The prestigious journal Science published a signed editorial on Wednesday attacking President Trump for begging pharmaceutical executives to pursue a vaccine for coronavirus in haste. As the president related, he told the executives, “Do me a favor, speed it up, speed it up.” The editorial claimed that there is no way to speed up the hunt for a vaccine, and that such a request is as idiotic as to ask “do me a favor, hurry up that warp drive.”
The editorial’s criticism would be worth taking seriously given one of two assumptions: Either that there is only one way to make a coronavirus vaccine, and if scientists can’t make that method work, there is nothing more to be done; or, even if there are alternative ways of making a corona vaccine, each alternative will have to be tried and discarded in series before another can be attempted.
But of course, what is true for the war on polio in the 1950s is true for the war on the Wuhan virus.
A whole variety of approaches to making a vaccine against coronavirus are, thank God, being tried. Some will work, but only in the lab, and some won’t work even there. We have reason to hope that some group, somewhere, will come up with a vaccine in time to make a difference. And what vaccines can’t prevent antiviral drugs might mitigate or even cure.
The executives in pharmaceutical companies and in government laboratories will have to face hard choices about how many parallel efforts at vaccines and therapies to fund within their own organizations, and who gets what resources and personnel. The same dilemmas, at higher levels, will be faced by U.S. government officials all the way up to Trump himself. Making the right choices probably will speed the discovery of a vaccine or effective therapy, making the wrong choices will slow it.
But nobody can tell you today which choices will turn out to have been right and which will turn out to have been wrong. And just listening to the scientists isn’t enough, because each scientist involved will push his own pet ideas or her students’ projects. Scientists are human, too.
To fight an ideology more dangerous than coronavirus, national socialism, the Western allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada—worked together to build atomic bombs. To build such bombs required bomb-grade fissile material, and during the war, at least five different methods for manufacturing such materials were pursued in parallel with lavish expenditures.
Of those five methods, one headed up by the great physicist E. O. Lawrence using a variant of his cherished cyclotrons, proved impracticable and wasteful, making only a minor contribution. Two were perfected only years after the war, and two produced bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but none were developed in time to drop on Hitler.
As French Premier Georges Clemenceau, the Tiger of World War I, once said, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” The worldwide struggle to mitigate the coronavirus epidemic is enlisting the efforts of tens of thousands of scientists and physicians. But the policy choices involved, even the choices about what countermeasures to employ and what research and what therapies to fund, are far too serious to be left to the judgment of scientists.