Fauci says ‘herd immunity’ is out of reach, pandemic ‘by no means’ over

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci capped off a week of controversial comments with an appearance Friday morning at the National Press Club, during which he sought to give an overview of where the COVID-19 pandemic currently stands.

It has been one of those weeks that have seen Fauci’s polarizing presence frequently in the news, his efforts to explain the current moment of the coronavirus pandemic dissected and criticized by a bitterly divided public.

On Tuesday, he told “PBS NewsHour” that the United States appeared to be “out of the pandemic phase,” irritating some public health experts who found the prediction cavalier. He revised those remarks in a Washington Post interview the following day, assessing the nation as moving “into a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.”

Dr.  Anthony Fauci.

Dr. Anthony Fauci at a Senate hearing on Jan. 11. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

Fauci also said Tuesday evening that he would no longer be attending Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, citing an individual risk assessment but offering little insight into what factors had gone into that decision.

Fauci, who serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president, clarified his view of the pandemic once again on Friday. “By no means is it over,” he said. “We are still experiencing a global pandemic.”

Having led the government’s response to the AIDS crisis early in his career and later personally treating Ebola patients, Fauci issued a warning for the future. Even as the coronavirus may be receding in parts of the world with high vaccination rates, it is doubtless that another pandemic awaits, perhaps in the near future.

“We absolutely must be perpetually prepared for the inevitability of another pandemic,” he said. The Biden administration has asked for billions of dollars to enhance surveillance of emerging viruses.

New variants of the coronavirus will continue to emerge too, Fauci said, frustrating the goal of “herd immunity” that he and others once held out, since new strains — like the currently circulating BA.2 subvariant of Omicron — have shown an ability to evade immune protection, although without making people sicker than the original coronavirus.

“We’re not going to get classical herd immunity” from the coronavirus, Fauci predicted at the press club, a reversal of the seemingly long-ago days when he and others predicted that vaccination benchmarks would signal a defeat of the coronavirus.

People walk through Times Square in New York City.

Unlike other parts of Manhattan, Times Square is quickly returning to its pre-pandemic population, with Broadway shows and area hotels often at near-full capacity. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“It’s very difficult to really get a strong classical herd immunity” — of the kind the United States enjoys from polio and measles — “when you have immunity that wanes and a virus that, in fact, does not stay stable,” he said Friday . “And you have an anti-vax movement, which prevents many of the people from getting vaccinated.”

Fauci also addressed the onerous lockdowns China has used to handle an Omicron outbreak in Shanghai, where tens of millions have been living under a public safety regime that has severely curtailed everyday freedoms.

“China is having a really serious problem,” he said. “They’ve locked down without necessarily adequately vaccinating their population, so now they’re seeing really substantial surges in big cities. So that’s going to really be a problem in China.”

Addressing the question of how the coronavirus affects children, Fauci stopped short of offering his views on why they tend to be largely — though not entirely — protected from serious cases of COVID-19.

“If I attack, it will become a sound bite,” he said. “And that’s not good.”

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