Research / BFI Working PaperJan 16, 2024

Quantifying the Social Value of a Universal COVID-19 Vaccine and Incentivizing Its Development

Rachel Glennerster, Thomas Kelly, Claire McMahon, Christopher Snyder

A booster of the COVID-19 vaccine targeting the prevailing Omicron variant did not become available in the United States until a year after the variant was first detected. This pattern of developing, testing, and distributing a variant-specific booster may become the default response to further waves of COVID-19 caused by new variants. An innovation with realistic scientific potential—a universal COVID-19 vaccine, effective against existing and future variants—could provide much more value by preempting new variants. Averaged across Monte Carlo simulations, we estimate the incremental value to the U.S. population of a universal COVID-19 vaccine to be $1.5–$2.6 trillion greater than variant-specific boosters (depending on how the arrival rate of variants is modeled). This social value eclipses the cost of an advance market commitment to incentivize the universal vaccine by several orders of magnitude.

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