Tribune Editorial: When a vaccine is ready, we must get it

(Hans Penninkm | AP photo) In this July 27 photo, a nurse prepares a shot as a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway in Binghamton, N.Y.

The science of vaccinating people — and animals — against infectious diseases is arguably the most important accomplishment in the history of humanity.

It is more than lives saved and suffering avoided. Vaccinations provide incredibly cheap ounces of prevention that weigh far more lightly on any nation’s economy than would all the costs of not only treating diseases but also lost productivity and declines in spending.

For anyone who is old enough to remember, the development and widespread availability of the vaccines that have, for all intents and purposes, eradicated the dread disease of polio were causes for universal celebration.

The need to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic, and to do so quickly, is so great that the federal government has dubbed its research and development program Operation Warp Speed. (For non-Trekkies, that means to go really, really fast.)

Yes, most of the United States could have done a better job of testing, tracing and isolating, starting as far back as February. If we had, we’d be way ahead of the game now, with far fewer deaths and much less damage to the economy and our educational system.

But even if we had done all that right, the prevention provided by a safe and effective vaccine is still a much better option than constantly chasing any infectious disease around in circles.

Federal officials have notified the states that they should be ready to organize distribution of a coronavirus vaccine as soon as Nov. 1. Some find it suspicious that the administration is targeting the Sunday before Election Day as the day of our deliverance. Which sadly highlights how politicized the search for, and distribution of, a vaccine may still become.

The world is already awash in lies, rumors and conspiracy theories that threaten to make a vaccine, whenever it comes, much less effective. The so-called anti-vaxxer movement has a 22-year head start in this race, dating from a 1998 study, later found to be totally bogus, linking the MMR vaccines commonly given to children to the development of autism.

Add to that the random ravings so easily distributed on social media and across the internet, and it will take more than good science to develop an effective vaccine. It will take good governing and communicating to persuade people to, as they say in Great Britain, get the jab.

Vaccines work only if a large percentage of the population gets them. No vaccine is 100% effective in every person who receives it, so it is necessary to create as many immune people as possible to stop a virus as crafty and damaging as COVID-19 from jumping from person to person.

As is the case with wearing a mask, no person gets the vaccine just to protect oneself. You get it also to protect those around you, especially those who haven’t received the vaccine or for whom it is not appropriate for reasons such as a weak immune system.

This was the point wisely raised the other day by Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney. He compared educating the American people about the need for vaccination to the long effort by the U.S. surgeon general and other health agencies to warn people about the dangers of tobacco, and urged those responsible to get the word out.

That’s a valid comparison. But we don’t have that much time.

A safe and effective vaccine, as soon as it is available, must be promoted, encouraged, made downright cool. Mandating it by law may be more than this nation can handle, but there is reason to consider penalties, such as exclusion from work, school or some public places, for those who refuse.

Widespread vaccination is the best possible tool we will ever have to restart the economy, reopen schools, go out to dinner, get a haircut, go to a basketball game or any other aspect of the world we all miss.

Not to mention saving hundreds of thousands of lives.