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Shipments of the new Moderna vaccine began arriving Monday in the U.S., with more than 6 million doses expected by the end of the week. But that news was almost overshadowed by fears of a mutation in the coronavirus, which has led to lockdowns and closed borders in Europe. Judy Woodruff spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss.
Shipments of the new Moderna vaccine began arriving around the United States today. Nearly six million doses are expected at more than 3,500 locations by the end of the week.
Across the Atlantic, the European Union approved for use the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech. But that news was all but overshadowed by fears of a possible mutation of the coronavirus. The change does not seem to make the virus more resistant to a vaccine, but some researchers believe that it allows it to spread far more easily.
Train stations were jammed as people tried to get out of London before a lockdown. And over 30 countries banned travel and flights from the U.K. The U.S. has not banned such travel yet.
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo asked why.
Gov. Andrew Cumo, N.Y.:
It's serious, my friends. And we are on notice about it. Why don't we act intelligently for a change? Why don't we mandate testing before people get on a flight or halt the flights from the U.K. now? Many other countries have done this.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom reported today that there are no available intensive care beds in many parts of the state. There have been half-a-million new cases in the state in the last two weeks.
For his part, president-elect Biden got his vaccination on live TV today to help persuade the American people of its safety.
All of this comes as a CDC advisory committee is recommending that front-line essential workers should get the next wave of vaccinations. That would include police, firefighters, teachers, and grocery workers. The committee also recommended that people 75 and older should get the vaccine in the next phase as well.
We're going to focus on some of this news with Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And he's a member of the White House's Coronavirus Task Force.
Welcome back to the "NewsHour," Dr. Fauci.
Let me ask you first about this mutation that is getting so much attention. How much — it has come out of England. How concerned should people be, and is there something that can be done to stop it?
Well, first of all, it is something you want to keep an eye out on. You don't want to just blow it off, certainly not.
You have to understand, though, Judy, that this coronavirus is an RNA virus. That's the makeup, the genetic makeup. And these types of viruses tend to mutate a lot. Most of the mutations have no function or relevance. This one has a suggestion that it might allow the virus to spread more readily.
We're still seeking out evidence to prove or disapprove that. But let's make an assumption that it is, in fact, making the virus more transmissible, even though it hasn't been proven yet.
It doesn't seem at all to have any impact on the virulence or what we call the deadliness of the virus. It doesn't make people more sick. And it doesn't seem to have any impact on the protective nature of the vaccines that we're currently using.
So, it's something you take seriously, you keep your eye out on it, and you do tests to determine if there is more functional relevance than we seem to believe that there is.
So, it is believed that the current vaccines protect against it?
And we assume it's in the United States now?
You know, you have to make that assumption, Judy.
When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the U.K. — there are also mutations that we're seeing in South Africa — and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it is already here. When we start to look for it, we're going to find it.
Certainly, it is not yet the prevalent one, the way it seems to have assumed that prevalent nature in the U.K. But we're going to be looking for it right now, and I'm sure, sooner or later, we're going to run into it and find it.
Do you think a travel ban from the U.K. is a good idea?
It might be premature to do that, Judy.
I don't think that that kind of a draconian approach is necessary. I think we should seriously consider the possibility of requiring testing of people before they come from the U.K. here. But I don't think that there is enough evidence right now to essentially lock down any travel from the U.K., but seriously to consider the possibility that you might want to require people who are coming here to be tested within a period of time, you know, 24, 34, or 76 hours before they get on a plane to come to the United States.
Dr. Fauci, I want to ask you now about the reports over the last few days from governors and others that the first shipments of the Pfizer vaccines were smaller, fewer doses than expected.
The HHS secretary, Azar, told me on the "NewsHour" last week that it was not the government's fault. However, over the weekend, the Army general in charge of operations for Operation Warp Speed did apologize. He said there had been a miscommunication with the states.
Bottom line, how do you think this happened?
You know, it happens, Judy.
Whenever you have the rollout of a big program like this, you're going to get some glitches. I don't know exactly the details of what happened in the states that were expecting more doses and did not get it.
But that's one of the things that happens when you're rolling out a brand-new program like this. I would expect that, as we get a few more weeks into the process, that you're going to see it running much more smoothly. That happens all the time. People get used to it, they get into a groove, and the distribution starts to go much more smoothly than it already has.
And, Dr. Fauci, with regard to the next vaccine, the Moderna vaccine we're going to see and even further Pfizer vaccine shipments, this panel advising the FDA — the CDC, rather, is recommending it be people 75 and over and then the front-line essential workers that we described a minute ago.
Does this sound like — we heard the chairman of this panel say this was about the hardest decision he's ever had to make in his career involved in this kind of work. Does this sound like the right kind of recommendation to you?
Yes, I believe so, Judy.
