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Fauci says despite upcoming election, science will not be politicized

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, urged caution on Thursday as countries race to develop an effective vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. “Just to say you have a vaccine doesn’t mean that you should be administering the vaccine,” Fauci said of Russia’s recent decision to approve a vaccine, which was met with skepticism by the scientific community.

“We have half a dozen vaccines, but before you give it to the American public, you want to be absolutely certain that it is A) effective, and B) safe,” Fauci told the PBS NewsHour’s managing editor and anchor Judy Woodruff about U.S. efforts to approve a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fauci said that Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s initiative to develop a safe and effective vaccine through a public-private partnership by 2021, is an “unfortunate terminology” in that it connotes “reckless speed.” Fauci countered that U.S. efforts to develop a vaccine are not reckless, and he expects that a vaccine could be ready to dispense by 2021.

Operation Warp Speed “is doing something based on technology and operating at a financial risk, instead of a safety risk,” Fauci said.

Other highlights from the interview:

  • On equitable vaccine distribution for demographic groups: Fauci stressed that “equitable distribution” of the vaccine across demographic groups would be important once it is approved, adding that plans for manufacturing and distribution were already in place. “The critical thing … is that the trial itself is conducted in a way where there’s equitable distribution of demographic groups,” Fauci said, adding that African American, Latinx, Asian and white Americans should all have equal access to a safe and effective vaccine. He said the U.S. was planning to work with partners, including the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the National Academy of Medicine, to ensure equitable distribution once a vaccine was approved.
  • On reopening schools: While Fauci has advocated for schools to reopen, he said not all communities have controlled COVID-19 transmission to a point that is low enough for students to safely return. “If you want your schools to open, get your community level down to a safe level,” he advised. He differentiated between “green, yellow and red states” — communities with different infection levels — when explaining how communities should weigh this decision. In green areas, officials “can open the school…with a degree of impunity because the level of infection is so low,” Fauci said. In yellow states, Fauci said officials should consider actions steps they can take to lower the number of COVID-19 cases and limit transmission among students, including mandating masks, leaving windows in the buildings open and keeping people outside if possible. He said community leaders in red areas where COVID-19 cases are high should “think carefully before [they] just jump into school.
  • On when the pandemic will end: Dr. Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian who has studied pandemics, recently predicted that the coronavirus crisis may not be over until 2024. Asked about that view, Fauci said he was optimistic there were things the U.S. could control from a public health standpoint in order to have a good handle on COVID-19 within the next year. “If you synergize and superimpose good, solid, careful prudent public health measures with a vaccine that’s effective….I believe by the year 2021, the end of the year, we will be as good back to normal as we possibly can,” Fauci said. He added, though, that he doesn’t expect to ever fully eradicate the virus, as humans have only ever been successful in wiping out smallpox.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I spoke this evening with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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

    Let's talk about this virus. Right know, the good news is that the number of new cases does seem to be slowing. But, on the other hand, the daily death toll has more than doubled what it was a month ago. I looked. There were 1,470 deaths yesterday, more than any other day in the month of August.

    The United States is not where it should be right now, is it?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    No, it's certainly not where we want to be, certainly in certain sections of the country. Certain sections are doing well.

    But your comment, Judy, about the deaths are important, because what people need to understand is, the deaths lag behind the cases. Remember, the last time we spoke, we had the big surging of cases. And then what lags after that is hospitalizations, and then deaths.

    So, it seems like a paradox. The cases are going down, but the deaths are going up. And that's only because we have a lag. If we can keep the cases coming down and down and down, you will start to see the deaths turn around and come down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the toll, Dr. Fauci, in some places is enormous.

    We were just looking. I mean, there have been more deaths in the state of Florida in the past two weeks than there have been altogether in the countries of Japan and South Korea.

    I mean, that's a pretty big indictment of efforts to get this under control, isn't it?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, you know, we really need to get it under control, Judy.

    You and I have spoken about this before. It is within our power, if we pull together in a unified, consistent way. What I have said so many times, it has been shown in other countries and it has been shown in parts of our own country that, if you do five or so fundamental things, not only do you prevent the surges, but, when the surges occur, you bring it down.

    Uniform and universal wearing of masks. Physical social distancing. Avoiding crowds. Outdoor things always better than indoor things. And wash hands as often as you possibly can.

    An addendum to that is, we should stay away from bars and, in those places that can, close the bars. Those are hot spots of transmission. Unfortunately, that is what we saw in some of the states that surged. We have got to cut that out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's talk about schools.

    You have been an advocate of doing everything possible to make it safe for children to go back to school. But we now see what has happened in a number of states. Georgia, just one school district, something like 1,200 students and adults are now quarantined as a result of their opening in-person classes.

    Are we — I mean, are we looking at, frankly, many months of virtual learning, distant learning, before we're able to safely open schools everywhere?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    In some places, Judy, that may be the case.

    I mean, you have heard me say that the default position should be to try to keep the schools open or to get them open. But the thing that is important in this country is that, if you look at the green, the yellow and the red states, as the definitions that you know so well about percent positive, number of cases per 100,000, in the green areas, green state, city, county, you can open the school, I'm sure, with a degree of impunity, because the level of infection is so low.

    When you get to the yellow states, you have got to realize that you have infection in your community. So, you have got to have the capability of protecting the children and the teachers by doing certain things.

    And you leave it to the local authorities to figure out what that is best for them. But they are well spelled out in the CDC guidelines, using masks, windows open, outside, if you can, those kind of things.

    I must say that, if you are in a red area, state, city or county, then you really better think carefully before you just jump into school. And so — and the people without don't like my saying that should realize that the best way to get your school open is to get out of a red zone, into a yellow zone, into a green zone.

