$5,000 Worth of Vaccines Saves One Life

I’ve written about the social benefits (in terms of the value of lives saved) of COVID mitigation measures, such as wearing face masks, before. But at this juncture in the pandemic (and really for the past 12 months), the key mitigation measure has been vaccines. How much does it cost to save one life through increased vaccination?

Robert Barro has a new rough estimate: about $5,000. In other words, he finds that it takes about 250 additionally vaccinated people in a state to save one life, and the vaccines cost about $20 to produce (marginal cost). So, about $5,000.

Barro gets this number (specifically, that 250 new vaccinated people saves one life) by using cross-state regressions on COVID vaccination rates and COVID death rates. Of course, there are plenty of potential issues with cross-state regressions. It’s not a randomized control trial! But Barro does a reasonable job of trying to control for most of these problems.

Another way to restate these numbers: if we assume that the VSL of an elderly life is somewhere around $5 million, then the social benefit from each person getting vaccinated is around $20,000. In other words from a public policy perspective, it would have made sense to pay each person up to $20,000 to get vaccinated!

Or thought of one more way: each $20 vaccine is worth about $20,000 to society. That’s an astonishing rate of return. And we’re not even including the value of opening up the economy earlier (from both a political and behavioral perspective) than an alternative world without the vaccines.

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