Sometimes, following the science isn't so easy — especially when "the science" is in flux.
That's certainly the case with the Biden administration's plan to roll out COVID-19 booster shots to already-vaccinated individuals. The White House pledged in August to start rolling out the new jabs on a widespread basis starting Sept. 20, but it's increasingly clear that the whole process is more than a bit messy — two FDA vaccine officials resigned last month, reportedly over their opposition to the administration's booster plan, then on Monday joined a larger group of 18 scientists who say there isn't enough data to support a widespread booster campaign.
The implication? President Biden got ahead of the science.
"Although the idea of further reducing the number of COVID-19 cases by enhancing immunity in vaccinated people is appealing, any decision to do so should be evidence-based and consider the benefits and risks for individuals and society," the group wrote in The Lancet medical journal.
As New York magazine reports today, there are a number of moving parts in the debate. On the one hand, there are concerns about waning immunity among vaccinated people; on the other hand, those folks still seem to have pretty good protection against severe illness and death. Israel is already giving boosters, and early data suggests that — for older people at least — the extra shots do improve immunity. Then again, the Lancet authors warn that the side effects from boosters given too soon or too frequently could exacerbate the widespread vaccine hesitancy that has helped the pandemic persist in the United States. Complicating all of this: The World Health Organization has warned against a widespread booster campaign while much of the planet is still waiting for its first shot.
What's a president — especially one who has vowed repeatedly to "follow the science" — to do?
When Donald Trump was in charge, it was easy for Democrats to pledge to follow the science on COVID because Trump so plainly didn't, preferring to focus on his own political well-being. But in an ongoing emergency, when scientists themselves can't agree on a course of action — and when there are ethical questions that don't lend themselves to clear "right or wrong" answers — the slogan's insufficiency reveals itself. Even with the best of intentions, politics will still be a factor: Biden's poll ratings are still slipping, and he needs to be seen doing something.
"Follow the science" sounds easy and simple. In the real world, though, the buck doesn't stop in a laboratory, but in the Oval Office.