As I have written before, the $18 billion spent on the Operation Warp Speed program to accelerate the development of COVID vaccines may well have the highest benefit-to-cost ratio of any government program that has ever existed. Moreover, the benefits will continue to grow as more people get vaccinated here and around the world, and as future vaccines are developed based on the accumulated knowledge. Over at the Commonwealth Fund, Eric C. Schneider, Arnav Shah, Pratha Sah, Seyed M. Moghadas, Thomas Vilches, and Alison Galvani have updated their model to answer the question: “The U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program at One Year: How Many Deaths and Hospitalizations Were Averted?” (December 14, 2021). They write:
The U.S. vaccination program campaign has profoundly altered the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing nearly 1.1 million deaths. Even with only about 60 percent of Americans vaccinated to date, the nation has dodged a massive wave of COVID-19 deaths that would have started as the Delta variant took hold in August 2021. Because of Delta’s rapid and nationwide spread, deaths due to COVID-19 would have far exceeded all previous peaks. Our estimates suggest that in 2021 alone, the vaccination program prevented a potentially catastrophic flood of patients requiring hospitalization. It is difficult to imagine how hospitals would have coped had they been faced with 10 million people sick enough to require admission. The U.S. has 919,000 licensed hospital beds and typically accommodates about 36 million hospitalizations each year.
Their model predicts the death rates and hospitalization rates with and without vaccinations:
Of course, all models like this are open to question. Maybe the delta variant of COVID would not have been quite as bad for an unvaccinated population at their model predicts. If vaccines had not been available, probably alternative steps would have been taken to limit the spread of COVID in 2021–steps that would of course have had benefit and costs and tradeoffs of their own. But my point here is not to quibble over the numbers: after all, reducing deaths and hospitalizations by half of these projects, or one-tenth of these projections, would still be an extraordinary success. Instead, I want to emphasize that the COVID pandemic, awful as it has been, could have been much worse. And I’m not sure we have internalized the lessons we need to learn for the next pandemic, just in case “invent a vaccine really fast” doesn’t work so well next time.