Baseball? Coachella? Handshakes? Tinder? Anthony Fauci On The New Rules of Living With Coronavirus

Dr. Anthony Fauci wasn’t at Donald Trump’s side for his daily coronavirus task force briefing on Tuesday. But Fauci’s aggressive and unpredictable media tour continued on Snapchat, where he’s appearing this week on Good Luck America, the platform’s daily political show, which is hosted by Peter Hamby.

In the interview, taped Tuesday and airing in episodes throughout the week, Fauci knocked down conspiracy theories about 5G networks weakening immune systems, said that individual states take the lead on COVID-19 testing, expressed worries about interstate travel, questioned Apple and Google’s contact tracing plans, and suggested that Major League Baseball could begin in July with player testing and without crowds. We’re posting Hamby’s full Q&A here, which has been lightly edited.

Vanity Fair: The first thing I want to ask you is this theory spreading around the internet that I’ve heard a lot lately, and it’s unfortunately pretty durable in the U.K. right now, that 5G towers are weakening the immune system and forcing people to get COVID-19. As an immunologist, can you say definitively that 5G is not getting people sick?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yeah. That’s easy. That’s thoroughly preposterous, untrue, and actually ridiculous. [laughs] Sorry. It’s a pretty simple answer. 5G doesn’t have any impact on the immune system. A lot of things do, but not that.

So what do you say to people who see these sorts of theories on the internet? Where should they go to check or debunk them?

You know, I’m not so sure that there’s a site that would debunk something as far out as that. But if they really want to learn about the immune system, there’s many approaches. If they, if they’re worried about the immune system and the relationship to COVID-19, and namely what’s going on right now, I would just click on the CDC website, cdc.gov, and then from there, you go to coronavirus.gov. And they could tell you all about the things that are relevant. Like why some people, like the elderly, and certain people who have underlying conditions that weaken their immune system, why they not only get infected the way everybody does, but they really have a poor outcome because their body is not able to fight off the virus very well. If you look at what’s going on in our own country and globally, generally, the people who really, really get into trouble are people who have underlying conditions. What we’re disturbingly starting to see now, which is really troublesome, is that the original cases from China made it seem that young people and healthy people get a mild illness. It goes away, no problem. Now we’re starting to see—it isn’t very common, but it is occurring enough to be concerning—that people who are younger are getting ill, and some of them are getting seriously ill, and even dying from this.

Are you seeing in the data from the United States that the rates of infection for young people are actually increasing from where they were a few weeks ago?

No. No. It’s not increasing. It’s steady. But young people, they get infected. It is more likely, if you’re young and healthy, that you may have what’s called an asymptomatic infection. You won’t know that you’re infected. But you still can inadvertently and innocently spread the virus to someone who is actually quite vulnerable. You know, your grandmother, grandfather. Your uncle who just finished chemotherapy for cancer. Or someone who has a compromised immune system. So even though there’s a slight risk compared to the risk among elderly and people who have underlying illnesses, there’s a slight risk of serious illness in the young, the risk of their spreading the infection is considerable.

The specific guidance here in Los Angeles, where I am, is that we should be wearing cloth face masks when we go out in public. A couple of doctor friends of mine sent me studies saying that that’s actually not enough, that we need to be wearing N95 masks. Obviously, that might take away from essential medical workers who need those masks, but how confident are you that face masks, cloth masks like a bandanna, are enough when I go out to the grocery store?

It depends on what you mean by enough. It is certainly better than not having it on. Is it 100% protective against a droplet that someone might sneeze or cough, or even some aerosol? Of course not. However, in reality, if you can stay six feet from someone, at all times, the virus very, very unlikely would travel that far to you. But in the real world that we live in, when you go to a pharmacy or you go to a grocery store, the chances of you always being six feet from someone are just unlikely, which is the reason why the recommendation of, although it isn’t perfect, wear something that is a cloth. Now it’s interesting you said N95. The reason it’s not being recommended—not only N95s, but not even regular surgical masks—is because there had been shortage, particularly of N95s. And the people that you really want to protect are the people who are actually in a real and present danger, namely a health care worker who’s taking care of a sick person who’s spewing virus all over the place. You don’t want to take the mask from that person and have somebody wear it so they’ll feel more comfortable when they’re going to the grocery store. It’s for that reason. In a perfect world, in which you had an unlimited amount of really effective masks, of course you would say everybody use it. But we’re not there, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get there.

