Pandemic Panacea: restoring hope following COVID vaccinations

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | May 10, 2021

Photo by Nikita Senthil (’23)

After over a year, the future is finally looking up in California, which currently has the lowest percentage of cases and positive test rates in the entire nation, and where daily deaths have fallen 90% since the state’s peak in January 2021. The sunshine state is truly fulfilling its name: more than 61% of Californian adults have been inoculated with at least one vaccine dose, and infectious variants are far and few between. However, as the death toll mounts in India and a few American states, the global end of such devastation seems out of reach. While the world is on tenterhooks, public health officials are urging people to do their part and follow proven methods to combat the virus.

A social media trend amongst younger generations has vaccinated individuals bragging about receiving the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines instead of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine, since the latter’s lower efficacy rate of 66% appears to mark it inferior. However, before rushing to pass judgment, one must understand the science behind clinical trials. In vaccine clinical trials, each participant receives an injection; one group receives a placebo, while another receives the actual vaccine. The total number of people who contract the virus by the trial’s conclusion is then calculated, regardless of their group. A vaccine is 100% effective if all positive cases occurred in the placebo group and none appeared in the vaccinated group. As a result, if a person receives a vaccine with a 95% efficacy rate, they are 95% less likely than an unvaccinated person to get sick each time they are exposed to the virus; this rate does not mean that if 100 people are vaccinated, 5 will get sick.

In addition, clinical trials depend on factors like location. For example, Moderna and Pfizer conducted their trials in the U.S in the summer of 2020. On the other hand, J&J conducted their trials last winter globally, allowing for more opportunities for participants to be exposed to more variants of the virus. In fact, 67% of cases from the J&J trial resulted from the South African B.1.351 variant rather than the original U.S. strain. By comparing efficacy rates, one fails to consider other important factors, such as the strains against which the vaccine was tested. Efficacy does matter, but one must remember that all approved vaccines are 100% effective at preventing death and hospitalization. The CDC and other global health organizations are encouraging citizens to get any vaccine as soon as possible in order to reach the ultimate goal of herd immunity.

The frightening surge of cases and variants in other countries contributes to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s end. Scientists believe that two mutations are responsible for the mounting cases in India. Dr. Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, states, “The steep, rapid increase in cases is really quite startling. It’s probably the result of relaxed social distancing, a lot of social gatherings including religious gatherings, also combined with new variants.” This wave is just another reminder that although the virus is not visible, its effects are all too apparent, and we must not let our guard down too soon. Continuing vaccine rollout efforts and safe practices will mitigate community spread of the virus, limiting the possibility of even more variants emerging.

The Biden administration recently announced that $1.7 billion from its COVID-19 relief bill will fund sequencing and identifying variants, providing more clarity on breakthrough cases, those which pertain to vaccinated and supposedly immune people contracting the virus. Studying this relationship between vaccines and variants is incredibly important, as they can affect the intensity of COVID-19 waves in hotspots. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. will “start to see a turning around of the dynamics” for the better if the country continues its current vaccination pace. Through this rapidly evolving situation, we must never lose hope.

Categories: Column, Science

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