“He’s way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the vaccine because they don’t trust his administration, they don’t trust the election results, and they certainly don’t trust the fake news, which is refusing to tell the truth.”
That was former President Donald Trump’s take on why only 65.8 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have received at least one Covid vaccination, boiling it down to the American people’s trust in government. He’s got a point.
If you look at Pew Research Center’s public trust in government polls, ranging from 1958 to 2021, the American people’s trust in government remains low — it has generally been on a downward trend since the mid-1960s — with only 22 percent of Americans saying they trust the government to do what is right “most of the time” and just 2 percent saying “just about always”.
And then, looking specifically to the nation’s Covid response beginning in 2020, the American people have been told a lot of things about the virus that has given them cause to question whether the government has been fully forthcoming about where the virus really came from — and how to protect ourselves from it.
To mask or not to mask? That is the question.
Just take masks. Early on in the pandemic, the American people were told they did not need to wear masks in order to protect themselves, but then, over time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shifted its stance to being in favor of masks. (Full disclosure: I wear a mask when I go to the office or the store, etc. and yes, my wife and I got the vaccine. The kids are too young to get vaccinated.)
At first, on 60 Minutes, in March 2020, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is.”
But by April 2020, CDC had updated its mask guidance to state “CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain… Masks may help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”
Later in July 2020, Dr. Fauci admitted to the Washington Post that one reason the government originally discouraged mask usage was because it was afraid of a shortage of masks, stating, “Back then, the critical issue was to save the masks for the people who really needed them because it was felt that there was a shortage of masks. Also, we didn’t realize at all the extent of asymptotic spread…what happened as the weeks and months came by, two things became clear: one, that there wasn’t a shortage of masks, we had plenty of masks and coverings that you could put on that’s plain cloth…so that took care of that problem. Secondly, we fully realized that there are a lot of people who are asymptomatic who are spreading infection. So it became clear that we absolutely should be wearing masks consistently.”
So, initially, the government was not sure if masks would be effective if used by the general population, and they were worried that doctors and nurses who would be coming into contact with ill patients would run out of masks. But by the time it was clear the virus was spreading even without apparent symptoms, and that there was no mask shortage, Dr. Fauci says they reversed the original guidance. That’s the official version.
But, somebody who was cynical or predisposed to distrust the government might conclude that the government knew masks worked the whole time but deliberately lied about their efficacy early on in the pandemic to prevent a run on masks. The question of course would turn on what was known about asymptomatic spread of the virus, and when was it known. Given the fact that by April 2020, the CDC guidance shifted to call for masks just as reports were becoming public about asymptomatic spread, it appears that when the facts changed, the policy changed.
Now, as 186.8 million Americans have received at least one vaccination, the CDC has again shifted its guidance, now stating, “Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” But also, for Americans who are immune-compromised, “If you are fully vaccinated and have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may need to keep taking steps to protect yourself, like wearing a mask. Talk to your healthcare provider about steps you can take to manage your health and risks.”
Finally, the policy may not end there. With the so-called Covid delta variant now making the rounds as cases are once again rising in the U.S., several local governments are already reimposing mask restrictions. The CDC might not be too far behind. If so, the federal government will have run from contradictory polices of 1) no masks, 2) then, masks, 3) next, no masks if you have a vaccine and are not immune-compromised, and finally, 4) masks again whether or not you have a vaccine. Here, a lack of consistent messaging on masks almost certainly harms public trust in statements both about the lethality of the virus and whether the government thinks of itself first before protecting us. This would likely impact how the public views especially statements about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
Mandatory smallpox vaccinations and the Tuskegee experiments
Historically, two episodes stand out as fueling public distrust of not only the government, but very specifically, distrust of public health officials. The first was the mandatory implementation of smallpox vaccinations undertaking by cities and states in the early 1900s, and the second is the Tuskegee experiments from 1932 to 1972 by the CDC, which deliberately infected black Americans with syphilis just to see what would happen.
