U.S. vaccine push raises interesting question

There’s a popular party icebreaker game that invites participants to choose between two tough options and explain their choice. We will offer here a “Would You Rather?” that could turn out to be a conversation-starter — but, first, some background is necessary.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/05/2020 (1005 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s a popular party icebreaker game that invites participants to choose between two tough options and explain their choice. We will offer here a “Would You Rather?” that could turn out to be a conversation-starter — but, first, some background is necessary.

The U.S. has begun an aggressive campaign dubbed Operation Warp Speed, uniting pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the military in pursuit of a single goal: to discover and mass-produce a COVID-19 vaccine within a deadline of eight months. The accelerated timeline is unprecedented in vaccine research.

Some have compared this campaign’s all-in commitment to that of the Manhattan Project, the U.S.-led undertaking during the Second World War that produced the first atomic bombs.

Patrick Semansky / The Associated Press U.S. President Donald Trump

Operation Warp Speed is cutting corners by indemnifying pharmaceutical firms from liability if the vaccines cause sickness or death. Unanswered questions remain about the wisdom of dodging safeguards to fast-track a drug, but it was made clear last Sunday where the buck stops.

U.S. President Donald Trump said, “You know who is in charge of it, honestly? I am.” He acknowledged that other high-level officials are involved, “but I think probably, more than anything, I’m in charge.”

The man who insists he’s in charge did not try to explain how the vaccine will be created, tested and produced in huge quantities in such a short time period.

Once discovered, a vaccine can normally take as long as a decade to gain regulatory approvals. In a global crisis such as a pandemic, the timeline can be reduced to 12 to 18 months. Mr. Trump aims to have 300 million doses available to Americans before the end of this year, even though development of an effective vaccine is still wishful thinking.

To a layperson such as the U.S. president, the time it takes to develop and test drugs might seem sluggish. But microbiologists know deficient drug testing can have serious consequences. In the U.S. in 1976, a rushed vaccine for swine flu caused dozens of deaths and created damaging side-effects. Thalidomide, a sedative created in the 1950s, was prescribed to pregnant women, and subsequently thousands of children were born with severe congenital malformations.

Mr. Trump has done several about-faces since the novel coronavirus initially reached America. “We have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine,” he said on Jan. 22, when perhaps his attention was focused more on his impeachment trial than the looming pandemic that has now killed more than 73,000 Americans (as of Wednesday).

His current persona — an America-first champion who will save the world from COVID-19 — is undoubtedly motivated somewhat by the calendar: it’s less than six months until the U.S. federal election.

Mr. Trump has long banked on his self-promoted image as a shrewd economic manager, and that would be a tough sell on the campaign trail if pandemic-related business lockdowns have the U.S. mired in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Taking credit for a push toward a COVID-19 vaccine — perhaps he would amend his red-hat campaign slogan to “Made America Healthy Again” — would certainly boost Mr. Trump’s chances of re-election.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned “Would You Rather?” choice: Would you rather a) the U.S. successfully develops a COVID-19 vaccine and the world gets four more years of Mr. Trump?, or b) Operation Warp Speed falls short, and Mr. Trump spends November cleaning out his desk at the White House?

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