October surprise, vaccines & elections

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    ‘Talk of fire in the belly, and to hell with people’s lives.’

    THE United States federal government has issued an advisory to states to prepare for mass distribution of a US-developed coronavirus vaccine by November 1. The announcement elicited concern among many American experts on infectious diseases, with a doctor in the University of Minnesota saying he was worried about an “October surprise” with a vaccine being rushed through ahead of the US elections.

    The advice was given by Robert Redfield of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by way of introducing McKesson Corp., which has contracted with CDC to distribute the vaccines to state and local health departments and hospitals.

    The experts said the American public health community wants a safe and effective vaccine as much as anybody could want it, “but the data have to be clear and compelling, that the vaccine is effective and safe.” They fear that the timeline is just too short and that the approval of the vaccine was most likely driven by political considerations ahead of the presidential election, rather than science.

    The Trump administration may be gambling with the lives of thousands of Americans with their tendency to fast-track the US vaccine, with final stage trials still halfway through the process. The vaccines are two doses, and each is given a month apart. Thus, the experts doubt if adequate data can be gathered on whether the vaccine will work safely before November 1.

    The pre-election scenario in the United States is understandable, considering that Donald Trump is moving heaven and earth trying to clinch another presidential term. And since the biggest problems in America are the COVID-19 pandemic and the concomitant economic meltdown in its wake, a vaccine would be the best solution. Trump can be expected to take all shortcuts to deliver a vaccine to the American people.

    Another reason for Trump’s rash judgment on this issue involves the image of America in the international community, what with both China and Russia appearing to dominate the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Trump dislikes the advance of China and Russia, for it will tend to unravel signs of weakness in the American president.

    With this correlation between vaccines and presidential elections we cannot help but recall the 2016 Dengvaxia vaccine scandal in the Philippines, just before the presidential election won by President Duterte. Before Christmas of 2015, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Dengvaxia for the prevention of disease caused by all four dengue types in persons from 9 to 45 years old living in high-risk areas. This made French firm Sanofi Pasteur’s Dengvaxia the first vaccine to be licensed for the prevention of dengue in Asia.

    It was a big thing when the government kicked off in April 2016 its P3.5-billion, school-based dengue immunization program, effectively ignoring a paper released by the World Health Organization (WHO) a month earlier that the vaccine “may be ineffective or may theoretically even increase the future risk of hospitalized or severe dengue illness in those who are seronegative at the time of first vaccination regardless of age.” The series of deaths of school children in the weeks after the mass immunization caused national outcry, until the Department of Health suspended the program and the Senate and the House of Representatives conducted the usual investigations. The critics of the whole program pointed to then Health Secretary Janette Garin, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad Jr. as behind the whole project, not so much as a health safety measure (which later proved to be a public health risk, with some 600 deaths, mostly children, due to Dengvaxia) but more importantly, as an alleged fund-raising activity for the presidential election of 2016.

    Two vaccines, two elections, and the incumbents and their parties’ all-encompassing desire to win. Talk of fire in the belly, and to hell with people’s lives.