Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Oct. 19 that California will review all COVID-19 vaccines before distributing them to the public.
Newsom named a committee of the state’s doctors and scientists to conduct an independent safety review of any FDA-approved vaccines, which he said are likely to arrive in mid-2021.
“Of course we don’t take anyone’s word for it,” Newsom said of the viability of the federally-approved vaccines.
With Newsom’s announcement, California joined several other states that have cited the need for independent review of the vaccines, even if they are approved by the FDA. It is indicative of the breakdown in trust that has accompanied the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
President Trump admitted to journalist Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had killed over 220,000 Americans at the time of publication. Trump ignored public health measures with his rallies and cast doubt on the scientific consensus on mask wearing. His promises to deliver a vaccine before Election Day caused some to be concerned he was politicizing public health.
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, an expert in vaccine law and policy at UC Hastings College of the Law, said the state reviews could add another layer of trust in the vaccines. At the same time, she said, they could undermine the public’s trust in federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
“By creating their own committees, the states are implying: ‘Don’t trust these experts,’ which is unjustified,” Reiss said.
Reiss stressed that the committees charged with reviewing the vaccines at the CDC, FDA and National Institutes of Health are made up of physicians and scientists and have been able to remain independent of the Trump administration.
“States probably don’t have parallel expertise to the combined expertise of these groups. These are really the best of the best in the country, and I doubt states can match those three committees together,” Reiss said. “It might be better for the states to highlight the three federal expert committees that exist and require transparency.”
Vaccines often provoke skepticism and public distrust, in spite of their life-saving abilities. The anti-vaccine movement is politically and ideologically diverse, but increasingly figures into the conspiracy theories of the libertarian right wing.
In recent years, vaccine skeptics “pivoted much more towards government overreach, values and bodily autonomy” as their rationale, said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy and sociology at UC Riverside.
Though many speculated the pandemic would dampen the anti-vaccine movement, Carpiano said, instead “it expanded their repertoire to focus on everything from shelter-in-place orders to masks to contact tracing.”
Before becoming president, Trump consistently expressed skepticism about vaccines, calling them “the cause for [a] big increase in autism.” After a series of missteps in his handling of the pandemic, however, he now promotes what some experts see as a misleadingly hopeful timeline for the COVID-19 vaccines.
This creates worry about the safety of these vaccines on both sides of the political spectrum. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in May, 72% of Americans responded that they would “definitely or probably” get the vaccine against COVID-19 if it were available immediately. By September, only about half of respondents answered the same way.
A wide swath of the population, beyond the usual vaccine skeptics, has concerns about a rushed or potentially unsafe vaccine, said Carpiano.
“Given the nature of the vaccine and distrust of how the Trump administration’s been handling the pandemic… we also see people who would normally show up and get their vaccines regularly and might not even have any questions, now being resistant as well,” Carpiano said. “You’ve got a broader population of people who are going to be wary about this.”
Experts are divided on whether states' decisions to review the vaccines themselves will build trust or erode it. Only time will tell, Reiss said. “It really depends how the states do it.”