Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The benefits of vaccinating the world are clear. The catch is the price tag.

You’re reading an excerpt from the Today’s WorldView newsletter. Sign up to get the rest, including news from around the globe, interesting ideas, and opinions to know sent to your inbox every weekday.

A new model aims to find the cost of vaccinating the world. It could also reveal the huge cost of not vaccinating the world: At least 1 million lives.

Researchers from Yale, Brown, the University of Maryland and Stanford, as well as the group Public Citizen, which advocates for improved access to medicines, published the model and its findings in a preprint study Thursday. Their research, which other experts called imperfect but telling, comes amid new pressure on the U.S. government to ensure wider access to coronavirus vaccines using mRNA technology made by U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna.

According to the model, mRNA doses for every person living in lower-middle and low-income countries this year would avert 1.2 million deaths. Third doses for this population, already common in wealthy countries, would avert 1.5 million deaths, the model found.

Zain Rizvi, a research director at Public Citizen and one of the authors of the study, said it should be a “wake-up call” for the United States. “President Biden has the opportunity to save a million lives if he were to launch a serious global vaccine manufacturing and delivery programs,” he said.

The numbers align with other estimates by global health organizations. Covax, a global vaccination effort backed by the World Health Organization, has publicly estimated that its vaccine deliveries could save between 1 million to 1.27 million lives in 2022.

At least 5.7 million people, if not far more, have died. If these numbers are accurate, or even remotely reflective, a rapid scale-up of vaccination in low-income countries could prevent a mammoth number of deaths.

And there would be added benefits to increasing vaccination in poorer nations. A separate peer-reviewed study released last month found that if wealthy nations donated half of their vaccines, the world would be far better protected by future variants.

But if those are the benefits, what are the costs? Unsurprisingly, it’s cash: Saving lives costs money. And the rich countries that would shoulder the bill aren’t always happy to open up their wallets.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization and its partners announced a new call for funding its ACT-Accelerator, a body designed to alleviate global inequality during the pandemic, with the aim of reaching $23 billion in 2022. Covax, the vaccines pillar of that body, had already launched its own calls for $5.2 billion in funding over the next three months.

Many wealthy countries have donated to efforts such as Covax, either giving cash or excess doses. Last November, the Biden administration announced a plan to boost global supply of mRNA vaccines with billions of dollars in funding.

But global efforts to fight the coronavirus remain persistently underfunded. And as fears about the pandemic dim in highly vaccinated countries after the wave of omicron variant infections, attention may be elsewhere.

High-income countries want to declare victory over the coronavirus, WHO special envoy Ayoade Alakija said at a press briefing this week. “There no such thing as victory over covid. That ship sailed a long time ago,” said Alakija, who also serves as co-chair of the African Union’s African Vaccine Delivery Alliance.

The model from Rizvi and his colleagues could show that the price tag for vaccinating the world is lower than many expected. Gregg Gonsalves, a co-author of the study and an associate professor at Yale School of Public Health, said that their research showed global vaccination could come at “an incredibly reasonable price” when considered per life saved.

That number, based on estimates for the number of vaccinations as well as estimated production and delivery costs of mRNA vaccines from the WHO and other organizations, varied considerably. At its highest, it would be $81,500 per life saved. At its lowest, $7,400.

Either price would be considerably lower estimates used by the U.S. federal government to show the monetary value of a single life — more than $10 million in one estimate.

The paper has not been peer-reviewed and some modeling experts who were shown it by Today’s WorldView noted there were many more complications it did not consider, including the impact of widespread levels of immunity in poorer nations that had large omicron outbreaks.

Another additional factor was the added cost of scaling up production so quickly. One study released earlier this year estimated an additional 15 billion doses of mRNA vaccines would need to be manufactured this year to deal with omicron — far above current models.

“It’s a scratch model,” Gonsalves explained, adding that the range of complications meant there was little “bang for the buck” in more complicated models that would not change the underlying point.

And that underlying point has long been hard to argue with. Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a proposal for ending covid-19 using vaccination, along with other measures, at $50 billion. The model released Thursday hit on similar price tags, ranging from $35 billion to $61 billion.

The benefits for human life are obvious. But there are economic benefits, too. The IMF’s 2021 estimate suggested that the global economy could gain $9 trillion under its proposal.

Reviewing the model, Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease expert at the University of California at San Francisco who was not involved in the research, said its findings were “important, impactful and a call to action” for countries like the United States that had already spent trillions on their own pandemic response.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, said that the success of models in predicting the outcome during this pandemic always depended on what counterfactuals were involved.

However, Katz added in an email, given “that many believe that mRNA vaccines will be a critical platform for future vaccines, building global mRNA manufacturing capacity around the world seem like a smart investment” for the future.

So far, neither Pfizer or Moderna have agreed to work with a WHO-backed mRNA technology hub in South Africa, which backers say is costing one company reverse engineering a vaccine candidate up to years in development time. In earnings announcements this week, Pfizer announced it forecasts roughly $100 billion in revenue this year.

Read more:

WHO pushes for more cash, faces skeptical Biden administration

The United States finally has free rapid tests and N95 masks — well behind many other countries

In the wake of unequal vaccine rollouts, countries face a ‘Wild West’ scramble for covid pills

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.

Loading...