For the past eight years, Dec. 14 has marked one of the most tragic moments in recent American history. On this day in 2012, a disturbed young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with a semiautomatic firearm and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were children.
From this year on, however, Dec. 14 won’t be known only as the anniversary of one of the deadliest outbreaks of a decades-long plague that the U.S. can’t seem to solve. It will be also be known as the day in which the nation’s efforts to stop another deadly scourge bore fruit, as the first COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered to healthcare workers around the country, giving a downcast nation hope that the end of this deadly scourge is finally in sight.
Hours after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, 3 million doses were on trucks and planes headed to hospitals across the U.S. One of those shipments arrived late Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport via FedEx. The first immunizations were administered to healthcare workers soon after, and more will follow in the coming days. By the end of the week, a second vaccine candidate that uses the same mRNA technology, this one from Moderna, is expected to get FDA approval. By early next year, there are likely to be even more vaccines, including those without the same cold storage requirements of these initial doses.
It’s not the end of the COVID-19 pandemic by a long shot. But with the launch of the most ambitious immunization operation in U.S. history, the end is in sight. Barring unforeseen problems with production, distribution or safety, vaccines will be available to the general public in late spring or summer. Until then, we still have months to go during which social distancing, face masks and restrictions on gatherings and businesses will be necessary.
That we have reached this point just a year after SARS-CoV-2 was first identified is a remarkable feat of science, political will and government mobilization. And for this we are profoundly grateful to the many people whose hard work, vision and personal sacrifice made it possible.
Thank you to the scientists who started working on the vaccine in February, even before it was clear how widespread the pandemic would become. Thank you to the thousands of clinical trial volunteers who risked their health to take an experimental vaccine for the benefit of others. Thank you to the government officials who worked to limit the bureaucratic red tape that typically makes vaccine development a years-long process, and for doing it without compromising safety controls. And thanks, too, to President Trump.
That’s right. Though the Trump administration bungled so much about the COVID-19 response, making the U.S. a global embarrassment and the world’s leader in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, its Operation Warp Speed delivered. Launched in May, the private-public initiative marshaled the resources of government, science, the military and the pharmaceutical industry to rapidly develop, produce and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. By investing $14 billion in research and development and the pre-purchase of vaccines, and allowing concurrent trials in the second and third phases, the administration was able to truncate a years-long process into just months.
“In order to achieve this goal, we harnessed the full power of government, the genius of American scientists and the might of American industry to save millions and millions of lives all over the world,” Trump said last week. It’s astonishing not only that the government could move so quickly but that it did so at the behest of a chaotic administration that undermined science and proved unable to muster the coordinated public-health response that America has desperately needed.
Of course, Trump’s narrow focus on getting a vaccine to the exclusion of other initiatives came with a cost. Another sad note for Dec. 14 is that it is the day in which the U.S. reached 300,000 COVID-19 deaths. No matter how much credit Trump gets for helping to usher in a COVID-19 vaccine, it doesn’t absolve him of all the other ways in which his leadership has failed spectacularly. Imagine how many lives might have been saved if a similar public-private initiative had been launched for testing and contact tracing at the outset; if uniform standards for infection control had been applied; or if Trump had simply modeled good behavior, like mask wearing and social distancing, from the get-go.
That Trump simultaneously accelerated both the deadliness of this pandemic and its potential cure will be one of the many enduring contradictions of his presidency. For now, the takeaway is that the American government — supporting scientists and experts, free of interference — can still do great things. We hope that underlying insight can now be applied to the many other massive problems our nation faces.