by Neil H. Buchanan
A first dose of the Pfizer vaccine entered my arm at 9am today. This is exciting, and I look forward to more and more people being fully vaccinated over the next few months. Sooner is better, of course. I do worry that people are taking the mere existence of the vaccines as an excuse to go back to normal too quickly, but having the vaccines is clearly better than not having them.
Having written a column just this past week about Donald Trump's absurd attempts to take credit for the existence of the anti-COVID vaccines, I want to add some thoughts here not only about the politics in play but about the underlying science as well.
Bottom line: The case for Trump-as-vaccine-savior is even weaker than it seemed, which is saying a lot. Why? Because science. (And by the way, scientific research has been dismissed and chronically underfunded by Trump, Republicans, and even some Democrats).
As I argued last Thursday, Trump's effort to take credit for the vaccines is at best -- and even this is truly a stretch -- merely another example of the "on my watch" chest-pounding regarding all good things that happen while a president is in office (and often afterward as well). Trump, however, has played footsie with anti-vaxxers for years, and he only jumped on the vaccine idea for COVID because it offered the greatest possibility of cost-free, immediate gratification. He messed up every step of the way, from mocking mask wearing to spreading conspiracy theories about "the China virus." Of course he wanted a vaccine, but only because it would be politically advantageous for him. And even then, he badly messed up the delivery of the vaccines because he continued to refuse to take responsibility for anything that is at all difficult.
Trump wants to say that, because he branded the vaccine effort with the silly name Operation Warp Speed, and because the government funded that effort, he can now take all the credit for the existence of the vaccines. As I noted in my column, however, what the government did "on his watch" was no more than it would have done under any president. He thus is in fact demanding credit simply for not defying common sense when it came to trying to get scientists to create vaccines. It is true that he continually did nonsensical things on issue after issue, but that cannot justify saying: "Hey, he didn't stand in the way on this one sensible and obvious thing, so he gets the credit."
After I wrote my column, the conservative-but-anti-Trump Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker published a piece titled: "If you got a vaccine, Trump wants you to thank him." (The column was originally headlined with appropriate snark: "Donald Trump wants credit for the vaccine. As if." Why change it?) Parker was appropriately critical of Trump, but at one point she saw fit to write this:
"Therefore, whereas and henceforth, let it be resolved that Donald J. Trump created an exemplary public-private partnership, propelled by a $14 billion federal investment under the rubric Operation Warp Speed, to create vaccines and treatment in record time. For this, he deserves credit and, if you wish, praise and applause."
Again, can anyone reading this column imagine anyone serving as president in those circumstances who would have cheaped out on a vaccination Manhattan Project? The notion is beyond comprehension. Even so, the conservative anti-Trumper Joe Scarborough also said (twice) on his show yesterday that he is willing to give Trump credit for the creation of the vaccines.
It is hardly a mystery what is happening. Anti-Trump commentators are looking for ways to make themselves sound oh-so-reasonable, in an effort to fend off claims of being extremists. They think that this is a gracious concession. Even non-opinion journalists like CNN's Jake Tapper (who often delivers opinion-based commentary, but he is first and foremost a newsman) will mindlessly mouth this kind of thing, giving Trump credit for vaccines, "the strong pre-COVID economy," Middle East peace deals, or whatever.
These efforts to curry favor are predictably pointless, however, because Trump and his supporters will never say, "Well, Scarborough did admit that Trump did something good on vaccines; so we'll stop accusing him of killing his former congressional aide." These gestures are never reciprocated by right-wing attackers, and making "to be fair" concessions like these only convinces the Trumpists that bullying works.
But there is more. The best that one could say in Trump's favor is that the vaccine development period was especially short, coming in at less than a year. Trump, of course, could not help but claim that any other president would have taken much longer -- maybe forever. Here, however, he was trying to make something out of a genuine surprise, which is that the science moved faster on his watch than it ever has before. Again, there is no reason to think that his Warp had anything to do with the difference, but at least he can point to a change.
