‘Historic, unprecedented achievement’: Fauci on vaccines and a return to normal

With the first coronavirus vaccines being administered across the U.S., the nation’s leading infectious disease expert says we could see a return to something resembling normal life next year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said he’s proud to see that just months into the pandemic, an effective vaccine has begun shipping.

“That is a historic, unprecedented achievement,” Fauci said during an online chat hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Fauci hopes to know by the second quarter of 2021 if the nation has a veil of immunity due to the vaccine. And by the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, he hopes to find out if the vaccines will be a one-time thing, or if booster shots will be needed down the road.

When it comes to scaling back health restrictions, Fauci said he believes a clearer picture of that will emerge as widespread vaccinations take place.

“We will know when we see the level of infection in the country at a dramatically lower level than it is right now,” Fauci said.

Since Dec. 8, the U.S. has consistently seen the number of daily new cases remain above 200,000. Fauci said a drop in those numbers will guide the decision-making process, because fewer cases gives the virus less opportunity to spread.

“If we get that down to less than 10,000 a day, to 4,000, 3,000, then we’ll be in a very good place,” Fauci said.

The scaling back of restrictions would be gradual and not immediate, he said.

J. Stephen Morrison — the director of the Global Health Policy Center and the moderator of the discussion — asked Fauci if, by next fall, most people could be back in classrooms, eating in restaurants and traveling on planes.

It’s possible, Fauci said.

“If we get 75, 80% of the population vaccinated, I think that’s imminently doable,” Fauci said.

Fauci said he would like to see more rapid testing, which can be done at home without a prescription. That, he said, will help health officials screen specific populations, such as at schools and nursing homes. It’s also important, he said, because that method of testing will detect more asymptomatic people.

“You could get a good feel for what the level of infection is and act when you do identify an infection,” Fauci said.

He hopes the country will use the lessons learned during the pandemic to better prepare for any possible future pandemics. During the 1918 flu, he said, there was denial from some states and cities that a problem existed — similar to the pushback against current restrictions.

“That was 102 years ago, and it’s sort of almost repeating itself now in 2020, so hope we don’t have that kind of forgetfulness after this,“ Fauci said.

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