Nancy Pelosi is playing politics with people's lives. Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Nancy Pelosi and the coming vaccine wars

What explains the House speaker’s attack on British regulation?

“I’m glad you brought up Boris Johnson,” said Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi in a press conference on Friday, “because I think we have to be very careful about what happens in the UK.”

Pelosi was asked whether the British Prime Minister’s close shave with Covid-19 had impaired his ability to lead. But the Californian Congresswoman wanted to talk about something else: “We have very stringent rules at the Food and Drug Administration here about clinical trials, timing, number of people etc, so that when a drug is approved by the FDA that it’s safe and efficacious, then it has the trust of the American people.”

The same, Ms Pelosi suggested, could not be said for Britain: “My concern is that the UK’s system for that kind of judgment is not on par with ours. So if Boris Johnson decided he’s going to approve a drug and this president embraces that, that’s the concern I have.”

One country’s chlorinated chickens is another’s hurried vaccine

There are several ironies to this claim. First, Pelosi’s complaint mirrors British worries about the consequences of a UK-US trade deal for standards in the UK. In both cases, one country is a deregulated dystopia and the other puts its citizens’ safety first. (The UK equivalent of Pelosi’s argument will be on full display when the Agriculture Bill returns to the House of Commons on Monday.) One jurisdiction’s chlorinated chickens is another’s hurried vaccine.

Second, biomedical research is arguably the one bright spot in the UK’s response to the coronavirus. Britain is home to maybe the most promising potential vaccine — the one being tested by AstraZeneca and Oxford — and studies that have proved vital in understanding how best to treat Covid-19. In fact, far from being “not on a par” with the US, the UK’s biomedical research on the coronavirus, and the environment that has allowed it to flourish, is the envy of scientists in America. “The US could learn a lot from Britain,” argued the University of Pennsylvania’s Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Cathy Zhang and Amaya Dia in the New York Times last month.

If Pelosi’s comments make little sense in this context, that’s because they’re not motivated by serious-but-narrow questions of UK biomedical regulations. Rather, they are best understood as part of the story liberal America has told itself about its country, its oldest ally and the rest of the world over the last four years.

Americans on both sides of the political divide long ago convinced themselves of the inextricable link between Boris, Brexit and Trump. The left has been fed a steady diet of New York Times misery dispatches from Brexit Britain, which paint the country as post-apocalyptic hellscape ruled by a demagogic populist where the natives “cavort in swamps” and subsist on a diet of porridge and boiled mutton. Other advanced nations are marching forwards, Britain and America are going backwards. Or so the story goes.

The possibility of a British vaccine fast-tracked by the Trump administration fits neatly into this version of events: two populists “playing politics with people’s lives” rather than “following the science” like the rest of the world.

It’s true that the US government wants a vaccine as soon as possible, and that it is considering an emergency use authorisation that would expedite the process. Something similar is being mooted in Britain, where a consultation is underway on a law change that would allow the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to speed up approval.

But, awkwardly for the proponents of the idea that a speedy vaccine is the stuff of Anglo-American nightmares, the EU is also looking for ways to expedite the process. Away from the partisanship, and Trump’s epic failure in expectation management, is an unremarkable truth: Western regulators and researchers are engaged in the difficult but heroic work of finding a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible. It is possible for biomedical regulations to be corrupted and politicised by authoritarians. But if you want to see what that looks like, don’t go to Washington or London. Instead, consider Russia, where Putin’s government has authorised a vaccine in exactly the fashion that Pelosi absurdly suggests the British government might (“If Boris Johnson decided he’s going to approve a drug…”).

The Trump years have brought out a paradoxical parochialism in the president’s critics: time and again they prove themselves unable to see world events as anything other than part of a very American saga. Witness, most recently, the insistence that America’s Covid-19 response has been uniquely terrible, when the numbers make it comparable to most large Western European states.

And therein lies the final irony of Pelosi’s attack on British biomedicine. Once upon a time, Trump’s liberal internationalist critics — champions of regulatory standardisation — would scoff at the suggestion that there was a meaningful difference in pharmaceutical standards between the US and a developed European country like the UK, or that only American scientists could be trusted to rule on the safety of a vaccine. And yet that is the position Pelosi now finds herself making: US chauvinism because it fits the anti-Trump narrative. In other words, “America first” to own the cons.

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