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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The goal of the COVID-19 vaccines was always to reduce death and severe illness. Even with the Delta variant, the vaccines are still doing that. But that message is getting lost, infectious disease and vaccine experts tell Axios.

The big picture: Two-thirds of the world isn't fully vaccinated. To return to some semblance of "normal," health authorities need to emphasize how the vaccines aren't failing and drastically increase global vaccine production.

Flashback: After the first vaccines were authorized and put into arms earlier this year, many people expected their high effectiveness would squash spread of the virus, especially among those who got the vaccine.

  • But the original goal, even from vaccine makers like Moderna, was to "prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death."
  • "The idea was to take away this ability of the virus to cause severe disease," said Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California San Francisco. "That's what the vaccines do. They're still doing it, even for people who received them in January, even for people who were in the vaccine trials who received them last summer."

Between the lines: Infections among the vaccinated have raised concerns, but the chances of a vaccinated person being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 are exceptionally rare.

  • It's the unvaccinated who continue to be most at risk.
  • "People think the vaccine at some level is failing. We're doing fine," said Paul Offit, a physician and vaccine expert at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The problem is, the vaccine doesn't work if you don't get it."

Zoom out: Getting more people vaccinated globally, however, means relying less on the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J shots, which are more complex to make and have not been shared equitably.

  • "The tragedy is a science policy failure," said Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine. "Everyone was so focused on innovation that nobody took a step back and said, 'Hey, wait a minute, shouldn't we also be making vaccines that we know we can scale now?'"

What to watch: Hotez and colleagues at Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development have created a COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax that uses traditional vaccine technology over the newer, more expensive technology.

  • Corbevax's clinical trial results are expected to be published soon, so it's unclear exactly how effective it is.
  • But if the vaccine candidate pans out, as Hotez and others expect, it could be the cheapest, at $1.50 per dose, and easiest to produce. India is already making the vaccine at risk.
  • "Why the hell can't the Biden administration scale up and make our vaccine?" Hotez said, noting he hasn't heard much interest from federal officials. "We're getting Zoom calls a couple times a week from countries desperate for vaccine, and we're transferring the technology of our vaccine to those countries."

The bottom line: "I don't think we should move the goalpost, which is preventing serious disease and death," said Dial Hewlett, a vaccine task force expert with the National Medical Association. "The primary goal for us should be to get as many people fully vaccinated as possible."

Go deeper

Updated 17 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker
Dec 15, 2021 - Health

Biden COVID official: "No need to lock down," even as cases surge

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday that there will be "no need" to shut down the U.S. economy "in any way," adding that the country has the tools necessary to fight the Omicron variant.

The big picture: There is an increase of coronavirus cases, driven by the Delta variant, across the country, and CDC director Rochelle Walensky has said that the number of Omicron cases is "likely to rise."

Dec 15, 2021 - Health

Fauci: No need for Omicron-specific booster at this time

Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

NIAID director Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that there is "no need for a variant-specific booster" at this time because research shows that the current U.S. booster vaccine programs are effective against Omicron.

The big picture: While the Delta variant still accounts for the majority of coronavirus cases in the U.S., the number of Omicron-driven cases are expected to quickly rise.