Why politics may get in the way of the public accepting a COVID-19 vaccine

A shot is administered March 16 as part of a first-stage clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 manufactured by Massachusetts-based Moderna Inc. <span class="copyright">(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)</span>
A shot is administered March 16 as part of a first-stage clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 manufactured by Massachusetts-based Moderna Inc. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

The key to defeating the COVID-19 pandemic may have less to do with vaccine science and logistics and more to do with public trust. Week after week, actions by Trump administration appointees have raised suspicions that political motives rather than science are driving decision-making in the development of the vaccine.

Events like these have shaken my faith — and the faith of many others — in two of the country’s most revered scientific institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects and analyzes healthcare data, and the Food and Drug Administration, which approves diagnostic tests and treatments.

As a longtime clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health, I worked closely with many highly competent and hard-working CDC and FDA scientists. Until recently, both organizations enjoyed stellar international reputations for excellence, integrity and public health leadership. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown both agencies into disarray.

Recommendations by CDC scientists for reopening businesses and schools were withdrawn and weakened before being posted on the CDC website. Scientists fear that the revisions reflect the administration’s effort to spur the economy in an election year, even at the cost of spreading COVID. CDC guidance on aerosol transmission of the virus that would increase indoor distancing was also labeled a draft posted “in error” and removed from the website.

The CDC also revised guidelines — without public announcement and reportedly without the usual scientific review — to discourage testing of asymptomatic people despite unequivocal evidence that they readily spread the virus.

A long-established CDC surveillance system, the National Healthcare Safety Network had its COVID-19 module retired during the pandemic and replaced by a new data-collection process administered by a private contractor reporting directly to the CDC’s parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services. Public health professionals have expressed concern about disruption of data collection as hospitals struggle with the new system and worry about possible manipulation and falsification of the collected information.

In addition, the HHS communications team has exerted unprecedented editorial control over the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, the respected CDC publication. Political appointees with little scientific background have altered public health reports to align them with the administration’s coronavirus messaging. In one instance, HHS tried to suppress a report that questioned the effectiveness of the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, a treatment President Trump has promoted.

The CDC’s confused messaging has undermined its credibility. As a result, many of my colleagues who relied on CDC reports and recommendations have switched to other sources for unbiased COVID-19 information, such as the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The FDA’s loss of credibility has even more serious consequences for public health. At stake is the integrity of the FDA vaccine-appraisal process. The administration calls its effort to accelerate vaccine development Operation Warp Speed and has invested heavily in several vaccine