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VERIFY: Trump comments on coronavirus vaccine development prompts need for clarification

The VERIFY team tackles vaccine development and how they combat illness after video of a Tuesday Trump gaffe during a coronavirus meeting gained traction online.
Credit: AP
FILE - This Jan. 23, 2020 file photo shows a patient receiving a flu vaccination in Mesquite, Texas. On Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the vaccine has been more than 50% effective in preventing flu illness severe enough to send a child to the doctor's office. Health experts consider that pretty good. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

A clip from a newscast where President Donald Trump asks if "a solid flu vaccine" would "have an impact" on the fight against the new coronavirus got a lot of traction on social media Tuesday. In the clip, a doctor can be heard responding to the president and telling Trump definitively, "no," an influenza vaccine would would not have an impact on SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 disease.

The video is real.  A transcript of the exchange was posted on the White House website.

The doctor's answer in the clip sounded definitive. Here is more on why the answer to the president's question was a "no."


How do vaccines work?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that vaccines help your body develop immunity by imitating an infection. They rarely cause illness but sometimes cause symptoms like a fever, as your body builds immunity.

Most common vaccines either use a living but weakened version of a virus or bacteria, or they use a dead virus or bacteria. These vaccines allow the body to build immunity to whatever pathogen causes a certain illness, while keeping the risk of contracting the illness low.

A seasonal flu vaccine is meant to protect against certain influenza viruses predicted to be most common during a particular flu season according to the CDC. A flu vaccine wont protect against every strain of influenza, which is why health care providers say people should get a new flu vaccine in preparation for every flu season.

And this is why various influenza vaccines won't protect against this new coronavirus. The flu vaccine protects against various specific strains of the influenza virus. This new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is a different strain of virus. And also, while the flu and COVID-19 disease have similar symptoms, vaccines don’t treat symptoms. 

The main discussion topic during the event in the video above taken at the White House was vaccines. The meeting was between the White House's coronavirus task force and pharmaceutical companies. The transcript of that conversation, which the White House posted to its website, does offer good insight into the process of developing a vaccine.

The pharmaceutical company representatives at the meeting said the fastest time frame they could envision a vaccine for this new coronavirus being developed, would be about a year to a year and a half. The reason for that is that vaccine development goes through phases which require extensive testing to ensure the vaccine doesn’t make people sick.

Right now, there are previously approved patents that would allow for the development of a coronavirus vaccine. However, these patents and the potential vaccines they could allow for the creation of, don’t actually mean all that much. Much like influenza, there are multiple known strains of coronaviruses. These include strains which cause SARS, MERS and the common cold. A vaccine that protects against the virus which causes SARS won’t necessarily protect you from the virus that causes COVID-19. It's much like your seasonal influenza vaccine, which won't protect against all influenza strains.

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That Tuesday White House meeting with pharmaceutical companies also discussed antiviral treatments for the coronavirus. Those differ from vaccines because they treat a viral illness, once you already have it, according to the CDC. People can only get these treatments with a prescription from a healthcare provider.

Antiviral treatments don’t take as long to develop as vaccines. One company developing antiviral treatments told Trump that their clinical trials should be completed in April. 

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