Dr. Fauci on the omicron variant, testing and travel

Editor's note: As this interview aired, Dr. Fauci misspoke about the COVID-19 vaccines' efficacy against the omicron variant. He intended to say: "I would be surprised if there wasn't at least some degree and maybe a significant degree of protection." The transcript has been updated to reflect this.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, and the president's chief medical advisor, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the U.S. plan to respond to the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In response to the Omicron threat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today urged all adults receive a booster shot.

    For more on all this, we turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

    I spoke with him a short time ago.

    Dr. Fauci, thank you very much for joining us.

    So, first of all, is Omicron in the United States?

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: We don't know that right now, Judy.

    We are certainly looking very carefully to see if it is already here. But given the characteristics which we're starting to see unfold about this virus and what's gone on with other countries over the last 24 to 48 hours, I really would be surprised if we didn't ultimately have it here in this country.

    But, right now, there's no definite evidence that it is here yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Fauci, as you know, the World Health Organization is saying that this is potentially very high risk, what the Omicron poses.

    But then President Biden said today that it is a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic. So how concerned should people be?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, we have to take is seriously, because the virus that was isolated and characterized by our South African colleagues — and, I must say, kudos to them for being so transparent and so helpful in collaborating and giving us the information in real time — it displays a constellation of mutations, Judy, that would be suggestive that it has a high degree of transmissibility advantage.

    And it could, in fact, evade some of the immunological parameters that we follow, like monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, and even vaccine-induced antibodies. We don't know what the ultimate impact of that. It might not be a big deal at all, or it might turn out to be something that we are really going to have to address.

    So there are a number of unanswered questions. But, fortunately, we likely will have the answer for them in a matter of a couple of weeks. Namely, what does our vaccines do when we induce antibodies? Will it neutralize this virus? And, importantly, as we're getting information from our South African colleagues, when you do get infected with this, is it a severe disease, or is it only very — a very mild disease?

    So it could be a highly transmissible virus without severe consequences, or not. We don't know that. And that's the reason why the president very appropriately said, we're concerned, we're paying very close attention to it, but that, really, we should not be panicking about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there early evidence, though, as to whether the vaccines being offered right now protect against this new variant?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    From our experience, Judy, I can say that I would be very surprised if the level of antibodies that are induced by our vaccines, particularly following a booster, would not have some effect in countering this, because, when you look at the Delta variant, which is a variant that is not really one that the vaccine is specifically directed against, yet, when you get a high enough titer following vaccination, and certainly following a booster, you cover the Delta variant.

    You have a crossing over of protection to it. So, knowing what we know about variants, I would be surprised if there wasn't at least some degree and maybe a significant degree of protection. We don't know that yet until we prove it, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, beyond getting vaccinated, getting the booster — and we saw that, today, the CDC is expanding their recommendation to all adults now to get the booster.

    What more can people do to stay safe?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Just what we have been saying all along.

    I don't think anything needs to change, Judy. And that is, when you're in a congregate setting, and particularly indoors with individuals, where you don't know their vaccination status, where a mask?

    I know there will be traveling during the holidays that are coming up. When you go to an airport in a congregate setting, wear a mask, keep your mask on. You can enjoy the family settings, particularly if everybody's vaccinated. So we don't need to feel that we need to be cooped up and restricted in that regard.

    But just be careful. Be prudent. But, above all, if ever there was a reason for people to say, let's get vaccinated if you're not vaccinated, and if you are vaccinated, by all means, get boosted, this is really a very strong endorsement for that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Fauci, we know Biden administration and now, what, over 40 other countries have instituted travel bans against countries in Southern Africa. But you're also aware there's criticism of this.

    I mean, there are those who say, this is overly punitive, that it's not effective enough, that it could lead to governments being less transparent in the future.

    Do you think there is some truth to these criticisms?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    It's a very tough call when you have to make a decision like that, because, when you're looking at something in which the molecular virologists and the WHO and those who are looking at the virus say, this is really of a concern, we don't know yet the full scope of it.

    So the prudent decision is to try and give us at least a couple of weeks of leeway to be able to be better prepared. And that was the motivation for the travel restriction. No one likes to do that with a — with any countries.

    But, of course, I can tell you, Judy, you know the way things go. If we had not done that, we would be highly criticized for putting ourselves in danger. So, there's always going to be criticism. You just have to do what you feel is the best judgment. And, hopefully, if things turn out, OK, this will not be a long duration of a restriction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One final question, Dr. Fauci.

    Here in the United States, after all these months, President Biden spoke of the need to get more testing. It seems that there still are many Americans having trouble finding a place to get tested.

    I know from personal experience over the weekend trying to help someone find a testing site. What has happened to that? Should we be farther along in this country right now?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I can tell you what the government is doing, Judy.

    There has been an investment of literally billions of dollars to get to the point where you have anywhere from 200 million to 500 million tests per month available. That's going to be the goal. And I think we're really well on the way there. There are places where you can get testing pretty easily.

    But you're right. I know of experiences of people calling me where they're having trouble finding a place where they can get a rapid test. But that is unevenly distributed throughout the country. So, hopefully, when that money gets put to use to get those 200 to 500 million tests per month, this will not be a problem anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Good to be with you, as always, Judy. Thank you.

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