In the spring we wondered if a vaccine for COVID-19 would even be possible. Then, early projections said the development process might take multiple years, putting the first public distribution around this time next year or even later, which is horrible to contemplate even as a now-avoided hypothetical.
Instead of that timeline, we got this one — a pretty amazing one, frankly, in which highly effective vaccines were developed and safety tested in record time. Distribution began in the United States this week. It will take a few months, but the end is in sight. By summer, it appears, everyone in America who wants a COVID-19 vaccination will be able to get one.
Still the question remains: How many will want it? Partisans on both sides have found reason to doubt the inoculations' safety. Will we hit a use rate high enough to halt the pandemic? At this point, I'm willing for people to tell themselves whatever they need to hear to get the shot.
I hope, of course, that "whatever they need to hear" is simply the truth. And the truth is there are good reasons to believe these vaccines are acceptably tested and safe, despite what many of President Trump's comments have suggested.
The truth is the story of the Food and Drug Administration's role in this pandemic has been one of significant, even excessive, caution, not recklessness. The FDA is a large federal bureaucracy, labyrinthine in procedure and notoriously slow-moving. A June editorial in Rejuvenation Research by a trio of scientists, one from Harvard Medical's genetics division, argued the legal environment around emergency vaccine releases is characterized by "[f]oot dragging and wild misjudgment of vaccine risk" which permits needless death and social and economic disruption. The risk of releasing the vaccine quickly "must be weighed against certainty of doing nothing," they concluded, "which here and now is too extreme."
The truth is also that the U.S. government is not the only regulatory body to sign off on these vaccines. For all the president's badgering, the FDA approved them after the United Kingdom had begun distribution — and the British government, of course, is not led by Donald Trump. Mexico and Canada have also already approved the Pfizer vaccine, and the European Union is expected to do so shortly. However disastrously suspicious and stupid Trump's behavior around the vaccines has been, the fact of these other nations approving the same vaccines provides a verification from outside our political system and therefore outside Trump's reach.
Finally, the truth is the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden will, like Trump, have relatively little influence here. Biden has promised to have 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations done in the U.S. within his first 100 days in office. That's a span from late January to late April — exactly the months in which these vaccinations are already planned to happen. Biden could impede this accomplishment, I suppose, but, like Trump, he doesn't deserve credit for it. It's not as if Moderna, Pfizer, and any other vaccine makers who get a product approved for U.S. distribution between now and this spring would've sat on their hands absent Biden's pledge.
So that's the truth I hope will persuade Americans to look past the messy politics of this pandemic and get inoculated against COVID-19 over the next six months. But, if I'm honest, I'm not confident that's what will do it. Public trust is perilously thin on left and right alike. Conspiracy theories abound, fueled by real wrongdoing past (the Tuskegee experiment) and present (Trump's selfish politicization) as well as wild fantasies about microchips and Big Pharma and bribes and threats and Lord only knows what else.
And that's where my laissez-faire attitude about the framing of these vaccines comes in. Someone like me — not only willing but eager to get the vaccine — won't be further inclined to accept it by thinking of this as a "Trump vaccine" or "Biden vaccine" or seeing a celebrity or prominent public health expert get the shot. Yet if that's what it takes for others — understandably wary of the process or skeptical of partisan players or worried about unknowns — I say absolutely go for it. Embrace it. If association with a person or political party or whatever is what makes the inoculation feel safe, focus on that link.
And if someone justifies the vaccine to you in those terms, which you find unpersuasive, maybe leave that one bubble unburst. "We can't wait for the Trump vaccine so we can get back to normal," joyed a Christmas card my friend's family recently received. If this is said to me, as I expect it will be eventually, I'll have to bite my tongue. But I intend to bite it, because another person getting a COVID-19 vaccine is indeed a move back toward normal, and normal is what we need.