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Detroit mayor OKs Johnson & Johnson vaccine after dissing it

'Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine, Moderna and Pfizer are the best,' Mike Duggan said earlier.
Image: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at daily briefing at the white house
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, speaking at the White House in February.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

DETROIT — The mayor changed course Friday and endorsed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as “safe and effective” after he turned down 6,200 doses of it, insisting that only “the best” would do for his city, meaning the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“I have full confidence that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is both safe and effective,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement. “We are making plans now for Johnson & Johnson to be a key part of our expansion of vaccine centers and are looking forward to receiving Johnson & Johnson vaccines in the next allocation.”

Later in the afternoon, Duggan released a statement in which he said the city "always intended to distribute Johnson & Johnson once the demand warranted it."

"The only reason we chose to not accept the first shipment of Johnson & Johnson was that we had enough capacity with Moderna and Pfizer to handle the 29,000 first and second dose appointments scheduled for the coming week," he said.

Duggan's course correction came after the senior adviser to the White House Covid-19 task force insisted that the mayor's remarks were a "misunderstanding."

"That was not actually the mayor's intent, and that was not the mayor's comment," Andy Slavitt told reporters Friday. "We've been in constant dialogue with Mayor Duggan who said, in fact, that was not what he said — or however it was reported."

But Duggan, a Democrat who had drawn mostly praise up until then for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine rollout, was recorded comparing the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during a Thursday news conference.

“Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine, Moderna and Pfizer are the best,” Duggan said. “And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best.”

Duggan also said he’d be willing to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but only if Detroit runs out of the other brands.

“There may come a day when we have more Detroiters asking for vaccines than we have Moderna, Pfizer, in which case we’ll set up a Johnson & Johnson site,” Duggan said.

Not long after that, Duggan started getting an earful.

“Mike Duggan, whose lifeblood is strategic political calculus, has really miscalculated this time,” Chad Livengood wrote Friday in Crain’s Detroit Business. “The Detroit mayor’s rejection of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine for Covid-19 is both confounding and dangerous for Michigan’s fight against the insidious virus that has consumed our lives for the past 12 months.”

Public health experts like Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said Duggan is undermining public faith in the single-shot vaccine which has been shown to be effective against Covid-19.

“Unfortunately, this is the new wave of misinformation that is hampering our ability to move towards eradicating the virus,” Khan said. “While there are, of course, differences across the ‘efficacy’ number output, the most important thing is that all three vaccines prevented 100% of hospitalization from COVID-19. That is critical and the reason we should move forward and not wait a single day when a dose is available to prevent severe disease. Especially because there are still so many people being hospitalized and dying daily.”

Summer Johnson McGee, who is dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, agreed.

“Suggesting that one vaccine is better or worse than the other is really counterproductive,” McGee said. “While we are racing trying to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible we should be focused on everyone getting the first vaccine available regardless of manufacturer or doses required. Leaders should be promoting everyone getting vaccinated ASAP, not pitting one vaccine against the other.”

Duggan is the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center and presides over a mostly Black and Latino and impoverished city that was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the Thursday news conference, Duggan insisted that every Detroit resident who was eligible to get a shot this week got one.

His chief spokesman, John Roach, reiterated that point Friday in an email to NBC News.

“Every single eligible Detroiter can call today, make an appointment and will receive either Pfizer or Moderna next week at the TCF Center,” said Roach, referring to the convention center in downtown Detroit. “When the state expands vaccine eligibility to the point vaccine demand exceeds the Moderna/Pfizer capacity at TCF, Detroit will open a second site offering J&J vaccines.”

But Michigan, which is expanding the pool of people eligible for vaccines to anybody age 50 and older with underlying health conditions, won't be getting any Johnson & Johnson doses for another two weeks, acting Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel told lawmakers Thursday.

NBC News has reached out to Johnson & Johnson for reaction to the Detroit developments and there was no immediate response. But the company has already been contending with confusion and questions about the effectiveness of it’s Covid-19 vaccine for weeks.

The questions have persisted even after experts like Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, stated categorically in an NBC News interview that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “will definitely keep you out of the hospital, keep you out of the ICU, and will keep you out of the morgue.”

And Offit would know. He was part of the panel of experts that voted unanimously in February to recommend that the Food and Drug Administration authorize the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use.

There are two main reasons why the Biden Administration is keen on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine into circulation.

First, only one dose is required. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two shots, three to four weeks apart.

Second, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, this one can be kept in regular refrigerators rather than in a specialized cold storage container, making them easier to transport and distribute at mass-vaccination events and in rural communities.

Einhorn reported from Detroit and Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey.