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The only unalloyed good news for Joe Biden in recent days has been the Federal Drug Administration’s full approval of the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. Though the FDA took longer than many hoped, it has arrived in time for the start of America’s next school year. Fewer than half of America’s 16-to-18-year-olds, and only a third of its 12-to-15-year-olds, have been vaccinated.
Stepping up their inoculation rate will help to slow America’s galloping spread of Delta infections. The FDA’s green light removes one lingering parental argument against jabbing eligible kids. It will also make it easier for school districts and private sector employers that seek to impose vaccine mandates on their staff. But it is also long past time for Biden to take the gloves off.
Accelerating the US vaccination rate, which is now falling behind the wealthy country average, is especially urgent given the stubborn resistance to mask mandates by Republican-run states. Legally, there is little that Biden can do about it. His main constraint is constitutional. Health and education are largely out of federal hands. Last week, Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardonas, threatened to withhold funds from states that have banned their schools from adopting mask mandates for staff and children. It is also exploring civil rights lawsuits against the offending states, which include Florida, Texas and Tennessee. But such threats are unlikely to have much sway on their targets.
Biden’s larger constraint is political. A vocal minority of Americans have converted mask and vaccine mandates into a symbol of state oppression. In reality, most American states have been requiring child vaccination certificates for a range of disease for more than a century — with only sporadic resistance. Alas, the battle against Covid has turned into a cultural lightning rod of US polarisation. Scientific arguments appear to make almost no dent in the resistance. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children of all ages should be masked in the classroom. That advice has little impact on those who believe children are being deprived of their freedom — or even being put into danger by being forced to breathe through a mask.
Biden can have a strong effect by more forcefully telling the US public there is no scientific foundation to the anti-vaxxer case. He should also make clear that it is the freedom of the majority — the roughly 70 per cent of US adults who have taken at least one dose — that is being put in jeopardy by an irresponsible minority. Following the FDA ruling, the Pentagon this week said it would now require all its 2.1m employees to take the vaccine. Biden can extend that mandate to every federal agency, and to government contractors. He need not live in fear of further stoking the culture wars. Polls show that a large majority of parents believe their children should be masked even in states, such as Florida, that have been pushing back the hardest.
The larger stake is the future of the US recovery. Worrying signs that the economy may be slowing, led by declining consumer sentiment, are almost entirely due to the spread of Delta. The US now has roughly five times the daily deaths and infections as it had in spring when the vaccine take-up rate was fastest and before the Delta variant had arrived. America is therefore at an inflection point in its battle against coronavirus. Ensuring that restrictions are followed and that unscientific rumour-mongering is rebutted will be essential to halting and reversing the spread of Covid. This is one war Biden should be intensifying.