Nobody was really "waiting for FDA approval," as it turns out

Official data show no change in vaccination rates following the FDA's approval of the Pfizer vaccine

On August 23, Pfizer’s vaccine became the first Covid shot to receive full approval from the FDA. Previously it, along with the vaccines from other manufacturers, had been available under an emergency use authorization, which allows medical products to be distributed before completion of the rigorous approval process in cases of extreme need.

There was hope at the time that the full approval would spur some of the vaccine-hesitant to go ahead and get their shots. “There are those individuals who understandably, in some respects, don't want to get vaccinated until they get the full stamp of approval,” White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci told NPR. He estimated that “20 or more percent of the people who are not getting vaccinated” would sign up for the shot as a result.

FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock struck a similar note. “We recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated,” she wrote in a release accompanying the news. Polling from the summer showed that 31 percent of the unvaccinated said that full approval would make them more likely to get the shot.

We’re now several weeks out from the FDA authorization, long enough that we can check the daily vaccination numbers to see if the unvaxxed signed up to get jabbed the way so many said they would. See for yourself.

This chart shows the seven-day rolling average of daily vaccines administered before and after the FDA authorization (I use this average because it smooths over the normal daily and weekly fluctuations that obscure the overall trend). It starts at July 10, which is basically the nadir of daily vaccination numbers in the U.S. Since then the numbers have been on a slow, steady upward climb which most experts attribute to the Delta variant spurring some of the unvaccinated to action. I would ignore, for the time being, that dip in the numbers on the right side of the chart. It coincides with a Labor Day reporting gap, and it’s too early yet to tell if it’s a real decline or just a bit of noise that needs to work its way out of the data.

We’re interested in the trajectory of the line before and after the August 23 announcement. If it caused a significant number of unvaccinated to get their shots, we’d expect to see some sort of spike or acceleration in the daily numbers. Alas, we emphatically do not see that.

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Bear in mind we’re just eyeballin’ here. It’s theoretically possible that the post-August 23 numbers would be lower had the authorization not happened. I’m not sure what would cause that, however. Even if it were the case, it would mean that the effects of the FDA approval are small enough to get lost in the daily churn of the other unseen factors influencing vaccination rates. Were 20 percent of the unvaccinated to suddenly make a run on the pharmacies, as Anthony Fauci optimistically predicted, this chart would look a lot different.

None of this is to say the approval itself isn’t important. It’s good to have all the safety data sorted out, and the proper authorization may make it easier for businesses and other groups to implement vaccine mandates down the road.

I read this chart as a preliminary confirmation of something a lot of people suspected: the whole “just waiting for full FDA approval” shtick was just an excuse from people who weren’t going to get vaccinated either way. The notion that millions of Americans suddenly held strong opinions on the intricacies of the approval process never really made sense. Many vaccine skeptics have by now seamlessly transitioned from “I’m waiting for approval” to “the approval was rushed.”

I suspect the people who claimed to be waiting for approval have a lot in common with the mythical “undecided” voters who wait until after the third presidential debate to choose a candidate: they’re tremendously ill-informed, but they’re trying to pass it off as thoughtfulness. In reality, they’ve already made up their mind.

David Sedaris once offered the following analogy about undecided voters: “I think​ of being​ on an airplane.​ The flight attendant comes​ down the aisle​ with her food cart and, eventually,​ parks​ it beside my seat.​ ‘Can I interest you in the chicken?​’ she asks.​ ‘Or would​ you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broke​n glass​ in it?’”

To appropriate Sedaris’ punchline, to be a vaccine skeptic in the era of Covid is to ask if the chicken has been properly vetted by the FDA.