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All 5 COVID vaccines are even more effective at preventing deaths than we originally thought

covid vaccines effective preventing death hospitalization
Photo via New York National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

All five coronavirus vaccines with public results have eliminated COVID-19 deaths and reduced hospitalizations, even with a slower-than-hoped-for rollout, as noted by the New York Times in a Feb. 1 “Good Vaccine News” update. So, if you’re wondering how effective are the COVID vaccines, there’s been more optimism lately.

“They’re all good trial results,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the newspaper. “It’s great news.”

The article noted that many people are instead focusing on relatively minor differences among the vaccine results and assuming that those differences mean that vaccines that haven’t performed as well as others in trials won’t prevent serious illnesses. 

Julia Marcus, a Harvard Medical School epidemiologist, wrote in a Jan. 27 piece for The Atlantic, “Although scientists are still learning about how much the two government-approved vaccines reduce transmission of the coronavirus, the evidence shows that their efficacy against disease is phenomenal. Although not zero-risk, close contact between two people is safer if one has received a vaccine, and safer still if both are vaccinated. For this reason, public health experts elsewhere in the world are emphasizing hope.” 

Another New York Times article, from Jan. 29, noted that even the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, though showing lower efficacy than the Pfizer and Moderna two-dose vaccines, was effective in warding off serious disease from COVID-19. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking in a Jan. 29 briefing, initially pointed out the difference among the vaccines by asking, “If you woke up and you say, ‘Well, go to the door on the left and you get 94 or 95%, go to the door on the right and you get 72%,’ which door do you want to go to?”

Fauci then elaborated, saying the more crucial measure was the ability to prevent severe disease, lowering hospitalization numbers and preventing deaths. Johnson & Johnson, by those measures, has 85% efficacy in the countries where it was tested, including South Africa, where, as the article noted, “a rapidly spreading variant of the virus had shown some ability to elude vaccines.” 

All five of the vaccines approved for use in the U.S. or in late-stage clinical trials—from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson—have shown to be effective against the worst COVID-19 outcomes. 

Out of the approximately 75,000 people who have received a research trial vaccine, only a few were hospitalized, with none of them remaining in a hospital 28 days after getting the vaccine. None of them has died. 

Compare that to a random group of 75,000 American adults since the pandemic started. Based on the numbers compiled so far, 150 in that group have died of COVID-19, and several hundred more have been hospitalized. 

National Geographic, in making the case for relying on vaccinations over just herd immunity, noted, “The reality is that most of the world—including 90% of the United States—remains susceptible to infection by the coronavirus virus, despite the global toll so far. Banking on natural infection to control the outbreak would lead to months, if not years, of a dismaying cycle in which cases subside and then surge. Even if such community-mediated protection were established, it would be constantly eroded by the birth of children and the real possibility that immunity in those previously infected would wane.” 

“It’s very unlikely that we’re going to see elimination of COVID-19 altogether from the population simply through the buildup of natural immunity,” noted Virginia Pitzer, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who specializes in the mathematical modeling of how diseases spread. But she noted, with an effective vaccine added to the mix, “then it is theoretically possible that we could eliminate the virus.” 

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Sources: New York Times [1], [2], The Atlantic, National Geographic