Vaccine optimism: Fauci: Virus hits Hispanics harder

Dr. Joseph McCormick M.D., epidemiologist and founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, predicts that more than one viable coronavirus vaccine will eventually become available, though the Rio Grande Valley will probably experience another virus surge in the meantime, and even a partial return to normalcy isn’t likely before the end of next year — if that soon.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the National Institutes of Health and the nation’s top infectious disease official, expresses concern about the substantially disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority groups including Hispanics.

McCormick said in a Sept. 29 phone interview that several current phase-three vaccine trials “look reasonably promising,” including an Oxford University-AstraZeneca trial that was suspended after a volunteer who received the test vaccine developed an auto-immune disease that causes inflammation of the spinal cord. The trial was restarted after no other cases of the disease were found among thousands of other trial participants, he said.

All of the trials underway involve vaccines that require two doses except for a trial being conducted by Pfizer, which requires only a single shot, McCormick said.

“I’m sure there are going to be several viable vaccines, because there are many trials ongoing,” he said. “Generally the approach to the vaccine is very similar. Probably the most traditional one is in fact the Pfizer vaccine. But the rest of them, they’re very promising in terms of their pre-clinical data in the lab and in animals. They’re all very promising. I think we just have to see it play out, particularly whether they’re safe. That’s going to be the big issue.”

McCormick said the first doses of a vaccine probably won’t be delivered to the public until December, though it could be more like January or February, and any suggestion that a vaccine will be available much earlier isn’t based in reality. He said the public shouldn’t worry about a vaccine being rolled out prematurely, without proper vetting, due to political pressure.

“I think we’re safe in the sense that all the people involved will lie down in front of the bus,” McCormick said. “Nobody’s going to do that. I mean they’re simply not going to do it.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, NIH Director Francis Collins and NIAID Director Fauci would vehemently oppose any premature roll-out, he said. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration last month announced stricter standards for emergency authorization of a vaccine.

“Also, the vaccine companies all said we’re not going to start to bring out a vaccine until we have all of the efficacy and safety data that we need,” McCormick said.

With half of the states showing rising COVID-19 cases and schools reopening, all the models are projecting another surge this fall and winter, he said.

“It’s hard to see how we’re not going to have another spike,” McCormick said. “We can take lessons from Spain, France, the U.K. The U.K. is about to have a shutdown. France and Spain have had to really crack back down and they were in much better shape than we are. They still are, but they’re starting to see increases now in (cases).”

It will be some time before the country is able to return to any semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, he said.

“We’re not going to be back to normal until we get a pretty highly vaccinated population, and then we have to see how well the vaccine works and how long it works,” McCormick said.

It also depends on how the virus mutates, toward less or more severe infectious infectiousness, he said, adding that a mutation in Europe was found to be much more infectious than the original strain.

“There are all these things that are unknown about when we come back to normal,” McCormick said. “If the vaccine works well and we can persuade enough people to get vaccinated maybe by the end of (next) year we could be back to something that looks more like normal.”

Fauci, in a Sept. 30 teleconference with the Congressional Hispanic Conference on COVID-19 and Hispanic communities, said the United States, with 7 million cases and more than 200,000 deaths so far, has been hit harder by the virus than any other country. A prevailing issue in this country is what he called the “extraordinary disparity” in the rate and severity of infection among minority communities including Hispanics.

A study of hospitalizations last month showed that 359 Hispanics, but only 78 Whites, were hospitalized due to the virus per 100,000 population, with 62 Hispanics dying versus 40 Whites per 100,000, Fauci said. Likewise, 45 percent of those under 21 who died from virus-related causes were Hispanic, he said.

“Clearly we have an extraordinary problem, one that we can begin to address by making sure that the resources regarding testing and immediate access to care are focused (on) the distribution of resources within the Latinx community,” Fauci said. “But also I think this must now reset and re-shine a light on this extraordinary disparity.”

Obesity, diabetes and other health issues that put Hispanics at higher risk of severe infection or death can’t be fixed “in a month or a year,” he said.

“It’s something that requires a decades-long commitment to change those social determinants which make that community more susceptible to diabetes, to obesity, to hypertension, to kidney disease,” Fauci said. “So if there’s something that comes out of this when it’s all over — and it will end — we need to re-look at what we can do now to make this to be an enduring and burning lesson of a challenge that we have for the Latinx community.”

He told the members of the CHC that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine answer will come the end of this year or early next year, though clinical trails have to include a diverse sampling of the population so researchers can know whether a vaccine is safe and effective for everyone including Hispanics.

“So I encourage you to try and get your constituents to take a look at the trial and to seriously consider enrolling in these vaccine trials, which are going to be done with the highest degree of safety to try and get the best scientific approach,” Fauci said.