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COVID-19: 'There's still a lot more that the government could be doing,' virologist says

University of Saskatchewan Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization Virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the issues the government needs to work on when it comes to keeping communities safe as the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year.

Video Transcript

- I mean, this has the potential to spread at a much more rapid rate even if it's not as lethal.

INES FERRE: So we just had this headline with respect to the CDC confirming its first case of the coronavirus in the US.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Confirmed that one case from a traveler from China in Seattle has been confirmed just now by the CDC.

JENNY DURKAN: We went from being probably one of the most booming and productive economies in America with cranes everywhere building new buildings and high unemployment to an economy that is virtually shut down now.

- We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

DONALD TRUMP: To keep New cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.

JEN ROGERS: Our final numbers here-- we'll be below 23,641. That means the Dow enters a bear market.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Wait and see what happens is really the clear message right now from officials across the departments in the US.

AKIKO FUJITA: Welcome to Yahoo Finance Live. I'm Akiko Fujita along with Brad Smith. It was roughly two years ago today when the first COVID-19 case in the US was reported. Test results in Washington state confirmed that case several days later. And over the next hour, we're going to be taking a closer look at the progress that has been made so far and the challenges that still lie ahead.

I want to start, though, with where things stand right now. And, Brad, these numbers really do tell this story. 334 million COVID cases confirmed globally. Roughly 68 million reported in the US, and 854,000 people have died from the virus in this country alone.

BRAD SMITH: That's right. And while the US and the world still battles back against COVID-19, acceleration in scientific research, development, and production, they continue to offer a critical solution. These developments, they come in the form of testing to counter the spread of the virus and vaccines for protection against infection, plus the prevention of hospitalization and death.

So in the US, by the numbers here-- 209.3 million people have now been fully vaccinated with 529 million shots total administered. And as variants prompt demand for people to know whether or not they have been infected, 3.4 million tests were still being administered on January 17, 2022, roughly two years after the first COVID-19 case was tested for, Akiko.

AKIKO FUJITA: You just alluded to that recent wave that we saw in infections. That's led a lot of people to say, you know, why have we not seen the progress that we expected when the vaccines first came out a year ago? We had a chance to speak with top White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci about where things stand today and why some say progress has been slower than expected. Take a listen.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I think virtually everyone thought that when we had a vaccine as effective and safe as the vaccines we'd have now, that we would get enough people vaccinated that we would handle the variant that we were dealing with and that we would have a diminution of infection, not only in the United States, but hopefully, if we were able to get vaccines to the low and middle income countries, that we could also, essentially, get our arms around, as it were, the pandemic globally.

AKIKO FUJITA: Want to bring in Yahoo Finance's Health Care Reporter Anjalee Khemlani, who has really been on top of this story from the very beginning of the pandemic. And, Anjalee, you had that conversation with Dr. Fauci. You know, it's not just about the vaccines, but it's also about the testing.

A lot of people asking themselves, two years on, why is it that it feels like we're kind of going at a slower pace in terms of progress? What more did you hear from Dr. Fauci?

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, that really is part of it, right? And I posed the same question to him, quite honestly, because we also know that with the continued strain on access to testing as well as masking-- we know the Biden administration is set to announce N95s-- and we've seen that upgrade push for masks. All of these things have been largely not communicated well in terms of what is unexpected and what was supposed to be unexpected.

And with every turn, more doubt was sown, more frustration. And in addition, the focus on equity-- and I think that has still largely lagged. We've seen, you know, that it's still been really difficult to make sure that things are equitably distributed or that the focus is on that. We see that with the at-home testing right now-- reports saying that the White House is going to be looking at prioritizing at home tests for lower income individuals or areas where they're really seeing a surge.

And so that really is where we are two years later, where it hasn't been predictable in terms of when the waves will hit or how badly they'll hit. But we know that the waves are expected. And I think that kind of remains the bottom line here.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Anjalee, I know you're sticking around for the hour, but I want to bring in our first guest here, Angela Rasmussen, University of Saskatchewan Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization Virologist. And, Angela, you have been on our show throughout the pandemic sort of giving us guidance as we sort of get the news.

And Anjalee just pointing to what we have seen most recently from the White House, today announcing that they're going to be distributing 400 million N95 masks, also that website for Americans to be able to get those free at-home COVID tests being launched overnight as well. How far does that go when you think about where we are today, the challenges that exist-- how much progress can be made?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Well, I think it certainly is progress, considering that a month, a month and a half ago, there was really no plan to deliver tests to people for free. People were going to only be able to source tests by getting insurance reimbursement for tests that they purchased themselves. There was no recommendation for wearing high quality masks.

So we have made some progress. But as Anjalee pointed out, a lot of this has been communicated badly. And frankly, a lot of this response is too late. It's also insufficient. So four tests per household is really not enough for many-- actually for many households to actually give one test to each person in the household. And if you want to be using those rapid tests regularly to monitor whether or not you might be a risk for transmission to the rest of your community, four tests isn't really going to cut it even in a one-person household. So I think that there's still a lot more that the government could be doing in terms of giving people the tools to monitor their status and to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.

