Are Some COVID Vaccines Better Than Others?

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Well, it’s finally happening: vaccines are rolling out all around the world, and especially here in the United States where we are actually being exceptional in a good way. It’s been a long four years. But yeah, apparently we’ve already dished out more than 93 million vaccines as of this recording, which is incredible! That’s about a third of all the vaccines that have been distributed worldwide.

As I mentioned in the past, I know that I’m going to be at the end of the line: I don’t have any known comorbidities, I’m young(ish), and I can work from home for the foreseeable future, so I’m happy to see other people get it ahead of me. That said, I have signed up for two different efforts that might help me get a vaccine sooner (legally and fairly!): first, I got on a list that will send me an alert if a healthcare provider has a vaccine that’s going to go bad and be thrown away if it’s not used RIGHT NOW (usually due to someone canceling an appointment) — I still had to fill out age and comorbidity information so I assume I will be at the end of THAT list as well but hey, if I’m the only person around who can use a vaccine I will take it! There are similar alerts in various states around the country, so I recommend you do a little Googling if you’d like to be on one!

The other thing I signed up for is called MyTurn, and it’s a new initiative launched by California that lets you volunteer to help other people get vaccines, and after you put in a solid day of work you can get your own vaccine! It’s such a cool idea, and you don’t need to be a medical professional. Vaccine distributors can use people who help in a variety of ways, like greeting people who show up for their appointments. When I signed up there were no opportunities in my area but as more vaccine distribution centers get set up, the more opportunities there will be. And how cool would it be to know that you helped people get vaccinated against this pandemic? Pretty awesome, and I’m hoping other states follow California’s lead on it.

Still, if neither of those things get me a vaccine sooner than expected, I’m still optimistic that I will be vaccinated before the fall, which is what I’ve been hoping for. And with a little luck, maybe I will get to experience an almost-normal summer. Exciting!

Because I’ve always assumed that I will be last on the vaccine list and I will literally take whatever they’ve got, one thing I have NOT thought a lot about until recently is which vaccine I want. I just figure hey, they’re all good and they’re all better than nothing, right? But there are people out there who are very concerned about the differences between them, as I learned when the mayor of Detroit announced that the city would reject 6,200 Johnson & Johnson vaccines because they’d rather give their citizens a vaccine with 95% efficacy instead of 72%. Ooh, shots fired! And not into people’s arms, as shots should be fired during a pandemic. The shots in this joke are vaccines. Sorry, I will move on.

I saw a lot of people on social media get super angry at Detroit for doing that — like I said, all the vaccines are good, right? And we are in a pandemic, right? Take what you can get!

And that was my thought at first, too, but the more I thought about it the more I thought, well, no Rebecca that’s not quite right.

Because first of all, Detroit wasn’t rejecting vaccines they need: they already had enough Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to cover their population. While vaccine makers have had to hustle to produce enough vaccines for everyone, the biggest hurdle we face is getting the vaccines out to medical professionals and then the massive logistical headache of organizing it so that millions of people can have access to the vaccine in an orderly fashion. Like, some places are setting up all-night clinics. California is petitioning people to volunteer. There’s a lot of work to be done — we aren’t just mailing every household a batch of vaccines, you know?

So yeah, they were rejecting vaccines that they didn’t need anyway. But it’s still not great optics when an entire city says “No, thank you, we do not want this one particular vaccine.” Like, that’s going to pique some people’s curiosity, and some of those people were already hesitant to get the vaccine because they don’t think it will work or they think Bill Gates is going to use it to track them as though Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t already know exactly what’s in their colon at any random minute.

And that’s not good! We want people to know that the vaccine they will get will be safe and effective.

But as Maggie Koerth pointed out on Twitter the other day, we (as science communicators) can’t counter that by saying “there’s no difference between the vaccines, just shut up and get one.” Because really, we don’t know that there’s no difference. 

