What you need to know about all the COVID-19 vaccines in the US

Mar 9, 2021

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It’s clear that COVID-19 vaccines will play a large role in restarting travel and will likely be required by certain destinations. 

At this time, three vaccines have been approved for use in the United States: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. There are also several more either in development or available worldwide, such as AstraZeneca in the United Kingdom; the Sputnik V in Russia; and China’s CoronaVac. 

According to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 52 million Americans have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 27 million have been fully vaccinated. And President Joe Biden said last week he expects vaccines to be available to all adults in the U.S. by the end of May.

You likely won’t have a choice in which vaccination you receive when it’s your turn in line. But when you get the vaccine will determine when you can travel again. Here’s what you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S.

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What are the differences between the three vaccines?

Pfizer-BioNTech

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine approved in the U.S. after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency-use authorization in December. 

About 95% effective at preventing the COVID-19 illness, according to the CDC, this vaccine requires two doses, which must be taken 21 days apart. It’s been reported that side effects like fever and chills were more prevalent after the second dose.

“[Two] is a tried-and-true vaccination approach,” said Dr. Jenny Yu, the senior manager of medical integrity at Healthline (which is also owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) in an email. Hepatitis A and B vaccinations, she said by way of example, are given in two doses. “That approach allows for the body’s defense to be prepared and ramp up the appropriate response for developing antibodies.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is recommended for people ages 16 years and older.

Moderna

Like the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine also has to be taken in two doses, 28 days or one month apart. 

The Moderna vaccine is 94.1% effective at preventing COVID-19 in people who received two doses. More than 25% of the people who participated in clinical trials were healthcare workers. Like the Pfizer vaccine, side effects were more common after the second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Like the Pfizer vaccine, it takes people who receive the Moderna vaccine about a week to develop immunity, said Dr. Yu.

Johnson & Johnson

The newest vaccine available is Johnson & Johnson (J&J), which was approved for use on Feb. 27. This vaccine differs from the other two in that only one shot is required. The Johnson & Johnson shot has made news for having a lower efficacy rate than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — more than 66% effective in clinical trials at preventing laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 illness, according to the CDC. 

“The J&J vaccine [has been] shown to be effective in reducing the severity of the disease, decreasing the need for hospitalization,” said Dr. Yu, who added that, “Its availability will help the world achieve herd immunity.”

People who receive the Johnson & Johnson shot have the most protection two weeks after getting vaccinated, the CDC said.

Can I pick which vaccine I get?

(Photo by Marko Geber/Getty Images)

Just because all American adults should have access to a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May doesn’t mean you’ll know which vaccine you’re getting until you’re about to get the shot.

Some states, such as Indiana, publish which location has what vaccine — but many locations do not advertise this information. National pharmacies like Rite Aid aren’t sharing vaccine information, for example, but you might be able to find out which vaccine you’ll get at a clinic, Dr. Yu said.

If you have questions about a particular vaccine, you can ask your primary care physician or the person administering your vaccine for more information. Either way, experts recommend getting whatever vaccine is available when it’s your turn to be vaccinated.

“The availability of vaccines is still quite limited, so it depends on allocation and location,” Dr. Yu said. “Given that we want to achieve herd immunity as quickly as possible, people should take the vaccine that is available to them.” 

When can I travel again after getting vaccinated?

Even if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you’ll still have to wait before traveling. The CDC says people should wait two weeks after getting the second vaccine dose (when applicable) to travel, as it takes time to build immunity against the virus.

“Traveling with vaccinations … gives people a sense of reassurance,” said Dr. Yu. But she says wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance from others and practicing hand hygiene are “still important in protecting others.”

Can I test positive for COVID-19 if I’ve been vaccinated?

Experts are currently looking at how receiving the COVID-19 vaccine could affect antibody testing results. The CDC says you may test positive on some antibody tests, which test to see if you’ve been previously infected.

“There are still the rare incidences of testing positive before vaccine immunity is in place from an infection,” said Dr. Yu. “It can be for people who are not fully vaccinated with the two doses.”

Will a vaccine be required to travel?

Several countries have indicated that they’ll allow vaccinated travelers to skip mandatory quarantines. And certain destinations and travel providers have indicated the vaccine could even be a requirement. 

The Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, for example, is open to travelers from all countries who have received full doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

And if you’re from a country belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland, and you can prove you’ve been vaccinated, you will be exempt from testing and quarantine requirements on arrival into Iceland. (Right now, U.S. citizens are not included.)

Having received a COVID-19 vaccine could very well be a new requirement for entry to some destinations, similar to the way proof of yellow fever vaccination is already necessary to travel to some countries.

Related: Where you can go with a vaccine passport: A country-by-country guide

Bottom line

It’s clear that vaccines will play a large role in restarting travel and will likely be a requirement to fly to some destinations. Chances are, you won’t be able to choose which vaccine you get. But all three available vaccines are FDA approved and have been proven to stop serious illness and death from COVID-19. And experts like Dr. Yu say having any vaccine in our system will help the entire world regain some sense of normalcy.

Featured photo by ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

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