Public health experts are justifiably concurred that impeached president Donald Trump is going to demand that there be a coronavirus vaccine released this fall for an October surprise stunt whether or not there's any indication that the vaccine works, which will make the public even less likely to trust a vaccine. Drs. Ezekiel Emanuel and Paul Offit, professors at the University of Pennsylvania, voiced their concern in a New York Times op-ed last week. They and others have continued raising the alarm that Trump will push health officials to approve a vaccine for use before its proven to work. At best, this does nothing to prevent the virus. At worst it endangers lives and pushes competing vaccines that might work out of the market.
"If you give an emergency use authorization, you're likely going to make it hard to assess all these vaccines and to assess the thing we really care about: Are they effective in preventing infection? That's the key," Emanuel, who is advising Joe Biden on health issues, told Politico. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, which is the entity responsible for approving an eventual vaccine, says there’s no way he’ll let Trump bully him. "Under no circumstances will the FDA allow political pressure to affect our decision-making and, importantly, that has not occurred on my watch," he told Politico. "We continue to take this very seriously." Yes, this is the same Hahn who personally intervened to give a some-dude doctor in New York access to hydroxychloroquine from the Strategic National Stockpile as well as emergency equipment and supplies from the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) cache so he could conduct an ad hoc clinical on Trump's favorite miracle cure. So, yeah, mistrust of Hahn and the politics of the vaccine by actual professionals seems perfectly reasonable. Not to mention how the public is going to react to a Trump election vaccine.
"Public confidence in the FDA has really been eroded because of the EUA on hydroxychloroquine and then the mess that they've made with serology tests," said Nicole Lurie, an Obama administration official at the HHS. "They've already got two strikes against them. The risk of the Trump administration eroding public confidence in our science agencies is just huge." Polling has already shown how little the public trusts Trump on this, with 36% saying in a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month that Trump's okay on a vaccine would make them less likely to take it, with the speed with which Trump is pushing for it as a major factor.
The vaccine for mumps is so far the fastest vaccine ever developed, and it took four years to get through all the necessary human trials to prove its safety and efficacy. While there are multiple labs and companies now working on the coronavirus vaccine, it's very, very soon to be speculating about having one this year. And yet, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci is saying it could happen—maybe. He believes it’s possible that vaccine candidates will be at the final stage of testing by fall, and could "get an answer quickly" on what works in trials. "It is likely that we will have an answer by the end of this calendar year, early December or beginning of 2021," Fauci said. "Having said that, there is no guarantee that we are going to get a vaccine that works: That's the big unknown."
Looking at the polling so far, the lesser unknown is how the public will respond. It's a significant danger that rushing out a vaccine that either doesn't work or produces adverse side effects—no matter how few—will contribute to the growing anti-vaxxer sentiment in the public. At the same time, it is perfectly rational on the part of all the regular vaccine-getting public to say "no way" to one approved by the Trump administration. Because from previous experience, we know how inept and corrupt it is. For all we know, his family is secretly investing in one of these companies and it would be the one to get approval just on that basis. Because it's Trump.
That compounds the danger that the pandemic poses here in the U.S. and around the world. A vaccine that doesn't work clearly allows the infection to keep raging. A vaccine approved for use in the U.S., whether it works or not, could hamper development of other candidates. A vaccine that doesn't work could dissuade people from getting other potential vaccines.
This is where Congress really needs to step in and supervise. We need public hearings on the process of this vaccine development. We need oversight of the regulators who are supposed to be overseeing that process. We need to know that someone is watching and protecting our health.