How Trump could get credit for a COVID-19 breakthrough
Published Thursday, November 19, 2020 10:36AM EST
Editor's note: Kent Sepkowitz is a CNN medical analyst and a physician and infection control expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The two companies have developed a similar but not identical messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and, combined, have announced early results involving more than 70,000 participants, half of whom received placebo. To date, the population given real vaccine have had less than one-tenth the number of COVID-19 infections than those receiving placebo.
This means that there is hope for an effective vaccine on the horizon. Just like U.S. President Donald Trump promised repeatedly.
Of course, the President's Warp Speed predictions usually were met with derisive dismissals by those "in the know" (including me) who saw a much longer, harder, more side-effect riddled and overall, less fairy tale-ish road ahead.
And even with the news this month, many experts continue to be appropriately cautious until the results are scrutinized and studied more closely and more time has passed for side effects to appear. After all, mRNA vaccines are different than traditional vaccines; while the vaccines we are used to administering use some form of a virus to elicit immunity in the human body, an mRNA vaccine uses mRNA (a biological molecule) to trick the body into manufacturing COVID-19 specific antibodies.
This latter process has the makings of the early chapters of a Michael Crichton sci-fi disaster-thriller. Make no mistake, though: this is a true milestone. Real vaccines have prevented real COVID-19 infections in real humans. And the benefit was seen in a startlingly high proportion of people.
We should be rejoicing, at least briefly. But rather, we already have sunk into a tribal Trumper versus not-Trumper debate; the president's backers claim he was central to the vaccine advance while others counter that this all happened in spite of, not because of, Trump.
This type of political nonsense is not surprising -- the same "debate" about a major national accomplishment dogged the daring capture and execution of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Then, presidential candidates were jockeying for position and gave muted praise of the standing president an approach that, a year later, became open criticism over the Obama Administration's handling of their accomplishment. Perhaps the most jarring was soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney who dismissed the president's work by claiming, in a two-for-one insult, that "even Jimmy Carter would have given that order."
That was not the time, nor is this, to argue over who gets credit for what. Perhaps the president moved in this direction because it seemed easier than other COVID-19 control efforts or for votes or to goose pharmaceutical earnings or because he and his administration were moved by the calamity unfolding on their watch. His motive is irrelevant; the scientific advance is real.
And in that spirit, as one who remains extremely critical of President Trump's handling of the pandemic, may I say, thank you, Mr. President. You did a good thing by allowing money to flow to address a national crisis. Operation Warp Speed, a nearly US$10 billion government program seeking to make 300 million doses of a vaccine -- the initial doses of which would be available by January next year -- shows early signs of success. As such, you have embraced a core progressive tenet that big government, featuring major federal dollars that in this case give scientists free rein to chase ideas, ultimately pays off.
That said, this accomplishment does not change the Trump team's flunking grade on their handling the pandemic. Rather it shows how badly it performed. COVID-19 was in many ways the easiest problem the president faced. Not the easiest to solve -- we are a long way from getting the pandemic under control -- but the steps to control it were all laid out long ago. Yet the Trump administration ignored (and continues to ignore) scientific evidence while hoping that, by ignoring it, the virus would, "like a miracle," disappear.
The science isn't confusing: masks and distancing and testing and avoiding indoor crowds. Despite coronavirus task force doctor Scott Atlas' infuriating doublespeak, the evidence isn't controversial. Sure, COVID-19 precaution is no fun, lacks the glamour of a scientific breakthrough and is, like most of public health, a bit boring. But the ABCs of outbreak control are much better grounded than a move to invest billions of dollars in scientific research -- and not just any science but science at the most wildly futuristic, the highest of the high tech, elbowing our human-made widgets into the mysterious realm of our spiraling DNA. Very 22nd century stuff.
Had the Trump administration handed over not just vaccine development but the rest of the pandemic to the scientists, tens of thousands of Americans would likely still be alive today, some areas of the economy would probably be much less wobbly and, in all likelihood, we would be preparing for President Trump's second term.
That did not happen and now he and his advisers are soon to be out of a job. But the excitement about the vaccines might show them a way to re-enter, at least a little, into the public's good graces. The next step is quite simple: embrace science and, more importantly, convince Trump's core voters that COVID-19 is a real, not fake, crisis with (hopefully soon) a real, not fake, vaccine that can help prevent a real, not fake, death.
In other words, to legitimately claim some credit for the vaccine excitement ahead, the president and his team must not only praise the ingenious messenger RNA platform, but also embrace science itself and with it, the entire world of cold hard facts.