THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (virtual)
MODERATOR: Okay, let’s get started. Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing on the U.S. plans to combat COVID-19. My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am today’s moderator.
We have two briefers today: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Mr. Andy Slavitt, White House Senior Advisor for COVID Response. Together they will discuss the administration’s current response to the pandemic, as well as how the U.S. has re-engaged in global health efforts to combat the pandemic.
On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I would like to thank both of our briefers for giving their time today to brief the foreign press. This briefing is on the record, and we will post a transcript later today on our website, fpc.state.gov. Both of our briefers will give short opening remarks, and then we will open it up for Q&A. As you might imagine, we only have a limited amount of time with our briefers, but we’ll try to get to as many of your questions as possible.
Before I hand the floor over, journalists, if you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet. And with that, I will pass it over to Mr. Slavitt for opening remarks, to be followed by Dr. Fauci. Over to you, Mr. Slavitt.
MR SLAVITT: Thank you, and thank you all for attending. Are you able to hear me okay? Yeah? Good. Well, in the three weeks since we’ve – the Biden administration has begun, it’s been incredibly busy. We are thankful that we have had – we are coming in after a tremendous effort and amount of work that the career civil servants at the U.S. Government as always have been leading, and that has made our jobs so much easier and more pleasurable.
The things that I want to communicate to you are: Number one, we have a plan, and that plan in and by itself will not help us succeed, but without a plan we don’t believe we will succeed, and that plan includes things that I think are familiar to you from around the world – clear public communication; accelerating and increasing the vaccination rate here in the U.S.; and promoting heavily the use of public health measures; focus on how we reopen schools safely, which is something we have talked about just today, and other businesses; improving the equitable distribution of health care resources in the U.S., which is an ongoing problem; increasing manufacturing; and re-entering the global stage and providing more leadership.
Obviously, we believe that we are – we have a tough battle with a monumental set of work to do, but we are very committed to making progress every day, leveling with the public, and ultimately we believe we will succeed because of our focus on science and our commitment to having a whole-of-government – indeed, a whole-of-country – response, and the important part of that is being – resuming our role as a citizen of the world and leading, which Dr. Fauci is our representative and is leading much of that for us across the globe.
So we look forward to taking your questions. We know that the months ahead will be full of challenges and surprises. We intend to do our best to be ready for those and to work with other countries around the globe to finally defeating COVID-19.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Mr. Slavitt. And over to you, Dr. Fauci.
MR FAUCI: Thank you very much, Jen. Appreciate the opportunity to be with you here today. Let me just take off on some of the things that Mr. Slavitt said. One of the first things that President Biden asked me to do very soon following his inauguration was to address the WHO executive board in their annual meeting, and my message from the President to the board was that the United States is back again on the global scene with regard to our role as a participant and leader in the global effort against COVID-19. I made the announcement on behalf of the President that we will rejoin WHO, we will meet our financial and other commitments to WHO, we will be part of COVAX, and a number of other things that will reinstate us onto the global scene.
So I just wanted to make it clear that that is a commitment that President Biden had made before he became president and inaugurated, and now we are fulfilling that promise. So that is something that’s very important.
The other thing that I want to get our foreign colleagues to be aware of is that what the President has said publicly and to those of us on the medical team and his advisors privately is that we will make policies and make recommendations based on science. In fact, his exact words is that “science will rule” with what we do. Scientific data and evidence will be the foundation of all of the decisions that we make. And in that regard, this is exactly what we’re doing.
As many of you know, the United States has been hit harder than any other country with regard to COVID-19. It was only just a month or so ago when we were having anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 cases per day, with 3 to 4,000 deaths. What we are seeing right now is a plateauing of that, with some of the numbers coming down. But what the President has told the citizens of the United States – and we want to make it clear to everyone – that we cannot be complacent because things are looking like they’re turning around. We are accelerating our vaccine implementation effort, getting more and more vaccines into the arms of people as the time goes by, but we must continue to implement the public health measures that are so essential in controlling the outbreak.
