EconomyNext interview about vaccines (20 December 2020)

I gave a hurried interview to EconomyNext about vaccines, which they used in their new article here, published on 20 December 2020.

I need to write properly on this. But bottom line: vaccines are no magic bullet.

The first generation vaccines are unlikely to be good enough at blocking transmission to stop the pandemic. The 90%+ efficacy rates that are being reported for some vaccines refer to their ability to stop illness. But many vaccines stop illness but don’t prevent transmission. A vaccinated person can get infected and transmit the virus to others, whilst remaining free of illness. We won’t have the data to assess the transmission blocking efficacy of these new vaccines for some months, and even the scientists involved expect this to be far less than their efficacy in stopping illness.

Instead of rushing to vaccinate now, we need to wait some time to see the data on how well these different vaccines perform on blocking transmission, and then select. This also gives some time for production to ramp up and for prices to start falling. Right now the most effective vaccines are likely to require a big chunk of our national income to purchase in sufficient quantities to vaccinate all Sri Lankans. E.g., Pfizer vaccine could cost us USD 800 million or more, or well over Rs 100 billion or 1% of GDP to vaccinate enough Sri Lankans to achieve herd immunity and to protect vulnerable groups.

What this means is that we will need other measures to help control the virus, and we are already know that aggressive testing and isolation can eliminate the virus, as demonstrated empirically by our new study in Health Affairs.

Our best option is to eliminate the virus now, stabilize our fiscal situation by raising taxes which have fallen to abysmal levels (9% of GDP) lower than in Sub-Saharan Africa (18% of GDP) so that we have the option of potentially vaccinating everyone, and take our time to choose a vaccine and negotiate a good price.