Scienceogram UK

Making sense of science spending

Coronavirus: vaccine funding desperately needed

The amount of money needed to continue the search for a coronavirus vaccine is dwarfed by global bailouts to fight its economic consequences. Check out our new infographic:

Coronavirus is causing global chaos. Governments around the world are locking down their citizens in the hope of getting the virus under control. In the absence of any treatment or vaccine, the only measures available are archaic: handwashing, and keeping people physically apart to prevent the virus’s spread.

The best hope for now is that countries can lock down and get it under control, and then implement some of the ideas from countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan that have (so far) managed to control the disease without totally shutting down their economies. However, the only long-term, permanent solution is medical treatment for the virus, and a vaccine to stop it spreading further.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, is spearheading the global effort to develop a vaccine. Just under two weeks ago they issued a call asking for $2 billion to fund this ongoing effort. According to CEPI’s Rachel Grant in The Times today, their initial seed money runs out at the end of this month. ‘If we don’t get more, none of our vaccines get beyond phase one. There were mentions of CEPI at G7, but nothing specific.’ Basically, they’re still waiting.

This compares to the $3.1 trillion which has already been committed by governments around the world for coronavirus bailouts—economic stimulus measures to pay people and businesses which could otherwise go bankrupt as severe physical distancing measures mean we can no longer go about our everyday lives, earning and spending money as we normally would.

That means that CEPI has asked for less than 0.1% of what has already been committed by governments to fight the economic effects of the virus—to develop medicine which would eradicate both the economic and human cost of coronavirus if successful.

Economists are nearly unanimous—not a sentence you will often read—that the most important thing for the economy is to defeat the virus. Stimulus measures are vital to help vulnerable people on jobs paid by the hour, and to stop businesses going under in the short term. But the ultimate cure for our economic problems is a vaccine or cure for the literal disease causing them.

If the UK were to go it alone and fund CEPI’s full requested budget, it would cost us less than £30 per person. Even without any detailed calculations, it’s a fair guess that the economic benefit of developing a vaccine would be substantially more than £30 per UK resident.

If the US were to fund CEPI solo, it would cost just $6 per American. (Also, $2bn is only twice what Donald Trump allegedly offered a single German company for exclusive access to its experimental vaccine.) If we clubbed together as high-income countries, it would cost us just $1.65 each—a drop in the ocean compared to the economic impacts that coronavirus has already had.

We need more funding for vaccines and treatments now. Governments, businesses and philanthropists need to step up. The sooner we get coronavirus under control, the more likely it is that the economic disruption and number of deaths will be minimised.

Once we’ve managed that, we need to have a discussion about how much funding we’re putting into research to prepare us for the next pandemic. If there’s a tiny silver lining to coronavirus, it’s that making the case for much more investment in infectious disease research should be easier in a post-covid world. Watch this space for our analysis of that.

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