Vaccine

The markets apparently reacted strongly to positive news on the vaccine front this week. There’s more hype than substance in here though. It’s not that the vaccine progress itself is overblown, but the supposed impact is.

Where would this pandemic be in another six to twelve months without a vaccine? Maybe a little more of a problem. Prior epidemics, from the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 to the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2002-2004, had a limited shelf life. They burned themselves out without a vaccine in the space of a couple years. By the middle of next year, when vaccines are expected to start becoming widely available, we’ll already be a year and a half into the present episode. By the end of next year, when they would presumably be universally available, it will have been two years. Not quite too little too late, but far too late to make a big enough difference to justify the hype.

What’s more, there has been impressive progress on treatment. Over just the past few months, deaths from Covid 19 haven’t risen nearly as quickly as infections. We’re simply getting better at improving the prospects for those who are infected. This means the impact of reducing infections won’t be nearly as great as it would have been just a few months ago. Universal availability of a vaccine right now would still be very big, but that’s not what we’re looking at.  This vaccine progress is good news, just not nearly as earth shaking as the level of excitement would imply.  The best news by far is that, with or without a safe and effective vaccine, within twelve months time this pandemic will be in its twilight.

2 thoughts on “Vaccine

  1. jk says:

    to the extent that lockdowns, distancing and isolation have been effective, the pandemic will have NOT have burned itself out. i, for one, being high risk have been living my life quite differently since late march, working remotely via video for example. [not an option during the spanish flu] thus populations, and vulnerable populations in particular, have been less exposed to infection than one would otherwise expect. therefore we would expect a slower “burn” than in prior episodes and thus, too, vaccines will potentially have more utility than you indicate. this leaves open the question of the effectiveness, duration of action, and side effects of the vaccines themselves. we’ve got a bit of data for the first vaccines only on the first of these questions.

    1. Bill Terrell says:

      I don’t agree that measures to slow the rate of spread weren’t available in prior epidemics. Of course work from home may have been less popular in 1920, but aggressive efforts to quarantine the ill were available.

      But for the sake of argument let’s assume we’ve stretched out the course of the epidemic somewhat. It is still unknown just how soon the billions of doses needed to be effective will be administered. Meanwhile the effectiveness of treatments has improved considerably in just the few months since the first wave earlier this year. More would reasonably be expected in coming months. Finally, many more people, a substantial fraction of the population, have or have already had the virus than have been shown from testing, given its known high rate of asymptomatic and likely extraclinical occurrence.

      And if you’re still skeptical this disease has been moving faster than the speed of vaccine, here’s some food for thought. Barely nine months ago there were 5 confirmed infections in the United States. Just now Johns Hopkins reports 12,754,109. Given what we know about testing and subclinical occurrence, how many do you suppose actually have been infected? How many do you suppose will have been infected in another nine months? Is it implausible that by the time vaccines are universally available, the majority of the population will have already been infected?

      Yet for my point to be valid it’s not necessary for that to be the case. Had my point been that the vaccines were useless, it would clearly fall to your criticism. Rather I’m saying that the reaction – particularly the financial market reaction – was excessive in relation to the real implications of the news. The reaction more closely resembles what one would expect if the pandemic were instantly eradicated than the more realistic modest improvement still months off.

      These vaccines will not be meeting a threat of the level we face now, but a diminished and diminishing threat that will exist in the future.

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