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U.S. needs to be 'really careful about optimism' for COVID-19 vaccines: Doctor

Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director Dr. Brian Garibaldi joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss the his outlook on the COVID-19 vaccine race as U.S. cases surpass 4.9 million.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Dr. Deborah Birx is now warning of an uptick in nine cities, including Baltimore, Atlanta, and Portland. So, to chat more on this, we're joined now by Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director. Doctor, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to start with some of those spikes that we are seeing, even in your city of Baltimore, of course, where Johns Hopkins is located. As you are looking at this, I mean, what do you think is behind some of these surges? Is it coming down to reopening too fast? Is it coming down to the travel that some people might be doing? What is really the cause behind it?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yeah, no, I think-- I think these rises in infections are, you know, they lag by two to three weeks from certain activities. And I think we're all worried that what we're seeing might still be the tail end of 4th of July and lots of group outings and get-togethers there, but, also, people potentially going on vacation and stepping outside of their, perhaps, what had been a bubble previously. You know, I think that that's always a risk.

In reality, I mean, I think this is what we're going to be experiencing until we have an effective vaccine or until we have a collective handle on how we want to deal with things like universal masking or precautions that we know are going to work in the absence of a vaccine. We're going to have these fits and starts where some cities are going to get it together, and then they're going to relax a little bit. And then they're going to have a little bit of a surge.

And I think the big unknown that we're all worried about, but we're starting to see some concerning data about, is, you know, what happens when we open schools in the districts that plan on doing either in-person or some sort of hybrid learning. You know, we know that schools are potentially a-- a vector for transmission. And I think it's, you know, communities are making these decisions on their own.

And I think they're-- we're going to see variable effects. And some of it's going to be based on the policies they put in place, but some of it, honestly, is going to be based on bad luck. You know, did the wrong-- you know, the numbers looked good, but there just happened to be one kid in a class who-- who starts an outbreak in a school. So I think those are all things we're going to be looking for over the next, you know, month, as these things start-- start opening.

KRISTIN MYERS: I'm glad you mentioned the school reopening. I wanted to ask you about that. I'm wondering, as you're mentioning, you know, universal mask mandates, each of these communities doing these things on their own, in your mind, and, you know, given your expertise, should there be something that is universal when it comes to, one, wearing masks, something universal, perhaps, even in the decision to reopen schools?

Should the United States say-- should, you know, the Department of Education, so on a federal level, say, listen, forget what you guys are doing on a state and city level? We're making a decision across the board. We are shutting down schools for the next couple of months in every state and every city and every town and community.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yeah, no, I think we have to have some degree of flexibility because there are areas in the country that are certainly at a lower risk right now of schools becoming, you know, a nidus for new outbreaks, but-- but I do think we need to be a little bit more forceful about the things that we know work. You know, there's no reason right now why-- why people should be indoors somewhere not wearing a mask. There's no reason that people should be gathering in large gatherings right now when we know that, you know, the indicators in any given area are going to lag by a little bit. And testing right now, in most places, the turnaround time is so long that it's not effective for contact tracing.

So, you know, I don't think we should have a universal mandate on schools. There should be the opportunity for school systems to be flexible and to take advantage of the possibility of doing some in-person education in areas where it might be safe, but-- but, for simpler things that-- that I think we know are effective, like wearing masks, I can't imagine-- and I see this. You know, and Baltimore is a pretty good city in terms of masking, but there are still some people who are not wearing masks when they're-- when they're out and about. And I just don't understand that right now, based on the data we have and the fact that it's a simple thing to do and can save lives.

KRISTIN MYERS: So, on that vaccine front, you said that, you know, we're not really going to be getting a handle on this, especially not the way we've been treating this virus, until we get a vaccine. Well, we have news from the president who says that there's a possibility we could have a vaccine by the election. That's just, for anyone who has not checked their calendars, that's less than three months away from right now.

We have gotten some pretty positive news, doctor, about-- from various pharmaceutical companies about not just treatment, but a potential vaccine. But, when you hear three months, that seems very soon. I mean, how optimistic are you that, November 3, we'll be able to, you know, start giving people some sort of treatment or even a vaccine for this virus?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yeah, I think we have to be really careful about the optimism around vaccines. You know, we've talked before on this program about all the other viruses that we said we'd have a vaccine in a year. I mean, back in 1987, we were going to have an HIV vaccine, right? It's been how many decades since? And we're nowhere close to having an effective vaccine. And we still, despite decades of research on influenza vaccine, there is no universal influenza vaccine, and the effectiveness varies from year to year.

So, even if we do have a vaccine that, you know, looks good in the phase III clinical trial, I think October is really optimistic. November is really optimistic. But the likelihood that we're going to be able to distribute and, you know, have widespread effectiveness that early, I think it would be amazing if we did. And, so far, every benchmark that you'd want to hit for effective vaccine development has been met by many of these companies, which is fantastic news.

But I don't think we can just say, oh, we've just got to hang on until January, and we're going to be fine. I think we need to be working on the things that, you know, the traditional public health measures that we know work for infection control. And we need to have those in place.

I mean, I think it's-- it's really sad right now that many places will not be able to open their schools because we, as communities, have not done the simple things that we know how to do. We've made different choices, and we're now in a situation where, while, yeah, infections have been down over the last couple of weeks, we're still-- I mean, our having 50,000 infections a day in this country is-- is, I mean, a tremendous number of infections. And-- and we are so far behind where we should be in terms of compared to the rest of the world. So I think we have to be really careful about that optimism.

KRISTIN MYERS: So I want to ask you something that I feel like everyone has been talking about personally-- we've been talking about even ourselves here at Yahoo Finance-- which is how much longer is this going to go on. And I don't think I've ever asked anyone that. I mean, I remember, when we went into lockdown, we thought we'd be back in the office in two weeks. Then we thought a month, then two months.

We're now looking at the fall. People are talking about this going on into 2021. We know how long, you know, the flu lasted in 1918. So I'm wondering, in your mind and with your expertise, as you're looking at this, could we still be talking about coronavirus in 2022, 2023, 2024 and beyond?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yeah, I mean, I think it's possible. You know, I think it's unlikely that this is ever going to be completely eradicated. I think it's very likely that we're going to have, you know, some degree of periodicity to outbreaks of coronavirus. Whether or not we're still talking about it in this way where we're shutting down activities and changing around our complete social structure and economic structure in a year I do think depends a lot on whether or not we have a successful vaccine that can really get the number of infections down to the point where contact tracing can be effective, and we can be a little bit more liberal in the types of activities we can safely engage in.

So I think we'll know over the next few months whether or not that's going to be possible in early 2021, but, you know, I think we-- we do need to be looking at the long game here. There's a good chance that we're going to be talking about this next summer and into next-- next fall.