So let me stop there. Jen, back to you, and we’d be happy to take any questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Fauci. For our journalists, as a reminder, you can ask a question by raising your hand in the participant field or submitting it in writing in the chat box and I will read. I see we do have a few hands raised, but before I call on you, I’d like to start with one question from Handelsblatt Media Group in Germany, from Annett Meiritz. The question is: “In order to prevent the spread of new variations, how long will international travel restrictions be necessary? And how satisfied are you with the current state of transatlantic cooperation to fight the virus?”
MR FAUCI: Well, either Andy or I could answer that. Let me just take a shot at it and then hand it over to Andy. I mean, obviously, the restrictions on travel are really going to be dependent on the level of viral dynamics in any particular country. We would hope that as we get the level down – and we’re looking forward to that over the next few months – that we are always re-evaluating in real time what the situation will be with regard to travel restrictions and what travel restrictions in any – should be for any individual country. Right now, transatlantic cooperation is obviously going to be much better. The President is quite committed to cooperating and collaborating with our foreign partners, but with regard to the restrictions, I think that is going to be something that you evaluate over and over again depending upon the dynamics of the outbreak. But I’ll hand it over to Andy in case he has any further comment.
MR SLAVITT: All I’ll add is this is a perfect illustration of Dr. Fauci’s point that we’re going to listen to the science first, and so we don’t know, because it’s not knowable yet. But we will listen to the recommendations of our scientists and have a fulsome discussion that will be weighted based upon the facts and the data. So we are as hopeful as you all are that that’ll be a shorter period of time, but of course, we have no guarantee and no ability to have foreknowledge there.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d now like to call on Sho Watanabe. You have been unmuted to ask your question.
QUESTION: Okay. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Sho Watanabe from Nippon TV Japan. I’d like to ask Dr. Fauci some questions about the Tokyo Olympic Games. The – first of all, frankly, do you think the Tokyo Olympic Games can be held safely if we keep this way to defeat the virus? To be more specific, President Biden said that the decision should follow the science, so what exactly do you think is an important criteria on the data?
And one more thing is: What kind of the preparation should the Government of Japan prepare for thinking the risk of holding the – such a big event, huge event? Thank you.
MR FAUCI: Well, the answer to that question is very much in line with what I had mentioned a moment ago and what Mr. Slavitt said about the science. It really is going to depend on the dynamics of the outbreak globally and in Japan. We’re faced with the same situation on a much smaller scale in the United States when we are asked when would it be safe to resume our professional athletic system, like Major League Baseball and football and basketball and things like that. And the response has been really quite consistent: It is going to depend on the dynamics of the outbreak at the time. If it looks like globally we’re seeing a significant downturn in infections, that would make it much more likely that you would have participation much more widely of other countries in the Olympics themselves. The actual decision of holding it, obviously, is squarely in Japan’s corner. They’re going to make that decision. What participation is going to occur, is going to depend on the level of the outbreak in different parts of the country and in Japan in particular.
You’re asking me what Japan can do, and that I think is important to make sure that, to the extent possible, that there are put in place the kinds of guidelines to ensure the safety of the people in Japan who are there and the safety of many, many travelers who will come to Japan. And that would be what kind of restrictions: Would you make sure that people wear masks? What kind of testing would be involved? What kind of travel issues would be involved? Anything that the Japanese Government can do to guarantee the safety not only of their own citizens but also the people who will be traveling to Japan to participate in or to watch the Olympics.
QUESTION: Okay, can I get just one follow-up question?
MR FAUCI: Sure.
QUESTION: You said about the vaccinations, so as for vaccination, in some European countries already some Olympians are started to be vaccinated. So do you think that vaccination for the Olympians should be kind of prioritized?
MR FAUCI: Well, it depends on what kind of access to vaccines that you have in your own country. We have a prioritization right now in the United States of – because at this stage, although we are planning to get enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in the country and we will soon be at that level, we still have a priority of people. Now, it’s going to depend upon what Japan wants to do to the prioritization. You’d have to ask yourself, “What is the scientific reason to vaccinate the Olympians?” If it’s going to be because they’re going to be in Olympic Village together and you want to make sure that they don’t cross-infect each other, that is a reasonable rationale for wanting to do that. So I think that’s going to be left up to the authorities in Japan.
