Why the fight against COVID appears to have stalled in the U.S.

The CDC on Monday formally confirmed that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have surpassed 1 million. That's roughly the American death toll in the Civil War and World War II combined. It’s the highest reported death toll of any country, and comes as cases are again on the rise. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We knew the day was coming, and now it's arrived.

    The United States has now recorded more than one million COVID deaths. It is the highest reported death toll of any country. And this terrible, largely preventable milestone comes as cases are once again on the rise.

    William Brangham has more.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the country is mourning these deaths right as new, even more highly transmissible Omicron variants emerge.

    As a result, cases in the U.S. have climbed 60 percent in two weeks, and hospitalizations are up 24 percent. For a deeper look at all of their and where this is heading, I'm joined again by Dr. Eric Topol. He's the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

    Dr. Topol, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    So the country is trying to find a way to reckon with this one million deaths, and yet these new variants are showing up. It's clearly that this virus is not done with us yet. When you look out at the pandemic today, what is it that most concerns you?

  • Dr. Eric Topol, Scripps Research Translational Institute:

    Well, Bill, good to be with you.

    The problem we have is this illusion or deception that the pandemic is over, when, in fact, these variants that we're seeing are coming at a much faster clip. There's an accelerated evolution of the virus. And these are more troubling variants. They're not more mild.

    In fact, they have more immune escape. So they're transmitting at levels that is really inconceivable and starting to approach the level of measles, one of the most spreadable pathogens we have ever encountered.

    So we have trouble right now. As you mentioned, we are seeing at least 600,000, 700,000 real cases a day, and, likely, it's going to continue to increase in this country as we confront this so-called BA.2.12.1 variant, one of the several of the Omicron family.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned immune escape.

    And for people who are not familiar with this, you're talking about the ability of these newly mutated, newly evolving strains to punch past our protections, to evade our vaccination. Is that right?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Exactly.

    So, William, this is basically, our immune system doesn't see them doesn't see the virus as it saw previous versions of the virus, because there's so much distance or the protein is — basically looks different to our body. So it fakes us out.

    And that's why people had Omicron, which is about 40 to 50 percent of Americans back in January and February, that'd BA.1 variant, the new one that's now rising to levels of dominance in this country, already in the New England region, but also, of course, will be throughout the country, we can have reinfections, because they're so different.

    That is, we don't see — those who've been infected with the BA.1 don't see this new, problematic version of — in the Omicron family.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, one of the things we have always been consoled with, which is, if you have been vaccinated and boosted, and even if you got a BA.1, an original Omicron infection, you are very protected. You might have a breakthrough infection, but you are not going to end up in the hospital and you are certainly not going to end up dying.

    Do those new strains, these new strains change that calculus?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Yeah, so we have counted on our vaccines that gives us this 90, 95 percent protection from severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths. But that's slipping now.

    And we're in a denial state that it's now down to 85, 80 percent. That's actually a big drop, because the gap is, instead of 5 percent, we're talking about fourfold more people who might go on and get severe disease, even being vaccinated with one or two boosters.

    This is what is a real problem that we're not confronting right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand something here, because there seems to be a real disconnect.

    All of the things that you're reporting would be alarming to most people who have been paying attention to this epidemic now. But you look at the CDC's map, it shows the country where there's a few hot spots, the orange up in New York and some yellow up in Minnesota and Michigan, but the rest of the country looks green, as if it — there isn't a problem with this virus.

    What is the disconnect there?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Well, I have called it a capitulation.

    That is, the CDC is — frankly, it's a deception, that the level of the virus is low, when the transmission is incredibly high. I mean, it's starting to approach that of what we saw with the Omicron wave. And it's continued — it's rising quickly.

    So this is really irresponsible of the CDC to give us this impression that things are copacetic, when they couldn't be — that couldn't be further from the truth, William.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's just say that this continues to worsen, and public officials start to say, we need to reintroduce precautions, as we saw New York City today recommending masks indoors again.

    Do you think, broadly speaking, that the country will listen? I mean, everywhere I travel around the country, it seems like people are — they're done with this. They don't want to think about it anymore. They are ready for this to be in the rearview mirror.

    If public health officials say it's time to tighten down precautions again, will people listen?

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Well, that's a problem. I think it's very hard to go backwards.

    I mean, our thinking is going backwards, but our actions, we're not doing the things that we could do, the innovations that we need to get ahead of the virus, I mean, the things — not just the mask and the physical distancing sort of thing that you're alluding to, but the things like having nasal vaccines and a pan-betacoronavirus vaccine, and much better medications beyond what we have today.

    Those things are imperative. And part of this capitulation is that we have basically hand-waving, oh, we're done, we don't want to put any further investments or funds or support. And this is a crucial time right now, because we — it's not going to get better.

    In fact, it's at a very serious state right now. And we are — have too many paths for trouble in the times ahead as well.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as we have seen, certainly, Congress is deadlocked on this whole issue of COVID funding.

    Dr. Eric Topol from Scripps Research, always good to see you. Thank you.

  • Dr. Eric Topol:

    Thank you. I wish I had a brighter message to convey.

    Thank you.

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