It just doesn’t get any easier, does it? Here we are over a year into the pandemic and instead of celebrating what we hoped would be the “home stretch," we’re bracing ourselves for the 3rd wave. And the vaccines that once felt like the solution to everything have also become a new source of stress for many: When will I get mine? Which one will I get? And perhaps the one we hear most often… Which one is the best??
You’d think that was easy to answer just by looking at the numbers that are commonly associated with their efficacy: 95%, 94%, 62%... But what does that all mean? Well, to be honest, not as much as you'd think!
So then, what is efficacy? How does it differ from being effective? Although the words are often used interchangeably, there’s a pretty big difference, and it has to do with how controlled the circumstances are. Efficacy is determined in clinical trials. Vaccines are tested using 2 groups: a “vaccine group” – the group that receives the vaccine, and the “control group,” the group that didn’t. Efficacy simply compares the results of the 2 groups.
Since these trials of the various vaccines took place at different times, different places, and under different circumstances, comparing the efficacy of one vaccine’s trial results and another doesn’t really say a whole lot. It's sort of like comparing the scores in a hockey shootout and a slam dunk contest. The results can't really be compared to each other, because the conditions are completely different.
So that’s efficacy. But what does “effective” mean?” This refers to outcomes in the “real world," like how well the vaccine works under less controlled conditions, such as with medications people may take, their general health, and so forth. All the available vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. And that may be the most important thing, especially when the alternative could mean being placed on a ventilator because of a severe case of COVID-19.
Regardless of effectiveness, taking any vaccine never comes without some risk. There are a lot of questions right now about what’s safe… and that’s a good thing! People’s feelings of concern are very legitimate and valid, especially in such stressful times as these. However, just because there is risk, does that mean we shouldn’t consider it at all?
Every day of our lives, we assess risk. For instance, consider the risks we take when we get in a car, go swimming, or even when we choose what to eat. We understand that there could be an adverse effect to doing these things, but after assessing the risks, we typically choose to go ahead with them. Or if we have good evidence to believe that we shouldn’t – like the roads are icy, or we have a food allergy, we might decide to change our decision. Right now, the evidence shows that the risk is incredibly small for most people and the benefits of protection are considerable.
What is also clear is that, for the vast majority, waiting for a different vaccine is far riskier. In fact, the risk of serious health consequences from COVID-19 is much more likely than from a vaccine. Yes, levels of risk might change depending on your age or medical history, so if you have reason to believe this could be the case for you, your best bet is to contact your health care provider to help you consider the risks and benefits. As we carry on in this pandemic, the situation we face is definitely not ideal. If it were, we would have the benefit of all the choices we want and complete autonomy when it comes to our health. But without exaggeration, these are life and death circumstances: A serious virus and a pandemic with a reduced supply of vaccine. So with that in mind, our message remains the same: to protect yourself as soon as possible, please take the first vaccine available to you.
Because the best vaccine is the first one you can get in your arm.