Fauci on the BA.2 variant, funding for the COVID fight and the possibility of a new surge

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all down substantially in the U.S. with restrictions loosened in most places. But the nation is still losing more than a thousand people a day on average to the virus, and as cases rise in Europe and elsewhere, some experts wonder if there will be a new surge. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    To many Americans, this feels like one of the better moments of the pandemic.

    The number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all down substantially, and, just about everywhere, restrictions have been loosened, and masking is optional.

    But the U.S. is still losing more than 1,000 people a day, on average, to the virus, 1,000-plus. And as cases are seen rising in Europe and other countries, some experts wonder if there will be a surge here in just a few weeks.

    I spoke about all of this a short time ago with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser.

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

    First question, where is the United States with regard to COVID? We know cases are rising in Europe, in China, even reports in New York City. Are we in for another wave?

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: Well, we can't predict definitively about that, Judy.

    But one thing is for sure, that we're still, as a country, going in the right direction with regard to the downward trajectory of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

    The caveat about that is, is that we generally follow the European Union, but particularly the U.K., by a few weeks, usually three or so weeks.

    And if you look at what's going on, for example, in the U.K., when you combine the increased transmissibility of the BA.2, which is a sublineage variant of the original Omicron, together with the relaxation of some of the restrictions like mask-wearing and indoor concern about making sure people are vaccinated, and then you talk about the waning of immunity, they're starting to see an increase in case and, to some extent, an increase in hospitalization, even though they are not seeing an increase in — necessarily in severity of disease.

    So I would not be surprised, Judy, if, in the next few weeks, we do see an uptick in cases. The really important issue is that, will that be manifested in an increase in severe disease that would lead to hospitalization?

    Because you can expect that, when you open up, as we're doing with pulling back on the masking indoors, that you're going to see an increase in cases, hopefully that the degree of vaccination immunity and immunity associated with prior infection will protect us from get any severity of disease of any significance.

    But we will have to remain and wait and see. Remember, the CDC said that pulling back on the metrics and letting there be more openness with regard to masking, we need to be ready, if necessary, to pivot back and maybe pull in a little bit more of the masking, if, in fact, we start getting a surge.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    But that really is unpredictable right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's exactly what I wanted to ask you about, because, if this is coming, it comes at a time when states have relaxed their rules and regulations. Even at the federal level, there's been some relaxation.

    It just seems to be happening at the wrong time, or is it just here we go again; we will never see the end of this?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I hope it's not going to be, I don't think it will be, here we go again, we're never going to see the end.

    Hopefully, as we get more people vaccinated and boosted — I mean, we have a ways to go, Judy. We have still only about 67 percent or so of the total population vaccinated and about 70 percent or so of the adults vaccinated. We only have 50 percent of the people who are eligible to be boosted have gotten boosted.

    So there are still things that we can do to mitigate what might be another blip, if not maybe a blip, then maybe even a mini-surge, as we have more and more situations where we're pulling back on masking.

    So we want to keep going in the right direction, but there are things that we can do that can safeguard us more.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the warnings or the admonitions to people to go get vaccinated, get boosted, we don't seem to be hearing that as much as we were.

    Is this a time to start sending those messages out aggressively again?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    I believe so, Judy.

    I know that we have been talking about this for a long time. But if we want to continue this, as I call it, tiptoeing back to normality, we want to make sure that we do everything within our power to prevent the kinds of things that will set us back.

    I think, psychologically, the country is just not ready to get set back again. But there are things that we can do to prevent that, and that's the reason why we continue to stress the importance of vaccination and boosting when you are vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, two other things on this.

    Is there something different — or what is different about the BA.2 variant that people should be aware of? How different is it from Omicron?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    It has one very important difference, and then a lot of similarities with the standard Omicron.

    The difference is that it has a slight to moderate transmission advantage. Namely, it is more transmissible. The thing about it that's the same, it doesn't appear to be any more severe, and it doesn't seem to evade immune responses either induced by the vaccine or by prior infection.

    So, the one critical difference is that increased transmissibility of fitness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the other quick question, Dr. Fauci, is, we did hear from Pfizer this week that they're looking to get emergency authorization for a second booster shot for individuals who are 65 or over.

