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The Morning Dispatch: Vaccines on the Horizon
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The Morning Dispatch: Vaccines on the Horizon

Plus: Combing through the GOP's election lawsuits.

Happy Tuesday! What a day we had yesterday. Our first-ever What’s Next event kicked off (Day 2 starts at 11 a.m.!), Pfizer released incredibly promising data regarding its COVID-19 vaccine, and McDonalds unveiled the McPlant. (Editor: Hmmmm.) What joys will today bring?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • People who were given two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech experienced 90 percent fewer symptomatic COVID-19 cases than those given a placebo, according to an early analysis of Phase 3 trial data released yesterday. Dr. Anthony Fauci called the results “extraordinary.”

  • The FDA issued an emergency-use authorization for bamlanivimab, an antibody therapy from drug manufacturer Eli Lilly that has been used to treat patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

  • President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via tweet yesterday, announcing Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christopher Miller as his replacement on an acting basis. Esper had reportedly been on the ropes for months after breaking with Trump on the president’s Lafayette Plaza photo-op. 

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a peace agreement yesterday after Azeri forces captured the strategic city of Shusha in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said the agreement would “return our territories without any further bloodshed.” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called signing the agreement “unspeakably painful” and “an extremely difficult decision.”

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday stood by President Trump’s ongoing decision not to concede to President-elect Biden, saying in a floor speech that “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”

  • The Biden transition team is calling on Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, to issue a letter of “ascertainment” and formally recognize Joe Biden as the incoming president. Legally, many aspects of the presidential transition cannot begin until she does so. The Trump White House reportedly instructed senior government leaders to not cooperate or communicate with the Biden transition team.

  • White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and HUD Secretary Ben Carson have tested positive for the coronavirus, as has David Bossie, a Trump adviser who was set to head up the effort to contest election counts in Nevada and Georgia.

  • The United States confirmed 146,244 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 9.9 percent of the 1,482,184* tests reported coming back positive. An additional 636 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 238,202. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 59,275 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. (*The JHU Dashboard testing numbers glitched again yesterday, so we got the new test number from the COVID Tracking Project.)

Excellent News on the Vaccine Front

Monday morning, the nation received perhaps the single best piece of COVID news since the dawn of the pandemic: Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its long-awaited coronavirus vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease, and that it plans to ask the FDA for an emergency authorization later this month. The news sent stocks surging with the hope that the end of the pandemic—while still agonizingly far off—is at least in sight.

The news was not a surprise: Several of the leading vaccine developers have been steaming through Phase III trials over the last few months. Dr. Moncef Slaoui—chief adviser for the White House’s vaccine development program Operation Warp Speed—estimated on September 3 that we might start seeing that data by late October or early November, which would put the nation on track for modest doses of the vaccine by the end of the year, and a full rollout in early 2021.

But there was always the danger of some sort of snag or setback if a promising vaccine suddenly showed unexpected side effects or disappointingly low efficacy rates. Monday’s news was the opposite: The 90 percent effectiveness claimed by Pfizer far surpasses the 70-percent effective rate some experts had anticipated. To receive emergency authorization, the FDA said over the summer, a vaccine would need to prevent serious disease in at least 50 percent of the vaccinated population.

It’s important to note that Monday’s announcement didn’t prove Pfizer’s vaccine will be the anti-COVID silver bullet. Whether the vaccine will prevent a person from becoming an asymptomatic viral carrier, for instance—and how long its protection will last after its two-dose treatment is complete—remains unknown. And the preliminary effectiveness rate could creep down as more data comes in. 

Even so, if no new road blocks materialize, the FDA could issue such an authorization by the end of the month. Then it will be a matter of coordinating an incredibly large and complex manufacturing and distribution apparatus to get doses to everyone who wants one around the country. According to Pfizer, that could mean up to 50 million doses available globally by the end of the year.

While Pfizer did not receive federal funding from Operation Warp Speed to develop its vaccine, it does have the Trump administration’s help when it comes to production and distribution: The government inked a $1.95 billion deal with the company in July to pre-purchase 100 million doses, which the government plans to distribute free of charge. While Pfizer deserves all credit for developing what is shaping up to be a very impressive vaccine in very short order, actually getting that vaccine into the hands of the people will owe much to logistical processes set up by the White House. Vice President Mike Pence praised the partnership with Pfizer in a tweet:

President Trump, however, had a different reaction to the news. Despite Pfizer itself saying last month it would not be able to request emergency authorization for its vaccine until the third week of November at the earliest, Trump criticized the announcement as having been deliberately delayed until this week to hurt his reelection chances:

By contrast, President-elect Biden called the breakthrough “excellent news” in a statement, although he warned hard days still stand between us and a vaccine’s delivery: “Americans will have to rely on masking, distancing, contact tracing, hand washing, and other measures to keep themselves safe well into next year. Today’s news is great news, but it doesn’t change that fact.”

