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National Institutes Of Health Chief Gives Update On The Coronavirus In The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another day, another record set. Across the United States, 59,000 new coronavirus cases recorded yesterday, breaking the record again for a single-day high for new infections. And that number captures surges in states from Texas to California, Florida to West Virginia.

So where are we in the arc of the pandemic? Is there any glimmer of hope to cling to and how to square disconnects in the guidance coming from our political leaders and our most senior scientists - questions we're going to put to one of our country's most senior scientists. We are going to spend this whole segment of the program questioning Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, welcome back. Good to speak with you again.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Nice to be on your program, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So 59,000 new cases in one day. If I had told you back in March or February that that's where we would be as a nation in July, would you have believed me?

COLLINS: I would certainly have hoped not. We knew back in March and April that we had hit a terrible peak of infections, and we worked really hard across the nation to try to figure out how to flatten that curve and to bring that down. And we never really got it down (laughter), and now it's certainly headed up again in a way that is really quite alarming.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, hindsight always is 20/20, but if there were one thing you wish we could go back and redo, what would it be?

COLLINS: You know, I think we learned what we needed to do in terms of social distancing, in terms of wearing masks, in terms of being very careful about public gatherings, especially indoors. But those were applied in a somewhat spotty fashion. People basically got tired of it, but the virus didn't get tired of spreading. And I'm afraid as things over the course of the last couple of months opened up, they weren't always following the CDC guidelines in the way that we would have hoped, and now we are starting to reap the consequences.

And I'm particularly concerned that younger people feeling that maybe they're not so much at risk have felt much less likely to adhere to those guidelines and have therefore been getting infected in larger numbers and then spreading it on to their neighbors, their families and particularly vulnerable people who we now are quite worried about.

KELLY: To where things might go next, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned last week that we could be on track to see 100,000 new cases a day. I interviewed him right after that, and he told me he dropped that number to jolt people, to try to get our attention, which he did. But have you seen anything in the weeks since he said it that suggests we are not heading for that outcome?

COLLINS: Well, Dr. Fauci is my colleague. He and I both work at the National Institutes of Health. I'm actually his boss, although he is, of course, the most highly regarded public health spokesperson about this outbreak. So when he speaks, people listen, and well they should. If you look at the shape of that curve and just do your extrapolation like you would in math class, you would say having now hit just about 60,000 that there's no sign that that's topping out, and so his prediction I fear might, in fact, turn out to be true.

But we have things we can do about that, and that's where I'm hoping, despite the anxiety that now spreads across the land again, that we should not feel powerless, that we are in a circumstance where we could try once again to flatten that curve by taking all of those recommendations about masks, about social distancing, about avoiding being close together, especially indoors, and see if we can do something to prevent this from going even further - obviously particularly important in places where we can see the community spread has gotten really quite out of control, like Arizona, like California, like Texas, like Florida. But other places should not feel immune. The time to make those actions most effective is before you have really widespread community problems. So look in your own community. See what's happening. If there's a hint that things are starting up again, everybody should take action, and so should the government leaders that have a chance to do something at that point.

KELLY: To your earlier point, though, which is the guidance was out there in the spring and individuals weren't paying attention, we got tired of it, and elected officials were reopening anyway, do you - what gives you confidence that the advice, that the best guidance from the CDC and other agencies will be heeded now?

COLLINS: Well, I guess I'm an eternal optimist (laughter). And so I will say when people are faced with reality - and you can't look at the current circumstance and not admit we've got a real problem - that perhaps this hope for - sort of outcome that, OK, it's summertime and maybe this won't be such a problem, we've gotten past that. That's no longer the case. Anybody who's trying to pretend we can just fake our way through this (laughter), we're not succeeding at that. So it's time to wake up, look at those recommendations, get serious again, recognize that it's up to all of us. And we're Americans, and ultimately we usually do the right thing. This is the right time to do that.

KELLY: Speaking of recommendations, I do want to ask you about schools and the debate raging over whether to reopen them. President Trump and other administrations have been downplaying the recommendations of their own health experts. You will have seen the president tweeting that safety measures recommended by the CDC, things like you just nodded to, like wearing masks and spacing student desks apart, he says these are expensive, they're impractical. Do you stand behind the CDC recommendations?

COLLINS: I think CDC is our nation's expert group in public health, and we should take their recommendations as the recommendation we should follow. I mean, it is complicated, let's be clear. If you're talking about students going back to school in Casper, Wyo., where there are very few, if any, cases, that's a very different story than if you're talking about students going back to school in Houston, which is in the middle of a very serious outbreak. So blanket recommendations saying everybody should do the same thing fly in the face of the reality of where we are with this outbreak.

