Interpreting vaccine efficacy trial results for infection and transmission

Vaccine. 2021 Jul 5;39(30):4082-4088. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2021.06.011. Epub 2021 Jun 12.


Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have shown high efficacy of multiple vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 disease (COVID-19), and recent studies have shown the vaccines are also effective against infection. Evidence for the effect of each of these vaccines on ability to transmit the virus is also beginning to emerge. We describe an approach to estimate these vaccines' effects on viral positivity, a prevalence measure which under the reasonable assumption that vaccinated individuals who become infected are no more infectious than unvaccinated individuals forms a lower bound on efficacy against transmission. Specifically, we recommend separate analysis of positive tests triggered by symptoms (usually the primary RCT outcome) and cross-sectional prevalence of positive tests obtained regardless of symptoms. The odds ratio of carriage for vaccine vs. placebo provides an unbiased estimate of vaccine effectiveness against viral positivity, under certain assumptions, and we show through simulations that likely departures from these assumptions will only modestly bias this estimate. Applying this approach to published data from the RCT of the Moderna vaccine, we estimate that one dose of vaccine reduces the potential for transmission by at least 61%, possibly considerably more. We describe how these approaches can be translated into observational studies of vaccine effectiveness.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; Trials; Vaccine efficacy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • COVID-19* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Vaccines*


  • Vaccines