James S. Brady Press Briefing Room Washington D.C. January 21 4:03 P.M. EST
Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today. Many familiar faces from yesterday back again. We are pleased to have Dr. Fauci here with us as part of the President's commitment to have public health experts lead our communication with the American people about the pandemic.
Just to give you a bit of a run of show here: Dr. Fauci will speak at the top about the state of the pandemic, the status of vaccines. He'll take some of your questions. I will play the role of the bad cop when it's time for him to go and get to the work of the American people. And then I will do a topper, and I'll answer a bunch of your questions as well.
So, there's lots to come after this. With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Fauci.
Thank you very much. And I'm going to just spend a couple of minutes just summarizing the status of where we are and then maybe addressing some of the things that I know are on people's minds.
So, first of all, obviously we are still in a very serious situation. I mean, to have over 400,000 deaths is something that, you know, is, unfortunately, historic in the very — in the very bad sense. When you look at the number of new infections that we have, it's still at a very, very high rate. Hospitalizations are up. There are certain areas of the country, as I think you're all familiar with, which are really stressed from the standpoint of beds, from the standpoint of the stress on the healthcare system.
However, when you look more recently at the seven-day average of cases — remember, we were going between 300,000 and 400,000, and 200,000 and 300,000. Right now, it looks like it might actually be plateauing in the sense of turning around.
Now, there's good news in that, but you have to be careful that we may not be seeing perhaps an artifact — an artifact of the slowing down following the holidays. So when we see that, we think it's real.
But one of the things — and it's interesting — I'm, sort of, getting a deja vu standing up here, because I said something like this almost a little bit less than a year ago, when we were talking about the acceleration of cases in the late winter/early spring of 2020, when we were having New York City metropolitan area being the epicenter of what was going on — that there are always lags, so please be aware of that; that when you have cases, and then a couple of weeks later, you'll see it represented in hospitalizations, intensive care, and then a couple of weeks later, in deaths.
So you have almost paradoxical curves, where you see something plateauing and may be coming down at the same time as hospitalizations and deaths might actually be going up.
So this is something that I just put on your radar screen. It is not an unusual thing to see that sort of thing.
The other point I want to make is one that we're getting asked a lot regarding questions, and that is: What is it about these mutants that you're hearing about — the mutants in the UK, which we know are in about 20-plus states; the mutants that we're seeing in South Africa and in Brazil?
First of all, we need to understand that RNA viruses, like coronaviruses, mutate all the time. Most of the mutations don't have any physiological relevance with regard to the function of the virus itself. However, every once in a while, you get mutations, either singly or clustered in combinations, which do have an impact.
So what have we learned thus far? And I want to emphasize "thus far" because we're paying very, very careful attention to this, and we take it very seriously. At least from the experience that our colleagues in the UK have had, the one that is in the UK appears to have a greater degree of transmissibility — about twice as much as what we call the "wild type" original virus. The one that is in South Africa is a bit different, and I'll get to that in a second.
So it does look like it increases the transmissibility. They say, correctly, on a one-to-one basis, it doesn't seem to make the virus more virulent or have a greater chance of making you seriously ill or killing you. However, we shouldn't be lulled into complacency about that, because if you have a virus that is more transmissible, you're going to get more cases. When you get more cases, you're going to get more hospitalizations. And when you get more hospitalizations, you're ultimately going to get more deaths. So even though the virus, on a one-to-one basis, isn't more serious, the phenomenon of a more transmissible virus is something that you take seriously.
The next thing is: Does it change enough to interfere with the efficacy of a whole group of monoclonal antibodies that many of you are aware of? The monoclonal antibodies that are being used for treatment, in some cases, and prevention. Since monoclonal antibodies bind to a very specific part of the virus, when there's a mutation there, it has much greater chance of obliterating the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody. And we're seeing in the much more concerning mutations that are in South Africa — and in some respects, Brazil, which is similar to South Africa — that it is having an effect on the monoclonal antibodies.
The real question that people are quite clearly interested in is: What is the impact on the vaccine? And, so far, literally, we have this new phenomenon that a preprint journals, where — where people get data, and they put it into a preprint server where it hasn't yet been peer reviewed, but you have to pay attention to it because it gives you good information quickly. Ultimately, it gets confirmed.
And we're seeing them coming out over the last few days, and what they're saying is that what we likely will be seeing is a diminution — more South Africa than UK — UK — is that diminution in what would be the efficacy of the vaccine-induced antibodies.
Now, that does not mean that the vaccines will not be effective, and let me explain why. There's a thing called a "cushion effect." So, if you have a vaccine, like the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine, that can suppress the virus at a dilution, let's say, of 1 to 1,000, and the mutant influences it by bringing it down to maybe 1 to 800, or something like that, you're still well above the line of not being effective. So there's that "cushion" that even though it's diminished somewhat, it still is effective. That's what we're seeing, both certainly with the UK, which is very minimal effect. We're following very carefully the one in South Africa, which is a little bit more concerning, but nonetheless, not something that we don't think that we can handle.
What is the message? Because someone can say, "Now, wait a minute — if you have the possibility that the vaccines are diminishing in their impact, why are we vaccinating people?" No. It is all the more reason why we should be vaccinating as many people as you possibly can. Because as long as the virus is out there replicating — viruses don't mutate unless they replicate. And if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you could actually avoid this deleterious effect that you might get from the mutations.
Bottom line: We're paying very close attention to it. There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine. That is not something that is a very onerous thing. We can do that given the platforms we have. But right now, from the reports we have — literally, as of today — it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them, with the caveat in mind you want to pay close attention to it.
So, Jen, why don't I just stop there and then maybe just answer some questions on anything else that I said?
How helpful would it have been if Amazon got involved with the federal response to COVID-19 before Biden took office? And do you know about any plans or discussions ahead of yesterday?
No, I don't think I could answer that question. I'd be waving my hands about that. Sorry.
But, you know, one of the new things in this administration is: If you don't have the answer, don't guess; just say you don't know the answer
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