Openly contradicting the United States’ top government health expert, President Donald Trump continues to insist that a viable COVID-19 vaccine will be ready by October and in mass distribution soon after.
Trump’s comments on Wednesday were an extraordinary public rebuke of Robert Redfield, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told a congressional committee earlier in the day that a vaccine for the new coronavirus could be broadly rolled out by “late second quarter, third quarter 2021”.
Trump, speaking at a news conference, said he believed it would be much sooner.
The US president, who is seeking re-election on November 3, said he called Redfield after his testimony to question him about it, and said that Redfield appeared to have been confused by the question.
“I think he made a mistake when he said that,” Trump said of Redfield’s testimony.
“I don’t think he means that. When he said it, I believe he was confused.”
A vaccine may be available in a matter of weeks, Trump said, adding that there was a plan to begin distributing the inoculation widely soon after Food and Drug Administration approval.
Trump is eager to have progress on a vaccine ahead of the presidential election. But while several companies are in late-stage trials and have expressed optimism, none of the vaccines is yet proven to be effective and safe.
Redfield, masked at times in a Senate hearing room, also spoke emphatically of the importance of everyone wearing protective masks to stop the pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the US.
He floated the possibility that a vaccine might be 70 percent effective in inducing immunity, and said, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”
But Trump again disagreed with the CDC director.
“I think there are a lot of problems with masks,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not more effective than a vaccine.”
The US leader was initially reluctant to urge Americans to wear masks but has since been more willing to do so. Still, he has held a number of tightly packed events where many participants have not covered their mouth and nose.
Despite quibbling with Redfield, Trump said he retained confidence in his performance at the CDC.
Redfield, who is a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, did say that a vaccine could be ready as soon as this November or December, and that limited first doses could go to those who were most vulnerable, but that it might take until mid-2021 for it to be widely available.
“As soon as (a) vaccine gets approved or cleared, we want to be in a position to distribute it within 24 hours,” Redfield told the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.
But “in order to have enough of us immunised to have immunity, I think it’s going to take six to nine months,” he added.
The federal government will allocate vaccines for each state based on the critical populations recommended first for vaccination by the CDC, he said.
On Twitter late on Wednesday, Redfield said he believed “100%” in the importance of a vaccine.
“A COVID-19 vaccine is the thing that will get Americans back to normal, everyday life,” he said.
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, said the contradiction between Trump and health experts on an issue that has become a focal point of the 2020 election campaign highlighted a lack of public trust in the president’s handling of the pandemic.
Biden, speaking after receiving a briefing by public health experts, said he supported a rapid COVID-19 vaccine to help American life return to normal, but said the process should be guided by science and safety, not politics.
“When I said I trust vaccines, and I trust the scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump – this is what I meant,” he said in a tweet after Trump’s remarks.
Biden routinely appears at campaign events wearing a mask, and usually takes it off to deliver a speech. Trump, who is trailing in pre-election polling, has mocked Biden for wearing a mask.