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It looks like Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines would work against any of these new variants: Dr. Francis Collins , Dir. of NIH

Yahoo Finance’s Editor in Chief Andy Serwer speaks with Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health to discuss COVID-19 One Year Later.

Video Transcript


ANDY SERWER: Back to "Yahoo Finance Live." I'm Andy Serwer, and I'm joined by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, great to see you.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Great to see you, Andy. Glad to have a conversation on this significant one-year anniversary.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. Let's just jump right in, because it has become a one-year anniversary day in the sense that this is the day a year ago where America basically came to realize we had a pandemic and began to shut down. How would you assess where we are right now, Dr. Collins?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, it's been a brutal year. Let's be honest about that. 525,000 people lost their lives. I never would have guessed a year ago that it was going to be that bad. And certainly, great harms done to many people's economies as well as the grief and sorrow of lost lives.

We are here now, in March of 2021, on what I would say is a positive trajectory with a lot of encouraging signs now. We're going to approach 100 million people getting injected by the end of this week with a highly safe and effective vaccine. I wouldn't have guessed that would be the case either a year ago. So science has rocketed forward even as we have suffered greatly as a nation.

ANDY SERWER: We spoke 13 months ago, Doctor, and it was February 8. There were less than a dozen cases in the United States at that point, if you imagine. And you said-- and I want to accentuate this one part of this phrase-- "at the present time, there is no reason for considerable anxiety in America," at the present time. So do you remember your thinking changing?

FRANCIS COLLINS: I do. And it began to change shortly after that with the realization that this was a virus that was capable of infecting people who had no symptoms, and some of whom would never get symptoms, others of whom might develop symptoms two or three days later. But this was the worst case you could imagine for a virus that you would try to control with public health measures because you couldn't really know who was spreading it, who was the next super spreader without even being aware that they had it.

We hadn't expected that. That's not the way SARS behaved. That's not the way MERS behaved. But it's the way SARS-COV-2 behaved. And that put us in a much more difficult place in terms of trying to end this pandemic. And frankly, one of our best weapons at that point was the realization we really should be encouraging everybody to get out there and wear masks when you're outside. But we didn't do so well in convincing a lot of people to do so. Let's just say this has been a terribly difficult 12 months of trying to identify the right scientific strategies and then convincing people to take advantage of them.

ANDY SERWER: What have you learned over the past year, Dr. Collins?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, I've learned a lot about how we can, in the face of a pandemic, do things scientifically in ways that we have never really done before just in terms of getting rid of all the downtime, speeding up the process, building partnerships with industry that we've never really quite taken to this level, coming up with ways that NIH could effectively serve as a venture capital organization for nurturing new technologies as, for instance, in diagnostic testing. We'll never be the same.

I think we learned a lot. We made a lot of progress. The vaccine effort coming forward at a time table that most of us really didn't think was going to be possible because we had all hands on deck. The idea of doing this at-risk manufacturing of vaccines even before you knew if they were going to work-- that hadn't been done. There's so many things. There's many books that are going to be written about this. And we will, going forward, be in a place that's different than we would have had the chance to do if it had not been for this pandemic.

ANDY SERWER: I want to look forward, but one more backward-looking question, maybe, and that is, what could we have done better?

FRANCIS COLLINS: We certainly could have done better in terms of our abilities to convey the public health messages in a way that people would have understood the basis for them and that they would not have gotten all tied up in political considerations. The idea that something as simple as a mask, this thing, would become a political statement or something that had to do with your personal freedom as opposed to what it really is, which is a lifesaving medical device-- we could have done a lot better there.

And because we missed the opportunity really to get those messages across, I think a lot of cases happened, and a lot of people died. So yeah, that is a diagnosis of sorts for our communication capabilities and for, frankly, the polarization of our country, that even in a place like this with something as desperately important as trying to save lives, a lot of other overlays got in the way of getting the facts in front of people. And the difference between truth and opinion got blurred.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you about vaccines. You mentioned them, of course. But when do you think we'll all get vaccines, or really enough Americans? Because not every American is maybe going to need a vaccine, even. What is your take on that?

