WASHINGTON (CN) — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told senators Wednesday a Covid-19 vaccine may not be widely available in the U.S. until the middle of next year.
“If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of the vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter [or] third quarter 2021,” Dr. Robert Redfield said.
Redfield told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that prioritized groups, like health care professionals and people with underlying medical conditions who are most at risk, would be the first inoculated against Covid-19 — the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed over 196,000 Americans as of Wednesday.
Immunizations could begin with those targeted groups in November or December of this year before beginning the expansion to the general public, Redfield said, with a focus on the 80 million Americans with other health problems, or comorbidities.
President Donald Trump contested Redfield’s assessment on the vaccine’s estimated distribution date during a press conference at the White House on Wednesday evening,
Saying he called the CDC director after his appearance before Congress, the president told reporters Redfield was “wrong to say” the vaccine wouldn’t be available to the general public until mid or late 2021.
“Once we go, we’re ready. Pfizer is taking a tremendous financial risk making this,” Trump said, insisting that the entire U.S. public would have access to the vaccine by the end of this year or early next year.
“I don’t think he means that. When he said it, I believe he was confused, I’m just telling you. We’re ready to go,” Trump added.
But when pressed further, the president shifted his story and said the vaccine would definitely be ready by the end of the first quarter, or March.
“Under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said. We will have rapid distribution, our military and others are set up to do it. We think it could start taking place in October, but certainly November, December could be the latest,” Trump said.
But the president, in a series of bombshell interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for his new book “Rage,” said a vaccine might take 13 to 14 months to be cleared and safe for widespread distribution.
Redfield appeared at Wednesday’s hearing alongside Robert Kadlec, Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for response and preparedness, Admiral Brett Giroir, the department’s assistant secretary for health.
When asked to confirm the accuracy of Trump’s comments at an ABC News town hall Tuesday that a Covid-19 vaccine could be ready in weeks, Kadlec told senators “it’s possible.”
Kadlec pointed to Operation Warp Speed – a Trump administration initiative launched in mid-May to streamline Covid-19 vaccine production — and said it would allow researchers to ramp up distribution in safe manner.
His comments mirrored those of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who told another Senate committee last week that the plan ensured researchers did not jettison safety standards to accelerate the vaccine development process.
Kadlec said the program allowed for simultaneous work on distribution methods for an effective vaccine and research on ensuring there are enough doses ready to be distributed when a vaccine gets approval from the Food and Drug Administration, “whether that’s two weeks, three weeks, two months or four months” from now.
Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, did not seem convinced by Kadlec’s explanation.
“So, I want to make sure this is on the record, you’re saying three weeks to four weeks for a vaccine?” Durbin asked.
“That’s manufactured, yes sir,” Kadlec said. “Now, is it approved by the FDA? That is a decision that they will have to do based on the scientific data that they receive from the clinical trials.”
Redfield emphasized wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the virus. Calling face coverings “the most important public health tool we have,” the CDC director said masks could be more preventative against the virus than an eventual vaccine.
“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,” Redfield said. “Because the immunogenicity may be 70% and if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine isn’t going to protect me. This mask will.”
Also under the committee’s microscope Wednesday were reports that political appointees had pressured health officials into altering weekly CDC reports so they would coincide with language used by Trump about virus spread.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who took a leave of absence from his position as HHS spokesperson Wednesday, claimed there was a “resistance unit” within the CDC in a now-deleted Facebook video in which he also described seeing long shadows on his walls, according to a New York Times report.
Redfield said the scientific integrity of his agency’s weekly Covid-19 have never been in question during his time as CDC chief. He agreed with Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, that there is no validity to Caputo’s claims and pledged to give Americans the best public health advice without political interference.
“I just want to assure you and the other senators and the American public that the scientific integrity of the MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] has not been compromised, it will not be compromised on my watch and I will stand by the men and women that are the scientific experts,” Redfield said.
Courthouse News reporter Brandi Buchman contributed to this report.