Some worry ‘Operation Warp Speed’ plays into anti-vaccination movement’s hands
President Trump’s rapid push for a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year may be playing into the hands of the anti-vaccine community, which has already used the coronavirus crisis to further its conspiracy claims about the safety of vaccines.
The Trump administration is racing to get a vaccine to the market quickly with “Operation Warp Speed.”
The project’s goal is to have 300 million vaccine doses available by January, an accelerated version of the administration’s previous projections of needing 12 to 18 months to get a vaccine ready for the public.
“That means big and it means fast,” Trump said when he announced the initiative earlier this month. “A massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.”
The anti-vaccine community has worked for decades to cast doubt on the safety of vaccines, arguing without evidence that there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism.
Since the novel coronavirus began sweeping through the country, members of the anti-vaccine movement have found common cause with people protesting stay-at-home measures, and have shown up at multiple rallies.
Earlier this month, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms removed a widely circulated video titled “Plandemic” produced by anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits. It spread conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, including that it was invented in a laboratory in order to promote vaccinations.
Public health experts such as Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, say Operation Warp Speed can be used by the anti-vaccine movement to spread misinformation because it plays to arguments they are already making: Vaccines are being rushed without enough attention on all of their effects.
The idea that vaccines are rushed to the market without enough scrutiny, Hotez said in a recent interview, is a tenet of the anti-vaccine movement.
Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease doctor, also has criticized the “Warp Speed” name, saying it could feed misconceptions.
“I’m a little concerned by that name because it can imply by warp speed that you’re going so fast that you’re skipping over important steps and are not paying enough attention to safety, which is absolutely not the case,” Fauci said in a recent interview with The Hill.
Fauci emphasized the entire process of developing a successful vaccine requires “good attention to safety and scientific integrity.”
Companies have announced plans to manufacture vaccines even as they are being studied in the hopes of delivering a coronavirus vaccine more quickly. Companies are pursuing multiple steps at once, making investments in trial sites and manufacturing processes before they even know if a vaccine candidate works.
Fauci said this does put a financial risk on the companies developing the vaccines, but that it should not suggest that patient safety is being compromised.
“When you start manufacturing them ahead of time, then the risk is financial, because if it works, you’ve saved a lot of time. If it doesn’t, then you’ve invested money you’re not going to recoup,” Fauci said.
Other experts have noted that even at “warp speed,” a vaccine could still take years to develop.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said that it is “overly optimistic” to think a vaccine will be available by the end of the year.
The anti-vaccine movement has found success in part through distributing misinformation on social media to specific groups of Americans.
For example, the movement targeted Orthodox Jews in New York and Somali Americans in Minnesota with information arguing against vaccinations. Last year, the U.S. nearly lost its measles elimination status, something critics have attributed to the movement.
Anti-vaccine leaders have accused the government of hiding a link between vaccines and autism, something that science has repeatedly disproven.
One of the most prominent myths is that vaccines are a scam, pushed by the government in order to enrich Big Pharma, which results in forcing people to take dangerous vaccines.
Experts have said the administration did not do itself any favors by naming Moncef Slaoui, a venture capitalist and former executive at GlaxoSmithKline, to lead Operation Warp Speed.
Slaoui has been on the job for only a few weeks but has come under fire from Democrats and watchdog groups over potential conflicts of interest. Slaoui has extensive industry ties, including at least two companies that are working on vaccines, Moderna and SutroVax. He resigned from the board of directors of Moderna when he took the government post, but he remains on the board of SutroVax.
Adalja said the administration has obstacles to overcome and needs to be aggressive in combating vaccine misinformation to make sure people take a vaccine when it becomes available.
Others think that most people will be willing to take a vaccine for the coronavirus given the dramatic impact it has had on the nation. The country this week passed the ugly milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Vikram Bakhru, a physician and chief operating officer at health technology company ConsejoSano, said the unknown nature of the virus, and the desire to get back to pre-pandemic life, will make the public much more willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine.
Bakhru said he thinks Americans will want to move as quickly as possible.
“People are scared, people are worried, people don’t understand exactly how this virus evolves,” Bakhru said.
He said Americans will understand moving quickly on developing a vaccine is “related to our ability to live our daily lives, and to be a connected society, as we had been before this pandemic.”
At the same time, a Yahoo/YouGov poll from earlier in May suggested the anti-vaccine movement is having an effect on public opinion. It found that nearly 1 in 5 people were hesitant about getting a coronavirus vaccine.