Tuesday 15 September 2020

Even the best case is bad

I'd worried that there's not been nearly enough worst-case thinking around Covid, vaccines, and immunity. 

Josh Gans points out that even the best case around vaccine development is pretty worrying. Deploying a successful vaccine will take a long time. If you haven't subscribed to his substack newsletter, you're really missing out. 

This week I will look at vaccines and explain why the awaited for ‘miracle’ won’t be so simple. The reason I want to highlight this is not to get everyone down. If I wanted to do that, there are easier paths for me — I’m an economist after all; being a downer is a character requirement. Instead, the longer we think a vaccine will be a miracle outcome that stamps an end date on the crisis, the less time we spend doing things to end the crisis that doesn’t involve a vaccine.

Simple history is enough to give us pause. Vaccines have wiped out viruses and diseases like measles, polio and, most successfully, smallpox, which itself had millennia of history. No vaccine has ever put an end to a pandemic. In recent memory, both SARS and Ebola had vaccine candidates incredibly quickly as these things go (in a manner of years rather than decades) but by the time they were available, the outbreaks had been crushed and there was no reason to vaccinate widely. TB, HIV, MERS and Zika never had one. Thus, to think that Covid-19 will end with the prick of a needle is to ignore history and believe that this time it would be different.
To be sure, there is enormous energy and resources going into vaccine development. And, on a historical scale, progress seems extremely rapid. Indeed, everything I want to talk about this week will be predicated on the optimistic scenario that we have at least one vaccine candidate, approved safe by credible regulators, in early 2021. What I want to discuss are the details. Once that happens, then what? I am going to argue that we will be far from done and there are scenarios in which we are not done at all.

Things get pretty worrying pretty fast. Vaccine supply chains have crazy bottlenecks around getting oddball components you might not have considered necessary, like horseshoe crab blood and shark liver oil (or synthetic alternatives that would also take time to scale up - if those would be required for any vaccine, surely they'd be being scaled up now in anticipation, right?).

Then there's the problem of distributing doses.

This thing could have rather some time to run. And policy settings here are more consistent with a short-term stopgap than with something that could have to stand for a longer period. 

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