In an alternate universe, where the WIRED25 event could safely have been held in person, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci would have been greeted like a rock star. A strange combination of A-list celebrity and level-headed grandfather, Fauci has gamely taken up the position of trusted voice amid the maelstrom of Covid disinformation, some of which has been perpetuated by our president. Given the persistent risk of in-person events, Fauci had to address his many fans by video. But in conversation with WIRED editor at large Steven Levy, his message was one of optimism—as long as people in the US can come together in taking sensible safety precautions.
But as is so often the case, he did have some cleanup work to do. Yesterday evening, during the presidential debate, Trump accused Fauci of vacillating on whether or not masks would be protective against transmission of the novel coronavirus. “That was an unusual experience, that debate,” Fauci said. “I must have said several tens of thousands of times the importance of wearing masks.” To emphasize his point, he gave himself a new moniker: “I’m the mask guy.”
And Mask Guy Fauci reiterated the importance of masks and other basic measures for slowing the spread of Covid as the country enters the winter flu season. Unless things change, Fauci said, we could be facing down a dangerous winter. “It’s a very challenging and serious situation, because the baseline of infections each day are stuck now at around 40,000,” he said. “I would have hoped that when we go into the fall season, we would have had a baseline that was really much, much lower than 40,000 cases.” It could get worse: “We’re seeing, in certain parts of the country, upticks in test positivity, which is generally a bad prognostic sign.”
Nevertheless, Fauci believes that we could easily reverse that trend without putting an undue burden on the economy. “We’re not talking about shutting down anything,” he said. “We’re talking about taking a very prudent, careful approach to reopening the economy by [following] the common five things: wearing masks uniformly, avoiding crowds, keeping distance, doing things outdoors absolutely much more preferentially than indoors, and washing your hands frequently.” As the success of outdoor dining has shown, none of these measures need be too disruptive to our typical way of life. “But they do have a major impact on whether you can get those surges to come down,” Fauci said.
Those five basic steps could have an extra benefit: If followed uniformly, they could effectively mitigate the upcoming flu season. In Australia, where winter has just ended, things are looking up. “They had almost a nonexistent flu season, the first time in memory that they had such a low flu season,” Fauci said. “And the reason is they abided by the public health measures that I just mentioned.” If we too follow those public health measures, Fauci believes—and get our flu shots—we could see a lessening of the impact of not only Covid but also influenza, which kills tens of thousands of Americans in a typical year.
It’s still September, and, according to Fauci, we already have enough influenza vaccine to protect the majority of the American population—surely a good sign. But when it comes to a Covid vaccine, there is widespread concern about whether the administration might push it out before it has been proven safe and effective, solely for political reasons. Fauci, however, has full confidence in the process. “The way the system is set up, there are independent bodies that have access to the data that no one else has access to,” he said. “And they make the decision based on the scientific data, whether the vaccine is safe and effective.”
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Given how much money has been funneled into the vaccine development pipeline, Fauci thinks there may be good news coming quite soon—although not quite as soon as President Trump would like. “My projection and that of my colleagues is that it is likely that we will know whether we have a safe and effective vaccine somewhere around November and December,” he says. And since vaccine candidates are already being produced in large quantities, doses will soon be ready if they do prove effective. “There will be available, at the end of the year in December, about 100 million doses,” Fauci said. “It will be up to 700 million doses by the end of April.”