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Big Pharma takes a stand

Perhaps you assumed, as many Americans do, that pharmaceutical companies believe in science. It’s the main component of their business model, after all, and their corporate lifeblood — the use of science to discover new lifesaving drugs and boost profits.

So it was more than a bit extraordinary that nine major pharmaceutical companies felt the need Sept. 8 to publicly pledge to do what they always have done — follow the science — in developing a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. But the unfortunate truth is that their announcement — under the heading “BIOPHARMA LEADERS UNITE TO STAND WITH SCIENCE” — was as needed as it was surreal.

The drugmakers understand that no vaccine will work if the public refuses to take it. And they know public confidence, measured by numerous polls, has been damaged by President Donald Trump’s impatience for a vaccine. He has consistently pressured companies to get one to market, and has repeatedly promised a quick result, by November, to bolster his reelection chances, fueling anti-government conspiracy theorists.

Trump said Democratic opponent former Vice President Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris are politicizing the issue by attacking him. But he followed that by saying, “We’re gonna have a vaccine very soon. Maybe even before a special date. You know what date I’m talking about,” undermining his own equivalency argument.

To bolster trust, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — the three companies with vaccine candidates in critical Phase 3 clinical trials — joined competitors BioNTech (a Pfizer partner), GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Novavax, and Sanofi in pledging not to seek FDA approval for a vaccine until it has been proved safe and effective. Their statement did not rule out seeking emergency-use authorization, which the FDA can give during a declared emergency based on partial data that suggests the vaccine is effective; only Pfizer has said it might do so. The White House insists it will abide by the FDA’s “gold standard for safety and testing,” which sounds good except that Trump has damaged the credibility of the FDA, too, by pushing it to approve the use of antibody-rich plasma before results warranted it and then overstating the import of the approval.

Trump’s relentless pushing remains risky and could further derail public trust. We all want a vaccine soon. But we all should stand with science to get one.

* Guest editorial from Newsday in Melville, N.Y.

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