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.