Opinion

A Trump vaccine is still a vaccine

Now is not the time to drop your 'believe in science' mantra

A COVID-19 vaccine could be here sooner than we thought.

"I believe that by the time we get to the end of this calendar year that we will feel comfortable that we do have a safe and effective vaccine," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday. This is possible, he explained in another interview the day before, if two current trials with 30,000 volunteers produce such overwhelmingly positive results that researchers determine they have "a moral obligation" to accelerate the process of bringing the vaccine to the public. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance last week for all 50 states and several major cities to prepare for some vaccine administration as soon as the end of October.

This should be heralded as good news, especially among those who have supported strict pandemic control measures. For many of that ilk, a vaccine was always the one acceptable end to broad shutdowns and rigorous social distancing. But now this very end may be nigh, and suspicion of the "Trump vaccine" is growing. The possible timing of an initial rollout near Election Day — paired with President Trump's transparent hope that a vaccine will help him win re-election — has people who long declared we must "trust science" about the pandemic now declaring this product of science is not to be trusted.

As scads of tweeted objections argue, the fear is the administration will strong-arm the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC into pushing an ineffective or outright dangerous vaccine to early release for political gain. This isn't just a Twitter thing; though typically op-eds stop short of advising refusal of specific vaccines, worries about an unsafe, politically motivated vaccine have been raised repeatedly in The New York Times and other prominent outlets.

Automatic rejection of a "Trump vaccine" is a mistake, and potentially a very serious one, which could help delay our desperately needed return to normal life by months.

We already know a large portion of Americans will refuse even a free, FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. The plurality of that group is Republicans, many of whom may have previously been skeptical of vaccines and/or the necessity of any pandemic response at all. I don't think their skepticism of a COVID-19 vaccine is justifiable, but it is to be expected.

Some of that group, however, are Democrats and independents who have spent the past half year defending vaccines and the medical establishment more generally against charges of undue political influence. Those same arguments should still apply. If public health experts like Fauci were trustworthy and impervious to political coercion before, they're still trustworthy now.

Of course, an untested vaccine could be dangerous. And yes, the way Trump talks about the vaccine timeline is not reassuring. (How does he manage to make the assertion that he's "doing it not for the election" sound like an admission of exactly the opposite?) But if we know anything about Trump, it's that he says a lot of stuff that has no connection to reality — like his claim that the "deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA" is deliberately slowing vaccine trials to make him lose.

Also not demonstrated is the opposite claim: that Trump forced the "deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA" to unsafe haste in vaccine creation. He talks as if he has, and an in-depth Washington Post story published Sunday indicates he has tried. Yet trying can mean nothing with someone as incompetent as Trump. In fact, the same story suggests the real crisis involving this vaccine is Trump's decimation of public confidence in its development, not the scientific soundness of the vaccine itself.

Indeed, FDA officials have been insistent, in the Post's summary, that "they would approve a vaccine only after rigorous review and would consult an outside advisory committee." Independent experts, including former Obama administration officials, have urged trust in the process, too.

Fauci has said the same, repeatedly reiterating that he won't bend to political pressure on this. "I'm certain of what the White House would like to see, but I haven't seen any indication of pressure at this point to do anything different than what we're doing," he told Reuters last month. He has "spoken explicitly" with regulators about not letting "political considerations interfere with a regulatory decision," Fauci promised, "because the subject obviously comes up, and the people in charge of the regulatory process assure us that safety and efficacy is going to be the prime consideration."

Obviously there's no way to prove incontrovertibly who's telling the truth here: Trump with his suspicious boasts of "rushing" the vaccine or Fauci and other public health officials maintaining they are working by the book, sacrificing neither safety nor speed, declining equally to help Trump or hurt him. Only those running the vaccine trials know for sure whether they've violated medical ethics.

But if your take for months has been that Fauci is bae and we must "believe in science" because "science is real," then absent compelling, documentary evidence that Fauci is now lying on Trump's behalf, the right call seems pretty clear: Put your arm where your mouth is and get the shot.

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