Ready. Set. Keep going. The race is still on to vaccinate Americans as Covid-19 variants crop up and a long summer in the U.S. looms.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Shutting down conspiracy theories with aplomb while offering his characteristically blunt assessment of the challenges that still lay in the global war against Covid-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci told members of a Senate health committee that the key lies in greater vaccination rates.
So far, more than 260 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the U.S., with just over 115 million Americans now fully vaccinated, meaning they received either both doses of the Pfizer and Moderna regimens or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson immunization.
That puts the overall percentage of Americans currently vaccinated close to 35%, a figure that President Joe Biden aims to quickly double, with 70% of all Americans with at least one dose of vaccine by the Fourth of July.
“We believe that is an attainable goal. It’s important because we’re about at that turning point where we get to a certain percentage — we don’t know what that is — but we will see a sharp turning point and a marked diminution in cases,” said Fauci, who is director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease. “We are in a race between the vaccine and the virus, which if left to its own devices will continue to surge.”
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer’s vaccine for use in children 12 to 15.
Peter Marks, one of several senior health officials appearing Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, said his confidence was high in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy for the younger demographic because of what clinical trials bore out.
Just over 2,000 teens between 12 and 15 were in the Pfizer clinical tests. Half received the vaccine, and the other half received a saline placebo.
Where side effects — fatigue, body ache, brain fog and fever — were present in the younger group just like it was in those 16 and over, it was the overarching effectiveness and short-lived nature of the side effects that buoyed the FDA’s approval for youths.
Of the 1,005 adolescents who received the vaccine in Pfizer’s trial, there was not a single case of Covid-19. Among the 978 subjects who received the placebo, there were 16 cases.
“Thus, indicating the vaccine was completely effective in preventing Covid-19 in the trial that was symptomatic. Parents can rest assured there has been a thorough review of this data,” Marks, who is director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, told senators.
Echoing that testimony, Rachelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged parents to feel comfortable scheduling their child for a vaccine.
“I recognize some parents want to see how it goes, but I am encouraging all children to be vaccinated. And I am also encouraging children to ask for the vaccine,” she said. “I have a 16-year-old, and I can tell you he wanted to get the vaccine. He wants his life back.”
Fauci was also keen to highlight that the “real-world effectiveness” of vaccinations are often more impressive than the results of clinical trials.
At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, for example, 59% of the 23,000 health care employees there were given a first dose of vaccine, and about 30% of the remaining staff received the full two doses.
In 31 days, infection rates among staff who were fully vaccinated was just 0.05%.
Similar results occurred in Israel where robust vaccinations were administered. The same net positives occurred in Qatar, too, Fauci said.
According to a study published May 5 by the New England Medical Journal, while Qatar was in the midst of its second and third acute outbreaks — and still scaling up its use of the Pfizer — variants emerged at a rapid clip.
But Pfizer’s vaccine kept the spread of infection down amid the variant spread. And critically, Fauci noted Tuesday, it helped bring deaths and hospitalizations down.
Beating mutated strains of Covid-19 to the punch means more vaccines must keep going into arms now and steadily in the weeks ahead. And not just in America, but around the world.
The dire situation in India may seem far from American shores to some, but a lack of vigilance now could bring that nightmare or some variation of it ashore, Fauci argued.
In India, the virus caused a miasma of sickness and death after the nation lifted virus restrictions when its numbers first began to decline.
On Monday, the World Health Organization deemed a Covid-19 strain presently surging through India known as B.1.617, a “variant of concern” since it appears more resistant to antibodies and transmits easier.
There are at least 10 variants of the virus worldwide.
The U.S. has said it will send 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine to India by July 4. As of Tuesday, India officials have reported nearly 330,000 new infections sprung up in the last few days and the weekend racked up 3,800 deaths. Fauci and other experts have suggested those figures are likely lagging behind the real numbers.
A key lesson has been learned in the fallout, however, he added.
“This is a global pandemic that requires a global response, and we need to pay attention to the responsibilities we have,” Fauci said.
The U.S. must work cooperatively with other nations to ensure there is access to vaccines throughout the world. If not, it risks becoming stuck in the pandemic’s throes.
America has sent about 2 million doses of AstraZeneca to Mexico and roughly 1.5 million doses of the company’s vaccine to Canada. It has not yet set vaccines to India.
David Kessler, chief science officer for the Health and Human Services Department, said there were still some concerns around the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were under review by the FDA. Once those issues are resolved, the vaccines will flow.
“This is a once-in-a-century pandemic,” Kessler said.
The Biden administration is currently weighing whether to issue a waiver of intellectual property rights for the technology used to develop the vaccine in order to boost immunity.
Pfizer, and many other companies and U.S. officials have expressed reluctance, arguing that a waiver on intellectual property protections would result in companies with “little experience in manufacturing vaccines” chasing raw materials Pfizer needs to scale up its own production.
There is also concern in Washington that China would take the data and blow up the competitive market for U.S. vaccine manufacturing.
“Intellectual property is part of the reason we have these vaccines,” Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina said Tuesday. “If the [IP rights] are not in place, we won’t have them for the next pandemic, it’s that simple.
Reuters reported on May 8 that Biden administration officials have indicated forthcoming talks with the World Trade Organization could resolve IP concerns the U.S. has with China and with Russia, too.
Since Fauci has begun regularly testifying about the pandemic to senators, Senator Rand Paul has habitually challenged the immunologist, frequently offering conspiracy theories on the virus’s origin or its deadly nature.
Tuesday was no different, with the Kentucky Republican spending several minutes on the unverified claim that Fauci, as leader of the National Institutes of Health, had the agency fund research that created the virus.
The theory began on the conservative site WorldNetDaily and was later cited by a Fox News commentator.
While NIH did fund projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China — where Rand and others claim without evidence the virus originated — there is no proof the virus was manmade.
NIH’s funding to the institute was for a five-year study that began in 2014 and reviewed how various coronaviruses jump from species to species.
It did not include any research on “gain of function,” or the process of enhancing a virus transmission rate by manipulating the virus itself, Fauci explained.
Fauci went on to tell Paul he was “entirely incorrect” after stating no less than three times that Fauci supported gain-of-function research.
“The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in that institute,” Fauci said. “I fully agree you should investigate where the virus came from, but again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Digging into the apprehension around vaccinations — which a recent Census Bureau study showed was most predominant among whites — officials told lawmakers that a big contributor is the confusion stirred up from the sharing of misinformation or the more insidious disinformation.
Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota asked Fauci what he made of the impact of conspiracy theories “peddled by Paul and others” on America’s willingness to get their shot.
“Conspiracy theories certainly are not helpful in what we’re trying to do, I can say that with some degree of confidence,” Fauci said.
While administration officials testified in the Senate, the White House announced a program it hopes will get vaccinations flowing even faster.
The White House said Tuesday Uber and Lyft have agreed to offer free rides to and from vaccine centers May 24 through July 4. No federal dollars are being spent to launch the program.
The Biden administration also announced Tuesday that it has partnered with community colleges dotting the nation to run vaccine campaigns on campus.