Donald Trump clearly wants to pay tribute to the recent successes of the Covid-19 vaccines that US companies are developing. "I've developed vaccines that people didn't think we'd have for five years," he told Fox News on Sunday. Apparently, he is now paying tribute to not only his administration's Operation Warp Speed, which pumped billions into the vaccine development process, but the vaccine formulations themselves.
With every new, exciting development, Trump has found recognition. When pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced promising results of its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial with BioNTech, it claimed in a press conference that the success was "the result of Operation Warp Speed".
Trump's comments on the Pfizer vaccine were not entirely true. Pfizer hasn't received any money from Warp Speed, the government's plan to catalyze vaccine development – at least in terms of research and development: the US government has agreed to buy 100 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine if approved. The government gave Moderna money for Warp Speed, whose vaccine also appears to be extremely effective. Even in the case of Moderna, it was definitely not Trump who catalyzed research and development of the technology.
But, you know what? Let Trump Recognize These Vaccines.
And not because he was a real advocate of science, the scientist, or the regulatory process. Let him take out credit because it can serve a greater benefit: convince his Republican followers to trust the vaccine and take it when it becomes widely available. That could ultimately save many lives.
Many Americans hesitate about a possible Covid-19 vaccine – Republicans more than Democrats
We might have vaccines at some point, but the question remains: will people take them?
Only 58 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll said they would take the vaccine if it was first approved. That number has risen from a low of 50 percent in September. Previously, the willingness to vaccinate had declined all summer.
Furthermore, the polls may actually underestimate the problem of distrust. "For example, when we look at seasonal influenza vaccination rates, surveys always overestimate the number of people who are getting them," Matt Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University, told me this summer. It is much easier to tell a pollster that you are getting a vaccine than to actually get one.
According to Gallup, only 49 percent of Republicans say they would get a vaccine if approved. (Democrats are 69 percent more confident as they are confident of the upswing.) This means that in his final days in office and after he leaves, Trump has a chance to actually do something good by continuing to trumpet his contribution to the vaccine Process which inspires some of his Republican followers to take the vaccine.
To fight the virus, we need a large percentage of vaccinated people across the country (at least 50 percent or more), and that number needs to include people of all political beliefs.
Trump's power to affect the mind is real. Can he use it well?
Trump is responsible for much of the hesitant vaccine against Covid-19 for a number of reasons: For example, his constant attacks on scientists and his suggestions that the Food and Drug Administration's career officials were politicians with vaccine approval.
But he has incredible power to change the opinions of his followers almost overnight. My colleague Dylan Matthews has documented sudden changes of opinion on issues such as Russia and Vladimir Putin, free trade and supporting the surveillance function of the news media. Or consider how Trump heightened Republican hostility towards the NFL after urging the league to fire players who kneeled in protest during the national anthem.
Trump's power to influence Republican minds has also been shown experimentally, as I wrote in a 2018 article on the "Follow the Leader" effect in political science.
In January 2017, BYU political scientists Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope designed an experiment in which they asked themselves: Are Trump's supporters ideological or will they follow him wherever his political whims go? Immediately after Trump's inauguration, they conducted an online experiment with 1,300 Republicans.
The study was pretty straightforward. Participants were asked to rate whether they support or oppose measures such as a higher minimum wage, the nuclear deal with Iran, restrictions on access to abortion, background checks on gun owners, etc. These are the issues on which conservatives and liberals are often deeply divided.
Barber and Pope wondered: Would Republicans be more likely to advocate liberal policies if told they supported Trump?
The answer: "On average, for all the questions we asked, Republicans are 15 percentage points more likely to support liberal policies than they were told Trump supports them," Pope says. They follow their leader. "The conclusion we should be drawing is that the public, the average Republican sitting out there in America, is not going to stop Trump from doing what he wants."
The effect even applied to questions about immigration. If Trump supported lax immigration policies, his supporters were more likely to say they did too. (They also repeated these findings with new responses later in the Trump presidency, although these new findings have not yet been published in any peer-reviewed journal.)
I recently contacted Barber and Pope and asked them: Do you think Trump has the power to influence GOP thoughts to take the vaccine? "Trump's best move from a public health perspective would be to get the vaccine approved – get Republican voters to trust the vaccine more," Barber said in an email.
Not only would this help encourage more people to receive the vaccine altogether, but Trump advocates receiving the vaccine could be especially helpful in stopping the pandemic.
Trump supporters are less inclined to engage in behaviors that help stop the virus from spreading, such as wearing masks that will be needed for some time even after there is an approved vaccine, and are more likely to be against staying at home orders. If they still feel loyal to Trump after leaving office in 2021, they could be an important part of the solution when it comes to the vaccine.
But approval of the Trump vaccine could have other consequences: If Trump supports the vaccines that may be approved, are Democratic voters less likely to receive them? Yes, Trump can change the minds of his own voters, and he can also change his opposition's mind in the opposite direction: the recent drop in Democratic confidence in a potential vaccine could be related to Trump's rhetoric.
"You are right to worry about lower Democratic confidence, but I think that could be mitigated if scientists support the vaccine too – people like (Dr. Anthony) Fauci and others in the FDA / CDC," says Barber.
Trump cannot resolve the hesitation of the vaccine on his own
Of course, Trump, who inspires his followers to take the vaccine, doesn't solve the general problem of hesitation. Polls also show that women and black Americans, groups that generally listen to Trump less, are more hesitant.
It's not just that people are afraid that science will be rushed or that administration will make policy with the approval process. As I reported in August, people are also concerned about costs and access.
The lesson here is not that Trump can fix this huge mess he made. Anyone in power who has an influence over public opinion should encourage their supporters to receive the vaccine if it is deemed safe and effective by the scientific community. The news needs to be especially clear and consistent, as both of the most promising vaccines – Moderna vaccine and Pfizer's – require two doses. People need to be motivated to sign up for not just one but two shots.
There is so much about the US response to the botched pandemic. We failed early testing and then didn't scale it. We haven't been able to keep track of contacts and safely reopen many of our communities. But we haven't screwed up a vaccination campaign yet.
There is still time to get it right. Trump endorsing a vaccine that has been shown to be safe and effective is a decent start – even if it comes with a bunch of inappropriate bragging rights.
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