In Thursday's column, I limited myself to this response:
"What does that prove? Every disease is different, and science does not proceed on a schedule. We are fortunate indeed that scientists found the keys to fighting this virus so quickly, but that has nothing to do with Operation Warp Speed or anything else. We threw everything available at the problem, and we got lucky that it paid off at all, much less that it happened as quickly as it did. No evidence exists that anything the government did on Trump's watch sped things up."
All of that is true, because there is no reason to think that any given disease will be "solved" on the same timetable that all previous diseases have followed. As it turns out, however, there is a very specific scientific explanation for the pleasantly short development period for the anti-COVID vaccines. A month ago, the fantastic YouTube channel SciShow posted a video with the title: "Why It Actually Took 50 Years to Make COVID mRNA Vaccines."
The video is less than thirteen minutes long, and it is fascinating to watch. The big message of the video is that the successful anti-COVID vaccines are based on decades of advances in using so-called messenger RNA (mRNA) to speed up the vaccine development process: "[A] technology decades in the making was finally able to rise to the occasion just when we needed it most." Moreover, "if it continues to prove to be safe and effective, it won't just be for COVID. It will be a major change in the way we design all vaccines in the future."
The narrator goes on to explain: "Once you have all the basic pieces to make an mRNA vaccine in place, you don't need a new setup to make a new vaccine for a new virus." After explaining some more of the underlying science, the narrator concludes: "You can see how all of this could make mRNA vaccines the perfect technology to rely on when we need a defense against a new pandemic, stat! But there's reason why we're only now hearing about them: because they just weren't ready before."
It turns out that the last piece of the scientific puzzle that was needed to create these vaccines was finalized in 2018, which means that COVID-19 was the first major disease that came along after all of the technology was ready. SciShow pointed out that the reason that it even took as long as it did to release the Pfizer and other vaccines was because the testing took months, but the actual vaccine development process was very fast -- and it involved a global collaboration of scientists, not just some people receiving Warp money from the U.S. government.
In a sense, my dismissal of Trump's "we did it faster" claim is still correct. We are lucky that this pandemic happened to be amenable to the now-available technology. In a deeper sense, however, my explanation understated the case against Trump: This all went unusually quickly because science was ready to move quickly, not because of anything that anyone did (or could have done) in 2020.
It is worth pointing out, moreover, that budget-cutters (all Republicans, but also too many "fiscally responsible" Democrats) love to cut basic research funding, precisely because it takes a long time to turn such research into deliverables and because the projects are speculative and often come up dry. Trump was especially bad about this (of course), but this is also the predictable result of the anti-government consensus that Ronald Reagan initiated and that triangulating Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were willing to reinforce.
As PolitiFact explained last year:
"The funds for pandemics remained about the same under Trump (and would have been lower if his budgets were enacted). But compared with where funding stood in 2003, support to build state and local capacity has fallen by half.
"As hospitals and public health agencies aimed for leaner, more efficient operations, the combination of fewer federal dollars and market pressures left them with little cushion to meet the explosive demands of the novel coronavirus.
"Over the years, Washington put more emphasis on fighting predictable problems, like the seasonal flu, and outright aggression in the form of chemical, biological and radiological terrorism."
Ah, yes, "more efficient operations"! If only a couple of guys could come along and explain why that concept is empty nonsense. Oh wait.
To the extent that Trump has any economic philosophy at all, it is standard anti-government Republicanism plus trade wars. Under Trump, all of the cries about "wasteful government spending," all of the anti-intellectualism, and all of the efforts to shortchange long-term public gain for immediate corporate profits, which Republicans have been pushing for decades, continued unabated.
Even so, they were not able to undermine the scientific community enough to slow down or derail the necessary advances that made the shot in my arm this morning possible. As we consider our spending priorities going forward, we should try to stop being penny wise and pound foolish. In the meantime, we should be happy that the anti-COVID vaccines now exist -- and never forget that this happened in spite of the inclinations of Trump and conservative politicians, not because of them.