US Coronavirus

What covid vaccines are related to the Guillain-Barré Syndrome? What are the CDC guidelines?

Despite the FDA announcement warning about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the FDA and CDC noted the benefits of vaccination continue to outweigh the risks.

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What covid vaccines are related to the Guillain-Barré Syndrome? What are the CDC guidelines?
Mark Ralston AFP

Around 100 have been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) from 12.8 million recipients of the single-dose vaccine, a rate that is three to five times higher than that of the general population.

Despite this, taking the J&J shot outweighs the risks of contracting the virus, the CDC and FDA said. The warning only applies to the J&J vaccine, not to the covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, both of which use a different kind of technology. Nearly all hospitalizations and deaths linked to covid-19 in the US are occurring among unvaccinated people.

Which vaccines are linked?

  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Astrazeneca

Although the FDA has not made any ruling with Astrazeneca, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had warned in the last few days about a possible link between the Astrazeneca vaccine and GBS.

Why these vaccines?

There are two main types of vaccines in production for covid-19:

  • conventional vaccines, where the vaccine injects a weak but live version of a virus for the body to build up anti-bodies if it were to come into contact with it again.
  • mRNA vaccines, where the vaccine teaches the body to produce proteins to combat a virus, without a live virus ever entering the body.

Both Astrazeneca and the J&J vaccine are conventional vaccines so this could suggest a link between the immune system fighting the virus but also fighting the body's nerves.

This risk does not exist for mRNA vaccines.

What is the FDA guidance?

The cases, which are now under investigation by the FDA and the CDC, "have largely been reported about two weeks after vaccination and mostly in males, many aged 50 years and older," the CDC said in a statement.

The warning was added to provide information on the "observed increased risk" of the syndrome, the FDA said, but added that more research is needed to determine whether vaccination was the definitive cause. The agency noted that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination clearly outweigh the risks.

The new guidance says medical attention should be sought immediately if feeling any of these symptoms after receiving the J&J vaccine:

  • Weakness or tingling sensations, especially in the legs or arms, that’s worsening and spreading to other parts of the body
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty with facial movements, including speaking, chewing, or swallowing
  • Double vision or inability to move eyes
  • Difficulty with bladder control or bowel function

Read the full updated FDA guidance for the J&J vaccine here.

What is Guillain-Barré Syndrome?

The syndrome is a rare disorder where the immune system begins to attack the body's own nervous system. The first symptoms are usually a tingling sensation in extremities such as fingers and toes. At its most severe form it can lead to paralysis but 60-80% of people can walk again after six months. The death rate is around 5%.

In the 100 cases of GBS detected in Johnson and Johnson vaccine recipients, 90% required hospital care and one has person died. Thea 57-year-old man had also had a heart attack and a stroke in the past four years, making it difficult to to pinpoint how much of a role GBS played in his death.

Each year in the United States, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS.