Why an October Vaccine Wouldn’t Swing the Election for Trump

President Donald Trump has promised that a safe and effective vaccine against the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 will be rolled out in October, with 100 million doses available by the end of the year. In Tuesday’s presidential debate, he reaffirmed that the vaccine was just “weeks away.” Yet this announcement contradicts the estimations of scientists, public health experts and, most recently, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Donald Trump that is standing in the grass: President Donald exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on October 1 in Washington, D.C.

© Getty/Drew Angerer
President Donald exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on October 1 in Washington, D.C.

CDC Director Robert Redfield explained to a Senate panel this month that a vaccine would be “generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life” sometime in mid- to late-2021. Trump was quick to dismiss Redfield as mistaken and “confused,” and reiterated his continued confidence in the vaccine’s rollout in the very near future.

But how likely is that to happen, and, if it did, would it really shake up the presidential race?

The promise of an “October surprise”—that is, a late-breaking revelation so big that it could shift the results of an election—sounds enticing. The term was first used to describe the possibility that the Ronald Reagan campaign had conspired with Iran to keep American hostages from being released in time to save Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election bid.

But the reality is that very little, including a vaccine, is likely to make much of an impact in this election.

Producing a safe and effective vaccine for a disease within a year of that disease’s discovery would be unprecedented. Even if “Operation Warp Speed,” Trump’s initiative to streamline the vaccine development, approval and distribution process, is successful, the number of things that would have to go right for a vaccine to roll out successfully this year makes the goal highly unlikely. We would need to see tens of thousands people enroll in clinical trials and receive two doses of a vaccine (or a placebo) a month apart, have data that show safety and efficacy (meaning that that the vaccine prevents infection or severity of illness in at least 50 percent of participants who received the vaccine) and observe a lack of serious side effects.

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Given that none of the nine companies in Phase 3 trials have completed enrollment and all have jointly pledged to “stand with science” and not apply for licensing of any vaccine that has not been thoroughly vetted for safety and efficacy, Trump’s goal seems unrealistic.

Vaccine success depends on the willingness of millions of people to get it. This requires a good deal of public trust, both in the companies and procedures that produce it and in the government agencies that certify it. Trump, however, has poisoned that well by repeatedly undermining public trust in government agencies and processes and