Vaccine Innovation: A Marvel of Modern Science and Modern Markets

We’ve already talked about different methods for distributing the vaccine in the face of limited supply on this blog (see my post and Doug Norton’s post). But today I want to talk about something different: the speed at which this vaccine was developed. It is truly amazing.

Timeline showing a comparison of vaccine development timescales from Typhoid fever in 1880 to SARS-CoV2 in 2020.

This chart from Nature (adapted from the fantastic Our World in Data) dramatically shows just how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine was developed compared with past vaccines. What used to take decades or even a century was done in mere months (yes, even with all the regulatory barriers today).

Exactly how we developed this vaccine so quickly is a complex story that involves the advanced state of modern science, incentives offered by concerned governments, and the harnessing of the profit motive to advance the public good. We don’t know all the details yet, and likely won’t for a long time since, like a pencil, no one person knows how to make and distribute a vaccine.

The rapid development of the vaccines and treatments of COVID-19 reminds of a great historical essay by Jason Crawford on the eradication of terrible diseases of the past. Not only did vaccines and antibiotics play an important role, but also “pest control, water sanitation, food handling, and general hygiene.”

I think what most amazes me is that while COVID-19 is certainly less deadly than many infectious diseases of the past (but still quite deadly), we have still managed to innovate so much more quickly. This is a testament not only to modern medicine, but also to the high value that we place on life today. Yes, even the high value of allowing an 80-year-old to live a few more years.

(I tried to end this year with an optimistic post, given the terrible year we’ve all experienced. But don’t worry, I will be back with some pessimism next week about COVID deaths!)

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