The Atlantic Daily: 3 Signs the Vaccines Are Doing Their Job

As the U.S. government goes all in on booster shots, here are three ways to think about whether the COVID-19 vaccines are working.

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Hand holding a COVID-19 vaccine
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The United States government is all in on COVID-19 boosters. Most people will need one, and soon, officials said today, based on evidence that protection can start to falter within about six months.

That’s sort of true and sort of not, depending on how protection is defined. New data show that some vaccinated people can get infected by the coronavirus, especially aggressive transmitters such as the Delta variant—but also that our current round of shots guards spectacularly against COVID-19 disease, especially in its worst forms.

Here are three ways to think about whether the vaccines are doing their job.

We’re still sailing past the shots’ original goalposts.

It is quite possible for vaccine protection against all infections to mildly ebb, and also hold strong against symptomatic disease. Some defensive tasks are harder than others. An immunized body might fail to completely block a virus from infiltrating the airway, but still stop an established infection from triggering symptoms and spreading further.

The vaccines “were originally assessed on their ability to limit COVID-19 disease progression, and when you look at the data, not much has changed,” Ryan McNamara, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me.

Reports of post-vaccine infections might feel like a letdown after months of being told that they would be so rare that the vaccinated could strip off our masks. But vaccines don’t need to obliterate every last mote of virus to help end the pandemic, and they’re still cutting down on transmission.

Context matters.

Some of the new stats can look scary: Vaccinated people, reports now say, account for about 20 percent of COVID-related hospitalizations in certain parts of the country, where those numbers were once reliably in the single digits.

But stats like these obscure another trend. As the percentage of vaccinated people increases, so will the percentage of hospitalized people who are vaccinated.

In a fully vaccinated population, the only people in the hospital with COVID-19 will be vaccinated. But there might be only three of them, compared with hundreds in the absence of inoculations. Consider a rough analogy to car accidents: Most of the drivers involved have licenses … because they make up the majority of the people on the road.

We can’t lose sight of the collective benefits that vaccines offer, either.

Much of this week’s buzz has focused on how well vaccines perform in individuals—who’s getting infected? Who’s getting sick?

But remember that vaccines protect both the people who receive them and those they interact with, by cutting down on (if not entirely eradicating) infection and transmission. That means the best way forward is collective investment in considering whom the shots should go to.

Millions of people in the United States, and billions more abroad, haven’t yet gotten their shots. Although boosters build upon established protection, delivering first doses spreads the protection wider. A first shot will always up someone’s existing defenses more than a third.

A child sits in a flooded classroom, next to mattresses set up to dry, as heavy rainfall brought by Tropical Storm Grace flooded the area on August 17, 2021, in Les Cayes.
Richard Pierrin / Getty

The news in three sentences:

(1) In Afghanistan, Taliban soldiers fired into a crowd of protesters, and thousands of people crowded outside the Kabul airport, attempting to flee. (2) Rescue work continues in Haiti as the death toll from last weekend’s major earthquake rises to nearly 2,000. (3) T-Mobile says that a data breach exposed the personal information of more than 40 million people.

What to read if … you’re looking for practical advice on how to manage your risk in light of the Delta variant:

Have questions about the virus or this pandemic moment? Ask us.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Pick your next book. Radiant Fugitives, a new novel set in San Francisco during the Obama era, renders late-2000s politics “anything but dull.”

If you’re looking for something different, our summer reading guide is full of staff recommendations to carry you through August.

A break from the news:

Amazon killed the name Alexa.

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.