As many as 100,000 Americans could die in the coronavirus pandemic before a vaccine can be developed by the end of the year, US President Donald Trump said on Sunday as the country’s death toll passed earlier estimates.
During a two-hour virtual town hall broadcast by Fox News, Mr Trump alternated between forecasting a rapid recovery for the US economy and casting blame for the pandemic's spread on China, where the disease is believed to have originated.
Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has sickened more than 1.1 million people in the US and killed more than 68,000, with most schools and many businesses forced to close across the country.
"We're going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people. That's a horrible thing," said Mr Trump.
As recently as last Friday he said he hoped fewer than 100,000 Americans would die during the outbreak, having earlier in the week talked about 60,000 to 70,000 deaths.
About half the states have moved towards at least partial lifting of shutdowns as the number of new Covid-19 cases has begun to drop or level off. Citizens have also agitated for relief from restrictions that have sent the US economy into a tailspin.
"We can't stay closed as a country or we're not going to have a country left," Mr Trump said.
Coronavirus across the world
Mr Trump criticised Fox recently, casting the conservative-leaning network as insufficiently supportive. He faced few tough questions during Sunday's event, which gave him a new format to reach the public while he is unable to hold campaign rallies and after he faced widespread criticism for his combative daily briefings.
In an assessment that clashes with those offered by some public health experts, Mr Trump said he believed that by the end of the year there would be a Covid-19 vaccine.
"The doctors would say, 'well, you shouldn't say that'," Mr Trump said. "I'll say what I think ... I think we’ll have a vaccine sooner than later."
Many health experts, including Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, have said a vaccine was likely a year to 18 months away from being developed.
There is an "incredibly small" chance of having a highly effective vaccine or treatment for coronavirus within the next year, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on April 22.
Mr Trump said he wanted pupils and students to return to schools and colleges in autumn, even as he acknowledged the possibility of a resurgence of the disease.
"We'll put out the embers, we'll put out whatever it may be. We may have to put out a fire," he said.
Speaking the day before the US Senate returns to Washington, Mr Trump said it was possible that federal coronavirus aid could increase to $6 trillion (Dh22.035tn) from the nearly $3tn Congress has already passed to try to ease the heavy economic toll of the crisis.
"There is more help coming. There has to be," he said.
Democrats have made it clear they want to provide a sizeable rescue package for state and local governments as part of a broader bill – one that could total more than $2tn – but some Republicans criticised the idea as unreasonably expensive.
"We will be doing infrastructure and I told Steve [US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] just today we are not doing anything unless we get a payroll tax cut," Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump, who has been criticised for not moving faster early in the year to stop the spread of the virus, sought to blunt the criticism by blaming China.
He said China made a "horrible mistake" without saying precisely what this was or providing specific evidence for his assertion.
Earlier in the day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was "a significant amount of evidence" that Covid-19 came from a Chinese laboratory, but did not dispute US intelligence agencies' conclusions that the disease was not man-made.