It was a Zoom “standing room only” with an overflow to a Facebook live stream yesterday when Anthony Fauci. M.D., appeared as the first guest of the Yale Institute for Global Health’s new Global Health Conversation Series. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided a brief update on COVID-19 and then answered questions from the more than 1100 viewers.
“The tremendous positive response we received for this event is not only a testament to interest in what Dr. Fauci has to say, but also to the importance of science in this unique moment in time,” said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
Co-moderated by Omer and Robert Bazell, adjunct professor of molecular cellular and developmental biology, Dr. Fauci opened the event with his assessment of where we are with COVID-19. “We are in a very difficult time,” said Fauci. “We are not where I hoped we would be entering the colder months. We’re seeing the highest per day number of cases since the beginning of the outbreak.” He quoted numbers that predict further upticks of cases in more than 30 states throughout the winter months. However, he noted, it isn’t all bad news. “Things are looking quite positive with vaccines. The United States is supporting six candidates from a developmental or implemental standpoint and five are in phase three trials…and we hope to have a safe vaccine early next year.”
Fauci fielded audience questions ranging from division among the scientific community to vaccine compliance to his own personal safety. Many viewers asked his advice on when life would get back to normal – a question he says he is asked all the time. He believes there will be a gradual approach to some degree of normalcy, but it will depend on the public’s embracing the vaccine and continued use of public health measures currently in place. “We need to continue with masks, safe distancing, and the other public health measures that we are adhering to now for at least a year,” explained Fauci. “Approximately 70% of the population must take the vaccine but, to say once you get the vaccine, you’re going to be free to do whatever you want, that’s not going to happen, at least through 2021.”
He also said that even if there is a new administration, things will not change overnight because we have seen such a pushback of anti-science and anti-authority by people. “I am very disturbed by the intensity of divisiveness we are seeing…I have received serious threats to my life, there are federal agents guarding my office.” His advice on how we should communicate with others who may not share our opinions is to understand why there are segments in society that are so anti-science and try to engage them as opposed to being enemies of each other. He offered sage advice that has helped him through the decades, including, being consistent; admitting when do not know something; and communicating data clearly. “Maybe the most important thing when you try to communicate science is to realize the goal is not to show people how smart you are but to get people to understand what you are talking about. You don’t have to look good, just be understood,” he said.
Bob Bazell, who has interviewed Fauci numerous times during his 38-year career as a science reporter for NBC News, asked about the Great Barrington Declaration and herd immunity. “There are two major statements to the Declaration – to protect the vulnerable and not shut down the country. I agree with both of those statements,” he explained. “However, implied in that declaration is if you let everyone get infected and protect some of the vulnerable, like those in nursing homes, all will be alright. The fact is that 30 to 40% of the population is vulnerable. So, in order to get 60% of people infected to create herd immunity, there would be hundreds of thousands of more deaths. That’s a fact. And, that’s how we need to explain these things – based on fact and data on how science really works. Letting everyone get infected is not a good option.”
Stating that we hear so much in the news of what has been done wrong in handling the COVID-19 epidemic, Fauci was asked what he thinks was done right. “We made a decision early on to focus on scientific technology. Based on that work, our ability to move on a sequence of coronavirus to a phase one trial in just 65 days to phase three trial 65 days later… that is historic.” Omer followed up with “What do we do different going forward?” Fauci replied, “We learned how quickly you can shift science. Investigators who weren’t involved with COVID immediately changed their research to help with what was needed in the moment. That type of collaboration is incredible and invaluable for outbreaks moving forward.”
With all the stress and negativity Fauci has had to endure over the past year, he remains optimistic. He says things will get better gradually. His advice to the mother who wrote in with her six-year-old son’s question of “Why can’t I have more mask breaks at school?” was “I would tell him keeping a mask on or keeping a distance is less burdensome if you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there, you’re not going to wear it forever, I promise.”
The event concluded with Omer thanking Fauci for continuing to be productive as a scientist and a communicator. “You have set a high benchmark for everyone else.” To watch the conversation, click here.
The next Global Health Conversation Series guest is Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, on November 11 who will discuss child health in the world of COVID-19. YIGH Global Health Conversation Series is cosponsored by The George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.