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Letter from Washington: Biden’s covid complacency

The president should double his vaccine target

“There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” one Biden White House official told CNN on Thursday, the new president’s first full day in the job, of the previous administration’s vaccine distribution plan.

Where the Trump administration pandemic response was distracted and unfocussed, the Biden team say they will be bold and determined. Unlike their predecessors they will take the pandemic seriously and “follow the science”. So one would expect Biden to be aiming to drastically ramp up the daily number of vaccines distributed, quickly outpacing the speed achieved by the president who had no plan, sidelined his medical advisers and spent his final days in office dedicating approximately zero minutes a day to the pandemic.

But that isn’t what is happening. Instead, the goal that senior White House staff keep calling “bold” is to deliver roughly as many doses per day as the Trump administration. In the seven days up to Thursday — the day it was revealed there had been “no plan” — America managed on average 940,000 jabs per day. Team Biden want to transform the pandemic response and have set themselves the target of increasing that number to… 1,000,000.

America is already beating Biden’s ‘bold’ goal

Biden’s underwhelming promise is 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days. Over the last three days, America has achieved 1.6m, 1.3m and 1.6m. In other words, the country is already beating Biden’s “bold” goal. Great work, everybody.

Behind this gap between rhetoric and reality is an unsurprising overstatement of the mess that Biden has inherited — Anthony Fauci, no fan of Trump, has corrected the claim that there was “no plan” — and a maddeningly political impulse to underpromise and overdeliver.

When questioned on their underwhelming target, administration officials have made clear that of course they hope to overshoot the goal. On Friday, Biden himself said “God willing, we’re not only going to do 100 million, we’re going to do more than that.” But why have any goal at all unless it spurs action, quickens the pace of the single most important project in the world right now and helps the US — and the US economy — get back to normal as soon as possible?

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On Thursday, Fauci, who is now back at the heart of America’s Covid response, said his “best case scenario” was “85 per cent of people” vaccinated by the end of the summer. “If we do that,” he said, “then by the time we get to the fall we can approach a degree of normality.”

To achieve Fauci’s best case scenario, America would need to go at more than twice the rate set by the Biden administration target. Why not aim for something approaching Fauci’s best case scenario? Double the target to 200 million in the first 100 days. If vaccine supply starts to be the obstacle to faster distribution, that is a sign that the distribution is working well. It will also turn up the heat on approval for the vaccines beyond the two currently allowed in the US. In other words, it will mean a goal is doing what it is designed to do: encouraging faster action.

Economist Alex Tabarrok reframed the vaccine question in a useful way on Marginal Revolution this week. He cites projections by Youyang Gu, whose past Covid forecasts have been among the most accurate, that predict a mixture of vaccination and infections will get the United States to herd immunity by the summer. “By July, it will all be over,” he writes. “The only question is how many people need to die between now and then.”

I’m tempted to say that the lack of ambition on vaccine distribution is a missed opportunity to deliver on exactly the kind of uncontroversial goal around which Biden says he wants to encourage unity and common purpose (something I wrote about on the day of the inauguration). Or that basic competence on something like the pandemic, which is high on almost every American’s list of political priorities, is a good start for anyone serious about lowering the temperature and fostering a more constructive political climate. Or that Biden is missing a chance to demonstrate that moderate politics need not mean a lack of ambition.

But getting as many vaccine doses into as many Americans as quickly as possible is important enough in and of itself. It doesn’t need to send a message, or teach any kind of lesson. And insofar as setting a goal actually encourages more urgent action, the Biden administration’s current lack of ambition will cost lives.

Underpromising and overdelivering might be good politics, but it’s not the best way to get vaccines distributed as quickly as possible. An administration that is serious about the latter, rather than just genuflecting to “the science”, would risk missing a more ambitious target, safe in the knowledge that the resultant political flak was worth it for the lives saved.

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