This just in: Republicans and Democrats agree on something. It’s something that’s not very reassuring.
A bipartisan majority of survey respondents — 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats — fear that the COVID-19 vaccine process is driven more by politics than science. More than 80% of respondents worry about safety if the vaccine is developed too quickly.
Maybe part of the problem is that the U.S. government’s vaccine development initiative is known as Operation Warp Speed, a splashy name with a “ready, fire and aim” connotation. Speed, however, isn’t the problem. Safety and quality control remain central elements, but vaccine development no longer plays out in the anonymity of the laboratory.
On Wednesday, the British company AstraZeneca announced a delay in its clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine because one study participant became ill. In this environment, what would have been a footnote in a regulatory filing becomes an international story.
AstraZeneca called the delay a routine occurrence, something that’s to be expected when 30,000 people participate in a trial to determine the effectiveness of a vaccine and flag possible side-effects. When someone does get sick, it’s important to understand the difference between correlation — it happens while someone is participating in the vaccine trials — and causation. That latter occurs when someone gets sick because of the vaccine.
That’s what they’ll try to figure out, but the headlines illustrate the problem with vaccine development becoming a political rather than a scientific issue. Research, which involves some trial and error, now plays out in a 24-hour news cycle.
Politicians deserve some blame for this. President Donald Trump has used a political setting to play up coronavirus treatments that are encouraging but haven’t always passed the gold standard of double-blind control studies. He gave what appeared to be an overly optimistic impression that a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready by Election Day.
But Trump is not the only one. Kamela Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, now says she wouldn’t trust Trump on any vaccine released before the election. She might believe that in her heart of hearts, but what she should have said is that the issue shouldn’t be politicized and scientists and researchers should be trusted to come up with a safe vaccine.
Instead, we have the worrisome prospect of Democrats trusting vaccines developed in a Democratic administration and Republicans trusting ones that come when the GOP is in charge.
Any medical or technological marvel, including a vaccine, should benefit all Americans. It should earn the trust of all Americans. The last thing we need is a dose of partisanship with our medicine.