We are living through a research triumph and might not be fully realizing it.
Yesterday I started writing this optimistic post, but got caught up with more COVID-19 data, which led me to issue two grim Twitter threads (1,2). That dark mood still hangs over me today, so I can’t help but see the optimistic topic of this post as something Futurama’s Dr. Farnsworth would shout.
But it’s true. This is good news.
Let me explain, then point to the future, as we do on this blog.
That we now have COVID-19 vaccines – not just one, mind, but several – is astonishing. We have never crafted a coronavirus vaccine for humans before, not for SARS or MERS, and those have been with us for years. And humanity has never built a successful vaccine for anything, much less a global pandemic, in under a year. This represents a heroic combination of people, resources, innovation, hard work, risk, and institutions. It’s one for history, on the same plane as Salk’s polio vaccine.
So why aren’t we cheering more?
Some people are, and that’s one reason the rest are not. In the United States the pandemic is ruthlessly politicized, so naturally Trump and some of his supporters are delighted. The president tweets about the vaccines fairly often. Given partisan political logic, not to mention Trump’s bone-level mendacity, his opponents have an incentive to not follow suit. Once Biden becomes president, the equation will flip, and Republicans may abhor the vaccines, while Democrats praise it. (Tucker Carlson gives us a hint of this switch.) Those who aren’t engaged at the party identity label might just sit the thing out.
Another reason for our refusal to be gleeful is that so many of us are immersed in dread and anxiety because of the pandemic and its associated economic fallout (cf my tweets from last night). December is a holiday time for many, especially in the Anglosphere, and various public health measures cramp or vitiate the season’s spirit. The horrors of escalating infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are uppermost in our minds. There’s also the popular sense that 2020 is just, in Time magazine’s dumb cover story, the worst year ever. While I mock that expression I respect the sentiment it fumbles to describe. That 2020 was a succession of awfulness is a hard feeling to shake. The pandemic has been, and is, terrible. And the vaccines are only just now starting to be delivered.
A third reason may be that the vaccines are not clearly identified with a single entity that we are already prepared to celebrate. Nobody likes to throw parades for drug companies, assuming we can someday hold parades again. No charismatic, media-savvy scientist has strode forth, although I expect Turkey and Germany to praise Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci. Moncef Slaoui doesn’t seem to have a following. No university has revved up a publicity campaign to arrogate glory to its scientists. No nation has claimed victory, so patriots can’t cheer. In fact, this success is clearly a multinational or transnational story, with contributions from Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa.
Worse, multi-agency arrangements are in play, which usually fail to win media attention. How many people have even heard of COVAX or the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, much less the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (with its awesome acronym “GLoPID-R”)?
An additional reason may be that so many people refuse to take the vaccines or express skepticism about them, at least in polling. There’s certainly an established antivax movement. Beyond that core, bipartisan cadre is a wide range of Americans. Recent polling has shown that women are more likely to resist the vaccines than are men. Latinx and black people are much more likely to decline a vaccine than are whites and Asians. Education and age are strong correlates with anti-COVID-vax attitudes. For example, from Pew Research:
The nay-sayers aren’t a majority of America. They constitute roughly one third. But it’s a substantial enough group that media outlets and many people are probably leery of rubbing pharma success in their faces. This might be even more true for people burned out on culture wars after a bitter 2020 election. Progressives don’t want to attack people they wish to elevate.
Interestingly, Gallup finds that the biggest reason for people to be leery of vaccines is the very speed of their success. “In a follow-up question, 37% of Americans who would not get a vaccine say the rushed timeline for the development of the vaccine is the main reason they would not be vaccinated.”
There might also be some anti-nerd feeling at play here, connected to the residual disdain for science fiction. Trump named the American effort Operation Warp Speed, and I remember well the negative reactions to that title.
I don’t want to be pollyannish about this. There are all sorts of problems involved in making the vaccine work. As I’ve told many of you, there are serious distribution issues. Already we’re seeing furious debates within the United States about uneven shipments to states and how to organize recipients. Globally there are problems of inequity, with the poorest nations apparently far down on distribution lists. There may be religious opposition (and already one question). The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has a ferocious freezing requirement. So far the vaccines are not open source. A new COVID variation has appeared in Britain and that nation’s health leader deemed it to be out of control. We don’t have a sense of long-term effects. And so on.
I am curious about how the COVID vaccine story will play out in the future, both its impact and how we acculturate it.
IHME projects that a rapid vaccine rollout could save 60,000 lives worldwide over the next three months. If production keeps roaring along and enough people actually take the doses, we should expect that savings to keep rising, and the rate of new deaths to steadily drop.
We should expect some historians to assign some credit for the success to president Trump, and for that to be hotly contested for years to come.
I am curious about what this means for the reputation of science. Will the COVID vaccine triumphs inspire more popular interest in science, at least in epidemiology or public health in general? I expect it might nudge more people to explore careers in those fields. Yet anti science feeling has deep and diverse roots, as a casual glance at the sheer variety of anti-vaccine people shows. I don’t mean science studies academics, but people in the broader population. The science culture wars could rage for another generation…
…which is important for how we grapple with climate change. If substantial populations remain skeptical of science, that augurs extra political and cultural stresses as that great global crisis proceeds. Doing interdisciplinary climate science research, offering mitigation projects, teaching the topic, arguing for civilizational changes all already face obstacles and opposition. One lesson of 2020 and the pandemic vaccines might be that we should expect climate progress to receive weak support and broad-based dislike. We remain, broadly, as a species, uncomfortable with how science works and what it brings about.