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.

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Allocating the vaccines: central planning or the free market?

In the short term, there are only a few million doses of the COVID vaccines available, but well over 100 million adults in the US that want to take the vaccine if offered for free to the consumer. There are also billions worldwide that would like the vaccine.

So who should get it first? In practice in the US, the allocation method has already been determined politically: the federal government will allocate vaccines to the states, and states will allocate them to individuals based on a priority list: health workers and the most vulnerable first, then teachers, etc. The NY Times has a tool that shows you your probable place in line.

But essentially the allocation method being used is central planning.

John Cochrane has proposed a “free market” solution: sell the vaccine to the highest bidder. Or at least, sell some doses to the highest bidder.

As an economist, there is always some appeal in thinking about a free market solution. But there is a problem in this case: there are positive externalities from taking the vaccine. It not only benefits me, but it also benefits others. My willingness to pay only reflects the benefit to me, the private benefit. The social benefit is mostly ignored by a simple auction, and in the aggregate for a vaccine most of the benefits are likely to be social benefits. But positive externalities don’t imply we need to use central planning!

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