Trump, Biden spar over COVID-19 vaccines at debate. Will it help public trust in the process?

White House
As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden vie for the White House, COVID-19 vaccines came up at Tuesday night's debate. (Photo by AndrewSoundarajan/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

With tens of millions of Americans tuned in to Tuesday’s presidential debate, the race for a COVID-19 vaccine took center stage in a big way. President Donald Trump said we’re “weeks away” from a working shot, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden said he doesn’t trust the president on the subject.

Trump's optimistic prediction—and Biden's rejoinders—come just over a month before the election and at a time when surveys show the public is wary of a quick-to-market coronavirus shot. Experts have urged the Trump administration and vaccine players to put science over speed.

When moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump about administration officials' statements that it’ll be next summer before a COVID-19 vaccine is “generally available,” the president responded that he's "spoken to the companies, and we can have it a lot sooner."

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Trump, who specifically called out Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson's vaccine programs, suggested some people are actually trying to slow the research for political reasons. “It’s a very political thing because people like this would rather make it political than save lives," the president said.

Biden said he's "for a vaccine” and would listen to scientists, but not the president. Trump "puts pressure and disagrees with his own scientists," the Democratic nominee added.

RELATED: Beyond COVID-19: The top vaccine programs to watch in 2020

The brief back-and-forth could threaten confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine R&D process at a time when Americans are already skeptical. A Pew survey earlier this month found that 51% of Americans would get a vaccine if it were available now, while 49% would not. More than three-fourths (78%) believe the process will move too quickly.

COVID-19 vaccines have advanced at record speeds since the pandemic started early this year, with programs from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, J&J and Novavax already in late-stage testing. Pfizer has said it expects to know whether its vaccine works late next month, ahead of its peers. 

Wednesday, The New York Times published a detailed account of Pfizer’s push for October results. The company has a huge financial incentive to be first, the newspaper reports, but its ambitious timeline remains unlikely and could risk public health. Some experts have voiced skepticism about the company's approach. Pfizer and other leading COVID-19 vaccine players signed a joint safety and efficacy pledge earlier this month.

Last week, a group of 60 experts wrote to Pfizer urging the company to wait until late November to submit its vaccine so it can gather more safety data after patients receive their second doses. A Pfizer spokeswoman said the company appreciates the input and is “committed to providing sufficient efficacy and safety data to help FDA determine the best regulatory mechanism for making the vaccine available to the public.” 

RELATED: Pfizer urged to hold off on coronavirus vaccine until late November 

Meanwhile, former FDA commissioners are raising red flags about political influence on the agency. In a Washington Post op-ed, they wrote that the Trump administration is “undermining the credibility” of the agency. Political leaders have "no expertise" in "matters of medicine," they said, pointing out that the FDA has had independent decision-making authority for more than 100 years. 

That's changing in "deeply troubling ways," they wrote, notably with the White House's recent statement it could influence COVID-19 vaccine requirements. While the former commissioners trust the FDA's expert staff, they believe that even the perception of politics at the agency would undermine its authority.

Looking forward to potential vaccine reviews, the former commissioners wore that a “safe and effective vaccine will not be enough; people will also have to choose to take it.” 

“This depends on widespread confidence that the vaccine approval was based on sound science and not politics,” they wrote. “If the White House takes the unprecedented step of trying to tip the scales on how safety and benefits will be judged, the impact on public trust will render an effective vaccine much less so.” 

That's exactly what Pfizer communications chief Sally Susman is seeing, she said during a Tuesday afternoon forum convened by Columbia Business School: Politics is getting in the way of public health.

“Every time a politician of either political party starts talking about vaccine timing ... the confidence numbers plummet," Susman said. "So we need to raise our own voices and try our best to silence those who are hurting the cause of science and truth.”

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