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Fauci warns of "potential" for new COVID-19 wave, stressing vaccines and boosters

Full Interview: Dr. Anthony Fauci looks back on COVID-19 response
Full Interview: Dr. Anthony Fauci looks back on COVID-19 response 01:09:43

Washington — Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, warned the U.S. could potentially experience a fifth wave of coronavirus infections, but said increasing the number of Americans who are vaccinated against the virus and receive their booster shots could blunt its severity.

"We certainly have the potential to go into a fifth wave," Fauci told "Face the Nation" in a wide-ranging interview about the U.S. response to the pandemic that aired Sunday. "And the fifth wave, or the magnitude of any increase, if you want to call it that it will turn into a wave, will really be dependent upon what we do in the next few weeks to a couple of months."

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there are 62 million Americans who are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but have not yet gotten their shots, and millions more who were immunized at least six months ago and are now seeing their immunity against the virus wane, precipitating the need for booster shots. 

"If we have a combination of getting as many people as we can get vaccinated as possible who have not yet gotten vaccinated, add on to it the children who are now eligible, the 5 to 11, there's 28 million of those, and getting the many, many people now, 70% of the entire population of adults has been vaccinated, about 80% has been vaccinated. If we do that successfully in a very intensive way, we can mitigate any increase," he said.

The nation is currently experiencing an uptick in the number of COVID-19 infections, up from roughly 70,000 per day. But Fauci said raising the rates of Americans who get vaccinated and boosted could stem the effects of another wave of the pandemic. 

"If we now do what I'm talking about in an intense way, we may be able to blunt that," he 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."

Fauci's comments came before the world began scrambling to contain a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, named Omicron by the World Health Organization and labeled a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations. Concerns about the latest strain and its transmissibility prompted several countries, including the U.S., to restrict travel from southern Africa. No cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in the U.S. to date, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In announcing the travel restrictions from eight countries in the region, which begin Monday, President Biden said in a statement Friday that the emergence of the Omicron variant underscores the need for vaccinated Americans to get their boosters, and unvaccinated Americans to get their shots.

Still, Fauci said those who are vaccinated see their immunity to the virus decrease over time, which adds a degree of uncertainty for determining the level of vaccination needed to reach herd immunity. 

"If you get someone who's vaccinated and he wanes down and gets below a certain level, I don't know whether you can count that as a full protected person, which is the reason why it's a combination not only of getting the total population vaccinated as a primary, but also getting people boosted," he said. 

So far, Americans ages 5 and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, though Fauci said he believes children under 5 will be able to get their shots in the first quarter of 2022, as studies are currently underway on kids 2 to 5, and then six months to 2 years.

"Now they may take longer because the younger you get, the more obviously vulnerable, children are vulnerable," he said. "You got to be extra, especially careful about safety. I don't think there's going to be an issue with efficacy. There's no reason to believe why it will not be efficacious and ultimately effective in the children. But when you're dealing with children, it's a very sensitive area."

While the Biden administration continues working to boost vaccination rates and keep another wave of the pandemic at bay, Fauci suggested it's unlikely COVID-19 will be completely wiped away.

"I don't think we're going to eradicate it. We've only eradicated one infection of mankind, and that's smallpox," he said, adding that "when you have these moving parts, the best way you can get to where you want to go is to just say we're going to vaccinate as many people as we can, we're going to get as many people boosted as we can, and we're going to get that level down. And I think that's going to have to be as low as less than 10,000."

In looking to the future and when the pandemic is under control, he said masks may become more of a fixture in the U.S.

"I think people are going to realize that one of the things that was noticed, very clearly now, is that when you were wearing a mask, when everybody finally realized it was important to wear a mask, that influenza was sort of off the map," Fauci said, noting that analysis shows that masks work outside of the hospital setting.

More than 776,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, and there have been more than 48.2 million confirmed cases. Fauci said with that number of deaths, he would be "astounded" if there weren't a "very serious look at what went right, what went wrong, from a public health standpoint, from a local standpoint, from a global standpoint."

"I don't think that the public should imagine that this is going to go through with already 760,000 Americans dying and 40 plus million at least being infected, close to 6 million people globally dying, and we're not going to look back at this and tear it apart, examine it, do an autopsy on it and try and figure out," he said. "So people should not think that that's not going to happen. It's not happening now because everybody's focusing on getting this thing under control."

Fauci also lamented that in looking back on how the U.S. has responded to the pandemic, the politicization of the pandemic was a costly error.

"The divisiveness in this country to me is the biggest mistake that supersedes everything that we're talking about, supersedes the mask situation, supersedes everything, have a public health catastrophe and you have divisiveness that is pulling away from doing the right thing to get the outbreak under control," he said. "I mean, when we look back historically and look back at this and said we had this devastating plague out there that were killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and we're having public health principles being decided on the basis of political ideology."

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