When news first broke in late 2019 that a new and dangerous coronavirus had appeared in China, it seemed of little concern to Americans. Other epidemics had occurred in various parts of the world over the previous two decades: a previous novel coronavirus, SARS‐CoV‐1 in 2002–2004; Zika in 2007, 2013–2014, and 2015–2016; H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009; another novel coronavirus, MERS‐CoV, in 2012, 2015, and 2018; and Ebola in 2014–2015. Only H1N1 made a significant appearance in the United States, and it was extinguished with the help of a quickly developed vaccine.19 Given those experiences, many Americans in 2019 and early 2020 were rationally ignorant of the new virus.
That did not change when, on January 21, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the first confirmed U.S. case of the “mysterious virus that broke out last month in China.”20 (The name “COVID-19” had not been coined at the time.) Several public officials quickly reassured the public, saying the illness did not appear to be a major threat to the United States and that people did not need to change their lifestyles because of the virus. In many cases, the officials carefully added caveats such as “at this time,” noted that matters could change significantly in the future, and said that the situation required close monitoring.21
Those reassurances may look bad in hindsight, but they were reasonable given what was known at the time. Importantly, and following the adage that one should change one’s mind as new facts emerge, many of these officials altered their stated views in the following weeks as the crisis unfolded. Unfortunately, other officials—including elected ones—were less careful in their reassurances and were much slower to change their messages as information developed.22 Some even spread false information on how to avoid and treat infection—for instance, dismissing the benefit of wearing facemasks, not worrying about crowded public spaces, and promoting therapies unproven to treat COVID-19.23
Some of this is understandable. Especially in the early weeks of the outbreak, it was difficult for policymakers (and even epidemiologists) to stay current on discoveries about the virus and disease. Moreover, because the public often overestimates the risk of low‐probability, high‐cost events, it is usually good policy for authorities to offer assurance.24 That said, it is also good policy for authorities to be forthcoming about the limits of their knowledge and how a situation might change. Instead of increasing public knowledge about COVID-19, many U.S. policymakers spread false information. That is not a failure of limited government but of government officials who performed their duties poorly.
Research Funding. As previously noted, scientific research, especially in health and medicine, suffers public goods problems. The U.S. Constitution specifically authorizes federal intervention to address this market failure by permitting Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Congress thus created the U.S. system of patents and trademarks, which gives innovators exclusive rights over the use of their creations for specified lengths of time.
However, patents alone are believed to be insufficient to secure optimal financing for some types of research. “Pure science”—often described as “science for science’s sake”—leads to many important, high‐value breakthroughs over the long term, but those advancements often cannot be foreseen, making it difficult for particular research efforts to secure funding.25 Even “applied science”—research that applies previous discoveries to specific problems—can have problems finding sufficient funding, including research on vaccines for emerging infectious diseases.26
Government has long addressed this market failure by providing grants for scientific research and operating research centers, often making the results of this work available for public use. This support will be important in the response to COVID-19. The People’s Republic of China, for instance, contributed to this effort by identifying and making freely available the genetic code of SARS‐CoV‐2 in January 2020.27 In the same vein, the U.S. government has allocated billions of dollars to the National Institutes of Health for research into SARS‐CoV‐2 and COVID-19.28
There is reason to worry that this money could crowd out private funding for research into the virus and disease rather than supplement it.29 Federal science grants have had this effect in the past.30 Though there likely is no way to fully avoid this problem without cutting off government support for research, it is important for grant monitors to direct government funding away from research that would attract sufficient private funding.