    So, if you want your schools to open, get your community level down, down to a safe level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, we hear you. And we know there are still skeptics out there among the American public.

    Dr. Fauci, I want to ask you a couple of questions about a vaccine. You are sticking, I gather, to your original projection that we will have one by the end of this year or early next year.

    But, given this announcement from Russia this week — early, it was met with great skepticism — how confident are you that, when this vaccine comes in this country from a project called Warp Speed, that people are going to be willing to have — to be vaccinated?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, two aspects to your question, Judy.

    The first one, let's take the Russian situation. You know, just to say you have a vaccine doesn't mean that you should be administering the vaccine. We have a half-a-dozen vaccines. But before you give it to the American public, you want to be absolutely certain that it is, A, effective, and, B, safe, which gets to your second question, which is the issue of warp speed.

    You know, in some respects, that is a bit of an unfortunate terminology. It tends to subliminally suggest reckless speed. It is not, Judy.

    What has happened is that the technology that has allowed us to go from the sequence that we knew in the beginning of January to getting a vaccine into a phase one trial, and then quickly going into phase two and three, has nothing to do with safety, Judy. It is doing something based on technology and operating at a financial risk, instead of a safety risk.

    So, I haven't changed my projection. I still think that we can have it by the end of the year, the beginning of next year, in a safe way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, just continuing on the vaccine question, though, a number — we are seeing a number of state officials, public health experts who are starting to express publicly concern that there is no federal plan that they know of to distribute the vaccine.

    One of them pointed to the mishandling of the treatment drug remdesivir. And they said, this could be a slow-motion train wreck when it comes to a vaccine.

    How confident are you that it is going to be handled correctly?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, as you know, as part of Operation Warp Speed, we have two individuals that are leading it, the scientific aspect of it by Moncef Slaoui, and then the technical supply chain distribution by General Gustave Perna, who has now been part of it and the representative of the Department of Defense.

    So, right now, there are plans that are in place already manufacturing and getting ready for distribution. The critical thing that we want to make sure we do is that the trial itself is conducted in a way where there is equitable distribution of demographic groups, so that you know it's safe and effective in everyone, African-Americans, Latinx, whites, everyone, Asians.

    The other one is, when the vaccine occurs, there is a standard way of getting a recommendation through the American — through Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC, getting the National Academy of Medicine involved, to make sure we get equitable distribution. I'm confident that that will happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something we saw this week — and this has to do with the future, Dr. Fauci — the medical historian Howard Markel wrote — he said, this pandemic may be here for a lot longer than people are acknowledging, because — he said, both because of vaccine complications and, frankly, difficulties with outbreaks and the management and monitoring of this pandemic.

    He said there is a good chance this pandemic may not be fully over until 2024.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Yes.

    You know, Judy, you can always make those kinds of speculations and modeling in different ways. Of course, if we do not handle it properly, if there is not a safe and effective vaccine, this could go on for a few years.

    However, we have certain things within our grasp and within our power that I believe are going to make that projection inaccurate. And that is, we can control this from a public health standpoint. If you synergize and superimpose good, solid, careful, prudent public health measures with a vaccine that is effective — it doesn't have to be 100 percent effective.

    If you get a vaccine into 2021, throughout the year, I believe, by the year 2021, the end of the year, we will be as good back to normal as we possibly can. That doesn't mean — so, I want to be clear — that you are going to eradicate this virus. The only virus that we have ever eradicated in the history of the planet has been smallpox for humans.

    But we can get it under good enough control that it is so low that it doesn't interfere with the kind of normal life that we want to get the economy back, to get employment back.

    I do not think it is going to be 2024. I think it's going to be more like the end of 2021.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, everyone can certainly wish for the very best, but two other quick questions, Dr. Fauci.

    One is about Americans — an American passion, and that is for college football. Two major conferences, as you know, have said in the last few days that they are not going to play sports this season.

    The geographic — and we know that other conferences seem to be ready to go ahead. These decisions don't seem to match what's going on in these different geographic regions of the country.

    But my question to you is, what advice do you have for the men and women who are making these decisions? Is it safe to play these sports in college, or not?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Well, you know, when you have contact sports like that, obviously, there's an issue, the possibility of transmitting.

    I don't want to be a gatekeeper for anybody, but my advice to the authorities who make those decisions is that, if you are going to have these student athletes play, make sure that you have in your system everything possible to safeguard the health, the welfare and the well-being of these individuals, not only the players, but the staff.

    And if you are in a situation where you can get a high probability that you are going to get into trouble, then I think you should pause and see maybe you want to modify your plans, modifying by delaying or whatever it is.

    It is certainly not up to me, but the fundamental public health principles are very, very clear that you want to safeguard their health. If you can't do that, then you should reconsider whether you want to have a season or not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Dr. Fauci, we are entering the thick of the presidential campaign, the election season.

    Both sides, we know, need to address this pandemic, how it's being managed. We know how politicized, how polarized the country is right now, how polarized the rhetoric is.

    How concerned are you that, in some way, the management of this, the progress of this pandemic could be set back by the fact that it's being talked about in a political way this season?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, I mean, obviously, anyone who doesn't realize we're in a divisive society is not paying attention, Judy. We are. It's a fact of life.

    But I can tell you, from a scientific standpoint, for the things that I and my colleagues at the NIH do, that that will not, under any circumstances, be influenced by any political considerations.

    We have assurances from our colleagues at the FDA that they feel exactly the way we do about science will decide the policy and the decisions, despite the fact that we are in a divisive society and that we are in an election year.

    So, I can give you my word that, when it comes to the science, that will not be influenced by any political considerations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I know a lot of people will be reassured to hear that.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, we thank you very much.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Thank you, Judy. It's always good to be with you.

    Thank you for having me.

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