Waiting for a Vaccine May Be Impossible; If So, Open the Economy Now

May 7, 2020 Updated: May 8, 2020


The New York Times ran an in-depth timeline on April 30 estimating it could take up to 15 years to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. Noting that recent vaccines have taken between 11 and 28 years to develop, even with generous assumptions and perfect luck, NYT hopes this could somehow come down to just over two years, so June of 2022.

With supply chains already failing and millions already struggling to pay their bills, such timelines imply that closing the economy until a vaccine comes may be absolutely impossible. If so, we’re paying this enormous price to simply delay the inevitable, and even to make it worse.

There are already widespread reports of shortages in the United States, ranging from meats to diapers and baby formula to essentials like industrial carbon dioxide, critical as a refrigerant and in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Nobody really knows the full impact of a broken supply chain, although we have hints from socialist experiments like Venezuela.

Meanwhile, millions across North America are already experiencing the health hazards of extended shutdowns. One study by researchers from Switzerland, Canada, and the United States estimates that many times more people could die from the well-known health hazards of social isolation itself—suicide, depression, alcohol—even than current estimates for the virus.

Adding in the risks from playing Russian roulette with our supply chains, the health effects from shutdowns could very quickly swamp the virus itself. If those supply chain failures impact vaccine development itself, as industrial CO2 already could, shutdowns could actually be catastrophic and effectively endless.

Because shutdowns prevent relatively harmless cases among the young, longer shutdowns actually risk compounding the harm by delaying the herd immunity we will eventually need. That herd immunity is necessary to eventually make society safe again for the elderly and vulnerable, who otherwise face many more months of isolation, possibly year after year until that vaccine eventually arrives.

Throughout this crisis, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have all offered a compelling alternative, implementing prudent measures to protect the elderly while keeping the economy and society open. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have all seen COVID-19 death rates ranging from 0.3 per million in Taiwan to 5 per million in South Korea, far lower than the 107 deaths per million in Canada or 218 per million in the United States, based on May 6 figures.

In Sweden, the worst-hit of the open countries, an intentional strategy to promote herd immunity has meant a 291 per million death rate, 33 percent higher than the U.S. rate—representing about 700 additional deaths in Sweden compared to the U.S. rate. But herd immunity now appears to be taking hold, with the average COVID-19 death rate over the period May 3–5 at about 6 per million in Sweden, compared to 5 per million in the United States and 4 per million in Canada.

Meanwhile, the jobs impact of COVID-19 has been nearly nil in Sweden and the other countries that have remained open. Unemployment is now at 7.2 percent in Sweden, for the moment lower than it was at the end of January before the crisis. Indeed, a main concern in Sweden is unemployment caused by shutdowns in its trade partner countries. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have all seen mild bumps in unemployment, perhaps as some restaurant and hotel customers voluntarily social distance.

The comparable numbers are brutal in countries that have closed their economies. One study estimates that 33 percent of Americans have lost half or more of their income due to COVID-19, with that estimate being 36 percent in Canada and 24 percent in the United Kingdom. Given the lag in official employment data, the study estimates that the true unemployment rate is now 23 percent in the United States, 22 percent in Canada, and 17 percent in the United Kingdom.

In sum, the open economies are hard at work feeding their families and building toward herd immunity, while in closed economies, our leaders are hiding in their basements praying for a vaccine that may never come in time.

Moreover, if these trends continue, countries like Canada and the United States will have sacrificed their economy, wrecked their critical supply chains, and incurred thousands of additional deaths for nothing more than a few months’ delay in herd immunity—leaving the economy devastated, millions out of work and out of savings, and the elderly and vulnerable just as exposed as they were when the crisis started.

Given the Chinese Communist Party’s irresponsible coverup of the early spread of the virus, thousands of deaths were, unfortunately, inevitable. We all want prudent measures to protect our elderly and vulnerable, but prudence at this point does not mean sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it all goes away. And it does not mean locking down the world for years, even decades, waiting for a vaccine that may never come in time.

Rather, prudence at this point means developing solid plans to protect the vulnerable, while intelligently building herd immunity. And, above all, it means opening as much of the economy as possible, as quickly as possible, so we can limit the ultimate victims of both the virus and its economic fallout.

We will all need to work together to defeat this virus, and we can’t do it hiding at home waiting for our leaders to grow a spine.

Peter St Onge is a former professor at Taiwan’s Feng Chia University. He blogs at ProfitsOfChaos.com.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.