November 9, 2020
By Naomi Lopez and Timothy Sandefur

It was just over nine months ago that the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Washington State. Today, the FDA has approved one treatment for COVID-19, and so far, there is one vaccine candidate that is likely to receive FDA Emergency Use Authorization in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, some state governors are playing politics with the virus, building up unnecessary bureaucracy to keep Americans from accessing a vaccine. And that could pose serious risks not only to their constituents, but also to residents in neighboring states.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington has joined Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, and California Governor Gavin Newsom in what they’re calling a Scientific Safety Review Working Group, with plans to impose a second layer of review on any vaccine that the FDA might approve for use in the United States. There’s nothing wrong with reviewing safety information and data regarding newly authorized or newly approved vaccines, but no politician—not the President nor any governor—should be playing doctor, especially at a time when every day of delay takes an enormous toll on human lives, economic opportunity, and mental well-being.

Although sold as a “protection” against an unsafe medicine, the reality is that the proposal would keep a federally approved vaccine out of the hands of the same frontline workers—doctors, nurses, police officers, paramedics, and others—who have put themselves and their loved ones in harm’s way for the better part of a year, now. In other words, while we trust these medical professionals to care for us, Governors Newsom, Inslee, Brown, and Sisolak are planning to prevent them from making their own decisions about taking a vaccine against a deadly disease that has paralyzed the nation. And, of course, the extra layer of bureaucracy that these officials are proposing would deprive the rest of us of that choice, as well.

What’s more, by limiting access to an FDA-approved vaccine, this proposal would make it more likely that high-risk individuals in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington would try to travel to neighboring states whose governors have not blocked people from obtaining a potentially lifesaving medicine. That increases risks for everyone concerned—increased risk of infection in those neighboring states, and increased risks to people in home states when travelers come home.

These governors have justified their plan to impose a new barrier against medical treatment by saying that the Trump administration might approve an unsafe vaccine for political reasons. But the FDA already issued new guidance earlier this month, in an effort to boost transparency and establish a more rigorous standard for Emergency Use Authorization, which essentially guaranteed that a COVID-19 vaccine would not receive Emergency Use Authorization before Election Day, which further insulated an Authorization decision from political interference.

But even aside from that concern, the potential of political gamesmanship at the FDA—while not an unreasonable concern—is no good reason to deny people the opportunity to take medicine that might protect or save their lives. What to prescribe and for whom isn’t for me, you, or any politician to decide. It’s a decision best left in the hands of the individual patient and his or her doctor.

Physicians are granted an enormous amount of authority and are obligated to act in the best interest of their patients. They can be sued for malpractice and negligence and disciplined by their state’s medical board. They base their decisions on a variety of medical information from the FDA, medical professional associations and societies, and, most important, their patients’ unique medical circumstances and needs.

That is why patient-centered healthcare decisions—not political posturing—are essential to combating COVID-19. Politicians interfering with doctors’ judgements about the best course of care for their patients and playing politics with people’s lives is always bad medicine.

Naomi Lopez is the Director of Healthcare Policy and Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

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