Rowe conducts community conversation with Anthony Fauci

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ALEXANDRA BYRNE / THE FLAT HAT

During a pandemic that has often been politicized, the nation’s public health officials have struggled to disseminate facts regarding COVID-19 amidst the multitude of fictions. One of those officials — White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci — has become a household name over the past year. His message is consistent: listen to the science.

On Thursday, Fauci joined College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe and Student Assembly President Anthony Joseph ’21 for a community conversation on pandemic misconceptions and the role of universities in combatting them.

Fauci has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. As Rowe noted in her introduction, Fauci was a lead researcher at NIAID during the HIV/AIDS and Ebola epidemics, for which he received both praise and criticism from activists. But Fauci has never seen a spotlight as he has during the COVID-19 pandemic, nor has he seen a public health crisis this dire.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is historically the worst pandemic of a respiratory disease that we’ve had in 102 years,” Fauci said. “This is a very unusual virus. In all the experience that I have had in dealing with emerging and reemerging infections, I’ve never seen a virus that is so contrary in what you would expect.”

Fauci’s frankness has led to scrutinization of his public statements and guidelines, many of which change as the scientific evidence evolves. From mask-wearing to testing and vaccinations, Fauci made clear his advice — and likewise — his warnings. His honesty and impartiality have undoubtedly contributed to the public understanding of the severity of this pandemic.

“Right now, as you and I are speaking Madam President, it is the leading cause of death in the United States,” Fauci said. “That is absolutely extraordinary.”

Fauci pointed to the high mortality rates and a large number of asymptomatic cases as contributing to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the United States, he said, never dropped below a reasonable baseline number of cases before many states began to reopen businesses and schools.

“The big issue that has permeated the situation in the United States, making it different from other countries, is that we never got below a reasonable baseline,” Fauci said. “Then, as you recall, we tried to open up the economy in the early summer of 2020. The problem is that many states did not abide by the recommended way of opening up, namely gateway, phase one, phase two, phase three. Then what we had was another surge, that when it finally peaked, it came down to about 70,000 per day, which is totally unacceptable — far greater than any other country in the world.”

Those premature openings during the summer, as well as increased travel during the holiday season, led to exponential increases in cases. During this time, hospitalizations nearly overran the system, Fauci said. Though cases in the U.S. are declining, Fauci warned against complacency.

“Fortunately, now we have a dramatic diminution going down,” Fauci said. “But we can’t be complacent about that because there are variants, namely mutations, that could, in fact, turn it around again.”

“Fortunately, now we have a dramatic diminution going down,” Fauci said. “But we can’t be complacent about that because there are variants, namely mutations, that could, in fact, turn it around again.”

For many students, the most pressing question is a very basic one: when will things go back to normal? The rapid emergence of effective vaccines, which Fauci labeled the only “roaring success” of the pandemic, has given the nation some hope. As more vaccines receive FDA emergency use authorization, many see the light at the end of the tunnel. But vaccine rollout has been slow, and herd immunity will require 85% of the population to be vaccinated, a level that Fauci has increased from early estimates of 60 to 70%.

Students who do not qualify for earlier priority groups will likely not be vaccinated until May, due to delays in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“If you consider not the college students who have an underlying medical condition, but an otherwise healthy 20-year-old college student, the chances of that person getting a vaccine—it likely will not be until early May, mid-May or late May,” Fauci said. “I thought it was going to be April, and in fact, I was on the record saying it would likely be open season somewhere in April. One of the disappointments that made me change that estimate was that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine — which we anticipated would be coming in significant quantities in March and April — we learned that they will not have significant quantities until likely May and June.”

Fauci assured that the vaccine is safe, including for those who are immunocompromised. He also acknowledged the mistrust of the vaccine among the Black community, which is rooted in past unethical health studies conducted by the federal government. Most notably, the Center for Disease Control’s Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which concluded in 1972, failed to provide readily available treatment to subjects and caused the death of 128 participants, all of whom were Black sharecroppers.

“That gets passed from generation to generation,” Fauci said. “You were not born during the Tuskegee, but I’m sure you heard about it from your grandfather and your father and your mother — no doubt. So what you’ve got to do is first, respect the hesitancy that relates to that, because that’s a good reason to be skeptical. But at the same time, to explain to people that since then, ethical constraints have been put into place in the form of institutional review boards and data and safety monitoring boards that would make that type of unethical behavior completely impossible to happen.”

Addressing concerns about the vaccine’s short timeline for development, Fauci said it is a reflection of 10 to 15 years of scientific advancement. The determination of whether the vaccine was safe was made by an independent review board, preventing government or private intervention. More scientific research is required to determine how long the vaccine will be effective and when a booster shot might be required.

Rowe highlighted local efforts at preparing for vaccination.

“I am incredibly proud of this town-grown partnership and the other leading institutions in our localities,” Rowe said. “We have built together — led by the City of Williamsburg and James City County — the ability to vaccinate about 3,000 people a day. So we can move through fast — really, really efficiently — when the vaccine supply is ready. We are ready.”

Joseph asked where the U.S. will be a year from now, to which Fauci responded that the outbreak will likely be under control and will no longer be a major threat to the country. Still, Fauci said the U.S. must then look outward.

“I believe we’re going to get there within this calendar year in the United States,” Fauci said. “But the problem is that a global pandemic requires a global response. If we don’t participate as the other developed nations in the EU and in the UK and in Canada and Australia in a program — it has a name, it’s called COVAX — to provide vaccines for the developing world and those regions of the world that don’t have the resources to be able to make and distribute vaccines on their own, then our problem will never go away. It will always be a threat. Because as long as you have COVID and SARS-CoV-2 circulating throughout the world, it will continue to evolve and to mutate and develop new variants, which will always be a threat to us. So, it’s a two-phase thing: get it under control in the United States and be an important part of the effort to control it globally.”