(Image: ABACA Press/Robin Utrecht)

The media — either due to laziness or a belief that Australians prefer to be scared rather than relieved — has appeared to ignore a critical element of the COVID vaccines’ effectiveness.

Early data on the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines indicates that not only do they almost entirely prevent death, they significantly slow the spread of the virus. According to Dr Anthony Fauci, anyway.

Fauci’s comments were based on a study which appeared in The Lancet in February and a (not-yet-peer-reviewed) Israeli study which found “the viral load is reduced four-fold for infections occurring 12-28 days after the first dose of vaccine. These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread”.

An Oxford study, also not yet peer-reviewed, had earlier found that the AstraZeneca vaccine could cut transmission by 67%.

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If these findings are confirmed, the narrative on vaccines is completely changed. The apparent view of the anti-vax and vaccine-cautious in the community is essentially this: the vaccine is riskier to me than COVID, so I won’t take the vaccine. That response is not completely unexpected — many people act purely in their own self-interest.

The problem with such a hyper-rational position is that — like smoking or carbon pollution or drink-driving — it ignores the externalities of one’s actions. For example, if a fit, non-vaccinated 30-year-old has COVID (and may be asymptomatic) they could pass COVID to a far more at-risk grandparent.

If the early data is correct, the vaccines not only help prevent infection but transmission, so refusing to get one causes a negative externality to others (by potentially making them sick) and to the community as a whole (extending COVID measures increases the financial burden that eventually needs to be repaid by future generations).

The way we usually deal with externalities is by creating laws. For example, we don’t allow people to smoke inside an aeroplane or drive a car while drunk.

One way to reduce the anti-vax externalities is to force people to be vaccinated, although that is widely criticised as a tactic and tends to cause even more opposition. A marginally less drastic measure is to create an anti-vax economic cost, like a higher Medicare levy — the argument being there is a cost for the incremental healthcare resulting from COVID. Or a “no jab, no play” rule, although that is potentially unfair on children.

An approach favoured by economists is to provide incentives rather than disincentives. For example, the government could simply pay people $500 each to take the vaccine, but that is generally frowned upon given the vaccines, although appearing to be very safe, are still new. Plus this is very costly in the short term.

But there is another solution. The government could allow businesses to use vaccinations as a customer acquisition tool — Australian businesses could directly market incentives to a vaccinated person.

For example, Qantas could offer a $250 discount for someone who has been vaccinated and wants to travel internationally, or the Commonwealth Bank could offer a discounted home loan rate for people who have been vaccinated.

Businesses would essentially use the discounts to acquire customers instead of, say, paying Facebook, News Corp or Google for marketing. Meanwhile, the government gets a free way to incentivise people to take the vaccine.

Not everyone would use or even care about the bundle of discounts, but some would.

The problem? Any business that offers such an incentive risks jail for its directors. It is illegal to offer a reward for taking a vaccine, even if the person or business offering the reward is not linked to the pharmaceutical company making the vaccine.

Interestingly, while you can’t offer an incentive to take a vaccine, billionaire Clive Palmer is perfectly able to place full-page advertisements in national newspapers encouraging people not to take vaccines, leading to the strange situation where encouraging people to not take a vaccine is perfectly legal, but encouraging a TGA-approved vaccine would send you to jail.

Adam Schwab is a director of Private Media (publisher of Crikey), and the co-founder of Luxury Travel Escapes, a Melbourne-based travel company.