In the first instance, as noted by smallpox historian Michael Willrich in May 2020, local government mandates that were used to eradicate smallpox initially were unregulated and egregiously carried out, “The smallpox vaccine had been around for more than a century by this time, but vaccines were mostly produced by unregulated commercial enterprises. The governments were compelling people to get vaccinated, but those same governments were not regulating vaccine production to ensure that vaccines were safe and effective. In the U.S., the vaccines on the market in the early 20th century were mixed in terms of quality and safety. Some of them were connected to tetanus outbreaks, such as in 1901 in Camden, New Jersey, when nine school children died of tetanus following a compulsory vaccination order. So there were concerns about vaccine hazards that were not negligible.”
Local governments also used door-to-door “virus squads,” Willrich noted: “Ultimately, compulsory vaccination was carried out in many communities in a way that was discriminatory against African Americans and immigrant groups. There were examples of compulsory vaccination being carried out with force in immigrant tenement districts in cities like Chicago, New York and Boston. Local governments created ‘virus squads,’ teams of police and vaccinators that cordoned off city blocks, entered neighborhoods in the middle of the night, and went door to door, checking people to see if they had vaccination scars proving they had recently been vaccinated. Police tore infected children from their mothers’ arms and took them to isolation hospitals called ‘pesthouses.’”
In other words, it was horrible. If anyone wishes to pinpoint modern distrust of vaccines, look no further than the rollout of the mandatory smallpox vaccines in the early 1900s. Generations later, and we are still feeling the reverberations of those policies, which despite being upheld by the Supreme Court in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, almost certainly deprived Americans of liberty without due process of law, unconstitutional under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and in my view was wrongly decided.
When you couple the smallpox experience with the horrific Tuskegee human experiments by the CDC on blacks, it is little wonder, for examples, that African-Americans are presently about 7 percent less likely than white Americans to get the Covid vaccine. Who can blame them?
Overall, historically, there are good, rational reasons to distrust the government’s public health response in the U.S. There are also good reasons to say that we have overcome many of the original problems from a century ago, but it also means the government has a real challenge in persuading Americans to get the shot. Don’t discount these concerns lightly, for they are firmly engrained in the national psyche from generations of experience. The fact is, the government doesn’t always get these questions right. Sorry, bureaucrats! You’re not perfect. Get over it.
Politicizing the virus response
Then, there is a question of less densely populated areas of the country that tend to vote for former President Trump over current President Joe Biden having lower vaccination rates. For example, as of July 20, New York has a 56 percent vaccination rate, while Florida has a 48 percent vaccination rate. On the other hand, Michigan and Illinois also have 48 percent vaccination rates, and they voted for Biden. Still, on the lower end of the scale, Alabama and Mississippi have 34 percent vaccination rates. Red states on balance have lower vaccination rates than blue states.
In terms of the current vaccine response, President Biden and Democrats likely hurt the party’s credibility when it was accusing President Trump in 2020 of rushing to get the vaccine approved, allegedly endangering public health in the process.
In Sept. 2020, a KFF Health Tracking Poll found that 62 percent of Americans thought “political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the FDA to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure that it is safe and effective…”
In Oct. 2020, at the Vice Presidential debate, then-Senator Kamala Harris, now the elected Vice President, absolutely politicized the vaccine, stating, “If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely, but if Donald Trump tells us we should take it, I’m not taking it.”
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in remarks on Nov. 17, 2020 continued this theme even after the election, promising he and other blue states would slow up distribution of the vaccine even after it is approved, stating, “nobody is going to trust him saying it’s a safe vaccine. But you’re going to see this play out, they’ll do what’s called an emergency authorization by the FDA… I think that could happen as soon as January where the FDA, because Trump will push them, will say we authorized the drug for emergency use, and you could see it starting in January before Biden gets into office and that’s why I’m pushing so hard to make sure that we have a process in place to check what the FDA says before people start getting the vaccine in New York.”
