Within the next year, if all goes well, each of us will have an important personal choice to make. Will we get vaccinated against the new strain of coronavirus that has caused a world-halting pandemic?
The vaccine is still under development, of course. But this health crisis has mobilized modern science, and a process that normally takes years has been condensed to months. There isn't just one but several promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates under study in large trials, with medical experts predicting one or more could be available for widespread use sometime in 2021. The trials, however, can't measure a key component to the vaccine's success. It's called "uptake," or how many people are willing to get it.
Unfortunately, there's a growing crisis of public confidence that could prevent many people from getting the shot. President Donald Trump needs not only to understand that but to repair the damage. Yet some of the damage is self-inflicted, with blunders making headlines over the past week suggesting that the administration may be meddling with scientific and public health decisionmaking.
Recent polling from the respected Pew Research Center suggests that the public's faith in a vaccine is quickly eroding. The percentage of American adults polled who said they intend to get the vaccine declined from 72% in May to 51% this month.
During the same period, the percentage of those polled who said they would not get the vaccine rose from 27% to 49%. The decline in confidence appears to be bipartisan. The percentage of Republicans who reported they would not get the vaccine rose from 34% in May to 56% this month. The percentage of Democrats saying they would not get it rose by a nearly equal number of percentage points: 21% in May to 42% in September.
To be fair, disinformation about routine childhood vaccines circulating online salted the landscape well before Trump took office. But good leadership would understand this and work to overcome it as the COVID vaccine speeds through development. Letting medical or scientific expertise determine vaccine development milestones should be at the core of this sensible strategy. So should avoiding even the slightest whiff of political interference with agencies charged with protecting the public health, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Regrettably, events that have either occurred or come to light this week suggest the Trump administration doesn't understand the role it must play to shore up public confidence in a vaccine. About a week ago, Politico broke a disturbing story about a political appointee in the administration seeking to review or even change a weekly scientific report issued by the CDC. "In some cases, e-mails from communications aides to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials openly complained that the agency's reports would undermine President Donald Trump's optimistic messages about the outbreak," reporter Dan Diamond wrote.
Later in the week, Trump contradicted Redfield about the vaccine's readiness and also disagreed with his assessment of the value of masks in preventing COVID. The CDC director had said a vaccine wouldn't be available for the general public until spring or summer of 2021. At a Wednesday news conference, Trump said Redfield had made a mistake, adding that a vaccine would be ready next month and in wide distribution in November.
Americans should hope Trump's predictions are accurate. But his spat with his CDC chief, along with the Politico report, raises troubling questions about whether there's pressure to rush out a vaccine before the election.
Trump needs to ensure not only that there's a COVID vaccine available, but that Americans have faith in it. Respecting the expertise of the nation's top doctors and scientists would be a healthy start.