Faster Vaccine Development Could Save Lives, But Would People Trust It?
New data suggest many would.
Research on the COVID-19 pandemic, including my (Markus) own work with Alex Tabarrok (and other work like it), has found that faster vaccine development, approval and distribution could go a long way toward taming the next pandemic. Such reforms appear to be a bargain compared to costlier, more intrusive and less effective interventions like lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates. A key parameter in these analyses, of course, is the public’s willingness to get vaccinated. Even a highly effective vaccine will do nothing to blunt a pandemic unless it gets into people’s arms.
A crucial question for policymakers is whether people would lose trust in the process if the procedures for vaccine development and approval were expedited. If the answer is no, FDA reforms and programs like Operation Warp Speed ought to be high on the priority list. If the answer is yes, the cost-benefit calculation may not be so favorable — and may even tilt against reform.
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Fortunately, there is new data on this question. The Health and Retirement Study’s recent survey, Perspectives on the Pandemic1, provides insights into older (50+ year-old) Americans’ attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccinations. Respondents were asked to share their opinions on common reasons people give for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine. (The Health and Retirement Study doesn’t survey younger adults, so its findings can’t be applied broadly to the U.S. population. Still, the elderly account for the vast majority of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, so their views are especially relevant.)
The data show that 24% of respondents indicate the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development is a very important concern, 36% say it’s somewhat important, and 39% say it’s not important at all (Figure 1).
What do these data really mean? Is 24% a lot or a little? It’s hard to tell. If it means the 24% are people who won’t get vaccinated by a vaccine developed quickly, but would have by a vaccine developed at a normal speed, then that should clearly give pause to those pushing to accelerate vaccine development. On the other hand, if the 24% are die-hard vaccine skeptics who won’t get vaccinated regardless of the speed of development, then their views are mostly irrelevant to these particular cost-benefit calculations.
Digging deeper into the data, there’s a simple way to estimate which extreme we’re closer to. Below we plot the same data again while dropping anyone who indicated “I don’t like vaccines” as a very important or somewhat important reason they might not get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Figure 2 shows that about two thirds of the respondents who indicated too fast development as a very important concern are people who also indicated they don’t like vaccines in general. While safety concerns are valid and important, the concerns surrounding the speed of development appear concentrated among people unlikely to get vaccinated anyway.
Delayed vaccine development does not allay the fears of a group whose skepticism goes far beyond the speed of development, but it does prevent us all from experiencing the immense benefits of a free and open society. The lowest cost way to minimize the disruption of the next pandemic is through faster development, approval, and distribution of vaccines.
Reference: Health and Retirement Study, (2021 HRS Perspectives on the Pandemic) public use dataset. Produced and distributed by the University of Michigan with funding from the National Institute on Aging (grant number NIA U01AG009740). Ann Arbor, MI, (2023).
The HRS (Health and Retirement Study) is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (grant number NIA U01AG009740) and is conducted by the University of Michigan.