FRANCIS COLLINS: We're moving forward now with great rapidity. More than 2 million injections a day happening now, and we will probably hit 3 million before the end of March. And as the president has laid out now with the additional purchases that have been possible, there should be enough doses for every American who wants one to get immunized by the end of June.

And that doesn't even count a couple of the vaccines that are currently in the process of finishing their trials. So AstraZeneca in the US hasn't yet come forward with their trial results, and Novavax is not too far behind that. But even now with Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, we have an amazing inventory of vaccines that are safe and effective that will make it possible for people who are interested to get immunized by June.

ANDY SERWER: And when I said not everyone maybe needs to be vaccinated, I want to ask you about that. What I meant is small children. Do they need to be vaccinated, number one? And number two, how do we combat vaccine fear?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, children are not yet being offered the vaccine because the trials are still underway. We want to be sure that the vaccine is safe and effective in individuals under the age of 16 or 18. Those trials are going on right now for kids down to age 12. We won't really know the results of those for a few more months. And for kids under 12, it'll be the fall before those trial results happen.

We think that's OK. Schools, for instance, should be able to function with the teachers vaccinated, even if the kids are not. So this will be going forward, but it shouldn't be rate-limiting in getting a lot of our society back to where it should be. But the vaccine hesitancy issue that you raise is a really serious one. And even the more recent polls would suggest that this is reducing somewhat.

We may still have 25%, 30% of Americans who say, I'm not sure I want to do this. And if that happens and we fail to reach this herd immunity, which is going to take 70% to 85% of Americans immune, then this could go on a lot longer. It could give a lot more opportunity for those nasty variants to emerge that we're getting worried about.

ANDY SERWER: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, more from Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Stay tuned.


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ANDY SERWER: Welcome back to "Yahoo Finance Live." We're here again with Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, I'm assuming you got vaccinated. When was that?

FRANCIS COLLINS: I got my first dose of Moderna on December 23 and the second dose exactly four weeks later, as is supposed to be the case with that vaccine. So I'm well outside that interval, and I should be 95% effectively protected against infection. And it is also a safe vaccine that NIH had a lot to do with, so this was a very happy moment. I got a little emotional.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. I've heard other people have as well. And I look forward to getting my vaccine next month, I think. When will we be back to normal, Dr. Collins?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, define normal, Andy, because I don't think we'll ever go back to quite the way we were before this in some fairly trivial ways, for instance. So for instance, as NIH director, I used to spend an awful lot of time taking very long trips to meetings where I might speak for 45 minutes and then get back on a plane and go home again. You know, you can do this kind of thing pretty effectively using Zoom and other measures.

So I think we will adjust our lives accordingly, and there'll be a lot more people interested in telework than before because we figured out how that can work. But you're really asking, when can we do the things we want to do? When can I go to a ball game? When can I have my daughters and my grandkids be around me and be able to hug them again, which I have really missed doing for the last year?

I think we're going to get there by the summer within a lot of circumstances. Is it middle summer? Is it late summer? I don't quite know. I'm already thinking-- because my daughters are both health care providers, so they're getting immunized. My wife will get her second dose soon. I should be able to gather with my daughters in the same place, take our masks off, and have dinner together and hug each other. And that is something I'm really looking forward to.

So it's going to happen gradually. It's not like flipping a light switch. It's going to be bit by bit. CDC is going to keep putting forward ideas about how we can do this safely. Please pay attention to those. This is not a time to stumble as we're approaching the finish line.

ANDY SERWER: You mentioned airplane. Would you get on an airplane right now or stay in a hotel?

FRANCIS COLLINS: I think airplanes are actually remarkably safe. The data would suggest there's almost no disease transmission that's happening on planes. Everybody is required to wear masks. They're keeping people seated far apart.