As you just mentioned appropriately, these are the kind of decisions that are not easy to make. But, first of all, they feel that, if you look at the deaths, the percentage of deaths that we get from COVID-19, it is very heavily weighted towards the elderly. That was the reason to get individuals of a certain age, 75 and older, to be there.
But you also want to make sure the infrastructure of society, the essential workers that make things run in a normal functioning society, that you want to keep them protected, because you don't want a breakdown of that normal function.
So, I think a balance between the elderly individuals and those who have what's called essential jobs in society, at the end of the day, was the right choice. So, I agree with that.
And, Dr. Fauci, I'm jumping around a little bit, because there is so much I want to ask you about.
But there's a congressional committee day that issued a report saying they have significant findings of instances where the White House, the Trump administration exerted political pressure on science, on people making scientific decisions at the CDC, at the FDA, at HHS.
Do you know of any instance where political — where decisions were made for political reasons, either that recommendations were altered or that they were done away with because of pressure from the White House?
Well, I think what you're talking about, Judy, is issues related to the CDC and what goes into or out of their scientific publication, which is a very honored publication, "The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report."
There was a person at HHS who was actually trying to influence what was said in there. That person is no longer there. The person has been removed, and that now is not a problem.
And that's the only instance that you're aware of?
Yes, to my knowledge, yes.
I think that individual person also tried to make some comment about what I should or should not say. But I completely blew that off and didn't pay any attention to him. But that person was trying to exert some influence on what went into "The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report."
But, appropriately, the department got rid of that person.
Dr. Fauci, back quickly to the vaccines.
As we know, president-elect Joe Biden had his vaccination today. It's been reported you're going to get a vaccination tomorrow. Is that true, number one?
Yes, it is true, Judy.
Yes, I will be vaccinated tomorrow morning, yes.
And do you think President Trump should get a vaccination? He hasn't had one yet, as far as we know.
You know, there is a reason for him not to, Judy, because he received a passive transfer of monoclonal antibody when he was sick.
And that makes the level of antibody very high in your body, which can interfere with the efficacy of a vaccine. So, it is recommended that, if you do receive a passive infusion of monoclonal antibody, that you don't get vaccinated for about 90 days. So, he is still within the limit of 90 days.
So, I think, sooner or later, he should ultimately get vaccinated, but the fact that he is not vaccinated now, I think, is not inappropriate. I think it goes along with the recommendations of when someone should be vaccinated.
And, Dr. Fauci, this is Christmas week, so I want to ask you. I think we had a conversation before Thanksgiving similar to this.
But what is your advice to Americans who are wishing so much they could be around family members right now, in terms of how they should be thinking about this? And I also saw that you wrote that, even inside the family, people should be wearing masks around older family members.
You know, Judy, this is a tough recommendation, because I am not recommending that we cancel Christmas. You know, someone was tweeting that around, saying I was trying to cancel the holidays. That's not the case at all.
But I think there is something we have to face. When you get into a holiday situation, where there's a lot of travel of people from different places, and you have a tendency to congregate indoors with larger numbers of people than you usually do — family and friends come over for dinners. You have sometimes the big Christmas dinners of 15, 20 people.
I'm just saying, be careful. Limit travel to the extent possible within the framework of your family. And try, when you have indoor settings, such as meals, that you do it with a limited number of people. You get family, maybe a few friends who you have confidence that they're being very careful, but not the 20-, 25-size dinners that you have sometimes with people that you have no connection with, just a friend of a friend.
You don't know where they have been, where they have come from, or what their exposure is. We're just asking. We're in the middle, Judy, of a significant surge. If you look at a map of the country, and you look at the numbers of places where there is an increase in cases, and just look at the numbers that we have now, we're averaging between 200 and 300 cases — 300,000 cases a day.
We have between 200 and 300 deaths per day. The hospitalizations are at 100,000-plus. California is in a very dire situation. As you heard, they're running out of ICU beds.
So, we are in a serious situation. And despite the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccines being rolled out through December, into January, February, and beyond, we still have to be careful, because there is a lot of virus out there.
That's all I'm recommending. Be careful during the Christmas holidays, and tone it down a bit. You don't have to cancel what you're doing, but tone it down a bit.
And, finally, Dr. Fauci, a personal question.
We understand you have a birthday coming up on Christmas Eve. You're going to be how many years young? And how do you plan to celebrate? And where are you going to be and what are you going to be doing on Christmas?
Well, I'm going to do what I recommend to the rest of the country.
You asked, though. I'm going to be 80 years old on Christmas Eve. I'm going to spend it at a quiet dinner with my wife. We will do what we did over Thanksgiving. I will Zoom in my three daughters, so we can have a chat and maybe share a glass of Prosecco with them. And then we will have a quiet dinner.
So, I'm going to practice what I have been preaching to the American public.
And into Christmas Day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, we thank you.
We thank you very much, and we wish you a safe holiday.
Thank you very much, Judy. Same to you and your family.
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