Category: Law

What US Government should do regarding Covid-19

This is (by far) the best document I have seen on what to do on the medical side.  It is about 3 pp. long and I believe it will be updated periodically.  Excerpt:

  • Consider guaranteeing top tier treatment and ICU beds for people directly working on treatments or vaccines. We need to keep relevant science labs open. (They’re likely to be closed as things stand.)
    • No doubt logistically challenging but may be necessary. Can you get scientists to keep going without this?
  • Announce $10B prizes for first vaccine and for first cure.
    • Think about mechanics. Should there be awards for second place, too? How should collaboration be factored in?
  • Issue $1B of research grants to all competent labs and organizations that could plausibly use them. They just have to report on progress every 30 days and require that they actively share all progress with other labs.
    • Proposed structure: $100M to each of 5 companies.
    • $10M to each of 40 labs.
      • Remainder based on discretion.
    • Take what’s required for treatment cases and make an “open source” version whose bill of materials costs less than $1,000. Commit to purchasing at least 100k. Even if US turns out not to need them, donate to other countries.

The author is anonymous, but I know that he/she has followed the issue very closely from the beginning, and his/her predictions have been largely on the mark.  If you are in USG I am happy to put you in touch, just write me.

Again, here is the document, highly recommended.

A new proposal for coronavirus rebound

The $8 billion emergency spending bill to deal with coronavirus includes $3 billion that can be used for the research and development of a coronavirus vaccine or treatment. There’s a better way: The U.S. government should take advantage of the recent stock market plunge to incentivize firms to develop a coronavirus cure, vaccine, or other approaches.

We call this proposal the Epidemic Market Solution or EMS. The government should offer each of 10 firms stock options worth ten billion dollars if the Dow Jones increases by 15 percent over the next six months, and maintains that average increase over a month.

A coronavirus cure or vaccine would generate such an increase. For example, if a firm has $10 billion in options based on index funds, and a new cure or progress towards a cure causes the stock market to rise by 15 percent, the firm would make a profit of $1.5 billion. An even better response might be an increase in the market by 20 percent; in this case, the firm would make a profit of $2 billion.

That is from my old colleagues Linda Cohen and Ami Glazer at UC Irvine, and yes that is the Ami Glazer of Glazer’s Law.  Here is the full proposal.

Massive US Government Failure

NPR: Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, says the response to the coronavirus has varied dramatically around the world.

…So how has the United States’ response been?

“Our response is much, much worse than almost any other country that’s been affected,” Jha says.

He uses the words “stunning,” “fiasco” and “mind-blowing” to describe how bad it is.

“And I don’t understand it,” he says incredulously. “I still don’t understand why we don’t have extensive testing. Vietnam! Vietnam has tested more people than America has.” (He’s citing data from earlier this week. The U.S. has since started testing more widely, although exact figures still aren’t available at a national level.)

…Jha believes that the weekslong delay in deploying tests — at a time when numerous other tests were available around the world — has completely hampered the U.S. response to this crisis.

“Without testing, you have no idea how extensive the infection is. You can’t isolate people. You can’t do anything,” he says. “And so then we’re left with a completely different set of choices. We have to shut schools, events and everything down, because that’s the only tool available to us until we get testing back up. It’s been stunning to me how bad the federal response has been.”

I too am stunned .

Michael Strain and Scott Gottlieb have policy proposals for coronavirus

Congress should make direct cash payments—mailed checks or direct deposits—to low-income households in places with severe outbreaks. Hourly wage workers should not feel compelled to show up to work sick because they need to pay bills. Congress can help these Americans recover and keep other people healthy by financing their time away from work.

In states experiencing severe outbreaks, Congress should waive the requirement that people receiving unemployment insurance payments look for work. Better that such unemployed workers receive financial assistance for rent, mortgages and groceries than to risk spreading the virus by applying and interviewing for jobs. Congress should also waive work requirements in the food-stamp program.

Children in low-income families will miss subsidized meals if schools are closed. Federal subsidies to those households should be increased to account for lost breakfasts and lunches. This might help relieve some of the pressure on low-income parents, who might otherwise feel the need to go to work even if ill.

Cash-strapped states may be reluctant to divert spending from other priorities toward health care, especially as more people use services. States that experience outbreaks may also lose tax revenue. Congress should increase the share of Medicaid spending financed by the federal government to alleviate the budget pressure.

So far the best proposals I have seen, here is more from the WSJ.  Note that paid sick leave can place a high burden on small and medium-sized businesses, here is a Yelowitz and Saltsman critique of paid sick leave, also WSJ.

