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Byrne: Taking a vaccine seriously

Since COVID-19 started to bare down on the U.S. in March we have been told that the ultimate solution would be an effective vaccine providing immunity to the vast majority who receive it. But, in almost the same breath we were told anti-viral vaccines take years to be developed and tested to show their safety and effectiveness. Indeed, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed for widespread use has been four years. Four years!

Knowing we couldn’t wait that long, the Trump administration launched Project Warp Speed, a federally funded and led public-private effort to develop an effective vaccine ready to be administered on a widespread basis in just one year – or even a little less than a year. Six manufacturers are currently working on their own individually developed vaccines and are in various stages of trials to assure their products are safe and effective.

The fact that six manufacturers using billions of federal dollars are all pushing for a vaccine at once is important for two reasons. First, the more making the effort, the greater the likelihood at least one will be successful. Second, if more than one are successful, then U.S. health care consumers will have options. As it is, the federal government has already ordered and these manufacturers are producing millions of doses so that when the testing is complete distribution will move very quickly so that we hasten the day we can return to the “new normal.”

How close are we? Manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer are in the final phase of their vaccines’ trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers who are taking the vaccines or a placebo to determine safety and effectiveness. Public health authorities and leading scientists are cautiously optimistic that one or both of these, and perhaps a few of the others, will receive Federal Drug Administration approval by year’s end. The first priority for administering the vaccine will be frontline health care providers, first responders, and senior citizens, the three groups most at risk from the disease. The hope is that they will be vaccinated by the end of next March and that the ramp up in production will allow widespread administration of one or more of the vaccines beginning in April, perhaps sooner.

This is dramatic, unparalleled progress. But there are those with their own political agenda undermining Operation Warp Speed by sowing distrust in the process. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom have been prominent in this regard, as has Democrat vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris. They are doing a disservice to the American people who need to have confidence the vaccine will be both safe and effective. I am particularly concerned that black people will be reluctant to take the vaccine because of their bad experience with American health care in the past and because of this cynical pre-election messaging by prominent Democrats. Yet, the data is clear: Black people are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at relatively high rates. They need the vaccine, and injecting doubt into the process for purely political reasons is shameful.

The FDA will only approve one or more of these vaccines if the trial results and other data meet its appropriately high standards. That doesn’t mean every person who gets the vaccine will develop complete immunity – that’s not true for any vaccine. But the vast majority will become immune and those who don’t and still come down with COVID-19 are likely to have a much less severe experience with the disease.

I’m old enough to remember when everyone in the U.S. stood in line to get the polio vaccine in a sugar cube. As a result of that effort, annual new polio cases in the U.S. were reduced to 100 in the 1960s, and we have been polio free since 1979, eliminating the scourge of a disease which frightened everyone in the 1950s and 60s. And just think what it will mean for all of us to eliminate COVID-19. But that will happen only if the vast majority of us get the vaccine,

So, I want to be clear. I’ve already gotten my flu shot for the season and as soon as I can, I’m going to get vaccinated against COVID-19. I know the FDA will only approve a vaccine which has demonstrated through thorough trials and data that it is safe and effective, and you should have that confidence too. By the way, the vaccine will be free. At no cost, you will be able to protect yourself and those you love from this terrible disease and its dire effect on our economy and our very freedoms.

Don’t listen to the cynical politicians. Get vaccinated now for the flu and, when it’s available, for COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.