Here’s a question for Harris and Cuomo: How many black New Yorkers and Chicagoans are now dying from the virus today because they were told to distrust what they called Trump’s vaccine? One would be too many. Well, blacks appear to be vaccinated at lower rates that all other groups of Americans. Is this damage done? For those already dead, it is too late, but going forward, it’s time for Democrats to own that.
Overall, throughout 2020, the media waged a campaign of fear related to Trump’s response to the virus, first on virus testing, which was rapidly produced, then ventilators, which were rapidly produced, then masks, which we never ran out of, and then finally, on the vaccine. And even after the election, then President-Elect Biden refused to credit his predecessor with the rapid rollout of Operation Warp Speed.
Altogether, the politicization of the virus has caused Americans to unsurprisingly view Covid through a political lens. What should have been a united public health response instead was caught in the wheel of presidential election politics, a means for the opposition to extract cynical partisan advantage, even if it cost lives by fueling distrust in the response.
Potential Wuhan lab origin of the virus was covered up
Finally, in 2020, former President Donald Trump cited U.S. intelligence that suggested the virus might have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late 2019. But, the media and opposition’s response at the time was to call that a conspiracy theory. Social media even instituted censorship policies to prevent the story from being circulated.
But, as it turns out, once again, Trump was right, and the American people are learning that the U.S. government has had intelligence for months that indicates the virus might have been released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in a laboratory accident.
On Jan. 15, right at the end of former President Donald Trump’s term in office, the State Department released a fact sheet that stated, “The United States government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.”
And it accused the Wuhan lab of possibly conducting “gain of function” research on bat-to-human transmission of coronaviruses: “Starting in at least 2016, WIV researchers studied RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar). Since the outbreak, the WIV has not been transparent nor consistent about its work with RaTG13 or other similar viruses, including possible ‘gain of function’ experiments to enhance transmissibility or lethality.”
This mirrored claims in a May 23 Wall Street Journal report that offered additional details of the potential lab accident: “Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.”
The Journal disclosures appear to be referencing the same intelligence report that the State Department fact sheet was in January.
The May 23 report from the Journal sent the Biden administration scrambling, with President Joe Biden issuing a statement on May 26 that in March he had “asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information” on “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”’
But the intelligence goes back further. The State Department inquiry reportedly began last fall. according to CNN. And a May 2020 Australian Daily Telegraph news story quoted a “Five Eyes” intelligence report on the potential Wuhan lab origins of Covid. According to the Daily Telegraph, “[The dossier] states that to the ‘endangerment of other countries’ the Chinese government covered-up news of the virus by silencing or ‘disappearing’ doctors who spoke out, destroying evidence of it in laboratories and refusing to provide live samples to international scientists who were working on a vaccine… As intelligence agencies investigate whether the virus inadvertently leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, the team and its research led by scientist Shi Zhengli feature in the dossier prepared by Western governments that points to several studies they conducted as areas of concern.”
Moreover, the intelligence report was aware that western governments “funded a team of Chinese scientists who belong to a laboratory which went on to genetically modify deadly coronaviruses that could be transmitted from bats to humans and had no cure, and is now the subject of a probe into the origins of COVID-19.”
The intel report itself stated, “Despite evidence of human-human transmission from early December, PRC authorities deny it until January 20… The World Health Organisation does the same. Yet officials in Taiwan raised concerns as early as December 31, as did experts in Hong Kong on January 4.”
Now today, CNN reports that “Senior Biden administration officials overseeing an intelligence review into the origins of the coronavirus now believe the theory that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan is at least as credible as the possibility that it emerged naturally in the wild — a dramatic shift from a year ago, when Democrats publicly downplayed the so-called lab leak theory… Still, more than halfway into President Joe Biden’s renewed 90-day push to find answers, the intelligence community remains firmly divided over whether the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab or jumped naturally from animals to humans in the wild…”
So, here, the government’s response has gone from, it could have been the Wuhan lab, to that’s crazy because Trump said it, to maybe that did really happen.
U.S. funded the Wuhan lab, but was it ‘gain of function’?
