Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, has said the US has “the potential to go into a fifth wave” of coronavirus infections amid rising cases, stagnating vaccination rates, and underwhelming administration of boosters.
Fauci’s comments to CBS’s Face the Nation in an interview to be broadcast in full on Sunday, come as countries scramble to guard against the newly discovered Omicron variant, amid fears of heightened transmissibility and vaccine resistance.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said no Omicron cases have yet been discovered in the US. Fauci did not mention Omicron in his CBS interview, apparently filmed prior to news of the discovery. But on Saturday, he told NBC he “would not be surprised” if the variant were already in the US.
Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, another senior US government scientist, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, said: “I think the main thing that has us focused on this, and it’s caused a lot of us to be sort of 24/7 on Zoom calls in the last four days, is that it has so many mutations.
“Omicron has more than 50 variants that make it different than the original virus, including more than 30 that are in the spike protein … those proteins that sit on the outside of the virus and enable it to get inside your cells … and of course that’s also what the antibodies are directed against.
“So the question is, will the antibodies generated by the vaccines that we have all had or should have had enable us to be protected against this virus?”
Collins also said he thought there was “good reasons to think it will probably be OK but we need to know the real answers to that and that’s going to take two or three weeks.”
On CBS, Fauci said any fifth wave of cases “will really be dependent upon what we do in the next few weeks to a couple of months”.
Fauci pointed to the number of unvaccinated Americans, and the fact that early vaccine recipients might now not be as protected as they once were.
“For example, we have now about 62 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated, who have not yet gotten vaccinated,” Fauci said.
“Superimpose upon that the fact that, unquestionably, the people who got vaccinated six, seven, eight, nine, 10 months ago, we’re starting to see an understandable diminution in the level of immunity. It’s called waning immunity, and it was seen more emphatically in other countries before we saw it here.”
Fauci said an increase in immunization rates, and booster administration, might prevent another surge – but the US had to act aggressively and fast.
“So if we now do what I’m talking about in an intense way, we may be able to blunt that,” Fauci said. “If we don’t do it successfully, it is certainly conceivable and maybe likely that we will see another bit of a surge. How bad it gets is dependent upon us and how we mitigate.”
While more than 70% of US adults are fully vaccinated, the most recent CDC data indicated that cases had increased 16% over the prior week’s seven-day average. By Sunday there had been 48,202,506 cases in the US with 776, 537 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
Fauci was also asked about Republican attacks on his reputation, over federal research prior to the coronavirus pandemic and about his role in the response under the Trump administration.
“Anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this,” he said. “They’re really criticizing science because I represent science. That’s dangerous. To me, that’s more dangerous than the slings and the arrows that get thrown at me.”
Asked if he thought attacks were meant to scapegoat him and deflect attention from Donald Trump’s failures, Fauci said: “You have to be asleep not to figure that one out.”
“I’m just going to do my job and I’m going to be saving lives and they’re going to be lying,” he said.
Amid fears over the spread of the Omicron variant, Joe Biden said on Friday that the US would impose restrictions on air travel from South Africa and seven other countries, which go into effect on Monday.
Biden described the move as “as a precautionary measure until we have more information”.
Collins told CNN: “I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing these things, but the virus is not tired of us and it’s shape-shifting itself. If you imagine we’re on a racetrack here … it’s trying to catch up with us, and we have to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep that from getting into a situation that makes this worse.
“We can do this but we have to do it all together.”