Originally published in San Jose Mercury News on November 24, 2020.
Pfizer’s announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective has created significant optimism — except in the Trump camp, where adverse reactions of cynicism have emerged. His acolytes believe the press release was timed to prevent an injection of good news that might have secured reelection.
It is true that Pfizer’s CEO wanted to distance his scientists from the overt politics that would have come with taking Operation Warp Speed money. The company didn’t take funding but entered into an agreement to supply the United States with vaccine once the Food and Drug Administration approved. Trump’s adult children believe this pact was a result of their father’s deal-making prowess — but such supply agreements are quite common.
Whether the release was sat on and prevented a second term for Trump is likely never to be known. Regardless, Americans should feel relief because nothing about this vaccine is to his credit. In truth, the entire endeavor brilliantly refutes all his scientific undermining and nationalist rhetoric.
First, take science. It’s not alpha-male chest-thumping that leads to safe and effective medicines but rather an unwavering commitment to the process of science. Prudence, factual integrity and unbiased data are the only currencies that matter. Trump has no understanding of, or patience for, the scientific method. His lethal promotions of unproven COVID-19 treatments reflect an egotistic and insecure desire to be seen as an expert while stifling those who actually are.
Science and education form a double-helix that codes for human advancement
Science and education form a double-helix that codes for human advancement. Yet this president missed the opportunity to inspire our children and revive American exceptionalism in research. He showed no curiosity for what will be the first-ever mRNA vaccine, in which a piece of SARS COV-2 genetic material is injected into us and our own cells manufacture the viral protein to create immunity.
Next, take globalization. This success story is about the ideally borderless worlds of science and capitalism. This vaccine is not a product of Pfizer’s research but rather that of BioNTech, a German biotech firm. Pfizer joined in financially along with a seldom-mentioned third partner, Fosun Pharma of China. Yes, that China.
And to be sure, there was criticism among Germans that their company would supply the United States with the vaccine before it had been administered to all of its own citizens. The outrage was understandable given the disparaging comments Trump has made about Germany; even suggesting their prime minister was ruining the country by allowing in immigrants from “who knows where.”
About those immigrants: BioNTech was founded by scientists Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, Turkish Muslims who immigrated to Germany as children under its post-World War II Gastarbeiter program. Originally intended for the “guest workers” to return to their home countries upon completion, the program in fact led to an innovation boom, showing that immigrants are net job-creators for Germany. (Trump seems oblivious to the irony that his own roots are German and that his success is a result of his family’s immigration to this country.)
This is not the first time that vaccines have been part of presidential politics. In 2004–5, America was facing the H5N1 flu pandemic. Chiron Corporation’s CEO promised the Bush administration it would supply half the U.S. doses of flu vaccine that season. The promise was broken because of contamination problems in the company’s manufacturing facility, sending the Bush administration into damage control.
I worked on that project to help get the facility back on track, and its warning label still applies today: Mixing vaccines and politics can cause harmful side effects and ought to be avoided.
Chirag Asaravala is a biotech consultant and opinion writer living in Alamo.