President Trump contradicted one of his administration's top scientists and announced Wednesday that widespread distribution of a coronavirus vaccine would begin as early as next month, further rattling the scientific and public health communities and stoking rival Joe Biden's claim that Trump can't be trusted to oversee development of a safe vaccine.
The president's announcement came hours after the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, testified to Congress under oath that large-scale vaccine distribution would not begin until late spring, at the earliest. Trump told reporters he called Redfield, and said the director had misspoken.
The inconsistencies threatened to further feed many voters' worries that a rushed coronavirus vaccine could be unsafe. Biden seized on that anxiety Wednesday, warning that the president was putting Americans at risk by spreading misinformation about the virus and pressuring federal agencies to quickly deliver a breakthrough before the Nov. 3 election.
“We can’t allow politics to interfere with vaccines in any way,” Biden said, speaking to reporters in Wilmington, Del., after a briefing by public health experts. "I trust vaccines, I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump.”
Trump, following with his own news conference, denounced Biden as the irresponsible party. He and other Republicans accused the Biden campaign of aligning itself with the “anti-vaxxers” spreading fear about a vaccine at a time Americans need to be reassured.
“I’m calling on Biden to stop promoting his anti-vaccine theories,” Trump said. “They are recklessly endangering lives.”
But mostly Trump undermined Redfield. The president promised 100 million doses of a vaccine would be delivered by the end of the year. Yet Redfield testified at length that vaccine development and distribution could take into late 2021. He also emphasized the importance of wearing masks in the meantime — a precaution Trump belittled.
For a vaccine to be “fully available to the American public, so we begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life," Redfield said, "I think we are probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”
Trump, in arguing it was Biden who is politicizing the search for a vaccine, framed the pandemic as a blue-state problem even as cases have spiked mostly in red states. He urged Democratic governors to "open up your states," despite warnings from public health officials that the spread of COVID-19 could intensify during the fall flu season.
“They are closing it for political reasons,” Trump said. “They want our numbers to be as bad as possible.”
Medical and public health experts are agreed that many Americans' reluctance to take the recommended precautions — a sentiment fanned by Trump — has played an outsized role in the nation's failure to contain the pandemic as other developed countries have done.
As the U.S. death toll approaches 200,000, Trump repeated his claim that the total could have been much worse, more than 2.2 million by now. That projection, however, was based on taking no precautions at all.
Biden was unyielding in his attack on Trump’s credibility. Yet he had to straddle a line between warning that Trump was corrupting the vaccine development process and reassuring Americans that they should trust government scientists and regulators.
The former vice president denied that his criticism of Trump would undermine public confidence in a vaccine ultimately: “I’m saying trust the scientists. It’s one thing for Donald Trump to say the vaccine is safe. OK, then give it to the board of scientists. Have total transparency."
At one point, Biden veered into a highly technical riff about the virtues of different vaccines types. It clearly seemed intended to set him apart from Trump, who has shown little familiarity with the science of the virus and vaccines and repeatedly has spread misinformation.
Among the public health experts who briefed Biden on the development and distribution of a safe COVID-19 vaccine were Obama administration alumni Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, and Margaret Hamburg, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
The latest muddled messaging from the administration — with scientists saying one thing and the president contradicting them — comes as Trump for days has had to defend himself against charges that he knew early on that the pandemic was far more dangerous than he told the public. According to recordings of interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for a new book, Trump expressed alarm in February about the lethal virus, while he was assuring the public it was under control and no worse than a seasonal flu bug.
In disputing the timeline for vaccine deployment that Redfield laid out for Congress, Trump argued that the CDC director did not understand the logistics of such an operation as well as Trump does. “It is not really his thing,” Trump said.
He also disputed Redfield’s remarks on the efficacy of masks in combating the virus' spread, arguing, “There are a lot of problem with masks.”
“As far as the masks are concerned, he made a mistake,” Trump said of Redfield. Yet Redfield's remarks were in keeping with published administration guidelines, as well as the scientific consensus.
Trump also mocked Biden for frequently wearing a mask at public events. "Maybe he doesn't want to expose his face," Trump told reporters.
The fresh inconsistencies between the president and top administration scientists fed into Biden's long-standing argument that Trump has dangerously eroded confidence in the nation’s public health infrastructure throughout the pandemic.
"This virus is still taking nearly a thousand lives each day, and forecasts show that the numbers are likely to climb this winter," Biden said. "But, incredibly, President Trump insists that he wouldn’t have done anything differently. Not one thing."