This morning, President Trump seems to have wished a vaccine for the new coronavirus into existence. “I think that whole situation will start working out,” he told reporters at a press conference in India. “We’re very close to a vaccine.”
At a Senate hearing that same day, Trump’s acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf took a similar line, promising a vaccine would be ready within “several months.”
“You’re telling me we’re months away from having a vaccine?” asked Senator John Kennedy (R-LA). “That’s your testimony as head of the Department of Homeland Security?”
“That’s what I’ve been told by HHS and CDC, yes,” Wolf responded.
None of it was true. The CDC estimates that a vaccine for the new coronavirus is unlikely to be available in the next 12-18 months, far too late to be useful in preventing an outbreak in the US. Asked about the ambitious estimate in the same hearing, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said simply, “that’s never happened in human history.”
The White House has walked back Trump’s comments, claiming the president was talking about the development of an Ebola vaccine. (The VSV Ebola vaccine has been in use since 2016, but is not yet licensed.) But more broadly, the White House continues to insist the disease is not a threat, with one senior advisor describing the disease as largely contained within the US. It’s a direct contradiction of guidance from the CDC, which is treating a US-based outbreak as an inevitability.
This is not a good time to be spreading confusion about public health. Once confined to Wuhan, then to China, the new virus is now spreading internationally, with hundreds infected in Italy, South Korea, and Japan. Preparing for a US outbreak is going to require ample medical resources, robust communication, and, most importantly, the public trust. Instead, Trump has minimized the threat and spread bizarre lies, making it hard for the average citizen to know what to expect. When a US outbreak does happen, that confusion could encourage panic — a panic that could amplify the damage from the disease itself.
So far, Trump seems most concerned about the disease’s effect on the stock market. His first statements on the possibility of a US outbreak came yesterday, after a 3 percent drop that wiped out the last two months of gains. “The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” Trump tweeted. “CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” The same day, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told The Washington Post that the market would rally, and investors “should seriously consider buying these dips.”
The White House’s approach makes sense if you’re focused on the short-term movement of financial markets, but it’s terrible for public health. As emergency managers pointed out, public officials should be preparing for the worst and making sure any impact that happens doesn’t take hospitals and local governments by surprise. The CDC has been straightforward about that worst-case scenario, but Trump seems eager to walk it back, which could convince local governments and public health officials to stand down at the worst possible time.
More recently, Trump used the disease funding request as an opportunity to take shots at his political rivals. “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus,” the president tweeted in the wake of the Senate hearing. “He didn’t like my early travel closings. I was right. He is incompetent!”
The bad communication is part of a deeper personnel problem in an administration that has been defined by chaos. Acting Secretary Wolf has only been in charge of DHS since November and has never been confirmed by the Senate — just like the secretary of defense and the attorney general. In theory, he’s only filling in until an official replacement can be confirmed, but that appointment never seems to come. Azar has been confirmed to lead HHS, but has only held his position since 2018. His predecessor stepped down after using more than $1 million in taxpayer money for personal travel. Across the board, Trump’s cabinet has struggled with stripped-down budgets and intermittent loyalty purges, leaving it understaffed and underprepared for a genuine crisis.
If Trump’s vaccine tangent had been a one-off mistake, it would be forgivable, but it’s part of a much more dangerous pattern of lies and misinformation. In a public health crisis, the president’s most important role is as a trusted source of information. People need to know how the coronavirus threatens them and how to respond. The CDC and WHO typically can’t inspire action the way a presidential address can. But Trump has spent the last three years telling hundreds of lies a week — doing everything he can to erode that credibility. Even if he played the news entirely straight, much of the public would have a hard time believing him.
There has been plenty of misinformation about the coronavirus, some of it genuinely harmful, but the individual lies aren’t as troubling as the chaos coming from the top. Trump has profited hugely from his casual relationship with the truth, encouraging conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon as a symbolic gesture to his supporters. But politics isn’t entirely symbolic: sometimes there are real problems that require functional institutions to navigate. As the cold logic of a public health crisis takes hold, the president may be learning that lesson too late.