Why All the Handwringing Over a COVID-19 Vaccine’s Effectiveness?

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The media regularly inundate us with handwringing stories about whether a vaccine for COVID-19 will prevent people from contracting the disease.  But if absolute prevention from getting a disease is the criterion for success, we’d have to scrap the flu vaccine. 

Consider a Monday report in Politico: “White House pressure for a vaccine raises the risk U.S. will approve one that doesn’t work.” 

The headline is misleading. The story isn’t about a vaccine that doesn’t work so much as one that doesn’t effectively prevent contracting the disease. 

The reporter quotes medical ethicist and Joe Biden advisor Ezekiel Emanuel: “If you give an emergency use authorization, you’re likely going to make it hard to assess all these vaccines and to assess the thing we really care about: Are they effective in preventing infection? That’s the key.” 

But if “preventing infection” is the key, what does that mean for the flu vaccine, which, similar to the coronavirus, is a respiratory disease? 

Is the flu vaccine, which we are urged to take every year, absolutely effective in preventing the flu?  No. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Some people who get vaccinated may still get sick. However, flu vaccination has been shown in some studies to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.” 

The reason is there are different strains of the influenza virus. And they are constantly evolving. Drug makers make their best guess as to which strain will be most prevalent in a coming flu season and produce the appropriate vaccine. 

But the vaccine’s effectiveness in any given year depends on several factors, which the CDC highlights here

The point is the flu vaccine may prevent the flu in some but not all recipients. But at least it should reduce the symptoms allowing patients to recover more quickly. 

It’s possible a COVID-19 vaccine will have the same impact. And it’s likely that if the first iterations of the vaccine aren’t as effective as they should be, scientists and drug makers will learn from that experience and develop even more effective options. 

While the goal may be prevention, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

Drug makers are doing their best to come up with an effective vaccine in record time. It may not be perfect, but it will likely be a lot better than what we have right now—which is nothing.

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