The FDA and Coronavirus

The failure of the FDA/CDC to adequately prepare for coronavirus, despite weeks of advance notice from China is one of the most shocking and serious examples of government failure that I have seen in my lifetime. After being prevented from doing so, private laboratories are now allowed to offer coronavirus tests and Bill and Melinda Gates’s Foundation is working on an at home swab and test.

But what happens when people get sick? What drugs will patients be allowed to try given that there is no standard treatment available? One experimental antiviral, Remdesivir, was given to the first US patient who was on a downward spiral but seemed to recover after receiving the drug. Gilead, the manufacturer says:

Remdesivir is not yet licensed or approved anywhere globally and has not been demonstrated to be safe or effective for any use. At the request of treating physicians, and with the support of local regulatory agencies, who have weighed the risks and benefits of providing an experimental drug with no data in 2019-nCoV, Gilead has provided remdesivir for use in a small number of patients with 2019-nCoV for emergency treatment in the absence of any approved treatment options.

If Gilead is willing to supply, should patients have a right to try? This seems like a good case for the dual tracking approach proposed by Bartley Madden–let patients try unapproved drugs but collect all information in a public database for analysis. Clinical trials for Remdesivir and other potential drugs are currently underway in China.

Chloroquine, might also be useful against Covid-19. Chloroquine was approved long ago to treat malaria and physicians are allowed to prescribe old drugs for new uses. New uses for old drugs are discovered all the time and they do not have to go through long and costly FDA approval procedures before being prescribed for the new uses. Since chloroquine has never been tested for efficacy against coronovirus, allowing physicians to prescribe it is similar to allowing physicians to prescribe an unapproved drug like Remdesivir. The difference in how new drugs and old drugs for new uses are treated is something of a regulatory anomaly but a fortunate one as I argue in my paper on off-label prescribing.

I suspect that my arguments for less FDA regulation will be relatively well received during the current climate of fear. Bear in mind, however, that for the patient who is dying it’s always an emergency.

Hat tip: Balaji Srinivasan, who really would make a great FDA commissioner.

My avian flu blog days

Circa 2004 or so, it seemed to me that America was grossly underprepared for a possible pandemic.  I started reading up on the topic, and I produced a very basic, simple Mercatus policy paper on avian flu.  For obvious reasons, much of it is out of date and some of the recommendations have been adopted, but here is the first part of the Executive Summary:

1. The single most important thing we can do for a pandemic—whether avian flu or not—is to have well-prepared local health care systems. We should prepare for pandemics in ways that are politically sustainable and remain useful even if an avian flu pandemic does not occur.

2. Prepare social norms and emergency procedures which would limit or delay the spread of a pandemic. Regular hand washing, and other beneficial public customs, may save more lives than a Tamiflu stockpile.

3. Decentralize our supplies of anti-virals and treat timely distribution as more important than simply creating a stockpile.

4. Institute prizes for effective vaccines and relax liability laws for vaccine makers. Our government has been discouraging what it should be encouraging.

5. Respect intellectual property by buying the relevant drugs and vaccines at fair prices. Confiscating property rights would reduce the incentive for innovation the next time around.

6. Make economic preparations to ensure the continuity of food and power supplies. The relevant “choke points” may include the check clearing system and the use of mass transit to deliver food supply workers to their jobs.

7. Realize that the federal government will be largely powerless in the worst stages of a pandemic and make appropriate local plans.

8. Encourage the formation of prediction markets in an avian flu pandemic. This will give us a better idea of the probability of widespread human-to-human transmission.

9. Provide incentives for Asian countries to improve their surveillance. Tie foreign aid to the receipt of useful information about the progress of avian flu.

10. Reform the World Health Organization and give it greater autonomy from its government funders.

And also from later on:

4. We should not expect to choke off a pandemic in its country of origin. Once a pandemic has started abroad, we should shut schools and many public places immediately.

5. We should not obsess over avian flu at the expense of other medical issues. The next pandemic or public health crisis could come from any number of sources. By focusing on local preparedness and decentralized responses, this plan is robust to surprise and will also prove useful for responding to terrorism or natural catastrophes.

Still relevant today.  For a while I also wrote an avian flu blog with Silviu Dochia, archived here.

What Worked in 1918-1919?

The influenza pandemic of 1918 was the most contagious calamity in human history. Approximately 40 million individuals died worldwide, including 550 000 individuals in the United States...[C]an lessons from the 1918-1919 pandemic be applied to contemporary pandemic planning efforts to maximize public health benefit while minimizing the disruptive social consequences of the pandemic as well as those accompanying public health response measures?

