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How Trump will hijack the coming vaccine wars

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May 19, 2020

If you thought it was frustrating up until now listening to President Trump play dingbat armchair scientist on TV over the coronavirus pandemic, just wait until we get to the vaccine wars.

Scientists and drug companies all over the world are rushing to try to develop a vaccine for covid-19, and there are some early encouraging signs. But the process is unavoidably long, requiring extensive testing before we have a drug that we start administering to billions of people. Scientists caution that even in the most optimistic schedule, it will likely be 12 to 18 months before a vaccine could be widely available.

Trump, however, looks at the possibility of a vaccine and sees what he has wanted all along: a miracle, one that will end the pandemic without him actually having to do much.

But let me issue a warning. For the next few months, he will insist that a vaccine will soon deliver us from the pandemic. But when it reaches the point that even he can’t deny that the American public will not be vaccinated before they go to vote in November, he will make an abrupt shift.

The lack of a vaccine will become part of his wide-ranging attack on science and expertise, an argument that casts scientists and public health experts (along with China, and Democrats, and whomever else he’s mad at) as the villains of the pandemic story.

And then, if Trump loses, and a vaccine finally becomes available after he leaves office, he will become the leader of the anti-vaccine movement in America.

While a different president than Trump would have met the pandemic with an understanding of what a complex challenge it would be, requiring intellectual and practical skill and a great deal of work and patience, Trump instead pinned his hopes on the miraculous.

First he insisted that we were safe and the virus would never reach the United States. Then he said, “like a miracle, it will disappear.” Then he latched on to hydroxychloroquine, in the clear hope that if it turned out to be a miracle cure, he could claim credit and then put the pandemic behind him. Now he claims he has been taking it for a couple of weeks (though there is ample reason to doubt he’s telling the truth).

Trump vacillates between heaping scorn on scientists and insisting that a scientific solution to the pandemic is right around the corner. Last Friday, he unveiled “Operation Warp Speed,” which he claimed would have hundreds of millions of doses of a yet-undiscovered vaccine available by the end of the year.

The problem is that such a schedule is all but impossible. Vaccines have to go through multiple stages of development — making sure they work, making sure they’re safe, testing them on small groups of volunteers before moving on to larger groups, then manufacturing an enormous supply — all of which takes time. You can’t just inject five people, come back the next day and say, “Well, you haven’t died yet, so we’re going to give this to everyone on Earth.”

Now imagine it’s late September, just four months from now. Promising vaccines are in development, but it’s clear that even if we settle on one, it won’t be ready to deploy until well into 2021. Coronavirus deaths in the United States have climbed above 150,000, a number Democrats are repeating relentlessly.

At that point, Trump will no longer be seeking a coronavirus miracle. He will instead go on the attack. The death toll is phony, he’ll say, and besides, this whole problem is the fault of elitists who are too close to China and forced the country to shut down, destroying our economy unnecessarily. If they weren’t trying to stop me, we’d have a vaccine by now.

Then if he loses, he will revert to his old anti-vax ways. Don’t forget that for years, Trump repeated the pernicious lie that vaccines cause autism:

There are dozens of such tweets. On the other hand, for a moment last year in the midst of a measles outbreak Trump, encouraged people to vaccinate their children against the disease, showing how easily he moves back and forth between supporting and questioning public health measures.

Recent polls have shown anywhere from a fifth to a third of Americans saying they wouldn’t take a coronavirus vaccine if it became available, and even before this pandemic there was a significant overlap between Trump supporters and anti-vaxxers. And if Joe Biden is president come January, Trump will almost certainly devote much of his time to undermining Biden in every way he can.

That would mean more than criticizing Biden’s policy decisions. It would also mean trying to sow the same kind of chaos, confusion and discontent that he has become so practiced at. It isn’t at all hard to imagine the president who refuses to wear a mask or practice social distancing and who brags about taking a potentially dangerous medication telling his followers that the coronavirus vaccine is a scam cooked up by deep-state Democrats and elitist scientists.

If and when we get a vaccine for covid-19, it will be a triumph of human ingenuity and the scientific method. But if it comes too late to save Trump’s political career, he will lash out at it, and find supporters dumb enough to follow him. It will be just one more way Trump will continue to plague us even after he leaves office.


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