Which COVID Vaccine Should You Get?
Now that there are three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, you may be tempted to shop around to find a particular one. Some people may want the convenience of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot and its low rate of side effects. Others may be interested in the extremely high efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna two-shot mRNA vaccines.
But this is a false dilemma: You should get the vaccine that’s available soonest (unless you and your doctor have real concerns). All three vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective against severe complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
How effective? In clinical trials, all three prevented hospitalizations and death, the worst outcomes of the virus. While these were not the primary outcomes measured (symptomatic infections were), this effectiveness continues to play out in post-vaccination studies. Very few people who have been fully vaccinated are getting sick and even fewer are hospitalized.
It’s also true that there are slight differences in side effects. People who get the J&J vaccine tend to experience fewer of them, but each vaccine produces side effects, mostly mild, in some patients. These side effects are short-lived.
The bottom line: You’ve waited this long for the vaccine; you shouldn’t shop around when the opportunity to get the vaccine presents itself. The faster everyone gets vaccinated, the faster we will be able to return to normal.
The Difference in Efficacy Isn’t That Important
You may have read a lot about the efficacy of each vaccine. It’s true that there are differences. In the United States, Moderna and Pfizer each were 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Johnson & Johnson’s efficacy was 66 percent in its trial, which included participants from other countries. On the surface, this looks like it’s two-thirds as effective as the other vaccines.
But this is an unfair comparison. The clinical trials that produced these results were different from each other, and researchers say comparing the actual efficacy percentages doesn’t take these differences into consideration. For example, take the timing of the phase 3 trials, where the vaccines were tested in real world conditions. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were tested last October and November when COVID cases were lower. Johnson & Johnson entered phase 3 trials in December and January, during the biggest outbreak of the coronavirus. J&J’s vaccine also had to deal with more widespread and communicable variants than the earlier vaccines did.
Finally, J&J’s phase 3 trial took place not only in the U.S. (as Pfizer and Moderna did), but also in seven other countries on three continents, including South Africa, where a variant lowered the vaccine’s efficacy. (It’s efficacy in the U.S. portion of the phase 3 trial was 72 percent.)
While the primary outcome that determined the efficacy rate was preventing symptomatic infections, all three of the vaccines proved remarkable at preventing severe and fatal cases of COVID-19. This is the reason you should get the vaccine in the first place, to lower your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Vaccine Side Effects
All three vaccines produce side effects in patients — but not all patients. The most common side effect is pain, redness or swelling at the injection site. Other people experienced tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever or nausea. But most of these side effects were mild to moderate and went away quickly.
Remember, these side effects are a sign that your body is reacting to the vaccine and building immunity to the virus (if you don’t have side effects, that doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working). They’re a small price to pay to get that protection. They’re also rarer in the general population than they were in clinical trials participants. About 372 out of every million administered doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines lead to a non-serious reaction report, according to the journal Nature. The most frequently reported side effects are headache (22.4%), fatigue (16.5%) and dizziness (16.5%), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What the COVID Vaccines Cost
You may also be concerned about cost. Here’s the good news: Even though the vaccines have different price points (up to $37 for Moderna compared to $10 for J&J), consumers in the U.S. shouldn’t have to pay. That’s because the federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge. Your vaccination provider may bill your insurance company or Medicare an administration fee, but you shouldn’t have to pay anything.
So, if you’re hoping to save by choosing a cheaper vaccine, you probably won’t find a better deal than free. Price shouldn’t be a barrier to getting the vaccine any more than efficacy and side effects.
The best vaccine for you is the vaccine you can get in your arm the soonest.