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History Offers A Catastrophic Lesson About Rushing A COVID Vaccine

Historian Rick Perlstein has a message for Donald Trump about rushing a COVID-19 vaccine for the sake of re-election: President Gerald Ford rushed a flu vaccine in 1976, created a fiasco – and he lost anyway.

Perlstein wrote about Ford’s debacle in The New York Times and he discussed it on CNN:

PERLSTEIN: Very simply, a strain of flu developed at Fort Dix, which was an Army base that trained recruits in New Jersey, and public health officials were concerned that it seemed to resemble the swine flu virus that killed 50, 100 million people in 1919.

So, the secretary of what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare met with the president on March 22nd, 1976, and he said that we should consider a crash virus production program, that it should be up and running within around six months or so.

It wasn't completely independent of scientific intervention. It wasn't like Donald Trump barking orders at people to ignore science. But there were concerning political considerations. They noted that the press was aware of this. They noted that Congress would expect action. They said it would be a great symbol of America's unity, going into the bicentennial year and Gerald Ford was up for his first election.

Hundreds and thousands of people, even millions of people were vaccinated. The moral of the story is that there was no pandemic. Only one person died [of the flu] but because of the unsafe, speeded-up lack of testing and lack of care in the development, 30 people died from Guillain–Barré syndrome, 400 were paralyzed.

Perlstein said after his Times column was published, he received emails from people who had been traumatized and said they would never get another vaccination.

PERLSTEIN: This is the sort of thing that can destroy the sort of trust that public health officials need for a generation or even more. [Trump will] have blood on his hands if he doesn't slow down this process and listen to the scientists, and ignore political considerations altogether.

Of course we know Trump won’t care about any of that. But as Perlstein noted in the Times, “Ford’s Hail Mary didn’t work, after all: He lost to Jimmy Carter anyway. That’s a history lesson even Donald Trump can understand.”

This is part of our continuing coverage of the 2020 elections.

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