“We’re gonna have a vaccine very soon,” Donald Trump told reporters last week. “Maybe even before a special date. You know what date I’m talking about.”
Never in the history of US elections, perhaps, has a so-called “October surprise” been so thoroughly telegraphed by a sitting US president. Trailing rival Joe Biden in the presidential race and running out of money, Trump in recent weeks has repeatedly teased the imminent arrival of a coronavirus vaccine, and explicitly tied it to the election calendar.
The hope for Trump, and the fear for Democrats, is that the promise of an imminent vaccine will move the election away from the question of who can beat the virus, and toward the question of who can restart the economy – the one area in which Trump has consistently outpolled Biden, and a perennial top issue for voters.
Trump does not have to actually unveil a safe and effective vaccine before election day on 3 November for the strategy to work, the analysts reason. He needs only to convince enough swing voters that the coronavirus has basically been defeated, so that when they enter the voting booth, they are thinking about what comes next.
“Biden has to move the number on the economic stuff,” Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican political strategist who opposes Trump, said on his podcast. “Because if we have a vaccine mania, whether it’s real or not, and people start getting relieved, and it’s down to who can start the economy again, for the last three weeks of the election – that’s Trump turf.”
Trump’s seeming ability to manipulate the key federal agencies involved in vaccine approval has given credibility to the scenario of a vaccine surprise. It also has given rise to fears that the Food and Drug Administration could improperly grant emergency use authorization to a vaccine candidate that has not been sufficiently tested, potentially endangering public health.
The tragedy of such an outcome would be compounded by the fact that multiple effective and safe vaccines appear to be on the horizon in the United States, where companies have at least three candidates in phase-three clinical trials, public health officials say.
But the political calculations that surround the Trump strategy for a coronavirus vaccine might not be so airtight as the Trump camp seems to believe.
A successful vaccine rollout, public health experts say, relies on coordinated, good-faith efforts by the independent boards that oversee vaccine trials; pharmaceutical companies; public health officials; public-facing experts; and regulators.
In recent weeks, those voices have been uncommonly united in a message that runs precisely contrary to Trump’s, urging patience as multiple vaccine candidates enter the last stages of clinical trials that could result in their eventual adoption.
“Certainly, to try to predict whether it happens on a particular week before or after a particular date in early November is well beyond anything that any scientist right now could tell you and be confident they know what they are saying,” Dr Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told a Senate panel last week.
In an extraordinary gesture nine leading pharmaceutical companies recently published a co-signed letter vowing not to participate in a premature vaccine rollout.
“We believe this pledge will help ensure public confidence in the rigorous scientific and regulatory process by which Covid-19 vaccines are evaluated and may ultimately be approved,” the companies said.
The pharmaceutical companies could profit enormously from producing a vaccine, but they also have a lot to lose if an ineffective or unsafe vaccine is introduced to the public, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on his podcast.
“If there is a problem with that vaccine, we will pay a price in the immunization world for as long as I will be on this earth,” Osterholm said. “They know that if they’re a company that had a vaccine that should’ve or could’ve been further vetted, that there will be a price for them to pay, not just financial.”
The public health officials closest to Trump have echoed those warnings. Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus taskforce, has called a pre-election vaccine “unlikely” – and pointed out that even after the approval of multiple effective vaccines, it could take up to a year for enough people to adopt the vaccine to make mass gatherings safe.
“I think it’s gonna be a combination of a vaccine that has been around for almost a year and good public health measures” before theaters can safely reopen, Fauci said in an Instagram live chat.
At the same time that he ties the race for a vaccine to the election calendar, Trump has accused Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris of playing politics with the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine.
“They’re going to make the vaccine into a negative,” Trump said last weekend.
Analysts warn that there is a risk that Democrats who raise an alarm about Trump’s political play on vaccines could seem to be rooting against the arrival of a vaccine. Harris drew criticism along those lines last week after stating flatly that she “would not trust Donald Trump” on any vaccine announcement.
But if the question of a coronavirus vaccine so close to a presidential election must be political, Biden, the Democratic nominee, floated a different message.
“If I could get a vaccine tomorrow, I’d do it,” he said. “If it cost me the election, I’d do it.”