Rick Perlstein reminds us that in the midsts of the 1976 election year, Gerald Ford jammed through a vaccine for the Swine Flu epidemic that never happened:
As it turned out, the H1N1 strain never made it out of Fort Dix, where only one Army recruit died. And, as it also turned out, this swine flu was not nearly as virulent as the 1918 influenza.
But fast-tracking the vaccine for broad distribution among the public carried risks. Of the 45 million vaccinated against the swine flu, an estimated 450 people developed the paralyzing syndrome Guillain-Barré and of those, more than 30 died. The National Academy of Medicine subsequently concluded that people who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine had an increased risk for developing Guillain-Barré.
The emergence of Guillain-Barré led the government to suspend and effectively end its mass vaccination effort in December.
In all, it’s a complicated tale. Were the motivations behind the crash vaccination program political, or a sincere but perhaps misguided sense of urgency about the public health, or a little of both? Philip M. Boffey, a science writer at The New York Times, summed it up this way in an article headlined “Soft Evidence and Hard Sell.”
Has the government acted wisely in launching the swine flu inoculation campaign? Reasonable people may reach conflicting answers. Critics consider the program a waste of money, and a potentially dangerous one at that, while proponents call it sound preventive medicine.
It’s clear that the scare tactics used to promote the campaign are unwarranted. Many participants in the drama have implied that another 1918 disaster is imminent. Health officials used that fear to help sell the program to their political superiors; President Ford used it to pry funding from Congress and to goad the American public to participate, and the media, ever on the lookout for a compelling news angle, repeatedly stressed the 1918 analogy. The result has been confusion and exaggerated fears that interfere with sound judgment.
That said, the very reason Gerald Ford had his job in the first place was that, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal just as the first inklings of the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon were being raised, senators said they would confirm only a vice-presidential appointee who would provide a steady, mature hand on the tiller should he rise to the Oval Office. And that was precisely Gerald Ford’s reputation.
If steady, mature Gerald Ford succumbed to haste when his presidency was on the line, imagine what Donald Trump will do. But maybe, just maybe, Mr. Trump can finally learn a lesson from history and move prudently, not impetuously, in rolling out new vaccines for Covid-19. And if that means they come out after the election, so be it.
I’m pretty sure that Rick believes that the odds of Donald Trump learning any lessons from history are roughly equivalent to those of him personally constructing a functional aircraft carrier out of dryer lint, so that last line is just the sort of soothing rhetorical gesture you have to make when writing for the Gray Lady.
I’m also pretty sure that Trump is going to strong arm the regulatory process into announcing in mid to late October that a vaccine is going to start to be distributed immediately. This is not exactly speculation either:
The Trump administration has asked states to get ready to distribute a coronavirus vaccine by November 1, two days before the presidential election.
In the letter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director, Robert Redfield, asks governors to cut any red tape that would prevent distribution centers from hitting the deadline.
“CDC urgently requests your assistance in expediting applications for these distribution facilities, and, if necessary, asks that you consider waiving requirements that would prevent these facilities from becoming fully operational by Nov. 1, 2020,” it said.
(ETA: It’s always important to remember that Donald Trump is essentially a salesman for non-existent time share condos, and this announcement will bear no relationship to whether a vaccine is going to start to be distributed, let alone whether it will work).
As usual, Republicans are trying their best to make the facts in the world actually reflect their paranoid fantasies: in this case, fantasies that a corrupt cabal of global cosmopolitans (wink wink) is hellbent on forcing Americans to take unsafe vaccines, for deeply nefarious reasons.
It’s always projection.