In the New York Times’s Morning Brief on Monday, editor David Leonhardt made a really important observation about the Covid vaccines: they’re more effective than we might think. He notes that the percentage effectiveness data we’ve seen so far—about 95 percent for two shots each of Pfizer and Moderna—sounds good but not perfect. But Leonhardt explains that effectiveness data actually understate the true impact of the vaccines.
When effectiveness data are calculated, mild cases post-vaccination are counted as failures. But a mild case of Covid, at least as far as we know, is more like a typical case of the flu. Leonhardt doesn’t address the unknowns of long-term effects of the disease, regardless of severity, which remain a black box at this time. But his point is that, even if you contract the virus after vaccination (low probability, at least, for the first two vaccines to be approved by the FDA), the chances of contracting severe, hospitalizing, deadly Covid is pretty much nil.
As this article about the Moderna vaccine in Science puts it, Moderna’s vaccine “had 100% efficacy against severe disease.” That same assessment is echoed in this article by Harvard infectious disease specialist Paul Sax in The New England Journal of Medicine. Writes Sax: “First, the [Pfizer and Moderna] vaccines prevented not only [almost] any disease due to SARS-CoV-2, but—quite importantly—severe disease. Prevention of severe disease could convert Covid-19 from the global threat it is now into more of a nuisance, like the common cold.” He also notes that “some protection became apparent just 10 to 14 days after the first dose.”
Even the yet-to-be-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine (66 percent effective) and Novavax vaccine (89 percent effective) need to be understood in the same way. While data indicates that more test subjects contracted Covid than with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the lower effectiveness percentages don’t communicate that these vaccines still prevented severe disease among those who got Covid post-vaccination.
So, as we all hunker down, awaiting our turn for a shot, amidst scary news of the new super-spreading Covid variants, there’s good reason to feel more optimistic. And we can each help others stay healthy, after we’re fortunate to have been vaccinated, to keep wearing those masks to avoid any chance of spreading mild or symptom-free Covid to others who are not yet protected.
It may sound trite, but it merits repeating: We are truly all in this together.
Image: Thom Holmes