Optimism and wishful thinking are what psychologists call cognitive biases:
“A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make.”
The optimism bias leads to us to assign higher probability to positive outcomes and lower probability to negative outcomes. The wishful thinking bias or confirmation bias makes us more receptive to facts upholding our initial beliefs and less receptive to opposing facts. We end up seeking evidence for our beliefs instead of objectively searching for the truth.
These biases are two of humanity’s greatest strengths when it comes to building a business. It is by being optimistic, disregarding reality and looking for evidence which supports their beliefs rather than invalidates them, that entrepreneurs overcome the seemingly impossible and drive innovation forward. Think of the Elon Musks of this world. This works in environments where the costs of failing (e.g. bankruptcy) are lower than the rewards of succeeding (e.g. societal change, market dominance, large revenues, etc.).
However, pandemics flip the rewards and cost imbalance. Costs (e.g. hospitalization or death) become bigger than the rewards (e.g. retaining status quo). This is where optimism and wishful thinking biases turn into our weaknesses and have devastating effects. Donald Trump’s behavior and US Covid-19 cases are prime example for this.
Being a tech company that has developed a pandemic solution currently being deployed through EY, we are part of many Covid-19 response debates. What we have noticed lately is that with the rollout of the first vaccines, executives and governments are falling prey to the optimism and wishful thinking biases. We call this vaccineful thinking: the overly optimistic belief that the vaccine will solve the pandemic in the next few weeks or months which is often backed by selective evidence.
We are not at once saying that a vaccines are not great. They are one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern medicine for humanity. However, as we argued earlier, falling prey to being overly optimistic in a pandemic will be devastating. This is why we have compiled some expert opinions and hard facts to balance out the current views on the Covid-19 vaccine.
- On December 10th 2020 at a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health event Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that he predicts the pandemic to last at least until the end of 2021 if enough people take the vaccine:
“Let’s say we get 75 percent, 80 percent of the population vaccinated. If we do that, if we do it efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e., the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society that as we get to the end of 2021, we can approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before.”
- However, Dr. Fauci’s assumption of 75-80% rate vaccination is far from certain. A World Economic Forum-Ipsos survey on vaccine confidence was published on the 29th of December 2020. The results showed that the willingness to take a vaccine has fallen in all countries but two, the US and the UK. And for the US the willingness was still below 75%. More concerning is that in all other countries the intention to take the vaccine has declined due to concerns over side effects and effectiveness.
- McKinsey compiled numerous resources and research and created a nice graph estimating the probability and time for herd immunity. The graph also includes variables influencing the timeline which we have not taken into account yet, such as manufacturing and rollout or immunity duration. As we can see, currently the most likely scenario is that at the end of this year we might be able to return to normal. Nevertheless, there is a substantial tail probability for the pandemic to drag out into 2022, potentially even 2023.
- This tail probability is now increasing with emerging mutations of the original Covid-19 virus. One month ago a more contagious mutation of the virus has been detected in the UK which has spread to 31 other countries since then. To put it in the words of Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert heading the Wellcome Trust:
“One concern is that B.1.1.7 will now become the dominant global variant with its higher transmission and it will drive another very, very bad wave. I think we’re going into an unpredictable phase now”. – Science
The general sentiment across vaccine providers is that their existing solutions should be effective against the evolved virus, but for now the answer remains “probably”.
- What is more concerning is that the B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 new mutations scientists were not able to track, compared to the usual 2 mutations per month. Scientists believe that the new mutations on B.1.1.7 are assumed to be of natural cause, stemming from a single patient. This raises concerns on an adjacent topic: artificial mutations aka bio-terrorism.
As Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert in chemical and biological weapons and biosecurity, said:
“Taking the terror threat and the continued increase of Level 3 and 4 containment facilities [housing some of the world’s deadliest viruses] into account, the prospect of an “I am Pilgrim” scenario, detailed in the 2013 novel by Terry Hayes, is not as far-fetched as it first appears. For those who have not read this epic work of fiction, a terrorist tries to infect the US with a vaccine-resistant smallpox virus.” – CNN
This is supported by a fact Toby Ord, a moral philosopher and author, mentions in an interview with The Guardian:
“Yet like so many aspects of existential threat, the idea of an engineered pathogen seems too sci-fi, too far-fetched, to grab our attention for long. The international body charged with policing bioweapons is the Biological Weapons Convention. Its annual budget is just €1.4m (£1.2m). As Ord points out with due derision, that sum is less than the turnover of the average McDonald’s restaurant.”
- Furthermore, even if we can leave Covid-19 fully behind us, we should not forget that a vaccine will only help us with the current virus. Since the beginning of the 21st century we have seen an increase in pandemics: SARS, Swine Flu, Ebola, MERS. Given climate change, proximity of humans to farm animals, urbanization and globalization, this is not a big surprise. Scientists have been predicting this decades ago. In a brilliant article, CNN interviewed Peter Dazak who is the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, an American NGO which specializes in detecting new viruses and pandemic prevention. Dazak and his team catch bats and log the viruses to understand which ones can potentially show up in a future pandemic. One particular sentence in the article puts the vaccineful thinking into perspective:
“Dazak estimates that bats harbor up to 15.000 coronaviruses, only a few hundred of which are currently known.”
In other words, we are sitting not on one, but on an unknown number of ticking time bombs. The next pandemic will come, and it might hit with any severity ranging between seasonal flu and Ebola. A vaccine, in the best case, will help us to overcome the current Covid-19 pandemic. In the worst case, it will reinforce our optimism and vaccineful thinking, consequently hamper innovation for and adaptation of pandemic technologies. Let’s not engage in vaccineful thinking, but keep developing and investing in pandemic solutions so we can fight this and future pandemics.
What do you think? What is your estimate for the end of Covid-19 and do you feel we are prepared for future pandemics?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic and this article – discuss with us in the comments section on Medium!