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The Reality of Numbers in Vaccines: Why You Shouldn’t Focus on Numbers in Defeating COVID-19

By Dorothy Geraga

PHOTO: The Dallas Morning News

Throughout the pandemic era, vaccines have been developed to progress in eradicating the coronavirus that has been on the throne since 2019 — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), causing Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

COVID-19 grew its number of cases from Wuhan in China to other parts of the world. It put people hospitalized, worst, death. This pandemic put cities and countries to lockdown and such. This threat pushed professionals all over the globe to study the virus and develop vaccines.

Today, in the year 2021, many vaccines have been out and distributed to countries to get the people vaccinated. However, governments and leaders look through the vaccines created by different organizations, based on the numbers. It is normal for them to choose the best for their people. But, according to Vox, it is not best to judge the effectiveness of the vaccines through their efficacy percentage. 

Efficacy matters but doesn’t matter the most. In the YouTube video by Vox, it is explained that the vaccine efficacy is calculated in large clinical trials. The participants of the trials are divided into two groups: the vaccinated group and the placebo group. After that, the participants are observed for several months. If the number of cases in both groups is equal, it means that the vaccine has a zero percent efficacy rate. But, if the number of people who got infected by the virus all belongs to the placebo group, it indicates that the vaccine has a 100 percent efficacy. 

For instance, there were 43,000 participants in the trials for Pfizer/BioNTech. Ultimately, 170 of the participants tested positive for the virus. 162 of those belong to the placebo group, while eight out of 170 were vaccinated. This indicates that the vaccine has a 95 percent efficacy rate. Moreover, it means that a person who gets vaccinated by this vaccine has a 95 percent chance of not getting infected. The calculation per vaccine is the same. However, the trials occur in different conditions. 

According to Dr. Deborah Fuller, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, "So, one of the biggest considerations here, when we look at these numbers is the timing in which these clinical trials were performed."

Johnson & Johnson vaccine with a 66 percent efficacy as the trials occurred when the virus would spike due to climate influence in the United States of America (U.S.A) and other factors. Not just that, J&J also did their trials in other parts of the world such as South Africa and Brazil — which have other COVID variants taking over the regions. Comparing the said vaccine to Pfizer/BioNTech with a 95, it seems like it is the worse out of the two by just looking at the numbers. However, considering the conditions when and where both of the vaccines were tested out, a significant difference is also observed. 

Amesh Adalja, MD, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, stated in the interview with Vox, "If you're trying to make one-to-one, head-to-head comparisons between vaccines, they need to have been studied at the same trial, with the same inclusion criteria, in the same parts of the world, at the same time."

Meanwhile, Fuller also pointed out that if Pfizer and Moderna — a vaccine with 94 percent efficacy —also did the same time of trials as J&J did, the numbers would have been different as well.

It implies that we should not just depend and look at the numbers, as those are only the implications of the trials made. Thus, the point of vaccines is not to keep people fully uninfected by the virus but to protect and lessen the damage.

As to what Adalja said, “The goal of a vaccine program for COVID-19 is not necessarily to get ‘COVID-zero’, but it’s to tame this virus to defang it, to remove its ability to cause serious disease, hospitalization, and death.” 

Nevertheless, vaccine effectiveness should not be fully criticized by its efficacy numbers but by what it can do. Vaccines are made to strengthen people's immunity to prevent hospitalizations and death. The progress of the development of such vaccines and herd vaccinations, simply, is already a step up to the eradication of COVID-19 and should not be looked at as an insignificant matter on our way to triumph and freedom.


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