Fauci: ‘Safe and effective’ vaccine likely by year’s end

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in April. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — Conceding early missteps in the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that he expects a “safe and effective” vaccine to be ready by the end of 2020 that the public should trust “will have no political influence.”

“I believe that it will happen, and it will happen likely by the end of this calendar year, November or December. There are already doses that are being made so we can vaccinate people in an expeditious manner,” Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said while speaking as part of this year’s virtual Texas Tribune Festival.

While Fauci did not directly criticize President Donald Trump, he said that mixed messages from Washington have resulted in the public questioning the credibility of the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the two government agencies at the forefront of the country’s pandemic response.

He added that the vaccine review process “is a very good process” that involves independent evaluators known as the Data and Safety Monitoring Board that includes scientists, statisticians, ethicists and clinicians who are the only individuals with access to data from a clinical trial.

“They are independent, they are beholden to no one, not to the company, not to the president, not to anybody,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported more than 33 million global cases of Covid-19, with the United States leading with 5.2 million infections. The virus, which Fauci said mostly likely originated from a bat infecting a human in Wuhan, China, has killed more than a million people worldwide, including over 205,000 people in the United States.

“These coronaviruses are very much endemic in bats and bats are the really core of the transmissibility,” Fauci said. “It almost certainly went from a bat to an intermediate host to a human.”

Animal to human infections were responsible for the 2002 SARS pandemic and the MERS outbreak 10 years later, he said. The difference with Covid-19 is its historic impact.

According to Fauci, up to 40 to 45% of all infections have no symptoms whatsoever, a characteristic of the virus that he says makes it “the most difficult and most damaging respiratory disease pandemic in the last 102 years since the infamous 1918 pandemic.”

“We’ve never seen anything with this broad range of symptoms from nothing, to mild, to moderate, to severe, to deadly — it’s just unprecedented,” he said.

Fauci, a member of the president’s coronavirus task force, said the sobering realities of this novel coronavirus made universal mask wearing essential to helping slow community spread. He added that contact tracing has also been proven problematic because of the high rate of asymptomatic spread, particularly among younger people.

“We got hit and have been hit bad,” Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said. “There were some missteps in the beginning. I think you have to be honest and transparent about that.”

While he said Trump’s decision on Jan. 31 to block travel from China “was very helpful,” he said the Northeastern part of the country, particularly the New York metro region, was hit badly early on in the pandemic by travelers from northern Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom who were originally infected in China.

Fauci also said that CDC testing issues in the early months set the country back and that the lack of a uniform response among states “worked against us.”

“It’s not an excuse, it’s just an explanation of how we now today still have 40,000 new infections per day and anywhere between 600 and 1,000 deaths,” he said.

While Fauci said that hospitalizations and deaths in the country are heading down, he warned that an uptick in the test positivity rate in parts of the country is a predictor of surges to come, especially as the fall and winter months approach.

“So now we have to double-down and make sure that we’re very conscientious without shutting down — we don’t need to shut down — but to do the kind of public health things that we know work to mitigate infection.”