Making matters worse, the U.S. government has funded research of bat-to-human coronavirus transmission in China at the Wuhan lab via a sub-contract since 2014. But good luck getting answers from public health officials who may be trying to save face.
Take Dr. Anthony Fauci,
responding to questioning to Sen. Rand Paul on July 20, standing by his May 11 testimony that originally stated “[The] NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
“Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress and I do not retract the statement. This paper that you are referring to was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain of function,” Fauci said.
In May, when Paul asked if “Covid 19 could not have occurred through serial passage [a method of creating a virus] in a laboratory,” Dr. Fauci stated, “I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China,” and added, “However, I will repeat, the NIH…categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Here, a reasonable person might have concluded that Fauci was making it sound like not only was the U.S. not funding gain of function research, but that no tax dollars were going to the Wuhan lab at all for any reason.
But, by that time, a Nov. 2017 study on bat-to-human Covid transmission co-authored by the Director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Shi Zheng-li, clearly stated it was “jointly funded by… the National Institutes of Health (NIAID R01AI110964), the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) PREDICT program to PD and ZLS,” among others, according to the study itself.
Fourteen of the study’s authors, including Dr. Shi, are attributed as a part of the “CAS Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety, Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases of Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China,” on the first page of the study.
In addition, the study made use of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, stating in the acknowledgements, “We thank the Center for Instrumental Analysis and Metrology of Wuhan Institute of Virology, CAS, for the assistance in taking confocal microscope pictures”.
The study confirms that a $666,442 grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) via the National Institutes for Health (NIH) beginning in 2014 to the EcoHealth Alliance was in fact subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute via Dr. Shi. The grant came atop EcoHealth’s participation in the USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT $200 million program, also cited as funding part of the 2017 study.
Additionally, a May 14 letter to Science magazine co-authored by Dr. David Relman of Stanford University School of Medicine and 17 other doctors says a lab accident remains a “viable” hypothesis alongside a natural event, and urging further review of the subject: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks… In November, the Terms of Reference for a China–WHO joint study were released. The information, data, and samples for the study’s first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis. Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as ‘likely to very likely,’ and a laboratory incident as ‘extremely unlikely’. Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident. Notably, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus com-mented that the report’s consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility. As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”
Notably, one of the letter’s coauthors is Dr. Ralph Baric of the Department of Epidemiology and Department of Microbiology & Immunology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of Dr. Shi’s long-time research collaborators, and one of the world’s foremost experts on novel coronaviruses. In a 2015 study, Baric and Shi were able to combine two separate coronaviruses to create a new one. It appears Baric is worried that such an experiment could have absolutely been the cause of the pandemic, but more investigation is needed.
Additionally and critically, Dr. Baric appears to have believed he was conducting “gain of function” research. A June 2021 report from MIT Technology Review’s Rowan Jacobson certainly suggest that: “In 2013, the American virologist Ralph Baric approached Zhengli Shi at a meeting. Baric was a top expert in coronaviruses, with hundreds of papers to his credit, and Shi, along with her team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, had been discovering them by the fistful in bat caves… Baric had developed a way around that problem—a technique for ‘reverse genetics’ in coronaviruses. Not only did it allow him to bring an actual virus to life from its genetic code, but he could mix and match parts of multiple viruses. He wanted to take the “spike” gene from SHC014 and move it into a genetic copy of the SARS virus he already had in his lab. The spike molecule is what lets a coronavirus open a cell and get inside it. The resulting chimera would demonstrate whether the spike of SHC014 would attach to human cells… While Baric’s study was in progress, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would temporarily halt funding for ‘gain of function’ research—experiments that make already dangerous viruses more virulent or transmissible—on SARS, MERS (which is also caused by a coronavirus), and influenza until the safety of such research could be assessed. The announcement brought Baric’s work to a standstill.”
