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Doctor on vaccine push: 'These vaccines work extremely well and that’s something to celebrate'

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University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health Dr. Michael Saag joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest spike in COVID-19 cases.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: COVID-19 cases in Michigan are rising to alarming levels-- hospitals in the state pointing to a 30% jump over the last week. The UK variant of the virus making up nearly 70% of new cases there, but the federal government says it is not adding to its vaccine allocation to the state just yet. Let's bring in Dr. Michael Saag. He's Associate Dean for Global Health at University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Saag, always good to talk to you. You think it's time for the federal government to reconsider its decision in adding to Michigan's supply, especially given what we've seen transpire?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, perhaps. And as you said, I think the cause of this is that UK variant that's spreading like wildfire, as almost expected because that variant is much more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 that we saw. Good news is the vaccines do work against that particular variant, so it may be helpful. I think it's important to note that the vaccines are distributed to states based on a per capita basis.

So they've gotten their share, and they, in fact, vaccinated-- about 24% of their total population have already been fully vaccinated. So they're on par with everybody else. I don't think it's unreasonable to send them a little bit more vaccine, but they really do need to hunker down a little bit more on the other mitigation strategies.

ZACK GUZMAN: And, Dr Saag, I mean, I was looking at the numbers too, and it sounds like Michigan's vaccine rollout is pretty much going as expected in terms of-- the middle of the pack and in terms of states rolling this out. And when you look at maybe where this new spike in cases is coming, from it's it's coming from the cohort, it looks like, ages 20 to 29, which, you know, might not be the most vaccinated population-- tends to be older Americans right now.

So when you look at that, and you might hear from people saying, uh oh, what's the deal with vaccines if it's not working as intended? How do you tease that out and maybe say, look, a spike is not the same as a spike in cases we saw maybe back in the summer of last year, and that this is still working the way it should?

MICHAEL SAAG: That's exactly right. In our hospital, for example, I have to look hard to find a patient in the hospital who's over 60 years old. And our numbers have come down overall. But the patients who are in the hospital are mostly those between ages 20 and 50. And as you said, it's because they haven't been vaccinated yet. These vaccines work extremely well, and that's something to celebrate.

So if we move more vaccines into Michigan, the reason to do it would be to reduce the caseload and try to prevent ongoing transmission of this UK variant out of a concern that it could mutate further and perhaps become less responsive to the vaccine. That would be the main reason.

AKIKO FUJITA: We've seen the rate of vaccinations really pick up over the weekend-- more than 4 million in terms of one day-- certainly good news. But we've got Johnson & Johnson having to throw out a number of vaccines because of quality control issues. How big of a concern is that when you consider the overall supply and the expectation that there would be a number of these Johnson & Johnson vaccines that were expected to come online this week as vaccinations open up to the general public?

MICHAEL SAAG: Right. We lost about 15 million units of vaccines through that snafu at the Baltimore processing plant. But here's, I think, some really good news hidden in the story-- and that is it underscores how rigorous the production process is. They found the error, they shut it down, as opposed to just letting these errors go out into the population.

And when people were questioning, oh, is this vaccine safe? Well, the studies were done impeccably well. As we saw from AstraZeneca's experience-- when it doesn't go well, we hear about it. And it has gone remarkably well for Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J overall. But when the production has a problem, we find it, we shut it down, it's a temporary setback. But in the big picture, that's good news. It gives us some confidence that people are watching the store and that the vaccines that are coming out are very safe.

ZACK GUZMAN: Dr Saag, just one more for me in terms of where we're at in this battle to vaccinate versus the variants-- it was interesting to see one new Israeli study looking at that South African variant and the way that they saw more cases than they would have otherwise expected in that study coming from the variant versus the Pfizer vaccine. And when you look at that, again, it might tie back to this idea of what you're trying to avoid here, which is patients dying or catching severe cases of coronavirus. But talk to me about what you're seeing so far in terms of the efficacy of these vaccines holding up to the variants out there now.

MICHAEL SAAG: So far, we're having good news on that front. As you alluded to, we knew that the South African variant was going to be a little less responsive to the vaccine because we saw that with the J&J study when it was done in South Africa. They had 59% efficacy compared to 73% efficacy in the United States. But throughout that study, despite more infections that were symptomatic, no hospitalizations, no deaths, even with the South African variant.

And at the end of the day, that's what we want to do. My concern now is that we're going to be shifting from a supply problem to a demand problem-- as we said, 4 million doses a day. We're going to have more vaccine available to the population by, let's say, June than we will have people willing to get the vaccine. And at the end of the day, what I'm seeing and what I'm concerned about are people being hesitant to being resistant to getting the vaccine.

And it goes back to the adage from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young-- find the cost of freedom buried in the ground. I mean, if we are going to hold on to our freedoms so tightly that they can't tell me to get a vaccine, OK, the price we're going to pay is continuing cases and deaths. So we really want to be careful about how we roll this out and convince people that getting vaccinated not only protects themselves, but the people around them. And that's critically important.

ZACK GUZMAN: You know, Dr Saag, you've been on with us for quite some time in this pandemic, you always bring us a reference there. I was waiting for it-- find the cost of freedom. There it was at the end of the interview. Luckily, on that note, things are moving in the right direction. But, Dr. Michael Saag, I always love having you on-- University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health. Thanks again for the time.