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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

GE to mandate COVID vaccinations for U.S. workers

Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

General Electric will require all of its workers in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing President Biden's executive order for federal contractors, the company confirmed to Axios on Tuesday.

Why it matters: General Electric is the latest in a slew of major companies to mandate the vaccine for workers, following in the footsteps of American Airlines, Tyson Foods and Microsoft, among others.

Updated Oct 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Mix-and-matching gains momentum — Boosters overtake first doses in U.S. — Pfizer to vaccinate Brazilian cityPanel endorses J&J booster.
  2. Health: Age is still a huge coronavirus risk factor — Unvaccinated 11x more likely to die from COVID — 5x more police officers died from COVID than guns.
  3. Politics: Over 30 states limited public health powers — Pope Francis calls on companies to release vaccine patents — Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders.
  4. Education: Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations — Parent sues Wisconsin school district after child tests positive.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Oct 19, 2021 - Health

Supreme Court declines to block Maine health care workers vaccine mandate

A Maine health care worker prepares vaccine dose. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an emergency appeal of a vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers.

The big picture: The mandate, which was announced in August by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, says that Maine health care workers need to be vaccinated by Oct. 29 or risk losing their jobs and not qualifying for unemployment benefits.