The Vaccine Has a Serious Side Effect—A Positive One

It could make 2021 the year Americans rediscover science.

A pharmacy technician holds a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, on Dec. 15.
A pharmacy technician holds a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, on Dec. 15. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

As the epically awful year 2020 limps toward an end, it can be hard to find reasons to hope 2021 will be that much better. Especially if you’re reading this with bleary eyes between Zoom calls, wondering what your kid is pounding on in the hallway.

Yes, the United States will finally get a new president next year. But given the likelihood that Congress will remain divided, that outgoing President Donald Trump will continue to raise hell from the sidelines, and that the Republican Party will continue to scorn democracy and ignore Americans’ well-being, the odds that the Biden administration will manage do enough, fast enough, to address the country’s urgent crises seem painfully long.

What about the COVID-19 vaccine and the economic recovery it promises? Yes, those are coming—but not anytime soon (unless you’re a front-line health care worker). The United States won’t achieve the kind of widespread immunity it needs to start reopening until the late spring or summer—by which point, U.S. deaths from COVID-19 will likely have exceeded 500,000. And in the words of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, things won’t “really turn … around” until the end of next year. Some industries will take even longer to recover; travel, for example, is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

And yet, obscured by all of this, there is a powerful reason to be hopeful about 2021, and it comes down to a single number revealed by a new study: 71 percent.

That very important figure comes from a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor on Dec. 15; it represents the percentage of Americans who now say they will take a vaccine when it becomes available, if it is declared safe by scientists and is available for free.

Why is this such a big deal? First, because a vaccine is no good unless most people use it, and the United States won’t ever reach the turnaround Fauci describes unless enough Americans—some 75 percent to 85 percent, by his reckoning—actually agree to be vaccinated. Until very recently, that didn’t seem likely.

Rising confidence in the vaccine points to a deeper trend that could make 2021 a critical turning point: the year when Americans finally embrace science again.

Now it does. The Vaccine Monitor’s 71 percent represents an eight-point jump from a similar survey it released in October, which itself represented an increase of about 10 percent from polls taken in the late spring and early summer. Together, these numbers show that growing numbers of Americans are willing to roll up their sleeves and get the shot.

Given how close the new total comes to Fauci’s target figure of 75 percent, the study augurs very well for the country’s chances of containing the pandemic and starting to rebuild next year. After creating a vaccine in the first place, getting a wary U.S. public to take it was one of the big hurdles; now the country seems likely to clear it.

But the good news goes even further. Rising confidence in the vaccine points to a deeper trend that could make 2021 a critical turning point: the year when Americans finally embrace science again, after increasingly abandoning objective truth and rejecting expertise of all kinds.

If that claim sounds overblown, consider a few important facts. The first is that confidence in the vaccine hasn’t just grown but is likely to keep growing. According to Kaiser Family Foundation pollsters and others, there are four main reasons Americans have expressed reluctance about the vaccine until now. First, the development was so fast, and the testing process was so politicized, that many people have been scared about safety. Second, many were confused by the dishonest, inconsistent, and erratic way that Trump talked about the virus and the vaccine. Third, many Americans of color—who have caught and died from COVID-19 in grossly disproportionate numbers—share an understandable suspicion of government health programs due, not least, to the dark history of secret experiments conducted on Black, Latino, and Native American subjects (most infamously during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study). Finally, a minority of mostly rural Americans still don’t believe that COVID-19 is real or is serious enough to warrant doing anything about it.

Since the summer, several big things have changed that will help alleviate these feelings. For starters, as Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me in an interview, the vaccine is no longer theoretical. “We now have honest-to-God data becoming available about its effectiveness and side effects”—and that data is overwhelmingly positive. What’s more, she added, the government (apart from the White House), as well as the pharmaceutical industry and public health experts, has worked in a diligent and transparent way to send the message that, yes, the vaccine development and testing processes were accelerated, but there were no shortcuts taken with regard to safety. To address concerns about equity, meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health and nonprofit efforts like the CommuniVax coalition are working closely with community organizations to ensure that the vaccine is distributed in a fair way that specifically addresses the concerns of Americans of color. Finally, although Trump still seems intent on sowing confusion—see his refusal to join Vice President Mike Pence on Friday in publicly taking the vaccine—the prospect of a new, science-positive administration taking over on Jan. 20, 2021, may reassure many of the Americans who are wary of the current president’s approach. If the rollout continues to go well, the 29 percent of the public now waiting to see how the vaccine performs may decide to take it, too.

