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Can you compare different COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head?

Some have said they want the COVID-19 vaccine with the highest efficacy rate. Experts weigh in on whether, scientifically, it's a fair to compare them at all.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With three approved COVID-19 vaccines in the Carolinas, some have said they would be more hesitant to get the Johnson and Johnson shot, since its efficacy against mild to moderate COVID-19 was 72% in the U.S., compared to the 95% efficacy Pfizer and Moderna boast.

But is it fair to compare efficacies?

THE QUESTION

Scientifically, can you fairly compare the efficacy rates of the different COVID-19 vaccines?

THE ANSWER

No. Not only is it impractical to pass on an approved COVID-19 vaccine just because its efficacy was slightly lower than another vaccine, doctors say it is also misguided.

"It's not comparing apples to apples as you look at the data," said Dr. Jerome Williams, Senior Vice President of Consumer Engagement for Novant Health.

According to experts, the only way to fairly compare vaccines' efficacy results head-to-head is to compare the vaccines head-to-head in a clinical trial.

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"The only way that you can effectively compare to two different medications or two different vaccines is if you have a randomized controlled trial where some people are getting one vaccine and some people are getting the other," Dr. Meg Sullivan, Mecklenburg County Public Health's Medical Director, said. "That didn't happen here."

In fact, doctors say the conditions of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson trials were vastly different.

"They were tested in different points in time. They were tested in different populations of people when there were different strains circulating in those different populations of people," Dr. Linda Bell, State Epidemiologist for South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control, said.

To be clear: Doctors consider all three available vaccines to have high efficacy and to be safe and say, from a practical standpoint, people should get whatever shot is available to them first.