One chart shows people vaccinated with Moderna had the best protection against COVID-19 in 2021

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magic johnson vaccine
Magic Johnson receives a COVID-19 vaccine on March 24 in Los Angeles.Gina Ferazzi - Pool/Getty Images
  • A large CDC study charts how the Delta variant spread in New York and California last year.

  • The data suggests Moderna's vaccine provided slightly superior protection to Pfizer's.

  • But it's hard to draw firm conclusions about what it means for a person's immunity now.

New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday suggests a clear hierarchy among the three vaccines in use in the US — at least against the Delta variant.

In a study of more than 1.1 million adults conducted from May to November in New York and California, Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine provided the most robust protection against Delta infections, Pfizer's came in second best, and Johnson & Johnson's trailed both of them. The new CDC study reinforces nationwide hospital data released last year.

But the very best immune protection against a COVID-19 infection against Delta came in the form of what's called hybrid immunity, a blend of prior infection and vaccination. That was true regardless of which vaccine a person had received.

It's important when looking at this data to remember that it was gathered before many vaccinated people had booster shots, which early data has suggested can improve the body's memory immune response. And it's unclear what it means at this juncture in the pandemic, when there are so many more cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant, a dramatically different version of the virus than Delta.

In 2021, Moderna's vaccine took first place

You can see the Moderna vaccine's first-place status against Delta reflected in two charts, one for each state in this study. First up is New York.

  • The vertical axis here measures the estimated hazard rate — in other words, it's showing a person's risk of getting COVID-19. This rate waxed and waned across the six-month study period as cases climbed and fell.

  • The top three lines show that vaccinated people in New York without any prior COVID-19 infections (broken down by vaccine brand) had a higher hazard rate than those who had been previously infected. In this group, Moderna recipients (orange) had the best protection, then Pfizer (gray), then J&J (dark blue).

  • The bottom three lines show that vaccinated people in New York with previous COVID-19 infections (again, broken down by vaccine brand) had a lower hazard rate. In this group, Moderna (light blue) again provided the best protection, followed by Pfizer (light green), then J&J (yellow).

chart showing moderna + prior infection protecting best, while j&j shot alone fares worst, among vaccinated

It's possible that the reason Moderna's vaccine provided slightly stronger protection than the other two vaccines did is that it contains a higher dosage of mRNA than Pfizer's vaccine (100 micrograms compared with 30 micrograms per dose). It is also two doses, compared with J&J's single shot.

Moderna's two doses are also spaced one week further apart than Pfizer's, potentially providing a little more time for the body to mount a more robust immune response.

Below, you can see that in California, much like in New York, vaccinated and previously infected people had better immune protection against Delta overall than vaccinated people who'd never contracted the virus. Once again, in both categories, Moderna's vaccine provided the best protection.

chart of california infections among vaccinated people, showing moderna's shot performing the best, and j&j's worst

Important context for reading these graphs

  1. Experts caution against reading too much into these 2021 trends. It's possible that the long-term immunity that people get from each vaccine brand will change over time, especially with both more variants and more shots in the mix.

  2. This data is measuring the protection that vaccinated people had against testing positive for COVID-19 — even with an asymptomatic infection. Vaccinated people overall reduce their risk of hospitalization 13 times over and reduce their risk of death fourteenfold compared with unvaccinated people.

  3. This study didn't measure the severity of the COVID-19 cases that people contracted. ER doctors have said that by and large the patients they are seeing with severe, life-threatening cases are unvaccinated.

  4. Given the life-threatening complications that COVID-19 infections can spur — including long COVID, MIS-C, and serious heart issues — the CDC continues to stress that vaccination is the wisest, safest way to deliberately develop immune protection against this virus.

"COVID vaccination helps protect by creating an antibody response without a person having to experience severe illness and death," Benjamin Silk, a CDC epidemiologist, told reporters on Wednesday shortly before this new report was released.

"Vaccines continue to reduce a person's risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and are highly effective at preventing severe illness. And that's why CDC recommends that everyone remain up to date on their COVID vaccination, regardless of previous infections."

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