So much for the vaccine itself; what about the broader impact on U.S. society? Numerous experts now predict, with reason, that as Americans become more accepting of the COVID-19 vaccine in particular, anxiety about all vaccines—a self-destructive celebrity-driven phenomenon that’s fueled outbreaks of the measles and other preventable diseases in recent years—could also wane. And that would be a huge boon to the health of the country. As Schoch-Spana put it, “Everyone needs to look at the current campaign as part of a broader vaccine effort, not a one-off. If done well, if institutions of medicine and science and government demonstrate their trustworthiness—especially to hard-hit communities—that kind of trust could carry over into the next immunization program and the health sector as a whole.”

If such a carryover effect sounds like wishful speculation, it’s not; in fact, it’s already happening. A nationwide poll taken by the Pew Research Center in April and May showed that since the pandemic started, public trust not just in doctors, but in science in general has risen. More than 3 in 4 American adults and teenagers now believe human activity causes climate change, for example; even about 81 percent of Texans acknowledge that the phenomenon is real.

Given the terrible events we’ve all suffered in the last few years, this shift makes sense. The wildfires, tropical storms, and the pandemic—which is now cutting a lethal swath through even rural states like North Dakota—have made it harder than ever to ignore Mother Nature. Virtually everyone, from Trump on down, who has denied the science has paid a price for it—just ask Trump ally and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who spent several days in an intensive care unit with COVID-19 and whose experience turned him into a mask evangelist. Meanwhile, many of the regions and countries that have embraced medical expertise, such as New York City and South Korea, have benefited in a very public way.

In the last year, as a result of what admissions officers are calling the Fauci Effect, applications to U.S. medical schools have risen by an unprecedented 18 percent.

It’s hard to predict just how far this return to science will go in the days ahead. But young Americans are already voting with their feet: In the last year, as a result of what admissions officers are calling the Fauci Effect, applications to U.S. medical schools have risen by an unprecedented 18 percent (and at Stanford, by 50 percent), even as overall university enrollments have dropped.

Geoffrey Young of the Association of American Medical Colleges has compared the phenomenon to the boom in military enlistments that followed the 9/11 attacks, but a better analogy can be drawn. It’s there in the name of Operation Warp Speed and in the way many of us have taken to referring to the vaccine’s crash development as a “moonshot.” The best parallel is to the United States’ actual moonshot in the 1960s.

It’s hard to overstate how incredibly excited the Apollo program made Americans, not just about astronomy but about science of all sorts. As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described the phenomenon to me, “half my generation was inspired. We saw those rockets, and those astronauts, and we wanted to be part of the adventure—which meant becoming fluent in science.” The data backs him up; a survey conducted by the journal Nature a few years ago found that of 800 researchers and engineers asked, some 50 percent said their career choices had been affected by the moon missions.

Their choices had a profound effect on the U.S. economy, turning it into the innovation superpower that dominated the world for decades to come. The U.S. space program also produced breakthroughs that led to the production and marketing of huge array of commercial products, from baby formula to smartphone cameras.

So will the COVID-19 vaccine inspire something similar? There are no guarantees. First, the shift in attitudes has, so far, been largely partisan. Although Republicans’ views of both the vaccine and of science have improved somewhat this year, the increase has been much larger among Democrats.

Second, the vaccine has to continue to perform well, with a very low incidence of side effects and a very high rate of success in stopping the disease. And it must be distributed in a way that feels safe and fair to most Americans.

But assuming it is—and there is plenty of reason to think it will be—the impact on the country could be monumental, helping it roll back not just a devastating disease but also the devastating rejection of objectivity and expertise that’s done so much damage over the last four years. As Tyson put it, “There is no doubt that our journey to the moon inspired an entire next generation and beyond to become scientists and engineers. And there is no reason why that Apollo moment could not be replicated in other circumstances”—namely, today—“where scientists are once again the heroes of the story.”

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman