Does the politicization of the coronavirus vaccine threaten the public’s trust in future vaccines?

Does the politicization of the coronavirus vaccine threaten the public’s trust in future vaccines?
Source: Bing Guan, Reuters
Fears over vaccination safety have been on the minds of many Americans due to campaign rhetoric and political motivations on both sides of the aisle.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) main responsibility as COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States is to ensure that whatever vaccines get produced are safe for the public.

With much in the balance for both presidential campaigns, fears over vaccination safety have been on the minds of many Americans due to campaign rhetoric and political motivations on both sides of the aisle. Meanwhile, additional questions, like who gets the vaccines first and who will pay for them, continue to go unanswered.

The Trump administration’s response to COVID-19

As early as March, the Trump administration began “Operation Warp Speed,” (OWS) which the president himself compared to the Manhattan Project in its scale and importance. This project shells out billions of federal dollars to pharmaceutical companies, cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that typically follows vaccines and other medicines produced by these companies.

Traditionally, vaccine contracts would be regulated by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). However, OWS has allowed the government to sidestep this regulative board, giving lucrative development contracts to six different companies.

The plan guarantees funding for the manufacture of vaccines that have not gone through clinical trials, ensuring that companies produce vaccines that may not work or be safe, but also ensuring that if one of these vaccines does work, the companies will already have millions of vials of it available.

Normally, companies would not spend money on a product they do not know works, but this puts the burden of those risky costs on the government.

Lack of transparency from the OWS, however, has raised concerns from advocacy groups, members of Congress and former administration officials. NPR reported that OWS routed US$6 billion of funding through the defense contracting firm Advance Technology International Inc.

Instead of directly giving funding to vaccine-producing companies, ATI is tasked with finding and awarding contracts to these companies. With this third-party comes less oversight. Because these contracts are given out through a private company, it is not necessary for the company to disclose how the money is spent.

Calling for more accountability of taxpayers’ money, Representative Lloyd Doggett called out the Trump administration for what he calls its game of “hide and seek.”

Doggett, a Democrat who heads the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed concern over the lack of transparency, alleging that the Trump administration is hiding information from the public.

In response to this, a Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson explained that much of the data requested is private, but that the administration is dedicated to transparency. “We are diligently working with our interagency colleagues to gather, review, and appropriately release relevant contracts without revealing protected information, such as information that is proprietary or trade secret, or impacts any ongoing negotiations."

Though Trump himself has claimed we can see a safe and reliable vaccine by mid-October, a date that has already passed, the scientific head of OWS, Moncef Slaoui, believes differently.

When explaining the progress of six companies supported by OWS, Slaoui singled out Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. as being months ahead of the competition. He predicts the companies will know if the vaccines, based on RNA technology, are working by November or December, though these dates are conjecture. Clinical trials of around 10,000 volunteers are already underway. But the difficult part is manufacturing and distribution. Still, Slaoui predicts the companies can have 30 million vials of each of the RNA vaccines.

The OWS lays out lists of plans and current events happening within the project, but in many places, the project is vague. In laying out who would pay for the vaccine, the fact sheet produced by the HHS states, “the administration is committed to providing free or low-cost COVID-19 countermeasures to the American people as fast as possible. Any vaccine or therapeutic doses purchased with US taxpayer dollars will be given to the American people at no cost.”

This statement does not make clear, however, if the administration will purchase the vaccines through the private pharmaceutical companies, or if the consumer must go through the companies themselves.

The Biden campaign’s response

Former Vice President Joe Biden and his campaign staff have responded skeptically to Trump’s fast-tracked vaccine, claiming the president is politicizing the vaccination process in order to gain more votes in the upcoming election.

While Biden has stated he has faith in the scientists and in vaccines in general, he holds that the president can’t be trusted.

When asked at the vice-presidential debate if she would take a vaccine released today, California Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, again expressing her faith in scientists, in particular Dr. Fauci, said she would not take a rushed vaccine without the backing of scientific data.

The Trump campaign has been critical of these answers by Biden and Harris and claimed that the two are politicizing, fear mongering and undermining confidence in a vaccine to score political points.

Despite this, Biden has publicly stated that he wants the vaccine to be free to the public, getting Congress to push a bill to fund production and distribution throughout the states. However, he claims a more realistic, if not vague, timeline on the vaccine, stating that despite the creation of a safe, effective vaccine, “It will still be many months before any vaccine is widely available.”

Public response to a vaccine

With the majority of Americans largely divided along the political spectrum, it should come as no surprise to see that opinions are similarly divided when it comes to support of a vaccine.

Concerns raised by both campaigns have split the population almost in half, as reported by the Pew Research Group. While down from 72% in May, 51% of Americans still say that they would get a vaccine if it were available today. Despite major pharmaceutical companies pledging to follow rigorous standards, Pew reports that “three-quarters of Americans (77%) think it’s very or somewhat likely a COVID-19 vaccine will be approved in the United States before its safety and effectiveness are fully understood.”

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