NIH director on the spread of the omicron variant amid the ongoing pandemic

Maryland, Nebraska and Pennsylvania are the latest states reporting cases of the new omicron variant in the U.S., while it has now spread to more than 40 nations worldwide. And the CDC director said Friday the omicron variant could become the dominant COVID strain in the U.S. this winter. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The CDC director said today that the Omicron variant could become the dominant COVID strain in the U.S. this winter. She also said that Delta remains a major problem.

    I sat down this afternoon with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, to talk about those concerns.

    Dr. Francis Collins, thank you very much for talking with us.

    Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health: Judy, I'm really glad to be here. And welcome to NIH. Glad you came out here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very glad to be here.

    As we sit here on December 3, COVID very much still with us. Is your greater concern at this moment the cases of the variant that are still out there, or Omicron, which is now arriving in this country?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Well, the one we know about is Delta. And Delta is still very much with us. Even though we have seen some decrease in the number of cases, it's still tens and tens of thousands every day.

    So, while Omicron, the sort of new variant we're all focused on, is a potential threat, Delta is a real threat now. We're still seeing 800, 900 people dying every day from this Delta outbreak. And, sadly, almost all of those are unvaccinated. So we have not gotten to the point where we could have been in this country of being better protected.

    But Omicron is clearly an interesting beast. This virus is throwing another trick at — in our direction. It's a wily virus. And it has now these 50-some mutations, almost 30 of which we haven't even seen in any previous version of SARS-CoV-2.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given all these questions — and President Biden was here at NIH yesterday. You were with him. He announced new initiatives, more at-home testing, making that easier, more vaccination sites.

    There still are no major steps. There's no shutdown. People can still travel freely in the United States. Are you concerned that enough precautions are being taken in this country?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    I think we're doing it about right, right now.

    Shutdowns are obviously draconian measures, and it's not clear that that much gets accomplished by those sorts of steps in communities, and there's obviously lots of consequences there for businesses, for schools. So I think the president's right to sort of take those off the table right now, but also to emphasize the things we can do.

    And he must be frustrated, because I know I am. We have so much evidence now, Judy, about we can do as a nation to try to fight off this pandemic, and yet there are still 60 million people who have yet to get their first vaccination dose. And a lot of people who got the initial immunization haven't yet gotten the booster, which we know will greatly improve your resistance to Delta and probably to Omicron as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I know you're saying we're still at least a week away from knowing more about Omicron.

    My colleague William Brangham on the "NewsHour" interviewed last night a doctor from the World Health Organization, who noted that 10 percent, she said, of the people in South Africa who've come down with Omicron have had to be hospitalized. Does that tell you anything?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    It's hard to make a whole lot of sense of that. I have seen those same numbers.

    I don't know whether those were people who were vaccinated or not. South Africa's vaccination rates are not as high as ours. So it may well be that those folks who are getting hospitalized are those who are totally unprotected. But we don't know that. I will have tomorrow an opportunity for a direct interaction with the leaders in South Africa, who have been incredibly willing to be transparent about all of this data.

    They may know a bit more by tomorrow about exactly what's happening, because they have 11,000 cases now of SARS-CoV-2. Probably most of those are Omicron because it spreads so quickly in their population. Americans in general want answers. I want answers. But we have just got to be sure they're right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the unvaccinated.

    And the doctor my colleague spoke with last night was saying, from the perspective of the WHO, the United States is putting too much emphasis on boosters. Her point was, it's all well and good, but there are still so many millions of Americans who don't even have the first shot, that that should be where the emphasis is, as well as around the world, rather than trying to get — worrying people about getting the second — especially the third shot.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Well, I don't think this has to be either/or. I think this has to be both/and.

    We have seen the data that, in fact, initial immunization with the mRNA vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna, it does wane over time. That's why the decision was made to offer boosters now to anybody over 18 to build that immunity back up.

    America is not, like, having a small problem with SARS-CoV-2. We're one of the country's hit hardest. I don't know how I could justify or anybody could saying, well, we're not going to offer boosters to our community, when we know people are actually in trouble here.

    So we have to do that. But we also have to think about the rest of the world. We have already shipped out 275 million doses. We will be over a billion in the next few months. We're doing that. But it doesn't make sense to say, well, then we can't do boosters.

    We have to do all of those things. We got to save lives. That's what this is about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A question about testing.

    The president announced, as we mentioned, yesterday they're going to try to make more at-home testing kits available. People would be reimbursed through insurance. I'm sure you're already hearing criticism about this, people saying this is complicated, it's burdensome, bureaucratic, and so forth, that the United States simply should just make these test kits either very low cost or even free.

    What about that?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Well, NIH has been very engaged in the testing effort.

    We have a program called RADx, Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics. Those tests that you see on the pharmacy shelves, we had a lot to do with the fact that those got developed, expanded and distributed.

    And so I'm right there in this space of thinking testing ought to be available to everybody. It's a tool that we haven't fully utilized.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking because, again, as you know, there's been criticism.

    President Biden spoke early on about the importance of testing, but here we are all these months later. It's not easy to get a test in this country. It should be easier.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    I think the fact that they are available now on the pharmacy shelves is a big step forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question. How long will COVID be with us, something that we have to think about every day?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Judy, I gave up trying to make predictions about exactly what the course of this pandemic was going to be.

    I don't know where it's going, but I do know we are not powerless to determine the outcome. It's not the government that's going to fix this. It's not some magic public health measure that we haven't thought of. It's all of us taking advantage of the tools we have got and being consistent about that.

    I know people are sick of this. I know they're probably sick of people like me saying, you should get your vaccine. But it's true. It's how we're going to get through this. If we had 90 percent of Americans fully vaccinated and boosted, we'd be in a very different place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Francis Collins, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Nice to be with you, Judy.

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