Trump says CDC director was 'confused' when he said COVID vaccine won't roll out until mid-2021

U.S. President Donald Trump predicted on Wednesday at least 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine could be distributed by the end of 2020, contradicting a top government health official that Trump dismissed as "confused" when he said a vaccine could be broadly rolled out by mid-2021.

'I think he made a mistake,' Trump said of Dr. Robert Redfield, a top government health official

U.S. President Donald Trump contradicted the director of the Centers for Disease Control Wednesday, saying a COVID-19 vaccine will be rolled out before the end of 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump predicted on Wednesday at least 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine could be distributed by the end of 2020, contradicting a top government health official Trump dismissed as "confused."

Hours earlier, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said a COVID-19 vaccine could be broadly rolled out by the middle of next year or a little later.

"No, I think he made a mistake when he said that," Trump said, telling reporters he had called Redfield. "That's incorrect information. I believe he was confused. I think he just misunderstood the question, probably."

Redfield, head of the federal government's disease control agency, made his comments in testimony before a U.S. Senate panel.

He said general availability of a vaccine could come by "late second quarter, third quarter 2021."

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing 'Review of Coronavirus Response Efforts' that a vaccine will not be available until mid-2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

A vaccine could be ready as soon as this November or December, Redfield said, adding that limited first doses could go to those who were most vulnerable. But he said "in order to have enough of us immunized to have immunity, I think it's going to take six to nine months." 

When pressed on the discrepancy, Trump insisted that under no circumstances would vaccine distribution happen as late as Redfield predicted. 

U.S. vaccine plan outlined

Earlier Wednesday, the U.S. government outlined a sweeping plan to make vaccines for COVID-19 available for free to all Americans, even as polls show a strong undercurrent of skepticism rippling across the land.

In a report to Congress and an accompanying "playbook" for states and localities, federal health agencies and the Defence Department sketched out complex plans for a vaccination campaign to begin gradually in January or possibly later this year, eventually ramping up to reach any American who wants a shot.

The Pentagon is involved with the distribution of vaccines, but civilian health workers will be the ones giving shots.

The U.S. federal government outlined a sweeping plan Wednesday to make vaccines for COVID-19 available for free to all Americans. (David Greedy/Getty Images)

The campaign is "much larger in scope and complexity than seasonal influenza or other previous outbreak-related vaccination responses," said the playbook for states released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the highlights:

  • For most vaccines, people will need two doses, 21 to 28 days apart. Double-dose vaccines will have to come from the same drug maker. There could be several vaccines from different manufacturers approved and available.
  • Vaccination of the U.S. population won't be a sprint but a marathon. Initially, there may be a limited supply of vaccines available, and the focus will be on protecting health workers, other essential employees and people in vulnerable groups. CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the National Academy of Medicine, and other organizations are working on priorities for the first phase. A second and third phase would expand vaccination to the entire country.
  • The vaccine itself will be free of charge, and patients won't be charged out of pocket for the administration of shots, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer funding approved by Congress and allocated by the Trump administration.
  • States and local communities will need to devise precise plans for receiving and locally distributing vaccines, some of which will require special handling such as refrigeration or freezing. States and cities have a month to submit plans.

Skepticism over rushed vaccine

Some of the broad components of the federal plan have already been discussed, but Wednesday's reports attempt to put the key details into a comprehensive framework.

Distribution is happening under the umbrella of Operation Warp Speed, a White House-backed initiative to have millions of doses ready to ship once a vaccine is given what's expected to be an emergency use approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Several formulations are undergoing final trials.

But the whole enterprise is facing public skepticism. Only about half of Americans said they'd get vaccinated in an Associated Press poll taken in May. Of those who wouldn't get vaccinated, the overwhelming majority said they were worried about safety.

To effectively protect the United States from the coronavirus, experts say upwards of 70 per cent of Americans must either be vaccinated or have their own immunity from fighting off COVID-19.

Since the poll, questions have only mounted about whether the government is trying to rush COVID-19 treatments and vaccines to help Trump's re-election chances.

Before the Republican National Convention in August, the FDA granted authorization for treatment of COVID-19 patients with plasma from people who have recovered, even though some government scientists were not convinced the clinical evidence was strong enough. 

Researchers look at a sample of a respiratory virus at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md. There is widespread concern that potential coronavirus vaccines are being rushed. (Abdrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

As public confidence in core health agencies has taken a beating, Trump administration officials have been forced to play defence.

"We are working closely with our state and local public health partners … to ensure that Americans can receive the vaccine as soon as possible and vaccinate with confidence," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement Wednesday. "Americans should know that the vaccine development process is being driven completely by science and the data."

That could be a tough sell. In the AP poll, one in five Americans said they would not get a coronavirus vaccine; 31 per cent said they were unsure.

With files from The Associated Press

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