Here’s Everything We Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines
Editor’s Note: As we’ve witnessed since March, information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is constantly changing — and the latest on the vaccine is no exception. While we aim to keep our articles as up-to-date as possible, please be sure to check the CDC website as well for the latest news. Curious about how the COVID-19 vaccines were created? We’ve covered that in How Was the COVID-19 Vaccine Developed?
Throughout 2020, the world’s leading scientists, virologists and researchers worked tirelessly to engineer safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time. And, in November, all of that work precipitated into some exciting news: Both Pfizer and Moderna released statements outlining the promising news that, in recent trials, their vaccines had demonstrated remarkable success in preventing COVID-19.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pfizer's vaccine for Emergency Use Authorization on December 11, 2020, and, just a week later, the authorization was issued for Moderna's vaccine. A third vaccine, created by Janssen, was given Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA on February 27 2021. Sometime this spring, a fourth vaccine candidate, developed by AstraZeneca, might join them. In the days immediately following the Pfizer authorization, shots were shipped out across the country and healthcare workers began receiving the first doses of that vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine formulations require two full doses and, in the end, are remarkably effective, with a 94-95% efficacy rate. The Janssen vaccine requires one dose, has an efficacy rate of 66% against moderate COVID-19 cases, and 85% efficacy against severe COVID-19.
As the vaccine rollout continues, we’re taking a look at the effectiveness of the vaccine distribution and fact-checking some of Americans’ biggest safety concerns when it comes to immunization.
How Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Going So Far?
Since the vaccine rollout started in the U.S. on December 14, 2020, upwards of 76.9 million doses have been administered, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), means about 15.3% of the U.S. population has received at least the first dose.
However, because the rollout differs on a state-by-state basis, it’s difficult to paint a broad, national picture. In fact, the states that are doing the best job of efficiently immunizing their citizens don’t have a whole lot else in common. As of early March 2021, Alaska, New Mexico, Connecticut and West Virginia are leading the charge. According to the CDC, West Virginia and Alaska both have nearly 12-13% of their population vaccinated, while Connecticut and Mexico boast numbers closer to 9-10%.
Connecticut is utilizing an age-based rollout plan and requiring folks to sign up for vaccination appointments when their age group becomes eligible, ensuring that they receive one of the state’s 50,000 weekly doses. Although Governor Ned Lamont says a higher vaccine allotment would be preferable, he also notes that it's important to stick to a schedule. "The number one bottleneck is probably the incredibly customized and specialized equipment that you need to mix the vaccines," Governor Lamont told WTNH. "It is not something you mass produce, we knew that, but we also knew that three months ago." Long story short, preparation — and having a solid rollout plan — proved to be key. Still, Lamont is opening new vaccine distribution centers and calling upon the National Guard to help keep up with the vaccine demand.
Meanwhile, West Virginia’s key to success has been utilizing local, small-town pharmacies to help make the vaccine more accessible and its distribution process more efficient. This decentralized method of distribution has put the small state ahead of so many larger ones, which are currently struggling to vaccinate their populations. Early on, some states were so underprepared that they ended up wasting vaccine doses, especially the Pfizer version, which doesn’t have a very long shelf life. In Florida and New York, there still aren’t enough doses to go around, which means a deluge of canceled appointments. In Southern California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has tapped Blue Shield to create a centralized vaccine sign up hub to mitigate the initial chaos resulting from a lack of vaccine supply.
Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe?
President Biden has stated that he hopes to deliver 100 million vaccinations into Americans’ arms in the first 100 days of his presidency. Looking beyond April, President Biden’s administration has also outlined a plan to purchase an additional 200 million vaccine doses from both Pfizer and Moderna, all while using "the Defense Production Act to help smooth other bottlenecks, such as limited supplies of syringes or protective gear" (via NPR). While investing in more doses means that all Americans who want to get vaccinated can, we also shouldn’t expect that order to be fulfilled until this summer, which means many eager Americans who are not part of high-risk groups will have to be patient.
Still, even though many Americans are eagerly awaiting their turn to get immunized, others have expressed some concerns. While the rapid development of these vaccines is an unprecedented achievement, a 2020 Gallup survey found that 11% of adults in the U.S. believe vaccines are "more dangerous than the diseases they prevent." Of course, that survey was conducted prior to the pandemic, but it’s clear that preexisting vaccine concern, plus this fast-tracked development, might have some folks worried.
In our COVID-19 Vaccine Fact Check, we took a deep dive into some of the most common questions and concerns surrounding the vaccine. But, to keep things short, the vaccine has been deemed both safe and effective. Before a vaccine is deemed safe, it goes through what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls "rigorous" testing from both developers and the FDA.
Some Americans fear the vaccine will actually make them sick — so what’s the deal there? "No matter the vaccine — and no matter what a vaccine is fighting against — injection is often accompanied by mild side effects, including fatigue, swelling, pain and redness at the injection site, all of which usually clear up within 24 hours," our colleagues at Reference found. "In fact, these types of side effects ‘show that the vaccine is working, because it stimulates the immune system and the body forms antibodies against the infection that is only ‘feigned’ by the vaccination.’"
The bottom line? Get vaccinated. While getting a vaccine doesn’t mean you're completely immune to contracting COVID-19, it will help build herd immunity — a state at which enough people are immune to the virus that spreading the pathogen from person to person becomes less common. And, although the efficacy rates of both vaccines are impressively high, they aren’t foolproof: Keep wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, maintaining effective hygiene practices and sheltering in place as much as possible.
How Are Experts Accounting for COVID-19 Variants?
The emergence of variants isn’t surprising: it’s well-established that RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 mutate frequently. However, just because it’s bound to happen doesn’t mean it isn’t cause for concern. The largest of those concerns? Variants that are more transmissible will undoubtedly lead to more hospitalizations and strain on the healthcare system. Additionally, researchers are still learning basic information about these variants and how they differ from the novel coronavirus strain that the vaccines were specifically designed to fight against.
So, what’s being done on the vaccine end to account for the latest variants? According to The Wall Street Journal, Moderna has tested its vaccine against several emerging variants, such as those strains that first emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa. While the company’s vaccine appears to be effective against such variants, it may have "a weaker response to the South Africa variant." In an effort to be preemptive, Moderna plans to test whether or not a booster shot can help improve efficacy when it comes to vaccinating against these — and future — variants.
Additionally, researchers appear to be finding that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which the World Health Organization granted emergency approval in mid-February, offers "minimal protection" against the South African variant. Details are still emerging, but developers are planning an autumn 2021 rollout for a modified version of the vaccine that's formulated specifically to create immunity against the South African variant. For now, we’ll have to wait for more information to come out about this developing story.
Learn More About the COVID-19 Vaccines
These articles and resources can help you learn more about a variety of topics related to the COVID-19 vaccines.