That queasiness many of us are feeling these days isn’t the first stage of the coronavirus, it’s more likely a symptom of a gradual loss of confidence in the nation’s leading public health agencies under President Donald Trump. Week by week if not day by day for the past six months, President Donald Trump has promoted false hopes, quack science and snake oil in a manner more befitting a carnival barker than the leader of the free world. Think bleach and hydroxychloroquine or, more recently, convalescent plasma, which the Food and Drug Administration has authorized for emergency treatment of COVID-19 patients, although its efficacy remains in serious doubt.
Add to that President Trump’s clear disdain for expert opinion from such leading figures as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, whom the president once trusted to brief Americans on the progress of the pandemic but has now shunted aside (too honest, too forthcoming, presumably) and his longtime fondness for prevarication (his false and misleading statements now total more than 20,000, according to The Washington Post), and he could scarcely have done a better job of sabotaging Americans’ trust in modern medicine. The latest revelation? That he knew how dangerous COVID-19 was in February and confided with reporter Bob Woodward about it, even as he publicly downplayed the threat to the American people. In other words, he didn’t think the public could handle the unvarnished truth — or at least that’s the current story. So whom can you trust? Whatever the intent of Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to produce 300 million doses of vaccine in record time, Americans rightly perceive the Star Trek reference as an homage to science fiction, not science fact. And a timetable that produces such a wonder drug on the eve of Election Day? Why doesn’t the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just throw in a good deal for the Brooklyn Bridge while they’re at it?
What’s especially horrifying about this drip-drip bloodletting of precious credibility within the public health community is that too many doctors and other health care professionals in government service have just gone along with it — often by simply remaining silent. There are exceptions, of course. Moncef Slaoui, the former top GlaxoSmithKline researcher who now serves as chief vaccine adviser to the White House, publicly admitted this month that it was “extremely unlikely” that a vaccine would be available by October’s end.
So why did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notify states to be prepared for that exact timetable? Just in case, Mr. Slaoui told National Public Radio, even though there’s a “very, very low chance” of that happening. It sounded suspiciously like a high-wire act, balancing the truth with presidential expectations to be as hopeful as possible. Meanwhile, nine drug companies felt compelled to sign a pledge Tuesday that claims they will “stand with science” and won’t offer a vaccine that is not safe and effective. How extraordinary that vaccine producers had to fill the regulatory vacuum.
Some day when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, there will surely be a reckoning. Congratulations and thanks will go to the men and women who developed the necessary treatments and, we hope, immunizations, of course. But there also ought to be a clear accounting of those individuals who pandered to the political needs of an incumbent president with a propensity for prevarication. Americans deserved to hear the truth — good, bad or indifferent when so much was on the line. That’s true today just as it was true in February. Medical professionals who ignored their duty to the public should face consequences from their profession and the public. Whatever happens with the current pandemic, the loss of credibility in the U.S. public health community may have just as long-lasting consequences for the next medical crisis, global or domestic, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. That would be a tragedy, particularly because it was so easily preventable by simply telling the truth.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.