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Ron DeSantis Gambles on Vaccine Grievance
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Ron DeSantis Gambles on Vaccine Grievance

The Florida governor launches a risky political attack as he takes the pole position in 2024 speculation.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t running for president yet, but try telling Republican voters that. Several polls last week found DeSantis in a remarkably strong early position, leading former President Donald Trump by double digits in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. 

Those results didn’t come out of nowhere. DeSantis’ star has been rising for years, thanks in large part to a reputation for canny political positioning; he has managed to maintain his MAGA bona fides without alienating nearly so many voters in the middle as did Trump.

But DeSantis is now moving farther and farther into one area Trump largely avoided: conspiracy-mongering about the COVID-19 vaccines.

During a roundtable with Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo last Tuesday on the topic of the alleged harms caused by COVID-19 shots, DeSantis concluded with a surprise announcement: He had asked the Florida Supreme Court to call a grand jury to “investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines.”

In his official petition, released the same day, DeSantis suggested that Pfizer and Moderna, the companies that developed the mRNA COVID vaccines that tens of millions of Americans have received, had inflated their vaccines’ efficacy and downplayed their drawbacks in public statements throughout the pandemic.

“The pharmaceutical industry has a notorious history of misleading the public for financial gain,” DeSantis’s petition states. “An investigation is warranted to determine whether the pharmaceutical industry has engaged in fraudulent practices.”

The petition suggests vaccine manufacturers misled the public by saying the vaccines would definitely prevent you from catching and spreading COVID. It does this not by citing the public statements of the manufacturers themselves, but by rattling off quotes from the likes of President Joe Biden (“You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations”) and his top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci (“When you get vaccinated … you become a dead end to the virus”). DeSantis’ petition seeks to lay the blame for these statements at the manufacturers’ feet: “It is impossible to imagine that so many influential individuals came to this view on their own. Rather, it is likely that individuals and companies with an incentive to do so created these perceptions for financial gain.”

But as they brought their products to market, Pfizer and Moderna hadn’t made any such claims themselves. Indeed, their applications for FDA emergency approval, written and publicly released in late 2020 before the vaccines became widely available, were explicit that the vaccines’ efficacy against COVID transmission remained unknown. The “unknown benefits/data gaps” section of both companies’ letters asserted that fact in identical language: “Data are limited to assess the effect of the vaccine against transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from individuals who are infected despite vaccination.” The letters further warned that new virus mutations “may potentially limit the generalizability of the efficacy conclusions over time.” 

As it happens, the early results following mass mRNA vaccine uptake showed the vaccines were effective at reducing COVID transmission in the first half of 2021. (This emerging data was what prompted the statements from Biden and Fauci referenced in the petition.) But that effectiveness waned as the virus continued to mutate, as the manufacturers had warned it might. Still, the vaccines continued to offer strong protection against serious illness and death. 

The petition also suggests that the companies may have suppressed information about the link between their vaccines and myocarditis—a very rare potential side effect that can lead to serious complications or even death. Scattered anecdotal reports of post-vaccine myocarditis eventually led the FDA to posit a “likely association” between the cases and the mRNA vaccine, obligating Pfizer and Moderna to add a warning about the condition to their list of possible vaccine side effects in June 2021. But that change did not affect the CDC’s assessment that the benefits of the vaccine substantially outweighed the risks for all populations—particularly given that myocarditis is also a rare side effect of COVID-19 itself. And DeSantis’ petition provides no evidence to suggest that the companies worked to suppress the association.

In many places, the petition strives to make vaccine developers and public health agencies seem untrustworthy through dishonest innuendo. To take one example, the petition reads, “the CDC’s website stated the vaccines were ‘safe and effective as determined by data from the manufacturers,’ but that statement was later removed”—implying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had later changed its mind and quietly tried to cover its tracks. In fact, the CDC had grown more confident in the vaccines’ reliability, not less—such that there was no longer a need to rely on the manufacturers’ data to make that assessment. “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective,” the updated version of the “removed” page reads.

DeSantis’ petition represents a stark political pivot too. (DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.)

As recently as last year, DeSantis was effusive in his praise for the COVID vaccines. “If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” he said at an event last July. “These vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”

At the same time, he strenuously opposed federal efforts to compel vaccine uptake. President Joe Biden was doing everything he could to coerce vaccine holdouts to get their shots, imposing unilateral mandates everywhere the law would allow (and, it turns out, even where it wouldn’t) and leaning on states and businesses to do the same. 

Fighting mandates was political paydirt for DeSantis: He could double down on his pro-freedom approach to overseeing the early pandemic, which is what catapulted him into GOP superstardom in the first place. And it gave him the opportunity to sketch out a party-unifying position: The vaccines were a public-health good, but whether to get them was each person’s individual decision, and it was an outrage that the government would try to ruin you if you didn’t cooperate.

Now, DeSantis is going much farther, setting his sights on the vaccine manufacturers themselves. In doing so, DeSantis looks to be using COVID policy to hit a different target: Donald Trump.

COVID vaccines, after all, were one of the few places the former president has found himself out of step with significant portions of his own base. The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed played a critical role in getting the vaccines to the market quickly, which likely saved countless lives and accelerated the end of the total-war stage of the pandemic. Naturally, Trump saw this as a major policy win, and has been reluctant to follow his supporters even as many of them grew wary of the vaccines. Back in January, when DeSantis declined to say whether he had gotten a COVID booster, Trump took a veiled shot at him: Some politicians “don’t want to say it because they’re gutless,” he said. “You gotta say it, whether you had it or not. Say it. But the fact is that I think the vaccines saved tens of millions throughout the world. I’ve had absolutely no side effects.”

DeSantis using the vaccines as a wedge issue would make more sense as a political offensive if Trump still had an iron grip on the party. But it makes much less sense when Trump is already substantially diminished, reeling from legal defeats and an embarrassing slate of midterm losses.

Medical arguments aside, it raises a question: How wise is it politically to pick a fight with the group behind one of the most significant vaccine developments of all time? The COVID vaccines have been a miracle, defanging the most fearsome pandemic in a century. But in the long run, they may prove most significant simply in how they kicked the door open for mRNA technology—a technology with a whole host of other treatments now already in development, for diseases from malaria to the flu to HIV to tuberculosis to cancer. These developments are happening outside the politically charged environment of the COVID pandemic—meaning these products, if and when they come to market, will likely not see the same level of political polarization and resistance.

But maybe Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t feel the need to worry about that. President Ron DeSantis can cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.