And they should do it live on national television.
As much as people are desperate for the pandemic to end, public trust in the forthcoming vaccines has fluctuated significantly in recent months. In particular, Black Americans, wary of a medical system that has sometimes abused them and continues to provide them with lower-quality care, are highly skeptical.
Biden and Harris can use their inoculations to take the public inside the vaccine development and delivery process and, in doing so, build confidence in an unprecedented scientific accomplishment. Such a concrete demonstration of the vaccines could also help Americans recommit to the public health measures that will be a bridge between our current disaster and the new normal we all hope will be here soon.
During the campaign, Biden and Harris walked an uneasy line when they talked about the integrity of vaccine candidates. Both indicated that they would trust scientists over President Trump about the safety of any new vaccine, even as Harris suggested that the administration was interfering with experts’ abilities to speak freely.
Whether that messaging contributed to concerns about a coronavirus vaccine among Democrats is hard to measure. But there would be no better way for Biden and Harris to clear up any residual ambiguity about their confidence in the approval process than to take a vaccine themselves.
In fact, such public vaccine demonstrations have a long history.
Weill Cornell Medical College professor Kendall Smith noted that in 1881, at the behest of veterinarian Hippolyte Rossignol, groundbreaking biologist Louis Pasteur performed a public test of an anthrax vaccine for sheep before an audience of at least 200 “government officials, local politicians, veterinarians, farmers, agriculturists, cavalry officers and newspaper reporters.”
Jonas Salk gave an early version of his polio vaccine to his own children, and the March of Dimes campaign against the disease photographed him delivering their second doses as part of a national publicity campaign. Maurice Hilleman, who developed a mumps vaccine by isolating virus from his oldest daughter, had his younger daughter photographed while being inoculated.
On Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now,” Salk gave viewers what historian David Oshinsky described as “an ‘on-camera demonstration’ of monkey kidney tissue being ground up like malt powder in a Waring blender” in an effort to make clear how the vaccine was produced. Elvis Presley even got vaccinated for polio before an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with New York City Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner holding his arm steady for the shot.
A public vaccination campaign featuring Biden and Harris would be “a great idea,” says Paul Offit, who runs the Vaccine Education Center and is an attending physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — especially if such a program included figures who might appeal to audiences across political and cultural spectrums. Former president Barack Obama might be on board for such an effort: In a Wednesday interview, he said, “I will be taking [a vaccine] and I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed just so people know I trust this science.”
Administering the shots live could help counter conspiracy theories about whether Biden and Harris had actually taken the vaccine. And done right, building specials around each shot of the two-dose sequence could make the vaccines more familiar.
As Offit writes in his book “The Cutter Incident,” a 1954 Gallup poll revealed that “more Americans knew about the field trial of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine than knew the full name of the president of the United States.” That isn’t true with the coronavirus vaccines. Even well-informed readers are likely to have questions about the leading candidates and what it’s like to receive one.
Pfizer’s drug, for example, needs to be stored at exceptionally cold temperatures. So, will the inoculation feel cold? Pfizer and Moderna reported that participants in their trials experienced only minimal side effects; Biden and Harris could tell viewers whether they felt sore or queasy after their first shots. These broadcasts could also include the scientists involved in vaccine development and the doctors who administered the vaccines fielding questions submitted by members of the public.
And Biden and Harris could also talk about what it feels like to cautiously set down the burden of fear that so many Americans have carried for almost a year. Even with a highly effective vaccine, it may be hard for many to unlearn the impulse to shy away from neighbors or to shed the anxiety that comes with walking into a store.
This new future is going to feel strange. By leading the way even before they’ve taken power, Biden and Harris can help us to grapple with that, all while making make the case that it’s worth a few more months of patience and loneliness to get there.
This column has been updated.