Fauci remains optimistic about near-end to pandemic in 2021

Dr. Fauci Speaks on COVID
Dr. Anthony Fauci maintains an optimistic outlook at the possibility of returning to some sense of normalcy in fall of 2021. (Noel St. John)

By Liam Bohen-Meissner

Dr. Anthony Fauci remains cautiously optimistic about the prospect of ending the pandemic and returning to some level of normalcy within the year.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke on positive vaccine efficacy and the merits of double masking at a Q&A Jan. 29 at the New York Press Club.

Recent data from the latest Novavax and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines indicate high levels of efficacy in preventing severe illness from COVID-19. Although each had less success against new variants from Brazil and South Africa, Fauci said he is not too concerned.

“Overall, it was about 85% effective, and there were no hospitalizations or deaths in the individuals who were vaccinated, which is very good news,” Fauci said, referring to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The new vaccines will add substantially to the flow of U.S. vaccines provided by Pfizer and Moderna.

Fauci emphasized the current goal of the vaccines is to prevent severe illness and hospitalizations, which is exactly what these vaccines are doing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 43.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered across the United States as of Feb. 9.

Vaccine Infographic
Each potential vaccine candidate and their efficacy rates.

If Johnson & Johnson is granted emergency use authorization soon, it could have close to 10 million doses available in the next few weeks, according to an unnamed federal health official cited by CNN. Fauci also stated the company is under contract with the federal government to produce 100 million doses by June. As it is a single-dose vaccine, 100 million people could be fully vaccinated.

Moderna and Pfizer are also working on a booster shot to ensure protection against the new mutations as well. But when asked what mutation most worried him, Fauci’s answer provided relief.

“The one that hasn’t happened yet,” Fauci said. “So what we have to do when you ask me what keeps me up at night is having a situation where we have a mutant that really escapes everything. I don’t think that’s the case because our technology is such that you could always make a vaccine pretty quickly with this advanced technology, that you could address a given mutant.”

Locally, Ikenga Ogbo, director of Evanston’s Health and Human Services Department, said the city has not detected any cases of mutant strains. However, if and when they do, they will be prepared.

“We work closely with IDPH [Illinois Department of Public Health], and we will be following the guidance that they will provide in regard to the variants,” he said. “It is not something that we have responded to, but our response will be definitely similar to our response to COVID if we ever get a case here.”

Despite the adequacy of vaccine technology, vaccine rollout nationwide has been slower than initially planned, according to an analysis by Axios. States do not have the resources to streamline vaccine distribution. Shortages and inefficiencies may be leading to prioritizing specific groups within phases. Chicago’s vaccination plan seeks to prioritize certain groups within Phase 1b vaccinations earmarked for people over 65 and essential workers. Illinois has 3.2 million residents in the 1b category, but the state’s current rolling average for vaccines administered is about 52,650 per day, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Phase 1b also is supposed to include residents and staff of homeless shelters.

But Fauci remains optimistic about the future of distribution.

“As the weeks and months go by, we’ll get more vaccine[s],” he said. “The more and more we get, the more we’ll put into people. And hopefully we’ll continue with the president’s goal and projection of 100 million doses in 100 days.”

If the U.S. was able to get 70% to 80% of the population vaccinated, he said, then it is likely that the country would be able to return to some degree of normalcy by early to late fall of 2021.

Liam Bohen-Meissner is a health and politics reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @lbmeissner.