President Donald Trump’s push for a coronavirus vaccine breakthrough before Election Day is forcing his Democratic presidential opponent, Joe Biden, to make a choice.
He can either cast doubt on a vaccine process widely seen among Democrats as political — or begin to build up trust in an eventual vaccine that Biden may be tasked with distributing early next year if he wins in November.
Biden campaign officials are attempting to walk that tightrope by confronting the president on his politically advantageous timeline without undermining public confidence in a prospective inoculation.
The former vice president plans to give a speech on vaccine development on Wednesday, nearly six months since the country was thrust into a national emergency over the pandemic.
Biden has already said he would take a vaccine but is requesting “full transparency” around the process, while his running mate Kamala Harris said bluntly she “would not trust Donald Trump” on a vaccine.
“The way to get confidence in a public health matter is to lead with the docs and with the science, and that’s what the vice president is proposing to do,” said Denis McDonough, a former White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama.
Privately, Biden advisers have been in contact with the producers of leading vaccine candidates, including Moderna, the first company to enter a vaccine into Phase III clinical trials, two sources familiar with the discussions told McClatchy.
One source said that distribution planning is part of the discussions.
“We are committed to sharing with the public timely information on the development of mRNA 1273 and raising awareness with those who are key to setting policies for COVID-19 vaccines,” said Ray Jordan, chief corporate affairs officer for Moderna, referring to the technical name for their coronavirus vaccine candidate. “This involves engaging a wide range of public health experts and stakeholders, including some that are advisors to former Vice President Biden.”
Dr. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner and Biden’s point person with companies developing a vaccine, is bound by confidentiality agreements, according to a campaign spokesperson.
With less than a quarter of Americans now expressing a willingness to immediately take a vaccine when it becomes available, Biden’s public posture amid a vitriolic presidential campaign season has real implications for his ability to govern effectively come January, if he wins the election.
Confronting Trump while also taking responsible steps to prepare for what will be the most urgent task of his presidency is presenting a delicate balancing act for Biden and his aides.
“Democrats are far less likely to trust pronouncements by the FDA and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] because of the wide assumption both agencies have been subject to political influence. So it’s a real conundrum,” said Jon Cooper, a Democratic fundraiser. “Even a vaccine released during the balance of the Trump term will be facing this Catch-22.”
Former Obama administration officials who served in leadership roles on public health are urging the Biden campaign to begin a robust push to increase confidence in whatever vaccine emerges from clinical trials and review by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Expectations will be high,” said Dr. Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health under Obama and now at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “He needs to establish a daily communication platform where he and his team can address the COVID pandemic on a daily basis with the American public, featuring input from the top experts — like Dr. Fauci — and make that messaging consistent.”
The Biden campaign has laid out criteria the administration should meet before approving any vaccine, but has also raised pointed questions about the integrity of the FDA, arguing it “appears to have bent to White House pressure” when it issued an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine earlier this year.
“You know what’s happened already,” Biden told reporters during a stop in Michigan last week. “He’s put pressure on some of the agencies to do things that they weren’t ready to do.”
Trump’s unsubtle push to produce a vaccine before Election Day further tangled up the process in politics.
“I have a feeling, by the way, I think the vaccine will come very soon,” Trump said at a rally in Freeland, Michigan, on Thursday, accusing Biden of seeking to “delay the vaccine.”
“Joe Biden is once again hurting innocent people with his dangerous, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, putting millions of lives around the world at risk. And the only reason he is doing that is he knows we are right next to having a vaccine,” Trump said. “He wants to belittle the vaccine, because he doesn’t want us to get credit.”
The Detroit News recently published an editorial that appeared to bolster Trump’s argument, chiding the Biden-Harris ticket for “trash-talking” a vaccine. Michigan, which Trump carried by just over 10,000 votes in 2016, is viewed as one of the must-win Upper Midwestern battleground states for Biden.
“Americans will need to be encouraged to participate in mass inoculations, not scared away by opportunistic politicians,” the newspaper wrote. “Those who would be our leaders should do or say nothing to erode trust in the process of bringing a life-saving vaccine to widespread application.”
But Mike Leavitt, a former secretary of Health & Human Services under President George W. Bush, said despite the inevitable politics enveloping the process, Americans would gradually warm to a vaccine, regardless of who the commander in chief is next year.
“If you are 80 years old and you have a heart condition and you think this vaccine might protect you, you’re going to see it as a high priority. If you’re 25 and you’re healthy, you may choose to take a wait-and-see because 30 days is less meaningful to you,” he said. “Would I take it? If the FDA approved it I would in this situation.”
Top public health officials are advising the Democratic candidate to prepare nationwide mask guidance and assess the status of the Defense Production Act, which has been used by Trump to increase production of personal protective equipment, testing kits and other supplies.
The key will be entering office with a plan for distribution and a messaging campaign that can effectively increase confidence in whatever vaccine emerges from what is widely viewed as a rushed, politicized process, said Richard Frank, a Harvard professor who served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.
“The question is, do we have the appropriate distribution facilities?” Frank said. “If I was the transition, I would try to be pushing that really hard to make sure that it’s there. And getting the data systems up to doing this is going to be really important, and they can do some preparation work on that.”
Just 21% of voters nationwide now say they would get a vaccine as soon as possible if one became available at no cost, down from 32% in late July, according to a CBS poll.
“If Joe Biden says he’s looked at all the data and his coronavirus experts agree this is safe and effective, the vast amount of Dems and independents will take it,” Cooper said. “It will be a process with Republicans.”