There is good news and there is bad news.
Let’s start with the good news.The early results from the Pfizer vaccine are very good, 90% efficacy. That will probably fall a bit but it’s very good news not just for the Pfizer vaccine but for most of the vaccines in the pipeline which target the spike protein.
The Pfizer vaccine does require very cold storage which means it won’t work for large parts of the world. A distribution plan is in place for most of the United States and Pfizer already has 50 million doses, which can cover ~25 million people, in storage.
Many thousands of people are dying every week so Pfizer should apply for and the FDA should issue a EUA without further delay.
One issue is, given limited supply, how to distribute the vaccine. I have suggested we randomize distribution across hospitals, police and fire stations, and nursing homes (see also my piece in Bloomberg with Scott Kominers, The Case for a COVID Vaccine Lottery.) A vaccine lottery is fair, it will make distribution easier by limiting the number of vaccination locations and it will in essence create a very large clinical trial. With millions of participants we will be better able to make fine distinctions between the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in different populations and the results will come in quickly. Thus, if we randomize and collect data, limited capacity has a silver lining.
Second issue. Manufacturing capacity. Pfizer will have enough capacity to produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021 which sounds like a lot but it’s a two dose vaccine and there will be losses in distribution so maybe 500 million people vaccinated. We need to vaccinate billions.
The cost to the world economy of COVID is in the trillions so we want to vaccine a lot faster. Faster than private markets are willing to go. There are other vaccines in the pipeline but we still need to ramp up capacity. Increasing capacity is something that Michael Kremer, Susan Athey, myself and others at Accelerating Health Technologies have been working on since the beginning of the crisis. It’s not too late to do more.
Third issue is testing. Trump got it into his head that more tests means more cases when in fact a lot more tests means fewer cases. There is a Laffer curve for testing. Our failure to get ahead of the virus with tests has meant hundreds of thousands of excess deaths. We are still failing this test. Winter is coming. Infections and deaths are both rising.
Biden won’t be president until late January but there are things he can do now. In particular, Congress already allocated $25 billion to testing in April—that was far too little. We spent trillions on relief and comparatively little fighting the virus. But here is the real shocker, most of the $25 billion allocated in April hasn’t been spent. Let me say that again, most of the money allocated for testing in April has not been spent. Biden can signal today that that money and more will be spent. He can also signal, as in fact he has, that he wants rapid antigen tests approved.
Rapid antigen tests are cheap, paper strip tests that can check for infectiousness and are ideal to getting things like the schools running again.
Even if we start vaccinating this year, we won’t vaccinate a majority of the US population until well into 2021. That’s true but what’s underappreciated is that testing, masks, social distancing and vaccines are complementary. The more people are vaccinated, for example, the greater our testing capacity rises relative to the population at risk.
The pandemic is getting worse not better but we did flatten the curve, albeit imperfectly, and now if we can summon the will, we have the tools including rapid antigen tests, vaccines and monoclonal antibodies to really crush the virus.