Should I still worry that the vaccines are less effective against some variants?
Part of the problem is that we misinterpret what efficacy really means. When someone hears the term “70 percent efficacy,” for instance, they might wrongly conclude that it means 30 percent of vaccinated people would get sick. That’s not the case. Even if a vaccine loses some ground to a variant, a large portion of people are still protected, and only a fraction of vaccinated people will get infected. Here’s why.
To understand efficacy, consider the data from the Pfizer clinical trials. In the unvaccinated group of 21,728, a total of 162 people got infected. But in the vaccinated group of 21,720, only eight people became infected. That’s what is referred to as 95 percent efficacy. It doesn’t mean that 5 percent of the participants (or 1,086 of them) got sick. It means 95 percent fewer vaccinated people got infected compared to the unvaccinated group.
Now imagine a hypothetical scenario with a vaccine that is 70 percent effective against a more challenging variant. Under the same conditions of the clinical trial, vaccination would still protect 21,672 people in the group, and just 48 vaccinated people — less than one percent — would become infected, compared to 162 in the unvaccinated group. Even though overall efficacy was lower, only a fraction of vaccinated people in this scenario would get infected, most likely with only mild illness.
While far more research is needed to fully understand how variants might dodge some (but not all) vaccine antibodies, public health experts note that an estimate of 50 percent to 70 percent efficacy against a challenging variant would still be considered an adequate level of protection.
“Seventy percent is extremely high,” said Dr. Stern. “Basically what this means is that it’s even more important to get vaccinated. If you have 95 percent efficacy, you can create some form of herd immunity with less people. With 70 percent efficacy, it’s even more important to get vaccinated to protect others.”
Am I going to need a booster shot?
Vaccine makers already are working on developing booster shots that will target the variants, but it’s not clear how soon they might be needed. “In time, you’re going to see a recommendation for a booster,” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “That booster will elevate everybody’s antibodies and increase durability. The booster will probably be configured to target the South African and Brazil variants.”
Given all these unknowns about the variants, shouldn’t I just stay home even after I’m vaccinated?
Even amid the rise of variants, vaccines will significantly lower your risk for infection and will protect you from serious illness and hospitalization. People who are vaccinated can socialize, unmasked, with other vaccinated people. While vaccinated people still need to follow local health guidelines about wearing a mask and gathering in groups to protect the unvaccinated, vaccinated people can travel, get their hair and nails done, or go to work without worrying. And vaccinated grandparents can hug their unvaccinated grandchildren. Because there are still some outstanding questions about the risk of vaccinated people carrying the virus, a vaccinated person is still advised to wear a mask in public to protect the unvaccinated — although those guidelines may be updated soon.