Washington, DC, United States – As the United States ramps up its COVID-19 inoculation campaign, aiming to make vaccines available to all adults by April 19, some doctors and health workers are concerned that brand preferences among potential vaccine recipients could hurt attempts to slow the spread of the virus.
Many states across the country are escalating efforts to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to mitigate new waves of infections. As of Wednesday, the US administered an average of more than three million doses a day nationwide during the previous seven days, according to Our World in Data. Earlier this week, more than four million people received a shot in a single day, a record high daily number of injections.
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The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted authorisation for emergency use to three COVID-19 vaccines that it says are highly effective in preventing infections and severe illnesses from the novel coronavirus.
The US approved a Johnson & Johnson vaccine late in February after authorising vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna last December. The J&J vaccine requires a single shot, while the others are given in two doses. Each must be stored at different temperatures.
All three vaccines offer nearly full protection against COVID-19 related death and hospitalisations, the FDA found. However, in clinical trials, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reported efficacy of approximately 95 percent in preventing mild illness from the virus, while J&J reported an efficacy of 72 percent in its US trial.
As the vaccine rollout has gathered speed, some health workers have reported seeing more patients expressing a preference to be inoculated with a particular vaccine.
Last Month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he preferred residents of the city to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
“Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best. And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best,” Duggan said in early March.
After a backlash, he said the city would make the J&J vaccine part of its vaccine rollout.
The differences in efficacy is not as drastic as the numbers suggest, public health experts say. The trials were conducted at different times, with the emergence of new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus when the J&J vaccine trials were under way.
Moreover, the J&J vaccine showed an efficacy of 85 percent in preventing severe illness in its US trial, according to the FDA.
But the perception that the Johnson & Johnson may be less effective than other vaccines persists. A CNBC survey last month showed that 8 percent of respondents would wait until they get their vaccine brand preference.
Dr Robert C Gallo, the director of the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the co-founder of the Global Virus Network (GVN), said he was indifferent about what vaccine he received when he was inoculated about a month ago.
“I did not even care which one it was because the ones available that were approved in the United States – from what statistics that are available – are pretty much the same,” Gallo told Al Jazeera.
“My wife and I just went and got what was available. We didn’t think twice about which one it was because the results were pretty comparable among these three.”
Gallo told Al Jazeera that he understands that some people may want to seek the best vaccine available, but holding out for a shot that is perceived to be better is not worth the wait.
He said a 72 percent efficacy rate is “damn good”, noting that the flu shot’s effectiveness can be as low as 30 percent in certain years but people should still take it.
“I wouldn’t wait because I think the chances of getting infected with no vaccine are pretty good especially in some places in the world, including some states in the United States,” Gallo said.
Gallo said he is “concerned” that an increase in the number of people deciding to delay vaccination as they seek their preferred brand could become another hurdle for the overall rollout.
“If people start becoming brand-orientated, we have another block, which we never used to have before,” he told Al Jazeera.
Vaccine preferences are not just about perceptions of how much protection each vaccine provides.
According to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in March about 30 percent of people who say they are open to getting vaccinated said they had a strong preference for which vaccine they get, while about 25 percent of people have a slight preference.
The nonprofit organisation found that among those with a brand preference, approximately 24 percent said they preferred a one-dose vaccine, while 14 percent cited the level of effectiveness.
Reham Awad, a pharmacy intern in the Chicago area, said she has seen all kinds of reservations and preferences about vaccine brands; some people seek the J&J shot because it’s a single dose, others prefer Moderna or Pfizer because they think they have less-adverse side effects.
Awad has witnessed people reschedule their vaccine appointment to get their preferred brand, which she said could push back their vaccination by a “long time”.
“When people come in, I always advise them to get the vaccine that’s available because you never know what vaccine is going to be available the next time,” Awad told Al Jazeera.
“You don’t know if you’re going to have the opportunity to get the vaccine you want at a time other than this.”
Carol Austerberry, a health officer at Michigan’s Wayne County, echoed Awad’s concern about vaccine brand preference.
“The vaccines are highly effective in preventing a COVID-19 infection and illness – whatever brand,” Austerberry told Al Jazeera.
“That’s what we’ve been saying in public health, the message being: When your turn comes up, don’t not get your appointment, don’t not get your vaccine because you want one brand over another. You need to get vaccinated.”