CHARLOTTESVILLE — The effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine depends on the public, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.
Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health and has helped lead the nation’s pandemic response, spoke to the University of Virginia community during a Medical Center Hour webinar.
A vaccine for the virus may be available by late December or early January. Pfizer and Moderna, have completed late-stage trials that have shown their vaccine candidates to be approximately 95 percent effective in fighting the virus.
Both companies are expected to apply for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within days.
“This is a very striking efficacy signal, almost identical in two separate studies by two separate companies,” Fauci said, noting especially that the vaccines appeared to be effective in preventing not just mild or moderate disease, but severe disease and hospitalization.
However, he said, a vaccine’s efficacy will ultimately depend not just on scientists, but on the public.
“Whether or not a vaccine is going to be effective in the community depends on whether or not people take the vaccine,” Fauci said, citing a recent survey showing that only 50 percent of Americans plan to get a vaccine for COVID-19.
Fauci stressed that the approval process for the vaccine is strenuous and independent, conducted by career scientists at the FDA, scientists like himself at the NIH, the Data Safety and Monitoring Board at the NIH, and the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, which advises the FDA. Leaders at the Centers for Disease Control will manage the distribution of vaccines that are approved.
“All of this is independent and transparent, and yet because of a lot of noise that comes out of Washington, in this divisive time that we are living in, some people may not trust, or may think the vaccine was ‘rushed out,’” he said. “I can tell you this has been an independent decision, done in the classic way that decisions are made about vaccine safety and efficacy.”
The speed, he said, is a result of billions of dollars invested by the federal government and others, and advancing technology that has helped pharmaceutical companies conduct research and testing.
Fauci also emphasized that public health measures — such as wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowded, indoor gatherings — are critically important now, and will continue to be important in the coming months.
“We cannot abandon public health measures, even in the presence of a vaccine,” he said. “It will take a while to get the community completely protected, to establish a veil of protection that truly is herd immunity from this particular infection.”
During the presentation, the public health expert also went over therapeutics being tested against the virus, several of which are part of clinical trials at U.Va. Health.
The drug remdesivir, for example, was tested at U.Va., as part of a nationwide trial and became the first drug cleared by the FDA to treat COVID-19.
Fauci also mentioned trials involving the drug dexamethasone and monoclonal antibodies, both of which are being studied at U.Va.
Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday next week, Fauci emphasized that families should keep in mind all that has been learned about the virus so far — that it is largely borne by respiratory droplets, but can also be spread through aerosolized droplets; that indoor spaces with poor ventilation pose a greater risk of spread; and that masks and gathering either virtually or outdoors can help reduce risk.
Fauci said the United States is among the worst-hit countries in a pandemic that has “exploded upon our planet to be the worst outbreak of respiratory infection in 102 years.”
“As of [Tuesday], there were 56 million cases and over 1.3 million deaths globally, and unfortunately for us in the U.S., we are the country that was hit the hardest by this outbreak, with more than 11 million cases and now over 245,000 deaths,” Fauci said. “We are in the process of another resurgence as we enter the colder months.”