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New COVID-19 variants are a sign of ‘our inability to control the virus’ in the U.S.: Doctor

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Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine will still protect recipients from virus variants. Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director Dr. Brian Garibaldi joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's bring a bring in our first guest for the hour. We've got Dr. Brian Garibaldi. He is Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director. And doctor, the CDC has already warned the UK very and could be the dominant source of infection in the US by March. There's a number of other variants Anjalee just walked us through. What are you seeing in your emergency rooms, and how prevalent do you think the spread of some of these variants are right now?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think, unfortunately, we honestly don't know. We've seen the UK variant in a number of states now. Over hundreds of cases have been documented, but we're really behind in terms of our ability to actually sequence the virus that's circulating in the community. So we honestly don't know how widespread it is right now. But I think it's probably true that if the epidemiologic data from the UK bears out here in the US, it will be one of the more dominant strains that we're going to be seeing over the next few months.

We don't know if the South African variant is here yet. We haven't had a documented case of it, but it's very likely that it already is here. And I think it's just another reminder that we need to step up our surveillance efforts. But we also in general need to be thinking about how we can control the spread of this virus independent of these variants.

The number of infections that we have in the United States alone is alarming. And as we have more infections, the virus has more opportunities to continue to mutate. And so, these will not be the only variants that we're going to be worried about in the coming months, I would imagine.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, Dr. Garibaldi, obviously, that carries its own issues there when we think about effectiveness of these vaccines. And we are going to get into that later on with the CEO of Moderna. But they stressed so far that they did see a [INAUDIBLE] decrease South African strain, but say that it's still going to be effective in preventing and helping patients out there prevent themselves from getting COVID.

But when we think about that, obviously, six-fold not good. So what else is alarming there when you think about other strains that could pop up in reducing the efficacy of these vaccines?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's important to remember that these studies right now are still preliminary. They haven't been peer reviewed. And they're also being done, looking at how well antibodies in a test to neutralize the virus, and the immune system is obviously more complicated than that. So we think that the level of neutralization we're seeing from these vaccines towards these new variants will probably be above the threshold needed to prevent them from being widespread.

But yeah, I think people are concerned, and I think rightly so, that the 95% efficacy we're seeing with Pfizer and Moderna in the clinical trials may not bear out to be that high in the community, as you have these variants circulating.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, Anjalee reporting there that Merck shutting down its vaccine program today. We've heard from a number of guests that have come on the show that say that the two that are on the market certainly aren't enough to get to that level of herd immunity, anywhere from 70% to 80% of the population vaccinated. How significant a setback is this news?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's concerning because, obviously, these are companies that have experience in developing vaccines. But the number of companies and the number of vaccine candidates that have made it to phase II and now phase III trials is just unprecedented.

And so, while, you know, obviously, we'd rather have seen better results from Merck's vaccine, there are other companies that are approaching the stage of perhaps even getting emergency use authorization here in the US. And so, I think there are more vaccines that are coming down the pipeline for sure.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, one of those companies being Johnson & Johnson. As Dr. Fauci says, it could be a matter of weeks before we see an emergency use authorization move forward there. But that efficacy remains a question as well. So when you start to piece together how many vaccines will be coming from Moderna and Pfizer, with potential Johnson & Johnson vaccines coming through, what do you maybe grade our progress at on that, as we continue to see vaccinations per day move above one million?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think we're-- you know, we still need to get a better handle on the actual distribution piece. Obviously, demand is going to outstrip supply in these early months. But we're seeing just a widespread variation from state to state in how people are getting access to the vaccines, how complicated the process is, how transparent the process is. And it's not even clear how many vaccine doses we have available from the United States government.

And when states have to plan for how they're going to allocate and move on to the next tier of people who are eligible to be vaccinated, it's really hard to do that when you don't have a clear sense of what my vaccine allocation is going to be in the coming weeks to months.

AKIKO FUJITA: And on that distribution front, there's a number of concerns, especially from those who are 65 and older about what the availability is going to be and whether, in fact, that second shot, whether it's Pfizer or Moderna is actually going to be there. The calculation seems to be, look, should I be lining up right now if I don't know four weeks from now the second shot's going to be there? What's your advice?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, you know, I think right now, given how widespread the virus is circulating right now, if you have an opportunity to get vaccinated in your eligibility group, I would go ahead and get vaccinated. It's much better to get that first shot in your arm. And I think it's very likely that for the foreseeable future, we'll be able to meet that second shot demand, but I think getting that first shot, there's reason to believe that it will have at least some efficacy after about 10 to 12 days.

And so, if you are in one of those higher risk groups that's eligible right now, I would go ahead and get vaccinated right now and not worry about what might happen down the road. Obviously, we're worried about it, but I would get that first shot in as soon as you can.

ZACK GUZMAN: And Dr. Garibaldi, I wonder what your take might be on maybe some of these travel restrictions. Of course, President Trump really, you know, patting himself on the back for his moves there against China. Of course, we're seeing similar moves now in the Biden administration to restrict travel. How much more important does that become?

Because some critics would say, look, you already have COVID in the country and our own issues we're dealing with here. But when you talk more about strains coming from across the globe, we're seeing more countries, not just the US, impose those travel bans. So how important does that become as an expert in Biocontainment moving forward?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's hard to say. You know, I think they would be much more important if we had better control of the virus here at home, right? I mean, I think it's very likely now that many of these variants are already here and are already beginning to spread. And so, while it'll be important to try to prevent new introductions of those variants into the country as best as we can,

I think it's as important, if not more important, to focus on how we can get fewer than-- right now, we had 130,000 new infections yesterday. And to put that into comparison, China reported 80 new infections, right? I mean, so we have a huge problem ahead of us. And the variants are just really a symptom of our inability to control the virus in our own shores.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, just to reiterate the point here, I think there's a lot of confusion about what is changing right now because of these new variants that have now come to the surface. In terms of the preventative measures, is there anything that needs to be changed here, whether it is the mask-wearing, whether it's a double mask, or whether it is the social distancing? Has anything changed fundamentally on that front as a result of these new strains we've learned about?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it reemphasizes the need for us to be careful in both our own personal lives, but also to collectively support each other to do the right thing. And so, mask wearing, obviously, you know, we've learned a lot about mask efficacy. And there certainly are some masks that are better than others. But at the end of the day, wearing any mask is better than not wearing a mask at all.

We need to be particularly careful about spending time indoors, particularly if you're not able to wear a mask right now. I mean, that's-- we know that this virus spreads well indoors. And these new variants probably spread, estimates are maybe even 50% more effectively. And I think that's going to be a real challenge, particularly in areas that have colder weather and more people are going to be congregating more inside.

So, avoiding those interactions if you can, wearing a mask all the time when you're outside of your home, I think is a good idea. And trying to make sure that you have a mask that fits well-- obviously, if we could all wear N95 masks, that would be an amazing thing, but I don't think we have the production capabilities yet. That may be coming in the coming months.

But when I'm out outside of my home or even in the hospital, but not in the patient care area, I wear a double cloth mask with a very tight tie-on seal, and that's been shown to be as effective, if not more effective, than a regular surgical mask.

ZACK GUZMAN: All right, Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director, always love having you on the show to break it all down for us. Be well, and thanks again for coming on.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Thank you. Stay safe, everybody.