'Extremely unfortunate': America's biggest virus mistakes revealed

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Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s leading infectious disease expert, has shared his frustration at the "vaccine hesitancy" that is holding America back from beating the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that the US now has more than 31 million confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Dr Fauci, who is the Director at The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has expressed his frustration battling with the anti-science 'fake news' that has encouraged vaccine hesitancy in his country.

The US is the worst affected country with 567,000 deaths. Photo: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
The US is the worst affected country with 567,000 deaths. Photo: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

Why America has done worse than any other country

Since Covid was declared a worldwide pandemic over 15 months ago, the US has struggled through some turbulent times. In particular, serious and complicated issues rooted in "profound divisiveness within the United States", according to Dr Fauci.

Speaking to an audience at UNSW last week, Dr Fauci revealed that divisiveness has been one of the major factors that hampered efforts to flatten the US Covid curve.

"It is unfortunate that we are living right now, in our country, in a time of profound divisiveness, I think anyone who pays any attention to what's going on in the United States sees that," he said.

"When it spills over in the middle of the worst, most historic pandemic of a respiratory disease that we've had in over 100 years if there's anything you want, is you want people to be pulling together in uniform.

"It's sort of like being at war - the common enemy is the virus, and we should all be fighting the virus, not fighting with each other."

A man wearing a face mask walks in front of the Sydney Opera House as the state of NSW continues to report low numbers for new daily cases of COVID-19 in Sydney, Australia, August 19, 2020. Photo: Reuters
Dr Fauci praised Australia's response to the pandemic by 'shutting down in a uniform and effective' manner. Photo: Reuters

There have now been more than 567,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the US and as of the past week, more than 472,000 new infections.

"We have 50 separate states, and territories in addition to the 50 states, part of our government structure is that the states have a degree of independence to do what it is that they want to do," Dr Fauci said.

"They have interactions with the central government, but they have a great deal of leeway.

"We had an inconsistent response, which allowed us, unfortunately for us, to really do worse than essentially any other country, which is extremely unfortunate."

Lockdown was key to Australia's success

Speaking remotely from his office in the US to an audience at UNSW's Inaugural David Cooper Lecture, Dr Fauci praised the way the coronavirus pandemic was handled in Australia. In particular, the efficacy of implementing lockdown rules over the past 15 months since the pandemic began.

"I believe, [Australia] was one of the better countries in the entire world on how you responded," he said.

A person receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo: Reuters
Dr Fauci says 'we're in a race' with surging cases and potential Covid-19 variants. Photo: Reuters

"I'm sure not everybody in Australia was excited about having to shut things down but you did it in a way which was really quite uniform [and] importantly, effective.

"Unfortunately, we [in the United States] have not done nearly as well as we should have done."

Race against time to vaccinate against Covid

Since US President Joe Biden launched the comprehensive strategy to 'beat the Covid-19 pandemic' on January 21, 2021, 81 million Americans were vaccinated within seven weeks.

As the US prepares to move into the next stage of the plan, Dr Fauci hopes that an "overwhelming majority of Americans" will be vaccinated over the next few months in order to reduce the daily infections in the US "down to a manageable level".

"What President Biden did, is that he made it [tackling Covid] the very, very top priority.

"And what he's done is open up community vaccine centres, get vaccines to the pharmacies, develop mobile units to go out to get the people who are in poorly accessible areas," Dr Fauci said.

"He put in a substantial amount of resources, he made equity a very important part of this."

A COVID-19 positive patient is treated by critical care workers at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida, USA. Photo: Reuters
There are a growing number of Americans that don't want to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Photo: Reuters

The mobilisation of current and former health professionals in the community to assist as 'vaccinators' on the field across the country has been a key element that bolstered the efficiency of the US vaccination rollout.

"He [President Biden] got as many of them out into the field as he possibly could," Dr Fauci said.

"Retired physicians, military personnel, nurses, medical students, as many people as you possibly can to get out there and administer it.

"I believe we had 4.6 million vaccinations performed in a single day - a record that was really quite impressive."

Despite the landmark speed that the US government has driven its vaccine rollout campaign, there is still a lot of ground to cover. Dr Fauci said "we're sort of in a race" with surging cases and potential Covid-19 variants.

