The international game theory of vaccines

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Ideally, a government will wish to publicize the announcement of a vaccine while slow-walking the actual distribution. That way, if there is something wrong with the brew, it can stop distribution before too many of its citizens experience adverse side effects. In essence, the approving countries are doing a version of their Phase III trials with fewer scientific controls and more out in the open. For Russia in particular, it is not obvious how much it is really ahead of other countries.

One possible American strategy would be to encourage the early approvers to distribute and test their vaccines on a broader scale, and then make their data freely available. Given close working relations, this may be easier to accomplish with the UAE than with China or Russia. If one of those vaccines turned out to be good enough, the U.S. has the resources either to buy doses or to reverse engineer it.

U.S. decisions on approval speed, meanwhile, will depend on what other nations do. For instance, if the early approvers are gathering useful data through their experiments, U.S. officials might decide not to hurry so much, instead preferring to let foreigners take the risks. That sounds good, but it could be counterproductive for the world as a whole. America is the country most likely to come up with the highest quality vaccine. Slowing down the U.S. will mean that more of the world gets the (possibly) lower-quality but more readily available Chinese product.

One tension in “vaccine relations” is that richer countries and poorer countries do not want exactly the same thing. Typically, the wealthier the country, the more risk-averse its citizens, and the less need to hurry.


China may be unique: It has some properties of a rich country (a big, advanced scientific establishment), but it has a poor country’s willingness to take risks. That’s one reason China might end up leading on vaccines. The U.S. is ahead of China technologically, but Chinese priorities are more in sync with those of many other countries in the world.

There are further arguments at the link.


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