If I needed to go somewhere on an airplane right now that was essential, I would figure out a way to do it. It hasn't happened yet in the last 12 months, but I think we're getting closer to that all the time.

ANDY SERWER: You've worked for so many presidents. I've actually lost track. I'm assuming you know. Tell us how many presidents you've worked for. And most importantly, what is the difference between working for President Trump and working for President Biden?

FRANCIS COLLINS: Well, I came to NIH in 1993 to lead the Human Genome Project. So if you count that, that would include Clinton and George W. Bush. But then I was hired as the NIH director by Barack Obama. I figured I'd be done with that after eight years, was asked to stay on by Trump, and now here again asked to stay on by Biden. So I'm in my third month for my third president for being the director of the National Institutes of Health.

And yeah, it's different. People are very different. We now have a White House that's very tuned into science, very much asking for scientific input on everything, getting quickly up to speed. Man, am I doing a lot of briefings. And that's good. I'm glad to share that information. The previous White House-- not so much in that same space, more inclined to be guided by other kinds of information than by the scientific details that we were always happy to provide but didn't get asked that often.

ANDY SERWER: I can see why you've lasted through different administrations. You're somewhat diplomatic.

FRANCIS COLLINS: I'm still here.

ANDY SERWER: I want to talk to your famous report, that being Dr. Anthony Fauci. He works for you, of course. And he's been a rock star for decades for people who know the medical field, but now millions of people have gotten to know him and his work this past year. How would you assess the job that Tony Fauci did?

FRANCIS COLLINS: He is absolutely fabulous. He would be considered by almost everybody the most significant expert in infectious disease in the world. And he's been doing the job that he's doing right now for 37 years, leading the infectious disease component of NIH, working through all of those traumas of HIV/AIDS, ultimately through other things like influenza, Ebola, Zika, and now SARS-COV-2.

And he is incapable of doing anything other than being an absolutely dedicated public servant who's going to tell you the truth, whether you like to hear it or not. And that's not always won him friends, but it's what we need in this time where public health information is critical. And Tony is the guy to do it. And I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to have him as one of my army of experts, the most notable to be exact. He and I interact with each other multiple times a day about all the things we're trying to do together.

ANDY SERWER: I want to shift back to the pandemic and ask you about variants. Could those significantly prolong the US outbreak?

FRANCIS COLLINS: If there's a cloud on what otherwise looks like a pretty good horizon, it's these variants, the ones from the UK, from South Africa, from Brazil, which do have a different shape of their spike protein on the surface of the virus that could make it the case that the original approach to this might not be quite as effective. And particularly, we're worried if any of these would make our current vaccines no longer protective.

Right now, we're OK, even though these are of some concern. It looks as if the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson vaccines would work against the ones I've just mentioned. But we're watching closely to be sure there's not something coming along that's even more of a threat to that. If we have to, we can redesign the vaccines and rather quickly get them out there as a booster. But I hope we don't have to do that.

ANDY SERWER: That probably leads us to this next question, the last question to ask you, Doctor, which is, is the US prepared for the next pandemic?

FRANCIS COLLINS: We've learned a lot from this one, and we must not go back into complacency when this gets over with. Because we've done that a few times in the past-- sort of activated our pandemic preparedness and then let it slip a bit. This time after this worst pandemic in 103 years, I am very hopeful we won't make that mistake.

We've got a lot of technologies like this messenger RNA approach to make vaccines that we now know will work and can be done very quickly. That's going to help us. We've learned also how to do drug development and to get things into clinical trials for treatment faster than ever. And we have new technology approaches to be able to diagnose quickly who's infected and who isn't.

So I think we're much better prepared, but I sure don't want to be smug about that. We need to have all of our attention on whatever is lurking out there next, because there probably will be something.

ANDY SERWER: Indeed. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health thank you so much for joining us.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Glad to be with you, Andy. Anytime.