Sam Peltzman, a University of Chicago emeritus professor, could easily win this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work on the economics of regulations. Peltzman’s odds of winning have probably improved because of his work nearly a half century ago on the impact of the FDA’s efficacy requirement for drug approval, which was imposed in 1962. Before that year, drugs only had to pass the FDA’s safety standards.
Peltzman found that the added approval standard substantially increased drug development costs, which caused a serious drop-off in new drugs developed and multiyear delays in the introduction of approved drugs. Peltzman and other economists following his lead have found that the added development costs caused hundreds of thousands of deaths from drugs never making it to market or being introduced after long delays. A Nobel for Peltzman is long overdue.
Peltzman’s impact can be heard today from a variety of sources, including the Trump Administration, calling for a speed-up in the FDA’s approval of Covid-19 vaccines. Delays in approval can only increase Covid cases and deaths. Peltzman’s findings remain applicable, critics insist.
The rigor of approval standards for sleeping pills (or beta-blockers and many other drugs) need not, and cannot, be the same as those for Covid vaccines, a point Peltzman would likely accept. Sleeping pills are largely for the users’ benefit—more sleep—with the effects on others nil or inconsequential. The death-reduction case for reducing such drugs’ development costs remains as strong as ever.
However, vaccines are different in one critical respect: Vaccines benefits those vaccinated and many others through the development of “herd immunity” (the point at which the spread of a disease is throttled by the prevalence of inoculation).
Herd immunity can reduce cases and deaths of those vaccinated as well as others not vaccinated. However, herd immunity depends on a substantial portion of the population (many epidemiologists say 60 or more percent, while one recent study from two European universities has found 43 percent is adequate) willingly getting vaccinated (with a working rule, the greater the spread in immunity, up to a point, the greater the decline in disease spread). This means that, barring forced vaccinations, herd immunity is not only dependent upon the science of testing, but also on people’s perception of the safety and efficacy of the testing processes.
Cutbacks in testing rigor (or just the amount of time devoted to testing) can have a two-pronged effect: They can reduce earlier than otherwise Covid deaths among early vaccinated people, but the cuts in rigor can also cause many people to resist vaccination (or even join the ranks of “anti-vaxxers”), delaying the development of herd immunity and extending spread of the disease, which, in turn, can cause more Covid deaths in the long run than are saved in the short run.
Ironically, the greater people’s resistance to vaccination, the more rigorous the testing may have to be just to assuage their safety and efficacy fears and induce them to get vaccinated, so that they contribute to the spread of herd immunity and add to derivative economic gains (more jobs and incomes).
By seeking to speed up the FDA approval process, Republican officials could have sewn doubts on the net value of vaccines and slowed the development of herd immunity. Similarly, many Democrats could have compounded the problem by suggesting that Trump has pressed the FDA to compromise its testing rigor for his reelection ends. Media hostility toward Trump, including emphasis on his efforts to press for vaccine development at “warp speed,” has probably compounded political pressures for vaccine resistance.
Peltzman’s line of argument suggests that greater resistance to vaccination can increase the needed payments to spread vaccinations and, again, to achieve herd immunity. The testing rigor for vaccines may also need to be greater than for sleeping pills because the last thing wanted during a pandemic is a vaccine-prescription requirement, which can slow the development of herd immunity by raising the costs of vaccinations.
The politics of vaccines could be having the unintended effect of elevating resistance to Covid vaccinations. In May, the Pew Research Center reported that 72 percent of polled Americans said that they would “definitely” or “probably” be vaccinated for Covid, while 27 percent said they would not. Earlier this month, the percentage of Americans willing to get vaccinated was down by almost a third, to 51 percent. Those unwilling to get vaccinated was up by more than two-thirds, to 49 percent.
These findings portend a new form of the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” a wider and longer spread of Covid and more unintended deaths, given that a check on vaccine politics will unlikely be driven by concern for the common good. Now, as reported by Wall Street Journal editors, officials from the CDC, FDA, NIH, and drug companies are having to work overtime to assure Americans that drug-testing protocols continue to be follow with the upmost rigor.
Richard McKenzie is an emeritus professor of economics in the Merage Business School at the University of California, Irvine. His latest book under development is The Human Brain on Economics.