On February 27th, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) became the third company issued emergency use authorization by the FDA for a COVID-19 vaccine, joining Pfizer and Moderna.
Although deemed less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, J&J’s inoculation has one major advantage. Unlike the two-dose jabs by Pfizer and Moderna, J&J’s vaccine requires only one dose. Another selling point for the J&J version is it doesn’t have to be stored at extreme subfreezing temperatures. This makes it more favorable for transportation and distribution at neighborhood pharmacies.
However, as Newsweek.com reports, due to the media spotlight surrounding J&J’s talc powder litigation, some people are skeptical that J&J can be trusted to produce a safe, experimental vaccine.
Over 25,000 women have filed talc powder cancer claims against J&J. Plaintiffs allege that they developed cancer because of long-term application of asbestos-contaminated talc powder. Talc and asbestos are minerals that are located in close proximity to each other when they are mined. The processing of talc into a fine powder can contain very tiny amounts of asbestos.
However, there is no safe amount of asbestos that has been established. Even trace amounts of asbestos particles can cause ovarian cancer if the talc is applied to the genital area. And if talc powder is contaminated with asbestos, and is applied to other areas of the body, the airborne powder can enter the respiratory system, potentially causing mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs.
One of the biggest stories relating to talc litigation occurred in 2018, when 22 women were awarded $4.7 billion in damages. All 22 women had developed ovarian cancer, allegedly because of long term use of J&J talc powder. A Missouri Appeals Court later reduced the group’s award to $2.1 billion. The Missouri Supreme Court refused J&J’s request to throw out the decision. And just a few days ago, J&J petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
At least half a dozen plaintiffs have passed away since the initial verdict.
But it’s not just J&J’s decision to appeal the verdict that has women concerned about the trustworthiness of the company.
In December 2018, a Reuters investigation disclosed that J&J knew for decades that its talc could be contaminated by asbestos and hid the fact from regulators and consumers. Moreover, internal emails and documents uncovered in the investigation revealed the lengths to which J&J tried to manipulate data, influence scientists and weaken asbestos-detection standards. Plaintiffs have used this evidence in court.
J&J hasn’t lost every talc lawsuit. But because of high profile losses such as the Missouri class action, the company has been viewed in a negative spotlight. In a public filing from last week, J&J disclosed that it is setting aside nearly $4 billion for litigation expenses. J&J has also been accused of deliberately targeting minority women in talc product advertisements.
The Newsweek report on J&J vaccine hesitancy says that social media posts have played a big role in reinforcing the untrustworthiness of the company that was founded in 1886.
Newsweek references a CBS/YouGov poll that says 1 in 4 Americans that do not intend to get vaccinated cited concerns about drug companies. But vaccine hesitancy has also affected those who do want to get vaccinated because of hesitancy over particular brands.
Although Pfizer has largely remained out of the legal spotlight in recent years, in 2009, the drug giant paid $2.3 billion in what the Justice Department characterized as the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history. Social media posts voicing concerns about Pfizer’s trustworthiness are ostensibly non-existent in comparison to those about J&J.
The controversy over talc litigation isn’t the only reason a 2019 report by a British Intelligence Firm listed J&J as the second-least trusted pharmaceutical company, says the Guardian.
For decades, J&J was listed as one of the top 10 trusted drug companies.
But because of the company’s role in the opioid epidemic, being accused by the FBI of paying kickbacks in Brazil, bribing officials in 3 European countries, and several other instances of fraud or negligence, people are questioning if a 140-year-old company with no history of vaccine development prior to the coronavirus pandemic can be trusted to produce a safe and effective COVID experimental vaccine.