The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, that aired Sunday, December 19, 2021, on "Face the Nation."
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. Good morning. And before we begin, Doctor, I want to note that this is your last day as director. You're not retiring, but you are stepping aside from NIH, so thank you for your service to the country.
NIH DIRECTOR DOCTOR FRANCIS COLLINS: Thanks, MARGARET, it's great to be with you this morning.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But as you step aside, it seems like the virus, though, is- is not going along with you. In fact, this Omicron variant seems to be raging around the world. Did you see this mutation coming and is our health system prepared for what is about to hit?
DR. COLLINS: Yeah, this is a big challenge. You know, MARGARET, we have seen multiple examples of new variants appearing over the course of the last year, and they get all those Greek letter names Alpha, Beta, Delta, and now Omicron. Omicron, though, is a really wily new way that the virus has figured out how to emerge. This one is like 57 mutations, about 30 of which we haven't seen before, and it's not derived from Delta or any of the other ones. It's a brand-new version, and it is so different that it has the properties to potentially be evasive of the vaccines and the other measures that we've taken. I'm glad to say it's not totally successful at that. A big message for today is if you've had vaccines and a booster, you're very well protected against Omicron, causing you severe disease. So, anybody listening to this, who's in that 60% of Americans who are eligible for a booster but haven't yet gotten one, this is the week to do it. Do not wait. What do we know about Omicron? We know that it's very contagious. You saw what happened in South Africa initially, then in Europe and now in the US. It's doubling about every two to four days, and we're going to see that number of cases go up pretty steeply over the course of the next couple of weeks.--
MARGARET BRENNAN: – You predicted –
DR. COLLINS: –That's obviously something that's going to require all of us to double down on the things that we know we should be doing in terms of being safe, wearing masks, avoiding indoor gatherings of other people who aren't vaccinated.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You predicted a few days ago we could see a million cases a day of Omicron infection. Is the health system prepared?
DR. COLLINS: Well, the big question is, are those million cases going to be sick enough to need health care and especially hospitalization? This is a big remaining question, MARGARET. Is this virus actually not quite as capable of causing severe disease? There are some encouraging signs in South Africa that there's not as much in the way of hospitalization, even though the virus just ran crazy through the area around Johannesburg. But that's their population. Ours may be different. I don't know what this virus will do to somebody who's unvaccinated and maybe has a medical condition or is over 65 just sort of holding our breath to see how severe the cases will be. There's certainly some chance, though, that our hospitals are going to be pretty stressed. They already are with Delta, of course. Government is prepared now to start sending out surge teams as needed to places that are really hit hard, and the president's going to have more to say about that in a speech on Tuesday.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Among the unvaccinated are those who are not eligible yet the very young in South Africa. We did see a high number of infections in children and hospitalizations. Do you have any insight into why?
DR. COLLINS: That's another really good question. I was on the phone for an hour and a half yesterday with the South African public health people looking at some of that data. You know, it's not absolutely clear what's going on there. It's also possible that because people are really worried about kids, they're more likely to get put in the hospital in South Africa just as a precaution. I'm not absolutely convinced that the evidence says that Omicron is more dangerous than Delta was, but we got to watch that closely. Obviously, we don't want to see that happen in our country as well and certainly kids who haven't yet been vaccinated. And of course, that's any under-five. Really, we ought to think about surrounding them with vaccinated people to keep them from getting infected.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Would you advise people against traveling this winter? I mean, what you're talking about, it almost seems inevitable that people will get ill.
DR. COLLINS: Well, certainly this virus is going to be all around us. I'm not going to say you shouldn't travel, but you should do so very carefully. I think airplanes, now with required masking, probably being on an airplane is a fairly safe place to be. But think about how you're going to get there and how you can make sure you're safe along the way. And that certainly means if you're not vaccinated, I would say travel is really not a great idea because you are in a very vulnerable place now with Omicron. If you are vaccinated and boosted, wear your mask. When you're in any kind of public place you don't know who might be around you might actually be infected without being even aware of their symptoms, because Omicron can do that too. Just do so with great- be careful, and particularly avoid those large indoor gatherings with a lot of people where sometimes caution gets thrown to the winds. You know, people are listening to this MARGARET, and they're all going, I am so sick of hearing this–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.
DR. COLLINS: –and I am too. But the virus is not sick of us, and it is still out there looking for us, and we've got to double down on these things if we're going to get through the next few months.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But as people learn to live or manage around this, they are increasingly reliant on the testing that the administration has emphasized we all need to rely on as sort of a regular staple in our lives. Dr. Fauci said this week we're getting information that not all of the diagnostic tests will be accurate with Omicron. So- so for- for families who want to gather and test ahead of time, which tests work?
DR. COLLINS: Well, FDA is working on that intensively right now, and I will say with some pride NIH is deeply engaged in helping out with that, and I think in the next few days we'll have more definitive answers about that. Right now, I'm pretty reassured by the early evidence that the commonly used tests that you can get in the pharmacy that allow you to do testing at home are probably going to be okay. So, hold tight on that. There are a few of these so-called PCR tests, actually ones that are not in very heavy use, that may not work for Omicron, and those are posted on the FDA website.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We keep hearing it'll be different this time because we do have tools that work. One of the things we did hear though,--
DR. COLLINS: Yes.
MARGARET BRENNAN: – is that there's really only one of the available monoclonal antibodies that seems to be effective for those who are sick with COVID. What does that mean in terms of taking tools out of the tool chest? Do we have enough supply of the only one that works? If someone gets sick, do they need to ask for it by name?
COLLINS: Yeah, that's a really good question. It is the GSK Vir monoclonal antibody that still sticks to the spike protein that Omicron has. Remember this- I'm holding up my virus here. Those spikes are what the antibody has to stick to, and the Omicron version of the spike is just different enough that some of the other monoclonals don't stick. This one does. There is a big push to increase the production of those, and obviously we're going to have to be careful to save that particular monoclonal for the people at really high risk because they're the ones who are going to benefit most from it. Meanwhile, as you know, FDA is reviewing oral antivirals from two different companies, Merck and Pfizer. And if those do, in fact get approval, that's another really important tool in the toolbox. Although those pills may not be available in infinite supply right away, either so I have to think about how to use them rationally.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Supply and preparedness, we will watch that. Thank you very much, doctor, and good luck to you in your not retirement, but your new line of work.
COLLINS: Well, thank you very much, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Merry Christmas. FACE THE NATION will be back in one minute. Stay with us.
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