Fauci will oppose any rush to announce COVID-19 vaccine before ‘scientifically sound’

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, pledged on Thursday to publicly oppose any effort by the Trump administration to rush an announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine by the November election unless the medicine has been proven “safe and scientifically sound.”

In an interview with McClatchy, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he disapproved of the use of the term “Operation Warp Speed” – the name of the federal vaccine development project — because it incorrectly implies that critical scientific benchmarks for safety and effectiveness might be sidestepped in a rushed government effort to achieve a vaccine.

And he offered a different view from an op-ed published this week by Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force, which dismissed concerns over an increase in coronavirus cases in several U.S. states as “overblown.”

“When I see an increase in cases that is not fully explainable in my mind, I get concerned,” Fauci said when asked about the Pence statement. “I get concerned by an increase in cases even when it is explainable, because if you look at the curve of cases in the United States, and look at the total country, that is not a sharp decline by any means.”

President Donald Trump has pushed the Department of Health and Human Services to expedite its work on a vaccine, already set against the unprecedented timetable of achieving one by the end of the year, so that the public can glimpse an end to the pandemic ahead of the November presidential vote.

“Take that to the bank,” Fauci said when asked by McClatchy whether he would oppose any administration effort to announce a vaccine by November if it is not ready. “There is no chance in the world that I’m going to be forced into agreeing to something that I don’t think is safe and scientifically sound. I’ll guarantee you that.”

Warp Speed, the government vaccine program, has brought major pharmaceutical companies with promising vaccine candidates together with government scientists in a unique collaborative effort to speed up research and production.

A data monitoring committee has been set up that will review and compare the findings of all vaccine candidates that emerge from Phase III clinical trials — a panel of the country’s top vaccine experts chaired by “a person with extensive experience in successful vaccine development,” Fauci said. He declined to name the committee members.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert said he has confidence a vaccine is achievable, because most individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 have been able to clear the virus out of their body naturally on their own.

“There’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to be able to induce in the body a response that could either protect you from infection or, at worst, could protect you against getting disease from that infection,” Fauci said. “Do we think we can do that? Yes. The timeline? I really don’t like the word Warp Speed, because what it does is it implies carelessness in stepping over important steps.”

“The speed is not associated with a compromise of safety, and it’s not associated with a compromise of scientific integrity,” he said. “What it is is speed associated with speed of money loss, so that you start making vaccine before you even know that it works.”

Fauci said that public officials have to face the “reality” that cases are increasing across a diverse set of communities — in some cases, because of the impatience of individuals fed up with social distancing, and in others because of officials themselves skipping over essential steps toward reopening.

“There are some states in which the governors or the mayors or the people who are the local authorities are not officially going along with the strict guidelines of where they should be, given the dynamics of the outbreak,” he said.

While Trump and Pence have said that the recent spikes in cases — in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas, among others — can be attributed to an increase in access to testing, Fauci said that “there are two dead giveaways that it’s more than just an increase in testing.” He pointed out that the percentage of positive cases and the percentage of hospitalizations are increasing in some regions, as well.

“There seems to be this impression that either you lock down, or you just go caution to the wind,” Fauci said. “I’m not saying the state leaders or the city leaders are doing that. But it seems the mentality, because people have been cooped up so long, is that as soon as they see there is opening up, they skip over a bunch of the benchmarks and start going out with no masks, crowded, you know — the kinds of things that are clearly putting you at an increased risk.”

National polling has consistently found that the majority of the American public trusts Fauci — who rose to national prominence at the height of the pandemic in March, when the White House task force was holding daily, televised briefings — as a credible voice on the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 116,000 people in the United States.

Fauci’s research group at the National Institutes of Health has been examining the novel coronavirus since January, and Fauci says that he is still puzzled by how it operates in the human body.

Scientists still do not know whether COVID-19 causes long-term damage to those who recovered from a severe case of the disease, Fauci said in the phone interview.

“Something that even is more perplexing than that,” he said, is that of all the microbes and pathogens he has studied over 40 years, “I’ve never seen a pathogen that has such a wide range of manifestations with the same virus.”

“This is a virus that is totally unprecedented,” Fauci continued. “How do you explain the same virus replicating in somebody doing nothing, and that same virus in somebody else ravaging their body? There are still so many things that we don’t know about the pathogenesis.”

Despite the unknowns, Fauci emphasized that continued spikes in cases and a second wave in the fall are not inevitable, as new projections estimate 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States by October.

He warned restless Americans against joining any sort of crowd or large party, encouraged the continued use of face masks in public, and said that public activities could continue to increase throughout the year “in a measured, prudent way.”

That can also apply to voting in the Nov. 3 election, Fauci said.

“When you do takeout, what do stores do? They have a red line every six feet, and they strongly encourage you wear a mask,” Fauci said. “And you just line up, and when the person in front of you goes and picks up their pizza or whatever it is, then you keep walking six feet.”

“That’s exactly what you could do with voting,” he said. “What’s the big deal?”


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