If you like being vaccinated, thank the U.S. government | Column

April 5, 2021 6:00 am

Jennifer Simmons receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during Senior Weekend at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2021. Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury.

In his response to Gov. Tim Walz’s State of the State address, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said we have former President Donald Trump to thank for the rapid deployment and distribution of vaccines that are saving us from the pandemic. 

Although it seems appalling to give credit to the 45th president, whose reckless disregard for human life was evident throughout his presidency, Gazelka isn’t wrong exactly. 

Around the time the first vaccine was approved in December, the federal government had already pumped more than $12 billion into development and manufacturing

That misses a more important contribution from the United States government — one that long predates Trump. 

The real credit belongs to people like Dr. Barney S. Graham, the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. Writing in the New Yorker, Lawrence Wright called Graham the “chief architect of the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use.”

But wait: I thought I got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine? Aren’t they pharmaceutical companies? 

Yes, and you probably did, but the National Institutes of Health and other federally funded research made it possible. 

As Kaiser Health News reported last year, the two vaccines rely on the viral protein designed by Graham and his colleagues, while the concept of RNA modification was first developed by Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania.

Given Americans’ collective decision to not take the disease very seriously, the vaccines are probably the only thing preventing another half a million dead. 

Just as few people know the origins of the very thing that is potentially saving them from a miserable end, fewer still know that the United States government has vastly improved our ability to predict the weather. 

The National Weather Service — which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce, could forecast five days out better in 2016 than one day out in 2005. 

You can read this astonishing fact in Michael Lewis’s book, “The Fifth Risk,” in which he ably explains just some of what the United States government does every day. 

In the case of the weather, they collect massive amounts of data and then computer models give us increasingly accurate forecasts. 

Think of how valuable this information is — for average people and industry and especially agriculture. It’s probably too large to quantify.  


Then there’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose innovations — as rattled off in Harvard Business Review — include the internet; global positioning satellites; drones; and micro-electro-mechanical systems, used in everything from air bags to ink-jet printers.

Entire industries would never have existed without government research and development. 

Consider commercial aviation without the massive investment in aerospace during World War II. Or what flying would be like now without the Federal Aviation Administration, which has helped make air travel safer than car travel. 

To put it another way, thanks to the United State government, we can prevent the spread of a mysterious, dangerous disease, predict the weather and fly. 

What would our ancestors call this other than the stuff of miracles?

But for most people, the government is the slow moving line at the Post Office. 

I understand: Government can be inefficient, indifferent and sometimes corrupt.

The mythology of the past four decades or so is that the private sector entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk drive innovation, while Wall Street masters of the universe ably allocate the resources to make it happen. 

Meanwhile, dimwitted, slow-moving government workers get in the way. 

It’s a self-interested myth meant to tear down the public sector in the broader effort to cut taxes and curb regulation. And it’s particularly pernicious because it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: How many of our most talented and ambitious young people want to be government scientists or economists when all they hear about is the legend of Silicon Valley? 

(Which was also fueled by government money, but I’ll have to save that for a future column.)

Even as the private sector spends billions of dollars marketing itself, and conservatives tear down the public sector at every opportunity, most government agencies are terrible at explaining what they do. 

To some extent, this is as it should be: Government propaganda is unnerving, and I’ll be the first to express outrage when a public agency hires sock puppet “influencers” to hoodwink the public. 

But somehow or other Americans need to understand that we — the taxpayers — built this grand civilization. 

And if we don’t nurture and support it, we’ll lose it.

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children