Scientists knew the COVID-19 vaccines were highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, but didn’t know exactly how effective until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week showing what experts called a “modern miracle.”
As of Oct. 12, the agency found only 7,178 deaths occurred among fully vaccinated people in the U.S. In a country that has reported more than 720,000 COVID-related deaths, the fully vaccinated make up less than 1%
“We were all hoping for something to help save our neighbors and our patients and certainly this data is tremendous,” said Dr. Joseph Teel, vice chair of clinical operations for the department of family medicine and community health at Penn Medicine. “It’s a modern miracle in many ways.”
Fully vaccinated people who died from COVID-19 may make up an even smaller fraction of all COVID-related deaths, health experts say, as modeling has shown 728,000 deaths is likely an underestimation.
The vaccine is not a miracle because it worked, health experts say. Scientists have been working on mRNA technology for more than 30 years for other diseases. The COVID-19 vaccine is a miracle because it worked so well despite the uncertainty of a new disease among a diverse population, an unprecedented scale-up and a lack of uptake.
The odds were stacked against it but it still prevailed, said Kirsten Hokeness, professor and chair of the department of science and technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
“It’s very surprising that it works so well across the board,” she said. “We’re seeing consistent efficacy in different age groups, genders, ethnicities … for whatever reason, all the cards fell together.”
In November 2020, Pfizer-BioNTech’s clinical trial of 44,000 people showed their then-candidate COVID-19 vaccine was about 95% effective against infection. Moderna’s 30,000 person trial found it was about 94% effective.
Not long after, Johnson & Johnson released data from a large, human trial that showed its "one-and-done" shot was about 85% effective.
“When we first saw the data from the clinical trials, it almost felt like we were reading something that was inaccurate,” said Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “How in the world were we going to end up with a vaccine that was so exceptional?”
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Scientists expected the vaccines to be less effective in the real world, Hokeness said, but real-world data indicated they weren’t far off from what the clinical trials found.
“The way biology works is that things don’t work the way you predicted,” she said. “We’re continuously surprised by the success of this thing.”
This was especially surprising as the virus continues to rage at pandemic proportions and medical professionals are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 it causes. Other diseases like polio or smallpox were around for decades, even centuries, before a vaccine was widely available to the public.
Outbreaks were typically restricted to a number of months every year, experts added. COVID-19 has had no semblance of seasonality.
The COVID vaccine is “a league of its own,” Guest said. “This set of vaccines were studied to prevent severe disease and death and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
The vaccines continue to work exceptionally well despite the slow uptake in the U.S, experts say. As of Thursday, the CDC reported a little more than 57% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated.
Although many experts have moved away from the possibility of herd immunity, some say at least 70-90% of the population need to be fully vaccinated to protect the unvaccinated or those more susceptible to infection despite vaccination.
General Colin Powell’s passing is a grim reminder of that, Guest said. The 85-year-old former secretary of state died of COVID-related complications Monday while battling multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that attacks immune cells key to fighting off infections.
“The vaccine is less likely to work at fully capacity with people who have underlying health conditions,” Guest said. “His death is incredibly sad and another reason vaccinating everyone is so important.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC reports fully vaccinated make up less than 1% of COVID-19 deaths