RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is one thing to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine, which is a huge task in and of itself. But when will every American get access to it? CDC Director Robert Redfield told a Senate panel yesterday that a vaccine is unlikely until the middle of next year.
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ROBERT REDFIELD: I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.
MARTIN: Dr. Redfield also stressed the importance of wearing masks, even saying they might be more important than a vaccine because it's going to be unclear how many people will respond positively. His boss, President Trump, at a press conference later contradicted Redfield on both masks and the vaccine. The president insisted that a vaccine could be available as soon as late October.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The vaccine is going to have tremendous power. It's going to be extremely strong. It's going to be extremely successful. We're not going to have a problem.
MARTIN: The president also calls masks a, quote, "mixed bag." Dr. Redfield later responded in a tweet saying, quote, "I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines." But, he maintains, that masks are the best defense against the coronavirus now. The Trump administration's attacks on science have also extended to the Department of Health and Human Services. Chief spokesperson Michael Caputo is taking a leave of absence after he accused government scientists of sedition in a social media post.
Here to talk with us about all of it, NPR health reporter Pien Huang and national political correspondent Mara Liasson. So much to talk about. Thanks for being here this morning to both of you.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks.
MARTIN: Mara, let's start with you. There appears to be a substantive disagreement between the president and his chief public health official on whether or not a vaccine is going to be available soon. Are they operating from different information here?
LIASSON: Well, this isn't the first time that the president has been at odds with his administration's own scientists. And it was pretty confusing yesterday. Trump says the government expects to be able to begin distributing a vaccine for the virus sometime in October. Although he didn't say it might be a little later than that, he said at least 100 million doses should be available by the end of this year. Of course, Robert Redfield, as you heard, said that the vaccine would not be widely available until the second or third quarter of 2021. So the president was asked about why his timeline didn't match up with Redfield's. And it sounded like he was throwing Redfield under the bus, but here's what he said.
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TRUMP: When he said it, I believe he was confused. I'm just telling you - we're ready to go as soon as the vaccine happens.
LIASSON: So there you have it. Later, as you said, Redfield did tweet that he was 100% behind the importance of a vaccine. But he did not walk back his comments about the timeline or about the importance of wearing masks, which the president also disagreed with and said Redfield was wrong.
MARTIN: Pien, what our scientists actually saying about the timeline for the vaccine?
HUANG: So the vaccines are actually being developed on a very fast timeline. It usually takes about - a couple of years to get a vaccine to market. And right now, there's about six different vaccines as part of Operation Warp Speed, which are all at different stages of clinical testing. But researchers say they need time to collect and analyze data to make sure that the vaccines are safe and that they work.
So there's uncertainty about which vaccines will get authorized by the FDA and when. And even when a vaccine is approved, there's the huge challenge of getting it into millions of people. So you heard earlier the president say that the vaccine is going to be extremely strong. But Dr. Anthony Fauci also recently tried to downplay expectations, saying that a COVID-19 vaccine may only be about 50% or 60% effective.
MARTIN: Right, which is - which echoes what Dr. Redfield said about masks being the most effective tool now to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the uncertainty around a vaccine when we get one.
But Mara, President Trump may wish for a vaccine all he wants before the November election, but that doesn't make it feasible. I mean, how do these comments fit into his larger messaging around the pandemic?
LIASSON: Well, the president has been pretty clear. He says he wants to be a cheerleader. He wants to give people hope. He has always presented the optimistic view of the virus. Either it was going to disappear miraculously or now he's describing it as something in the rearview mirror. You heard him say that a vaccine would be strong, powerful, successful. He wants the economy to open up. All of these arguments have the potential benefit of helping his reelection campaign, but he's also trying to give people hope that it's going to happen. Whether or not a vaccine actually comes out, what he wants to have people believe is that it's just around the corner.
MARTIN: And he has been able to manipulate this situation into another kind of culture war in America.
LIASSON: Well, the pandemic is definitely a fault line in the culture war. People who believe the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, who believe that keeping the economy closed is more harmful than the virus itself, who believes that masks is a kind of politically correct thing for liberal wimps - I mean, that's one side. Then the other side is - are people who believe that this is a serious public health crisis and we have to listen to scientists. I mean, all of these things - wearing masks, vaccines - they've all become politicized.
MARTIN: All right. Pien, I want to turn to you because there is this other controversy over at Health and Human Services. The spokesman, Michael Caputo, has been accusing government scientists over there of sedition. Remind us who he is and what he's doing.
HUANG: Sure, yeah. So Michael Caputo - he's a longtime Republican strategist who worked with Trump on his 2016 election campaign, and he's considered to be very loyal to the president. And some say that he was specifically hired to give the president more control over the health department. He started that position back in April. And for a few months now, public health experts have been worrying that Caputo is working to politicize and discredit government scientists.
You know, emails have surfaced showing Caputo and his science adviser, a man named Paul Alexander, were actively trying to edit and delay weekly scientific reports published by the CDC. And you know, they've been complaining that, for instance, papers about the risk of coronavirus and kids were hit pieces on the administration that would undermine the president's school reopening plan. So these types of examples have caused a big outcry. Doctors and researchers say it looks like the administration was trying to block science for political gain.
MARTIN: And then there was this social media. Remind us about that briefly.
HUANG: Sure, yeah. Caputo went on a rant against government scientists on Facebook Live on Sunday, and he described a conspiracy in which, quote, "deep state" scientists are keeping Americans sick with COVID-19 to improve the Democrats' chances of winning November's election. I just want to say there's absolutely no evidence for this theory.
MARTIN: And Dr. Redfield at the CDC has condemned that. And now Caputo is taking a two-month leave of absence from Health and Human Services.
Pien Huang and Mara Liasson, we appreciate both of you.
LIASSON: Thank you.
HUANG: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.