Heading into Tuesday’s U.S. general election, speculation was rife as to whether a Joe Biden victory might herald a big leftward shift, or what kind of chaos a second term for President Donald Trump would bring. The immediate task for either president, however, is likely to be more mundane and less ideological — and guaranteed to displease most Americans.
The issue that is likely to dominate political discussion for some while, even before Jan. 20, is how to handle and distribute new coronavirus treatments. These debates will be all the more pressing because it now appears that winter will bring a big uptick in cases, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths.
There is now growing evidence in favor of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and even some talk of it being available in the United Kingdom as early as November. Should this same vaccine be rush-approved for use in the United States?
Note that on vaccine issues, American public opinion does not map neatly along a simple left/right axis. There are plenty of vaccine skeptics (and advocates) on both sides of the political spectrum, so neither liberals nor conservatives can expect their usual allies on this issue.
And who should get the vaccine first? The elderly are more vulnerable, but the young are more likely to spread COVID-19. Some recent results suggest it would be better to vaccinate the young first, but that is less politically likely. Again, it is easy to see potential conflicts over this question, cutting across traditional party lines.
An even more complex problem would arise if one good vaccine is available but other, possibly better, vaccines are imminent. Does everyone get the “good enough” vaccine, disrupting the ability to conduct clinical trials to see if the other vaccines are better? How much patience do Americans have, really?
Americans would probably resent having to wait. But if they end up choosing a lesser quality vaccine, over the long run they might be unhappier yet. It is not clear the U.S. public health bureaucracy is up to the task of approving one vaccine and restructuring the other trials (possibly by paying participants more to stay in, or by shifting to other countries for data) so they can continue.
The issues don’t get any easier if you consider therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies. Likely they have efficacy, but recent evidence shows they cannot be given too late in the course of treatment. In other words, you cannot wait to see which patients are faring badly and then treat them. At the same time, monoclonal antibodies are difficult to manufacture and distribute, and they are expected to be expensive. So how exactly will they be allocated?
One sensible approach is to give them preemptively to those working on the front lines, such as nurses and doctors. Still, many more Americans will want them. It will be difficult for any administration…