White Coat, Black Art

Fauci confident vaccines can 'crush' COVID — if vaccine hesitancy doesn't get in the way

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the United States, says the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are so effective they could "crush" the COVID-19 pandemic — as long as vaccine hesitancy doesn't get in the way.

Dr. Anthony Fauci talks to White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the United States, says the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines could 'crush' the pandemic, as long as people get vaccinated. (Graeme Jenning/Reuters)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the United States, says the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are so effective they could "crush" the COVID-19 pandemic — as long as vaccine hesitancy doesn't get in the way.

The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S. told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman he's "very encouraged … by the extraordinary level of efficacy" of the two vaccines.

He noted that they've been found to be up to 95 per cent effective in preventing the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus and almost 100 per cent effective in preventing the serious form of the disease that has claimed more than 1.5 million lives worldwide.

However, he also said both Canada and the U.S. must contend with a "considerable degree of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism."

He said it would be a shame for that hesitancy to stand in the way of the vaccine campaign.

Herd immunity

"We've got to convince as many people as possible in this country and worldwide to get vaccinated when it becomes available," he said. "Because … if we get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated, we can actually get a degree of herd immunity in this country and elsewhere that could actually crush this epidemic. 

"When you get a veil of immunity among the population, to a high degree, the virus has no place to go and cannot spread readily."

Watch | Fauci says Canada is 'getting into trouble' as COVID cases surge:

Fauci says Canada 'getting into trouble' as COVID-19 cases surge worldwide

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Despite two seemingly effective COVID-19 vaccine candidates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells CBC News it's not yet time to celebrate. 3:47

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by Health Canada Wednesday. In the U.S., an advisory committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to vote Sunday on whether or not to recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the final step in the process after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel voted Thursday to recommend emergency use.

On Tuesday, U.S. president-elect Joe Biden announced that Fauci will be his chief medical adviser.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. may still have to deal with an anti-science sentiment after the Trump administration, which is scheduled to leave on Jan. 20. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Fauci has directed the infectious disease arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 1984, where he's overseen research on emerging diseases from HIV to Ebola. Biden will be the seventh president he has advised.

Winning over skeptics

That advice will include how to win over those who have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines.

"You have to try and find out the reason that they have concern and skepticism," Fauci said. "There are a hardcore group of anti-vaxxers that, no matter what you tell them, they're not going to change their mind regardless of what the vaccine is. I'm not so sure anything we can do can win them over.

"But I think the majority of people who are hesitant don't really have the data and don't understand things like why we were able to go so quickly. They may think that we were being a bit reckless in how fast we went from the discovery of a new virus to the point where you actually are giving vaccines to people like we're doing right now." 

In addition to the sheer number of scientists around the world, and the massive amount of funding that went into developing COVID-19 vaccines, Fauci said the short time horizon is "a reflection of extraordinary scientific advances in vaccine platform technology."

"It's not reckless speed, and it doesn't compromise safety, and it doesn't compromise scientific integrity," he said.

He said others may wonder if politicians have a vested interest in the vaccine or if the pharmaceutical companies simply want to make a lot of money. 

It's not reckless speed, and it doesn't compromise safety and it doesn't compromise scientific integrity.​​​​​- Dr. Anthony Fauci

"What we need to explain is the fact that the decision of whether or not a vaccine is safe and effective is made by, really, data that goes into an independent body," he said.

"The data that are first examined from the trial don't go to the company and don't go to the federal government. It goes to an independent data and safety monitoring board, namely an independent group of clinicians, vaccinologists, immunologists, infectious disease docs, ethicists and statisticians."

Most people need to get vaccinated in order for herd immunity to come into effect. (Reuters)

It's only then that a pharmaceutical company can present the vaccine and the data from clinical trials to government agencies like Health Canada and the FDA.   

"I believe, when the people who are skeptical about getting vaccinated appreciate the independence and the transparency of the process, as well as the high degree of efficacy of the vaccine, I hope that that skepticism that we see will disappear and a lot more people will get vaccinated," Fauci said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said vaccine safety is tested by independent bodies. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Lingering anti-science sentiment

Asked if he fears that some of the anti-science sentiment seeded by the Trump administration will linger after Biden's inauguration, Fauci said that it may be "a problem that we'll have to address."

However, he said he's been encouraged by the Biden-Harris team's statements on COVID-19 thus far, which reflect "much greater adherence to the scientific principles."

"Hopefully, as we get into the next year and we start doing things that are based fundamentally on evidence and data, there will be less of a push back by the people who seem to be pushing back on science," he said.

"Can't guarantee that, but I hope that that's what we see."

Watch | President-elect Joe Biden always planned to work with Dr. Anthony Fauci

Biden vows to re-hire Dr. Fauci after Americans 'fire' Donald Trump

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden defended Dr. Anthony Fauci at a rally in Ohio and said the way to beat the coronavirus is by defeating President Donald Trump in Tuesday's election. 0:53

Produced by Dawna Dingwall.

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