"One of the potential stumbling blocks that we have in the United States is what we call 'vaccine hesitancy' where people don't want to get vaccinated for reasons that don't seem to have anything to do with public health.

A nurse draws from a vial of Johnson & Johnson coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, in Los Angeles, USA. Photo: Reuters
When President Biden came into office, 81 million Americans were vaccinated against Covid-19 within seven weeks. Photo: Reuters

"It's on justified scepticism, it's a political ideology where... look, I mean, how could it be that a certain proportion of people of a particular persuasion don't want to get vaccinated?" Dr Fauci said.

"That just doesn't make any sense."

The move that 'caused strain and stress' with Donald Trump

As America's accelerated vaccination campaign continues, US government officials stopped the use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine temporarily this week due to “extremely rare” blood clotting issues that arose for six women aged between 18 and 48, after receiving the jab.

Despite Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine being administered to millions of Americans, the precautionary pause was essential to warn patients and providers, but it could present another major hurdle that has the potential to seriously disrupt the vaccine rollout.

"It really is a complication of an anti-science atmosphere that has evolved, again, with a certain type of political persuasion that scientists don't know what they're talking about - a lot of this is fake news, a lot of it doesn't really exist."

"Last year, in the middle of the height of what was going on, I had to - and it was very painful to do - but I had to do it... Come out and essentially contradict what the President [Trump] was saying," Dr Fauci said.

Former US President Donald Trump accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci during the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 17, 2020. Source: Reuters
Dr Fauci had a strained relationship with former US President Donald Trump due to clashing views on how to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Source: Reuters

"It led to some strain and stress between us, which even now after the former president is no longer in office, he still talks about that, which is unfortunate."

The importance of combating fake news and the spread of misinformation is on par with the vaccine rollout across the globe. The Political Declaration on Equitable Global Access to COVID-19 Vaccines launched at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month saw 181 Member States sign a commitment to actively address misinformation and tackle the vaccine hesitancy issue.

"Variants have the capability of spreading much more efficiently than the original virus," Dr Fauci said.

"To say things like that [spread misinformation], when you have a terrible pandemic looking you straight in the eye, you know, in some respects, is almost inexplicable - but unfortunately, it's happening.

"We're going to have an issue of what I would call a 'race' between getting people vaccinated and not getting another surge."

Why developing nations need help

As coronavirus infections reach a tipping point in Papua New Guinea, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom expressed concern about the "sharp increase" of Covid-19 cases and the rapid pace infection is spreading.

In addition to 8000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine sent by Australia to its closest neighbour, another 132,000 doses from the Covax scheme landed in the Pacific nation this week.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape received the first COVID-19 shot in the Pacific Island country on March 30, 2021. Photo: Reuters
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape got the first COVID-19 jab in the Pacific Island country. Photo: Reuters

"As there's the dynamic of virus replication, somewhere, there will always be the threat of the emergence of variants, which could then come back," Dr Fauci said.

To beat a disease that multiplies as easily and efficiently as the coronavirus, Dr Fauci said one important lesson learned from his experience on the leadership team that drove the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) during the HIV AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, is that "maintaining control worldwide" is vital.

"Even though most of the rest of the world is vaccinated, it can threaten the world that has felt that they've controlled the virus when they're still quite vulnerable," he said.

"I believe that the developed world has a responsibility to assist the developing world and things that are not readily available to them.

"A global pandemic requires a global response."

Challenging road ahead

As the US continues to grapple with getting the virus under control, Dr Fauci has remained "a voice of authority and reason, bringing scientific evidence to the fore", as described by UNSW.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, adjusts his protective mask during a US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the COVID-19 response on Capitol Hill in Washington, USA, March 18, 2021. Photo: Reuters
The "most difficult aspect" of getting Covid under control in America is the task of dispelling fake news that fuels the ideology of vaccine hesitancy according to Dr Fauci. Photo: Reuters

After advising seven US presidents on HIV/AIDS and domestic and global health issues throughout his career that spans almost four decades, Dr Fauci maintains that the "most difficult aspect" of getting Covid under control in America is the task of dispelling fake news that fuel the ideology of vaccine hesitancy.

"Over decades, if not centuries, it [vaccines] has proven to be the most extraordinary preventive modality that you have for infectious diseases," Dr Fauci said.

"How does the acceptance of that or not become a political issue? But unfortunately, in many respects, it has."

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