Democrats say they need to hear from scientists, not Trump, that vaccine is safe

Congressional Democrats — citing concerns over the possibility of political interference in the rush to develop a coronavirus vaccine — say they will look to scientists, not President Donald Trump, to ensure that if one becomes available it is both safe and effective.

In more than a dozen interviews with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, most members of Congress said they stand ready and willing to take any potential Food and Drug Administration-approved coronavirus vaccine. But Democrats insist that they will need more than a promise from Trump that it will work, and argue that the President does not have credibility on the issue at a time when his administration has stumbled to contain the pandemic and has made sweeping promises about the timeline for a vaccine and treatments.

“The person I trust is Dr. Fauci,” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told CNN. “When people need to rely on the information we are getting from institutions that are supposed to be telling us the truth, and when they have to walk back certain things that they say, that does not help. The person I trust is Dr. Fauci.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, another Hawaii Democrat, said that “if Anthony Fauci says it is safe to take, I will take it. If Donald Trump just announces a vaccine, I will want to understand what scientists say.”

Some Democrats went as far as to say that FDA approval may not even be enough for them to know a vaccine works.

Asked specifically whether FDA approval was enough to know a vaccine was safe and effective, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said, “I would like to say FDA approved and CDC recommended, but given how those two agencies have gotten screwed up by President Trump, there is an asterisk by that. Unfortunately, they aren’t the gold standard any longer, so you need to take a slightly closer look.”

“If something was the gold standard and you damage it for political purposes, which Trump has done, it creates a harm. I think to point that out is not the problem. To do the harm is the problem,” Whitehouse said.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut also said that questions about whether there was political interference from the Trump administration over the FDA were important to ask when it came to a vaccine.

“Assuming the FDA process is free of FDA interference, that is a big assumption that should be unnecessary even to state, but I have confidence that thorough clinical testing combined with objective and independent assessment by the FDA will yield a vaccine that is safe and effective,” Blumenthal said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a news conference on Tuesday that “the American people have overwhelming doubts” about the Trump administration’s ability to facilitate the development and distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

“If the President had any modicum of fidelity to science, no one would have any doubts,” Schumer said. “The American people have overwhelming doubts. … We just want science to govern. No political interference one way or the other.”

The way Democrats are responding to the potential release of a Covid-19 vaccine with Trump in office has become a flashpoint on the campaign trail in the run-up to the November elections.

Cal Cunningham, a Democrat running for the seat of GOP US Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, made headlines this week for saying during a debate that he would be “hesitant” to get a vaccine approved this year.

The comments came after the moderator raised the possibility that the pace of vaccine development “could mean condensing timelines from years to months,” as well as “compromises and risks.” Cunningham clarified to reporters after the debate that he would take a vaccine approved by the FDA.

Republicans, including Tillis, have been quick to criticize the Democratic candidate. “I think that’s irresponsible,” Tillis said during the debate, adding, “That statement puts lives at risk and makes it more difficult to manage the crisis.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have also faced scrutiny over their approach to the issue.

Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash earlier this month whether she would get a vaccine that was approved and distributed before the election, Harris replied, “Well, I think that’s going to be an issue for all of us,” adding, “I would not trust Donald Trump.” Harris later told CNN affiliate WISN that she would trust a vaccine under Trump if “the public health professionals and the scientists told us that we can trust it.”

Biden has said that if he could get a vaccine tomorrow, he’d take it, but he has expressed concern that the President has undermined public confidence, saying earlier this month, “I’m worried if we do have a really good vaccine, people will be reluctant to take it.”

Trump, meanwhile, has lashed out at Biden and Harris, saying at a Labor Day news conference that they should “immediately apologize for the reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric.”

To some extent, Democrats expressing reluctance may be responding to public sentiment on the issue.

A majority of Americans believe political pressure from the Trump administration will cause the FDA to rush approval of a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day on November 3, according to a health tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll, conducted from August 28 to September 3, found that 85% of Democrats, 61% of independents and 35% of Republicans believe the FDA would cave to pressure from the President and push through a Covid-19 vaccine before ensuring it is safe and effective.

CNN has previously reported that Trump has cranked up pressure on administration health officials to expedite work both on a coronavirus vaccine and on treatments that might signal to voters there is an end in sight to the life-altering pandemic, which has imperiled his reelection prospects.

Facing one of the most critical moments in its tenure since it was founded more than 100 years ago, officials inside the FDA have said the tension is palpable. A number of sources familiar with the internal workings have told CNN the responsibility feels immense and the environment is akin to that of a pressure cooker.

For the most part, Republicans said they had confidence in taking a vaccine.

“I have confidence that the FDA will evaluate the vaccine and its safety and efficacy in a way that has provided health to me over my lifetime,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said that “after the FDA has certified a vaccine is safe and effective,” he will “of course” take it.