There's "no way on Earth" the U.S. can test 5 million people a day for the coronavirus, the government's top testing official said in an interview, just hours before President Donald Trump vowed that the country would be able to test that many people daily "very soon."
"There is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even five million tests a day," Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health who is in charge of the government's testing response, told TIME in an interview he gave Tuesday morning that was published later in the evening. The interview took place before Trump's eye-popping pledge about testing.
Speaking to reporters the following day, Trump denied having said there would be 5 million tests per day, but he added that he does believe there will, in fact, be 5 million tests per day at some point.
"Somebody came out with a study of 5 million people. Do I think we will? I think we will, but I never said it," Trump claimed during an event at the White House. "Somebody started throwing around 5 million. I didn't say 5 million," the president insisted, adding, "Well, we will be there. But I didn't say it. I didn't say it."
The U.S. will be able to test 8 million per month by May, Giroir told Time.
Giroir was responding to a new study's findings. Harvard University published a report last week that said the U.S. would need to ramp up testing capacity to at least 5 million tests a day by early June, and 20 million per day by late July, in order to reopen the economy. Giroir told TIME that the assessment is "an Ivory Tower, unreasonable benchmark," adding that it's not needed based on current modelling.
Trump, when asked at a news briefing about the 5 million figure later Tuesday, said, "We're going to be there very soon."
The U.S. has run just 5.7 million total Covid-19 tests since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. The most tests the nation has run on a single day was 314,182 on April 22, according to the volunteer project designed to track testing data launched last month by The Atlantic.
Representatives for the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. continues to increase testing capacity as commercial companies boost production of tests. The Food and Drug Administration has also granted emergency use authorization for several new tests that analyze samples from blood and saliva, which could be more efficient than the standard diagnostic tests, which depend on a nasal swab.
The capacity to test broadly for Covid-19 will be key to preventing a resurgence of the virus as states ease restrictions and reopen businesses, public health specialists and state officials have repeatedly said.
The White House's official testing data shows that 5.1 million Americans have been tested as of Monday, up from 3.3 million on April 15, according to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
"The United States has done double the number of tests of any country in the world," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement Tuesday after Trump's remarks. "We have exceeded all expectations and continue to lead the world in testing capacity as we assist governors in ensuring they have the capacity to reopen their states in a safe manner."
When asked for comment Wednesday about the Giroir interview, the White House sent the same statement from the press secretary it passed along Tuesday night.
Trump's critics have zeroed in on the nationwide shortages of effective coronavirus tests, testing supplies and labs able to process test results as a central failure of the federal government's response to the deadly pandemic. Trump has rejected this criticism.
"States, not the Federal Government, should be doing the Testing," he said in a tweet last week.
On Monday, the administration released a new testing "blueprint" that described what it called a "partnership" between states, the federal government and the private sector. The so-called partnership featured a very limited role for the federal government, however, and left the lion's share of responsibility for funding, designing and executing coronavirus testing plans to individual states.
— CNBC's Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report.