Fred Hassan: The J&J Vaccine Pause And The Case For Covid Optimism

The legendary former pharma CEO on how the FDA's move could actually bolster use of vaccines and why we're well on our way to herd immunity in the next 90 days.

Out of an abundance of caution, the FDA recommended pausing use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine for Covid-19 this week after a small number of people reported blood clots that may—or may not—be associated with the treatment. While the drugmaker and regulators study the situation, CEOs—who have been betting on a booming economy predicated on soaring vaccinations—may face questions from employees.

Fred Hassan

To help, Chief Executive turned to Fred Hassan, the legendary former pharma CEO who led Pharmacia and Upjohn and Schering Plough. His take? The FDA’s move could actually bolster use of vaccines by making the case for safety, and no matter what happens, we’re well on our way to herd immunity in the next 90 days. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

What do CEOs need to know about the pause in use of the J&J vaccine, and how this might impact the rollout of vaccines to the workforce?

Given the visibility of the emergency use approval, the FDA is using an abundance of caution to put a pause on this. Even though the incidence is one in a million—and it’s not even clear if there is a linkage between the vaccine and events—just given the incredible scrutiny around the whole subject, the fact that things have gone at such speed warp speed, there is this sense that you don’t want to create a crisis of confidence around vaccines.

So the FDA, they are being criticized to some extent for being too cautious because it creates vaccine hesitancy. But hopefully what’s going to come out is the fantastic benefit that these vaccines convey to people, the fact that it gives them freedom in their lives.

There was already a great deal of vaccine hesitancy in the United States. Won’t this build hesitancy? How do CEOs communicate and build the case for vaccines right now?

I think they have to lean in in terms of people being vaccinated and to some extent they should help educate people through their own experience. That there is a moral responsibility they have to their colleagues and to themselves and their families to protect themselves against this once-in-a-hundred-year plague. It’s just a very unusual situation.

People need to step up and just look at the data and the fact that the authorities are being so cautious, so extra careful—this should give them the security that people are watching out for their welfare.

If you’re communicating with employees over the next couple of days about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or about vaccines going forward from here, can you give us a couple of key talking points that CEOs can put to use with their workforce in the days ahead?

Key talking points would be: If you have already taken the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, certainly observe as CDC says, but be aware that these incidents, if they are associated with the vaccine, are extremely rare—they’re literally one in a million. So rest assured that you have a vaccine that’s been heavily pressured tested in the real world. So for those who already got it, great.

For those who are planning to get it, I think they’re being redirected for the time being to the mRNA vaccines. Wonderful, but try not to hold out for too long because exposure to getting Covid is very high. So do your very best to like the first vaccine that you can get, do not go shopping around for names, because the threat of Covid is very, very high.

As I said earlier on, try to get vaccinated for three reasons: yourself, your family and friends, and also people at work just for everybody’s sake. I think that’s the best thing that CEOs can say. You cannot coerce people to be vaccinated.

You seem generally overall optimistic about where things are going, why?

I’m very optimistic because the supply of the mRNA vaccines is quite good. That’s why I said this morning that we should be at herd immunity within three months. And we will get there because just, just the mRNA or any vaccines are, are now becoming very available. States are opening it up to all ages very rapidly. And people are going to get vaccinated. Plus, there is a sense that there may be double the cases of Covid as those who’ve been reported.

So if we add all these numbers and you can get to a 70 percent or 80 percent number, then you are at herd immunity. Normally even 50 percent would have been impressive, but because this is an extremely contagious virus, a safe number is a 70 percent, 80 percent level. And we will definitely get there within the next three months because the mRNA vaccines have now shown what they can do.

Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.