Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, is escalating his campaign to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines, the drug companies that produced them, and the public health officials and government leaders who urged Americans to get them.
Florida under DeSantis has been home base for anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-lockdown policies in the past three years. His administration sought to block cities and universities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates; his surgeon general drew widespread criticism this fall for urging young men not to get vaccinated. This week, DeSantis hosted a 90-minute panel discussion filled with experts questioning the efficacy of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and touting their potential dangers for some people, while alleging a vague conspiracy exists to hide that information from the public.
Now he is taking this crusade to the next level, asking the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury charged with investigating any wrongdoing related to the promotion and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
Some conservatives expect DeSantis to make his Covid policies and his public vaccine skepticism a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. It’s an issue where he could draw a real contrast with former President Donald Trump, whose administration oversaw the vaccines’ development and distribution and who empowered public health officials, like the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci, who became villains for many Republicans over the course of the pandemic.
(The governor himself received a shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine near the start of the nation’s vaccination drive, but has evaded questions about any booster doses, which the CDC recommended for people who received one initial J&J dose.)
“Florida law prohibits fraudulent practices, including the dissemination of false or misleading advertisements of a drug and the use of any representation or suggestion in any advertisement relating to a drug that an application of a drug is effective when it is not,” reads the petition. “The pharmaceutical industry has a notorious history of misleading the public for financial gain.”
The grand jury, which DeSantis said would likely be based in Tampa Bay, would be empowered to investigate crimes, return indictments, and issue reports, with a particular focus on violations of Florida’s fraud statutes, its laws governing pharmaceuticals, and the state’s RICO law.
In addition, DeSantis announced he is forming a “public health integrity committee” filled with his appointed experts who would evaluate any federal public health guidance and potentially offer their own contradictory recommendations. DeSantis also said the Florida state legislature would soon take up and pass a bill “protecting the First Amendment rights” of physicians who express skepticism about the usefulness of masks or vaccines.
DeSantis announced this new front in his campaign against “the elites” over the pandemic response as cases across the country are on the rise. Cases nationally are up 44 percent in the past two weeks as of December 15 (and those are just the official numbers, with some unknown number of cases confirmed through an at-home test but never reported to the government).
Hospitalizations and deaths have also been increasing nationally; about 450 Americans are still dying from Covid-19 every day on average. Florida appears to be heading in the same direction, with cases, hospitalizations, and the number of Covid patients in the ICU all higher in the last two weeks. (Deaths are not yet increasing, but that usually comes after an increase in hospitalized and critical patients.) Hospitals across the country, including in Florida, were already straining under the burden of unusually active RSV and flu seasons and they’re now staring down another coronavirus surge.
But DeSantis’s timing makes more sense when you remember the 2024 Republican presidential primary is getting underway.
DeSantis is spreading an anti-vaccine message ahead of his not-yet-official presidential campaign
Donald Trump announced he would again seek the party’s nomination shortly after the midterms. DeSantis emerged from those midterm elections, in which he decisively won reelection, as the most obvious challenger to Trump, a favorite among party leaders and voters who want an alternative to the former president. Polling in recent weeks appears to affirm his strength as a 2024 contender.
But DeSantis, who has courted Trump’s approval in the past, has to be careful about alienating the voters who are loyal to Trump. So conservative policy experts think Covid-19 is an issue where DeSantis can draw a contrast with Trump — who put people like Fauci, a popular target of derision for DeSantis, in charge — while still appealing to the base on an issue they are fired up about.
“Stack up their records on that issue,” Avik Roy, founder of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, told me soon after the midterms. “In a Republican primary, that’s a case DeSantis can make very convincingly.”
From the beginning, DeSantis has charted a course in almost direct opposition to the federal government. He fought with local school boards over mask mandates for students and signed legislation forbidding various vaccine mandates. His public health deputies have repeatedly cast doubt on the usefulness of masks and vaccines. Florida also sued to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors.
DeSantis has been making, and will likely continue to make, the case that the Florida approach was superior. There is evidence that Florida’s economy has benefited from the state having lax coronavirus mitigation measures. But the state’s public health performance was not great either; Florida ranks ninth in total Covid-19 cases per capita and 14th in total deaths per capita. More than 83,000 Floridians have died in the pandemic. (The governor’s office once tried to suggest the state’s Covid-19 death figures were overstated, but an audit later found that the state had actually undercounted about 3,000 pandemic deaths.)
DeSantis is making an argument that defies the consensus of public health experts and most estimates on the impact of the vaccines. The same day he announced his plans to go after Pfizer and Moderna for potential criminal misconduct, scholars from the Yale School of Public Health, York University, and the University of Maryland released projections that the vaccines had prevented as many as 3.2 million deaths and 18.5 million hospitalizations in the United States from December 2020 to November 2022.
But in offering his alternative story of the pandemic, DeSantis has a different audience in mind. As much as parsing the particulars of vaccine efficacy data, the governor sought in his anti-vaccine event to create an “us versus them” narrative in which a conglomeration of the media, drug companies, the government, and the medical establishment had misled the US public about the coronavirus and vaccines.
It is a message clearly intended for the conservative base, the voters DeSantis needs to pry away from Trump. In July polling from Pew Research Center, less than 30 percent of Republicans said they think public health officials did an excellent or good job in responding to Covid-19, and almost 70 percent said too little priority was given to respecting individual choices in the pandemic response.
Those are the notes DeSantis is trying to hit as he prepares, barring an unexpected demurral, to enter the race for the White House. As part of this week’s panel discussion, he accused medical and tech elites of “an attempt to enforce one acceptable narrative on all these issues.”
He portrayed himself as willing to tell those truths that the establishment wouldn’t, sounding not unlike Trump in his first bid for president.
“They didn’t want to have any criticism of their lockdown policies,” he said. “If you can’t defend the policy, then maybe you should be looking in the mirror. But that’s not what these elites wanted to do.”
This is a dangerous game, particularly with Covid-19 reemerging as a serious public health threat. But it’s one DeSantis seems set on playing.