If you just read news headlines, you would think that despite the development of remarkably effective vaccines, Americans won’t see relief from the pandemic until the end of 2021.
That’s just plain wrong.
Once again, we’re falling prey to the classic fallacy of treating the future as a simple extrapolation from the recent past.
When the pandemic began, I certainly fell victim to this. In the beginning of February 2020, I spent two weeks traveling to Dubai and India, where I witnessed the increasing impact of Covid-19 first hand. Right before I arrived in India, the government there blocked the entry of any travelers who had been to China recently. There was pandemonium at the Bangalore airport when I arrived. By the time the trip was halfway done, the VC annual meeting I had made the trip to speak at had already been cancelled.
Yet despite this clear and present evidence of an impending crisis, I blithely ignored the signs. After returning to the United States, I planned out trips to London, Hamburg, and Sao Paulo in March. At most, I had a few worries that my trip to Singapore in April might be delayed.
Even at the start of the week of March 9, I had a full week of in-person meetings planned, nearly all of which would be cancelled after the NBA shut down on the 11th.
My point is that the best way to predict the future is to think about the facts and trends (e.g. a fast-spreading pandemic) rather than simply relying on “pattern-matching” with past events (e.g. “Covid-19 is like SARS; it will never make it to the USA”).
So let’s *think* about Covid-19.
When it comes to vaccines, the conventional wisdom is that they’re great, but hard to come by. We’ve all seen endless stories about the impossibility of getting vaccine appointments, and the desperate people flying to other states or countries, or waiting in line overnight hoping to get “leftover” doses.
Striking images, to be sure, but let’s rely instead on cold, hard math.
On February 23, representatives from Pfizer and Moderna told Congress that they would be able to supply over 90 million vaccine doses in the month of April. Meanwhile, J&J’s newly-approved single-dose vaccine should have 20 million doses available by the end of March.
As of today (March 1, 2021), over 75 million vaccine doses have been administered to Americans (out of over 96 million doses distributed to the states).
As of February 23, Pfizer and Moderna were distributing about 45 million doses per month; let’s assume that as they ramp up to 90 million per month, they are able to deliver 67 million doses in March.
Let’s also assume that J&J is limited to 20 million doses per month (this is likely way too conservative).
So March will see another 87 million doses delivered, bringing the cumulative total to 183 million.
April will see another 110 million doses delivered, bringing the cumulative total to 293 million.
Since the J&J is a single-dose vaccine, that’s enough to fully vaccinate 166.5 million adults (40 million J&J, 126.5 million Pfizer/Moderna). That’s over 65% of the US adult population of 255 million. Currently, 55% of adult Americans say that they have either been vaccinated or plan to be; the other 45% either won’t get vaccinated, or are taking a “wait and see” approach.
In other words, by the end of April, the main issue of vaccination will not be supply; it will be convincing the vaccine-hesitant to get their shots.
This flies in the face of everything we’ve experienced to date, and all the headlines you’ve read, but it’s simple math.
And because these vaccines are marvels of science that are incredibly effective (not only do they prevent the majority of symptoms, they essentially eliminate the possibility of hospitalization or death), that means that any American adult who wants to reduce Covid-19 to something less threatening that a common flu will have the opportunity to do so before June 1.
Maybe as it did with me, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic caught you by surprise; don’t let its departure catch you by surprise as well.
Peter Pham points out that according to some reports, the vaccine distribution will be front-loaded (cumulative 240 million doses by the end of March, or enough to vaccinate 130 million Americans–20 million J&J, 110 million Pfizer/Moderna).
Given that nearly 30 million Americans were confirmed to have already had Covid-19 (which is certainly a major undercount), that means by April 1 we should have more than enough supply to offer the vaccine to every American adult who hasn’t yet had Covid-19 and is willing to be vaccinated. This would move the timetable up by another month.