The Vaccine Debate Is Pointless

13 mins read

The prospect of a vaccine for coronavirus suddenly has a starring role in the presidential campaign, despite the likelihood that an actual vaccine won’t arrive by Election Day in November or even by Inauguration Day in January. Though a vaccine is critically important — and the timing is controversial — an argument over it in the 2020 campaign is dumb.

After all, what is there to debate? We all want a vaccine, they usually take four years, and after undermining science and public health officials for half a year, President Trump suddenly expects everyone to embrace a rushed vaccine. He has made it clear, several times over, that his administration is on track to produce this remedy by Election Day, Nov. 3. Operation Warp Speed has been underway for months, with a goal of producing 300 million doses of a vaccine by January, and the Centers for Disease Control recently directed states to prepare to distribute it by Nov. 1. 

“We’re gonna have a vaccine very soon. Maybe even before a special date. You know what date I’m talking about,” Trump said Monday.

Scientists, and the public — polls show — are well aware that safe and effective vaccines come on their own time, not as part of any campaign calendar. One company at work on a COVID-19 vaccine just halted its study after a participant had an adverse reaction. That company, AstraZeneca, joined the other eight companies at work on vaccines to make a public pledge not to release a vaccine until it had undergone adequate testing to establish its safety and effectiveness. The extraordinary, and unprecedented, step was taken to “help ensure public confidence,” addressing a credibility crisis that has resulted from the politicization of the entire pandemic from Day One. Both of those developments make it far more likely there will be no vaccine by Election Day. 

While Trump knows he may not get a vaccine by Nov. 3, the next best thing would be to fight about it from now until then, and last weekend vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris gave the president one. In an interview with CNN she was dismissive of his promise, saying, “There’s very little that we can trust that … comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth,” and that she suspected scientists would be sidelined in the process: “If past is prologue, they’ll be muzzled, they’ll be suppressed.”

Trump held a Labor Day press conference to blast the Democrats’ “reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric” that “undermines science.” He said Harris was “talking about disparaging a vaccine so that people don’t think that the achievement was a great achievement.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden has criticized Trump’s repeated undermining of public health officials — which has hindered his own ability to convince Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but he has sounded more enthusiastic about the prospects than Harris did.   

“If I could get a vaccine tomorrow, I’d do it. If it would cost me the election, I’d do it. We need a vaccine and we need it now,” the nominee said.

It’s clear from the reaction to her comments that Harris saw fit to soften her response, saying later: “I would trust a vaccine if the public health professionals and the scientists told us that we can trust it.” And on “Fox News Sunday,” when asked about Harris’ comments, Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders pivoted to a description of Biden’s concern that the distribution of the vaccine be equitable, and that it be accessible to the non-white Americans hardest hit by COVID. 

Sen. Tom Cotton, who is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2024 and could be facing off against Harris that year, didn’t do Trump any favors when he took a dig at the California senator. “Very disappointing to see Senator Harris throw in with the anti-vaxxers,” he said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Tuesday. It was a good reminder that one of the challenges to overcoming resistance to vaccinations is that opponents have found common cause with Trump for years. Long before he was president he drew conclusions about vaccines causing autism, a fraudulent theory that was debunked years ago. Americans who share those views will be confused, and likely skeptical, as Trump morphs into pitchman for a rushed vaccine. In 2012 he said, “I’ve seen people where they have a perfectly healthy child, and they go for the vaccinations and a month later the child is no longer healthy.” At a GOP primary debate in 2015 he said, “Just the other day, 2 years old, 2½ years old, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” 

But the greatest hurdle to convincing enough Americans to take a coronavirus vaccine whenever one is ready is the lack of trust in the public health community as a whole. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday found 62% of respondents believe political pressure will prompt the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to rush approval of a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day. A CBS News poll released last week found only 21% of respondents would get a vaccine right away, down from 32% who said they would do so in July. If one arrives this year, 65% of respondents said they would consider it “rushed through” while 36% would consider it a “scientific achievement.” 

In that poll in March, 86% of voters trusted the CDC, and that has fallen to 54%. More voters trust Biden to ensure a vaccine is safe than trust Trump, according to the findings. 

It’s not only the many untrue things Trump has said during the pandemic, but that he has repeatedly contradicted experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and bent the CDC, FDA and White House coronavirus task force to his will. Extensive reporting has shown pressure to amend public talking points of experts to stay more in line with what the president says; an effort to decrease coronavirus testing; and hiding “red zones” of emerging surges and outbreaks from the public. With the revelations from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” for example, we know the president held six indoor rallies after learning the virus is spread by aerosols and was five times more lethal than the flu. 

Trump pushed the FDA months ago to grant emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine, a drug he has touted repeatedly. But that authorization later had to be revoked as the anti-malaria drug had only a nominal effect on COVID while causing heart problems for some patients. With a well-timed tweet on Aug. 22, Trump then accused the FDA of being part of the “deep state” seeking to withhold treatments and a vaccine in order to help defeat him in his reelection campaign. The following day — a Sunday — the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma, something Trump had been publicly touting for weeks. Timed for the very night before the Republican National Convention started, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn stood with Trump at the White House on Aug. 23 to announce the EUA for plasma, and both of them said things about the treatment that turned out to be incorrect. Hahn was excoriated on Twitter by members of the scientific community and apologized, tweeting the following day that “the criticism is entirely justified.”

Because of these controversies, the idea of granting an emergency use authorization for a vaccine in order to speed up the process is now controversial among experts who say it would give the FDA space for political intervention. Fauci said he would be “disappointed” if an EUA was granted before it was established that the vaccine was backed by “sufficient data to establish a strong signal of efficacy and safety.”

The Trump administration is well aware that much of the public doesn’t believe what the president says about the virus — he of the magical disappearance projections and disinfectant injections — and that convincing people a rushed vaccine is safe will be one heavy lift. In reporting about Trump’s intense focus on a vaccine, The Washington Post noted the administration will spend $150 million on a PR campaign to assure the public of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, with plans to “limit Trump’s personal messaging about a vaccine.” A senior administration official shared a draft of the plans with the Post, and it states one objective is to “ensure the administration is able to receive due credit for undertaking this historic and unprecedented effort.” The legitimacy of the vaccine comes from the plan, outlined in the document, to “replace distrust, disbelief, skepticism and cynicism with trust, credibility, confidence, certainty, transparency and optimism for COVID-19 medical countermeasures” — yes, now, after six months of the administration attacking science and the credibility of public health officials. To repeat, they’re actually planning to try to “limit” Trump’s messaging and they’re now invested in truth and trust. 

The scientists — we all hope — will apply the necessary rigor to a process that will produce an effective and safe vaccine. If they can do that, without Trump’s intervention, we should all celebrate the day it is available. Biden and Harris included. There aren’t two sides to this.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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