BRAD SMITH: Let's also talk about the deployment of new N95 masks as well. The administration promising free masks. The timing of this, again, coming well after much of the PPE and that personal protective equipment was really being looked for by many households and individuals. And so even as it continues to go out with some of the variants of concern right now, notably Omicron and Delta still as well, what is the effectiveness that the White House is seeking to have with much of the deployment of those masks even now?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Well, I think it's pretty clear that masks are helpful in reducing transmission in the community. And certainly, N95 respirators are more effective than a surgical mask, a medical mask, or a homemade cloth mask, in particular. While all masks provide some benefit in the form of source control, which is effectively preventing people from exhaling potentially infectious particles into their environment, the N95 respirators provide protection for the person wearing them as well.

So they prevent you from inhaling any virus particles that might be floating in the air as aerosols in the space that you're in. And they certainly do make it safer. Now, previously during the pandemic, we weren't able to do this or to make this recommendation because health care workers need those N95 respirators since they are working in such a high risk environment.

But now that we have a surplus of those N95 respirators, I think that getting them out to people for free, since cost is certainly a barrier to using those high quality face masks, is a really good move. And I think we need to make sure that we can keep these respirators in people's hands as they start to return to work, as they return to school, as they return to living their lives outside of their homes once this wave passes.

AKIKO FUJITA: Angela, I wonder, from your vantage point, I see that there are two camps, essentially, out there-- one saying, you know, with Omicron, there are signs that this virus could be less fatal and just something that we can live with. And others are saying that that doesn't necessarily make sense chronologically, doesn't mean that the next variant of concern is not going to be really of concern, can escape vaccine protection, et cetera. How do you see this playing out, especially for how we should consider what 2022 is supposed to look like?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Yeah, I think this discussion about whether Omicron is milder can lead to some really harmful places. So it is certainly good news that in people who've had a prior exposure, prior infection, or have been vaccinated and, ideally, boosted, do tend to have less severe disease caused by Omicron if they have a breakthrough infection.

And I should add, too, that while boosters can't completely protect somebody from getting infected with Omicron, they certainly reduce the risk of being infected. So they do reduce infection, they do reduce transmission. It's really important to get those boosters. But there are still many, many people in the US, 40% of the population, roughly, that's eligible, that have not been vaccinated.

And I'm not convinced that Omicron actually milder in those people. And of the people who are being hospitalized, we are seeing the unvaccinated, again, having the most serious and severe outcomes. Furthermore, people who have been vaccinated who get Omicron don't necessarily-- they might not die, they might not be hospitalized, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's mild. Certainly, people have taken a long time to recover from having a so-called mild case of COVID that doesn't require hospitalization.

So the best thing that we all need to be focusing on is doing everything that we can to reduce prevalence in the community. That means wearing masks, taking precautions, and getting vaccinated and boosted. As you pointed out, Anjalee, there is certainly a possibility that new variants will emerge.

Worldwide, there are still three billion people who have not gotten any doses of any vaccine. So that's certainly fertile ground for new variants to propagate and emerge into the rest of the population. And frankly, we may not be so lucky next time. If it's significantly different than Omicron or any of the other variants that have circulated before, there's certainly the possibility of more breakthrough infections and there certainly the more possibility of a variant that is more pathogenic.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: On the transmission part and getting it to a low point, I know there's lots of discussion now about the endemicity-- tongue twister there-- on this virus. But I wonder, looking back, I think initially, you know, so much was unknown about how quickly the virus would mutate and whether or not it would be concerning mutations. Two years later, what do we know about-- and how did we get to the point where we're talking about edemicity versus getting rid of this virus altogether?

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: So, frankly, I don't think that elimination is going to be possible with this virus. This virus infects a number of different animal species. This is actually one thing that my lab works on. And even if every human being on the planet was vaccinated, there's still potentially susceptible hosts in the form of other animals that this virus could get into.

So endemicity is really what we're talking about. But I don't think a lot of people really have a good understanding of what endemicity means. Endemicity doesn't mean that it's milder, it also doesn't mean that it's spreading like crazy either. It means that there's a regular and predictable level of spread.

So if we get to the point where the global population has reached population immunity, even if new variants that are emerging can infect people who have been vaccinated or immunized, that doesn't necessarily mean that the virus is just going to be spreading among them as if it were spreading through a susceptible population. As I mentioned before, even vaccines that aren't completely protective against infection do reduce transmission.

And part of the reason for this is that they may not be able to stop the infection altogether, but they do reduce the amount of virus that a person is shedding. They reduce the length of time that a person is infected. And at population level, this significantly reduces transmission. And we've eliminated, effectively, or gotten to very, very low, endemic levels of many viruses using vaccines that weren't completely sterilizing-- meaning they didn't completely protect against infection.

So I think that's what we're looking at with endemicity. But again, as long as a third of the human population remains unvaccinated and 40% of the US population remains unvaccinated, this is something that we're going to continue to see. We're going to continue to see epidemic spread of SARS Coronavirus 2 variants like we're seeing with Omicron. And that is not a constant, predictable level of spread.

That is a huge surge in new cases that can potentially overwhelm health care systems. So endemicity is really the goal. But to get there, we need to both reduce the amount of virus that's circulating in the human population and make humans in general less susceptible to being infected by vaccinating and boosting everybody that we can.