Imagine being able to visit your relatives, return to school or work, open a business, go to a live concert, and take a vacation without the fear of either contracting or spreading a deadly illness. That’s the promise that a COVID-19 vaccine holds for billions of people. If scientists develop a vaccine that is safe and effective in conferring immunity to the novel coronavirus, it could change life as we’ve come to know it in this country and around the world.
But for Americans to benefit from a vaccine, it won’t be enough for one to be discovered and proven to work. To return to daily life as it was before the pandemic while protecting public health, a vaccine must be broadly available, and people will need to actually take it. At present, the US president is threatening both those crucial ingredients for success.
Scientists in the United States and China are in a race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, with at least nine contenders being evaluated by various groups. There’s no telling which group, in which country, will develop the best vaccine first, and which country or countries will be poised to produce that vaccine quickly at scale for large populations. While global health crises are typically an opportunity for diplomacy — for example, the United States and Russia coordinated polio and smallpox vaccination during the Cold War, and the US sent military aid to West Africa in 2014 to respond to Ebola — Trump has taken a nationalistic approach to the coronavirus. As recently as late June, he called the virus the “Kung Flu,” and for months he has fueled a conspiracy theory about the virus originating in a Chinese lab. Such statements undermine American scientists’ ability to collaborate with Chinese scientists and they set the United States up for potential retaliation from China.
Meanwhile, the White House has withdrawn the US from the World Health Organization, where critical conversations happen that abet collaboration across borders on vaccines and pandemic response.
It’s no small danger that a COVID-19 vaccine could become a political pawn rather than a shared humanitarian tool. Regardless of which country wins the race, such nationalism would be detrimental to Americans — whether it means delayed access to the vaccine for us or an ongoing breeding ground abroad for a virus that will not obey border controls.
Public trust in the vaccine will also be critical; if many people are afraid to take it, it will not confer adequate protection to the population to allow daily life and business to fully resume. In an era when anti-vaccine movements have been on the rise in the United States, this is a looming threat. Here the president has been equally unhelpful. He has cast a pall of distrust over scientific agencies’ response to the virus by touting, and urging the Food and Drug Administration to authorize, an unproven and probably harmful COVID-19 cure, hydroxychloroquine, and by asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its public health guidelines on reopening schools. While the typical time line for a vaccine is being sped up, mostly due to paperwork and regulatory hurdles being cleared, the president is pressuring officials to move even faster, in a way that implies to some observers that corners could be cut when it comes to patient safety. (The scientists and companies working on vaccines in the United States deny that such corner-cutting is actually happening now, though several are exploring methods to expedite testing, including “challenge trials,” in which healthy volunteers are infected with the virus to more quickly test vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.)
The problem is one of perception: Even if the vaccine ultimately introduced to the public is as safe as any other medical intervention of recent decades and much safer than not taking it, the public must be willing to trust that. Yet this White House has time and again in recent months undermined scientific integrity, while the president and vice president spout scientific misinformation. While polls show the majority of Americans (especially Democrats) trust the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the recent sidelining of Fauci by the White House raises the question of whether scientists who stick to the facts will be the ones to deliver public health messages about a vaccine to the American people, or whether the president will take it upon himself. If it’s the latter, Americans have much to fear.
On Saturday, the president finally donned a mask in public, for the first time during the pandemic, to visit the Walter Reed military hospital — months after public health officials advised wearing one and months after states and cities around the country issued mask advisories. Hope springs eternal that Trump has learned something about the importance of taking his cues from public health experts. But recent history shows he’d rather lead the experts down the road of confirming his hunches about sunshine, Clorox, and hydroxychloroquine.
Thankfully, scientists are already collaborating across borders and sharing data on the genetics of the virus and on vaccine development. Researchers and entrepreneurs working on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 should continue their global collaborations and do their best to compensate with citizen diplomacy for the White House’s failings. Members of Congress should also step up their role in vaccine diplomacy now to stave off a retrenchment to nationalism.
To build public trust, scientists and regulators should be more transparent than ever about the process for vaccine testing and how it differs from the past, what aspects have been expedited, and what side effects can be expected. That people will take a COVID-19 vaccine should not be taken for granted; the public deserves clear communication on uncertainty and risk. Political leaders outside the White House, along with medical professionals around the country, should start talking more now about how vaccines work while listening to concerns of the vaccine-skeptical and seriously contending with those concerns with balanced and accurate information.
With the White House torpedoing diplomacy and undermining trust in scientific efforts, it falls to people outside the federal government to fill the gaps. This won’t make up for the dearth of leadership from the top, but in case the political tides don’t shift in November, it might well save us all from the president.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.