    Is your thinking that that's something people should be prepared for?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    I think that's certainly conceivable, much more so among the elderly than I think the general population.

    The most important thing that we need to do, that we always do is look at the data. And in order for that to be authorized on an emergency basis for anyone, the FDA would have to carefully examine the data and take a look at, is the risk-benefit in favor of the benefit of doing that?

    But, Judy, I would not be surprised that, at least among some set of people, particularly the elderly, that, within a reasonable period of time — can't tell exactly when — we will need to boost those people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Fauci, I want to turn you now to this debate under way that has just come up in recent days about funding for COVID.

    The White House, as you know, was asking for $30 billion. It's now, I think, $22 billion. It had to come out of the big government spending bill. Now there's a frantic effort to get it passed. But it's met with opposition. Republicans are saying you have already spent $6 trillion on COVID — they're saying this to the administration — or that the government has. Why do you need another $22 billion?

    What do you say to that?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, we do need it, Judy.

    I mean, the money that has been allocated has been well-spent. And we have had a lot of very important successes with that — resources with regard to the vaccinations, the drugs, the tests, all the things that have actually worked well.

    But we are running out of money. This is not make-believe. I mean, when we look at the things we have already started that we need to complete, the talk about whether or not we will need a boost and what kind of boost, what about the issue of coronavirus vaccines that will protect us from what might be the next iteration?

    So this is reality. We are running out of money. And if we don't get money reasonably soon, there are things that we were hoping we would continue that we're going have to stop, and there are things we were hopefully able to initiate that we will not be able to initiate. That's a big concern.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what we're hearing from Republicans — and you know this very well, Dr. Fauci — they're saying, wait a minute, we don't know where all that $6 trillion has gone. We'd like some accounting for that. We know some of it was diverted. Some of it may not be spent.

    Is that a reasonable request for Congress to be making right now, before they appropriate more money?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I mean, accountability is always important, but there is accountability there, and that's the point that's being made, that we have accountability.

    But, right now, we really do need the money, because, within a couple of months, there are things that are going to have to stop. But we're all in favor of accountability. Certainly, no one is going to argue about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the other point that some progressive Democrats were making — and this ended up being one of the reasons the COVID money had to be pulled out of the big spending bill — is, they're saying, oh, wait a minute. We don't want to see this money taken from states that were going to be able to do their own version of pandemic spending.

    Is that something that, frankly, there should have been more flexibility on?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I don't think I can comment on that. There was a lot of negotiations back and forth between the governors and the Congress about — I believe it was about $15 billion that was in there that was coming out of the states, and there was back-and-forth about whether or not that was appropriate and what the result of that would be.

    But I don't think I'm in a position to comment on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You were in a meeting at the House, the Congress, this morning. Speaker Pelosi was there.

    Our understanding is, it's been reported that she apologized to you and others from the administration for even having to come over to Congress to ask for the money.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I mean, whoever told you that, that's a fact. She was concerned.

    I mean, she is very concerned about making sure that we get what we need to continue this effort. And what she said to me and to Secretary Becerra is that she was sorry that we had to come down there to plead the case.

    But I was perfectly happy to do that, because I was telling the truth, that we do need the money. It's not made up. We do need that money.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Americans who are listening to this, Dr. Fauci, what is at stake if this money is not appropriated — not passed, not appropriated?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, when you talk about the things that we are purchasing and continue to need, more vaccine doses, drugs, monoclonal antibodies, these are all things that are contractual relationships that, if you don't put the money up, you're not going to get the product.

    So we have been very well by having very important and successful interventions. We're going to have to stop purchasing them.

    Then there's the clinical trials that my group is doing from my institute, a continuation of the phase three trials, the beginning of trials to determine what the best boost is, is it an Omicron-specific boost, or is it an ancestral strain-specific boost, and to do a number of arms on a clinical trial, so that, when we do need boosts, as you had mentioned a moment ago, what is the best boost to give?

    Those studies will stop if we don't get the money.

  • Judy Woodruff:

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

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Thank you for having me, Judy.

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