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“Is” Never Implies “Ought”

Here’s a letter that I sent on September 10th to the New York Times:


National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins testified yesterday that the decision to approve a covid-19 vaccine will be determined by “science and science alone” (“N.I.H. Director Has ‘Cautious Optimism’ for Covid-19 Vaccine by End of 2020,” Sept. 10). This claim, alas, is unscientific.

Science of course should play a major role. Only it can determine a vaccine’s likely medical effectiveness and side effects. But science cannot possibly determine what is the acceptable amount of risk to be traded off against reward. Should approval be given to a vaccine that’s 98 percent effective but which carries a 0.05 percent chance of causing serious and possibly fatal illness? What about a vaccine that’s 90 percent effective but which carries a 0.002 percent chance of causing seriously illness or death?

The need to answer such questions is unavoidable. And so given government’s role in the drug-approval process, any and all decisions to approve or disapprove must, inevitably, be made politically.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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