WASHINGTON — Robert Redfield’s statement was unambiguous: A Covid-19 vaccine, he said, might not be available to much of the American public until mid- or late 2021.
But in the next 10 hours, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came under attack from President Trump, attempted to walk back his prior statement by plainly mischaracterizing his own words, and then, inexplicably, retracted his own reversal.
The back-and-forth offers the latest example of the CDC stumbling over a basic element of its own mission: communicating vital information about Covid-19 and the U.S. government’s response to the American public, and to the world. The agency, long viewed as a premier global health organization, has flailed in 2020, first via a Covid-19 testing fiasco in early spring, then with repeated communications stumbles, and now, as it succumbs to overt political pressure from a scientifically indifferent president.
It is also the latest example of Trump’s disregard for the scientific expertise within his own government: Throughout his government’s Covid-19 response, he has aggressively contradicted government scientists with decades of experience and, increasingly, surrounded himself only with advisers unlikely to question his views.
Redfield’s initial comments came mid-morning Wednesday at a Senate hearing focused on the U.S. government’s Covid-19 response. By early evening, Trump was lashing out: Redfield had given Congress “incorrect information” on vaccine distribution, the president told reporters at a White House press briefing. Redfield’s assertion that masks might be more effective than vaccines at preventing coronavirus, Trump said, was “a mistake.”
The CDC scrambled to explain; by about 6 p.m., the agency was claiming Redfield had misunderstood the original question and was referring to the time period when all Americans would have completed their Covid-19 vaccination.
The CDC’s initial statement was plainly false: During Wednesday’s Senate hearing, a senator asked Redfield when a vaccine will be “ready to administer to the public,” and Redfield acknowledged the precise question before delivering his response.
“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 a vaccine to get back to our regular life? I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021,” he said.
At around 9 p.m. Wednesday, however, the CDC contacted reporters to rescind its statement walking back Redfield’s prior comments, saying only that it had not been “cleared” by higher-ups.
The CDC’s communications chaos comes amid a broader controversy about the Trump administration’s role in distributing scientific data: In recent weeks, Politico and other outlets reported that Michael Caputo, a top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services, had attempted to seize control of a nonpartisan weekly epidemiology report, which is widely viewed as a critical public health assessment.
Caputo has since taken a leave of absence through Election Day, citing health issues.
Trump’s latest scuffle with Redfield, the head of a multibillion-dollar public health agency, continues the Trump administration’s growing tradition of openly contradicting scientists inside and outside the administration.
In March, Trump tussled with Anthony Fauci, the renowned infectious disease researcher, over whether there is evidence that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is effective at treating or preventing Covid-19. (At the time, there was not, and numerous studies have since confirmed its lack of benefit.) In April, at a briefing with Deborah Birx, a top Covid-19 adviser, he suggested that Americans should inject disinfectants or use ultraviolet rays to fight coronavirus.
In June, Trump ignored pleas from Tulsa, Okla., health officials and held an in-person, indoor campaign rally before a crowd of roughly 6,000, which officials later said led to a small spike in Covid-19 cases. (Herman Cain, a Trump campaign surrogate, died of Covid-19 weeks after attending the event.)
Throughout the crisis, even as the U.S. death toll has steadily ticked toward 200,000, Trump has insisted, wrongly, that the virus is “dying out.”
Since the pandemic began, Trump has progressively sidelined highly qualified scientists whose assessments of the U.S. pandemic response have differed from his own. Fauci has told reporters he’s gone weeks at a time without speaking to Trump, and Birx has all but vanished from a public-facing role in the Covid-19 response.
Instead, Trump has surrounded himself with scientists willing to push his agenda. One controversial physician, Scott Atlas, made his first appearance Wednesday in the White House briefing room, even in the wake of reports that he has advocated a scientifically dubious “herd immunity” strategy that would likely result in additional mass death in an effort to develop Covid-19 immunity in the American population. Atlas is neither an infectious disease doctor nor an epidemiologist.
Trump’s careening and unscientific Covid-19 advocacy stands in stark contrast to the campaign style of his November opponent, Joe Biden.
Biden, who has vocally criticized Trump’s coronavirus response, also delivered public remarks on vaccine development Wednesday following a briefing from seven public health officials, many of whom have served in key U.S. government roles like surgeon general or commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
After his public health briefing, Biden delivered brief remarks during which he discussed the challenge of administering two-dose vaccines, the logistical difficulty of storing vaccines at below-freezing temperatures, the difference between mRNA and RNA vaccines, and the fact that most vaccine clinical trials have not yet begun enrolling children.
Yet at one point, Biden paused to acknowledge the obvious: “I am not a scientist,” he said, “though I hope I am well-informed on this issue.”