It will be some time for historians to gain sufficient perspective for a complete assessment of President Trump’s four years in office. Certainly, his woefully inadequate and inconsistent public-health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the role it played in this fall’s election results will get much deserved scrutiny.
But no matter what else they might say, the news late Friday from the Food and Drug Administration confirming that a vaccine for the coronavirus had been approved for emergency use stands as an accomplishment which the president can deservedly point to as an extraordinary achievement.
Americans — and the world — have been living the pandemic for most of this year, with sickness, death (over 300,000 deaths and counting in the U.S. alone), economic devastation and social upheaval the tragic consequence. It was clear from its onset that, no matter the precautions that could and must continue to be implemented to control the pandemic’s spread, long-term safety and a return to more normal life depended on the development and rollout of safe and effective vaccines against the virus. Surely a simple idea, but making it happen and happen quickly is no simple task. The development of vaccines routinely takes years, and the testing and regulatory approval processes add to the normal timeline.
Yet Friday the FDA approved for people 16 years or older a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech that so far has shown highly promising effectiveness in trials, and the first shipments went out over the weekend and arrived in New Hampshire on Monday. A second vaccine developed by Moderna, which has performed just as promisingly in trials, is poised to receive similar FDA emergency-use approval shortly, and others are in late-stage development. If the vaccines, when administered in sufficient numbers, prove as effective as they have in trials, their development by pharmaceutical companies and their researchers will be an extraordinary medical and scientific feat.
The rollout, though, presents very complex logistical challenges — just think of the syringes and other medical supplies required and the shipping and storage obstacles for a vaccine that must be kept at minus 94 degrees — and the administration’s Operation Warp Speed has been effective in marshalling and coordinating public and private resources to get the vaccines out quickly. Federal officials believe 20 million people will receive a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine by year-end (a second dose is required), and Pfizer and Moderna say they’re on track to supply 100 million total doses each by March and next summer, respectively.
Obviously, much work remains. Of critical importance will be an effective handoff of managing the logistics to the incoming Biden administration, to which responsibility for carrying out that work will fall. Also, Congress needs to step up with the additional funding necessary to help state and local health officials on the front line of what will be the country’s biggest immunization campaign ever. In the meantime, we’ll all need to continue enduring the public-health ravages of the pandemic, which Trump has seemed shockingly uninterested in, well into next year.
The presidential transition to occur on Jan. 20 means the Trump administration will need to leave completing the immunization campaign to the incoming one. Assuming Trump assures a successful handoff, he can at least know that, no matter how else his presidency is assessed, the effort to coordinate and plan the development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in record time is one for the history books.