“A Quagmire Very Similar to Vietnam”: Could Trump Rush a COVID Vaccine to Reverse His Political Spiral?

The first-pitch fiasco was hardly the first time Donald Trump’s ego has dominated his dealings with Dr. Anthony Fauci. For weeks now the president, angered by the doctor’s good press and by his reliance on actual science to battle COVID-19, has been trying to undermine Fauci’s credibility. The relationship reached a farcical low point last week when Fauci threw a (wild) ceremonial first pitch before a Washington Nationals game. Trump then falsely claimed he’d be climbing the mound prior to a Yankees game in August, bewildering the Yankees, who had floated the idea but had never nailed down a date. This latest clash was harmless. The next could have much higher stakes.

Trailing badly in most polls, Trump is increasingly banking on a preelection medical miracle. On Monday the president traveled to North Carolina to tout the progress toward a COVID vaccine being made at one of the labs backed by billions in federal “Operation Warp Speed” money. The political trouble, for Trump, is that all the realistic research, approval, and large-scale production timelines stretch into at least early 2021. Two drug companies, Moderna and Pfizer, are the furthest along in the process and have just begun trials that will last into the fall; the most optimistic projections see results arriving in November. The presidential election is November 3.

“Everyone wants a vaccine as soon as possible,” one Democratic strategist says. “But the preliminary findings have been very positive, and the process has been so expedited, I’m concerned the Trump administration may try to jam through a vaccine before it’s ready.” Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who was briefly Trump’s White House communications director, still talks with many well-connected Republicans.“Hyper Drive or Hyper Speed or Warp Speed, whatever he’s calling it—I think he’s hoping that he can make some kind of announcement in September and that he can deploy the vaccine in October, November, December,” Scaramucci tells me. And what if a vaccine isn’t completely ready before Election Day—could Trump announce one anyway? “It’s possible,” he says.

Trump is at his core a salesman, and one who has never let the absence of a tangible, certifiable product stand in the way of his pitch. This is a man who floated the possibility of injecting bleach as a cure for coronavirus, and who has recently returned to promoting hydroxychloroquine fantasies on Twitter. Fauci has been deft in knocking down previous Trump fictions, and he is impressively diplomatic in considering what may lie ahead. “Anybody that says the vaccine [now being tested] is going to be effective has never developed a vaccine,” Fauci told me. “But in my 36 years of experience in doing this, I can say that I have cautious optimism. If the infection rate stays as high as it is, we should be able to get an answer as to whether the vaccine works and is safe probably by sometime in November, early December. And it might even be earlier. So we’re hoping that by the beginning of 2021, there will be [a] vaccine available to distribute.” What would he do if there is pressure to approve a vaccine before the election that Fauci is not 100% sure is effective? “Whether or not something gets approved, that’s going to be up to the FDA,” he says. “I would hope—hope—and I think I have good reason to hope—that the FDA will use scientific evaluation and scientific principles, and will not be influenced by any political considerations. I don’t expect pressure to be applied.”

One possible shortcut is an emergency approval: The FDA could endorse a promising vaccine for distribution even while trials continue. How soon could that happen? “You know, it’s tough to say. I don’t want to guess,” Fauci says, his tone going steely. “Because if I give a month, then all of a sudden it gets linked to the election. And then I become the talking point, and I’m not going to do that. It could happen in 2020, certainly.”

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