Trump ‘Oc­to­ber sur­prise’ vaccine will be hard sell with wary pub­lic

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

For months, sci­en­tists have pre­dicted that a vaccine against COVID-19 could be avail­able, in a best-case sce­nario, some­time early next year.

Now the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is sig­nal­ing that a vaccine will be ready months be­fore that. But no mat­ter how weary Amer­i­cans surely are of this pan­demic, we don’t ex­pect many folks to breathe a sigh of re­lief and make plans to get a shot.

In­stead, what we’re see­ing is a lot of raised eye­brows about the news that Robert Red­field, head of the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol, has sent a let­ter to all gov­er­nors ask­ing them to fast-track plans to dis­trib­ute a vaccine by Nov. 1.

An “Oc­to­ber sur­prise” vaccine? Ready to dis­trib­ute two days be­fore Elec­tion Day?

The tim­ing is just too per­fect, com­ing as it does from a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion that has badly botched its han­dling of this deadly pan­demic from the start. And, more telling yet, com­ing from a pres­i­dent who’s trail­ing in the polls just 61 days be­fore the Nov. 3 elec­tion.

Now more than ever, Amer­i­cans must hear from, and fol­low the guid­ance of, in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists. We must get the data and sci­en­tific find­ings di­rectly from them — not politi­cians or po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees — to have con­fi­dence in the safety and ef­fec­tive­ness of any vaccine.

With this lat­est de­vel­op­ment, it’s al­most as though the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion were try­ing to con­firm the worst fears of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Seventy-eight per­cent of us, ac­cord­ing to a new Har­ris poll, al­ready be­lieve the COVID-19 vaccine ap­proval process is be­ing driven by pol­i­tics in­stead of science.

There’s no blam­ing the skep­tics. They’re just not stupid. All blame goes to a pres­i­dent who has been dis­mis­sive, dis­hon­est and in­com­pe­tent in fight­ing COVID-19 all year long, even as our na­tion has paid a steep price, with 183,000 dead and 6 mil­lion peo­ple in­fected.

As Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den said Wed­nes­day, stat­ing the ob­vi­ous: “Why do we think, God will­ing, when we get a vaccine — that is good, works — why do we think the pub­lic is gonna line up to be will­ing to take the in­jec­tion?”

What sci­en­tists have to say

Nine vaccines are now in largescale Phase 3 clin­i­cal tri­als, and any one of them could prove to be safe and ef­fec­tive sooner than sci­en­tists have so far pre­dicted.

As Dr. An­thony Fauci has ex­plained, the in­de­pen­dent Data and Safety Mon­i­tor­ing Board, which pe­ri­od­i­cally re­views the data from clin­i­cal tri­als, could de­cide to end the tri­als early — per­haps at year’s end — if the pre­lim­i­nary find­ings for a vaccine are over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive.

But “the ear­lier you stop it, the higher the bar,” Fauci cau­tioned.

It should re­as­sure us that the mon­i­tor­ing board is made up of in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists who also have the abil­ity to, if noth­ing else, pub­licly chal­lenge any move by the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­lease a vaccine too soon.

Still, sci­en­tists al­ready are ex­press­ing skep­ti­cism about the CDC’s Nov. 1 time­line and rais­ing con­cerns that the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, might give an in­suf­fi­ciently vet­ted vaccine emer­gency ap­proval.

“It gives the ap­pear­ance of a stunt rather than an ex­pres­sion of pub­lic health con­cern,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a dean at Bay­lor Col­lege of Medicine in Hous­ton, said.

“Novem­ber feels aw­fully early,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown Uni­ver­sity’s pub­lic health school.

Fight­ing up­hill

Amer­i­can health ex­perts al­ready were fac­ing an up­hill bat­tle to ed­u­cate the pub­lic about a vaccine against the coro­n­avirus. One sur­vey af­ter another — taken well be­fore the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hinted at a sus­pi­ciously early vaccine re­lease — has found that any­where from a third to nearly 50% of Amer­i­cans said they wouldn’t take a COVID-19 vaccine.

And then there are the an­ti­vaxxers, who re­ject the decades of science prov­ing the value and safety of any vaccine, against any disease, even those vaccines with long track records, such as for po­lio.

Hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties are hav­ing a hard time re­cruit­ing Blacks and Lati­nos for COVID-19 vaccine tri­als. That’s un­doubt­edly the re­sult, in part, to this coun­try’s shame­ful past, dur­ing which African Amer­i­cans were sub­jected, with­out their knowl­edge, to med­i­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

It’s es­sen­tial that the cur­rent COVID-19 vaccine tri­als in­clude large num­bers of peo­ple of color, given that the virus has had a par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would like you to be­lieve — be­fore you cast your vote — that the global strug­gle to de­velop a sure­fire vaccine against COVID-19 has been all but won.

How won­der­ful that would be. If true.

But we’ll wait to cel­e­brate un­til our na­tion’s best med­i­cal ex­perts, not our worst pres­i­dent, gives us the green light.

AMER­I­CANS MUST HEAR FROM, AND FOL­LOW THE GUID­ANCE OF, IN­DE­PEN­DENT SCI­EN­TISTS — NOT POLITI­CIANS OR PO­LIT­I­CAL AP­POINTEES — TO HAVE CON­FI­DENCE IN THE SAFETY AND EF­FEC­TIVE­NESS OF ANY VACCINE.

AN­DREW CA­BALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Three po­ten­tial coro­n­avirus vaccines are shown at a Mary­land lab­o­ra­tory in March.

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