As 2021 comes to a close, I’m having a distinct sense of déjà vu. A year ago, I wrote a post celebrating COVID vaccines as a triumph of science. And I noted that vaccine discovery is a collective endeavour. The cumulative number of major vaccines tracks closely with the cumulative number of scientific papers, a bellwether for humanity’s collective knowledge. Here’s the trend:
This trend is a beautiful reminder that science is a social endeavour. No matter how novel, every discovery builds on the work of others. Science, in other words, is the quintessential public good. And so are vaccines.
Looking at the roll out of previous vaccines, however, I noted a perverse (but unsurprising) trend. Instead of chasing people, vaccines chase dollars. Pick any vaccine you want, and you’ll find that the corresponding vaccination rate tracks with GDP per capita. Sadly, the roll out of COVID vaccines is no exception. Here’s the latest data:
What I did not anticipate, back in December 2020, was that a significant portion of rich-country citizens would choose to remain unvaccinated. Although anti-vaxers are a source of frustration for those of us who want to get on with a post-pandemic life, there is an upshot. It seems plausible that by avoiding vaccines, rich anti-vaxers are freeing up some supply for poor countries. In a year like 2021, you have to take whatever solace you can get.
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Sources and methods
Data for the number of scientific papers comes from Sci-Hub, via Library Genesis. The raw data comes as an SQL database dump. If you’re interested, I built an R function that can parse this data. Check it out at Github.
Data for new vaccine dates is from Wikipedia.