As the country's coronavirus death toll approached 200,000, top government health officials cautiously walked past President Trump's ambitious statement on Sunday that a coronavirus vaccine would be available to every American by April.
Instead, Adm. Brett P. Giroir, who leads the national testing effort, and Alex M. Azar II, the Secretary for Health and Human Services, suggest a slightly more conservative schedule for vaccine availability.
Both appeared to be defending predictions from experts, including Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who has been publicly rebuked by the president for estimating that an effective vaccine may not be widely available to the general public until mid-next year.
On CNN's State of the Union, Admiral Giroir told host Jake Tapper that “Dr. Redfield and I said before the Senate that a vaccine that would be widely used in hundreds of millions of doses wasn't likely to happen until mid-2021. That's a fact. "
However, the President rightly said, “We could have up to a hundred million doses by the end of this year. That's right."
"I think everyone is right," said Admiral Giroir.
Mr Trump has made many promises that the United States would make a vaccine before Election Day on November 3rd. However, his optimism and predictions for widespread availability are controversial. At a news conference at the White House on Friday, Mr. Trump said that once a vaccine is approved, "distribution will begin within 24 hours of the announcement."
He added, “We will have at least 100 million doses of vaccine produced by the end of the year. And probably a lot more than that. Hundreds of millions of doses will be available every month, and we expect enough vaccines to be available for every American by April. "
That means an estimated 330 million Americans will be provided with vaccines by spring.
These comments have fueled public concern about a rushed vaccine, highlighted in recent polls showing dwindling confidence in a coronavirus vaccine. In a new survey by ABC News / Ipsos, fewer than one in 10 Americans had great confidence in the president's ability to confirm the vaccine's effectiveness. 18 percent only indicated a “good level of trust”.
In an overt response to calls for transparency that might address these concerns, several vaccine manufacturers have traditionally released secret protocols over the past week. These efforts are also aimed at allaying scientists' fears that the accelerated schedules under discussion could result in a vaccine that is either unsafe, does not work, or is not fully reviewed.
The question of whether politics in the race for a vaccine and research into treatments will override science has been a question of the Trump administration for months. And Mr Azar was a focus of that criticism, drawing attention again this weekend after delivering a formidable statement of authority prohibiting the country's health authorities from signing new rules on food, drugs, medical devices and other products in the country, including Vaccinations.
Public health experts and lawmakers have asked other H.H.S. Policies of Mr. Azar and His Deputies: Censorship and Amendment of C.D.C. Reports from researchers about the virus; a recent controversy over testing asymptomatic people; and repeal of the Food and Drug Administration by promoting largely unproven treatments or laboratory tests.
Mr. Azar did not respond to the uproar over his efforts, which the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. During the pandemic, he also did not speak of his new arrangement, which limited the agencies' authority.
But both Admiral Giroir and Mr Azar reiterated the need for the public to wear masks, a practice the President often pokes fun at. Recent Mr Trump campaign events are full of supporters who do not wear face coverings, which is against mask requirements in some places.
In terms of testing, Admiral Giroir appeared to side with the C.D.C. with clear approval of testing people with no symptoms, which is a matter of conflict between the White House and the Agency.
Documents obtained from the New York Times showed that senior administrative officials had posted recommendations on the agency's website that people without symptoms should not need testing, even if exposed to someone infected with the virus.
The C.D.C. reversed himself on Friday and recommended that tests also be carried out when exposed persons are asymptomatic.
Admiral Giroir said on CNN that the government has sponsored surge tests for 19 different cities, "which mainly focus on the younger population who may be asymptomatic because we know they are very important in the spread of this infection."
Masks were again a point of contention. Mr. Trump met with Dr. Redfield argued about the value of masks, saying Dr. Redfield was wrong when he compared the value of masks to a vaccine.
Mr. Azar told Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press that masks were clearly important. "I think the point that the president made is that there is no equivalence between masks and vaccines," he said.
He was asked on Sunday whether the White House had forced him to appoint Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at H.H.S. who had no public health experience. Mr Caputo took a vacation last week after posting a Facebook video saying he was scientists at the C.D.C. of "riot" and warned of a leftist uprising after the presidential election. Mr. Caputo later apologized for the tirade in which he said, "There are scientists who work for this government who don't want America to get well until after Joe Biden is president."
Mr Azar said he would not discuss HR matters, adding, "Our thoughts and prayers go with Michael. He added value and helped with our Covid response."