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Head of NIH urges Americans to take precautions while awaiting vaccine

Early results from Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates are very encouraging. But even if a successful vaccine is developed, challenges around production and distribution remain -- not to mention public trust and willingness to receive it. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the advances and how Americans can fight the pandemic now.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this leaves us with a number of questions about when vaccines could be available more widely to the public next year and the challenges that still exist.

    Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. He has been involved with all of this and the president's original task force on COVID. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Collins, thank you so much for joining us again.

    To pick up on Miles' reporting, how great is the risk still with these vaccines?

  • Francis Collins:

    You know, I think we're all feeling extremely encouraged by these extraordinary results, as far as the efficacy.

    And the safety has turned out for both Pfizer and for Moderna, the two that have now reported efficacy data, to look pretty good.

    There are certainly people like John Yang who have had side effects in terms of soreness or low-grade fever, but nothing severe. And so we're pretty optimistic that we're on a good path.

    But let me be clear. That means that this is good enough to be submitted to the FDA for an emergency use authorization. That will include a public session of their advisory committee, so everybody will get a chance to look at the data. And only then will FDA decide whether to issue this EUA.

    At that point, then, that will be the trigger to start distributing the roughly 40 million doses that will be potentially available in December from a combination of Pfizer and Moderna. But, keep in mind, this is a two-dose vaccine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Francis Collins:

    So, 40 million doses, 20 million people may potentially get immunized in December, if all these things go as well as we hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the FDA part of this, you see that moving pretty smoothly?

  • Francis Collins:

    Absolutely.

    The FDA career scientists are extremely experienced and hardworking. They are 24/7 going through all of the steps to make sure that what we have is just as safe and effective as the public expects.

    I know we're working against a little bit of public concern because of the speed with which this has been conducted. And even the name Warp Speed has caused some people to worry that corners are going to be cut. They are not. And to have done these trials with more than 30,000 participants and to have the data analyzed by an independent group, which is what happens here with this Data Safety Monitoring Board, and then to go to FDA, this is as rigorous as it gets anywhere in the world.

    And if this does come through with that kind of emergency use authorization, it will be because the data is really good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, Dr. Collins, as you know very well, we are seeing such a spike, such a surge in COVID in — across the United States right now.

    What is it, up — we're up a million cases just in the last week. It seems like just the other day we were at 200,000 deaths. Now we're at almost 250,000.

    Give us your read on where we are right now as a country dealing with COVID.

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, Judy, it's such a moment of dramatic contrasts, to have these encouraging results from vaccine trials, but to know that those are still months away for most of us.

    And to see, at the same time, this explosion of the pandemic across the country, not just in cities on the coast, but across the country and including in urban — in suburban, as well as rural areas, this is what we all feared might happen when cold weather came in.

    If there was ever a time for Americans to say, we can do something here to get through to the light at the end of the tunnel those vaccines president, but they're not here yet.

    So, wearing the mask, wearing the mask. This is not an invasion of your personal freedom. This is actually a lifesaving medical instrument. We have the data for that. With Thanksgiving coming and other holiday gatherings, I think we're all really concerned that this could get even worse if we don't follow those guidelines, those three W's.

    You know what they are, wear your mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands. We have got to do that. I can be thankful at Thanksgiving — and I will be — that we now have vaccines. And I can be thankful for those tens of thousands of people who volunteered for those trials.

    But I'd also like to be thankful that we Americans can sort of push the reset button on all of the public health issues that have not gone very well and make a decision for all of us to take those measures to do everything we can to save lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's clear you're concerned that the message hasn't gotten across to enough people. That's coming across.

    I do want to ask you, Dr. Collins, about a comment today from president-elect Biden. He called on President Trump to begin the transition process quickly.

    And I'm quoting him. He said, "More people may die" if we don't coordinate.

    Is he right about that?

  • Francis Collins:

    Well, goodness knows we need to have a clear plan going forward for testing, for putting forward more public health messages that people can completely adapt to. It is not a good time to be losing even a day in terms of organizing that effort.

    So, I understand where the president-elect is coming from. I hope we can very soon pull all of this together. As a member of the current White House task force, I think all of us would look forward to being able to take part in whatever it takes to get the public health messages properly convened and communicated.

    This is a moment where we have no time to lose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And if there's one message today for the American people, what would it be?

  • Francis Collins:

    The cavalry is coming. The vaccines are working. Biotechnology and this hard work of industry and academia and NIH has paid off in a dramatically rapid fashion, that we have never seen anything quite like it before. It usually takes eight years to get to this point.

    We did it in 11 months, and yet no corners were cut. So, be enthusiastic and be excited and be encouraged about that. But, still, we are also in a dark period here with this pandemic. It is up to all of us to further increase our attention to what we can do day by day. Just like wearing a seat belt, put on your mask. It's a way to save lives.

    We can all do a better job of this if we just hang in there for a few more months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coming through loud and clear.

    Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, thank you very much.

  • Francis Collins:

    Thanks, Judy. Glad to be with you.

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