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Departing NIH chief eyes more research 'on human behavior'

Dr. Francis Collins, the retiring NIH director, never expected so many Americans to reject the Covid-19 vaccines. He's not the only one.


Dr. Francis Collins announced in October that he's stepping down as the director of the National Institutes of Health. And as his tenure winds down — Collins' last day is next week — he's reflecting on his experiences.

PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff asked him yesterday, for example, "Is there something you would wish you could have emerged from NIH?" Collins' response struck me as notable:

"You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior. I never imagined a year ago, when those vaccines were just proving to be fantastically safe and effective, that we would still have 60 million people [in the United States] who had not taken advantage of them because of misinformation and disinformation that somehow dominated all of the ways in which people were getting their answers. And a lot of those answers were, in fact, false. And we have lost so much as a result of that."

It's an important perspective. A year ago at this time, many looked forward to 2021 as the breakthrough year: Americans would finally have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines, which we would be eager to get, and society could start to return to normal.

And while most adults did the smart and responsible thing, NIH leaders weren't the only ones surprised to discover just how big a chunk of the population would be swayed by nonsense into making the wrong choice.

The Washington Post reported last week that public health officials were encouraged by evidence that showed booster shots providing robust protection against Covid-19 and the omicron variant, but the problem "remains the entrenched opposition of many Americans to the vaccines, which is increasingly exasperating administration officials."

The Post spoke to a senior official in the Biden administration who said, "We have all the tools. The science has delivered. There has to be a resignation that there is something deeply broken in this country. The administration has done everything it can do. We'll see how we respond this time. Virtually all these deaths have been preventable since April."

It's hard not to wonder about the alternate timeline. Imagine where we'd be right now as a society if the right had spent the year aggressively telling rank-and-file conservatives to roll up their sleeves and end the pandemic. Imagine what the health landscape would look like if, instead of trying to undermine the Biden administration's vaccine policies, Republicans tried to take credit for them. Imagine if the United States had become the world leader on vaccinated populations.

It's a missed opportunity for the ages.