Former president Donald Trump wants credit for developing a coronavirus vaccine, but, as usual, his claims fall short of the truth.
When Pfizer announced Nov. 9, 2020, that its COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective, Trump claimed full credit for the development under Operation Warp Speed to encourage development of the vaccine and treatments for the virus. In fact, Pfizer did not participate in Operation Warp Speed and did not accept government money to develop the vaccine.
Instead, Pfizer partnered with the vaccine’s original developer, Germany’s BioNTech, in March 2020. Pfizer risked $2 billion of its own money and conducted the first human study in Germany. The White House announced Operation Warp Speed in May 2020. Pfizer in July 2020 did sign an agreement with the US government worth $1.95 billion to provide 100 million doses, which guaranteed a market once the vaccine was approved for use in December 2020. A second vaccine was also produced by the biotech firm Moderna in December.
But Trump also did more than any other person to allow the coronavirus to spread throughout the USA. As early as February 2020, Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in a taped interview that COVID-19 is “deadly stuff,” and that, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed.” Trump added that he decided to “play down” the pandemic so as not to scare people. He refused to wear a face mask, which was the only way to stop the spread of the airborne virus; for months he ridiculed people who wore masks and he held “super spreader” events around the country that attracted thousands of supporters, most of whom didn’t wear masks. He also supported protests that challenged state and local efforts to require face masks and restrict public gatherings to stop the pandemic’s spread. By the time the vaccines were approved for shipment, COVID-19 had killed more than 300,000 Americans — the highest death rate in the developed world. By the time Trump left office, 400,000 Americans had died of the coronavirus.
The vaccines have been praised as a triumph of the free market, but both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines relied on a new genetic technology and a specially designed spike protein developed by scientists at the federal Vaccine Research Center, which was created in 1997 at the National Institutes of Health, at the urging of Dr. Anthony Fauci, to bring together researchers from different disciplines to defeat diseases, with a heavy focus on HIV and coronaviruses. Research on a coronavirus vaccine had been going on since 1961, when scientists learned of messenger RNA, the genetic material that makes life possible, taking the instructions inscribed in DNA and delivering those to the protein-making parts of the cell.
Researchers sought to make messenger RNA into a powerful medical tool that could encode fragments of virus to teach the immune system to defend against pathogens. It could also create whole proteins that are missing or damaged in people with devastating genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. But University of Pennsylvania researchers Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman found little interest at biotech and pharmaceutical companies to fund the research in the late 1990s, Weissman told the Washington Post. Eventually, Kariko went to BioNTech, a German firm working on developing RNA therapies, to continue her work.
The Vaccine Research Center targeted coronaviruses in the early 2000s when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) broke out in 2012. When VRC officials heard of a new coronavirus in China, they got genome from Chinese scientists and shared it with researchers in Texas and Maryland, who designed a vaccine, using the knowledge they had gained from years of work. But they still needed a technology that could deliver it into the body — and they had already been working with Moderna, using its messenger RNA technology to create a vaccine against a different bat virus.
Carolyn Y. Johnson wrote in the Washington Post Dec. 6, 2020, “The world faced an unparalleled threat, and companies leaped into the fight. Pfizer plowed $2 billion into the effort. Massive infusions of government cash helped remove the financial risks for Moderna.
“But the world will also owe their existence to many scientists outside those companies, in government and academia, who pursued ideas they thought were important even when the world doubted them. Some of those scientists will receive remuneration, since their inventions are licensed and integrated into the products that could save the world.
“As executives become billionaires, many scientists think it is fair to earn money from their inventions that can help them do more important work. But [Jason] McLellan’s laboratory at the University of Texas is proud to have licensed an even more potent version of their spike protein, royalty-free, to be incorporated into a vaccine for low- and middle-income countries.”
Joe Biden’s administration organized the distribution of the vaccines and delivered 100 million doses to states and territories in his first two months in office. As of March 21, 81.4 million Americans have received at least one dose and 44.1 million have been fully vaccinated, and new COVID cases have dropped from a high of 300,669 on Jan. 8 to an average of 54,599 per day the week of March 20. But polls show one-half of Republican men say they won’t take the vaccines, which could make it hard to achieve “herd immunity” to stomp out the virus, and Trump has done little to urge his followers to use either mask or vaccine to stop the virus.
Instead, Trump continued to blame the coronavirus on China, where the virus originated, despite 3,800 hate-related incidents reported against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
Trump and his followers derisively call COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu,” despite the World Health Organization urging people to avoid the use of those terms, fearing a backlash against Asians. Trump ignored the advice and first tweeted the phrase “China virus” March 16, 2020, the Washington Post noted. That single tweet, researchers later found, fueled exactly the kind of backlash the WHO had feared: It was followed by an avalanche of tweets using #chinesevirus, along with other anti-Asian phrases.
Trump refused to moderate his reckless rhetoric, even after eight people were shot dead, including six women of Asian descent, at three Asian massage parlors in and around Atlanta, March 16, 2021.
In a telephone interview with Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo the night of the Atlanta shootings, Trump again used the term “China virus” to describe the coronavirus.
The gunman has denied that race was a factor in the rampage. However, even if it’s only a coincidence that the Atlanta spa killer targeted six women of Asian descent, it would help if the former president would stop stirring the pot of racism.
Until then, we suggest that the proper credit for Trump’s contribution to the coronavirus pandemic is to rename it the “Trump Virus” in recognition of the former president’s service. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2021
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