Who do we thank for COVID vaccines?

Innovation, incentives, and 5 links worth your time

Finally, some good news!

Next December, we probably won’t be making painful calculations about how to celebrate the holiday season. Instead, we’ll hopefully be going about our usual traditions, and that’s because this year, we all got our Christmas wish: an effective vaccine against COVID-19. 

Prior to 2020, I could probably count, on one hand, the times that I contemplated anything related to epidemiology and the medical technology surrounding it. Now, everywhere I look, people are comparing the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine as this generation’s “moonshot.” It hadn’t been done before, we didn’t know what it would take to do it, but the whole world has been watching in anticipation to see what could be done. 

For most of 2020 we’ve been facing COVID-19, a problem that shut down the world economy and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Now, the solution is at hand. 

So, who do we have to thank for a COVID-19 vaccine? And, moving forward, what can we do to encourage more world-changing innovation?

One giant leap for mankind

For a start, we have some resolute, innovative scientists, who refused to give up on creating synthetic messenger RNA. That’s the key component to many of the vaccines in development (learn how in the links below), and, even when faced with professional failure and setbacks, these scientists adapted quickly, and they kept working. 

We have scrappy startups, like Moderna and BioNTech, as well as established pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, who saw the potential in mRNA for vaccines, cancer treatment, and beyond, and they sunk billions of dollars into exploring the potential uses. We also have a massive injection of support from the government through “Operation Warp Speed” which supported the development of numerous vaccines and the plans to distribute them to the public. 

The power of people

People made this happen–creative, determined, well-incentivized people. Just as easily, people who faced the wrong incentives or made the wrong tradeoffs could have slowed the process down, and that’s something we should think carefully about when we contemplate future progress. If massive investment in vaccine development hadn’t been funded, companies would not have moved at this speed. 

If the FDA hadn’t adapted their approval process, we might not have the vaccine so quickly. If Noubar Afeyan, Ugur Saihn, and Ozlem Tureci had not been allowed to emigrate from their home countries, they probably would not have founded companies capable of creating these vaccines. 

COVID-19 will certainly not be the last worldwide crisis we face. Facing it, however, has given us the opportunity to see how unleashing the power of people will help us solve whatever crises come our way. I invite you to dip into this week’s 5 links with these questions in mind: Where was the power of people thwarted and where was it freed in the COVID-19 crisis? And how does that help us think about the next one? 

5 links worth your time

  1. Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA in their COVID-19 vaccines. This never-before-used technology could transform how science fights diseases, USA Today – What exactly is mRNA? This article gives a simple explanation of what it is, how it works, and what the potential is, for COVID and beyond. 
  2. The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race, Statnews – Read about the discovery of mRNA by Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó and the journey from her discovery to its use in some of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines that are soon to be released. 
  3. Thank Immigration for the New Covid-19 Vaccines, Reason – Immigration policy and epidemiological progress might not seem related, but Ilya Somin argues that they are. He makes the case that we’re all better off when we allow high skilled immigrants to come add value to our societies. 
  4. ‘Sandbox’ Everything, RealClearPolicy – Time is of the essence in a global pandemic. For government regulation to be effective, it needs to be able to adapt to the changing needs and circumstances of the problems it’s addressing. This piece proposes a regulatory ‘sandbox’ for ideas that need to be tested immediately, incentivizing businesses to be creative, without fear of massive regulatory cost and bureaucracy, while still maintaining the ability to intervene when necessary. 
  5. Warp Speed for Clean Energy? That Won’t Work, Bloomberg – Tyler Cowen considers the possibility that something along the lines of Operation Warp Speed could have similar success when applied beyond epidemiology. He encourages us to be cautious about setting our expectations too high, though. 

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