In his final briefing as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested Tuesday that immunity from vaccination and prior infection could provide enough protection to Americans to result in a less deadly wave of COVID-19 this winter, despite a growing array of new variants.
This was likely to be Fauci’s last appearance in the White House press briefing room before he steps down from his post atop the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases next month.
“We’re hoping that a combination of people who have been infected and boosted and vaccinated, or people who have been vaccinated and boosted and uninfected, that there’s enough community protection that we’re not going to see a repeat of what we saw last year at this time,” said Fauci.
Fauci pointed to countries like Singapore, which saw a wave of infections linked to the XBB strain.
“They had increasing cases, but they did not have a concomitant major increase in hospitalizations,” Fauci said.
Health authorities have been closely tracking the rise of several new Omicron variant descendants around the country. Many evade the protection offered for immunocompromised Americans who rely on antibody drugs like AstraZeneca’s Evusheld.
However, officials have said that none of these strains on the rise so far appear to have the same kind of jump in mutations on par with when the Omicron variant first emerged nearly a year ago.
“The good news is, even though this variant soup is sort of happening, it doesn’t look like there’s sort of a new really bad variant of concern that’s emerging and driving any place in the world so far. So fingers crossed and hopefully it keeps that way,” said the CDC’s Ian Williams this month at a meeting of the agency’s preparedness and response advisers.
Fauci also cited new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Tuesday in the agency’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” The study’s authors found the updated boosters appear at least modestly effective at fending off symptomatic infections in the real world, relative to those who only got their first two shots.
In adults under 50 years old who received their last shot at least eight months ago, those with an updated booster saw a relative vaccine effectiveness of 56%. After the same interval in seniors, the boosters were 43% effective.
“We know it is safe. We know that it is effective. So my message, and my final message – maybe the final message I give you from this podium – is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot,” Fauci said.
A new push for updated boosters
Fauci’s plea for updated boosters comes as the White House says it is renewing its push to promote the shots, including through new funding for outreach efforts.
One grant from the Administration for Community Living plans to award $125 million to national organizations for “rapidly increasing access and uptake” of vaccinations.
In new guidance published Tuesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it was also reminding nursing homes they were required to offer the updated COVID shots to their residents – but stopped short of issuing new survey guidance or policy to require the vaccinations.
On average, less than half of nursing home residents are up to date on COVID vaccinations per facility, according to federal data through earlier this month.
“I feel very confident that if people continue to get vaccinated at good numbers, if people get boosted, we can absolutely have a very safe and healthy holiday season,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 Response Coordinator, told reporters.
After accelerating in September, CDC data shows the pace of new COVID shots has been slowing nationwide.
Only 13.1% of adults and 29.6% of seniors have received an updated booster dose, far behind the typical uptake of the annual flu shot.
“But there’s always a caveat here of like, things out of left field, you can’t predict. But nothing I have seen in the subvariants makes me believe that we can’t manage our way through it effectively, especially if people step up and get their vaccine,” added Jha.
Fauci’s last briefing
Fauci, the nation’s preeminent infectious disease expert, served under seven presidents, announced in August that he would step down from his post to pursue the “next chapter” of his career. He said in the spring that he intended to step down only after the worse of the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided.
He emerged as a household name at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, appearing at daily White House briefings to deliver sober updates about the deadly spread of the coronavirus.
Fauci recalled that the role frequently put him at odds with former President Donald Trump and his allies, contradicting their statements and advice on the pandemic.
“The people who have correct information, who take science seriously, who don’t have strange, way-out theories about things, but who base what they say on evidence and data need to speak up more, because the other side that just keeps putting out misinformation and disinformation seems to be tireless,” said Fauci.
He reiterated his pledge to cooperate with any requests to testify before Congress, even after leaving his position.
Some House GOP candidates had campaigned on summoning Fauci for myriad investigations. Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana are set to depose Fauci on Wednesday in their lawsuit accusing the Biden administration of “colluding with social media companies to censor speech.”
“I have no trouble testifying. We can defend and explain and stand by everything that we said,” said Fauci.
Stefan Becket and Kathryn Watson contributed to this report.