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Pfizer’s perfect timing

On vaccines, trust and the transition

The Pfizer logo outside the company's headquarters in New York and the logo of German biopharmaceutical company BioNTech in Mainz, Germany. (Photos by Ronald Wittek and Andrew Gombert/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Ronald Wittek/Andrew Gombert/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

2020 has been an annus horribilis in many ways, but with less than eight weeks to go before 2021, there has been a raft of recent good news. The United States pulled off an election with record turnout and without any of the worst-case scenarios coming to pass, for example.

And now, after multiple fits and starts in the process of developing a vaccine for covid-19, Pfizer made an important announcement on Monday morning. My Post colleague Carolyn Y. Johnson reports:

A front-runner coronavirus vaccine developed by drug giant Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech was more than 90 percent effective at protecting people compared with a placebo saline shot, according to an interim analysis by an independent data monitoring committee that met Sunday....
“The results are really quite good, I mean extraordinary,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, adding that the results might bode well for a vaccine being developed by biotech firm Moderna and his institute that uses a similar technology, “which gives you hope we might even have two vaccines.”....
Vaccine development typically takes many years, even decades. But the coronavirus vaccines have been a rare success story in the response to the virus, able to move forward because of a flourishing of new vaccine technologies, a backbone of prior work on emerging pathogens and a mentality that rarely exists in the world of vaccine development — of governments and companies willing to devote nearly unlimited resources to make sure that a vaccine succeeds.

The New York Times noted that “the data released by Pfizer Monday was delivered in a news release, not a peer-reviewed medical journal.” Nonetheless, immunologists seemed excited about the news. Yale University’s Akiko Iwasaki told the NYT, “This is really a spectacular number. I wasn’t expecting it to be this high. I was preparing myself for something like 55 percent.”

No serious side effects were reported, and if these numbers hold, Pfizer said it plans to request emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in a few weeks. Furthermore, as Stat News reports, “although the estimate of the efficacy of the vaccine could change as the study is completed, it is close to a best-case scenario. That also bodes well for other vaccines in the late stages of testing, including those developed by Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson.” Despite all of the hedging language, this seems like good news.

The even better news is in the timing. An announcement during the presidential transition will maximize the number of Americans willing to taking the vaccine. Recall that polling this fall showed a declining number of Americans demonstrating any willingness to take a vaccine. This was due to the politicization of the pandemic during the presidential election campaign. Fears that President Trump would try to hype a vaccine announcement to boost his reelection chances were hard to tamp down.

Now the election is over, Trump lost, and come January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be the 46th president. Which means we are in the middle of a presidential transition.

Transitions are funny moments in public opinion. Polarization has a powerful effect on political attitudes. Republicans think things are on the right track when there is a GOP president and on the wrong track when they are out of power. Democrats hold the exact opposite set of attitudes.

A transition between a president of one party to one of another party, however, can produce rare confluences in public opinion. In late 2016, for example, public confidence in the U.S. economy surged. Democrats already felt pretty good about the state of the economy under President Barack Obama, but as Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones explained, “the recent increase in economic confidence appears mostly to be a reaction to the presidential election — chiefly among Republicans, who are much more likely to view the economy positively after Donald Trump’s victory.”

Both Trump and Biden will embrace the Pfizer announcement as good news for them. The Trump White House, after surrendering to covid-19 in recent weeks, can finally claim a victory:

I would not have led with the stock market, but who cares, Trump supporters now can claim Pfizer’s success as their own.

At the same time, Biden, who has put together a top-notch coronavirus task force for the transition, can also trumpet the good news.

Just as both parties were upbeat about the economy during the waning days of the Obama administration, both parties can now be optimistic about vaccines in the waning days of the Trump administration. This will increase trust in the vaccine across the political spectrum. Assuming Pfizer’s results hold up, this is good news for everyone.