The pandemic has smiled on President Joe Biden, and not only because COVID-19 showed his predecessor the White House exit door.
Inauguration Day, coming as it did on Jan. 20, gave Biden time to bewail a dark winter from which he offers deliverance. Yet the timing was not too far ahead of the day that death counts will drop if, as is usual, respiratory infections come off their peaks in February.
Also putting Biden on a glide path was a force that had been gathering for a year — the spread of infection and, together with the misery it entailed, some degree of immunity across swaths of the population. By the time he took office, the coronavirus had infected scores of millions in the United States, arguably more than 100 million, to judge from government estimates.
And now mass vaccination is off and running, but it had a fair start even by the time Biden was taking the oath of office. That day 1.6 million doses of vaccine were administered, bringing the rolling daily average to 912,000.
The Biden pledge to distribute 100 million doses in 100 days suddenly appeared a bit lame. A memo went out: Drop the term Operation Warp Speed. People in the Biden camp anonymously speaking through the megaphone available to them at CNN complained of finding at the Trump White House no vaccine-distribution plan but only “wow, just further affirmation of complete incompetence.”
Here is the “complete incompetence” of the Warp Speed team: 14 million doses delivered to 14,000 sites. As of now, the vaccination rate in the United States doubles that of countries on the European continent and lags that of the United Kingdom. When there was a glitch, when early on fewer vaccines than expected were shipped, we heard, “I failed, nobody else failed.” That was Gen. Gustave Perna, Warp Speed’s logistics chief and not a man for the blame game.
By then the Warp Speed alliance with the pharmaceutical industry had yielded two novel vaccines against a new pathogen inside of a year, and different types of vaccines were moving through the pipeline. Spend gobs of money, but place multiple bets. Not a bad plan.
Biden, of course, had nothing to do with any of this. No matter. New in the Oval Office today is a portrait of Ben Franklin, founding father and inventor credited with the lightening rod and bifocals, to say nothing of a hinged urinary catheter. The artwork signals, as Newsweek has explained, Biden’s “reverence for science.”
So the president is having a relatively easy run. What could trip him?
Maybe — and this is speculation — a gradual finding that the vaccines aren’t quite so astoundingly effective as headlines suggest. Necessarily, the trials enabling emergency vaccine authorizations weren’t designed to accumulate enough subjects long enough, and thus enough statistical power, to demonstrate a reduction in, say, deaths as distinct from symptoms. Extended trials may tell whether what is now a fair inference of a survival benefit can be borne out.
Or maybe a late spate of reports about nasty side effects, real or imagined. While on the campaign trail, Biden and Kamala Harris liked to hint that something had to be amiss with any vaccine development that coincided with the Trump administration. But no sooner did they win election than both were baring their arms to a needle. Now they’re the anti-anti-vaxxers who will take flak for any troubles.
Or maybe the variant B.1.1.7 (UK) or B.1.351 (South African) or P.1. (Brazilian) or still another wily mutation of the coronavirus. The wisdom of the moment is that new strains now circulating in the United States and elsewhere may crowd out earlier ones yet fail to escape current vaccines. Even so, vaccine researchers are heading back to their labs.
Might — more speculation — the next chapter of the story be something like living with the flu? Vaccines are tweaked now and again to keep up with a virus that sticks around as evolving iterations, and deaths fall to levels that don’t trigger panic.
Or might it be something else? Jan. 21, 2020, was the day the arrival of COVID-19 in this country was confirmed. A man had fallen ill after returning home to Washington State from Wuhan, China. That day, Jan. 21, Dr. Anthony Fauci remarked, “This is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.”
“Right now” was the caveat. Right now, who knows what’s next?
Joe Biden’s luck runs out if a new wave or wavelet of illness rolls in, more locked-down businesses go bust, and more socially isolated kids take their own lives. (Google Clark County School District, Nevada.)
“Events, my dear boy, events” — as the story goes, that was the response of Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister of the mid-20th century, when asked what could subvert him.
Richard Koenig, a retired pharmaceutical-company executive and former reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, the predecessor of the Tampa Bay Times, is the author of the Kindle Single “No Place To Go,” an account of efforts to provide toilets amid a cholera outbreak in Ghana.