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Measuring vaccine efficacy against infection and disease in clinical trials: sources and magnitude of bias in COVID-19 vaccine efficacy estimates

By Lucy R. Williams, Neil M. Ferguson, Christl A. Donnelly, Nicholas C. Grassly

Posted 31 Jul 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.07.30.21260912

Background Phase III trials have estimated COVID-19 vaccine efficacy (VE) against symptomatic and asymptomatic infection. We explore the direction and magnitude of potential biases in these estimates and their implications for vaccine protection against infection and against disease in breakthrough infections. Methods We developed a mathematical model that accounts for natural and vaccine-induced immunity, changes in serostatus and imperfect sensitivity and specificity of tests for infection and antibodies. We estimated expected biases in VE against symptomatic, asymptomatic and any SARS-CoV-2 infections and against disease following infection for a range of vaccine characteristics and measurement approaches, and the likely overall biases for published trial results that included asymptomatic infections. Results VE against asymptomatic infection measured by PCR or serology is expected to be low or negative for vaccines that prevent disease but not infection. VE against any infection is overestimated when asymptomatic infections are less likely to be detected than symptomatic infections and the vaccine protects against symptom development. A competing bias towards underestimation arises for estimates based on tests with imperfect specificity, especially when testing is performed frequently. Our model indicates considerable uncertainty in Oxford-AstraZeneca ChAdOx1 and Janssen Ad26.COV2.S VE against any infection, with slightly higher than published, bias-adjusted values of 59.0% (95% uncertainty interval [UI] 38.4 to 77.1) and 70.9% (95% UI 49.8 to 80.7) respectively. Conclusion Multiple biases are likely to influence COVID-19 VE estimates, potentially explaining the observed difference between ChAdOx1 and Ad26.COV2.S vaccines. These biases should be considered when interpreting both efficacy and effectiveness study results.

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