How far away are we from implementing some kind of immunity registry where people would have a QR code or some kind of certificate saying that they have antibodies and they can go out in public? Like in the movie Contagion, where the kid has a bracelet and he can go out in public. Or is that kind of a fantasy?

Well, it’s not a fantasy, but we’re really far from an effective way of doing that. I’d like to give you a simple answer to it, but there isn’t a simple answer. And the reason it’s complicated is that an antibody test, as opposed to a test for the virus to see if somebody is infected now, the antibody test says whether you’ve been infected and recovered. And now you have these proteins that historically, with other viruses, would protect you from being reinfected with the same virus. So if you have a high antibody level, you can make an assumption in most viruses. The thing that we don’t know yet about this virus, first of all, the antibody tests that are out there, disturbingly, more of them have not been validated by the FDA or the NIH. So we’re not sure if they’re really accurate, whether they’re sensitive or specific. But let’s say they were sensitive and specific. The thing we don’t know yet is what is the relationship between the level of antibody and the degree of your protection. So you may be positive for an antibody but not enough to protect you. And one of the things you want to make sure we don’t do in our quest to have these registries is to sell someone, “Oh, you’re okay. You have a positive antibody. You can go back into the society and into the workplace and not worry about getting infected.” And then have that person put their guard down and wind up getting infected. So again, in a perfect world in which we don’t live, if we had an antibody test widely available that really reflected your degree of protection, then those kinds of registries that you’re talking about would be fine.

But this isn’t going to happen in June, July, August?

No.

It’s farther away?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Where I am, again, in Los Angeles County, we have drive-through testing for people with symptoms. You can go online and sign up for these tests. And California has frankly been ahead of the curve in terms of enacting restrictions and guidelines. Do you think individual states can implement mass testing and contact tracing, or is that something that the federal government should be doing?

No. That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked that. There is a misconception that that is a responsibility of the federal government. The best way to get things done locally is if they’re done and actually supervised locally. The federal government should serve as the backup. In other words, if a state is really strapped, and doesn’t have the resources, or doesn’t have the tests to kind of purchase them in a way and get them to the local area. But once you have tests in the environment, in the community, it is always much better to get the state and local authorities in collaboration for example, with the CDC, to go ahead and do the kind of testing that’s appropriate. To have the federal government be doing that, I think, would not be as efficient as good local implementation.

So would you suggest then some kind of restriction in terms of travel between states that have been, you know, more strict about these kinds of guidelines, versus a state like Florida where pro-wrestling is deemed an essential business and people are still allowed to go to church? Say someone flies from Tampa to Seattle, does that mean that they should be quarantined for a couple of weeks? How do you, how do you regulate travel between states in that situation?

You know, that’s a really, really good question that authorities always struggle with. I mean we had no trouble when it became clear that there was a massive outbreak in China to essentially cut off an influx of people from China. When it became clear that Europe, particularly Italy and then all of the European Union, and then the U.K., was having the same problem. There was no problem in making the decision of cutting off. It becomes a little bit more sticky, where we have never really restricted travel intra the United States. I mean, that’s huge. The one thing that can maybe circumvent the more direct way of really restricting it is to get people to abide by the guidelines. And the guidelines of what we call of mitigation, which is physical separation. One of them says, “Unless it’s absolutely essential, do not travel by airplane.” Because in a closed space within an airplane, particularly if you’re on a flight that goes from Miami to Seattle, you know, you’re talking five hours, at least. That’s not good. So if you have an absolute essential reason to do that, fine. But I don’t think you’re going to see, unless things really get bad, of whether you’re going to see any federally mandated restriction on travel. What we have seen is that certain states that were surrounding New York that were restricting travel from New York into their states, saying if you come in you gotta essentially quarantine for 14 days, or not even letting them in. You know, which is kind of a little bit draconian. But it hasn’t ever been, and I don’t think it’ll ever be at the federal level.

Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, said this week that while he’s unsure about June, July, and August, he thinks that schools in New York can reopen by September. But a bunch of colleges, including Harvard and MIT, are looking at saying for the fall semester, students shouldn’t come back to campus. They might do their classes. Is that a recommendation that you would agree with?

You know, I think that you really need to see what happens as we get into the summer and then go into the fall. It is conceivable that we can have a resurgence, a second wave. I would hope that if that happens—and I hope it’s an if, not a when—if that happens, that we would have in place the testing capabilities, the ability to identify, isolate, contact, trace, and have a better feel for the penetrants in the community that we’d be able to respond in a very efficient way. I think to make a decision now about whether you’re going to open schools in the fall is really premature. A lot can happen between now and then.

We keep hearing the words, “contact tracing.” Can you just explain how that works? Because that feels crazy to me that you can trace a person’s movements over the course of several days.

Yeah. So, to do it over several days gets really problematic, because particularly when people move around a lot, because for every single case, if you got to trace 800 people, then you’ve got a problem. Because you probably don’t have the man power to do it. A somewhat practical contact tracing is if someone goes to a meeting, or a class and goes back home two days later, and winds up having documented coronavirus disease, what you would want to do is to see when the person was in this classroom, or in this theater, or in this club. Who were the people that that person was in contact within six feet for more than like 10 or 15 minutes? You can’t be contact tracing everybody that happens to be, you know, in a movie theater when someone is there, because that would be ridiculous. It would be logistically impossible. But you know that the closer you are to a person, and the longer the duration of time with a respiratory illness, that’s a greater chance of your being infected. So, for example, I work at the NIH. If I went to a lab meeting that had 15 people in it, and I went back the next day, two days later, and I was sick, we would get everybody who was in that meeting, particularly those that were sitting next to me, and you would definitely get them to either be tested or to be isolated for 14 days.

And is that self-reported?

Yeah. But if you have a public health system in place, once you identify somebody, that should trigger a public health response of doing contact tracing. So if you report it, which we’re trying to get it to be a national and reportable disease, once you report it, it goes into a central database that gets the health authorities locally to start doing the contact tracing.

Google and Apple are saying they’re going to develop technology to trace this via mobile phone. Do you think that’s a good idea? Have you consulted with them on how to develop those products?

I haven’t personally consulted with them. But one of the sticky, sticky issues about that is that there is a lot of pushback in this country to get someone or some organization—particular if it’s sponsored by the federal government, I think they’d feel better about it if it’s private—to have by GPS somebody know where you were and when you were there. Even though from a purely public health standpoint, that makes sense. You know, you could look at somebody’s cell phone, and say, “You were next to these 25 people over the last 24 hours.” Boy, I gotta tell you the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable. Even though from a pure public health standpoint, it absolutely makes sense.

I mean, it makes sense, but do you think that this pandemic should trigger some compromises in civil liberties?

Yeah. Well, you know, that is the historical question that gets asked. Do you give up a little liberty to get a little protection? I mean, I just read in the Washington Post this morning, it was Benjamin Franklin, I think. He says, “If you give up some liberty for some protection, you are neither free nor protected.”

I just have a couple of more lifestyle questions, then I’ll let you go. People are still holding out hope for some kind of abbreviated baseball season this summer, college football will start in late August. NFL right after that. Do you think those sports seasons are in jeopardy? Are we going to have college football this fall?

