Why do some vaccines (polio, measles) prevent diseases, while others (COVID-19, flu) only reduce their severity?

When the first vaccines for COVID-19 rolled out in December 2020, some people hoped they would be a silver bullet against the novel virus the way that polio and smallpox shots are nearly 100% effective against those diseases.

Instead, the updated COVID vaccine is being compared to the flu vaccine in the sense that its goal is to prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death rather than to eliminate infection entirely.

That doesn’t mean the COVID and flu vaccines are failures, health experts at Northeastern say.

Mansoor Amiji, university distinguished professor of pharmaceutical sciences and chemical engineering, and Neil Maniar, professor of the practice in public health, say vaccines differ according to whether the viruses they’ve been designed to quell are mutating or stable.

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