Why Anthony Fauci Isn't Worried About That COVID-19 Mutation

Why Anthony Fauci Isn't Worried About That COVID-19 Mutation

By Nick Fouriezos


Anthony Fauci discusses his early work on HIV, the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and what needs to be done so we're better prepared in the future.

By Nick Fouriezos

Infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which took place in December. You can find it all on the show’s podcast feed.

How AIDS changed his life

Watson: Dr. Fauci, how did you come to the science and the epidemiology? I know you’re the son of pharmacists, but how did you choose that? Was that a given path if we had met you at Regis High School as the captain of the basketball team?

Fauci: My original feeling about what I wanted to do was primarily be a physician, taking care of patients, my primary identity. So I went to medical school. … There were things that happened beyond my control that just sort of fell in front of me, like the first cases of HIV, before we even knew it was HIV. Well, when I noticed the first cases that were reported, they were from Los Angeles of five gay men who were otherwise well, who developed a strange kind of pneumonia that you only see when someone’s immune system is suppressed. I thought it was a bit of a fluke. I thought it was going to be something like maybe they were taking some medications that were suppressing their immune system. I didn’t make much of it. And then one month later.

So the first report was in June of 1981. The second report was in July of 1981, but this time instead of five gay men, curiously, there was another one of 26. Amazing, all gay men who had this strange immuno-depressed system where they had opportunistic infections and opportunistic tumors. And deep down, I knew that we were dealing with a brand new disease that was very likely sexually transmitted. So I was on a career path that was pretty successful studying different types of diseases, not this new disease. And I decided I was going to stop what I was doing and devote my entire attention to pursuing this new disease. And my mentors thought I was throwing away a good career path because I was on such a successful career path. They said, “Why do you want to study this strange group of diseases in people and it’s going to go away?”

Well, it didn’t go away in a year, and 39 years later, there have been 77 million cases and over 35 million deaths. So that’s what I’ve been doing. When I became director of the [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases], I got much more interested in the broader aspects of global health and public health. And that’s why I am so deeply involved in our response to COVID-19 right now.

Where are we now with the COVID pandemic?

Fauci: We’re living through one of the most devastating, or the most devastating, pandemic that we’ve experienced in well over a hundred years. I mean, just as of yesterday, there were 303,000 deaths. There are about 245,000 new infections a day. Hospitals now are straining under the strain of a lot of patients. Sometimes we’re going to be running out of hospital beds. So it’s a very serious situation. Fortunately … we now have safe and effective vaccines that we are trying to essentially deploy as quickly as we can.

Watson: How confident are you that the vaccine will work, that it’ll be effective, that people won’t get unexpectedly sick, that there won’t be hidden long-term effects that we’re only going to find out later?

Fauci: When you develop a vaccine, there are a couple of things about it that worry people. They say, “Wow, that was really quick. This is the fastest we’ve ever developed a vaccine ever. We’ve done in less than a year what normally would have taken several years. Was that reckless speed and is that dangerous?” And the answer to that is absolutely not, because the speed is merely a reflection of the extraordinary advances in the science of vaccine platform technology, which has allowed us, without compromising safety and without compromising scientific integrity, to do something in a matter of months that would normally have taken years.

The next question that skeptical people, and appropriately skeptical, say, “All right, how do we know it’s really safe and it’s really effective?” Well, we have done, with the two vaccines that are now essentially on people’s radar screen, the Pfizer product that is already being administered to people and the Moderna product that likely will start to be administered next week, the decision that this is a safe and effective vaccine was made on the basis of studying it in tens of thousands of people. In 30,000 people in the Moderna trial and 44,000 people in the Pfizer trial. And the data are striking. It’s 94 percent to 95 percent efficacious in preventing you from getting clinically apparent disease, and almost 100 percent effective in preventing you from getting serious disease.

There will always be some adverse events with any intervention, but this looks pretty safe. There’ve been a few people who’ve gotten allergic reactions, so we’re saying if you have a history of an allergic reaction you should probably get vaccinated in a place where you can treat the allergic reaction. But apart from that, the safety profile looks really good. And that was determined not by the federal government, not by the company, but by an independent body of scientists, vaccinologists, statisticians and ethicists.

About those COVID mutations

Fauci: Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, so there’s no doubt that they will mutate. But what happens is that the overwhelming number of mutations don’t have physiological or any kind of functional relevance. They’re just mutations that don’t mean anything. It would be very unusual to get a mutation that would mutate such that the vaccine is no longer effective. There has been a mutation on one particular amino acid that people think might make the virus more transmissible. There’s arguments about that. Some say it is true that that’s the case, some say it isn’t really the case. But when we looked at where the mutation occurred, it did not occur at that point in the virus protein that would make the vaccine not effective. So we’re not worried about that mutation.

Watson: How do you think about where we go from here, not only in getting through this horrible tragedy, but making sure that we’re in a better position for what could come next?

Fauci: This pandemic was so efficient in transmitting from person to person that even what was considered the best of preparation didn’t work very well. There’s always lessons learned when you get through this. We should hope that our corporate memory is such that we, when we get through this, and we will, we’ll put this behind us. I think the answer will be the vaccine, together with public health measures.

If you look at the United States of America, Carlos, and I have said this for some time, it’s 50 states. … So the thing that I would like to see is that we have more consistency among the states. You want the states to have some degree of leeway, but I believe that if you just let them on their own to do things the way they want to do it, that becomes problematic. You’ve got to give them support. I’m all for giving federal support, but you’ve got to make sure that we do things in a consistent way when you’re dealing with a pandemic outbreak.