Vaccinating Against a Novel Pathogen: A Critical Review of COVID-19 Vaccine Effectiveness Evidence


We study here what can be learned from our experience with COVID-19 vaccination for an initially naïve population, that can inform planning for vaccination against the next novel, highly transmissible pathogen. We focus on the first two pandemic years (wild strain through Delta), because after the Omicron wave in early 2022, few people were still SARS-CoV-2-naïve. Almost all were vaccinated, infected, or often both. We review the evidence on COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness (VE), waning effectiveness over time, and what we should expect about VE and waning from a future pathogen. As a basis for our analysis, we conducted a PRISMA-compliant review of all studies on PubMed through August 15, 2022 reporting VE against four endpoints: any infection, symptomatic infection, hospitalization, and death, for the four principal vaccines used in developed Western countries (BNT162b2, mRNA1273, Ad26.CoV2.S, and ChAdOx1-S). The mRNA vaccines (BNT162b2, mRNA1273) had high initial VE against all endpoints but protection waned after approximately six months, with BNT162b2 declining faster than mRNA1273. Both mRNA vaccines initially outperformed the viral vector vaccines. A third “booster” dose, roughly six months after the primary doses, substantially reduced symptomatic infection, severe disease, and mortality, and in hindsight should be seen as part of the normal vaccination schedule