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A Look At Political Messaging Around A Coronavirus Vaccine In The U.S.


That joint statement from the drugmakers comes as President Trump continues to speak about a vaccine coming soon. As we just heard, the president said there may be a vaccine by, quote, "a very special date," and it's clear he's referencing Election Day. Let's talk about the politics of this with NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hello to both of you.


SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

PFEIFFER: Tam, let's start with you. What else is President Trump saying?

KEITH: Well, he was pressed on whether politicizing vaccine development - whether he was politicizing it by teasing that it could come before an election day. And he insisted that his pitch was really that it would come by the end of the year and that he was saying it may be possible by late October or early November. And then he said more. Here's this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's the faster, the better. With somebody else, maybe they would say it politically. But I'm saying it in terms of this is what we need. We have to have - if we get the vaccine early, that's a great thing whether it's politics or not.

KEITH: Politics or not - but then just seconds later, he said...


TRUMP: Now, do benefits inure if you're able to get something years ahead of schedule? I guess maybe they do.

KEITH: Now, in addition to the statement from the pharmaceutical companies, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar was on Fox News today, pledging that the only consideration would be the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. So there's something of a full-court press by others in the Trump administration and beyond to separate the president's words from the process even if the president himself isn't really doing that.

PFEIFFER: Scott, how is the Biden campaign approaching this issue?

DETROW: They seem to be trying to do two things at once. On one hand, Biden is making it clear he is rooting for a vaccine. He wants one fast. He tried to underscore that yesterday by saying he would take a vaccine breakthrough even if it costs him the election. But both Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, are saying they just don't trust Trump. And they think he has a long track record of saying things that aren't true and mixing personal interests with politics. Biden said during a labor town hall yesterday that he would not be comfortable taking a vaccine himself that Trump is touting without hearing from outside experts.


JOE BIDEN: Only if it was completely transparent and other experts in the country could look at it, only if we knew all of what went into it because so far, nothing he's told us has been true.

DETROW: And Harris said something similar to CNN over the weekend. Trump tried to frame that as anti-vaxxer. But it's worth pointing out here with the public at large, President Trump has lost a lot of credibility over the past year in polls when it comes to the pandemic.

PFEIFFER: Tam, I want to play some sound. This is from an interview we did last week with Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's vaccine development program.


MONCEF SLAOUI: There is a very, very low chance that the trials that are running as we speak could read before the end of October.

PFEIFFER: Given that that's being said by the head guy, does Trump's messaging make sense from a strategic point of view?

KEITH: Well, apart from the scientific and public health risk of getting out ahead of the vaccine development process, it's relatively risky for him to dangle this out there and tie his political fortunes to it. Experts say that they are hopeful that these vaccine candidates will work, but this is a novel coronavirus, and nothing is a sure bet. And as Scott mentioned, a lot of Americans don't trust the president on this issue. Trump is often in the cheerleader role and has at times announced something as a major slam-dunk development that turns out to be less than meets the eye - for example, on convalescent plasma, which is still being studied and is far from a cure-all.

And, of course, if a vaccine really is ready and available and safe and effective next month or before the election, that is absolutely a good news story. But will it be a game-changer? We don't know, especially if voters who are casting their ballots through the mail have already voted.

PFEIFFER: Scott, the Biden campaign is reminding people that even if there is a vaccine announcement and experts say it's safe and effective, that is just the beginning.

DETROW: Yeah. We have heard a lot from Joe Biden saying this administration needs a plan for how to scale this vaccine, how distribute it, importantly how to build public trust. And that really ties into Biden's main argument all year, and that is President Trump has mismanaged this, has never had a real game plan for testing or for mitigating the virus.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

DETROW: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG, "BEACH DR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.