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Dr. Anthony Fauci Discusses The Latest Coronavirus Facts

Mar 26, 2020
Originally published on March 26, 2020 10:59 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 1,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Earlier this week, an official with the World Health Organization warned that the United States could become the new epicenter of the virus. But we got a somewhat different message from President Trump, who said this week he hopes to reopen the economy by as early as Easter - that's April 12.

I'm on the line now with Dr. Anthony Fauci. He's the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and he is also a member, of course, of the White House coronavirus task force. Good morning, Dr. Fauci.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good morning. Good to be with you.

KING: Good to have you. I want to ask you about the - that statement by the official from the World Health Organization. Is the United States at risk of becoming the epicenter of this virus?

FAUCI: Well, the United States is a very large country. I mean, when you see the virus as it moves throughout various countries on the globe, I mean, clearly, in the beginning, China was the epicenter. Then it moved to Europe, particularly in Italy. And now we're seeing a rather substantial outbreak in New York City metropolitan area. Now, there are a lot of other areas in the United States. But clearly, the acceleration of cases that we're seeing in New York City is really quite disturbing.

KING: More than half of all cases in the country, in fact, are in the state of New York. What should hospitals in New York expect over the next few weeks?

FAUCI: Well, what they're seeing already - and we'll expect more - is an influx of cases, which they're trying to deal with both locally and with the help of the federal government with regard to beds - ICU beds as well as ventilators. We - I know because I've spoken to him myself - I am in close contact with Governor Cuomo of New York state, and he is dealing with the United States government - the federal government, with FEMA and other organizations - to try and get to him the material and equipment that he will need.

KING: There are other states, Dr. Fauci, including Florida, for example, that, as we speak, are seeing a surge in cases that is reminiscent of what we were seeing in New York maybe a week ago. Should those states be looking at New York and thinking, that's what's going to happen here and we need to be prepared for that?

FAUCI: Oh, absolutely. That's the course of these types of outbreaks. So Florida has gotten hit both from internally but also, interestingly, from travel-related cases of people who leave New York, many of whom have second homes in Florida. So we're having a situation, as is predictable when you have outbreaks like this, that you seed different areas from areas that are hotspots.

So right now New York is bearing a major burden of the outbreak. But when people leave New York, they go to other places. And that's the reason why yesterday, at the press conference at the White House, we made the recommendation that when individuals leave New York to go other places, that when they get to that destination, that they essentially self-isolate for 14 days as well as monitor their own symptoms to make sure they don't get sick and if they do, to actually report it to a physician and try to get help from a physician or health care provider.

KING: I want to ask you about testing because there is still, after weeks, some amount of confusion there. The president tweeted last night that testing in this country has increased significantly. He also said there is no need to test all 350 or so million Americans. Let me ask you directly - who should go and get the test?

FAUCI: Well, the president is correct on both accounts. There are many, many, many more tests that are out there now than there were just a few weeks ago. I mean, obviously, there was somewhat of a slow start, but we're in the process of rather clearly correcting that. The other thing is that what the president was referring to is he wants to make sure that those people who need the test get the test first because right now - when you haven't had enough tests to give to everyone, what you need to do is to make sure that the people who are having symptoms and needed to be diagnosed are the ones who get the tests, particularly those who are in the hospital. So he was trying to say and said correctly that we should be testing the people appropriately we should be testing.

KING: OK. Let me ask you about how other countries have handled this. In South Korea, a country that has handled this virus remarkably well, they tested broadly. They tested everyone with symptoms, then they isolated those people. Then they isolated the people they'd been in contact with and tested them. We don't have enough tests to do that. When will we? And by the time we do, will it be too late? Is there a South Korea strategy for the U.S., or have we passed that point?

FAUCI: Well, you know, United States is a big country, and it isn't unidimensional. So what we're seeing, for example, is two components of how you address an outbreak. There's called containment, in which you identify, as best as you can, each individual person who's infected. You identify them, you isolate them, you get them out of circulation and you do contact tracing. That's what we needed to do in situations before it became a massive outbreak. When you have the situation like we're seeing in New York, they're in what we call mitigation because there are so many cases up there. They need to be able to take care of the people who are infected.

