Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham said Monday that he would be “hesitant” to take a coronavirus vaccine if it were developed by the end of the year, saying he would have a lot of questions about the “political and financial corruption” in Washington.
“Yes, I would be hesitant,” Cunningham said. “But I’m going to ask a lot of questions. I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington.”
Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis called Cunningham’s response “irresponsible.”
“That statement puts lives at risk,” Tillis said. “We just heard a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine. I think that that’s irresponsible.”
After the debate, Cunningham said, “If public health professionals sign off, then I will not hesitate and I would encourage others to do so.”
Cunningham and Tillis met Monday night in their first U.S. Senate debate Monday night. It was moderated by WRAL anchor David Crabtree at the TV station’s Raleigh studio.
They addressed a flurry of issues, from the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on North Carolina residents to the military and systemic racism. Without strict time limits on answers, the candidates packed attacks into answers, blended in parts of their qualifications and engaged in back-and-forth dialogue on several topics.
President Donald Trump, who is also on the ballot on Nov. 3, was hardly mentioned — though his response to the coronavirus and his comments about absentee-by-mail voting were discussed.
On the subject of a vaccine, Tillis defended the Food and Drug Administration, calling it “the gold standard.” He said that it would not approve a drug that was not safe for use by Americans.
“No doubt in my mind the vaccine would be safe,” Tillis said.
Cunningham, however, said he would have questions about the political influence behind the vaccine’s approval.
“Corruption — financial and political — in Washington are a major problem right now,” he said. “I think the American people have a lot of questions about the governance of this country. Not only about this vaccine, but also about the underlying political and financial corruption.”
First of three debates
The hour-long debate is the first of three scheduled debates between Tillis and Cunningham. Cunningham has maintained a small polling edge throughout the summer. The race, considered a toss-up, could determine which party controls the chamber in January.
Libertarian Shannon Bray and Constitution Party nominee Kevin E. Hayes will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. Neither appeared in Monday night’s debate.
Tillis repeatedly said when Cunningham was a state senator in the early 2000s, he accused his opponent of breaking promises while he didn’t listen to voters.
“I believe he’ll say anything to get elected,” Tillis said.
Cunningham criticized Tillis as part of the problem in Washington.
“I think that we have seen from him a failure of leadership,” Cunningham said.
Immediately after the debate, Cunningham and Tillis took part in Zoom interviews with members of the media.
“Month after month in America today, we are learning about the political influences on our public health professionals coming straight out of the administration, coming from Capitol Hill,” Cunningham said. “When we see the corrupting influence of political decision making in our public health professionals, we should ask questions. We should as American people do our homework and our due diligence.
“The point I was making was in the corrupting environment we have seen in Washington, even public health professionals have been influenced in this environment,” he said. “We need to make sure there is integrity in the process and once the FDA signs off with integrity, free of political influence, I’ll make sure that loud and clear, my voice to North Carolinians will be to take the vaccine.”
Tillis said he is not worried about any influence from the administration in pushing a vaccine to market.
“There are so many checks and balances in the process,” Tillis said after the debate. “No organization, AstraZeneca, any of the companies that are moving into Phase Three clinical trials, they’re not going to bow to political pressure to authorize a drug that could harm someone. They would do it for business reasons if not for compassionate reasons. The FDA is not going to be in a position to where they would do that. We have the gold standard for drug approval in this country.
“When the FDA approves a drug, there’s no one in the world who would not want to get access to that vaccine. There’s just no doubt in my mind. The process is fair. The clinical trial process is not being short-circuited.”
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