Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease doctor in the U.S., said on Tuesday that it is “unlikely” a coronavirus vaccine will be ready and available by Election Day this fall — repeating that he is cautiously optimistic that there will be a safe and effective vaccine option by the end of 2020.
“It’s not impossible…but it’s unlikely that we’ll have a definitive answer” by Nov. 3, Fauci told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff during a virtual health research forum on Sept. 8.
During a White House news conference on Labor Day, President Donald Trump floated the idea, without data or evidence, that a vaccine could be ready by the end of October. Former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, also questioned the Trump administration’s coronavirus vaccine strategy and timeline.
During the interview at Research!America’s 2020 Virtual National Health Research Forum, Fauci laid out the current timeline for the several vaccine candidates that have already been backed by the U.S. federal government. Right now, he said, three vaccine candidates are undergoing Phase 3 trials, meaning that tens of thousands of human volunteers will participate in testing each potential vaccine. The trials need time to enroll the right number of volunteers and run their course, so that by the end of year researchers will know whether the vaccine candidates are safe and effective for human use.
Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also said that more vaccine candidates will begin their Phase 3 trials later in September and October.
Recent polling shows Americans have concerns about the immediate safety and effectiveness of a novel coronavirus vaccine. According to a PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll released in August, 35 percent — more than one-third — of U.S. adults said they would not get the vaccine, while 60 percent said they would.
Fauci said transparency about vaccine decisions and the data will be important to help solve the trust issue.
The global push for a coronavirus vaccine comes as Americans prepare to cast their ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential election, and as flu season gets underway in the U.S.
In Southern Hemisphere nations, where the flu season has already started, instances of influenza have been at “lower levels than expected,” the World Health Organization reported in late August. If that scenario continues in the U.S. and people get their flu shots, Fauci said, that would be ideal in reducing the threat of the flu. If there’s an uptick in coronavirus cases and a full-blown flu season, the American health care system could be overwhelmed, particularly as some hospitals have already been stretched to capacity from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We think because people have done public health measures to avoid infection with the coronavirus — namely masks, distancing, avoiding crowds, washing hands — we’ve had the secondary effect that there are less influenza infections,” Fauci said.
Other important moments from the interview:
- More outreach to communities of color is needed: Fauci said “we need to do a little bit better” on getting non-white communities, including Black, Latino and Native American communities, involved in clinical trials testing the current vaccine candidates. “We want to make sure that when we say that something is safe and effective, we mean it’s safe and effective for everyone,” he said. And once that has taken place, the outreach must continue in the form of public service announcements and meeting people in their communities “It is not an easy process, but it is definitely worthwhile,” Fauci said.
- Should college students who test positive return home? In previous interviews, Fauci recommended that colleges and universities that have opened on-campus and with in-person instruction should not send students home if they test positive for the coronavirus. He echoed that in the interview with Woodruff, arguing that students returning home create the possibility of infections spreading to other communities across the country. “It’s much, much better to have the capability to put them in a place where they can comfortably recover” away from other students, Fauci said.
- Multiple checks will ensure a coronavirus vaccine is safe: Fauci addressed concerns Tuesday that political influence from the Trump administration could be affecting scientific guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Relieving those worries is “not going to be easy, given what’s gone on before,” Fauci said when asked about questions raised over government guidance on issues like testing. “We just have to keep being quite transparent.” He noted that public health officials need to communicate “there are going to be multiple layers of checkpoints” before decisions about treating the coronavirus are made.