As the vaccine approaches, COVID treatments continue to show new breakthroughs. The FDA on Monday said it had issued its first emergency use authorization for a monoclonal antibody treatment: A drug called bamlanivimab manufactured by Eli Lilly. (The antibody cocktail President Trump famously took during his bout with COVID was a similar product manufactured by the company Regeneron.)  

Trump Won’t Concede As Election Lawsuits Mount

President Trump has for months now been laying the groundwork to claim the 2020 election was “rigged” against him. Those allegations went into hyperdrive on Saturday after the Associated Press, Fox News, and other networks declared former Vice President Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. As of Tuesday morning, the Trump campaign has initiated lawsuits to contest election results in several key battleground states that swung blue in the presidential race, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, and Georgia. But with vote margins in these states in the tens of thousands—and only 214 electoral votes in the bag—Trump faces a monumental uphill climb if he hopes to substantiate his claims of widespread voter fraud in the court of law, and have it impact the outcome.

Nevertheless, he and his backers have taken to the court of public opinion—on Twitter, cable news, and beyond—to spread baseless conspiracies furthering the idea of a coordinated nationwide effort among Democrats and election officials to steal his presidency. On Monday, Trump campaign manager Jason Miller said on Fox Business that the word “concede” is “not even in our vocabulary right now.” Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said as much again on Fox News’s Sunday Morning Futures, claiming that “at this point, it would be wrong for him to concede.”

Attorney General William Barr authorized a federal investigation into “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities, despite bipartisan assurances from state officials of a successful election. And the president himself, far from acknowledging defeat, has repeatedly and falsely declared a victory over his Democratic challenger.

The bulk of Trump’s legal strategy hinges on Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden currently leads by roughly 46,000 votes. The Trump campaign filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging the creation of a  “two-tiered” voting system that required in-person voters to abide by more burdensome protocols than voters who chose to cast their ballots by mail. The campaign filed another suit on Monday that seeks to prohibit Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and the boards of elections from certifying the election results.

On top of several other pending lawsuits involving vote count discrepancies throughout the state, the GOP is hoping the Supreme Court will overturn the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s October ruling that mail-in ballots received up to three days after Nov. 3 can be counted, even if the ballot’s postmark is illegible or doesn’t exist. (Such an outcome isn’t implausible, but would not significantly change the math of the race given that late-received ballots are not currently part of the vote count.)

In Arizona, the Trump campaign filed a joint lawsuit with the GOP on Saturday over alleged defections among electronic tabulation machines in Maricopa County. “Numerous voters were alerted by these devices to a facial irregularity in their ballot—frequently an ostensible ‘overvote’—but were induced by poll workers to override the tabulator’s rejection of the ballot in the good faith belief that their vote would be duly registered and tabulated,” the lawsuit argues. Rather than being given the opportunity to cure their ballots, the lawsuit claims, these votes were rejected outright, therefore disenfranchising “potentially thousands of voters” in Maricopa County.

To some, the legal challenge appears to be nothing more than a thinly disguised regurgitation of the “Sharpiegate” lawsuit filed on November 4 by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which alleged that a voter’s ballot was invalidated because the county’s electronic tabulators were unable to process Sharpie ink. The lawyers dropped the case three days later, most likely in light of the realization that the machines can read Sharpie ink just fine.

Some GOP officials, including former President George W. Bush and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, have already congratulated Joe Biden on his victory.

“He’s our president. He’s due our prayers. He’s due our best wishes,” Republican strategist Karl Rove said during our What’s Next event yesterday. “My sense is this act of the drama’s going to come to a close soon, and a new drama’s going to begin.”

But most of the party is sticking with the president. GOP officials and media figures refusing to accept the election results fall into two basic categories: those making process arguments about the president’s right to exhaust legal options and those amplifying Trumpworld conspiracy theories and alleging foul play by the Democrats. “We win because of our ideas,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox last night. “We lose elections because they cheat us.”

