February 04, 2021
I have written repeatedly on how we should have been looking for a collective solution to the pandemic, where countries open-source their research and allow anyone with manufacturing capacity to produce any treatment, test, or vaccine. (We pay upfront, like with Moderna, for those wondering why anyone would do the work.) Anyhow, we obviously did not go that route under Donald Trump.
Along with many others, I have argued that we should still go this route, sharing all our technology freely, as has been proposed in a WTO resolution put forward by India and South Africa. The U.S. and most European countries have vigorously opposed this measure thus far.
A main argument in the case of vaccines is that the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna — the only two approved thus far in the U.S.) involve complex manufacturing processes that cannot easily be replicated. While this is undoubtedly in part true, these vaccines did not exist back in March, yet the companies were able to produce large quantities of their vaccines by October, which suggests that if we started today, we could hugely increase output by October or sooner. Since few people think the worldwide pandemic will be over this year, that still sounds like something worth doing, even if does take eight months to get up and running.
Let’s take the claims about the complexity of the production process for the mRNA vaccines at face value. There is a huge urgency to getting the pandemic under control as quickly as possible. The more the virus spreads, the more it has the opportunity to mutate. It is entirely possible that it will mutate into a strain that is either resistant to the current vaccines, more deadly, or both.
This means that even apart from humanitarian concerns, we have a very strong interest in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible to minimize the spread. If our team can’t produce enough vaccines to do the job, as they so energetically insist, then we should turn elsewhere. The obvious alternative would be the two Chinese vaccines, which rely on the old-fashioned dead virus approach. Additional facilities to manufacture these vaccines can presumably be built relatively quickly.
While these vaccines appear to be less effective (they need to be more open with their data), the effectiveness rates reported would still hugely slow the spread. They also would radically reduce the number of severe cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Given the urgency in getting people vaccinated, it seems we should be paying these Chinese manufacturers to ramp up production as quickly as possible. One of the Chinese manufacturers contracted with Brazil to sell its vaccine at a bit more than $2 a dose. Suppose we needed 10 billion doses to vaccinate 5 billion people in the developing world. That would come to $20 billion. That is chump change compared to the trillions of dollars of lost output suffered by the U.S., Europe, and the rest of the world as a result of the pandemic. That is in addition to the millions of lives.
The bottom line is that we need to get people throughout the world vaccinated as quickly as possible. If our manufacturers are not up to the task, we should pay China or anyone else who is. Given the relative cost and benefits, this really should not be a hard call.