Donald Trump asked medical experts if coronavirus could be treated with a flu vaccine that already exists at a meeting with pharmaceutical executives on Monday.
The Trump administration called the meeting to discuss early work for developing a vaccine for the virus, which has killed more the 3,000 people and infected nearly 90,000 worldwide.
However, the president appeared to not understand basic information about how a vaccine is tested or produced and had to be repeatedly corrected by public health officials.
When Leonard Schleifer, the CEO of biotechnology company Regeneron, noted that millions of people are vaccinated for the flu, Mr Trump interrupted and asked if the same vaccine could be used for coronavirus.
“You take a solid flu vaccine, you don’t think that would have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?” he said.
“No… probably none,” Mr Schleifer replied.
There is currently no vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus, officially known as Covid-2019, which was first identified in China in December.
Although multiple organisations are working on developing vaccines for the virus, health officials have said it will take at least one year to develop an effective treatment.
“In order to get a [coronavirus] vaccine that is practically deployable for people to use, it’s going to be at least a year to a year and a half at best,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week.
There are currently 16 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 27 “presumptive positive” cases awaiting confirmation in the US, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).
Officials announced yesterday that six people in the US have died from the virus so far.
Later on Monday at a rally in North Carolina, Mr Trump also expressed his surprise at the fact that thousands of people die from flu every year in the US.
“Three or four weeks ago, I was sitting there and I said ‘what do we lose with the regular flu?’, they [health officials] said ‘about 27,000 minimum’, it goes up to 70, sometimes even 80, one year it went up to 100,000 people,” Mr Trump told his supporters, as he recounted one of his meetings with health experts.
“I said ‘nobody told me that, nobody knows that.’
“So I actually told the pharmaceutical companies that they have to do a better job on that vaccine.”
Recent estimates by the CDC have shown between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually from influenza since 2010.
Chuck Schumer, the Democrat Senate minority leader, accused Mr Trump on Monday of “downplaying” the threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Even now, President Trump seems to be spending more of his time blaming the media, and blaming the Democrats, than being constructive. In fact, he blames everyone not named Donald Trump,” Mr Schumer said.
“We know the history of how these viruses spread and work. When you deny them, when you don’t let people know what’s happening and what to do about it, things get worse.”