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Trump Digs In on Vaccine Vows That Risk Letdown or Wide Mistrust

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 9/18/2020 Jordan Fabian and Josh Wingrove
a man wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump speaks in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sept. 16. © Bloomberg President Donald Trump speaks in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sept. 16.

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has begun promising that a coronavirus vaccine will be approved within weeks -- a gambit to turn a pandemic cure into an October surprise for his struggling re-election campaign.

Trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the polls, and with voters giving Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak poor marks, the president has championed his administration’s aggressive vaccine push as part of an effort to sway public opinion in his favor. Democrats have responded by raising doubts a shot approved under Trump can be trusted, making the coronavirus vaccine an election flashpoint.

Trump has said that a vaccine could win approval with weeks, a timetable far more ambitious than that of any drug maker or public health official. On Friday he said all Americans should expect to be able to get a shot against the virus by April.

“We’ll have manufactured at least 100 million vaccine doses before the end of the year,” Trump said at a White House news conference. “We expect to have enough vaccines for every American by April.”

But Trump’s timeline risks embarrassment if the government doesn’t make his self-imposed deadline -- or public rejection of the shot if it does.

Rushing out a Covid-19 vaccine before the election, especially without ironclad evidence it’s safe and effective, may result in many Americans concluding its approval was tied to the political calendar and refusing the shot, Democrats and public health experts have said.

And if the Food and Drug Administration gives authorization for a shot that turns out to be ineffective, those who do take it may remain unknowingly vulnerable to infection.

“I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump,” Biden said Wednesday after receiving a briefing on Covid-19.

Trump said Friday that “Joe Biden’s anti-vaccine theories are putting a lot of lives at risk and they’re only doing it for political reasons.”

If a vaccine isn’t approved before Election Day, Trump will be denied a political victory and blamed for over-promising and under-delivering -- an outcome he’s made clear is on his mind.

“They’re petrified the vaccine comes in before the election,” Trump said of his opponents in a Fox Sports Radio interview on Thursday. Later, at a campaign rally in Misonee, Wisconsin, he promised: “We will deliver a safe and effective vaccine before the end of the year -- and it could be very, very soon.”

Best Outcome

A vaccine approval before the election is still Trump’s unequivocal best political outcome, said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

“It will be ‘records beat!’ and that is his absolute best option politically. And we know what he’ll say -- ‘Only I could have done this,’” Heye said in a phone interview.

“So much distrust has been sown around everything surrounding Covid, less people may take it,” he added. “But that’s further down the road.”

Democrats, though, have left themselves vulnerable to charges they are politicizing a vaccine by raising doubts about whether any shot approved under Trump can be trusted, Heye said. “If you’re a Democrat, you can’t say you trust Donald Trump to do this,” he said.

The back-and-forth risks eroding Americans’ trust in public health institutions and vaccines just as scientists and drug makers are poised to finally gain the upper hand on the virus and bring the pandemic to heel.

A group of nine pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies made a public pledge last week, promising to only seek approval for Covid-19 vaccines demonstrated to be safe and effective, in an effort to allay fears that development of the shot might be politically tainted.

Read More: Drugmakers Pledge to Avoid Safety Shortcuts on Covid Vaccine

Michael Leavitt, a former Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, said he believes the president wants a vaccine “as early as possible that is safe and effective.”

“Aside from the politics of the moment, every American should be aligned with that point of view,” Leavitt said. “Now, does he feel more strongly about it and for different motives than other people? Maybe, or probably -- but I think we all want to have a vaccine and we want it to be safe and we want it to be effective.”

In May, the president announced “Operation Warp Speed,” a project to accelerate vaccine development and deliver 300 million doses by year’s end. The government has selected eight vaccine candidates for the program, beginning manufacturing of the shots even while they remain in clinical trials with the expectation that one or more will work.

“Since January, America’s brilliant doctors and scientists have been working around the clock,” Trump said Friday. “These are the best medical minds in the world, by far, and the vaccines are going through the gold standard of clinical trials and a very heavy emphasis placed on safety.”

Top government health officials including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said a vaccine may be available as soon as mid-2021 -- a timetable that would be remarkable itself, as vaccines typically take years to develop.

‘Three, Four Weeks’

But that’s not fast enough for the president. On Tuesday in a town hall event hosted by ABC News, Trump said of a vaccine: “Could be three, four weeks, but we think we have it.”

The next day, Trump said distribution of the vaccine could begin in October, just weeks before Election Day on Nov. 3.

“That’ll be from mid-October on. It may be a little bit later than that, but we’ll be all set,” he said at a White House news conference.

Biden has accused Trump of putting Americans at risk by potentially cutting corners in the vaccine development process. Trump has reinforced that criticism by sometimes rebuking public health officials who offer a longer time table than he’d like.

On Wednesday, for example, Trump criticized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield for saying in Senate testimony earlier in the day that a vaccine may not be widely available until the middle of 2021. The president told reporters that Redfield “just made a mistake” and said he had called the virologist to correct him.

Fauci attempted to thread the needle, saying in an interview on MSNBC late Thursday that Trump is right that a vaccine may be approved as early as next month, but that Redfield is also correct in saying most Americans won’t get a shot until the middle of next year at the earliest.

“When we talk about, when do we have enough of America vaccinated that we can start to feel we’re going to get back to some form of normality, that very likely will be -- as Dr. Redfield said -- somewhere in the third and early part of the fourth quarter of 2021,” Fauci said.

But the president suffered another political blow on Thursday when Olivia Troye, a former aide on Vice President Mike Pence’s coronavirus task force, said she would be wary of any vaccine released before the election out of concern about political pressure.

“I would not tell anyone I care about to take a vaccine that launches prior to the election,” she said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I would listen to the experts and the unity in pharma. And I would wait to make sure that this vaccine is safe and not a prop tied to an election.”

Troye was featured in a new ad released Thursday by the group Republican Voters Against Trump in which she endorses Biden. The White House called her a disgruntled employee and Trump said he had never met her.

(Updates with new Trump remarks beginning in third paragraph)

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