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Health & Science

Making Sense Of The Latest COVID-19 Surge In The U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Exhausted health care workers disagreement over booster shots at the FDA, disappointing jobs numbers and a large part of this country still unvaccinated as a new variant is detected on these shores. 1,500 people are now dying a day from COVID. The turmoil brought on by this pandemic is far from over. In a moment, we'll hear about the fallout for the Biden administration. But first, we're going to get some perspective from epidemiologist Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University on what the fall and winter could bring.

Welcome.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Good morning, Lulu. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am well. I want to start with the disagreements over booster shots. The Biden administration has set a deadline to get boosters approved. There is disagreement that's been reported at the FDA. Some are accusing the White House of meddling in science. What's your view?

DEL RIO: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that, you know, we don't need to set up a date. What we need is to let the process happen. I think, you know, the FDA advisory committee has to review the data, that VRBPAC has to review the data. The scientists have to look at the data, have to make a recommendation. And then we need to have the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices make a recommendation. This has already happened that way for immunocompromised patients, and it went well. So we need to let the process happening. And rather than having a date as a deadline, we need to let the scientists make the decisions based on the data. And they will then tell us what needs to be done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But certainly, delta is more contagious. And other countries have already started offering booster shots or putting plans in place to offer them, especially for vulnerable populations.

DEL RIO: Well, we're already doing that. We're already doing it for vulnerable populations. I think the question right now is, you know, do we need to do it for elderly populations, for health care workers, for residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes? I think so. But again, let's think about - let's look at the data and make a decision. You have to remember that the only vaccine currently having full FDA approval is the Pfizer vaccine. With the Pfizer vaccine, you can do it fairly quickly. You can really trust the CDC just to make a recommendation looking at the data. But you also have the Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and it'll be very hard to say, well, you received the Pfizer. You need to do this. But you received Moderna. You need to do this other thing. There's some data, for example, suggesting that people who have received the Moderna vaccine have much higher levels of antibodies than those that receive the Pfizer vaccine. So their requirement of a booster may be very different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, speaking of contagious variants, we have a new variant that has been detected. It was originally found in Colombia. It's called the mu variant. And there is some concern that it may be immune to the vaccine. What do we know?

DEL RIO: Well, you know, this is now the - a new variant, as you say, that was detected first in Colombia in January. As of last week, it has been detected pretty much in almost everywhere in the U.S. Forty-seven states have detected it. It still is a minority of cases. The state with the highest number of mu variants is Alaska, that has - you know, it's less than 4% of their total sequence - continues to be the delta variant, continues to be the most frequent, the most commonly seen. The delta variant - the mu variant is now considered by the WHO what we call a variant of interest, so one that needs to be monitored and needs to be looked at. We do know in the laboratory that the new variant is less susceptible to vaccines, that - the monoclonal antibodies. But we don't know that in clinical settings. And again, that will be - the new variant will be one of the reasons why - to see, do we need a booster? But, you know, again, we don't, not have data. If you boost somebody, will you be protecting it against that variant?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, more variants will keep popping up, right? I mean, our world is interconnected. Does this mean that this pandemic - and I am loath to say this - lasts for years?

DEL RIO: Well, you know, we don't know. I mean, pandemics - I remind people pandemics end, but we don't decide when they end. The virus, the immune system, the population decides when it ends. We have two things happening right now. We have a highly contagious virus, easily to transmit. We also have uncontrolled infection in most parts of the world. And we have a world that is totally interconnected, right? We're traveling everywhere. We're seeing each other. This is very different from 1918, 1919, where people didn't move around as much. They didn't have as much connectivity. So I think that changes also the dynamics of a pandemic. And we really don't have any idea of what will be required. You got to remember that, you know, the delta variant emerged in India, right? And then from India, it went to Europe, and then it came here. And at some point in time, well, all of us were looking at India and saying, when is that problem going to get to us? But maybe very few people even thought it was going to get to the U.S. In fact, you know, I think many of our authorities, including CDC, I'm sure, started to do the monitoring. But you've got to remember that they decided to stop masking, and they decided to stop even doing sequencing and look - and tracking asymptomatic reinfections right at the moment that the new variant, the delta variant, was surging. So I think we need to be better prepared to be tackling this variant and to really be addressing this issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must say we have been talking throughout this pandemic, and I didn't think after we got the vaccines that I'd be asking you about a U.S. daily death toll topping 1,500 again. As we head into the fall, you know, in the few seconds we have left, what are your concerns?

DEL RIO: Well, my concern is that we don't have a high number of the population still fully vaccinated. We are at 53%. We need to get up there. We need to get the vaccines for children approved, so more children can get vaccinated. And we need to to be ready to continue having periods of masking and periods of social distancing because if we don't do that, you know, we're still going to have surges coming and going. And you're absolutely right. The fact that we're averaging over a thousand deaths a day to me is just mind-boggling. It is just very, very sad to see that this number of people are continuing to die. The Institute for Health Care Metrics and Evaluation (ph) estimates that by December, we're going to be over 750,000 Americans who have died of this disease. That is simply, you know, just very, very sad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. That was Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory University. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.