How quickly we forget. When the coronavirus pandemic started, public health experts warned that vaccines were unlikely to become available for years. Having vaccines within 18 months was considered a wildly optimistic estimate. (Those experts were not just being killjoys—ensuring that a vaccine is safe and effective takes time, and historically the process had never been completed in less than 18 months.) Now here it is just a year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, and we have not just one but three vaccines in the U.S. alone, with several more approved and in use in the rest of the world.
So now we have these three amazing vaccines … and people are worried about whether they can get the “best” one. Let’s discuss.
It might be worth talking to your students, first off, about why this particular vaccine development process went so quickly, especially since the unprecedented speed makes some people nervous about getting vaccinated. This article from Nature does a good job explaining what accelerated the process—the short answer is 1) pre-existing research: lots of relevant science research had already been done; 2) money, money, money: pharmaceutical companies were guaranteed to be reimbursed for the costs of developing and testing vaccines whether or not they worked; and 3) luck: the coronavirus mutates relatively slowly, the new vaccine approaches worked, and the vaccines had no serious side effects.
But that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to talk about why the difference in effectiveness among the three vaccines currently available in the U.S. doesn’t matter as much as you might think, which is why public health experts are telling people to accept whichever one they are offered even though two of them are, objectively, “better” than the third.
Here’s what I’m going to compare this situation to. Let’s say you’re in that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: the big boulder is rolling down the tunnel behind you and you think you are doomed. But ahead of you, you see a sports car with its engine running. You jump in the sports car and slam on the accelerator. You outrun the boulder! You are saved! Hurrah! Now, same scenario. The boulder is bearing down on you. Ahead of you is a really nice sedan with its engine running. You jump in the sedan and slam on the accelerator. The sedan isn’t quite as fast. The boulder might tap the bumper and leave a slight scrape. But you still outrun the boulder! You are saved! Hurrah!
You see, all you really care about is outrunning the boulder. If the sports car can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds and the sedan takes 7.5 seconds, it doesn’t matter—both cars save your life.