How Vaccines Saved Money and Lives, and China’s Zero-COVID Protests: COVID, Quickly Podcast, Episode 44

Tanya Lewis: Hello and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American Podcast Series!

Josh Fischman: This is your quick update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to date with the latest science behind the most pressing questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify research and help you understand what it really means.

Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis.

Fishman: I’m Josh Fischman.

Lewis: And we are Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re going to explain how vaccines have helped the economy: We saved $10 for every $1 we spent on it, plus millions of lives…

Fishman: And we’ll talk about the protests in China against extreme lockdowns, the damage this country’s zero-COVID policy is doing, and how it might impact the rest of the world.

Lewis: COVID vaccines cost billions to develop and deploy. But for at least one major city that used them, they had incredible financial returns.

Fishman: We usually talk about vaccines that save lives. But in New York City, which was hit hard early on by the pandemic, they also saved the city from a gigantic economic hole, Tanya. Vaccines saved the city about $28 BILLION, which it would have lost without vaccines. Or, as you said, every dollar spent on shots saved ten dollars that would have been spent without shots.

Lewis: Where did the savings come from?

Fishman: A few different places. Long hospital stays that weren’t necessary, emergency room visits avoided, and workers staying healthy instead of calling in sick.

Lewis: hmm But how did they know about things that didn’t happen? And how can you count these things?

Fishman: I wondered about that too. It turns out scientists know enough to model events without vaccines. We know how effective the shots are at keeping people out of the hospital, and we have estimates of how many people in New York have been infected. From this, scientists can calculate how many infected New Yorkers would have been hospitalized if there had been no vaccines. And there is data on the number of unvaccinated people showing up in emergency departments compared to vaccinated people.

Lewis: That makes sense. So what were the actual dollar numbers?

Fishman: The direct cost of COVID-related health care — hospitals and the like — was about $7.5 billion with vaccines. Without them, the cost rose to 33 billion.

Vaccines cost nearly $2 billion in lost workdays. Without them, the dollars lost to lost productivity would have more than doubled to over 4 billion, the researchers reported in a recent issue of the journal JAMA Network Open.

Lewis: But the vaccines themselves cost city and federal governments dearly to procure and distribute. To be fair, that needs to be taken into account.

Fishman: It was nearly $5 billion, including the money the government gave the city to run the vaccine campaign and buy the actual vaccines.

The math of these calculations gets complicated, but basically New York spent that 5 billion and kept at least 28 billion as a result. Business or school closures would also have been even longer and cost even more money if there had been no vaccines.

So yes, vaccines save millions of lives that are difficult to estimate. But they’re also an incredibly strong return on investment.

Fishman: A wave of protests against the government’s strict zero-COVID policy erupted in China last week. What do we know so far about what is happening?

Lewis: The protests in China are among the largest in decades. They began last week after a fire at an apartment building in the western Chinese city of Urumqi [Oo-room-chi].

The fire resulted in an official death toll of 10 people, although it may have been much higher. Some people have claimed that a COVID lockdown prevented people from escaping the building.

Fishman: What happened next? How did the protests spread?

Lewis: People in other Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, organized vigils for the victims of the Urumqi fire, which quickly turned into protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s zero-COVID policy. Some people even called for the resignation of Xi Jinping, the country’s president.

Fishman: That seems like a big deal for China, a country that suppresses dissent and tightly controls people’s speech.

Lewis: It’s a huge thing. But let’s go back a minute and talk about how Zero COVID started.

China started politics when the outbreak first began in Wuhan in late 2019. And it has been very effective in stopping the spread of the virus – China has had far fewer COVID cases and deaths (officially, at least) than many other countries, especially for a country of its size.

Fishman: In a way, their politics seems like a good thing.

Lewis: Well, at least that’s how many Chinese saw it at first. But we’re almost three years into this pandemic and almost every other country has returned to something remotely normal.

Nonetheless, China has continued its draconian lockdowns and quarantine measures. These have taken a huge economic and social toll, and the Chinese people seem fed up with it.

Fishman: The Chinese government has responded with arrests. But are they changing their policies in any way?

Lewis: Authorities have announced that they will relax some of their COVID guidelines, e.g. B. No more erecting gates to restrict access to residential buildings where COVID cases have been detected and reducing the number of mass tests. But it’s still committed to the goal of zero COVID.

Fishman: In view of the costs, is that still a feasible goal?

Lewis: I think a lot of people would say it’s not. The problem now is how to ease restrictions without causing massive outbreaks and deaths. Because China has kept COVID under wraps so tightly, relatively few people are immune to infection. It is true that about 90 percent of the country is vaccinated. But China’s Sinopharm and SinoVac vaccines are less effective than Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines.

Also, fewer people over 80 have received the vaccine, and only 40 percent of this age group have received a booster shot.

China is already reporting around 40,000 COVID cases a day. If the virus just let loose, it could result in a million or more deaths.

Fishman: That sounds like a really terrible idea.

Lewis: It would be. And it’s not just risky for China. If the government lets the virus run through such a large population, it could also result in new variants circling the globe. And uncontrolled infections in China could also devastate the global economy.

But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Instead of lockdowns and mass testing, China could focus on vaccinating and boosting its elderly population – which it says it plans to do. There could be human mRNA vaccines for better protection. And it could ensure access to antiviral drugs like Paxlovid, which significantly reduce the risk of death.

There is no easy way out. But it doesn’t look like China will be releasing zero COVID anytime soon.

Lewis: Now you are up to date. Thank you for joining us. Our show is produced and edited by Jeff DelViscio and Tulika Bose.

Fishman: It’s December and we’re on vacation. We’ll be back in 2023 with our own new twist on the show.

Lewis: good josh So come back with us. And visit for updated and in-depth COVID news.

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