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Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion.
The development of what looks like an effective vaccine against COVID-19 has ignited hopes that the worst of the pandemic will be over relatively soon. If successful, it will also vindicate a strategy that has proven controversial: Slowing down the spread of SARS-CoV-2 through draconian restrictions on people’s activity.
The basic idea behind “lockdowns” was to flatten the curve of contagion so that it wouldn’t overwhelm hospitals. This strategy had one major flaw: It didn’t bring about a definitive end to the outbreak. The pandemic abated in the summer, thanks to the restrictions governments introduced in the spring. After politicians relaxed the rules, however, the virus regathered its strength. The same pattern appears to be emerging in the U.S., as New York City and other places battle with a rising second wave.
Buying time makes sense if you’re trying to reduce the number of people who catch the most severe forms of COVID-19 at the same time, allowing doctors to take better care of them. But it’s less effective if you have no good endgame to look forward to, other than the constant closing and reopening of your economy.
The proponents of “herd immunity” — and opponents of lockdowns — often start from the premise that there’s no point trying to slow down the virus, since eventually we’ll all have to catch it. Shutting schools, shops and restaurants only delays the inevitable. It’s an idea that made Sweden famous in the first wave of the outbreak (even though the country denied it was ever a goal).
The announcement from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE — if confirmed by further data — knocks down this line of thinking. It confirms that at least one vaccine will probably be available widely from early to mid-2021. If so, it makes sense for countries to continue to constrain the virus for another few months, in order to minimize deaths until there’s widespread immunization. Assuming governments can distribute the first doses to the most vulnerable, and they’re effective, only a few months of waiting could save many lives.
This doesn’t mean governments have to opt for full lockdowns. Some countries such as Germany contained the first wave with fewer restrictions than states such as Italy and Spain. Effective tracing systems and strong hospital networks were important.
There are tentative signs, too, that the second wave might be stabilizing in parts of Europe, such as the U.K., even though lockdowns are looser now than in the spring — relying, for example, on regional restrictions and targeted closures of businesses. If cases and hospitalizations don’t accelerate, and eventually fall, it may be possible to avoid draconian measures while “flattening the curve.”
The discovery of an effective vaccine also has implications for economic policy. If countries only need to wait a few more months before life slowly returns to normal, the case strengthens for very generous fiscal and monetary support. In a world without widespread immunization, it made less sense to keep propping up businesses that would eventually become unviable. Why not just adapt to the “new normal” and accept more bankruptcies now, while retraining workers?
A working vaccine would suggest the current recession is temporary, and that governments should provide a financial bridge for companies and employees.
There are, inevitably, plenty of reasons for caution. Pfizer and BioNTech are still waiting for data to ensure their vaccine is safe. We don’t know how long immunization will last, nor how well it will do for subgroups such as the elderly. Or indeed if it can prevent the worst forms of COVID-19. A vaccine will take time to distribute and the need to have two doses will delay the immunization program. Governments can still cause unnecessary deaths if they don’t get the logistics right.
However, the rapid discovery of a seemingly effective remedy does justify some of the tough choices made around the world. Restrictions haven’t been easy to cope with, but they may have been worth it.