Just weeks after being hospitalized with COVID-19, President Donald Trump spent the final presidential debate downplaying a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 people in the US, criticizing his own scientific advisers, and making misleading and contradictory statements about attempts to control the spread of the virus now sweeping the country in a “third wave.”
“We're rounding the corner. It's going away,” Trump said on Thursday night, despite the fact that cases are now surging in most states in the US. “I say we're learning to live with it,” he added.
“People are learning to die with it,” responded former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.
When Biden challenged Trump to take responsibility for the pandemic's devastating impact on the country, Trump responded: "I take full responsibility." Seconds later, he said: "It's not my fault it came here."
Only three weeks ago, Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19. “I can tell you from personal experience that I was in the hospital. I had it. And I got better,” Trump said. While he was infected, his oxygen levels dropped multiple times, and he was treated with several serious drugs, including an experimental antibody cocktail not yet available to the public, the antiviral drug remdesivir, and the steroid dexamethasone, recommended for hospitalized patients with severe illness.
During the debate, Trump said he was treated with a therapeutic that he called a “cure,” most likely the antibody therapy that he has previously referred to as a cure, but there is still no known cure for COVID-19. The president also claimed to be immune to the coronavirus, but it is still unknown how long immunity to the new pathogen might last.
Moreover, Trump said without evidence: “We have a vaccine that’s coming. It’s ready. It’s going to be announced within weeks.” But when pressed by debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News on whether he could guarantee this, Trump backpedaled: “It's not a guarantee … There are two companies I think within a matter of weeks. And it will be distributed very quickly.”
In reality, multiple companies are racing to produce a vaccine, but none have finished their late-stage clinical trials, all of which are being tested in tens of thousands of people. And one of the companies that Trump name-dropped on the debate stage as a leading contender, Johnson & Johnson, recently underwent a routine pause to investigate an unexplained illness in a trial participant.
An FDA science advisory meeting about vaccine development on Thursday did not discuss a single clear vaccine contender, since all the trials are still underway. The advisory committee recommended that the FDA collect more safety data on the vaccine candidates before authorizing them for emergency approval, a step that would add even more time until a vaccine was ready for public use.
"We're about to go into a dark winter. A dark winter," said Biden. "And he has no clear plan. And there's no prospect that there's going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year."
New cases are currently averaging about 60,000 a day over the last week in the US, with around 750 deaths a day for the same period.
Peter Aldhous contributed reporting for this story.