MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) – Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took part in the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s In Focus virtual event on Thursday and spoke extensively about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The focus of his talk, Fauci said, was the public health and scientific challenges associated with the historic pandemic of COVID-19 that the world is currently experiencing. He said the pandemic has exploded in an unprecedented manner unseen since the 1918 Spanish Flu. The nation’s top infectious disease expert opened up by comparing the most heavily impacted country, the U.S., to the European Union (EU), which he said did things differently and was able to have a respite from the disease, unlike the U.S.
If you look at things like workspaces, again, the U.S. did not shut down as much as Italy and Spain as representatives of the EU. This was also very clearly seen when one looked at visits to grocery stores and pharmacies. Again, where the US did not shutdown nearly as much as Italy and Spain, so that gives you a snapshot of the different dynamics and different approaches from an epidemiological and public health standpoint in those two important regions of the globe.Dr. Anthony Fauci – Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Fauci said as a result of the differences when the EU starting reopening after its shutdown; it had a baseline of roughly 10,000 news cases daily. Whereas the U.S. never reached below 20,000 new cases once it started to reopen. He said that was due to eruptions of cases outside the New York metropolitan area and the nation seeing large community spread.
Despite the EU’s initial successes, Fauci said, it like the U.S. is seeing cases surge again as the weather gets colder and both regions head into the winter months.
Fauci spent some time discussing the spread of the virus, as he and other scientists understand now. He said recent data indicates that it remains unclear the role of aerosol transmission, namely, particles small enough to remain in the air for more than just a few seconds that have extended flowing around over time and distances.
What is known, he said, is that the risk of transmission varies by the type of exposure as well as many other factors such as the viral load in the upper respiratory tract.
“Transmissions are seen in household contacts, in congregate, or even in healthcare settings where there is not available PPE or the PPE is not properly used,” Fauci said. “We also see outbreaks in closed settings, crew ships, nursing homes, and prisons. And factors that may increase the risk of airborne transmission are crowded and close spaces, particularly in those where there is poor ventilation indoors. This becomes particularly problematic as we enter the cooler seasons of the fall and the coldest seasons of winter. It’s important to point out that you do not need to sneeze or cough to transmit. It is transmitted by singing, speaking loudly, or even by breathing heavily.”
A crucial component of the spread of the infection is that about 40-45% of the infected people are, in fact, asymptomatic, and modeling studies show that a substantial proportion of transmissions actually occur from an asymptomatic person to an uninfected person, Fauci said. That is why he and his colleagues strongly recommend universal mask-wearing, maintaining physical distancing of at least six feet, and avoiding crowds.
He said these rules are especially important when indoors, namely, somewhere with poor ventilation and crowded.
Fauci addressed the disparity of infection rates among minority groups, such as Latinx, African American, and Native Americans. All these groups have higher infection rates on average than Caucasians due to occupations and comorbidities such as hypertension, chronic lung, heart disease, and obesity, he said.
Next, Fauci turned to treating and understanding the virus by saying that at the National Institutes of Health, they have established a panel made up of clinicians from all around the country who have experience treating the disease. They meet regularly to “develop a living document that’s updated regularly, providing the latest information on the clinical management and treatment of people with COVID-19”.
Many Americans hope the ultimate treatment is a vaccine, and Fauci said there are six ongoing trials in the U.S.
“I believe with some degree of certainty that by the end of November, beginning of December we will know based on the size of the trial and the rate of infections that are ongoing in this country, we will know if we have a safe and effective vaccine,” Fauci said. “I feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a safe and effective vaccine even though you can never make absolute predictions when it comes to vaccinology. The reason I feel cautiously optimistic is that the data from the animal models as well as the preliminary — not preliminary but early data that we got from phase one trials show that these candidates induce a degree of neutralizing antibody that is comparable if not exceeding what we see in natural infection and convalescent plasma.”
Fauci was joined by local experts such as Dr. Clay March, West Virginia’s Coronavirus Czar, Dr. Ali Rezai of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, and Dr. Ming Lei who discussed efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus in West Virginia.