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Speaking of Science

Speaking of Science: A lot to be thankful for -- a look at the impact of Covid-19 vaccines

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Age-adjusted rates of COVID-19-associated hospitalizations

Age-adjusted rates of COVID-19-associated hospitalizations in adults demonstrates the much higher hospitalization rate for unvaccinated individuals. 

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article expressing optimism at the announcement of three different Covid-19 vaccines with over 90% efficacy against illness.

The news was especially welcome: Covid-19 cases had reached a new high that would only continue to go up through the end-of-year holidays. For many people worried about infecting more vulnerable loved ones, the news promised hope that not only would we make it out of the pandemic, we might be able to celebrate safely together by the next holiday season. It truly was a moment to be thankful for.

Despite how excited many of us were for vaccines that might allow a “return to normal,” as we sit down to Thanksgiving this year, it feels like a lot of that gratitude is already gone. We’ve endured variants, repeated surges in cases, and concerns over complications from vaccines and Covid-19 itself. Many of the same people I spoke to in March of 2020 who were impatient for a cure to Covid-19 even as the pandemic began remain unwilling to get vaccinated almost two years into the pandemic. Others voice frustration that despite vaccines, mask mandates and gathering restrictions are still commonplace as we fight regular waves of infection. In the wake of all this, it’s easy to lose sight of how far we’ve actually come thanks to the dedication of health care professionals, scientists, and so many others working around the clock to keep us, and our families, safe. We really do have a lot to be grateful for:

We can protect ourselves and our loved onesThe Covid-19 vaccines were a game changer in the war against SARS-CoV-2: Covid-19 went from the leading cause of death in the US in December 2021 to spot seven in July of 2021, and new Covid-19 infection numbers dropped by over 40% in the US within just three months of the vaccination rollout program. Even now, almost a year later as some protection from vaccines begins to wear off and more infectious variants such as delta continue to circulate, vaccine protection is still impressively high. The most up-to-date analyzed data from the end of August, when the delta variant made up 98.8% of infections, shows that vaccinated individuals remained 6x less likely to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and 15x less likely to be hospitalized even if infected. In addition, another study out just under a month ago from Israel found that boosters further reduce hospitalization, severe disease, and Covid-19 related death. This provides more evidence that vaccines continue to be effective under increasingly difficult situations, even if the immune system requires an additional booster-based training session (for more on boosters and training the immune system, try here.)

All of this is particularly good news as we enter the holiday season and plan to spend time with loved ones. While we’ve gotten better at treating Covid-19 in general, the outcomes for individuals who become sick still varies widely with factors such as age and other health conditions. As of September 2021, individuals even as young as 40 are 10x more likely to die if infected with Covid-19 than 18 to 29-year-olds. The number increase to 30x for individuals 50-64 and 90x for individuals 65-74. And while increasing mortality is a common trend for many viral infections, the risks of death from Covid-19 compared to the common flu is over 3x greater for individuals in their 60s, and nearly 15x greater for individuals in their 80s. In other words, even if many of us are likely to recover from Covid-19 just fine, there is an even greater chance that those we bring it home to might not be so lucky.

Although ability to lower personal risk can be widely unfair depending on work environment, personal resources, and underlying conditions, everyone living in the United States who wants a Covid-19 vaccine or booster can get one for free. With the recent expansion of vaccine eligibility to children aged 5 to 11, it is now far easier to ensure that older relatives or family members with underlying health conditions can see almost all members of their family without being put at increased risk. Most of the world is not so fortunate.

Officials have done an amazing job ensuring vaccines are safeAside from being incredibly effective, studies continue to demonstrate that vaccines are very safe. Just last month, a new US study that looked at 11 million individuals found that the standardized mortality rate from things other than Covid-19 was actually lower for vaccinated people. In other words, the Covid-19 vaccines are not causing increased risk of death from complications such as vaccine side effects.

I’m often asked how confident I am that officials aren’t just missing or overlooking serious long-term vaccine side effects. This is a reasonable concern: after all, evidence for rare blood clots and Guillain-Barré syndrome only emerged after the FDA approved Covid-19 vaccines. However, looking at numbers suggests the only reason we didn’t see such side effects in initial clinical trials is that they are simply too rare to be detected. For instance, the 0.00009% chance of blood clots from the J and J vaccine is so low, that out of the 43,000 stage three clinical trial participants, only 0.04 “people” would be expected to experience them. In addition, we know that vaccine side effects are being scrutinized unbelievably closely because last April, health professionals and scientists were able to identify blood clots as a potential short term side effect of the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine from just 6 self-reported entries in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Although vaccines rarely if ever cause long term side effects because they just aren’t in the body long enough (in contrast to something like aspirin or ibuprofen), careful monitoring of databases such as VAERS for nearly a year indicates there aren’t other effects waiting to be discovered. We’ve looked hard, and the vaccines are safe.

We’ve all learned more about science and the way that it works.The damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic cannot and should not be understated. We’ve lost loved ones, been separated from each other, and seen already vulnerable and suffering groups plunged further into harm’s way. But if there is one sliver of a silver lining I can find, it is that we’ve all learned a bit more about science. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen more people genuinely curious about viruses and the immune system, and many others now interested in pursuing medical or research fields. Learning to navigate the world of emerging Covid-19 data has been incredibly frustrating, but it’s also demonstrated what science can do for humanity when given proper attention and resources. In the past couple of years, I’ve felt incredibly honored every time someone from my past has reached out, wanting to learn more about biology, or the scientific process in general.

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