It’s understandable that during a White House meeting on Monday with pharmaceutical executives and public health officials, President Donald Trump pressed them to develop and deploy a vaccine to Covid-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) as quickly as possible. Beyond the obvious public health benefits, a vaccine could help allay fears, stabilize markets, and quell criticisms that his administration was unprepared for or mismanaged the response to the outbreak.
What is harder to wrap one’s brain around, however, is the level of ignorance Trump displayed about how vaccines work.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already said it will take up to 18 months to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — a time frame much shorter than the usual two- to five-year window. There are straightforward reasons it’s impossible to roll out new vaccines for public consumption overnight: They need to be developed, tested for effectiveness and safety during trials, approved by regulators, manufactured, and then distributed. Each of those steps takes time.
At one point during the meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tried to explain to the president that it would be at least a year and probably closer to 18 months before a coronavirus vaccine could be available to the public. But Trump didn’t want to hear it, and kept pressing the executives to come up with something before November’s election.
“I mean, I like the sound of a couple months better, if I must be honest,” Trump said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the “couple months” time frame execs mentioned merely referred to a vaccine being ready for trials.
Trump on it taking up to a year to develop a coronavirus vaccine: "I mean, I like the sound of a couple months better, if I must be honest." pic.twitter.com/zvvrE9JnPS— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 2, 2020
Later, Trump pressed the pharmaceutical leaders on why they can’t just release the coronavirus drugs their companies are working on tomorrow — in the process revealing that he doesn’t understand the concept of clinical trials.
“So you have a medicine that’s already involved with the coronaviruses, and now you have to see if it’s specifically for this. You can know that tomorrow, can’t you?” he said.
“Now the critical thing is to do clinical trials,” explained Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, which has two phase-three clinical trials going for remdesivir, a potential treatment for the coronavirus. “We have two clinical trials going on in China that were started several weeks ago ... we expect to get that information in April.”
"So you have a medicine that's already involved with the coronaviruses, and now you have to see if it's specifically for this. You can know that tomorrow, can't you?" -- Trump has no idea what a clinical trial is pic.twitter.com/PoA2usKZ9Z— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 2, 2020
Trump also wondered aloud why the flu vaccine can’t just be used for coronavirus, asking, “You take a solid flu vaccine, you don’t think that could have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?”
“No,” one of the experts at the table replied.
Following the meeting, an unnamed administration source told CNN that they thought the scientists and experts were able to convince Trump that a vaccine would not be available for a year or longer.
“I think he’s got it now,” the source told CNN.
But if Trump does get it now, that wasn’t apparent during a political rally in Charlotte hours later, during which the president claimed pharmaceutical companies “are going to have vaccines I think relatively soon.”
"We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies, and they're going to have vaccines I think relatively soon. And they're going to have something that makes you better, and that's going to actually take place we think even sooner" -- Trump on the coronavirus pic.twitter.com/oujTse5Lnp— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 3, 2020
Trump went on to portray the coronavirus problem in ethnonationalist terms: “There are fringe globalists that would rather keep our borders open than keep our infection — think of it — keep all of the infection, let it come in,” he said, before expressing surprise that tens of thousands of Americans die from the flu each year.
“When you lose 27,000 people [from the flu] a year — nobody knew that — I didn’t know that. Three, four weeks ago, I was sitting down, I said, ‘What do we lose with the regular flu?’ They said, ‘About 27,000 minimum. It goes up to 70, sometimes even 80, one year it went up to 100,000 people.’” (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have not been more than 51,000 flu-related deaths in the US over the past decade.)
“I said, ‘Nobody told me that. Nobody knows that.’ So I actually told the pharmaceutical companies, ‘You have to do a little bit better job on that vaccine,’” Trump continued.
"I told the pharmaceutical companies that they have to do a better job on that vaccine" -- Trump admits he just learned that the flu can be deadly and says he wants the pharmaceutical companies to do something about it pic.twitter.com/7jPDsi7WAX— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 3, 2020
Then, following the rally, the White House released a statement not detailing new federal initiatives to help stop the spread of Covid-19, but highlighting tweets from Republicans praising the administration’s response.
This is bonkers. Press release just released by the White House with tweets praising Trump's management of Coronavirus outbreak. "Top Tweets". pic.twitter.com/8lPGAsfN2h— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) March 3, 2020
On Tuesday, Trump gave a speech to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in which he brought up the coronavirus but then expressed confusion about the difference between cures, which eliminate diseases, and therapies, which treat them.
“Therapies are sort of another word for cure,” he said, conflating the two.
"Therapies are sort of another word for cure" -- Trump still hasn't figured out what a vaccine is pic.twitter.com/QSAk6cyDlW— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 3, 2020
While Trump may be confused about what’s going on, Vice President Mike Pence — head of the administration’s coronavirus task force — did claim during a news conference on Monday that treatments for Covid-19 could be available within the next couple of months. He did not provide details, however.