I began looking into the future of the COVID-19 vaccine(s) two months ago, around when I gave a Centipede report on the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility. Welcome to Part 2: the Ever-Turbulent United States, Election Edition. (Spoilers: it’s politics.)
The Trump administration kicked off Operation Warp Speed in spring 2020. With 10 billion dollars in funds and counting, it aims to deliver 300 million single doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021.
The speed and scale at which Warp Speed was advertised sparked national scrutiny. As Donald Trump promoted Warp Speed’s potential, internal advisers of the operation toned the hype down, and the deadlines for vaccine release kept falling back. Google Trends searches within the U.S. for “Operation Warp Speed” quickly fell after mid-May as public confidence dwindled, and as searches for “Coronavirus Vaccine” kept level past the initial quarantine spike. At worst, popular media considers Warp Speed a joke.
Biden’s campaign has doubled down on the criticism and has since suggested amendment. Biden’s campaign website declares, “Operation Warp Speed lacks sound leadership, global vision, or a strategy for securing the necessary funding to see this mission through or secure trust from Americans who depend on its success.” With Biden having been outside the presidential office when COVID-19 struck the U.S., the campaign is in a special position to promote alternatives.
“We should be working now to accelerate a coordinated global approach to develop a safe, effective vaccine,” one of Biden’s statements from April reads. Biden later promised “protection and care” free of price-gouging, and most recently, that the vaccine would be free for “everyone” in the U.S. The only issue? That’s all we have heard. We have “experts,” and we have “analysts,” but comments by direct campaign sources are conspicuously absent on almost every media article dated before mid-October theorizing on Biden’s vaccine plan.
So, are politicians keeping to too-tentative policies?
Not quite. But they do want votes.
Why They Stayed Quiet
Fear of Insufficient Data
Let it not be said that Biden, at least, has been lazy in keeping uptake on COVID-19, or that either side was imprudent in pushing forth “research-backed” data, trying to assuage the public. However, weeks have passed with little physical development.
Operation Warp Speed advisers’ backtracking for Trump shows what happens when a vaccine is promoted before reasonable projections could be made.
Take, on the other hand, a White House press briefing from late September—one turn away from the January deadline. Dr. Scott Atlas, the attending coronavirus adviser to Trump, uses nondescript phrases like “manufacturing” and “logistics” to follow his admission that “people don’t understand what’s going on with Operation Warp Speed,” and it becomes increasingly worrisome that he—perhaps representing Trump’s whole cadre of policy advisers—lacks the go-ahead to say more.
The idea behind Warp Speed is sound: safe and effective vaccines received fast “enough.” Vox calls Warp Speed’s failures a matter of policy and poor management, rather than conception. And yet, even leading scientific organizations have flopped on transparency. In recent weeks, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has acknowledged and posted hopes to increase data communications.
Vaccine distribution theories are shifting every day. Without an overwhelming force backing them, politicians (or more so their allies) are careful to talk. If even leading organizations are tentative, is selling for one explicit plan worth the risk?
Fear of “Jumping the Gun”
The butterfly effect of media is well-documented.
In the 2004–05 flu season, the U.S. met an extreme shortage of flu vaccines. One of the U.S.’s two primary vaccine manufacturers had had its license suspended. The media exploded in response. Though today dozens of manufacturers have COVID-19 vaccine candidates underway, repeating something like 2004 terrifies politicians.
Journalistically, messengers have to balance between vigilant updates and clear, applicable, long-term communication. And to politicians, both overcommitment and any consequential remedying of large-scale miscommunication waste resources. Further, managing COVID-19 now remains a hassle. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports limited national access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, even months into the pandemic. Though Trump leaned heavier on the vaccine leading to the election while Biden proposed a multilinear approach, it is the basic supplies that the individual needs to get by, and the basic supplies that the media will inevitably keep covering.
Fear of Promoting Outside Entities
Many details related to equitable and efficient vaccine distribution are international. And U.S. politics, from their very origin, have feared “outside meddling.” Individually, the candidates like to play down ties with any outside organizations or countries. As of mid-October 2020, Biden supports rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO)—likely alongside his goal to re-legitimize science organizations, but he has notably specified on his campaign website, “our relationship with [the WHO is] not perfect.” Trump has mentioned offering aid, but only after the U.S. is secured. Any more, and I fear the media backlash from a backing of international names would have brought that action tantamount to domestic political suicide.
Keys to a Good Vaccine Response and “It Is What It Is”
As it is, I want more transparency. That said, data does not overwhelm me, and perhaps others, too: The tone of most reports on COVID-19 politics is strikingly reserved. News outlets’ suspensions of disbelief on those political remarks, it seems, are high.
Unfortunately, vaccine response, like every other issue on the table, is a political game run by people who have both too much and too little stake. Fortunately, for now, it is a political game. Both regulatory bodies and drug companies themselves are still entities with power and public sway.
Drug companies have been carefully running trials, publicizing suspensions alongside explanations, which in the face of the speed at which they have progressed may imply their playing safe over sorry. A month ago, the FDA published stricter guidelines for vaccine approval. It seems that organizations are banding together to reject an overt political push. Moreover, even if a vaccine is approved too quickly, distrust sewn through the population in recent months will not disappear with the advent of a simple, seemingly positive release.
And so the politicians responded.
I wrote this article before Election Day. Whichever side won, I doubt their win hinged on their “thorough” COVID-19 policies. Politically, being vague is divisive, often delegitimizing. But this time, being vague was necessary. It was nothing more, nothing less.