Right now, today, the testing situation is infinitely better than what it was a few weeks ago. We now have hundreds of thousands of tests out there. And in the next week or so, we'll be having, like, a million a week. So like I mentioned just a moment ago, in the beginning, it was a slow start. But right - now that the commercial firms have gotten involved, we really have caught up. And we will be - we're seeing a much more improved system with regard to the availability and the implementation of testing.

KING: Italy, the United Kingdom and India have all moved to states of lockdown where they've suspended all nonessential activities. India is the most extreme. People have been told, do not leave your houses for three weeks. Should every state in the United States be doing this right now, given that, as we speak, we don't have enough testing to know where the next epicenter in this country will be?

FAUCI: You know, I don't think so that we should...

KING: No?

FAUCI: ...Do this uniformly throughout the entire country. I think that - I mean, obviously, you always keep an open mind that you might have to revert to something like that. But today there are clearly places that you need to do that, and the governors are doing that. You saw what Governor Newsom did in California. We're seeing what Governor Cuomo has done in New York state and in New York City, and we're seeing versions of that in places like Louisiana. So you're going to be seeing more stringent shutdown depending upon where you are. But there are regions of the country where, rather than shut down, we should be doing the kind of containment, which is seeking out, identifying, testing, contact tracing and isolating.

KING: At White House briefings, you and Dr. Deborah Birx have talked about an interesting scenario, where American scientists are able to gather data about cases all across this country, and then policymakers can tailor their response based on local characteristics like, how bad is it here? Do you have the data you need now to tell different areas of the country they should be doing different things?

FAUCI: Well, what you just mentioned is what I was referring to a moment ago. We are quickly getting to the point where we will be able to get that data. But you are correct, to be honest. We don't have all that data now uniformly throughout the country to make those determinations. But that's a major primary goal that we have right now is to get those data because you have to make informed decisions, and your decisions are informed by the information you have. And that's where the data comes in.

KING: The president said this week that he would like to see Americans go back to work by Easter - or that he'd like to see the economy reopen, up and running by Easter. That's April 12. During the White House briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx told the story of how her great-grandmother died in the flu pandemic of 1918 and how her grandmother had to live knowing that she had been the one to transmit it to her own mom. There seem to be real risks if states and communities come out of this stay-at-home or shelter-in-place too early. What are you advising right now? Should we be looking at April 12? Should we not even be considering April 12? Where does that stand?

FAUCI: The president has set April 12 as an aspirational goal.

KING: OK.

FAUCI: He knows - he knows, and we've discussed this with him - that you have to be very flexible in that. And he will be flexible. He put that out because he wanted to give some hope to people. But he is not absolutely wed to that. We - I've spoken to him about it yesterday, and he keeps saying that although he would like that to be the date, he's open-minded and flexible to make sure that the facts and what the pattern of the virus is going to determine what we do.

KING: Thank you for clarifying that. We have heard hopeful statements that warmer weather might slow this virus down. Can you tell me today, does the science bear that out?

FAUCI: You know, the science bears it out in part because if you look historically, with viruses like influenza and some of the more common, benign coronaviruses, that when the weather gets warmer - warm and moist versus cold and dry - viruses don't do as well in warm and moist. And people tend to spend more time outdoors, where the free flow of air is always good for preventing respiratory infections where people sneeze and cough on each other. That's a pattern that's real.

What we don't know is whether this is going to happen with this virus because this is a unique virus which we had no experience before. We're hoping that's the case. We hope we get a respite as we get into April, May and June. Likely, it will come around next season because it's a very vigorous virus and we're seeing it already infecting people in the southern hemisphere now as they enter into their winter. So I hope - and I think we might get a respite with the weather, which would hopefully give us more time to better prepare for what might be a second round or a seasonal cycling.

KING: In the 30 seconds that we have left - and I'm sorry for the short time - are there any promising treatment options being studied?

FAUCI: Well, the treatments that are out there now are unproven. There is some anecdotal information that they may have some benefit, but the only way you can really prove that a therapeutic intervention is safe and effective is if you do a proper trial. And we're in the process of doing that now.

KING: OK. Like many things with this, we need more time. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, thank you for your time.

FAUCI: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.