As it turned out, the H1N1 strain never made it out of Fort Dix, where only one Army recruit died. And, as it also turned out, this swine flu was not nearly as virulent as the 1918 influenza.
But fast-tracking the vaccine for broad distribution among the public carried risks. Of the 45 million vaccinated against the swine flu, an estimated 450 people developed the paralyzing syndrome Guillain-Barré and of those, more than 30 died. The National Academy of Medicine subsequently concluded that people who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine had an increased risk for developing Guillain-Barré.
The emergence of Guillain-Barré led the government to suspend and effectively end its mass vaccination effort in December.
In all, it’s a complicated tale. Were the motivations behind the crash vaccination program political, or a sincere but perhaps misguided sense of urgency about the public health, or a little of both? Philip M. Boffey, a science writer at The New York Times, summed it up this way in an article headlined “Soft Evidence and Hard Sell.”
Has the government acted wisely in launching the swine flu inoculation campaign? Reasonable people may reach conflicting answers. Critics consider the program a waste of money, and a potentially dangerous one at that, while proponents call it sound preventive medicine.
It’s clear that the scare tactics used to promote the campaign are unwarranted. Many participants in the drama have implied that another 1918 disaster is imminent. Health officials used that fear to help sell the program to their political superiors; President Ford used it to pry funding from Congress and to goad the American public to participate, and the media, ever on the lookout for a compelling news angle, repeatedly stressed the 1918 analogy. The result has been confusion and exaggerated fears that interfere with sound judgment.
That said, the very reason Gerald Ford had his job in the first place was that, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in scandal just as the first inklings of the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon were being raised, senators said they would confirm only a vice-presidential appointee who would provide a steady, mature hand on the tiller should he rise to the Oval Office. And that was precisely Gerald Ford’s reputation.
If steady, mature Gerald Ford succumbed to haste when his presidency was on the line, imagine what Donald Trump will do. But maybe, just maybe, Mr. Trump can finally learn a lesson from history and move prudently, not impetuously, in rolling out new vaccines for Covid-19. And if that means they come out after the election, so be it.
Jerry Ford’s Hail Mary didn’t work, after all: He lost to Jimmy Carter anyway. That’s a history lesson even Donald Trump can understand.
Rick Perlstein is a journalist and historian.
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