Here, Jacobson is referring to NIH’s 2014 moratorium on “gain of function” research. But it never impacted the Wuhan subcontract. The original grant came in May 2014, and the moratorium on no new funding for the research came in Oct. 2014. In the moratorium, the existing funding was merely “encouraged” to “voluntarily” pause the research: “we will encourage the currently-funded USG and non-USG funded research community to join in adopting a voluntary pause on research that meets the stated definition. The deliberative process that will ensue during the period of the research pause will explicitly evaluate the risks and potential benefits of gain-of-function research with potential pandemic pathogens.”
Now, in the July 20 hearing, Dr. Fauci was far more defensive of NIH’s position, stating, “If the point you are making is that the grant that was funded as a subaward from Ecohealth to Wuhan created Sars-Covid 2, that’s where you are getting… I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating, Senator, because if you look at the viruses that were used in the experiments, that were given in the annual reports, that were published in the literature, it is molecularly impossible… to result in Sars-Covid 2.”
“You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals, I totally resent that, and if anybody’s lying here, it is you,” Fauci concluded.
But, the truth is, we don’t know. In May, again, Fauci stated, “I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China.” Leaving aside whether the U.S. was funding gain of function research at the Wuhan lab, the possibility still remains that the outbreak originated at the lab, which we were funding.
And given how politically charged the questions around Wuhan have become, Dr. Fauci’s statements calling anyone who questions the role of the Wuhan lab’s experiments and whether it was gain of function or not — a liar almost certainly is compounding the government’s virus response efforts. This makes it sound like he has something to hide, when there are good reasons to ask questions. Given the inconsistent statements from U.S. public health officials about the Wuhan lab, that will only fuel even more distrust.
Government should embrace Wuhan transparency, and communities should turn to influencers to increase vaccine distribution
In conclusion, there are multitudes of reasons the American people will distrust the government’s statements that the vaccine is safe and effective, and even more why they would resist efforts to make them mandatory. Therefore, if the goal is to increase the amount of Americans receiving vaccines, here is a three-fold strategy policy makers should consider.
First, come clean about Wuhan. If it turns out that the virus indeed emerged from the Wuhan lab, even if the U.S. was funding it and even if it was gain of function research, it’s not our lab, it’s theirs. Embracing the Wuhan lab origin — if it’s true and it can be shown by data — and putting the blame where it belongs, on China and its communist regime, could convince a skeptical public that the government is protecting the American people first, embracing Covid transparency and is less concerned about how that plays out diplomatically.
Further, if it was gain of function research that caused the outbreak, then prohibit, or regulate and at least severely restrict it. This would tell the public that the government is working on ensuring this never happens again.
Second, microtargeting is likely necessary to gain the favor of particular constituent groups. For example, 25 to 39 year olds are only 51 percent vaccinated, while 89 percent of those 65 years old and older have been vaccinated. So, perhaps using influencers like, say, Jon Stewart—no skeptic of the Wuhan lab origin—who Millenials trust would be a good candidate.
Or, with African-Americans, former President Barack Obama might be a good leader to promote the vaccine response.
Or, if there is a problem with red states versus blue states, there is probably no better spokesman for the vaccine to Republicans than former President Trump himself, who credits his administration’s Operation Warp Speed with getting vaccine done faster than any in history. Perhaps some positive news coverage of Trump’s response to the virus, and showing he was in the driver’s seat on the vaccine, ventilators and testing might encourage more skeptical Republicans to get the shot and to view it less as a partisan issue.
That is, if the media and the Biden administration are really concerned about saving lives. It would require Democrats to in the first place stop politicizing the virus, which is one of the root causes for the current Covid mistrust.
Because, ultimately, Trump is right. Americans who are skeptical about the government-funded vaccine likely distrust the government to do what is right on most issues. And history, both ancient and recent, shows they have every reason to, especially when it comes to public health issues. It is up to the Biden administration and our civil society as a whole to overcome those challenges.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris must realize that ultimately they will be judged in 2024 only by whether or not they succeed, not on whether Trump gets some credit — which he deserves — along the way. It’s not that hard.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.