With COVID-19 on the rise, Americans have a right to know the details about vaccine spending

The Trump administration is doing its best to make Americans — nearly half of whom have already told pollsters that they won’t take the shot — even more skeptical of a vaccine.

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This September 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the company. The trials are now paused while the company investigates whether a participant’s unexplained illness is related to the vaccine.

This September 2020 photo shows the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson, which has received at least $1 billion for vaccine development.

Cheryl Gerber/Courtesy of Johnson & Johnson via AP

COVID-19 is surging to record levels in nearly every state, including Illinois, which on Monday reported over 3,000 new cases of the virus.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned that our city is on the verge of another strict Phase 3 lockdown — meaning no more indoor restaurant dining, for one, and no social gatherings of more than 10 people — if cases continue to surge past the current average of over 500 a day.

“I don’t want to go there, particularly for those who are in business, the small businesses who have already suffered through a very difficult year,” Lightfoot said. “But I’ve got to do what is right to protect us from this virus.”

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Meanwhile, what does President Donald Trump do, on the same day? He makes derogatory remarks about the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“People are tired of listening to Fauci and these idiots,” Trump said. “Every day he goes on television, there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him . . . Fauci is a disaster.”

In a sense, we expect no better from Trump, an incompetent blowhard who repeatedly downplays this virus as no worse than the flu and holds campaign rallies with hundreds of maskless supporters.

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We would say Trump has now hit rock bottom by insulting Fauci. But there truly is no bottom with this president.

Secrecy on vaccine development

No matter how weary we are of mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and weekends without social gatherings, those steps are our best defense against COVID-19 until a vaccine becomes widely available.

A vaccine that is safe, effective and affordable. A vaccine that enough Americans will take to finally get this pandemic under control, for good.

But the Trump administration, it seems, is doing its best to make Americans — nearly half of whom have already told pollsters that they won’t take the shot — even more skeptical of a vaccine.

Last month, you will recall, the administration signaled the possibility of an “October surprise” vaccine, conveniently available right before Election Day. That, of course, was a lie.

Now, the Trump administration is making matters worse, if that’s possible, by fighting to keep critical information about its $10 billion vaccine development initiative secret, as NPR recently reported.

For months, the Trump administration has refused to provide lawmakers with detailed information on its coronavirus spending. Most importantly, that includes the details of more than $6 billion in contracts awarded to pharmaceutical companies that are developing a vaccine.

The stonewalling, as one consumer advocate told us, is “unprecedented.”

That $6 billion in contracts was awarded through a private firm acting on behalf of the government, an unusual move that leaves the details shrouded in secrecy, as NPR found. Contracts awarded via the private contractor, Advanced Technologies International, include $1.6 billion for Novavax, $1.95 billion for Pfizer, $1.79 billion for Sanofi and $1 billion for Johnson & Johnson.

“We don’t know the rewards or the incentives that the companies are getting, which might drive some companies to take additional risk or maybe do things inappropriately,” Rick Bright, a leading vaccine scientist who formerly worked on the federal vaccine effort, told NPR. “There’s no reason to hide what’s in those agreements at all.”

Bright was ousted as director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after he filed a whistleblower complaint about political interference into coronavirus decision-making.

If scientists are sounding the alarm, the public ought to listen.

“The secrecy opens a huge window for self-dealing and waste of taxpayer dollars,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, told us last week. “We don’t know if [contracting] decisions are science-based or based on [potential] private benefit. Self-dealing, waste of taxpayer corruption, safety of the vaccine — they’re all issues here.”

Lawmakers have proposed legislation requiring these contracts to be included in a public database of coronavirus spending. The bill has gone nowhere, and we expect it will remain stalled until voters toss President Trump and his administration out of office.

As America prepares for another winter with COVID-19, we’re willing to spend billions to develop a safe, effective and affordable vaccine.

And we deserve to rest assured that those billions will get us to that goal.

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