The Morning Jolt

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Optimism Is in the Air

A volunteer is injected with a vaccine as he participates in a coronavirus vaccination study at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., September 24, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

On the menu today: a striking note of optimism about our fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and a declaration that the U.S. government’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine-development program is “working with remarkable efficiency”; wondering who the true anti-vaccination crowd is now; a cautionary note about the current moment; and National Review asks for your support.

‘Operation Warp Speed’ Is ‘Working with Remarkable Efficiency.’

About a month ago, as the country was on the brink of 200,000 coronavirus deaths, I wrote a seemingly deeply unpopular article contending that unrealistic optimism, both inside and outside the government, has hindered our response to the pandemic. The virus was not going away like a miracle, it was not less deadly than the flu, warm weather did not alleviate it much, and despite the insistence of lots of folks on social media, we were not on the verge of herd immunity.

For those who contend I’m locked in to gloom and doom, longtime New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. lays out a compelling and realistic case for optimism in our fight against the coronavirus:

Since January, when I began covering the pandemic, I have been a consistently gloomy Cassandra, reporting on the catastrophe that experts saw coming: that the virus would go pandemic, that Americans were likely to die in large numbers, the national lockdown would last well beyond Easter and even past summer. No miracle cure was on the horizon; the record for developing a vaccine was four years.

Events have moved faster than I thought possible. I have become cautiously optimistic. Experts are saying, with genuine confidence, that the pandemic in the United States will be over far sooner than they expected, possibly by the middle of next year.

Those who are convinced that the New York Times never writes anything positive about the Trump administration should note these paragraphs:

Sometime in the next three months, health experts say, the F.D.A. is likely to begin granting approval to vaccines now in the works.

Despite the chaos in day-to-day politics and the fighting over issues like masks and lockdowns, Operation Warp Speed — the government’s agreement to subsidize vaccine companies’ clinical trials and manufacturing costs — appears to have been working with remarkable efficiency. It has put more than $11 billion into seven vaccine candidates, and the F.D.A. has said it will approve any one that is at least 50 percent effective at preventing infection or reducing its severity.

Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed’s chief scientific adviser and a former pharmaceutical executive who has overseen the development of 14 vaccines, has said repeatedly that he expects some of the candidates that he picked to have 75 to 90 percent efficacy and at least two to win approval by early January.

By then, Dr. Slaoui has estimated, the factories under contract will have produced enough vaccine for 30 to 40 million people, and then another 80 to 90 million people every month after that. Assuming nothing goes wrong, he said, there will be enough doses for all 330 million Americans to be vaccinated by next June. Bill Gates, who is not part of Operation Warp Speed but works with it to develop vaccines for the world’s poor, has agreed with that timetable.

There will inevitably be distribution problems, but the military is standing by to help. The chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed is General Gustave F. Perna, a logistics specialist.

All year long, the Department of Health and Human Services has been investing gobs of money to expand production and distribution capacity — syringes, vials, you name it.

We don’t know if the Trump administration will continue past January 20. If Operation Warp Speed leads to 30 to 40 million people being vaccinated against the coronavirus in January, and the most of America getting vaccinated in the months after that, the administration will have saved the best for last. You can love the Supreme Court justices, the tax cuts, the defense buildup, Right to Try, and the First Step Act. And the administration will continue to face the judgment of history for the portions of its response to the pandemic that didn’t work. But to go from zero to a working vaccine within a year, to stop a virus no one had ever seen before, would represent one of the great achievements of the U.S. government in the modern era.

(Note the allegedly xenophobic Trump administration has entrusted its most important initiative, with millions of lives at stake, to Dr. Slaoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian-American scientist who shepherded vaccine development at the U.K. drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline from 1988 to 2017. On the Fourth of July, the Carnegie Corporation recognized Dr. Slaoui as part of its “Great Immigrants” program. This is why we love legal immigration. The person this country welcomes in might make all the difference in our lives.)

The Times published this long essay by McNeil right as Johnson & Johnson announced it paused further dosing in all clinical trials of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine because a study volunteer had an unexplained illness. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is in “a large Phase 3 trial that began in September and aimed to enroll as many as 60,000 people in the U.S. and several other countries.”

This is frustrating but normal and not necessarily a sign of a serious setback. Sometimes a trial participant gets sick, and the doctors have to determine if the sickness is a result of the vaccine or not. Sometimes trial participants get sick for unrelated reasons. Back in September, the vaccine trial run by University of Oxford and AstraZeneca ran into a similar issue. Within a few days, “the independent review process concluded and following the recommendations of both the independent safety review committee and the U.K. regulator, the MHRA, the trials will recommence in the U.K.” Oxford did not cite specific information about the illness, citing patient confidentiality.

