The Secretary of Health and Human Services said on TODAY Thursday that "politics will play no role whatsoever" in the approval of a potential coronavirus vaccine — and he would not hesitate to get the vaccine.
Alex Azar's comments come after President Donald Trump said on Sept. 7 that a vaccine may be coming "very soon," perhaps before "that special day" in reference to Election Day in November, leading to concerns that a vaccine will be hastily approved to help his reelection campaign.
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"I want to reassure you and the American people, politics will play no role whatsoever in the approval of a vaccine," Azar told Savannah Guthrie. "There are many independent checks in this system that we have built in first."
Azar cited an independent data and safety monitoring board as well as standards by individual drug companies as safeguards to ensuring a vaccine is properly tested before being given to the public.
He said a recent example of the government's vigilance is the Food and Drug Administration's decision to not let drugmaker AstraZeneca restart human trials of its vaccine yet in the United States after they were halted following an adverse event with a patient in the U.K. and then restarted in the U.K. and Brazil.
"There's no political interference," he said. "The FDA is going to call those balls and strikes at the career level there, and the American people should be reassured, we stand for patient safety. Everything's going to be by science, data and rule of law."
Azar's comments echo those of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House coronavirus task force leader who said on Sept. 3 that a vaccine will not be distributed unless it's based on science and "hard data."
The HHS secretary said Trump's comments about potentially having a vaccine before the election were "obliquely" referring to remarks made by the CEOs of drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna that we "may see data in late October" regarding a vaccine.
"The president's been clear, I've been clear, FDA's been clear — science will drive this," he said. "FDA's gonna make the call on whether a vaccine is safe and effective."
Fears have also been raised that many people will refuse to take a vaccine when it becomes available. A recent Axios poll found that 60% of Americans would not take a first-generation COVID-19 vaccine.
Fauci has made it clear that he would not support a nationwide mandate that everyone would have to get the vaccine.
“You don't want to mandate and try and force anyone to take the vaccine. We've never done that. You can mandate for certain groups of people like health workers, but for the general population you cannot,” Fauci said last month.
Azar pledged to take the vaccine as soon as it's available.
"I will be first in line as soon as I fit into one of the categories where it's recommended for me," Azar said. "I will be first in line to get a vaccine and I will ask my family members to do the same from an FDA, gold standard-authorized or approved vaccine."
The U.S. death toll from the pandemic recently passed 200,000 and a growing number of states have seen rising totals of cases in recent days. Azar declined to talk about whether it's a second wave of the virus, saying that the country is "in an enduring pandemic" and calling this "a bridge period."
Azar also urged people to get their flu shot this year as we enter flu season in the midst of the pandemic.
"What's really important is we not let down our guard as individuals," he said. "Practice the three W's: Wash your hands, watch your distance, wear your face coverings when you can't social distance, and stay out of settings where you can't do those things."
Dr. John Torres added one more precaution in urging people to practice the "four W's" on TODAY last week.
"The last one is 'windows,''' Torres said. "Ventilate as much as possible, especially when we start moving to the winter time frame when you're indoors. Try to open those windows, even if you need to put on a sweater, put on some (extra) clothes, anything you can do to get that air moving, get outside air inside, can certainly help."
Masks have been the most controversial of the "4 W's," and Trump's guidance has been contradictory. On TODAY, Savannah highlighted the president has said in some interviews that they are good, while saying in others that they have problems and may not be effective. There also have been scenes of dense crowds without masks at several of his recent rallies.
"Masks are important," Azar said. "We have been clear, the president has been clear. It's right there, coronavirus.gov, the president's guidance on reopening — wear face coverings when you can't social distance, very clear."
Wearing masks has been a divisive issue, leading to public conflicts, protests and acts of violence.
"Individuals just have to make calls for themselves about their own risk, the setting in their community — that's the spread of the disease in their community — whether they have vulnerable people in their household, so at the end of the day it's individual responsibility," Azar said.