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Mike Pence tried to blame Kamala Harris for undermining a Covid-19 vaccine. But the public blames Trump.

Pence’s spin on a Covid-19 vaccine ignored the biggest obstacle to public trust: his boss.

Vice President Mike Pence blamed Sen. Kamala Harris at their debate for public distrust in a vaccine. But polls show voters actually don’t trust Donald Trump.
Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

At the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence accused Sen. Kamala Harris of undermining public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine. But the American public actually blames President Donald Trump for politicizing the issue, according to numerous polls.

Moderator Susan Page asked Harris during the debate whether she would take a vaccine if one were to be approved by the Trump administration.

“If Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely,” Harris said. “But if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it.”

Harris’s answer reflects the fact that most Americans don’t believe what the president says about a vaccine.

Pence, encapsulating the president’s position, responded to the senator by saying, “The fact that you continue to undermine public confidence in a vaccine, if the vaccine emerges during the Trump administration is unconscionable. Stop playing politics with people’s lives.”

He also touted the progress that has been made on a vaccine so far: “The reality is, we’re going to have a vaccine in record time, in less than a year. Unheard-of time. We have five companies in phase 3 clinical trials, and we’re producing tens of millions of doses.”

That part was mostly true. The rapid progress on a Covid-19 vaccine reflects some good fortune (coronaviruses are very familiar to modern science) as well as a sizable investment made by the federal government. The Trump administration has already spent $10 billion through Operation Warp Speed, paying for clinical research and also for pharmaceutical companies to pre-manufacture doses of their vaccine candidates so that, if the vaccine should win FDA approval, they can start distributing it as quickly as possible. The current record for vaccine development is four years, for mumps.

Experts give credit to the Trump administration for that progress, though they consider “Operation Warp Speed” to be a branding exercise for work that would have been done regardless. But there is one big problem with the project, according to the experts and insiders I’ve spoken with: Trump himself, in undercutting what is supposed to be a sacrosanct FDA approval process.

How Donald Trump has undermined the public’s faith in a Covid-19 vaccine

Rather than let science run its course, irrespective of his own electoral considerations, Trump has consistently meddled. He’s been promoting unrealistic vaccination timelines for months. He is reportedly calling drug company CEOs to pressure them to make progress on the vaccine front.

The New York Times reported this week that the White House had initially blocked the FDA from releasing more stringent criteria for approving the emergency use of a Covid-19 vaccine. After the FDA did finally release those guidelines, Trump accused his own agency of being part of a political conspiracy against him.

At Wednesday’s debate, Pence couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge his boss’s mistakes. So he blamed Harris and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for weakening public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine.

“We will have a vaccine, we believe, before the end of this year,” Pence said. “And it will have the capacity to save countless American lives. Your continued undermining of confidence in a vaccine is unacceptable.”

Pence’s timeline, like Trump’s, is very optimistic. New government guidance released this week makes clear the first data on the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied won’t be released until November or December at the very earliest. Pfizer’s CEO, overseeing one of the most promising candidates, has pushed back against any artificial timelines for vaccine approval. Moderna, another top candidate, was forced to slow down its clinical trials after failing to enroll enough minorities. Johnson & Johnson has said it expects to seek approval in early 2021. Most experts think a Covid-19 vaccine won’t be widely available until late spring or summer 2021, at the soonest.

And on public trust in the vaccine, Pence was outright misleading the audience.

The public doesn’t trust Trump on a vaccine. More than half of Americans, 52 percent, said in a September NBC News poll that they didn’t believe the president’s vaccine comments, while just 26 percent did. A STAT/Harris poll from late August found that 78 percent of Americans worry the vaccine approval process is being driven more by politics than science. And, in an echo of Harris’s stated concerns about a vaccine, only 19 percent of Americans said they would take a vaccine just because Trump said it was safe, according to a new Axios/Ipsos survey.

Pence’s argument that it is Democrats who are eroding the public’s faith in a vaccine falls apart when you look at the polling that shows Americans of every political identification — including Republicans, a group less likely to be swayed by whatever Biden or Harris might say — are becoming less likely to say they’ll take a Covid-19 vaccine.

Pew Research Center

ABC News and Ipsos conducted a survey on whether the public trusts either of the two presidential candidates on a vaccine. They found that 41 percent said they had a great deal or a good amount of confidence in Biden; just 27 percent said the same of Trump.

America has a problem if this many people are skeptical of a Covid-19 vaccine. The fewer people who get vaccinated, the longer it will take to build up widespread immunity and eventually stamp out the coronavirus. But the source of those doubts isn’t Kamala Harris or Joe Biden. It is, if you take all of these public opinion surveys together, quite clearly Donald Trump.