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were found to be about 95% effective. The J&J vaccine was found to be about 72% effective, so if we say “they’re the same” then vaccine skeptics will say “um, that’s obviously a lie because 95 is way better than 72.” What we can say is that the J&J vaccine was tested under very different circumstances — by the time it was in trials, COVID-19 had already mutated several times. We don’t really know how the other vaccines would do in the same circumstance — it’s possible that they’re all about as effective, but that’s the kind of information we will only know for sure after another month or so of vaccinations.

So they may differ in efficacy, and they also differ in other ways: the biggest one is that J&J is a single shot as opposed to two, which means vaccine hesitant people may be more interested in that one. One and done! Easy! Especially good for people like me, who are easily distracted and might just, like, forget to show up for the second appointment. I mean, I 100% would show up for my 2nd COVID vaccine but if I didn’t realize how important it is? Maybe not!

People are also reporting fewer adverse effects from the J&J vaccine. Besides rare, serious allergic reactions there are no adverse effects that should dissuade anyone from getting the vaccine, but as we get more information it appears that different vaccines do different things to different people: more than 15% of people reported side effects like fever and muscle aches after their 2nd shot of Moderna compared with 2% of J&J.

But here’s the important way that these vaccines are similar: data is still trickling in, but it seems as though all these vaccines prevent hospitalizations and deaths at a consistently high rate. Note that that’s not the same as efficacy — it doesn’t mean one might not be better at making sure you don’t get sick at all, but it does mean that they’re all doing a really good job of keeping people alive and out of our struggling hospitals. That’s very big and very good news.

(Note that some people are saying they’re all 100% effective at keeping people out of hospitals and morgues but that’s not true. Check out The Atlantic article for a deep dive but honestly the details aren’t important for everyone to know. The important thing to know is that they appear to all do a very good job of reducing deaths and hospitalizations, but exactly to what extent we don’t yet know.)

Finally I want to end with something important that I sort of took for granted but I now realize a lot of people haven’t considered it: whatever your first vaccine is, it probably will not be your last. Once we get everyone through this first big round of vaccinations, we’ll know a lot more about which vaccine works best, which has the least severe side effects, and importantly, how long immunity lasts with each one. All of that will inform which vaccine you get next, and at that point you will probably have a choice of some sort. I mean, this is America so by “have a choice” I mean “your paycheck and your insurance provider will probably tell you which one you can get” but still.

I say all of this because while it’s easier to tell the general public “all the vaccines are the same, just get whatever,” it’s not necessarily better. We have a very tricky tightrope to walk between keeping things simple (it really doesn’t matter which vaccine you get right now), but not lying to people (the vaccines are all different in at least small ways). Giving them hope (once we’re all vaccinated we can probably get back to “normal”) but not giving them a false sense of security (the vaccines aren’t a cure-all and even if you’re vaccinated you should probably still take some precautions to protect yourself and those around you, especially those who aren’t vaccinated). 

All that said, I do hope you are feeling a bit of optimism. The vaccines are working, we can see the impact they’re having, and things are going to get better very soon. Hang in there, kittens.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I’m taking the usual “side effect” advice with many grains of salt now.

    I got my first shot (Moderna) almost 2 weeks ago. Everyone had been saying that the worst side effect I could expect would be a day or two of mild flu-like symptoms. However, I was sick with something like a bad cold (or “what’s going around”) for a week.

    I’m not looking forward to what will happen when I get the second shot, but it won’t stop me. The side effect was not fun, but it was a whole lot better than getting COVID. (I know a number of people who’ve gotten it, and even though they’re recovering, it was really nasty, and they still haven’t really recovered.)

    Fortunately, I’m retired, so I didn’t have to take any days off work :-)

  2. Got my first dose of Pfizer Monday. Only side effects were a sore upper arm muscle and a very slight headache. Both are gone now. The headache may have been due to lack of coffee rather than the vaccine. Oh, and another side effect: elation.

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