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Last Sunday, the United States reported its 10 millionth case of the coronavirus, with the last million added in the previous 10 days. Covid-19 hospital admissions hit a new high this week, with 160,000 new daily cases reported for the first time on Thursday. Throughout the pandemic, science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. was at the forefront of coverage for the New York Times and was recently awarded the 2020 John Chancellor Award for outstanding journalism by the Columbia Journalism School. In this edited interview he talked about the new wave of infections.
There is a lot of optimism Pfizer’s announcement on Mondaysuggesting that his mRNA-based vaccine could be more than 90 percent effective. What should we do with it? Is It Too Early To Be Happy?
No, I would say a little joy is in order. The FDA has announced it will accept a vaccine that is only 50 percent effective, which is worse than a few years of flu shots, so everyone’s expectations have been lowered. That’s pretty great. Plus, we were pretty sure mRNA vaccines would be harmless. With this type of vaccine, you only inject a short portion of the virus’ genome, which is wrapped in a tiny ball of fat with a mild electrical charge. In contrast, some vaccines use a whole virus that is killed or weakened and is more likely to cause bad reactions.
Pfizer actually said its vaccine was at least 90 percent effective. We have to be careful: this was the press release rather than the actual data that scientists are trying to investigate. But I’ve read previous press releases from big pharma companies and compared them to the data published later, and they were honest.
Some scientists are concerned that the Virus in animals, such as the mink, could mutate and be more dangerous to humans. Does this affect the prospects for a vaccine?
At least for now, probably no effect. Pfizer said its vaccine was effective against all strains circulating in humans. The worrying mutation in a mink stem is primarily in the mink. There is no immediate concern that it will become a dominant strain in humans.
Lockdowns have renewed themselves in much of the world and have seen some violent backlash in places like Italy. How do you rate the effectiveness of locks and how can the balance be struck between economic sustainability, mental and emotional wellbeing and health in relation to the virus?
We must stop thinking of bans as an end in themselves. A really tough lock – literally telling people to stay at home – stops the broadcast until you can launch real tools: quick, accurate testing, quick contact tracing, isolating infected people from their families, and so on. China did that. New Zealand did that. But we never had any of that here. Our “national lockdown” in the spring was a joke.
China refused to reopen cities until there were no more cases for 14 days. We have never fallen below an average of 20,000 cases per day. We cannot do contact tracing because a) many Americans do not cooperate and b) outside of the lockdown, each case has about 50 contacts – 20,000 times 50 is a million new contacts that need to be followed up every day. Who can do that? It is impossible. So we basically stick with masks and don’t eat or meet inside until the vaccines arrive. If people don’t, their hospitals will be overwhelmed. When that happens, a virus that kills less than 1 percent of its victims suddenly kills 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 percent because people can’t get ventilators, ambulances, or even oxygen. “Flattening the curve” is about slowing things down so your hospitals don’t collapse.
Some companies offered perks like free lunchto get workers to return to the office. Other companies, including the New York Times, have extended their work from home through the summer of 2021. When would you personally feel comfortable returning to the office?
When I am vaccinated and everyone is around me.
The holiday season is just around the corner. What advice do you have for families who would like to celebrate with loved ones?
Do it with zoom. Don’t let Junior come home and kill Grandma. Think of it like World War II – our soldiers couldn’t fly home to eat turkey. My father was in Normandy. My mother was with the Red Cross in occupied Austria. You missed the vacation. Life went on. There were happier years later.