After a year of COVID-19, Fauci sees ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

Friday is the anniversary of the first COVID-19 case in the D.C. area, with a case cropping up in Maryland (with D.C. and Virginia both logging their first cases two days later).

It has been a year of lockdowns, sickness and death, and Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke with WTOP about what has been learned, the outlook for the country, vaccines, how the virus surprised him and more.

Asked what he wanted to make sure Americans knew about the state of the battle against the virus a year into it, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said, “I want them to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, particularly that we have multiple, highly efficacious vaccines.”

The most important recent development, of course, is the introduction of three COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Fauci said you should take any vaccine you can get.

“The important thing is to get yourself vaccinated and protected,” Fauci told WTOP. “Don’t wait to get into which one is better than the other; just get vaccinated as quickly as you possibly can. … Quite frankly, they’re safe vaccines.”

While some people worry about which one has the highest efficacy rating, they’ve all been shown to be close to 100% effective at preventing serious illness and death, which is the important thing. Fauci said all the vaccines are safe.

Fauci added that the number of vaccine doses available to people would be exploding soon: In addition to the introduction of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the federal government contracted for 100 million more doses apiece from both Pfizer and Moderna.

“So, right now, that totality, just with Moderna and Pfizer, is 600 million doses for 300 million people. That’s not even counting J&J, and the possibility of other vaccines coming online.”

That’s a lot of doses.

“We deliberately did that to have some redundancy, in case anything went wrong,” Fauci said. “And if it doesn’t, then you’ll have more than you need. And then we’ll decide what we want to do with that.”

Even with vaccines, Fauci cautioned that “Now is not the time to pull back on public health measures. It is entirely understandable — I feel it myself: You want to get back to some form of normality; that will come relatively soon. … But the better we do with suppressing the virus, the quicker we’ll get back to normal. What we don’t want to do is to prematurely jump the gun and throw aside all public health measures.”

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After a vaccine

Once you do get vaccinated, Fauci said, you should continue safe practices in order to protect other people — the vaccine may be keeping you from getting sick, but it’s believed you can still pass the virus on to other people. (More studies are being done to confirm that, he said.)

But if you want to have a gathering with a few people who have also been vaccinated, “You can feel comfortable getting together in the setting of a home — you know, a little reception, a little dinner or some social event, where you’re in the home.”

He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have official and more extensive guidance on that in a few days.

It’s not known yet, Fauci said, whether COVID-19 would be an annual event even with the vaccine, similar to the flu.

“First of all, you want to make sure you get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated,” and that will require communication about the vaccines to overcome hesitancy, Fauci said.

The other question is the number and strength of variants that are cropping up around the world. The best solution to the second problem, he said, is to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, “because viruses don’t mutate if they don’t replicate.”

A pandemic year

While the first cases in the region were a year ago, it was a few days after that that the major warning signs began.

There were “a lot of signs coming from China” early last year about the seriousness of the virus, Fauci said, “but it was difficult to figure out what was going on because they shut down completely” and information was hard to get.

When it spread to Europe, it was easier to see the “destructiveness” of the virus. “I believe it was March 11, if I’m not mistaken, that it became clear that we were really in a lot of trouble,” Fauci said.

From there, the virus spread all over, and quickly.

“First, in the northeastern part of the country dominated by the New York metropolitan area; then, when we tried to open up the economy, namely open up certain parts of the country, we did not have good adherence to public health measures, and we had another big surge, mostly in the Southern states. Then it went to the heartland and went to the Northwest. And then we realized that there’s no part of the country that was safe.”

And the political climate didn’t help, he said, citing the resistance many people had to simple steps such as wearing masks — “some people calling it fake news and a hoax, when in fact, it’s killing a half a million people. … We have a common enemy; let’s all pull together against that common enemy instead of pushing against each other.”

Now that vaccines are here, some semblance of normal life is not that far off, Fauci said, and he added that he was more optimistic than most about when such a day would come.

‘It was a moving target’

As schools begin to reopen for in-person instruction, Fauci said he and a lot of experts were surprised to learn that the spread in schools isn’t as bad as feared, especially among younger children. He credits “the efforts on the part of the school systems, the teachers and the educational personnel, as well as the children — wearing masks and understanding the seriousness of that, and not congregating together in areas where they generally do.”

The vaccines and the practices in school bode well for fall, he said: “By the time we get to the fall, we hope that we’ll have a very large proportion of the population already vaccinated.”

As to what went wrong with the prediction about schools, Fauci said, “Well, it was a moving target; it isn’t as if we knew everything about transmissibility in the school,” especially in a time of high community spread.

‘Ya-ya land’

“In January (2020), when we first started working on the vaccine, and people asked me when I thought we would have a vaccine, I said it would be — I don’t know, somewhere between 12 and 18 months. People thought I was somewhere in ya-ya land thinking that you’re going to do that in less than several years. And as it turned out, it was even better than my prediction. We had virus vaccine into people’s arms in 11 months.”

He said that happened for a couple of reasons, one of them grim: “Not only the extraordinary nature of the scientific advances, but the fact that we had so much infection in the community, that we were able to get a result from the trial very quickly, as opposed to taking years of a smoldering disease to get an answer.”

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

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Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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