2020 Election
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Trump Has Always Seen a COVID-19 Vaccine as a Political Bet. Will It Pay Off in Time?

8 minute read

Scientists and medical researchers inside President Donald Trump’s administration have repeatedly told the President that the vaccine won’t be ready until the end of the year, at the earliest.

But that’s not what Trump wants voters to believe.

In a new Trump campaign ad that started running in battleground states, a voiceover claims, “In the race for a vaccine, the finish line is approaching,” as footage of clear medicine bottles scrolls past with fake labels on them reading “COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine.” The 30-second ad airs this week on television stations in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan and claims that Trump is restarting the economy shut down by the pandemic, while “Joe Biden wants to change that.”

Trump made similar claims during a 20-minute campaign-style speech in front of reporters at the White House on Monday, in which he repeatedly attacked the former Vice President and promised to have a vaccine ready before Election Day in an open acknowledgement that the political calendar is shaping the government’s COVID-19 vaccine timeline. A vaccine is “going to be done in a very short period of time—could even have it during the month of October,” Trump told reporters. “We’ll have a vaccine soon, maybe before a special date. You know what date I’m talking about,” he said, in a reference to Nov. 3.

The President’s willingness to openly mix election politics and the complex science of vaccine development has alarmed the pharmaceutical industry enough that nine cutting-edge drug and biotechnology firms put out a statement Tuesday pledging to only ask the Trump Administration’s approval for COVID-19 vaccines that have demonstrated ”safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study.” The same day, one of the companies, AstraZeneca, confirmed it had put its global COVID-19 vaccine study on hold after one person in the trial may have reacted badly to the test dose.

Trump’s rosy comments and optimistic ads about the prospect for a vaccine, a challenging and unpredictable medical endeavor under any circumstance, are part of a broader wager that delivering major policy goals before the election, including completing 500 miles of border wall and withdrawing more troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, will help him at the polls.

But they aren’t new. Even before tests for COVID-19 were widely available, Trump has talked about the vaccine as a silver bullet in his administration’s response to the pandemic. Despite disagreement in Trump’s inner circle about how loudly to tout the push for a COVID-19 vaccine, Trump ignored calls for caution and repeatedly pressured companies and health agencies to speed up trials and approval processes in public and private. “He got it in his head that we have to have a vaccine,” says a former White House official who doesn’t think the U.S. will have a widely adopted vaccine by election day and may never get to that goal.

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On Feb. 26, when there were just 15 known COVID-19 cases in the U.S., Trump said, “We’re rapidly developing a vaccine,” and that “the vaccine is coming along well,” before there was little data to support such a claim. Instead, he pressed medical executives to make his predictions come true. When he met with the heads of major pharmaceutical companies in the White House on March 2, ostensibly to talk about lowering drug prices, Trump hijacked the meeting to demand companies to speed up the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine. The next day, speaking to a group of county executives, he described the pressure he put on the companies: “I said, ‘Do me a favor: Speed it up. Speed it up.’ And they will. They’re working really hard and quick.”

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked states to prepare facilities to distribute vaccines by Nov. 1, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease scientist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Tuesday that it’s “unlikely we’ll have a definitive answer” on an effective vaccine by Nov. 3 and more realistic that a vaccine could be ready by “the end of the year.” Pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer are working to enroll patients for vaccine trials by the end of September, and it takes time to observe the effects of the vaccine and analyze the results.

It’s entirely possible that a successful vaccine could take longer than Trump or Fauci’s estimates, or take years to arrive. After more than three decades of work, scientists have still not managed to deliver an effective HIV vaccine, for example. “We’re making a mistake by putting so much faith in the vaccines,” the former White House official says, and adds the President is falling into a trap to make so many public promises to deliver a vaccine quickly when he has little control over whether one will work.

Trump also runs the risk of linking the reopening of the economy to the delivery of a vaccine, the former official says. The country should prepare to reopen, with mitigation measures, even if a vaccine is not in widespread use. “I think it’s a trap to say we can’t get the country moving without a vaccine,” the former official says. The pause on Tuesday of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s global coronavirus vaccine trials is a red flag that developing a vaccine is “hard,” the former official notes, “and we can’t count on getting a vaccine anytime soon. We should all understand that.”

Trump has pushed to designate huge amounts of money toward vaccine research, despite some experts’ opinions that those resources and attention should be focused more on therapies that reduce the lethality of COVID-19 and help people who contract the virus recover more quickly. To get to a vaccine, Trump has mobilized Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense to speed up research and work with private companies in an effort called Operation Warp Speed. So far, the U.S. has allocated $9 billion to develop potential vaccines and set aside an additional $2.5 billion to cover the cost of vials, syringes, storage and boost manufacturing when there is a viable dose.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany denied on Wednesday that Trump’s political calculations are pushing forward the vaccine timeline. “The science is guiding the way,” she said. The pause by AstraZeneca backs that up, McEnany said, adding that the White House timing is about “saving lives” and “not about the election.”

From the beginning of the pandemic, Trump’s instinct has been to calm Americans and financial markets with his public statements. “You don’t have to buy so much, take it easy, just relax,” Trump said on March 16, when many Americans were clearing grocery store shelves of toilet paper, flour, canned goods, and other household staples. Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in an interview on March 19 that he wanted to play down the severity of the virus to keep the public calm. “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward.

Asked by a reporter in the White House on Wednesday if he misled the public about the severity of the virus, Trump said, “Well, I think if you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so. The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic.”

But Trump’s public pressure campaign has created its own waves of anxiety that government scientists will be pushed to release a vaccine that hasn’t been properly vetted. Speaking Sunday on CNN Kamala Harris raised concerns that scientists will be “muzzled” and “sidelined” because Trump is looking toward the election “and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue, when he has not.” She said she would not take Trump’s word when deciding whether to get a vaccine produced under his administration’s supervision. She said she would be looking to a “credible source of information” like Dr. Fauci, the top infectious disease official in the government, before deciding to take the vaccine. Trump, “wants us to inject bleach,” Harris said, “No, I will not take his word.”

All Americans will be facing the same choice.

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