That’s the question Markel et al. analyzed in 2007 by gathering historical data on outcomes and what 43 US cities, covering about 20% of the US population, did to combat influenza in 1918-1919.

Nonpharmaceutical interventions were considered either activated (“on”) or deactivated (“off”), according to data culled from the historical record and daily newspaper accounts. Specifically, these nonpharmaceutical interventions were legally enforced and affected large segments of the city’s population. [1] Isolation of ill persons and quarantine of those suspected of having contact with ill persons refers only to mandatory orders as opposed to voluntary quarantines being discussed in our present era. [2] School closure was considered activated when the city officials closed public schools (grade school through high school); in most, but not all cases, private and parochial schools followed suit. [3] Public gathering bans typically meant the closure of saloons, public entertainment venues, sporting events, and indoor gatherings were banned or moved outdoors; outdoor gatherings were not always canceled during this period (eg, Liberty bond parades); there were no recorded bans on shopping in grocery and drug stores.

The authors define “public health response time” as the number of days from the day the excess death rate was double baseline to the day that at least one of their three key public health measures was implemented. Cities that responded very early have a negative public health response time. The basic result is shown in the figure below. The longer the public health response time the greater the total excess deaths (the arrow is my least squares eyeball).

Moreover, although it’s difficult to control for other factors, cities that combined school closures, isolation and quarantining, and public gathering bans tended to do better. Some cities let up on their public health interventions and these cities seem to correlate well with bi-modal distributions in excess death rates, i.e. the death rate increased. Denver was an example where the public gathering ban was dropped and the school ban was lifted temporarily and the excess death rate rose after having fallen.

The authors conclude:

…the US urban experience with nonpharmaceutical interventions during the 1918-1919 pandemic constitutes one of the largest data sets of its kind ever assembled in the modern, post germ theory era.

…Although these urban communities had neither effective vaccines nor antivirals, cities that were able to organize and execute a suite of classic public health interventions before the pandemic swept fully through the city appeared to have an associated mitigated epidemic experience. Our study suggests that nonpharmaceutical interventions can play a critical role in mitigating the consequences of future severe influenza pandemics (category 4 and 5) and should be considered for inclusion in contemporary planning efforts as companion measures to developing effective vaccines and medications for prophylaxis and treatment. The history of US epidemics also cautions that the public’s acceptance of these health measures is enhanced when guided by ethical and humane principles.

Addendum: Another way of putting this is that China has largely followed the US model. Can the US do the same?

The WHO Report on COVID-19

The Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is the best source of information on COVID-19 that I have seen.

The Joint Mission consisted of 25 national and international experts from China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, the United States of America and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Joint Mission was headed by Dr Bruce Aylward of WHO and Dr Wannian Liang of the People’s Republic of China.

Some of the language is more pro-China than is usual in an academic report but the report is full of credible data.

The bottom line is that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that due to extraordinary intervention the epidemic in China has been brought under control and is slowing to manageable levels.

In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history. The strategy that underpinned this containment effort was initially a national approach that promoted universal temperature monitoring, masking, and hand washing. However, as the outbreak evolved, and knowledge was gained, a science and risk-based approach was taken to tailor implementation. Specific containment measures were adjusted to the provincial, county and even community context, the capacity of the setting, and the nature of novel coronavirus transmission there.

…. China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic. A particularly compelling statistic is that on the first day of the advance team’s work there were 2478 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in China. Two weeks later, on the final day of this Mission, China reported 409 newly confirmed cases. This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.

Based on a comparison of crude attack rates across provinces, the Joint Mission estimates that this truly all-of Government and all-of-society approach that has been taken in China has averted or at least delayed hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases in the country. By extension, the reduction that has been achieved in the force of COVID-19 infection in China has also played a significant role in protecting the global community and creating a stronger first line of defense against international spread. Containing this outbreak, however, has come at great cost and sacrifice by China and its people, in both human and material terms.

The bad news is that the WHO is worried that other countries do not have the capability or will to implement some of the same policies as China did.

Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans. Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures.

.. COVID-19 is spreading with astonishing speed; COVID-19 outbreaks in any setting have very serious consequences; and there is now strong evidence that non-pharmaceutical interventions can reduce and even interrupt transmission. Concerningly, global and national preparedness planning is often ambivalent about such interventions. However, to reduce COVID-19 illness and death, near-term readiness planning must embrace the large-scale implementation of high-quality, non-pharmaceutical public health measures. These measures must fully incorporate immediate case detection and isolation, rigorous close contact tracing and monitoring/quarantine, and direct population/community engagement.

