Trump asked pharmaceutical execs if the flu vaccine could be used to stop the coronavirus. Here's why that wouldn't work.

Robert Giroux/Getty ImagesA nurse administering a flu vaccine in New York City.
  • At a White House meeting on Monday, the president asked if the flu vaccine could be used to prevent COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
  • “No,” a biotech CEO told the president.
  • While a new flu vaccine is developed each year, it’s designed to target specific strands of the flu virus and would be ineffective in fighting the coronavirus.
  • Experts have said a coronavirus vaccine is likely years away.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump on Monday asked whether the flu vaccine would be useful in fighting COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

His question came during a meeting with pharmaceutical executives and members of his administration’s coronavirus task force. Leonard Schleifer, CEO of the biotechnology company Regeneron, said that while millions of people were vaccinated for the flu, no one had yet gotten a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, The Independent reported.

“But the same vaccine could not work?” Trump said. “You take a solid flu vaccine – you don’t think that would have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?”

“No,” Schleifer replied.

“Probably not,” added Dr. Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of Trump’s task force.

The flu vaccine would not work to prevent COVID-19 because it’s designed to target specific strains of the flu virus

According to Johns Hopkins, while influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses that involve similar symptoms, the two viruses have major differences.

For one, the flu is caused by several different viruses and strains, whereas the coronavirus outbreak is linked to one specific virus, called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.

Here’s how the flu vaccine is made: Twice each year – in February and September – the directors of health organisations from the US, the UK, Australia, China, and Japan come together with the World Health Organisation’s collaborating centres to select which viruses are targeted by the year’s vaccines. Each vaccine typically protects against three to four specific strains of the flu virus. The vaccine contains strains of both influenza A and influenza B viruses, the most common types.

It could take years to develop a vaccine to fight COVID-19.

“When people get up there and say we are going to have a vaccine in months, it is misleading,” Dr. Gregory Poland, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine-research group, told Business Insider in an interview. “That is not going to happen in the US.”

The cost and time frame for creating such a vaccine is unknown. Cost estimates have ranged from $US200 million to $US1.5 billion. And while researchers may be able to develop a vaccine for this particular coronavirus strain, it might not be until after this outbreak has ended.

The White House, meanwhile, has been scrambling to address the outbreak as more cases and deaths are reported across the US.

Trump made Vice President Mike Pence the head of the coronavirus task force at a press conference last week. But the administration has also been accused of barring Fauci, a top US expert on infectious diseases, from speaking publicly about the coronavirus outbreak without approval and of inadequately responding to the virus.

In an interview with Politico published Tuesday, Fauci said that the coronavirus outbreak in the US “could be really, really bad” and that he doesn’t think “we are going to get out of this completely unscathed.”

“I think that this is going to be one of those things we look back on and say boy, that was bad,” Fauci said.

As of Tuesday, at least 106 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the US, according to numbers from Johns Hopkins. Six people in the US have died of the disease, all in Washington state.

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