President Donald Trump is putting pressure on the development of a coronavirus vaccine so that it is available by Election Day, but researchers are asking for more time.
Vladimir Putin already has one, so Donald Trump needs one, too. Scientists around the world are working on developing a vaccine against the coronavirus, and the United States absolutely wants to be among the first to have one. Several companies supported by billions in tax dollars are in the process of developing a vaccine – independent of the mutual efforts of other countries.
Apparently it is now becoming reality. Several days ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to all states to prepare to distribute a vaccine starting Nov. 1. The CDC writes that vaccinations are expected to be made available primarily to employees in the health care industry as well as in retirement and nursing homes to begin with.
This is suspiciously good timing, since the next U.S. presidential election is on Nov. 3. Trump, the incumbent, urgently needs a victory that he can produce in time for Election Day. Due to his mismanagement in the first weeks and months of the pandemic, his approval ratings among voters are rather modest; 57.1% are dissatisfied with Trump’s coronavirus policies and only 39% support them. Even the fact that the U.S. economy is showing the first signs of recovery after months of crisis and 1.4 million jobs were created in August is unlikely to do Trump any good.
Trump Wants To Move Faster Than the Speed of Light
However, it still doesn’t look good. More than 6 million people in the United States have already been infected with the COVID-19 virus; Johns Hopkins University currently counts more than 187,000 deaths; and the newest estimates start at more than 400,000 dead by the end of the year. The Trump administration ignored the warning signs at the beginning of the pandemic, and later failed to expand urgently needed testing capacity, instead pushing for a rash opening of the economy. Its failures will become ever more apparent with the daily five-digit case numbers.
Trump is doing everything he can to distract people from this. After downplaying the severity of the virus in the beginning, the president has been giving U.S. citizens hope about an impending vaccine for months. As early as May, the White House started a project with the goal of distributing around 300 million doses of vaccine by January 2021, with the initial dose due in October. The project carries the telling name of “Operation Warp Speed” based on an expression from science fiction literature. With a drive like that, one travels faster than the speed of light.
An Innovation That Has Never Been Approved Before
Normally, the development of vaccines takes several years before they are approved. However, Trump needs it sooner. Government sources report that the president has repeatedly exerted pressure in meetings. During his most recent campaign speech in Pennsylvania, he promised a vaccine before the end of October: “Wouldn’t that be nice?” Not because of the election, of course, he added right afterwards. “Because we want to save people.” Vice President Mike Pence has spoken about a “miracle” that is right around the corner, which is “a tribute to President Trump’s leadership.”
The motive behind this is obvious. Once the vaccine is available, everything else will be quickly forgotten. Only then will Trump be able to leave office without being the president who was presumably responsible for unnecessary suffering and death. Trump wants to be the one who saves the country – and therefore gets reelected. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, he swore, “We will defeat the virus, end the pandemic and emerge stronger than ever before.”
Scientists and Democrats Are Skeptical
In any case, the two pharmaceutical companies, Moderna and Pfizer, whose research is the focus of the planned rollout in November, are working on an innovation that has so far never been approved for use in humans. They are developing a vaccine based on carriers of genetic information. This way, it is not a weakened or inactive form of the pathogen that is injected, but rather its genetic material. This transmits a type of blueprint for a protein onto the surface of the virus, which the body is then supposed to defend itself against. Phase 3 of development, in which tens of thousands of subjects are being tested to determine whether the vaccine is safe, effective and viable, has still not concluded.
Tal Zaks, chief medical officer at Moderna, recently reported in an interview with Zeit Online that all test subjects so far had shown a “clear immune response” after the first vaccination. At the same time, he said they hope to see the first results at the end of the year. That does not sound as if vaccinations can realistically begin in November. Even the head of “Operation Warp Speed,” Moncef Slaoui, told NPR that the schedule is not impossible, but highly unlikely. “There is a very, very low chance that the trials that are running as we speak could read before the end of October.” Instead, he’s counting on having the first vaccinations at the end of the year and a nationwide immunization in the middle of 2021. He says the fact that the CDC is contacting the states should be interpreted proactively and that questions of politics are “irrelevant” when developing vaccines.
For Trump, however, experts and science are not his friends or even authorities, but rather political opponents. If they don’t act like he wants them to, they become the target of presidential rage. For example, at the end of August on Twitter, Trump attacked the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for approving vaccines: “The deep state, or whoever” is complicating development, he wrote. Leaders of the Democratic Party, as well as the former head of the CDC, warned that the safety and efficacy of a vaccine must have absolute priority. Evidently, the manufacturers themselves also see it this way: On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported on a joint appeal from several companies, including Moderna and Pfizer, asking that their vaccines not be approved until their efficacy and safety are proven.
Preventing Further Catastrophes
So was it all just for show? That remains to be seen. The FDA’s decision about approval of the first vaccines is scheduled for Oct. 22. The rule is that a vaccine must be 50% more effective than a placebo in order to be approved. However, the FDA has used emergency authorizations repeatedly in the past months to approve coronavirus tests and treatment options faster than planned. This is how, despite warnings from scientists, an anti-malarial drug excessively advertised by Trump was also allowed to be used to treat COVID-19 patients. It later came to light that it did more harm than good. Consequently, the FDA revoked the authorization.
It is likely that the FDA wants to avoid a similar catastrophe with the vaccines. In the United States many people approach the topic of vaccination with skepticism, so there is an increased risk of losing their trust. A current survey from USA Today showed that two-thirds of respondents said they would not immediately get vaccinated when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available.
The pressure from the White House is likely to increase considerably as Election Day approaches. Trump needs the vaccine because he has completely isolated his country from the rest of the world on this matter. The United States is boycotting the World Health Organization and by extension the international vaccine initiative COVAX, which Germany and the European Union among others are participating in. “We will not be constrained by multilateral organizations,” the White House said. If the domestic vaccine approval in October fails, this strategy could end in a resounding defeat for Trump.