It has been eight months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. In that time, the US has recorded a higher number of Covid-19 cases and deaths than any other country in the world. With the US witnessing a steep decline in gross domestic product (GDP) and unusually high unemployment rates, the country is deemed to be heading towards the biggest recession since the Great Depression. While the US’ unemployment figures have been falling recently, the pace of the US job market recovery slowed down in September, according to Labor Force Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey. This suggests that the US is still far from seeing the full economic impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the rapid development of a vaccine or an effective treatment for Covid-19 is widely considered to be one of the main healthcare-related areas for the federal government to address in order to allow the US and its economy to return to a pre-Covid-19 level of normality.

With the US presidential election rapidly approaching, the ongoing pandemic and Covid-19 vaccines are playing a prominent role in the political debates and election campaigns. A group of nine leading pharmaceutical companies—AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer, and Sanofi—have pledged to seek approval for Covid-19 vaccines only after thoroughly evaluating their clinical profiles. This may be an attempt to reassure the public that while the Covid-19 vaccine development process has been a source of debate during the presidential campaigns, the process is not politically motivated or aimed at electoral gains. While pharmaceutical companies are aiming to be among the first to develop Covid-19 vaccines, they have a lot to lose if an ineffective vaccine is launched to the markets. If there is a problem with the vaccine, the pharma company behind it may face a huge negative impact that far exceeds its financial losses.

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According to a recent GlobalData poll conducted with pharmaceutical industry professionals, finding a Covid-19 vaccine was rated as the most important healthcare issue for the US presidential election, as indicated by 59% of the respondents. In this poll, which was completed by 184 respondents during September 28–October 28, the respondents believed that the Covid-19 vaccine will upstage a number of other healthcare-related issues ranging from improving access to healthcare and mental health services to reproductive health policies (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Most Important Healthcare Issues for the 2020 US Presidential Election.

Credit: GlobalData.

Survey of 184 respondents including visitors to the Pharmaceutical Technology, Hospital Management, and Medical Device Network sites during 28 September – 27 October 2020 (n=37) or industry experts surveyed between 7 October – 28 October 2020 (n=147).

While the pipeline for potential Covid-19 vaccines is robust, with multiple candidates already in Phase III, a successful vaccine rollout depends on a coordinated, transparent, and publicly accountable approach. The Republicans’ original plan to roll out a vaccine close to the election on November 3 was dismissed as unlikely by health experts, and those projections were later shifted to the end of the year. Nevertheless, in order to keep up with the promises made during the election campaign, it is very likely that Republicans will push for the rapid approval and rollout of a vaccine if US President Donald Trump is reelected, with a secondary priority of focusing on vaccine safety and efficacy. However, if the Democrats win the presidential election, the focus will likely shift toward vaccine safety and efficacy rather than a speedy approval and rollout, because Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s electoral agenda is focused on having scientists and other experts guide vaccine development.

Regardless of the election outcome, there is no doubt that the availability of an effective vaccine could significantly improve public health, reducing stress on the healthcare system, economy, and people’s daily lives. It is unknown how effective the first generation of vaccines will be or if one shot will be sufficient. Nevertheless, the sooner an effective vaccine is available, the sooner the country can begin to return to normal. Notably, lingering discussions about vaccines being approved before their safety and effectiveness are fully assessed can create public unease, which may lead to reduced numbers of people intending to get vaccinated due to safety concerns.