Fauci sees greater role for China in spread of COVID-19, looking back a year later


A The lack of transparency on the part of Chinese officials – particularly on the transmission of the new coronavirus and the obstruction of a leading American scientist to his investigation – has played a significant role in allowing COVID-19 to spread outside of China, NIAID director Anthony Fauci told Axios.

The big picture: Axios first spoke with Fauci a year ago this week about the “mysterious pneumonia” in Wuhan, China, which he suspected to be a novel coronavirus, but which was reported by the Chinese health officials as not so contagious.

  • “At the time, the lack of complete appreciation of the gravity of what we were dealing with was [due to] a number of reasons, “says Fauci.” Some things were absolutely unknown to anyone. And, some things were known to the Chinese and they weren’t very transparent about it, ”he adds, citing their delayed reporting on person-to-person and asymptomatic transmission of the virus.
  • Many people outside of China “got fooled”, he says, because they did not know that the virus that caused the pandemic acted differently from its cousin, SARS-CoV, where people infected with SARS show symptoms.
  • If China had disclosed its asymptomatic spread earlier, it would have “changed everything” for advice on masks, social distancing and contact tracing, he says.

China has also refused to allow foreign scientists to investigate the virus on the field “for a considerable period”, limiting the ability to see how it was transmitted and to trace its origin, he says.

  • When they finally authorized an international group led by the WHO, they still prevented some of these scientists, including one from NIAID, from traveling to Wuhan from Beijing.
  • And this week, China delayed travel authorization for a group of WHO-led international scientists planning to investigate the origins of the virus.

Looking back on the previous year, Fauci and other public health experts say there are lessons learned …

1) Communication is essential.

  • “You don’t know everything you need to know on day one”, and as data pile up, public health guidelines will evolve, Fauci says.
  • Some public health experts say the process could have been explained more clearly to the public, especially when the directions changed.
  • “The key here is not that we didn’t know what to do, but there were barriers that prevented that, whether political or otherwise,” says Tara Kirk Sell, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security . “The CDC has these guidelines called Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication. It’s science-based and works well, but we didn’t. [use] he.”

2) Disinformation and disinformation are extremely harmful.

  • These were “incredibly powerful in this pandemic,” Sell says, adding that they can affect people’s health and national security. “We really need a national strategy to fight this.”

3) “The political division is a big obstacle to an adequate public health response, ”says Fauci.

  • “You get people who make decisions about their own behavior based on political considerations, as opposed to an objective assessment of the threat to public health,” Fauci adds.
  • “Public health has always been political, but it has never been as partisan as this time around. Public health partisanship has been truly incredibly dangerous in this pandemic,” said Carlos del Rio, distinguished professor of medicine at the ‘Emory University School of Medicine.

Scientific Advances in Vaccine Technology are the biggest bright spot this year, says Fauci.

  • Developing and then administering a safe and effective vaccine in 11 months is “a monumental achievement. It’s just historic in proportion,” says Fauci.
  • “Restoring confidence in science is a priority and I hope vaccines will.[cut: I think we need to continue to communicate what an incredible achievement that has been, and the fact that these vaccines did not come out of nowhere. Vaccines came from the years of research in mRNA technology and other things,]”Sell adds.

The bottom line: The pandemic has demonstrated that “The unthinkable can happen,” says Fauci. But, he hopes that “we are very, very well back to normal in a year.”

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