Malaria Know More: Economics Prof. & US Vaccine Policy Advisor Alex Tabarrok on Treating Malaria Vaccination Distributions as an “Emergency”

In an interview with Malaria No More, Alex Tabarrok, a professor of economics at George Mason University, discusses treating malaria distributions as an “emergency.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tabarrok, served as an advisor to the US government on using incentives to accelerate vaccine production.

You recently wrote a blog entitled, “What is an Emergency? The Case for Rapid Malaria Vaccination.” What makes malaria an emergency and how does vaccine distribution change things?

TABARROK: We tend to think of new problems as emergencies and old problems as a normal state of affairs. This is misguided, especially when lives are at stake. The key question should be: how many lives can we save? If acting swiftly can save hundreds of thousands of lives, then the age of the problem is irrelevant. What makes malaria an emergency is that by acting swiftly today to distribute newly created and effective vaccines we can save hundreds of thousands of lives. We ought to do so even though malaria has been killing people for thousands of years.

In your piece, you contrast the world’s response to COVID to the malaria response. What have been the key differences in vaccine distribution efforts? What, if anything, needs to change?

TABARROK: COVID was new and thus perceived as an emergency. Malaria is old and thus the problem doesn't feel so urgent. But it is urgent because we can save hundreds of thousands of lives, especially children, by acting swiftly.

Did the recent WHO approval of the R21 vaccine change anything?

TABARROK: Absolutely. The new malaria vaccines, especially R21, have been extensively tested for safety and efficacy in the field and we know they work very well. The studies have been done. It is now time to act. Given the large number of lives at stake we should act as if this is an emergency because it is.

If malaria was treated as an emergency, how would that change vaccine distribution efforts?

TABARROK: The vaccines have been tested, approved, and even produced! We have millions of doses of vaccine ready to go! For COVID, we vaccinated billions of people in less than a year. We can and should similarly accelerate the distribution of malaria vaccines. COVID showed us it is possible. Let's combine what we learned about vaccine distribution from COVID with the same sense of urgency to deliver malaria vaccines.

Prof. Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University

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