On Monday morning, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its new covid-19 vaccine was proving 90 percent effective in trials. This was spectacularly good news, if it holds up, far exceeding the expectations of many epidemiologists and sending the stock market soaring. But almost immediately, this development — like everything else that seems to happen in modern America — became subsumed in a political fight.
Republicans rushed to claim credit. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) tweeted (and Donald Trump Jr. retweeted): “Great work by the administration pushing the historic and unprecedented vaccine development under Operation Warp Speed, even as cynical Democrats attempted to undermine its credibility. Joe Biden’s only plan for the virus is Trump’s plan. Always has been.”
Progressives replied that the Pfizer vaccine had nothing to do with Operation Warp Speed, because Pfizer refused to take government money during its development. “We were never part of the Warp Speed,” one of Pfizer’s senior executives said. “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”
This is true, but not the whole story. While Pfizer hasn’t taken government research and development funding, it did sign a nearly $2 billion contract with the federal government to deliver 100 million doses by December. The resources of the federal government will then be of vital importance in distributing this, and other vaccines, in the huge quantities necessary to immunize most of the population. This guaranteed market could give the drugmaker confidence to pour vast resources into the development of the vaccine.
The reality is that this is a classic public-private partnership that scrambles traditional ideological lines. Republicans are distrustful of big government, while progressives are distrustful of big corporations, especially “Big Pharma.” Yet government and industry have to work together to combat this once-in-a-century pandemic — just as they worked together to win World War II, send astronauts to the moon and build the interstate highway system.
The development of the Pfizer vaccine also rebuts the anti-globalism and protectionism that are increasingly found on both the “Occupy Wall Street” left and the Trumpian right. Work on the vaccine began in January in Mainz, Germany, at a biotech start-up called BioNTech, which was founded by the children of Turkish immigrants. BioNTech used cutting-edge technology to inject genetic material known as messenger RNA into muscle cells to stimulate the immune system. Because BioNTech lacked the resources to test and manufacture the vaccine quickly, it launched a partnership with Pfizer, a U.S.-based firm that it is one of the largest pharmaceutical makers in the world.
If the Pfizer vaccine helps to free us from the threat of COVID-19, there will be plenty of credit to go around — and it won’t conform to narrow partisan categories. Reality is too messy for ideology.