Within the administration itself, Trump appointees have demanded the continued loyalty of staffers in anticipation of successful GOP litigation. According to leaked audio obtained by Axios’ Jonathan Swan on Monday, USAID’s top-ranking official John Barsa told agency employees to “play until the whistle blows,” and asserted that “there is no transition in place.” Barsa also seemed to warn his staffers not to start looking for new jobs, saying that, “D.C., at the end of the day, is a really small town.”

But for the most part, the Trump campaign’s legal efforts don’t seem to be panning out. In Detroit, the GOP filed a lawsuit after Republican election observers alleged that they were barred from watching election officials cure ballots. The suit, which sought to halt the vote count in Michigan, was promptly dismissed by Judge Timothy M. Kenny as “mere speculation.” Another Michigan case from last week was predicated on a sticky note, allegedly handed to a Republican election observer from an anonymous poll worker, claiming that ballots were being counted incorrectly. This request to stop the count was also denied. 

For all of its dramatic public rhetoric describing a coordinated effort by Democrats to rig the election, the GOP’s actual legal challenges contest only small-scale irregularities. In Nevada, for example, Trump’s lawyers alleged that 3,000 people living outside of the state had improperly voted in its elections. But when publicly discussing the case, the campaign claimed that as many as 9,000 “Non-Nevadans” had cast deciding ballots, to which the crowd responded “stop the steal!” Nevada election officials have since explained that state law allows military personnel, their spouses, and students to vote absentee. 

In Georgia, immediately after Election Day, the Trump campaign filed in Chatham County after a poll worker bore witness to the possible intermingling of late-arriving ballots with votes cast on time. A judge dismissed these allegations later that week. And now, the president seems to be eyeing Fulton County, home to Atlanta and a large number of the state’s Democratic voters. 

In response to the GOP’s litigation efforts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took on a deferential, if detached, posture. “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” he said Monday. “Suffice it to say, a few legal inquiries from the president do not exactly spell the end of the republic.”

The effort is, however, having an impact on American voters. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found 70 percent of Republicans now say they “don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair,” exactly double the 35 percent who said the same prior to last week. In 2016, for context, a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the election found 58 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters said they “accepted” Trump’s victory, while 33 percent said they did not.

Worth Your Time

  • On November 4, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, anticipating his days were numbered, sat down with Meghann Myers of the Military Times for an exclusive interview. Their wide-ranging conversation covers Esper’s efforts at reforming the Defense Department, but also touches on his rocky relationship with President Trump, pushed to the brink by Esper’s refusal to call up active-duty troops during the rioting in Washington, D.C., this summer. Esper said he broke with the president “to kind of break the fever, if you will, because I thought that was just a moment in history where … if somebody doesn’t stand up now and say something and kind of push the pause button, then … it could spiral.”

  • In the wake of his company’s promising vaccine news yesterday, Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla spoke to Axios’ Dan Primack on the Re:Cap podcast to discuss the latest developments. Bourla said he never expected the vaccine to have above a 90 percent efficacy rate, and that he learned of the results Sunday at 2 p.m. Asked why Pfizer did not take Operation Warp Speed money for the development of its vaccine, Bourla said, “I wanted to liberate our scientists [from] any bureaucracy that comes with having to give reports and agree how we are going to spend the money in parallel or together.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In case you missed a portion (or all) of our What’s Next event yesterday, all the sessions are available to stream online! From Karl Rove and Joe Trippi on last week’s election results, to Lis Smith and Mo Elleithee on the future of the Democratic Party, to Rep. Mike Gallagher and Amb. Mark Green on America’s role in the world, to Reince Priebus on the future of the GOP, there was lots of good stuff to chew on. The fun continues today, with discussions featuring Sen. Tim Scott, Rep. Liz Cheney, Sen. Ben Sasse, Gov. Larry Hogan, and more. Plus, the rescheduled conversation on evangelicalism between David and Dr. Russell Moore. See you at 11 a.m.!

  • In yesterday’s post-election of The Sweep, Sarah turns to pollster-friend-of-the-Dispatch Kristen Soltis Anderson for a breakdown of why unweighted exit polls are hot garbage that “even raccoons turn down.” Then, a very helpful explainer on just how gargantuan (and unfeasible) a task pulling off widespread voter fraud would be. “All of these votes have to be counted at the precinct level. But 9 out of 10 registered voters vote. That means you’d have to spread the ballots out over about 150 to 200 precincts to ensure you don’t trip any alarm bells when the vote totals exceed the number of registered voters or come remarkably close to it, which means you’d need at least that many conspirators.”

Let Us Know

What’d you think of Day One of What’s Next? Would you be willing to do it in person next year once we’ve all got that Pfizer vaccine?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images.