The first Covid vaccines were triumphs. What if the next are only OK?

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An early frontrunner in the global vaccine race, AstraZeneca has sold more shots worldwide than any other manufacturer. | Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The nation’s first two coronavirus vaccines smashed scientists’ and health officials’ expectations with roughly 95 percent efficacy and no major safety concerns.

But there aren’t enough doses to go around — and if the next vaccines in the pipeline are merely good instead of great, they could be a hard sell to a skeptical public.

Vaccine makers AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are poised to release safety and efficacy data from late-stage trials as early as January, federal health officials say. Yet there are already signs that AstraZeneca’s shot could fall well short of existing vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Early data released in November showed the AstraZeneca vaccine was just 62 percent effective at the intended dose.

Scientists and public health experts worry that consumers, faced with one option that is markedly different from others, could refuse a less-effective vaccine — even if that is the only one available to them. Polls show that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults are hesitant to take any Covid-19 vaccine. Anything that reinforces that hesitancy could threaten the country’s ability to reach herd immunity and bring the pandemic to an end.

“Nobody is going to want [the AstraZeneca] vaccine compared to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines” if its efficacy stays at the 62 percent mark in final trial data, said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security.

But Rasmussen and other health experts say that the next wave of vaccines doesn’t have to match the 95 percent efficacy mark set by Moderna and Pfizer to be valuable. They argue that real-world factors like ease of shipping, storing or the public appeal of one dose rather than two can make a moderately effective vaccine worth using.

“We are facing a pandemic and perfect cannot be the enemy of the good,” said Leana Wen, a former health commissioner for Baltimore and ER physician. “Yes, we want everyone to have something that is the most effective. But if it is a choice between getting the most effective or nothing at all, I think we should choose the one that offers some level of protection.”

And worldwide assumptions of mass inoculation in 2021 — including the Trump administration’s promise that every American can get a vaccine by this summer — rely heavily on a second and even third wave of vaccines hitting the global market.

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