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We’re all anxiously awaiting the approval of the first COVID-19 vaccines, but the primary goal for those vaccines is not necessarily to prevent the infection, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained in a new interview with Yahoo Finance. Instead, these vaccines are aimed at preventing the symptoms of COVID-19.
“The primary endpoint is to prevent clinical disease, to prevent symptomatic disease, not necessarily to prevent infection,” Dr. Fauci said in the interview. “The primary thing you want to do is, if people get infected, prevent them from getting sick. And if you prevent them from getting sick you will ultimately prevent them from getting seriously ill, so that’s what we want to do.”
Some of the most common COVID-19 symptoms include a fever, cough, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, and muscle aches, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain. But in some cases the infection can cause more severe symptoms and complications, such as severe lung disease, blood clots, and neurological issues.
“If the vaccine also allows you to prevent initial infection that would be great,” he said. “But what I would settle for and all my colleagues would settle for is the primary endpoint, which is to prevent clinically recognizable disease. That’s what we hope happens.” And if that does happen, “that will go a long way to diffusing this very difficult crisis that we’re in,” Dr. Fauci said. Not only would a vaccine like this prevent people from developing complications and needing to be hospitalized, but it could also help prevent the spread of COVID-19 because people with symptoms—particularly coughing and sneezing—spread respiratory droplets containing the virus.
Back in June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it would consider approving COVID-19 vaccines that “would prevent disease or decrease its severity in at least 50% of people who are vaccinated.” That’s not exactly a low bar, but it’s also not as effective as many people might expect an FDA-approved vaccine to be. That said, many vaccine manufacturers are aiming higher than that, and later COVID-19 vaccines could be more effective at preventing the infection in the first place.
With those limitations in mind, Dr. Fauci cautioned previously that we’ll likely need to keep up our other public health strategies for a while even after there’s a vaccine available. So we’ll probably be wearing face masks and social distancing through much of 2021, he said. That may be disappointing, but it’s important to remember that ending the coronavirus pandemic is a long game, and every bit of progress is important.