What Would Hayek Do? Knowledge and Vaccines - The Library of Economics and Liberty

13 April 2020 - Bloomberg opines the key to a lasting solution to the coronavirus pandemic is a vaccine. The most common projection is that it will take a minimum or one year to accomplish. Cooperation and innovation made possible by open markets may provide the strongest measures yet to solve COVID-19. Do we have reason to optimistically question the current vaccine timeline assumption?

Garreth Bloor

Bloomberg opines the key to a lasting solution to the coronavirus pandemic is a vaccine. The most common projection is that it will take a minimum or one year to accomplish. Cooperation and innovation made possible by open markets may provide the strongest measures yet to solve COVID-19. Do we have reason to optimistically question the current vaccine timeline assumption?

Perhaps the hesitation in making public projections is the number of unknowns and the fear of being wrong, as I heard from one top tier consulting firm hesitant to go public. But fearlessly making these qualified projections and sharing data is vital in the process of knowledge building. Hayek told us the use of knowledge held by dispersed individuals is essential for progress, now so more than ever. Widespread testing (combined with the right isolating behaviour) and finding a vaccine are widely seen as the key to getting the pandemic under control.

The application of knowledge is all too often hindered by regulation: In the instance of testing, Jeffrey Tucker points out the Centers for Disease Control had “previously nationalized all disease testing”. Writing at the American Institute for Economic Research, he says the group had just days earlier  “explained how a private researcher, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was forcibly prevented from producing and distributing a valid test”.

At the President’s request, “by Friday America’s robust private sector, including Walmart, Walgreens,  CVS, Roche Laboratories, and LabCorp, came up with a solution for mass testing, noted Robert Luddy in the American Spectator mere days later. A multitude of sources have concluded “quick, easy testing was the key to South Korea’s success”.

On the timeline for a vaccine, “European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen surprised the world this week, suggesting that the regulatory process for vaccines could be sped up and that a coronavirus shot could be on the market within six months,” reported ABC News Australia. Her comment is at odds with the World Health Organisation (WHO), “which does not expect a fully-tested and approved vaccine to be ready to reach the market before the middle of 2021”.

CureVac, a German biotech company working on a coronavirus vaccine, was the inspiration for her public comments. It is not the only company making swift progress. A range of discoveries and trials in the testing phases are documented, taking place at lightning speed as new standards are set for responding to a pandemic. In the interim, modest improvements in treatment well-underway are poised to make a significant difference. Peter Diamandis is keeping a tally on some of the major milestones already achieved early this month, with a list that is by no means exhaustive.

As of March 21, there are 48 vaccine candidates in pre-clinical evaluation, and two in clinical evaluation, according to the World Health Organization.

Studies are happening at lightning speed which help inform vaccine development, potentially affecting timelines: “The good news is two independent studies by teams of infectious diseases scientists helping Italy’s fight against coronavirus have reported they found the fast-proliferating pathogen to be reasonably stable,” reports Mark Blunden in the UK: “The findings will add to a better understanding of the virus and how it spreads — and raise hopes that a future vaccine could have a higher rate of effectiveness against the strain.”. On currently available prospective treatments, here at EconLog David Henderson argues safe drugs should not be kept of the market today.

William Yeatman, a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, argues COVID-19 has spurred the suspension of regulations that were never needed in the first places so address the situation: The emergency Declaration under Title 42 gives health agencies greater flexibility to suspend regulations that get in the way of responding, with many suspensions recognising the effectiveness of private supply chains in responding.

The Intercept reports Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recognizes the speed of delivering the manufacturing of a vaccine will come down to the private sector. “The federal government is not going to be able to make hundreds of millions of doses,” he said.

At the state level and federal level, a number of regulations have been eased or temporarily suspended. A number have been on the wish list for elimination during ordinary times, as pointed out during an interview with Yeatman.

Yeatman draws attention to the now well-known “fiasco in Seattle, where private parties had developed fairly effective tests for COVID and used it in violation of the law and FDA” as an example of rigidity that existed, citing New York Times coverage of the story. By going ahead before the regulatory roll-back, private players “arguably saved a lot of lives”.

Loosening of licensing regulations for nurses is another tangible, where previous measures had precluded a number of well-qualified and well-meaning people from getting behind the response.

Constitutional research fellows and economists don’t carry scientific credentials but may have a key role in crisis: to demonstrate the necessary conditions for the maximum application of scientific knowledge in an enabling environment, one that is conducive to the capital and collaboration necessary to fight COVID-19 or any future pandemic – and come out stronger, even if such a prospect seems distant in these tough times.

Hayek once noted “the range and variety of government action that is, at least in principle, reconcilable with a free system is (…) considerable”. Those actions include rolling back barriers to finding a solution in addition to new measures underway.

Garreth Bloor is a council member of the IRR, the oldest classical liberal think tank in South Africa. He served as a former executive politician in the country and is the founder of a venture capital firm. Bloor now resides primarily in Toronto, where he heads The Canada-Africa Chamber of Business.

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