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How anti-vax are the Democrats? The politics of vaccination is a high-risk area, with a danger of unintended consequences

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/ Getty

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/ Getty

October 13, 2020   5 mins

It made no international headlines. Heck, it was barely news in the state of Vermont, where it took place. But the July debate between Vermont’s Governor, a Republican named Phil Scott, and a range of Republicans hoping to replace him after their primary contest, contained a zinger. It’s a barb that’s worth re-visiting all these months later.

Addressing a vaccine-sceptic fellow Republican, Governor Scott said, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. One of the front-runners on the Democratic side has questioned the science of vaccines. Do you accept, like I do, that vaccines are essential to public health and getting us out of this economic crisis that we’re in?”

Governor Scott is on the side of vaccines. His claim was that Lt Governor David Zuckerman, a pony-tail wearing Democrat who is now the challenger for the Governor’s job in the November election, is an anti-vax candidate.

Now, Vermont politics is rather incestuous and sometimes downright weird. One of the questions asked of the Governor by a fellow candidate during the debate was: “How do you justify not speaking up against the Department of Corrections forcing people to masturbate and measure their penis size or having undocumented strip searches called the naked monkey dance?” But putting that eccentricity to one side, there can be no doubt that David Zuckerman, a Democrat who may well become the Governor of the state of Vermont, or in the future a replacement in the Senate for its most famous political son, Bernie Sanders, has sided with people who do not approve of vaccines.

During a debate in the Vermont Senate in 2015, about efforts to force more parents to vaccinate their children, Mr Zuckerman said the pharmaceutical companies were in it for the money, rather than the health benefits. He maintained this gave parents the right to keep their children un-vaccinated:

“For me, as long as there’s the extreme financial conflicts of interest out there that are driving much of this debate and discussion, I have to maintain the individual right for someone to do their own research as well and make that decision,”

It was the classic vaccine-sceptic position. Yes, vaccines can help, but let’s go slow. Let’s open the door to talk of money, of freedom of choice, of ‘research’ that might lead to the conclusion that politics drive the vaccine movement. Let us, in other words, muddy the waters.

Fast-forward to now. What is the position, the official position, of the Democratic party, when it comes to vaccines against the Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2? Muddier than it could be, some are saying.

In a series of interventions, senior Democrats have cast doubt on the reliability of any vaccine available soon. Let’s start at the very top with Joe Biden, the presidential candidate. “Let me be clear: I trust vaccines,” Mr. Biden said. “I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump, and at this moment, the American people can’t either.”

Mr Biden said later that he would take a vaccine before election day, if the doctors told him it was safe. But the implication was clear: an early vaccine could be suspect.

Kamala Harris, his choice for vice-president, went further. When CNN’s Dana Bash asked whether Harris would trust a vaccine released by the end of the year, or sooner, the candidate responded, “I think that we have learned since this pandemic started, but really before that, that there’s very little that we can trust that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.”

Which was not exactly no, but not exactly yes. She received backing from another hugely well-known and respected Democratic politician, the Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, who announced that his state would carry out independent tests on any vaccine: “Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion and I wouldn’t recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government’s opinion.”

And just in case Donald Trump were to find a way of importing a vaccine from Britain, that base was covered off too by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, just last week, with a suggestion that British medical regulation was suspect: “My concern is that the UK’s system for that kind of judgment is not on a par with ours in the United States. So if Boris Johnson decides he is going to approve a drug and this president embraces that, that is a concern that I have.”

It is worth saying clearly that the Democratic party, around the United States and for many years, does have a record of backing vaccines. The Republican record is more mixed, and Donald Trump himself has flirted with the anti-vax movement. But what worries some enthusiastic backers of vaccine science is that the Democrats risk undoing the work they have done in the past – and of damaging Americans’ already shaky trust in science and medicine.

The view that Donald Trump might be untrustworthy on medical matters is hardly controversial.   It might make political sense for the Democrats to point this out so that the White House cannot make some baloney claim that a vaccine is ready and if you vote Trump you will get a jab in a few weeks time and your job back and everything will go back to normal. You can see why Joe Biden and his team might want to inoculate themselves against that.

But this is (relatively) subtle politics. What if most people just don’t concentrate that hard on the detail? The risk is that the message they get is less “Donald Trump is dodgy when he promises a vaccine” but more: “the vaccine is dodgy.”

It’s the dodginess, stupid.

One of Americas most prominent anti-vax campaigners isn’t complaining. For Robert F Kennedy, JFK’s nephew, the Democrats’ attitude has been helpful to his cause: “There is undeniably a lot more scepticism about vaccines,” Kennedy said. “It’s gone from maybe 5 to 10 percent to up to 50 percent range.”

He seems to have got that about right. In a national poll conducted for CNBC/Change Research at the end of last month only 42% said they would definitely or probably receive the inoculation when it first became available. That figure has fallen from 58% in July.

And who, politically, has had the biggest change of heart?

An extraordinary collapse in support from registered Democrats contributed to the overall change: only 30% said they would definitely get a vaccine, down from 57% in July.

Mr Zuckerman in Vermont is still an unusual Democrat but scepticism about vaccines – or at least about this potential vaccine – is widespread among the party’s supporters. It has been encouraged by the leadership. If Joe Biden becomes president and a vaccine becomes available he will be accused by the anti-vax movement of raising a legitimate set of doubts, and then ignoring them. It could be a powerful message.

It is pretty certain that no vaccine will actually be available before the election, or in its immediate aftermath. But the political fight may have done more long-term damage, and that is damage that the United States could do without. As Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration health official, put it recently: “Done right, vaccines end pandemics. Done wrong, pandemics end vaccines.”

The politics of vaccination is a high-risk area, with a danger of unintended consequences. The Democratic party has done what it felt it had to do, but American doctors have been given yet another reason to furrow their brows.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer


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