WASHINGTON — The past 16+ months have been a rollercoaster, and the pandemic is far from over. Through it all, the Verify team has been devoted to debunking medical misinformation and bringing your questions directly to the experts on the frontlines.
In an exclusive, one-on-one interview the Verify team sat down with the nation's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to talk masks, booster shots and more.
Watch the full interview below:
Below is a condensed version of that conversation:
Q: Why did the CDC update its recommendations saying that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in many places where there are high transmission rates and that kids K-12 should wear masks in schools?
A: "Well, the change was made because the virus changed...number one, [the Delta variant] transmits considerably more efficiently from person to person, so it spreads more readily. Number two, when you do get infected with it in your upper airway, there's about 1000 times more virus than with the original Alpha variant."
"The main reason for the change is that it became demonstrated that in the unusual event, if you are vaccinated and you get a breakthrough infection... back with the Alpha variant, the level of the virus was so low, that if you were vaccinated and had a breakthrough infection, it was very unlikely you would transmit it to anybody. Whereas with the Delta variant, if you are vaccinated and you do get a breakthrough infection, it has been well documented that you are capable of transmitting it, even though you are vaccinated."
Q: What are the rates of breakthrough infections?
A: "Well, the one thing that people need to realize is that no vaccine at all, is 100% effective...You know, I don't think it's necessarily going to be any more than what we've seen, maybe a few percentage points down."
"But the thing is, the more people you get vaccinated...if you have a 10% or a 13% breakthrough, that's going to be a lot of people that you're going to recognize and you're going to scratch your head and say, 'well, is there a lot more breakthrough infections?' Well, the answer is yes, because there are a lot more vaccinated people. That's the issue. The denominator is much larger."
Q: It's been said that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Is it true that it's mostly those who are unvaccinated getting sick?
A: "Is it a pandemic of the unvaccinated and are those the ones that are going to get into serious trouble? There's a very striking statistic that I think people should pay attention to. Of all of the COVID deaths in the United States, 99.5% of them were among unvaccinated people, and only 0.5% were among that vaccinated people...so if you're unvaccinated, you are at risk of a severe outcome. If you are vaccinated, even if you have the unusual event of getting infected, it is extremely unlikely that you're going to get a severe disease."
Q: What is the latest on whether booster shots will be needed for the general population and for immunocompromised individuals?
A: "If you look at the level of protection after a certain period of time, it doesn't look like we need to do boosters for [the general population] now. We're doing studies that are following both their level of breakthrough infections and the laboratory correlate of protection to see if it diminishes over a period of time. And after X number of months, whenever that may be, there may be an indication that you might want to give, generally, to people a booster. We're not there yet."
"With the immunocompromised, it's a different story... they very likely had a poor response right from the beginning. So it isn't as if their response is coming down to a low level, their response was always a low level. So there's going to be much more activity and much more enthusiasm in giving a booster dose to those individuals before you give it to the general population. All of these things are being very actively studied right now."
Q: The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs has mandated vaccines. Do you believe that other federal agencies should follow suit?
A: "I think on an agency-by-agency basis, they should consider that. I think things are going to be different depending upon the individual agency, but I think under certain circumstances, it would make sense to say that if you want to be participating in the activities of an agency, you either need to get vaccinated or get frequently tested. That's one of the things that's under consideration right now."
Q: How do you feel about having taken on such a public presence? How concerned are you about the death threats you receive and what does it say about the times we're living in?
A: "I think it's triggered by what has been a situation where I have been vilified by the far right. The reasons for that, you know, not sure. I was, during the Trump administration, had to speak up against some things that were just not true. I never had a personal situation where I would say things bad or deleterious or punitive about the President, himself. I never said anything derogatory, but I did have to make corrections about things that were said, that were just not true. Like, 'this outbreak is going to disappear,' 'it's going to go away,' 'it's not very serious.'
"And I think that really got a degree of hostility against me on the part of people on the very extreme right. And that's what I think we're seeing now. When you get that amount of hostility, and I get vilified, then you get some crazy people who go to the extreme and start making death threats against you like that individual that was recently arrested."
Q: What role has misinformation played in the spread of the pandemic?
A: "Well, the enemy of public health is disinformation. I mean, in order to really mount a very adequate and successful response against a global pandemic and one that has been so devastating to our own country, you have to have correct information that's scientifically sound. And when you disseminate disinformation or misinformation, it does nothing but end in a serious outcome of making the matter worse. And there's no doubt that that's what has happened with disinformation."
Q: When would you say we might get back to normal, pre-pandemic life?
A: "That is in our own hands, and it's going to depend on when we get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated. We have in this country, now, about 100 million people who are eligible to be vaccinated, who are not getting vaccinated. We have to get those people vaccinated."
"When we do, then we could put this terrible ordeal behind us. But as long as we have that many people unvaccinated, it's going to be very difficult to return to what we consider normal."