On vaccine standards, Team Trump is overruling the FDA

Strict FDA standards on a vaccine were inconsistent with Team Trump's political plans. Take a wild guess what the White House is choosing to prioritize.
Image: The headquarters of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
FDA.Jason Reed / REUTERS, FILE

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump's rhetoric about a coronavirus vaccine took a weird turn. "We will have a vaccine so soon, you won't even believe it," the president told supporters in Jacksonville, "although they are trying to do a little bit of a political hit. 'Let's delay the vaccine just a little bit.' Did you notice that?"

The Republican didn't specify who, exactly, "they" were, but in context, Trump appeared to be referring to the FDA's new standards for emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine. In the interest of public safety and public confidence, the FDA made clear that its standards would be stringent.

A day later, Trump said he was prepared to reject the FDA's tougher vaccine guidelines, all of which led to the president's conspiracy theory about "their" decision to "delay the vaccine" as part of "a political hit" -- because in his mind, the FDA applying high standards to a vaccine must be part of an election scheme.

Overnight, the New York Times reported that Trump is no longer just threatening to reject the FDA's vaccine standards, the White House is now actively blocking them.

Top White House officials are blocking strict new federal guidelines for the emergency release of a coronavirus vaccine, objecting to a provision that would almost certainly guarantee that no vaccine could be authorized before the election on Nov. 3, according to people familiar with the approval process.

A Politico report added the White House's decision was influenced by pharmaceutical industry insiders, who had "objected to the tougher requirements." This became, the article added, the "chief reason for blocking the guidelines."

(Trump occasionally likes to pretend that he takes bold stands against the drug companies, despite routinely doing the opposite.)

There's no great mystery here: tougher FDA standards on a vaccine will take longer to meet, and that doesn't work with the preferred schedule for the president's re-election campaign. Science is getting in the way of politics, and Team Trump is, as usual, prioritizing the latter over the former.

As for what's next, New York's Jon Chait has a prediction: "What now seems likely to happen is that Trump will announce a vaccine before the election. He will find some appropriately credentialed scientist to vouchsafe his claim. (It only takes one scientist sufficiently susceptible to Trump's pressure to supply the necessary televised endorsement by 'science.') Scientific authorities in the bureaucracy will revolt, perhaps resigning in protest. Will those voters who don't trust Trump -- that is, a clear majority of them -- believe he has delivered a vaccine? Probably not. Will the government be able to develop public trust whenever it does produce what its scientists deem a safe and effective vaccine? We can only hope."