Biden: Americans should have confidence in a COVID vaccine — if Trump can answer these three questions

This is a somewhat better take on vaccines than some other Democrats have given lately, in that it distinguishes between Trump’s credibility and the vaccine’s credibility. I trust vaccines, Biden said before launching into the clip below, I just don’t trust Trump. That’s the correct take, as I argued yesterday and as Michael Brendan Dougherty argues today. Whether you should trust the vaccine has nothing to do with your opinion of Trump and everything to do with how scientists and medical authorities react to the phase-three data once it’s available. Inasmuch as Biden can help refocus the vaccine debate away from it being a referendum on Trump and towards a consideration of scientific opinion, he’s making things better.

But did he really end up doing that in the end? Biden’s essentially issuing an ultimatum to the president: Answer these three questions, and if you don’t then people shouldn’t trust the vaccine.

That puts Trump back at the center of the issue. And it does so in a foolish way, essentially making Biden’s view of the vaccine contingent on whether Trump wants to play his game. If Trump decides to spite him by saying, “I’m not answering any of Biden’s questions,” what’s the next move? Are Democrats then impelled to follow their nominee and start arguing that the vaccine shouldn’t be trusted?

Here are the three questions as transcribed by Axios:

1. “What criteria will be used to ensure that a vaccine meets the scientific standard of safety and effectiveness?”

2. “If the administration green lights a vaccine, who will validate that the decision was driven by science rather than politics? What group of scientists will that be?”

3. “How can we be sure that the distribution of the vaccine will take place safely, cost-free, and without a hint of favoritism?”

I’m not sure what question one means as it pertains to Trump. Scientists have standard benchmarks for safety and efficacy that they want to see from a vaccine; for instance, Fauci has said repeatedly that a vaccine that’s 50-percent effective will still be worth doing. Independent health experts will have plenty to say about how the phase-three data from the winning vaccine stacks up against data from vaccines from other diseases. I don’t know why Biden’s directing his question to the president. He should be directing it to the medical community.

The presumptive answer to question two is “Uh, the FDA? As usual?” Biden’s perfectly justified in not trusting Trump’s politicized FDA but they’re the relevant authority, for better or worse. The good news is that, in an age of mass media, we don’t need to trust them. We can simply look to the reporting after the data is published to see how experts are reacting to it and make a judgment based on that. If Biden’s suggesting that he won’t accept the vaccine unless some ad hoc body of outside scientists gets to audit the FDA’s decision, I’m afraid we’re headed for a very bad outcome here. Trump and the FDA will say no and then Biden will say … what? “To hell with the vaccine, then”?

As for question three, it’s best directed to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an arm of the CDC that’s weighing how to most effectively distribute the vaccine, including who should be first in line. Is Biden implying with his question that ACIP’s plan will also need some sort of outside audit to ensure that it hasn’t been corrupted by Trump or else he won’t endorse the vaccine? It’s unrealistic to believe that the feds are going to add an extra layer of bureaucracy for this process, thereby all but admitting that their own agencies are too corrupt to be trusted by Americans without some outside body vouching for them. So when ACIP replies to Biden by saying, “You can be sure the distribution of the vaccine will be handled well because we’re people of integrity who care about the public,” how does Biden answer? By impugning their integrity?

What if he’s in charge of ACIP three months later? The surreal thing about these questions is that, to they extent Trump’s answers force Biden to question the competence and integrity of federal agencies, it’ll make it that much harder for him to convince Americans to get the vaccine next year if/when suddenly he’s the guy in charge of overseeing the country’s immunization program.

I’m not thrilled with this answer either. A few months ago Biden endorsed a national mask mandate. People like me helpfully pointed out that he’d lack the constitutional authority as president to issue that order, whereupon he backed off and began saying that he’d lean on the nation’s 50 governors to issue state mask mandates. That was better. But suddenly, today, he’s back to hinting that he may have executive authority to get it done:

People on social media are wondering what his game is here. Is he going to issue a mask mandate as president in the expectation that it will fuel a red-state backlash, so that he can blame any further outbreaks on Republicans? Is he talking up a mask mandate believing that the Supreme Court will nuke it, which would then advance progressive calls for Court-packing?

Mask mandates aren’t panaceas. Texas has been under one since the start of July and has averaged more than 3,000 new confirmed cases every day since. The mandate does seem to have helped drive down new infections — cases peaked on July 17, a few weeks after the order was issued — but lately the daily number has begun growing again. Yesterday it fell just shy of 7,000. The CDC’s director did a good thing today during testimony by hyping masks as possibly even more effective than a vaccine (assuming that the vaccine we get is a weak one, which only works in 50 percent of cases or whatever), as hopefully that’ll encourage more people who have been holding out to mask up. But Biden’s kidding himself if he thinks a national mask mandate is a silver bullet, or even that it’s enforceable. It’s little more than virtue-signaling, a way for him to show voters in a memorable way that he’ll do everything in his power as president to prioritize containing the virus, unlike some people.

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