Alternative Timeline November 2020: If Pfizer Had Released The Vaccine BEFORE The Election
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This is very old news and doesn’t have much to do with the more important questions going forward as everything keeps changing, but smart centrists like Nate Silver are finally recalling that during the 2020 campaign Democrats were spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines in order to postpone announcement of the success of Trump’s vaccine strategy until after the election. Pfizer’s announcement of the high efficacy seen in its clinical was announced on 11/9/2020, six days after the election.

I’m aware of three politically related delays in the mRNA clinical trials. Please note that safety, diversity, and efficacy are somewhat separate issues.

  • Safety: The decision to require two months of safety data, pushing Pfizer’s first date for an application back to 11/17/2020. The campaign for this was clearly motivated by Democratic concerns to deny Trump his October Surprise on the vaccine front, but… safety is important. So I’m not as worked up over this as some libertarian economists are.
  • Diversity: The Trump Administration’s decision in late summer to require Moderna to delay its clinical trial by a month to recruit a more racially diverse set of volunteers. I’m sympathetic toward this delay: as I may have mentioned once or twice over the years, human biodiversity can be important in a variety of settings. Ironically, as far as we can tell now, however, HBD doesn’t matter much for vaccines: racial equality more or less reigns in terms of response to mRNA vaccines. So the one month slowdown of Moderna by the Trump Administration in the name of diversity cost Trump his October Surprise, delaying Moderna’s announcement of its high efficacy until 11/16/2020.
  • Efficacy: Finally, the unpublicized decision by Pfizer to shut down lab processing of clinical trial samples from late October until 11/4/2020, the day after the election. Pfizer had published to investors a trial protocol calling for unblinding of control vs. test samples after first 32, then 62, then 92. They shut down processing for roughly a week and wound up with 94, blowing past all three published checkpoints. One could argue that the initial published checkpoint of only 32 cases across the two arms of the test seemed too small for PR reasons, so Pfizer decided to wait until 62 cases. But they didn’t do that, they stopped processing  samples in late October altogether and wound up blowing through even the third checkpoint when they let the lab get back to work the day after the election. This lab shutdown strikes me as the most egregious of the three politics-related interventions. The first two called for More Data but the third led to Less Data during a critical week at the beginning of 2020’s Winter Surge.

I’m generally a fan of More Data, although I’m aware of the problem of Paralysis Through Analysis. The Pfizer lab shutdown until the day after the election led to Less Data during a critical week. So I think the Pfizer lab shutdown is the most egregious of the three causes of delay.

Pfizer announced their vaccine’s spectacular efficacy results on Monday 11/9/2020, after shutting down all lab processing of vaccine clinical trial samples from late October until the day after the election, according to William Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, in an 11/9/2020 interview with Stat News’ Matthew Herper.

Here’s the 11/9/2020 article in Stat News by Matthew Herper:

Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech is strongly effective, early data from large trial indicate

And here’s my 11/11/2020 analysis of Stat News’ reporting:

The New Normal: By Any Means Necessary

Without the lab shutdown, my best guess is that Pfizer would have announced the very high efficacy of its vaccine on Monday, 11/2/2020, the day before the election. Trump would then have spent the last 24 hours of the campaign trumpeting the success of his vaccine strategy.

Would that have switched enough voters in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada to cause a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College and cast the decision to the House of Representatives with one vote for each delegation, probably favoring Trump? Or would there have been a violent and/or corrupt intervention to deny Trump a second term?

Who knows?

On the other hand, I don’t think Pfizer’s lab shutdown delayed the rollout of the vaccine by much more than one week and maybe just a few days.

The government decision had already been made due to the Democrats’ anti-VAXX fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign in the fall to require, in effect, until November 17, 2020 for enough safety data to be available to begin government processing of the application. However, announcement of efficacy on 11/2 rather than 11/9 would have given states and localities an extra week to focus on the big challenge of the vaccine rollout, which most botched until about the second half of January.

So I could imagine the vaccine rollout running a few days ahead without the Pfizer lab shutdown. The number of lives lost due to the lab shutdown sounds to me like in the hundreds but probably not in the thousands.

But who knows? Perhaps if Pfizer hadn’t shut down its lab processing, Democrats would have been the anti-vaxxers in 2021?

The alternative potential timelines rapidly spin in multiple directions.

To understand the importance of Pfizer’s shutdown of its clinical trial from late October until the day after the election, consider this Sunday, November 1, 2020 New York Times article crowing that the vaccine hadn’t been announced in time to be Trump’s October Surprise:

Welcome to November. For Trump, the October Surprise Never Came.

Trump’s hope that an economic recovery, a Covid vaccine or a Biden scandal could shake up the race faded with the last light of October.

President Trump at a rally in Butler, Pa., on Saturday. For months, Democrats have worried that Mr. Trump might try to gin up a game-changing moment to disrupt the election.

By Shane Goldmacher and Adam Nagourney
Published Nov. 1, 2020
Updated Nov. 3, 2020

President Trump began the fall campaign rooting for, and trying to orchestrate, a last-minute surprise that would vault him ahead of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

A coronavirus vaccine. A dramatic economic rebound. A blockbuster Justice Department investigation. A grievous misstep by a rival he portrayed as faltering. A scandal involving Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.

But as the campaign nears an end, and with most national and battleground-state polls showing Mr. Trump struggling, the cavalry of an October surprise that helped him overtake Hillary Clinton in 2016 has not arrived.

That has left Mr. Trump running on a record of an out-of-control pandemic …

On the other hand, how big a difference would it have made in voting if Pfizer had announced on the day before the election that it had efficacious results after, say, its second checkpoint of 62 cases?

The most plausible route for Trump to win in an election with tons of early voting would have been to flip Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, leading to a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. The Constitution says in that case that the House would choose the winner, with each state’s delegation getting one vote. I believe Trump would have therefore been re-elected on a strict party line vote.

But would that actually have happened? Consider how much financial, moral, blackmail, and violent pressure there would have been to flip one of 269 Trump Electoral College voters.

And, if that didn’t work, it’s hard not to imagine that The Establishment wouldn’t have organized a storming of the Capitol to intimidate the House into electing Biden.

In that timeline, we’d ever since be reading non-stop tributes in the Washington Post to the Heroes of January 6 Who Saved Democracy by charging into the House past the fascist Capitol Police and physically keeping the GOP from hijacking the election by Republicans acting all nit-picky over the precise wording of the Constitution. Sorry about all the arson in the Capitol by overly enthusiastic Antifa, but as President Biden said in his State of the Union address held in the Temporary Capitol in the Washington Wizards arena, we will Build Back Better.



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