WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday pledged a Covid-19 vaccine would be available by the end of 2020, the most concrete claim he has made yet about the timetable for coronavirus vaccine development.
“We are delivering life-saving therapies, and will produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner,” he said.
While Trump has repeatedly hinted at a possible vaccine approval before the end of 2020, his pledge Thursday marks his most definitive stance yet on a vaccine timetable. While it is possible that the Food and Drug Administration could issue emergency authorization for a vaccine by the end of the year, it is far from a sure bet — no drug company has completed clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine.
His pledge is sure to fuel additional anxiety regarding the prospect of political interference at the FDA. The agency’s commissioner, Stephen Hahn, has pledged for months to approve a vaccine only when and if one is shown to be safe and effective. In recent weeks, however, Trump has actively undermined the agency’s authority, and Hahn has become embroiled in controversy over a series of misleading statements about a prospective Covid-19 treatment.
Trump’s vaccine pledge came as he delivered a speech accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in an unprecedented political convention on White House grounds, at which over 1,000 supporters gathered in close proximity, mostly without masks.
Trump’s remarks followed an evening of Republican National Convention programming rife with vaccine references. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, said in a speech: “We are developing a vaccine in record time.”
A video montage referenced Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s effort to massively scale up vaccine manufacturing and distribution capacity. And Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, said a Covid-19 vaccine would be available “very, very soon.”
Trump’s vaccine vow comes after a week of chaos surrounding the Trump administration’s relationship to the FDA, the federal agency tasked with evaluating and approving potential vaccines. On Saturday, Trump baselessly alleged the agency was engaged in a “deep state” conspiracy to harm his re-election bid. Sunday, he dramatically overstate the effect of convalescent blood plasma, a potential Covid-19 treatment, on the disease’s mortality rate. In recent weeks, top deputies have expressed their desire for FDA to “feel the heat” and concurred with Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric. And on Aug. 17, the administration installed a right-wing journalist and gun-rights advocate as the agency’s top spokeswoman, providing a political operative with unprecedented sway over the scientific agency’s traditionally apolitical messaging.
Trump, in his acceptance speech, also attempted to play up his record on Covid-19, noting his administration’s February ban on flights from China and efforts to scale up manufacturing for masks and ventilators.
Trump said a recent emergency approval for blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients would save “thousands and thousands of lives,” though the therapy’s true impact remains unclear.
The remarks glossed over the Trump administration’s consistent refusal to take firm stances on social distancing and mask use, missteps that public health experts view as having helped further the virus’s spread. Ivanka Trump misleadingly claimed the U.S. built the “most robust testing system in the world.” While the U.S. has conducted more tests than any other country, few were available in the pandemic’s early stages, and Americans have consistently needed to wait hours in line for tests that didn’t deliver results until days or weeks later.
At no point did speakers note that over 180,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, far more than in any other nation.
Trump also sought to highlight his record on drug pricing, noting that in 2018, by one metric, drug prices declined slightly.
The president touted a slate of executive orders issued last month aimed at lowering drug prices, though none have been implemented. One order, which would cap U.S. payments for a small subset of drugs based on what pharmaceutical companies charge overseas, has not been released publicly. On Monday, Trump’s one-month ultimatum to drug makers to offer a different proposal came and went without acknowledgment from the administration.
“Recently he took dramatic action to cut the cost of prescription drugs, despite fielding angry calls from the CEOs of nearly every major pharmaceutical company,” Ivanka Trump said. “Now, when we see attack ads paid for by ‘Big Pharma,’ my dad smiles and says to me: ‘You know, we’re doing something really right if they’re hitting us so hard.’”
Separately, Trump highlighted the 2018 passage of “right-to-try” legislation, which allows terminally ill patients to request that drug companies provide them access to investigational, untested medicines without requiring FDA approval. The FDA, however, already approved the vast majority of such requests, and few patients are known to have benefited from the new pathway.