The perils of vaccine messianism
As the pandemic drags on with no end in sight, people around the world are increasingly pinning their hopes on the idea that a vaccine will spell the end of this annus horribilis and avert the horrors of 2020 spilling over into the coming year, allowing people to experience the world of BTS’ “Dynamite” and not continue into Orwellian dystopia.
Politicians are all too happy to stoke these hopes. “I promise you by the grace of God I hope by December we will be back to normal … let’s just wait for the vaccine. It’s almost here,” President Duterte averred in one of his late night addresses. Last week, US President Donald Trump declared: “We’ll produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”
Taking things to a higher level, Russian president Vladimir Putin has even already approved a vaccine, waiving the usual regulatory requirements, although even the doctors in his own country are skeptical. With very good reason: The vaccine developed by Gamaleya Institute has not even undergone the requisite large-scale clinical trials, which means we simply don’t know if they are safe or effective .
The above presidential responses are consistent with how leaders tend to respond in times of pandemic. In my own research on “medical populism,” I found that simplification and spectacularization were two common responses by political actors. Promising a vaccine simplifies a complex crisis, while dubbing your vaccine “Sputnik V” or calling your vaccine project “Operation Warp Speed” makes a spectacle out of your leadership. Surely, if a vaccine becomes available, mass vaccination will likewise be accompanied by presidential theatrics.
On one hand, there is reason to hope that a vaccine may indeed be developed within the next 12 months (there are now at least nine vaccines on Phase 3 trials—the final step that involves large-scale tests for efficacy). There is reason, too, to welcome the political support for vaccination, given the massive resources required for them, and the precedent-setting that may pave the way for similar such efforts for tuberculosis, dengue, and other infectious diseases.
However, vaccine messianism is dangerous for a number of reasons.
In the first place, there is no guarantee that a vaccine will actually be available, and how soon. Waiting for a vaccine detracts attention from existing solutions that, when implemented properly, can already mitigate the effects of the pandemic, including massive rapid testing and comprehensive contact tracing—steps that the medical community has long been demanding.
In the second place, this singular attention toward a vaccine can cause undue pressure on vaccine manufacturers and regulatory agencies alike, risking a rushed vaccine that, if proven to be unsafe or ineffective, could cause irreparable harm to public health. Already, the US FDA’s willingness to approve a vaccine before the end of Phase 3 trials is raising alarm among public health experts, who rightfully fear that such a rush could unleash a pandemic of anti-vaxxer sentiment not seen since Andrew Wakefield.
Thirdly, vaccine messianism can lead to a related phenomenon the World Health Organization has warned about: vaccine nationalism. Politicians’ priorities will doubtless be their own citizens—already, we are seeing large countries secure billions of dollars’ worth of vaccine deals—potentially at the expense of countries like the Philippines, leading to global inequity.
Finally, left unchallenged, vaccine messianism can boost the political capital—and longevity—of leaders whose failed responses have caused profound misery to their peoples. Mr. Duterte, for instance, has overseen the world’s longest lockdown with little result. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, he has downplayed the pandemic and undermined a science-based response by promoting falsehoods, contributing to the United States being among the countries most devastated by COVID-19.
Given the perils of vaccine messianism, researchers and regulators alike should resist the pressure to take ethical and methodological shortcuts in vaccine development, while journalists should challenge vaccine-related claims made by leaders and not simply report them unvetted. Just as importantly, the general public should hold leaders to account for their promises, demanding transparency and fairness in the so-called “vaccine race.”
Vaccination may yet save the world from the pandemic, but only if we save it from further politicization.
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