Speaking to reporters at the White House Thursday afternoon — just 15 minutes after meeting with President Biden — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious disease expert, described it as “liberating” to be able to speak openly about science in the wake of Donald Trump’s departure from office.
“The idea that you could get up here, talk about what you know … and let the science speak, that is a liberating feeling,” he said at the second daily press conference of the Biden administration, when asked about the comparison to his often tumultuous tenure working in the Trump administration.
Trump often broke from the recommendations of his own scientific advisers and experts, overpromising on therapeutics like the drug hydroxychloroquine, forcing Fauci to either publicly contradict the president or remain silent.
While Fauci initially appeared alongside Trump regularly during White House coronavirus task force briefings, he was later sidelined after contradicting some of Trump’s false statements. Trump went on to criticize Fauci publicly, even disparaging him and other medical experts as “idiots” on a campaign call in the weeks leading up to the election.
Fauci, who has now advised seven different presidents, has previously avoided criticizing Trump personally, even if breaking with some of the previous president’s statements. Thursday, however, marked the first time that he spoke openly about his disagreements with Trump.
“There were things that were said, regarding things like hydroxychloroquine … that really were uncomfortable because they were not based in scientific fact,” Fauci siad.
“I take no pleasure at all at being in the position of contradicting the president,” Fauci added.
Another noticeable difference in the Biden White House, according to Fauci, is the ability to acknowledge when something is unknown. “One of the new things in this administration is: If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess,” Fauci said. He later added the new COVID-19 team would strive to “be completely transparent, open and honest … and to make everything we do based on science and evidence.”
Fauci’s return to the James Brady Briefing Room as a representative for the administration’s newly formed coronavirus response team follows Biden’s signing off on 10 COVID-related executive orders earlier in the day. Those orders build on prior promises to reopen most K-12 schools, ramp up the production of personal protective equipment and administer 100 million vaccine shots by the end of Biden’s first 100 days.
He declined to specify when Americans could go to their local pharmacy and receive the vaccine much like they could the flu vaccine, reversing course on an earlier prediction that the general public would be able to have such access in April 2021.
“In the spirit of not guessing, I really am not quite sure on when that will be,” he said when asked about the timeline for wide scale availability of the vaccine.
Biden’s new initiatives come as COVID-19 mutations have been identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Fauci said Thursday that the U.K. strain — which is believed to be twice as transmissible as the original version — is already in at least 20 U.S. states. Even more worrisome is the finding that the South African mutation appears to evade antibodies to the disease, making vaccines potentially less effective.
“We’re following very carefully the one in South Africa,” Fauci said, “which is a little bit more concerning, but nonetheless not something that we don’t think we can handle.”
Fauci noted that the South African variant has yet to be found in the U.S., but that inevitable spread bolstered the case for a robust vaccination campaign.
“It is all the more reason that we should be vaccinating as many people as we possibly can, because as long as the virus is out there replicating — viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate, and if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you could actually avoid this deleterious effect by the mutations.”
Fauci added that if the Biden administration was successful in ramping up its vaccination effort, the U.S. could achieve herd immunity by the summer of 2022.
“If we get 75-80 percent of the country vaccinated by the summer, I believe that by the fall, we’ll be approaching a degree of normality,” said Fauci.
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