But CDC has recommendations to try to adjust to that. I think most other school experts are looking at those - also worth looking at the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Here is a very distinguished group that is worried, as I am, as we all should be, about the consequences of kids not being in school. That's a serious issue. Kids are basically being harmed by the absence of social interactions, losing up all kinds of time in terms of their learning curves. We do want kids back in school where those good things can happen. But everything in life is a benefit and a risk, and the risks are going to depend a lot on where you are at this point and how much that virus is spreading around. And that just has to be factored into the decisions. Ultimately it's going to have to be the local authorities that make that kind of judgment.

KELLY: I hear you choosing your words carefully. And I do want to ask you since we already brought up Dr. Fauci, you and he streamed an online conversation earlier this week, which I watched. It was informative. Thank you for that. It also got some buzz because a lot of journalists have been complaining that they cannot get an interview with Dr. Fauci. Here's a taste of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We have not been able to get a request for Dr. Fauci approved by the Trump administration in the last three months.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: High-profile figures from the task force, including Dr. Fauci, have been unable to secure White House permission to appear on American TV networks.

KELLY: I just want to let you respond to that because, as you noted, you're Dr. Fauci's boss. To your knowledge, is he or anybody else whose message on public health conflicts with the administration's message, are they being prevented from talking freely?

COLLINS: I think every administration has always had an interest in making sure that people who work for the government, if they're going to make a presentation to the public, that there is some consultation about that. I do that as well when I'm going to have this kind of a conversation like we're having right now. But I have not been...

KELLY: Have you been...

COLLINS: ...Prevented in doing so.

KELLY: ...Told you can't speak anybody, that you can't speak to a TV network?

COLLINS: I need to run that invitation past to be sure that the administration is aware of it and that they don't have any particular issues with the request. That's been the case for every administration since I've been in the government, which is 27 years.

KELLY: Let me turn you to vaccines in the couple of minutes we have left. This week the government announced $1.6 billion contract to a company to manufacture a coronavirus vaccine. This company, Novavax, though, does not have a product that has been proven to work, which made me think that feels like an awfully big bet to place on something unproven. Why is that the right path if you think that is the right path?

COLLINS: Oh, I think it is the right path, Mary Louise. I think what we're trying to do here is to have a lot of potential shots on goals. This vaccine is going to be our best hope to get past this terribly difficult year of 2020. And the more that we have multiple different scientific strategies, the more likely we are that at least one and maybe several of them will work. The Novavax strategy is basically to make a protein subunit. It's different than what's happening with the other vaccines that are about to get started in the next month or two with their Phase 3 trials. And so it is hedging the bets. It's trying, as you would, I think, want to when something is a really serious issue and you want to be sure you succeed, make sure you've tried several things, that you have a menu of opportunities that's going to cover all of the scientific bases. And Novavax brings another one to the table, so we're glad to have them in the team.

KELLY: If I hear you're right, it sounds like it's possible this might be money thrown down the drain. But at this point we don't have something proven, and we have to work towards something, so we're going to, as you said, hedge our bets.

COLLINS: That's exactly right. And I think that's probably what the public would want us to do at a time like this where - I mean, if it wasn't such a rush we might try one vaccine and then six months later go, oh, that one wasn't quite what we wanted and then try another one. And it could be five years or more before we actually had the answer. We don't have time for that. I think the public doesn't expect us to be doing the slow boat here. So the idea is to have several of these, to invest in them, expect that some of those moneys are actually not going to pay off. But one of them will, and maybe more than one will. And ultimately I think that's what the public is expecting and what we're trying to deliver.

KELLY: Speaking of operation slow boat and not wanting to go there, we just have 30 seconds or so left, but how do you reassure people that with the speed that this operation is being developed - the whole thing is called Operation Warp Speed, to try to get a vaccine - that it will also be safe?

COLLINS: Well, I want to assure everybody about that. The speed is being done by basically doing in parallel things that otherwise would have been done in a series of steps. But every step is being carried out with rigor and intensity.

And before we have to go, let me just say anybody who's interested, by the way, in signing up for a vaccine trial - because they're about to get underway - I'm going to give you a URL...

KELLY: Real quick.

COLLINS: ...Coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org.

KELLY: OK.

COLLINS: You can sign up.

KELLY: Francis Collins, head of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, many thanks.

COLLINS: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.