Analysis: Trump’s dreams of a vaccine as his October Surprise aren’t rooted in reality

He predicts a vaccine breakthrough multiple times a day, assures Americans he has the military on standby to rush it out and promises 100 million, 250 million, even 500 million individual doses will be very quickly available. He hails a “tremendous” vaccine that is “very close” and will be ready “very, very early, before the end of the year, far ahead of schedule.”

Experts are very hopeful about the potential for an effective vaccine, but by implying one is almost imminent and will quickly end the pandemic, Trump is raising expectations that are unlikely to be swiftly met and would come too late to save his presidential campaign in any case.

Indeed, asked on Thursday whether a vaccine — 29 prototypes of which are currently being developed and trialed by multiple countries including the United States — would arrive in time for Election Day on November 3, Trump bumped up his personal timetable, characteristically telling anyone listening exactly what they want to hear.

“I’m optimistic that it’ll be probably around that date. I believe we’ll have the vaccine before the end of the year certainly, but around that date, yes. I think so,” the President said, agreeing that an announcement could boost his reelection bid.

“It wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt. But … I’m doing it, not for the election. I want it fast because I want to save a lot of lives.”

His rhetoric about vaccines may also be counterproductive to the ultimate goal of ending the crisis. The President’s comments on Thursday drew a rebuke from former Surgeon Gen. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who said it was “very dangerous” to set artificial timelines and cautioned against a perception that the process was being rushed.

“We can’t sacrifice our standards because if we do, it not only hurts people, but it’s going to damage people’s faith in vaccine efforts,” Murthy told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Thursday, at a time when polls show nearly half of Americans wouldn’t take the vaccine even if it was available.

Suspicions of political interference

Everyone would love to share Trump’s optimism. The prospect of many more months of stunted life, huge unemployment caused by the pandemic and another winter likely to bring more sickness and death is dismal.

But it’s hard to take Trump’s assessments seriously. Throughout America’s fight against the novel coronavirus, it has sometimes been difficult to tell whether the President is being deliberately deceptive or does not fully appreciate the details and the scale of the challenge ahead.

It’s the same with a vaccine. While many medical experts believe that a vaccine could be available by early next year for high-risk patients — it could be the middle of next year for it to become widely available. That might mean it could be fall 2021 before normal life really begins to return, long after Trump’s presidential destiny will be decided one way or the other.

Still, as a political device, talking about a Covid-19 vaccine may seem alluring for a President who has seen nearly 160,000 Americans die on his watch in a public health crisis he has denied, neglected and downplayed.

Talking about an imminent vaccine allows the President to be forward-looking. When talking about the vaccine, he’s not being cross-examined about his many failures in the pandemic, and the rising death toll to which he has often seemed indifferent — “It is what it is,” he told Axios in a recent interview.

It allows him to play on offense, too. Any Democrat who points out the many complications of vaccine development and who doubts Trump’s optimism can quickly be accused of rooting against the very development that might end the crisis for political reasons.

And there is, it appears, a good story to tell.

By most accounts, Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion government-funded race for a vaccine, is going well and could produce an effective, safe vaccine that could be mass produced at record speed. If that is the case, Trump will deserve his share of the credit for a multi-agency effort in partnership with the private sector. His cheerleading for a vaccine has contrasted with his suspicion of coronavirus testing — which is now going down in 29 states, even though experts say it needs to be expanded by many multiples to effectively fight the virus. In Washington, presidential enthusiasm and attention is vital to getting action, and the relative pace of sluggish testing and tracing efforts compared to the pace of vaccine development will reflect that.

Ethical questions

The Trump’s administration’s record of bending rules for political gain and cutting legal corners and the way it cavalierly treated human life in the pandemic — demanding swift economic openings, for example — raise a flurry of ethical questions about its trustworthiness in handling the first successful vaccines.

The White House has consistently marginalized scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has tried to present a truthful narrative about the dire state of the pandemic that contradicts the consistently rosy and misleading spin preferred by the President and his aides.

On issues like Trump’s demand for all schools to open in the coming weeks, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come under fierce pressure from the West Wing. With an election looming, regulatory agencies like the Food And Drug Administration could face similar pressure to bend to the President’s will.

Trump, meanwhile, has all but prescribed hydroxcholoroquine from his White House podium, trashing peer-reviewed studies that say it doesn’t work in favor of a disputed analysis and anecdotal soundbites on conservative media.

And given that the administration has politicized almost every aspect of the fight against the virus and has unloaded a daily torrent of lies and misinformation, it will get precious little benefit of the doubt on its handling of the vaccine.

There will also be highly sensitive and potentially life and death decisions subject to medical ethics and scientific fact that will sway which vulnerable populations and even ethnic groups receive the vaccine first.

Nothing about the President’s handling of the worst public health crisis in 100 years suggests he has so far considered those questions — or will want to be guided by moral considerations when it comes to a vaccine.

Fauci’s caution

Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, shares Trump’s optimism about the possibility of a vaccine — but has also been tempered in his assessments about its immediate impacts.

“When the vaccine becomes available after a 30,000-person-or-more placebo-controlled randomized trial, and it’s shown to be safe and effective, I would get it any time within the timeframe of the people who prioritize it according to ethical principles,” Fauci said on a Politico Pulse Check podcast Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters Wednesday posted on YouTube, the Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, who is often rebuked by Trump, said that data not politics would dictate when a vaccine became available.

“I’m certain of what the White House would like to see, but I haven’t seen any indication of pressure at this point,” Fauci said.

“As you get into the fall, there — there’s going to be data accumulating, and people are going to be looking at the data … if the data is so bad that you should stop the trial, they say stop. If the data is … even dangerous, they say stop. If the data still needs to be accumulated, they’ll say keep the trial going. If the data looks so good, they may say timeout, approve it because it’s so good.”

FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn has also said that no amount of political pressure will cause his agency to cut corners.

“I have repeatedly said that all FDA decisions have been, and will continue to be, based solely on good science and data. The public can count on that commitment,” Hahn wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

In an administration in which science has constantly been trumped by politics, those undertakings will be carefully watched in the weeks to come.

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