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Fauci on brief J&J pause, ‘breakthrough’ infections, and sharing vaccines with the world

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Adviser to President Joe Biden, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the effect of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause on U.S. inoculation numbers, post-vaccine "breakthrough" infections, and how the country plans to deliver more shots to people both at home and abroad.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine appears to be on the verge of being given out once again. That is after a CDC advisory panel recommended to do so and provide a warning.

    Before the panel's recommendation, I spoke today with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He is also the chief medical adviser to President Biden.

    And we should note that Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the "NewsHour."

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

    You and I are recording this interview before we know what the CDC is going to say today about whether to reauthorize the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but whatever their decision is, how much of a setback to the overall effort to get vaccine into as many arms as possible has this pause been?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    I don't think it has really been significant, Judy, particularly since, if they make the decision to go back out there and get this vaccine back in play, I think you're going to see people who, wanting to get this particular vaccine, will be lining up to get it.

    I think that the pause, although for a period of time there, some people felt that maybe that's going to diminish the confidence in the vaccine, I think, on the other hand, it might have the opposite effect, that, given the fact that this is such a rare event, the fact that this was paused indicates how seriously we take safety when we're dealing with vaccines.

    So, this should really encourage people and fortify the concept that safety is of critical importance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It now looks as if the average daily number of people getting vaccinations is plateauing.

    And, given that, my question is — what are we at, 140 million Americans have at least one dose of a vaccine — what does that say about how hard it's going to be to get everybody else who you want to have the vaccine?

    I mean, there have been a lot of pleas made to Americans to have the vaccine, but there are clearly many who are hesitant.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, and that's what we're trying to address, Judy.

    I mean, there are people who clearly are in the wait-and-see atmosphere. But when you have 140-plus-million people who have received at least one dose, I think the wait-and-see has gotten to the point where there's a very efficacious vaccine that, in the real world, is really doing very, very well in protecting people.

    The data we are getting in follow-up are indicating the vaccines are at least and maybe even more effective than what we saw with the clinical trial results. And we have situations now.

    We have established a COVID-19 Community Corps to get trusted messages — messengers in the community, be they professional athletes, be they entertainers, be they members of the clergy, to go out and to explain to people why it's so important for their own safety, for that of their family, and really for the community in general to get vaccinated.

    So we realize that we have to give an extra push as we get to that point where you have less and less a proportion that's unvaccinated. It's going to be more difficult to get people. But I think we're up for that challenge. And I think when the American people listen to the data of why it's so important to get vaccinated, I think you're going to see people get vaccinated at a greater rate than most people are expecting at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as I'm sure you know, many people are still telling, at least when they're asked, some are saying: I just don't want the vaccine.

    How hard, how far should the government be pushing, with the cooperation of the private sector, to get people to get this vaccine if they're resistant?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I think we have to keep trying to reach out and explain to people why it's so important.

    You know, there are a couple of aspects to it, and one of the things that we try to get across the people that they may not appreciate at first glance. And that is, if you have a younger person who will say, correctly and understandably, that, if you are young and healthy, the chances of your getting a serious outcome are very low, that is a fact and true.

    However, they are now seeing a lot more young people getting infected, particularly with this variant, the 117 from the U.K., which transmits clearly more efficiently than the original virus — and there's no doubt about that — that you have a danger of getting infected and you also have a danger of getting a serious consequence.

    The other thing that we want to impress upon people is that, even if you don't get any symptoms and you get infected, it doesn't end there, Judy. Ultimately, you may be responsible for someone getting seriously ill. You don't want to be part of the dynamics of the outbreak. You want to be part of the solution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do raise something in watching the variants that I want to ask you, because it wasn't that long ago we were told this was a race, in effect, between the vaccine and the variant. Is — who's winning?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You know, right now — you know, that is a good question.

    I think we really are at a turning point right now, and we're really at that point where we're just about seeing the crossing over, because, if you look at the curves, we're getting more and more people vaccinated. We're getting about three million people per day.

    And yet the cases are at that high level of about 60,000 per day on a seven-day average. I believe, as we get more and more people vaccinated, you're going to start seeing a crossing of those curves, where you're going to start seeing the number of cases coming down, as the vaccine total number goes up. That's exactly what we saw in Israel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we could be on the cusp of good news, but I have to ask you, how concerned are you about these so-called breakthrough infections, infections showing up in people who have had two vaccinations?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, a great point to bring up, Judy.

    The CDC just reported on a few thousand of these. That sounds like a lot, but when you put it next to the denominator, the breakthrough infractions are a fraction of a fraction of the people who have gotten vaccinated.

    So, although you don't like to see any breakthroughs, when you have a few thousand against the millions and millions of people who have been vaccinated, it is a very, very rare event to have a breakthrough for someone who has been vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do have a question about the United States and the rest of the world. We know that the U.S. is doing well, as you have been describing overall.

    We're seeing a drop in cases, and yet the rest of the world, most of it not nearly as fortunate. We're seeing these horrible numbers in India, people running out of oxygen, hospitals overwhelmed.

    Next-door neighbor Canada, only 2.9 percent — or, rather 2.6 percent, I saw today, of Canadians have been vaccinated. Worldwide, the number is something like 2.9 percent. Is it time now for the United States to do more to help the rest of the world?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You know, Judy, we will be doing that.

    A number of things are ongoing right now. You know, we have rejoined COVAX. We have pledged and/or given $4 billion to that. We are in a situation where it's very clear, when we get our people vaccinated, we're right now in a situation where we really want to make sure that we have our people vaccinated.

    But if the surplus doses become available, which they very likely will, that, clearly, that's on the table to share that with individuals.

    The other things that we're doing is that we want to be part of the situation when we will be helping countries to be able to produce the vaccine themselves. And that's something that we're right now talking to them about the possibility. There are a lot of people that want to see that, rather than just giving doses to a company — excuse me — to country, to allow the country to be able to make doses themselves, working with the pharmaceutical companies to see if they can work out some sort of an arrangement where that will be allowed.

    And as long as there is viral dynamics and viral spread in countries, particularly if it's rather profound spread, you can't be completely safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For people who are vaccinated, what is safe for them to do? People want to know, can I go to a restaurant indoors? Can I go to the movie theater? Is it safe to get on an airplane?

    What is safe and what isn't? Should people wear a mask outdoors? I mean, what's your advice?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    The CDC is going to be coming out with official guidelines.

    You know, they already said about, in the home setting, if you are vaccinated, even if you're with unvaccinated people, you can take the mask off, you could have physical contact.

    The one thing people need to realize that, being vaccinated, the risk of everything you do is considerably less than if you are not vaccinated. So, going outside, you're going to be hearing a reevaluation of whether you're going to have to wear mask outside. That's being considered literally in real time now by the CDC.

    They have already said that travel is much, much safer when you have vaccination, when you have been vaccinated.

    The real critical issue is, it's also dependent upon the level of infection in the community. So, if the level of infection in the community is very low, and you don't have new variants going on, there are so many more things that a person who is vaccinated can do even without a mask.

    And you're going to be seeing, as the time goes by, hopefully much sooner, rather than later, when the CDC will be coming out with guidances that will be much less restrictive with regard to what people can do when they are vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, this is the guidance as of today, April 23, 2021.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, thank you, as always. We appreciate it.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Thank you, Judy. Good to be with you.

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