When we prioritize testing with our athletic groups, we made it very clear that if they were going to conduct their sports, be it football or basketball or baseball, that they would have a prioritization of getting testing. I think the same thing would probably hold true for vaccination. So although I don’t want to be the one to saying, “You should recommend that all of them” —
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR FAUCI: — because I don’t make policy for the Japanese Olympics. But I could understand if they do decide to do that, the rationale would be because they are going to be grouped together in the Olympic Village and that’s going to be a very difficult situation if someone gets infected, they could spread it very easily to the rest of the athletes.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Beatriz Bulla from Sao Paolo, Brazil, another hard-hit country. Beatriz, we will now ask to unmute you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for your time and for taking the questions. So I have two quick questions. One is about the international travel restrictions again in place that suspended the entry of known citizens from – that have been in Brazil and other countries as well. And my first question is: The 14-day period that was established as the period that a traveler cannot be on the – in the specific countries before they attempt to entering the U.S. was established by the former administration during a time when the CDC recommended also a 14-day period of quarantine to those who have been exposed in the virus. And now the length of quarantine has changed. The CDC recommends seven days. So do you plan to update these executive orders about the travel restrictions should be in accordance with the current guidelines from the CDC? And my second question is: You mentioned, Dr. Fauci, that the plans are being re-evaluated in real time depending on the dynamic of the virus globally and in each country. So do you have considerations about the virus dynamic in Brazil and also the mutation identified in Brazil that is also in the U.S.?
MR FAUCI: Andy, do you want to take any of those?
MR SLAVITT: I think you’re probably best to take certainly the second one, and probably the first one as well, as it speaks to how we think about infectiousness.
MR FAUCI: Okay. So with regard to Brazil, I mean, Brazil still now has a mutant that is of concern to us, as you know. It’s a mutant that is similar very much to the South African mutation, which as you know has really escaped the protection from several of the monoclonal antibodies and diminishes the efficacy of antibodies induced by the two vaccines that are available, so there is a concern about that with regard to travel. So I think there’s not going to be any change at least in the immediate future of the restriction in Brazil.
What you were talking about about travel restriction, right now what you’re saying is that originally was 14 days. Now quarantine is 10 days without a test and seven days with a test. So you’re asking a valid question. We still are saying that if you’re going to enter the country from a restricted country, you have to have not been in there for 14 days. We have not changed that, but that’s something that we are going to be reconsidering, but it still remains 14 days.
But your question is really quite appropriate, because if you want to be consistent it should probably be looking at it according to what the recommendations are. So I would imagine the CDC, if they are not already doing it, will very soon look at that and try to make it match.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can I have a quick follow-up?
MODERATOR: We only have 10 minutes left, so we’re going to turn to a few other questions. We had two different questions and several advance questions submitted from Czech Radio as well as Nikhi Natarajan from Indo Asian News Service about the availability of vaccines for children under the age of 12, and how far along those trials are, and when we can expect children to be vaccinated.
MR FAUCI: Well, it’s very common, and we do this traditionally, is that before you approve a vaccine in a child, you prove that it’s safe and effective in adult normal population – not that we want to deprive children of vaccination, but because children are vulnerable, and you want to make sure when you have a vulnerable population, you treat them specially.
So here’s what we do. What we do when you finally prove, which we have with the two vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, that are safe and effective – the Pfizer one is already down to age 16, the Moderna is 18 – what we will be doing and we’ve already starting is what’s called age de-escalation studies. You do a Phase 1 or a Phase 2a trial going from sixteen to twelve, twelve to nine, nine to six, and you show that (a) the vaccine is safe in those individuals, and (b) you induce an immune response that’s comparable to the level of the immune response that you showed was effective in a normal adult population.
We would imagine that at least one of those vaccines will have gotten to the vaccine age de-escalation by the time we get to the end of the summer, the beginning of the fall. So we would hope that we would have at least one of the candidates available for children by the time we get to the end of the summer, unless we get into some issue with safety and immunogenicity, but we don’t anticipate that that will be the case.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve had a few questions on the topic of when can we get back to normal life. That comes from Mushfiqul Fazal from Just News BD in Bangladesh.
