Read: The vaccine news that really matters
A Biden administration is also a return to the very basics of scientific communication: not openly fighting with agencies, letting scientists rather than politicians speak, and setting realistic timelines on vaccine rollout. The president-elect’s and the president’s reactions to the Pfizer news were a study in contrasts. In his statement, Biden praised the experts involved before pivoting to the importance of masks and social distancing in the many months before widespread vaccination is possible. Trump tweeted, “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!”
Biden’s conciliatory political instincts are likely to help too. “If he says, ‘I fully endorse the vaccine put in motion under the Trump administration. Our decisions are made on the science’ … that already would be something,” says Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project. As Trump repeatedly promised a speedy vaccine approval before the election, Democrats especially grew concerned about politics overtaking safety. The percentage of Democrats willing to take the vaccine fell from 83 percent in July to 53 percent in September, according to a Gallup poll. A new administration is a chance to reset. Under the best-case scenario, a Trump administration that wants credit for developing a vaccine and a Biden administration that wants credit for administering it end up doing the same thing: persuading Americans to get vaccinated.
In the worst-case scenario, politics engulfs the vaccine again. Trump certainly isn’t ceding the spotlight, and Republicans are following his lead on the vaccines. “In the next two months, you’re going to have a very loud mouthpiece,” says David Bluestone, a co-founder of ClearPath Strategies, a progressive public-opinion research and strategy firm that has conducted polling on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Yesterday, Republicans rushed to credit Trump after Pfizer initially distanced itself from Operation Warp Speed, the government’s public-private vaccine partnership. (Technically, both are right: Operation Warp Speed did not fund Pfizer’s vaccine, but it did sign a $1.95 billion contract to buy 100 million doses.) But Trump is also now attacking Pfizer for sharing its vaccine data after the election, when such news can no longer benefit him. What if Trump turns on the vaccine, say, if someone gets sick after getting a shot? Imagine, Bluestone told me, that Trump says, “Wait, wait, wait, that wasn’t part of Operation Warp Speed. Only trust Operation Warp Speed.’” The transition of power is already far from smooth, and Trump and his allies are unwilling to give up the vaccine as a political issue.
Read: Vaccine chaos is looming
As the vaccine reaches people, adverse events are likely to be an especially tricky communications problem. A small number of people will, simply by coincidence, get sick after getting a vaccine. “People will continue to have heart attacks and strokes and accidents and things. And when you overlay a vaccination program on top of that, it may appear that some of these things may be caused by vaccines,” says Bruce Gellin, the former director of the National Vaccine Program Office at the Department of Health and Human Services. When the 2009 H1N1-swine-flu vaccine was rolled out, Gellin says, HHS held roundtables with reporters anticipating this very challenge. “It’s just to realize, with these high numbers”—with millions of Americans getting a vaccine—“every community will have a story like this,” he says. A decade later, the news environment is more fractured and local news is even more depleted, with social media often filling the void. Of course, adverse events actually caused by the vaccine may turn up too, so the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have to make clear that systems exist for monitoring vaccine safety after a clinical trial.