Donald Trump has slapped down the head of the United States’ health protection agency, saying he was “confused” and “wrong” for claiming a coronavirus vaccine was unlikely to be widely available before the middle of next year.
The US president, addressing a press conference on Wednesday, claimed a vaccine would be ready as early as October, directly contradicting a much longer timeline offered by Dr Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr Redfield told the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier in the day that Mr Trump’s repeated assertion that a vaccine might be available before the November election was unlikely.
A vaccine could be given to the public as soon as November or December, Dr Redfield said, adding that limited first doses could go to those who were most vulnerable. 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.
"I think he made a mistake when he said that. It's just incorrect information," Mr Trump said on Wednesday in response to a question from Fox News. "I believe he was confused. I think he just misunderstood the question, probably."
The president also said that Dr Redfield was wrong to say that a mask is more effective than a vaccine.
“The mask is not as important as the vaccine,” the president asserted, adding: “The mask, perhaps, helps.
“When I called up Robert today, I said, ‘What’s with the mask?’” Mr Trump said. “He said, ‘I think I answered that question incorrectly'. I think maybe he had misunderstood it.”
During the Senate hearing, the doctor said that masks are “the most important, powerful public health tool we have” in fighting the pandemic, “perhaps even more so than vaccines”.
Dr Redfield responded in a tweet late on Wednesday, writing: “I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines and the importance in particular of a #COVID19 vaccine. A COVID-19 vaccine is the thing that will get Americans back to normal everyday life.”
He reiterated the need for the public to wear masks: “The best defence we currently have against this virus are the important mitigation efforts of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and being careful about crowds.”
Mr Trump has regularly undermined and refuted claims by the country’s leading scientists and health experts, including Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was once a regular speaker at the president’s coronavirus briefings before he was shunned.
The president has himself refused to wear masks in public, instead requiring those he comes in contact with be tested for the virus.
He also attempted to blame the high number of virus cases in Democrat-run states and suggested removing them from official figures.
"If you take the blue states out, we are at a level I don't think anybody in the world would be at," he said.
He claimed that public health measures to slow the spread of coronavirus in Democrat states are "hurting people far more than the disease itself", urging Republican governors to end their "deavstating" lockdowns.