The media and Democrats have focused much of their criticism of President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on his failures to clearly communicate legitimate health guidance to the public. Recent revelations from taped interviews with Bob Woodward have added fuel to this fire, with the president’s detractors accusing him of downplaying the dangers of COVID-19 for his own political purposes.
But, these same parties must also share the blame for spreading misinformation and amplifying public fears, including their recent attempts to undermine heroic efforts of the biomedical community to bring a safe, effective vaccine to market in record time. Unfortunately, it seems the president’s opponents are motivated primarily by politics, hoping to reinforce a narrative that his selfish motivations or willful ignorance endanger the American people. The recent politicization of a CDC directive serves as a perfect, albeit frustrating, case study.
On August 27, 2020, CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D., announced in a letter to governors that they should be prepared for medical facilities to administer a coronavirus vaccination as early as November 1, 2020, explaining that the agency had contracted with pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corporation to deliver upwards of hundreds of millions of doses in the fall. The letter did not indicate that federal officials had already greenlit the administration of the vaccine to the general public, nor did it say that McKesson would be allowed to subvert robust testing requirements before bringing it to market.
Outlining how the existing approval systems could create a slowdown that poses “a significant barrier to the success of this urgent public health program,” Redfield simply asked state agencies to do their part in aiding a “public health effort of significant scale” by expediting the processing of “permit applications for the new McKesson distribution facilities,” including those for “related business and building permits.” But, Redfield insisted, breaking the bureaucratic logjam would “not compromise the safety or integrity of the products being distributed.”
After the news broke of Redfield’s letter, the political Left began promoting conspiracy theories about the vaccine, arguing the president would rush an untested vaccine to market in time for the election but before it was safe to administer it. Some reporters have given credence to such baseless claims, including CNN’s Gregory Krieg, who wrote that Trump’s “coronavirus delusions risk corrupting the search for a vaccine,” while ironically asserting Trump was setting off a “vicious circle that could undermine public confidence in a vaccine that credibly meets the strict, long-held standards set by scientists and public health officials.”
Ordinarily, such outlandish assertions are confined to activists, social media trolls, and a media unflinchingly committed to embarrassing a president they disdain. But, the highest leaders in the Democratic Party are espousing them, too.
Earlier this month, Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), told CNN that she would not trust a coronavirus vaccine on the president’s word, but instead, rely upon “a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about.”
“If past is prologue . . . [scientists] will be muzzled, they’ll be suppressed, they will be sidelined,” she told CNN, adding Trump is “looking at an election” and wants to “pretend” he’s a leader on the issue.
Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed this sentiment when he said he did not trust the FDA to properly approve a safe vaccine. Because of this, he says, he has launched a commission to determine whether New York will allow the administration of a federally approved vaccine. As the Wall Street Journal points out, the notion that his judgment is greater than that of thousands of private and public-sector scientists is suspect, considering his own administration’s failures concerning the thousands of elderly patients who died due to his nursing home policy.
Harris and Cuomo’s unsubtle insinuation is that the president would knowingly and deliberately flout scientific expertise to endanger the public in pursuit of a nefarious political gain. It is impossible to overstate just how perfidious such an accusation is. Not only is it not rooted in fact, but it is also a serious danger to public health at a time when it could not be more fragile.
According to a CBS News September poll, only about one-third of registered voters say that a COVID-19 vaccine made available this year would be a “scientific achievement,” while two-thirds say it was “rushed through.” This same poll found just 34 percent of respondents feel they can trust the current president to ensure the vaccine is safe, compared with nearly half who said the same of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. While this may be a political achievement for Democrats and the overwhelming majority of the media who’d like to see President Trump lose in November, it’s a distressing reality for apolitical public-health officials who are working overtime to put an end to a deadly pandemic and who believe a vaccine is the only way to restore normalcy in American life.
Those worried about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine should consider the process of how a vaccine is developed, tested, approved, and finally brought to market. In the U.S., clinical trials of this scope typically include tens of thousands of participants across multiple phases, some of which include 30,000 or more volunteers at each stage. An independent review board determines when enough valid data have been collected, at which point they will relay their findings to the vaccine creator, who, when confident in its trial outcomes, begins a lengthy review process with public-health officials and governmental scientists. And along the way, the federal government has actually strengthened, not weakened, its approval standards to “boost transparency and public trust.”
At no point during clinical trials do federal officials, including the White House, have access to trial data. Thus, it would be impossible for the president or any of his representatives to prematurely close a trial or rush an untested vaccine to market.
If Harris and her allies are correct, that would mean multiple federal agencies, government scientists, private biomedical companies, review boards, and hundreds of thousands of clinical trial participants had gone along with a scheme to force the American people to be injected with an unsafe vaccination to win the presidency for Trump.
Moreover, their theory relies upon the assumption that, if McKesson is indeed cleared to begin administering a vaccine on November 1, they would have enough supplies and manpower to distribute hundreds of millions of vaccines to the American people before the election two days later — or that at least enough doses could be administered to serve as a fruitful political “Hail Mary” mere hours before polls close. Never mind that nearly all of the vaccines vying for federal approval would require a booster to actually work.
It’s bad enough that these sensational scare tactics are factually wrong, but they’re also deeply dangerous. Right now, only about half of Americans say they’re willing to be vaccinated for the coronavirus. These numbers are worse in communities of color who are already facing outsized rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death.
Public-health professionals, civic groups, and non-profit organizations are also increasingly worried they won’t be able to convince Americans, especially those in minority communities, that a vaccine would protect them and their loved ones. Here, skepticism and even fear of government-direct health programs are rampant. These anxieties are the product of longstanding failures of the U.S. government to meet the needs of underserved communities, the history of unethical medical experimentation in minority communities, and even commonplace myths that shape health literacy.
It is certainly understandable that any American could feel trepidation about being among the first in the general public to receive a vaccine. But, it’s important to remember, too, that they won’t be. Health-care professionals will obtain the first dosages allocated in any emergency-use authorization, as they are especially susceptible to encountering the disease in their interactions with patients. And in the event that the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective among those who initially get it, those people will still wear personal protective equipment in their dealings with the public and each other. Allowing doctors and nurses in the line of duty to receive the early publicly available vaccines also gives researchers the opportunity to fine tune it further, creating an even safer and more effective vaccination regimen for the general public.
Our patriotic scientists in public service and the private sector alike should be lauded for their work to develop a safe, effective vaccine at breakneck speed. They want to help people, and they care about the integrity of their work. They would never agree to negligently bring to market any vaccine they think would have a chance of hurting people. And they do not deserve to have their integrity and motivations maligned simply because Trump is president.
Any public figure with a platform has the vital responsibility of using it wisely. Needlessly stoking fears about a potential coronavirus vaccine to score political points is breathtakingly sinister and downright shameful. We need politicians, celebrities, and community leaders to support a common cause for the common good: promoting sound science that will save precious lives.
Ellen Carmichael is the president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm, and a former adviser to Dr. Tom Price.