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Pandemic Update: Coronavirus Case Numbers And Latest On A Vaccine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, joining us now to talk more about the potential vaccine and what's happening with the coronavirus around the country is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Slaoui sounded very optimistic there, talking about the light at the end of the tunnel. Is that a widely held view among scientists right now?

HARRIS: Yes, I would think that is. Top scientists at the National Institutes of Health held a press call on the subject this morning, and they were clearly excited, both by the Moderna vaccine candidate as well as one announced last week by Pfizer. Dr. Anthony Fauci, of great fame, was particularly happy to see just how effective the vaccine appears to be. He said he had been simply hoping for one that was 75% effective.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Something like a 95% was really aspirational. We would like to have seen it, but it was aspirational. Well, our aspirations have been met, and that is really very good news.

HARRIS: He also says that bodes well for other vaccines that are in the works. They use different technologies. But they all target the same region of the coronavirus, so it's likely but not certain that they will work as well.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about that ongoing search for more vaccines because Dr. Slaoui described having only two effective vaccines as a worst-case scenario. But do we need another vaccine if these two are actually so good?

HARRIS: I think we do. First of all, these are complicated to manufacture, and it looks like companies won't have enough of a supply to vaccinate Americans for many months. Dr. Fauci is hopeful that medical workers and others who need it will be - who really need it the most can get vaccinated as early as the end of December. But, you know, the general public may not have good access until April, May, June, July, he said. And let's remember this is a global pandemic, so billions of people will need to be vaccinated. NIH Director Francis Collins, who was also on that press call, mixed his optimism with some realism.

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FRANCIS COLLINS: And we're also at this really dark time, as far as the spread of this virus across our country, so this should in no way be a time for people to relax their guard. If anything, we should be tightening that up as we are waiting for the vaccines to reach their full distribution, which is going to take many months.

SHAPIRO: OK, so on the one hand, light at the end of the tunnel; on the other hand, this dark time that we're currently in. How bad is it right now with new infections and hospitalizations?

HARRIS: Well, it's bad and getting worse, unfortunately. New cases and hospitalizations are showing no signs of peaking. If you look at the line, it's just going up through the ceiling. Weekend numbers are usually not as bad because data collection eases a bit. But on Sunday, Johns Hopkins reported another 133,000 cases in the United States. We heard that the total is over 11 million now. But remember; in the early days, many cases went unreported, so the real figure is probably over 30 million. And Hopkins says the death toll is likely to top a quarter of a million Americans by the end of this week.

SHAPIRO: And what's been the response to that?

HARRIS: Well, the Trump administration has left most public health decisions to the states, so it's a patchwork. But many states have been dialing up their response. Over the weekend, for example, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency order that puts a three-week pause on large indoor gatherings. High schools, colleges, bowling alleys and movie theaters are all being shuttered, for example. But, you know, bars and restaurants and gyms can still do some business, so it's not a total shutdown. North Dakota's governor on Friday also issued an order requiring masks indoors and warned that the state's health system capacity is strained.

SHAPIRO: And when hospitals around the country fill up with coronavirus patients, what happens then?

HARRIS: Well, that's already starting to happen, unfortunately. For a while, patients can be moved to other facilities, and staff can be redeployed to some extent. But Dr. Georges Benjamin, who runs the American Public Health Association, says that's often not possible in rural areas, and that's where the epidemic is now spreading really rapidly.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: So I'm really concerned that we're going to begin going to what we call crisis standard of care, where we're going to have to make really, really tough medical decisions about patients. And I'm hoping we don't get there, but it really looks like that might very well be our future.

HARRIS: Yeah, that means rationing care. Dr. Benjamin says this didn't have to happen if the public had been fully on board with public health measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

SHAPIRO: So what can public health officials do now?

HARRIS: Well, they can keep pleading with people to wear masks, keep a safe distance and isolate if you're sick. Dr. Benjamin added one more item to his wish list.

BENJAMIN: The outgoing administration now needs to very, very actively collaborate with the incoming administration so we can get our hands around this pandemic as quickly as we can.

HARRIS: Yeah, because a Biden administration really needs to be able to hit the ground running because, you know, the pandemic will be far from over on January 20.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Thank you.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.