As the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 continue to remain well-below previous peaks, and as vaccinations increase, the USA TODAY Network-Tennessee reached out to disease expert Anthony Fauci to get his predictions about the future.
Fauci, the Biden administration’s lead advisor on the pandemic and an immunologist with more than 50 years of experience working to contain diseases, recently predicted in a published article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases that so-called “herd immunity” to the virus is likely impossible.
But, in an interview this week, he expressed cautious optimism that the worst is now behind us. Questions were edited for clarity and answers were edited for length.
Q: What are your thoughts on the future of the pandemic? Is this something that’s just going to continue forever?
Fauci: “There’s no chance we’re going to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 (the respiratory syndrome that causes COVID-19). We’ve only eliminated one viral human pathogen history — smallpox. And then there are the ones we’ ve eliminated in this county, which are polio and measles.
“When you get vaccinated for measles, the durability of protection is usually life-long (the same goes for polio). And we have a universal acceptance of measles and polio vaccinations.”
“The durability of protection SARS-CoV-2 (from vaccination and immunity from exposure) is not very long. And we have a situation where we have a lot of people not wanting to get vaccinated.”
Q: What does that mean then for the future?
A: “What we’re seeing now with surges of cases is that there doesn’t appear to be a concomitant increase in the severity of disease and hospitalizations.
“So, what will likely happen is that, over a period of time, there will be a low level of infection that’s present but not necessarily disruptive. And likely — I don’t know how often the interval will be — but likely , we’ll get vaccinated somewhat similarly to what we do with the flu.
Q: So then is this, as some have suggested, now becoming an ordinary, seasonal virus?
A: I can’t guarantee that because we don’t have decades of experience with this virus. But it seems more likely than not that that will be the case.”
Q: Major airlines recently dropped masking requirements, as have other entities. Do you think this is the right move, or is it happening too soon?
A: “Well, I follow the CDC guidelines. And the CDC wanted to extend the mandate for the 15-day period beyond April 18, up to May 3. The reason they wanted to do that was they wanted to see what the pattern of infection is during this bit of a surge we’re seeing (in parts of the country).
“I think it’s unfortunate that a court order came in and, I believe, superseded the authority of the CDC.”
Q: Here in Tennessee, only 60% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. What kind of risk are people facing if they haven’t received all their shots or are completely unvaccinated facing, even as we’re seeing a less severe virus these days?
A: “Well, I think one shot alone in a two-shot vaccine that actually really requires a booster, which would be three shots, puts someone who’s only had one shot at considerable risk. Those who have had only one shot, particularly the elderly and those with underlying conditions, I’m concerned about them.”
Q: People 50 or older and those with underlying health conditions are now eligible to get a second COVID-19 vaccine booster. Should everyone over 50 do so in your view?
A: “I think it really depends on one’s own personal risk. The CDC and FDA have said that people 50 and older are now eligible. The CDC has said if you’re 65 and older you should probably get it.
“If you’re talking to me about a man who’s 52 who has diabetes and hypertension, I would recommend that person get a boost. If you have someone who’s 50, 51, perfectly healthy, athletic, with no underlying conditions, I say it may not be necessary. It depends on your personal risk aversion.”