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Trump ‘October surprise’ coronavirus vaccine will be a hard sell with a wary public

The timing is just too perfect, coming as it does from a president who has badly botched his handling of the pandemic from the start in an effort to score political points.

Three potential coronavirus vaccines are shown in a tray at a Maryland laboratory on March 20, 2020,
Three potential coronavirus vaccines are shown in a tray at a Maryland laboratory in March.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

For months, scientists have predicted that a vaccine against COVID-19 could be available, in a best-case scenario, sometime early next year.

Now the Trump administration is signaling that a vaccine will be ready months before that. But no matter how weary Americans surely are of this pandemic, we don’t expect many folks to breathe a sigh of relief and make plans to get a shot.

Instead, what we’re seeing is a lot of raised eyebrows about the news that Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control, has sent a letter to all governors asking them to fast-track plans to distribute a vaccine by Nov. 1.

An “October surprise” vaccine? Ready to distribute two days before Election Day?

The timing is just too perfect, coming as it does from a Trump administration that has badly botched its handling of this deadly pandemic from the start. And, more telling yet, coming from a president who’s trailing in the polls just 61 days before the Nov. 3 election.

Now more than ever, Americans must hear from, and follow the guidance of, independent scientists. We must get the data and scientific findings directly from them — not politicians or political appointees — to have confidence in the safety and effectiveness of any vaccine.

With this latest development, it’s almost as though the Trump administration were trying to confirm the worst fears of millions of Americans. Seventy-eight percent of us, according to a new Harris poll, already believe the COVID-19 vaccine approval process is being driven by politics instead of science.

There’s no blaming the skeptics. They’re just not stupid. All blame goes to a president who has been dismissive, dishonest and incompetent in fighting COVID-19 all year long, even as our nation has paid a steep price, with 183,000 dead and 6 million people infected.

As Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Wednesday, stating the obvious: “Why do we think, God willing, when we get a vaccine — that is good, works — why do we think the public is gonna line up to be willing to take the injection?”

What scientists have to say

Nine vaccines are now in large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials, and any one of them could prove to be safe and effective sooner than scientists have so far predicted.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci has explained, the independent Data and Safety Monitoring Board, which periodically reviews the data from clinical trials, could decide to end the trials early — perhaps at year’s end — if the preliminary findings for a vaccine are overwhelmingly positive.

But “the earlier you stop it, the higher the bar,” Fauci cautioned.

It should reassure us that the monitoring board is made up of independent scientists who also have the ability to, if nothing else, publicly challenge any move by the administration to release a vaccine too soon.

Still, scientists already are expressing skepticism about the CDC’s Nov. 1 timeline and raising concerns that the Food and Drug Administration, under political pressure, might give an insufficiently vetted vaccine emergency approval.

“It gives the appearance of a stunt rather than an expression of public health concern,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a dean at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said.

“November feels awfully early,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s public health school.

Fighting uphill

American health experts already were facing an uphill battle to educate the public about a vaccine against the coronavirus. One survey after another — taken well before the Trump administration hinted at a suspiciously early vaccine release — has found that anywhere from a third to nearly 50% of Americans said they wouldn’t take a COVID-19 vaccine.

And then there are the anti-vaxxers, who reject the decades of science proving the value and safety of any vaccine, against any disease, even those vaccines with long track records, such as for polio.

Hospitals and universities are having a hard time recruiting Blacks and Latinos for COVID-19 vaccine trials. That’s undoubtedly the result, in part, to this country’s shameful past, during which African Americans were subjected, without their knowledge, to medical experimentation.

It’s essential that the current COVID-19 vaccine trials include large numbers of people of color, given that the virus has had a particularly devastating impact on African Americans and Latinos.

The Trump administration would like you to believe — before you cast your vote — that the global struggle to develop a sure-fire vaccine against COVID-19 has been all but won.

How wonderful that would be. If true.

But we’ll wait to celebrate until our nation’s best medical experts, not our worst president, gives us the green light.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.