I don’t think the WHO is the final authority on what to do, public health is their hammer. I have been dismayed, however, at the failure of the CDC, which surely prior to this crisis one would have rated as one of the best US organizations. As the NYTimes wrote:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched its first attempt to mass produce a diagnostic test kit, a discovery made only after officials had shipped hundreds of kits to state laboratories.

A promised replacement took several weeks, and still did not permit state and local laboratories to make final diagnoses. And the C.D.C. essentially ensured that Americans would be tested in very few numbers by imposing stringent and narrow criteria, critics say.

The failure of the CDC, which is a failure of the US government at the deepest levels, not just rot from the top, meant that we lost several weeks that we may have needed to avoid more stringent measures. We will know more in a week.

Read the whole thing.

Emergent Ventures winners, seventh cohort

Nicholas Whitaker of Brown, general career development grant in the area of Progress Studies.

Coleman Hughes, travel and career development grant.

Michael T. Foster, career development grant to study machine learning to predict which politicians will succeed and advance their careers.

Evan Horowitz, to start the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts, to impose greater rationality on policy discussions at the state level.

John Strider, a Progress Studies grant on how to reinvent the integrated corporate research lab.

Dryden Brown, to help build institutions and a financial center in Ghana, through his company Bluebook Cities.

Adaobi Adibe, to restructure credentialing, and build infrastructure for a more meritocratic world, helping workers create property rights in the evaluation of their own talent.

Shrirang Karandikar, and here (corrected link), to support an Indian project to get the kits to measure and understand local pollution.

Jassi Pannu, medical student at Stanford, to study best policy responses to pandemics.

Vasco Queirós, for his work on a Twitter browser app for superior threading and on-line communication.

My 2013 NYT column on pandemics

The government should resist the strong temptation to skimp on rewards. Many health care breakthroughs come through university research programs and government grants, but bringing an innovation to fruition and managing wide and rapid distribution usually requires the profit-seeking private sector. In any single instance, the government could save money by confiscating rights, but in the longer run this would discourage the search for additional remedies.

If anything, the American government — or, better yet, a consortium of governments — should pay more for pandemic remedies than what market-based auctions would yield. That’s because, if a major pandemic does arise, other countries may not respect intellectual property rights as they scramble to copy a drug or vaccine for domestic distribution. To encourage innovations, policy makers need to bolster the expectation of rewards.

I agree with the circulating critiques of current Trump administration policy, but the Democrats are no angels in this matter either.  For instance:

Unfortunately, the United States lacks strong political coalitions for many beneficial public health measures. The Democratic Party has focused on insurance coverage and Medicaid expansion as political issues, while often wishing to lower prices of drugs or to weaken patent protection. The Obama administration’s new budget lowers spending on pharmaceuticals by an estimated $164 billion over 10 years, mostly through bargaining down Medicare drug prices. That makes it hard for the Democrats to embrace lucrative rewards for pharmaceutical companies or vaccine producers.

Here is the full column.

My Conversation with Garett Jones

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the opening summary:

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

Environmental impact statements can do great harm

In pursuit of federal approval for the nation’s first congestion pricing scheme, the one officials suggested would launch in January 2021, the question was this: Should New York State and New York City conduct a quick “environmental assessment” or a full scale “environmental impact statement,” a process that could take years?

Federal officials didn’t provide a definitive answer in that meeting, nor have they since.

That haziness puts MTA officials, and the massive system-wide rehabilitation plan whose funding is reliant on congestion pricing, in a serious bind.

Here is the full story, via Austin V.

Royal sentences to ponder

Meghan and Harry insist Queen Elizabeth doesn’t own the word ‘royal’

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle laid bare their hostility with Buckingham Palace — by insisting that neither Queen Elizabeth nor the UK Government owns the word “royal” internationally.

Hours after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex confirmed on Friday they would not go ahead with their planned “Sussex Royal” brand after The Queen put a stop to it, they posted an extraordinary statement on their website insisting they still had the right to the word “royal.”

The statement reads: “While there is not any jurisdiction by The Monarchy or Cabinet Office over the use of the word ‘Royal’ overseas, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex do not intend to use ‘Sussex Royal’ or any iteration of the word ‘Royal’ in any territory (either within the UK or otherwise) when the transition occurs Spring 2020.”

Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.