After being released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, US President Donald Trump praised the doctors who treated him for covid-19 and promised that the public would soon have a vaccine against the deadly coronavirus. “We have the best medicines in the world, and very shortly they are all getting approved, and the vaccines are coming momentarily,” he said in a video statement shared with millions of Twitter followers.
Across the country, in California, a doctor named Eric Topol was responding in real time on social media. He questioned the president’s health, his doctors’ actions, and even his mental status.
By that point Topol, a heart expert and researcher with a huge Twitter following of his own, was already weeks into a personal campaign to make sure the administration could not rush a covid-19 vaccine through regulatory authorization before Election Day on November 3.
An editorial in the New York Times had raised the possibility of an “October surprise” vaccine back in June, and warned that a vaccine approval could turn into a “campaign stunt.” Topol, who works at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla and is one of the country’s most prominent doctors, aimed to prevent Trump from greenlighting a vaccine before scientists could prove it to be safe and effective. To Topol, developing an effective vaccine against covid-19 is “the biggest event in our generation” and one that should be evaluated on the basis of scientific data, not political implications.
If Trump badgered the US Food and Drug Administration into prematurely releasing a vaccine that wasn’t effective, or even caused harm, it could shake the public’s trust in any covid-19 vaccine. And if we are to achieve wide immunity against SARS-CoV-2, we’ll need to vaccinate more people than the number that get flu shots each year. Releasing a vaccine that people are afraid of could do more harm than good.
To prevent such a scenario, Topol led online calls for FDA commissioner Steve Hahn to resign after his agency was criticized for cowing to political pressure—and then phoned Hahn a number of times to urge him to resist Trump’s influence. Topol also targeted Pfizer, the only pharmaceutical company likely to seek approval of its vaccine before Election Day, which eventually set up a meeting for him with its vaccine team.
On October 16, Topol and his allies were able to claim success: Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company would not be able to seek emergency approval for its vaccine before the third week in November, owing to safety standards that had been put in place by the FDA. Those standards had been issued against Trump’s wishes, but at the urging of Topol and other advocates.