Understanding breakthrough COVID-19 infections

Here are a few common questions about breakthrough COVID-19 infections.

Richard Moscicki, M.D.November 11, 2021

Understanding breakthrough COVID-19 infections.

The biopharmaceutical industry continues to work around the clock to research, develop and manufacture vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. Already, we’ve made unprecedented progress, and COVID-19 vaccines have protected hundreds of millions of people in the United States and billions around the globe.

Progress in a pandemic is not linear, unfortunately. Breakthrough infections, an infection with a virus after you have been vaccinated, are possible for some individuals even after vaccination. No vaccine – for COVID-19 or any other disease – is 100% effective in preventing infection in every person who receives it. Still, overwhelmingly, vaccines are preventing or mitigating infection, and continue to be our best tool in fighting COVID-19.

Here are a few common questions about breakthrough COVID-19 infections.

How likely am I to get a breakthrough COVID infection?

  • In a recent Lancet study, less than 0.2% of the vaccinated individuals reported a breakthrough infection. And those who did suffer a breakthrough infection were older or had underlying illnesses that may make them more susceptible to infection. This study is part of a growing body of research, including from the CDC, showing the significant protections vaccines provide.
  • There are preventative health interventions that can significantly boost protection against COVID-19 even when you’re vaccinated, like wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds.
  • Overall, the risk of severe illness from breakthrough infection remains very rare.

What is the chance I get hospitalized if I do get a breakthrough case? 

  • According to the CDC, if you are vaccinated and develop COVID-19, you will likely experience less severe symptoms than unvaccinated people and are at a greatly reduced risk of hospitalization.
  • Another Lancet study found that elderly people with underlying conditions accounted for most severe breakthrough cases and were more likely to need hospitalization as compared to their vaccinated, younger counterparts. This underscores the need for more people to get vaccinated or receive a booster if eligible to reduce the chance of breakthrough infections.
  • An Oxford University study confirmed that overall, people who are fully vaccinated and develop a COVID-19 breakthrough infection had lower risks for death and serious complications such as need for mechanical ventilation, ICU admission, life-threatening blood clots and other issues.

If vaccines don’t prevent me from getting and/or spreading COVID-19, why do I need a vaccine?

  • People who are vaccinated are less likely to be infected by COVID-19 and less likely therefore to spread the infection and if a breakthrough infection does occur, the symptoms are typically less severe.

The COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and to date, more than 416 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the U.S. But we know our work isn’t done. Protect yourself and your community by getting vaccinated, receive a booster if eligible, and take appropriate precautions based on your personal risk and the level of transmission in your community. Learn more at PhRMA.org/Coronavirus.

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