Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed the COVID-19 vaccine and touched on the disparities minority groups face during the pandemic. 

RICHMOND – As of Friday, there were close to 90 million cases of COVID-19 across the world. Almost two million people have died as a result of the pandemic. Those are two points Dr. Anthony Fauci wants to get across to people: the virus is real and it’s deadly. Speaking to Gov. Ralph Northam and a group of Virginia medical and faith leaders Friday, Dr. Fauci went over some of the myths involving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This now, as a global pandemic, is the worst that the world has seen in 102 years since the infamous pandemic of 1918,” Fauci said. “Unfortunately for us here in the United States, we are the worst hit country in the world with over 20 million cases and close to 360,000 deaths.”

He noted that coupling the cold season – when people perform the majority of their activities indoors – with traveling and gathering for the holidays, caused the country to hit a new record in case counts virtually every day.

“Just [Thursday], a record for deaths in a given day – 4,111 deaths occurred in the United States due to COVID-19,” Fauci said. “There were 280,000 new cases and over 150,000 hospitalizations.”

A shameful past

But while people need the vaccine, some are skeptical about taking it. Fauci noted an understandable skepticism within the black and brown community over the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Because history tells us they have not always been treated fairly and ethically by the federal government in their medical approaches. That’s the past – a shameful past – that we have to live with,” Fauci said. “But there are now safeguards in place that will never let that happen again.”

This country’s history of medical racism isn’t something that can just be waved away. Doctors sterilized thousands of women of color between the early 1900s and 1970s without their consent. That happened in 30 states. Then there’s the Tuskegee syphilis study. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Black men in 1932 they would get free healthcare from the government. All they had to do was take part in a study. Except the free healthcare never came. Instead, this turned into a four-decade study on untreated syphilis. In North Carolina, officials practiced involuntary eugenics until 2003.

As a result of incidents like these, it’s hard to convince everyone that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. Part of that comes from trust or a lack thereof. The only way Fauci sees to fix that is by being completely transparent. That means walking people through the process and explaining every step.

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The vaccine

The story starts in 1996, when former President Bill Clinton invited Fauci to the White House to brief the Oval Office on the HIV-AIDS crisis. When Clinton asked why there was no vaccine, the doctor pressed the need for a National Institute of Allergy and Infections Disease Vaccine Research Center, which later came to fruition.

There, basic researchers, clinical researchers, immunologists, virologists and a host or other professionals work in tandem for a common goal. Together, they create vaccines to help the public with their ailments.

Long before COVID-19, the research center studied a host of viruses including but not limited to HIV, Zika, West Nile, Ebola, Malaria and coronaviruses.

In 2020, the previous research on coronaviruses helped people at the VRC like Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director, and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a student of Graham, develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Looking at the makeup of the COVID-19 virus, experts pinpointed the corona, or the crown. If you’ve seen an artist’s rendering of the virus, that’s the part with all of the spikes jutting out of the central ball. It’s a spike protein. The spike protein within COVID-19 allowed for potential immunization against the virus, Fauci explained.  

“It is an understanding how one can immunize people with that spike protein that allows us to have the successful vaccines we have now,” Fauci said. 

Operation Warp Speed

Equipped with the knowledge on coronaviruses, experts commenced on Operation Warp Speed.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense collaborated on the initiative with their subsets the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What we did is that we harmonized the protocols so that the endpoints were the same, the clinical trial units collaborated, the assays were the same, the people who judged the safety and the efficacy which recall the Data and Safety Monitoring Board was common and the statistical plan was common,” Fauci said.

The operation produced viable candidates for a COVID-19 vaccine.           

First to hit the market in the United States were the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. They are both mRNA vaccines, or messenger RNA.

“People ask, ‘mRNA: is this going to interfere with my genes?’ Absolutely not,” Fauci said.

An mRNA is a genetic material that contains instructions for making proteins. In COVID-19, the mRNA instructs cells to create the spike proteins found in the coronavirus. The body recognizes the spike protein as an invader and produces antibodies against it, which in turn helps the body recognize the actual virus later and destroy it.

“So you inject someone with that. In a very safe way, the body starts pumping out these proteins. Your immune system recognizes the protein and you make a very nice immune response,” Fauci said.

The doctor noted that 30,000 people participated in the Moderna trial and 44,000 participated in the Pfizer trial.

“It was shown to be safe and extraordinarily effective: 94% to 95% to protect you against any form of clinical disease and almost 100% in protecting you against severe disease,” Fauci said.

Vaccine distribution

“Now the vaccine needs to be distributed and that’s exactly what we’re doing now,” Fauci said.

The doctor went over the various phases for those vaccinated first, including healthcare workers and long-term care residents. Next will be frontline essential workers and those over age 75. Phase 1c covers people aged 65 to 74, those aged 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions and essential workers not recommended in Phase 1b. Phase 2 includes all people aged 16 or older, not in Phase 1, but recommended for vaccination. Total, that accounts for a proposed 288 million people.

States have the power to alter phased vaccination guidance.

“We hope by the time we get to April, we’ll be able to have what we call ‘open season,’” Fauci said.

That’s where anyone, even those not in a priority group, will have an opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We want you all to get vaccinated for your own protection, for that of your family and for your community,” Fauci said. “However, we must remember that this is not a substitute because until we get the overwhelming majority of the population in this country, and I would say 70% to 85% to get good herd immunity, there still will be the danger lurking in the community about transmitting viruses. And for that reason, we need to continue to adhere to public health measures until we get this outbreak completely crushed, which I believe is entirely feasible in the context of 2021. Likely toward the end of the year, but I believe strongly that we can do it.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com