The US government has called off a coronavirus vaccine promotion plan that would have provided early access to Santa Claus performers in exchange for them extolling its virtues during the festive period.
The scheme would have cost $250m (£192m) and also involved acquiring celebrity endorsements for vaccinations, once they are approved.
The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas called news of the plan’s cancellation “extremely disappointing” after it was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
“This was our greatest hope for Christmas 2020, and now it looks like it won't happen,” chairman Ric Erwin told the newspaper.
The public-service ad campaign, intended to “defeat despair” and “inspire hope” was first conceived by Michael Caputo, a former secretary at the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS). Mr Caputo, also the top spokesperson at the HHS, is on a two-month medical leave and has been diagnosed with metastatic head and neck cancer.
Those who perform as Mrs Claus and the elves would also have been eligible for the early immunisation under the now-cancelled proposal, according to US media reports.
The decision to scrap the idea comes as Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert leading the US response to the outbreak, said a vaccine could be ready for approval “by the end of November, the beginning of December”. The pandemic is still raging in most parts of the US, with about 59,000 new cases reported on Sunday, adding to a total of 8.7m infections and 225,000 deaths.
In a 12-minute phone call accessed by the WSJ, Mr Caputo reportedly told Mr Erwin in August that shots would likely be approved by mid-November and be distributed to front-line workers before Thanksgiving, which falls on the last Thursday of November.
"If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don't know what is," Mr Caputo said in the phone conversation. “I cannot wait to tell the president,” Mr Caputo said at another point, adding: “He’s going to love this.”
“Since you would be doing Santa a serious favor, Santa would definitely reciprocate,” Mr Erwin can be heard saying on the call.
An HHS spokesperson told the New York Times that Health Secretary Alex Azar "had no knowledge" of the outreach discussion by Mr Caputo.
The proposal had reportedly been under fire from three Democratic leaders who criticised the campaign as politically motivated. The actor Dennis Quaid posted a video on his Instagram page last month saying he had done an interview with Dr Fauci “about raising awareness of Covid-19 and what we can still do to prevent lives being lost to this terrible, terrible virus”. “It was in no way political,” he added.
White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern was quoted in the report saying that President Donald Trump was not informed about the plan to use Santa performers to promote a vaccine.