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'Do we really want to see a lot more die? Fauci paints bleak picture of virus inaction

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci isn’t happy. All told, the United States could see up to 300,000 deaths from Covid-19 by the end of the year, and six months in the entire planet has seen 750,000 deaths from the virus.

During a panel hosted Thursday by National Geographic, the nation’s preeminent expert on the novel coronavirus fielded questions with trademark candor about that grim forecast released last week by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“We certainly are not where I hoped we would be,” the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts, who moderated the live remote event.

“We are in the middle of a very historic, serious pandemic and the numbers speak for themselves,” said Fauci.

As of Thursday, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported 20 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide with the U.S. leading with 5.2 million infections. More than 160,000 Americans are dead and, without better containment efforts, at least 137,000 more could follow between now and December 1, according to IHME. 

Those figures include at least 9,300 health care workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The statistics also reflect a rise in cases among children: Just this week the American Academy of Pediatrics reported  that infections among children increased 90% in a month.

Whereas Covid-19 has already killed 90 children this year, the academy says seasonal influenza kills roughly 100 children each year.

Fauci was critical Thursday of the lack in the U.S. of a “universal plan” to slow the spread of the virus, echoing assertions he has made in recent weeks when appearing before a select congressional committee tasked with conducting oversight on the federal response to the pandemic.

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As the nation failed to implement universal mask wearing in the spring when case rates rocketed, states staggered their shutdowns instead of doing so uniformly, letting infections spread through porous internal borders, Fauci explained.

Within the first two months of the pandemic, most state shutdowns tightened up as municipal governments leaned into their own crafted response otherwise cast off from cohesive federal assistance.

But Fauci noted that this led to premature reopenings in states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and even later in California. Fauci said those choices have made it more difficult now for the U.S. to bring cases “all the way down to a baseline that was really workable,” like what had happened in Europe where lockdowns were uniform and fast.

“Now, we’re turning the corner in that direction with less deaths, hospitalizations and cases, but when you look at other parts of the country, we’re starting to see inklings in the uptick of the percent of tests that are positive which we know from the past, is a predictor of more surges,” Fauci said. “Unless we all pull together to get that down — and we don’t have disparities where some states are doing this and some states are doing that — we’re going to continue to have this up and down.

“Bottom line: I’m not pleased with how things are going,” he added.

“Pulling together,” the NIAID director emphasized, should be simple enough since it only requires a few steps: universal mask wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, avoiding crowds and keeping activities outdoor. 

Short of a successful vaccine — still expected to arrive in America sometime at the very end of this year or early 2021 — these simple techniques are the key to reducing sickness and death, Fauci said.

The argument for herd immunity as a way out of the pandemic was also summarily shot down by the director.

“If you do that, a lot of people will die. As a society, ingrained in our human spirit, we don’t really want to see that,” he said. “Already more than 160,000 people in this country have died; do we really want to see a lot more die? I don’t think so.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin claimed this week that Moscow successfully developed a vaccine for Covid-19, raising a specter of doubt among scientists, epidemiologists and other experts the world over on its efficacy and safety given the truncated development timeline. 

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The vaccine, known as Sputnik V, was not subjected to what Fauci has before described as the “Golden Standard” for vaccine development: large-scale, phase-three, placebo-based clinical trials involving thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people.

“Having a vaccine and proving that a vaccine is safe and effective are two very different things,” Fauci said.

The U.S. has over a half dozen vaccines in various stages of clinical trial. About 30,000 Americans are participating in the third phase of vaccine trials being conducted by the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna.

“If we wanted to take the chance of hurting a lot of people, we could start doing this next week if we wanted to. That’s not the way this works,” Fauci said. “I hope the Russians have actually and definitively proven that the vaccine is safe and effective, but I seriously doubt that that they’ve done that.”

Never mentioning President Trump directly, and never once casting blame on anyone specifically or a particular political party during Thursday’s program, Fauci did reflect on a question from Roberts on whether he anticipated such a ratcheting up of tensions between Americans during a health crisis. 

Fauci and his family have received death threats and were forced to hire security.

“I think it’s a reflection of the divisiveness in the country,” he said. “It’s taken on a tone like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Even during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in decades past, he recalled, some people got upset that he was “putting in effort” to understand and potentially stop the virus. But that was mostly “homophobic” people mad that he was diverting resources, he said. 

“There was never anything as serious as it is now where people get angry enough to threaten my life and terribly harass my wife and children with phone calls,” he said.

It is a conundrum Fauci finds “inconceivable” as he appeared now for months only to advocate for basic public health measures in a pandemic.

“Boy, I hope we get past this divisiveness in this country and get more out of the realm of such intensive divisiveness that people are doing things like threatening other people,” he said. “There’s no way our society can function or go along that way.”

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This screenshot shows Dr. Anthony Fauci discussing the Covid-19 pandemic for a panel hosted Thursday, Aug. 13, by National Geographic.