Donald Trump has made it crystal clear he sees a coronavirus vaccine as critical to his reelection chances. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for Trump’s favorite unproven (and since discredited) COVID-19 treatment, hydroxychloroquine, under political pressure. But the Trump administration wishes us to believe that the timing of a vaccine’s release and authorization won’t be a partisan process. Rapid vaccine development is a priority (as it should be), said a White House spokesman, but “[i]t has nothing to do with politics.”
Back in reality: “There are a lot of people on the inside of this process who are very nervous about whether the administration is going to reach their hand into the Warp Speed bucket, pull out one or two or three vaccines, and say, ‘We’ve tested it on a few thousand people, it looks safe, and now we are going to roll it out,’” a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee told The New York Times, adding: “They are really worried about that. And they should be.”
Trump has been making big promises. His campaign advisers call a preelection vaccine “the holy grail,” and the FDA commissioner won’t rule out an emergency authorization for a vaccine. But hey, a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesman insists that the hope is for January 2021 and “[w]e know that’s optimistic. I have never heard mention of any other timeline, and certainly not from the secretary.”
Except that literally the first HHS presentation to the White House about Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to get a vaccine quickly, opened with a slide reading: “DEADLINE: Enable broad access to the public by October 2020.”
A vaccine is going to go to tens of millions of otherwise healthy people. It needs to be safe, first and foremost. Unfortunately, we can’t trust the Trump administration to put that over Donald Trump’s political future.
Some communities have other reasons to be wary of a vaccine, especially a hastily developed one. Many Black people remember the unethical Tuskegee syphilis study. Now people of color have been underrepresented in some early coronavirus vaccine trials, even as the pandemic has hit Black and Latino communities especially hard.
“We’ve got a situation where FDA standards have been relaxed in order to bring these new therapies into the marketplace quicker, and we all want them to be successful. But the groundwork has not been laid to persuade minority populations that they need to accept those vaccines,” the National Minority Quality Forum’s Gary Puckrein told Politico. That’s having an effect among Black people in particular: While about 75% of white and Latino adults told the Pew Research Center they planned to get a vaccine, just over half of Black adults said the same.
We need a vaccine. (Or five.) It needs to be safe. We need to have confidence it was approved because of the science, not because of Donald Trump’s election hopes. And communities of color need to have confidence that they are not being either left out or used as guinea pigs.