You know, to be honest with you, Peter, I don’t know. I really don’t. And it’s sort of along the same line as the question you asked about the schools. It’s really going to depend on what actually evolves over the next couple of months. You know, regarding sports, I believe, and I think this is going to be implemented by the initiation and the initiative of the people who own these clubs. If you could get on television, Major League Baseball, to start July 4. Let’s say, nobody comes to the stadium. You just, you do it. I mean people say, “Well you can’t play without spectators.” Well, I think you’d probably get enough buy-in from people who are dying to see a baseball game. Particularly me. I’m living in Washington. We have the World Champion Washington Nationals. You know, I want to see them play again. But there’s a way of doing that because there have been some proposals both at the level of the NFL, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, to get these people tested, and to put them in big hotels, you know, wherever you want to play. Keep them very well surveilled, namely a surveillance, but have them tested, like every week. By a gazillion tests. And make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family. And just let them play the season out. I mean, that’s a really artificial way to do it, but when you think about it, it might be better than nothing.

Yeah, the TV ratings would be through the roof.

Oh, for sure.

A summer ritual that’s emerged over the last decade are these huge concert festivals, Coachella, Lollapalooza for example, that have been rescheduled until October. Does the idea of 100,000 people in a field, partying and sweating on each other, how does that make you feel as someone who studies infectious diseases?

Well, if there’s virus in the community, it makes me really, really nervous. Really nervous because outbreaks and clusters have been the things that have fueled outbreaks in different cities throughout the world. One of the real tragic things was that in Wuhan, the city in which this virus emerged, at a time when it was clear that there was viral transmission in the community, the Chinese held a 40,000-person massive block party celebrating some Chinese festival. That just exploded it. And New Orleans had the Mardi Gras. Look what happened after the Mardi Gras. So, I mean, the direct answer to your question is that it would make me really nervous if there was virus still circulating.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, people are cooped up, they’re a little stir crazy. If you’re swiping on a dating app like Tinder, or Bumble, or Grindr, and you match with someone that you think is hot, and you’re just kind of like, “Maybe it’s fine if this one stranger comes over.” What do you say to that person?

You know, that’s tough. Because it’s what’s called relative risk. If you really feel that you don’t want to have any part of this virus, will you maintain six feet away, wear a mask, do all the things that we talk about in the guidelines? If you’re willing to take a risk—and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks—you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have. If you’re looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk. The one thing you don’t want to do is make sure the person is feeling well. Even though there’s a lot of asymptomatic infections, that’s one of the things that’s really troublesome. That if everybody transmitted would only transmit when they’re sick, that would be much easier. But what we’re seeing, which becomes really problematic, is that there’s a considerable amount of transmission from an asymptomatic person. And we’ve got well-documented now, you know, that situation on the nuclear carrier, the Roosevelt, USS Roosevelt, where hundreds of sailors have gotten infected from people that were not sick. That’s tough.

You said recently that you might never shake hands again, and the American public might not either. What else, what other social norms in five years do you think will look different? I mean, will restaurants be half capacity? Will we be wearing face masks when we go to bars and talk to people?

No. That’s not going to happen. What I hope happens is that people do something really simple, and that’s called washing your hands as often as you possibly can and using some sort of alcohol-based Purell, or something like that. Because handshaking, I mean, I think people will go back to handshaking, but we should probably be a little bit reserved in how we do that unless it’s in a social situation where it’s necessary. The problem with human nature is that what will happen is that we will get over this. There’ll be new generations. They won’t have a corporate memory of it, and we’ll probably be acting the same way as we act all along.

Corona will be sort of budgeted into our public health expectations at some point kind of like the flu?

Exactly. That’s exactly right.

This is actually the last thing. When you were a good Catholic boy, you went to Holy Cross, did you ever think you’d be a popular candidate for Sexiest Man Alive?

Well, no. Absolutely not. But as I often say, when they, when they show this to me at my age, I say, “Where were you when I was 30?” [laughs]

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