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Opinion Biden and Harris are playing a Trumpian game on vaccine safety

Creating a new vaccine can involve thousands of people over several years. Here's what it takes to produce a new FDA-approved vaccine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democrats have a good argument that they’re the only party in this election actually looking out for the good of the country, rather than narrow self-interest. One need only consider the way the two presidential candidates responded to a question during Tuesday’s debate about the likelihood that it could take some time to get a definitive vote count:

“Will you urge your supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest? And will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?”

Joe Biden answered: “Once the winner is declared after all the ballots are counted, all the votes are counted, that’ll be the end of it. … If it’s not me, I’ll support the outcome.” President Trump steadfastly refused to make a similar declaration.

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Sadly, that’s about what we expect from Trump and increasingly, the Republican Party, for whom no civic value merits as much protection as Trump’s ego.

So Democrats have a good claim that they are the real party of “America First.” Unfortunately, they undercut it every time they suggest there could be something wrong with any good vaccine news we hear before the election.

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Biden slyly implied as much during Tuesday’s debate: “In terms of the whole notion of a vaccine,” he said, addressing viewers at home, “we’re for a vaccine, but I don’t trust [Trump] at all. ... What we trust is a scientist.”

This was positively restrained compared with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who told CNN recently that she’d hesitate to take any vaccine approved before the election, after suggesting that government experts overseeing the approval process would be “muzzled ... suppressed … sidelined. Because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days, and he’s grasping for whatever he can.”

There’s a cold political logic to this. It is possible, although not necessarily likely, that one of the final trials in progress will deliver, by the end of October, the exciting news that their vaccine seems to be quite effective. That news would probably, all else equal, benefit Trump. If Democrats can nurture the idea that such a revelation is likely to be a political lie manufactured by the Trump administration, then maybe some voters who could have been nudged toward Trump will instead stick with Biden, or stay home.

But there are some things no decent person or party can do for political advantage. One of them is to gin up implausible claims of mass fraud to avoid ceding an election they lost. Another is to cast doubt on a potentially lifesaving vaccine during a pandemic.

Distrust in the Trump administration has turned into distrust of science, adding to an already powerful anti-vaccine movement. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP-Getty/The Washington Post)

The defenders of Biden and Harris would, of course, argue that they didn’t actually say you shouldn’t take any vaccine that was overseen by the Trump administration. But that defense is positively, well, Trumpian. As is the behavior: clearly imply something unconscionable, but don’t quite say it outright, so that you can distract your opponents with endless quibbles about what, exactly, you said, rather than having to either own or repudiate your words.

Clearly, the perception of political influence is a problem, especially with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, but it also been a problem for the Food and Drug Administration, where accusations swirled around its approvals of hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma. These were questionable, but defensible decisions — and it’s worth noting that the FDA withdrew the hydroxychloroquine authorization after better data indicated that the drug didn’t seem to help; convalescent plasma, meanwhile, is a relatively low-risk treatment that is likely to provide at least some benefit — that could have been influenced by politics. But Trump did not get the CDC to claim that covid-19 is just a bad cold. And he won’t get the FDA to approve a useless or dangerous vaccine. For one thing, the standards for judging the efficacy and safety of vaccines have already been set. It’s virtually impossible to imagine the FDA abandoning them — especially without immediate mass resignations — or any pharmaceutical company wanting to go along, given the reputational, moral and legal price they’d soon pay.

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Trump’s awful behavior certainly stokes such fears, and Biden and Harris are only voicing worries the Democratic base already had — a declining fraction of Americans say they’ll take a vaccine immediately, thanks largely to concerns about the approval process.

But that’s precisely why politicians such as Biden and Harris must reassure them. If they don’t, the fear will linger long after the election — either because Trump wins, or because he loses, but people remember that his FDA oversaw the vaccine trials.

If Trump loses, Biden and Harris will, of course, be eager to assure people that any available vaccine is A-OK! Marvelously effective, and safe as a Sunday walk! But by then it will be too late: The seeds of doubt they planted will be in full flower. Such distrust could prove deadly, not just for individuals who will get sick as a result of it, but also for a new administration trying to guide the United States into a post-pandemic world.

Read more:

7 former FDA commissioners: The Trump administration is undermining the credibility of the FDA

Marc A. Thiessen: Kamala Harris casting doubt on a pre-election vaccine is shameful

William Haseltine: Beware of covid-19 vaccine trials designed to succeed from the start

Erin N. Marcus: Why the CDC’s Nov. 1 vaccine rush is likely to backfire

FDA commissioner Stephen M. Hahn: No matter what, only a safe, effective vaccine will get our approval

Megan McArdle: If we want any vaccine to actually work, we have to prepare for it now

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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