MR SLAVITT: So when can we get back to normal life is the question?
QUESTION: May I ask?
MODERATOR: That is – yes, if you’d like to elaborate on that.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you, Dr. Fauci for your great work. We are proud of you. And my simple question is: When will we get – when will – we will get back to normal? As the virus started from Wuhan, they already started normal life. So when we will be back to normal as it was before? Thank you very much for your great work again.
MR FAUCI: That could be answered easily by either Andy or I, and it really depends on what – again, the dynamics of the outbreak. And so let me give you a potential scenario.
We have vaccines that we are going to be accelerating in the administration to people in this – in our country, in the United States. And it’s not going to be the same for every other country. But in the United States as a prototype, as an example, when we get maybe 70 to 85 percent of the people vaccinated, we would think that that would be the amount that you would likely need for herd immunity, which means you get a blanket of protection over the country and very little viral activity.
We would hope that if our schedule for vaccinating people goes along with what we’re planning, that we will get to that point probably in the beginning of the fall of this year. And that would mean that we’d have to get an overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated. If you successfully do that, the level of virus would be very, very low in the community. That being the case, we can gradually get back to some degree of normality. It’s not going to be like a light switch that you turn on and off: now, you’re abnormal, then you’re normal. It’s going to be a gradual pulling back in the stringency of the public health measures, such as getting people to be in restaurants maybe with limited seating, getting theaters open again, being in a situation where you could get schools open with no anxiety about spread in the school. I would think if we do it right for us, it’s never going to be completely back to normal – there’s still going to be likely a requirement under certain circumstances to wear masks – but it likely will approach normal sometime as we get to the end of this year, provided the variants don’t give us a problem. But if we can control them, that likely would be.
Now having said that, it might be very different for different countries, so – because what happens in the United States might be different with what happens in another country. As long as you get the level of virus to such a low level where the test positivity is extremely low, then you could start thinking about returning to some degree of normality.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. So we do have a hard stop time here of four o’clock, so I am just going to read a question submitted in the chat box for the last question, and this is from Jahanzaib Ali, Pakistan, ARY News: “Is COVID-19 going to stay in the world forever, and every year we need to get a vaccine?” Last question.
MR FAUCI: Andy, you want to take that?
MR SLAVITT: I think you’re best to probably take that. The only thing I will set up with is obviously, we don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions about the future. We have to plan for multiple scenarios. If what we’re asking in the main is “Do we think the science wins or the virus wins,” there’s no question that the science wins. But the science could be greatly aided by human behavior or greatly diminished by human behavior. So I think that’s very much in all of our hands.
But in terms of, as a practical matter, what that will mean for us every year in terms of the regular vaccinations and so on and so forth, and that – probably best to turn to you, Dr. Fauci, to provide your perspectives.
MR FAUCI: Yeah, okay. No, actually, I just – to echo what Andy said, I mean, he’s absolutely correct. It really – you’re going to depend on the situation on the ground, and the science will dictate it. It is a possibility that you would have a situation where mutants will arrive, usually because there’s viral replication going on somewhere on the planet, and when it’s going on somewhere, there’s the possibility of a mutation which would then ultimately get to any given country.
We would hope that if we get the global cooperation to get everyone that you possibly could get vaccinated, similar to what we did with smallpox, with polio, and with measles, that you would not have a yearly cycle where the infection would come back again like influenza and you would have to re-vaccinate. It is conceivable that that would happen, but it isn’t inevitable that that would happen. So that’s really kind of what Andy was saying: You have to follow the science about what is actually going on.
So what I would hope is that we have enough global cooperation and that within a period of a year or two or more, we can get virtually everyone vaccinated, that we don’t have a cycle where each season you have to come back and be faced with another version of this virus which would require vaccination. Like I said, that is conceivable that would happen. I hope not, but I think by vaccinating as many people as we can globally, we would prevent that from happening.
MODERATOR: On behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I want to thank Dr. Fauci and Mr. Slavitt for your time today. I know it’s disappointing we didn’t get to everybody’s questions, but this concludes today’s briefing, and good afternoon.