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Fauci on the efficacy of new vaccines and preparing for coronavirus variants

Editor’s note: Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the PBS NewsHour.

The drive to get more coronavirus vaccines into more arms is gaining momentum, with two new COVID vaccines possibly accelerating the effort. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH and a top adviser to President Biden on the pandemic, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the efficacy of the new vaccines and preparing for the virus variants.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's understand more about the latest on vaccines and the strains of the virus.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH. He's also a top adviser to President Biden on the pandemic.

    Dr. Fauci, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, let me ask you about this new vaccine that was announced today by Johnson & Johnson. It is one dose. It is more easily stored. How much of a help do you expect it to be?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    I think it's going to be value-added for sure, Judy, both in the United States, but also in developing nations, because of the fact that it has good efficacy. It isn't as much as the 94 percent to 95 percent of the two vaccines that already have emergency authorization.

    It is 72 percent effective against mild to moderate disease, but against severe disease, even the mutants that we're seeing in South Africa, it has pretty good protection against severe disease. So, it will be useful in keeping people out of the hospital.

    And if you look at the severity effects of the data that we just examined today, that, in the vaccine group, there were essentially no hospitalizations or deaths, so it protected pretty well against severe disease, which is good news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so — but the fact that it's less effective against this variant in South Africa, how much does that undercut its value?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, that's a good point.

    It undercuts it a bit, if you want to have equivalent efficacy against what we call the wild type strains that are circulating here and the South African strains.

    But in severe disease of the South African strain, it has about an 85 percent or 88 percent efficacy. So, when you're dealing with a serious situation like, that is not bad. What it will trigger us having to do, Judy, though, is to upgrade the vaccines that we have now to make it in a form that would directly address mutant strains, be they in South Africa or any other place where they emerge.

    So, right now, we have already started the process of making upgraded vaccines to address it. But, given the fact that, against severe disease, this particular candidate did pretty well, all in all, that's good news.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you raise the question, the next question, which is on the minds of so many. Can you keep up with these new variants, these new strains that are occurring in Brazil and in South Africa and other places?

    How worried are you that new vaccine will keep up with all this?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    That's an excellent question and an excellent point, Judy.

    And one of the best ways to prevent the further evolution of mutants is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. And the reason is, viruses don't mutate unless they actively replicate. So, when you have a lot of disease in the community and a lot of infections, the way we, unfortunately, have had in the United States over the last several months, then you give the virus a lot more opportunity to mutate.

    If we can implement our vaccine programs with the vaccines that we currently have and bring the level of virus replication and dynamics in the community to a very low level, the virus will not mutate as efficiently as it does when you have an explosion of infections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Fauci, I know that vaccine distribution is not the area that you're in charge of.

    But it is stark that, what, 40 — more than 48 million doses have been sent out to the states, but only 21-some million Americans have received at least one dose.

    Do you have any better understanding of what's gone wrong?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, I think one thing — not an excuse, Judy, but one thing people should realize, that the actual counting of what's gone on into people's arm lags a bit. So, there clearly is more that's gone into the arms than has been recorded, because, if you do it today, it may not get recorded for a couple of days or even longer.

    Having said that, and not having an excuse, what going on right now, as President Biden made it very, very clear, he's going to be doing everything he can within his strategic plan that he put out last week to be able to get the implementation of the program as efficient as possible, community vaccine centers, getting the pharmacies much more involved, getting mobile units, trying to get more doses out of a vial by getting dead space syringes associated with the needles.

    Those are the kind of things. So, we're recognizing that we have work to do, but it is really taking very, very seriously, particularly with regard to the plan that the president has just put out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one other thing.

    Everybody wants to know, when are we going to get back to some semblance of normal? You are a big baseball fan. When do you think fans will be able to go back to the stadium again?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    You know, I hope that we will have some degree of participation of spectators at sometime this summer.

    When you talk about getting back to some form of normality, you generally talk about approaching what we call herd immunity, where you have enough people vaccinated that the level is so low and people are generally protected as a group, as a cohort.

    I believe that will be somewhere between 70 percent and 85 percent of the population. If we rev up the vaccinations between the months of March, April, May, June, July, I believe, by the time we get into the summer, we will be approaching that.

    I can't guarantee it, Judy, but I do hope, as we get into the summer, that we will see spectators in the stands.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we're all looking for any shred of good news, as you know.

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

  • Anthony Fauci:

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

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