Wait, Who Are the Anti-Vaxxers Now?

McNeil says he thinks vaccine “hesitancy may dissipate, if no major safety problems emerge as the first few million Americans are inoculated.” I think he’s right, and I hope he’s right. It’s one thing to tell a pollster that you won’t take a vaccine when it doesn’t exist yet, and another thing to refuse it once it’s available at your doctor’s office, or perhaps CVS or Walgreens someday.

But yesterday I noted Gallup polling showing that vaccine skepticism was declining among self-identified Republicans, but spiking among self-identified Democrats. The self-proclaimed “Party of Science” is turning anti-vaxxer overnight, because they seem to believe that President Trump will single-handedly produce and distribute some snake-oil fake vaccine that either is dangerous or doesn’t work or both, over the objections of doctors inside and outside of government who will, in the words of Kamala Harris, “be muzzled, they’ll be suppressed, they will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping to get whatever he can to pretend he has been a leader on this issue when he is not.” This is a QAnon-level conspiracy theory.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it last month:

There is no Trump vaccine for COVID-19. Nor will there ever be one. If Trump tells you there is a Trump vaccine, and you should take it and reelect him, don’t believe him. If Trump’s opponents tell you there is a Trump vaccine, and you can’t trust it because he’s trying to get reelected, don’t believe them. Donald Trump is not a medical scientist. He is not a pharmaceutical research team. Trump is not a pharmaceutical manufacturer that can go rogue and produce a vaccine.

There is no possible world in which you would have to place your personal faith in Trump’s integrity before giving consent to a needle being put in your arm or in the arms of your children. Anyone who tells you differently is ignorant, cynical beyond measure, or simply using Trump as a way of laundering views about vaccines that would get them labeled an anti-vaxxer.

The need to filter all issues and information through a partisan lens to advance a particular narrative is now so pervasive, and so all-consuming, that it presents a threat to life and limb.

The End of the Year Is Looking Better . . . but We’re Not out of the Woods Yet

One more observation: In May, as the killing of George Floyd dominated the national conversation, a lot of people across the country started to behave as if the coronavirus pandemic was over. And then in June, as angry mobs started tearing down statues in cities, a lot of people across the country started to behave as if the coronavirus pandemic was over. And then in July, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his celebratory victory poster, a lot of people across the country started to behave as if the coronavirus pandemic was over. And then in August, as the parties held their conventions and attention turned more fully to the upcoming elections, a lot of people across the country started to behave as if the coronavirus pandemic was over.

And late last month, as the first presidential debate began, a lot of people across the country started to behave as if the coronavirus pandemic was over. And then the president caught the virus and required hospitalization; thankfully he appears to be well along the road to recovery.

The outlook for late this year and early next year is looking good, but the pandemic is not over.

“That’s a bad place to be when you’re going into the cooler weather of the fall and the colder weather of the winter,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on The News with Shepard Smith. “We’re in a bad place now. We’ve got to turn this around.

ADDENDUM: In case you haven’t noticed, National Review is doing another webathon, and Rich lays out the stakes at this moment:

When there is so much nonsense to knock down, we go into overdrive to do it. We are now in the same mode that we were in during the Kavanaugh fight — on high alert, rebutting all the shoddy journalism and tendentious arguments.

Back in August, when people were starting to discuss in earnest the possibility of a court vacancy, Dan McLaughlin wrote a piece titled “History Is on the Side of Republicans Filling a Supreme Court Vacancy in 2020.”

The piece really exploded after the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, when Senate Republicans were considering whether to try to confirm a nominee before the election.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the influence of Dan’s piece. It seems that every Republican senator who matters read it. It sounded like Mitt Romney was cribbing from it in his statement coming out in favor of a vote. A high-ranking White House official personally thanked me for it.

Senator Lindsey Graham’s opening statement on Monday echoed the arguments and history in Dan’s piece quite a bit:

Here’s the history as I understand it: There’s never been a situation where you had a president of one party and the senate of another, where the nominee the replacement was made in election years been over 140 years. I think there have been 19 vacancies filled in election year. Seventeen of the 19 were confirmed to the court when the party of the president and the Senate were the same. In terms of timing, the hearing is starting 16 days after nomination. More than half of all Supreme Court hearings have been held within 16 days of the announcement of the nominee: Stevens 10, Rehnquist 13, Powell 13, Blackman 15, Burger 13. All I can say is that I feel that we’re doing this constitutionally.

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