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U.S. must be ‘mindful’ as Covid escalates in other countries: Doctor

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Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director Dr. Brian Garibaldi joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest with COVID-19 as new U.S. cases drop to lowest levels in nearly a year.

Video Transcript

- New numbers point to continued improvements in the fight against COVID-19. Nearly 50% of all Americans have now received at least one vaccine shot. And for the first time since June of last year, there are fewer than 30,000 daily COVID cases in the US. Let's bring in Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director. Doctor, we have been speaking to you all throughout through the ups and downs here, so the latest numbers, certainly good news. I think the question a lot of people are wondering right now is, how far are we from declaring this a manageable threat?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think we have to celebrate how things have been going well in the United States, but we also have to remember that this pandemic isn't over until it's controlled in all parts of the world. And what we're hearing out of places like India right now, there's still very widespread infection in many areas in which hospital capacities are being overwhelmed. So I think we need to be very happy where we are in the United States, but I also think we need to recognize our responsibility to help other places in the world. Because as long as this pandemic continues, there's always the threat of new spread, new variants that could potentially evade our vaccine responses.

So I think while we celebrate what's happening in the US, we need to be mindful of our responsibilities to the rest of the world.

- There is certainly a lot of concerns around India as well as other hotspots abroad, but even within the US, if you break it down by States, the vaccination rate does seem really uneven. You've got places like the New England States, of course, that are well above 50%, and then you've got a State like Mississippi that is below 30%. I mean, how big of a risk is it when you've got some of these outliers, about potentially the containment that we see right now that's getting out of hand because certain States just haven't been able to get those rates higher.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's a balance between trying to understand how to motivate people to get vaccinated, but also recognizing that there are still groups in our country who don't have the same access to the vaccine as others. And so I think you've seen a lot of different State-level efforts trying to focus on both of those groups, trying to give people the information they need to make an informed decision, which we hope will mean that they'll go ahead and get vaccinated. But also making sure that we have vaccines available in communities that wanted them, maybe don't have the same level of access.

I think we're going to continue to see a slowdown in vaccine uptake, but hopefully, we'll continue to push ahead. We'll continue to try to understand how to motivate people who are eligible and should get vaccinated, how to convince them that this is the right thing to do for their own health, but also for the health of those around them.

- Yeah, vaccine hesitancy, still a big concern there in trying to get the numbers higher. We've seen a number of public service announcements targeted towards certain communities. We've seen sporting events saying they're going to give discounts, for example, to those who do get vaccinated. What's your sense on how effective these campaigns have been? How much progress has been made?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think it's hard to really gauge the impact of any one of these initiatives. I think people are motivated by so many different reasons to change their behavior, and I think we need to continue to explore all potential ways that we can encourage people to get vaccinated, both in terms of incentives for their own personal benefit for their health, but also, I think some of these incentives about being able to do certain activities or maybe win a financial award. Lots of States are doing vaccine lotteries, if you will, to try to incentivize people financially to go ahead and get the vaccine.

I think as we expand eligibility for the vaccines, perhaps that would also change some people's minds. As we see more and more children 12 to 15 being vaccinated, as we see the safety data coming out from that, I'm hoping that will encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, and maybe that will inspire some of them themselves to get vaccinated.

- And doctor, there continues to be concerns, or I guess questions is the better word, around the origins of COVID-19. You had Dr. Fauci coming out and saying that he's not necessarily convinced that it developed naturally. This "Wall Street Journal" report that came out saying that there are researchers at this Wuhan lab that's been in question that did get so sick they were hospitalized in November, which brings a timeline into question.

What do you make of these headlines that have come out, and does that change how you've been viewing where the origins are or the path of the virus when you trace it back to last year, or 2019?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think what it underscores is the fact that we need more information. We need more transparency. We need more cooperation from what's happening in China for us to understand exactly what was going on in Wuhan in November. We do know that coronaviruses do spread from animal host into humans. There was a study that came out in the last couple of weeks looking at pneumonia cases in Malaysia and, a small percentage of them were actually previously unknown coronaviruses that are probably spread from dogs into people.

So I think it's still most plausible that the spread from an animal host into a human, but I think we need to investigate all possibilities and understand exactly where this came from so that we can develop better surveillance techniques for next time and really be proactive about developing therapeutics and vaccines and countermeasures for the next viral threat.

- And finally, we're about two months out from the Tokyo Olympics, and we've got more and more business leaders coming out, raising concerns about whether, in fact, the event can be held safely. The very latest one, Softbank's Masayoshi Son, saying that it should be postponed or canceled. You've got hospitals and doctors in Japan saying they're already overwhelmed. Knowing the science on the ground and the data, do you think the Olympics should move forward? Do you think it can be held in a safe manner?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I haven't been involved in any of the safety measures that they're looking at to try to keep both athletes safe, but also to keep people in the local community safe. I think they're very real concerns that there are areas in prefectures in Japan right now, their health care systems are reaching capacity. And for many reasons, right now, Japan is behind many of the developed nations in terms of the percentage of their population that's been vaccinated.

Whether or not those things can change over the next several months to be able to have the Olympics safely, I think depends on those local factors, but also depends on what mitigation efforts they put into place for athletes and the many people who are required for the infrastructure to put the games on. So I think these are really legitimate concerns, and I haven't seen yet what the plans are to try to mitigate those concerns to really know if they can safely put the games on.

- Yeah, the vaccination rate, still in single digits there, so to your point, still lagging well behind places like the US. Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit medical director, it's good to talk to you today.