’re going to await some guidance coming from the FDA and the CDC’s Committee on Immunization Practices, but the risk of COVID-19 including the complications, which can include death, remains much higher than the risk of the vaccines.”

Snyder noted that the warning should serve as comfort that officials are truly monitoring for potential side effects.

“The fact that out of millions and millions of doses, we found 100 cases of something that’s rare, is really important and I would not take that as a message that the vaccine is dangerous,” he said.

According to the CDC, GBS is a rare disorder in which the “body’s immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.” Most people fully recover, although some may have permanent nerve damage. The CDC website states that “on very rare occasions, people develop GBS in the days or weeks after getting a vaccination.”

Snyder noted that despite the FDA warning, there has actually been no final determination that the documented GBS cases were directly caused by the J&J shot.

“Guillain-Burre Syndrome can happen after relatively common infections with a virus or a bacteria, including in otherwise healthy people,” Snyder told us.

Dr. George A. Small, an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Drexel and an Allegheny Health Network physician, agrees, noting that GBS can actually be caused by a COVID-19 infection. In fact, he stated that AHN documented the first case of this in the United States. Meanwhile, he isn’t aware of any local individual developing GBS following a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think there’s an equal chance in getting Guillain-Barre Syndrome from having a COVID vaccine as from having a diarrheal illness as from having just the common cold,” Small said. “One should not want to get the Guillain-Barre Syndrome but one would prefer not to get Influenza A and one definitively would not prefer to get COVID... as I can attest to having had to take care of 60, 70 patients last year while wearing a space suit in the medical intensive care unit at Allegheny General Hospital.”

But the decision isn’t so simple for one local man. Channel 11 told you about Joe Pass earlier this year. The local attorney developed GBS following a flu shot several years back. He ended up paralyzed but recovered.

Pass has advocated for others to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but remains torn as to whether or not he should. Originally, he had decided against it, but is second-guessing now that the Delta variant has emerged.

“It’s a tough decision,” he told Channel 11 on Tuesday. “GBS was no fun. When you’re paralyzed for six weeks and you need months to learn to walk again, that’s no picnic. And the pain was just unbelievable, like I never had, and I don’t want it again.”

Dr. Small told us that someone with a history of GBS should consult his or her doctor regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pass said his personal doctor advised him to consider either the Pfizer or Moderna versions.