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Dr. Carlos del Rio on Omicron Surge, COVID Testing Crisis & the Need to Vaccinate the World

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With the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the United States is now averaging over 130,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and health officials warn the U.S. could see a million new cases a day by February. We speak with health expert Dr. Carlos del Rio, who says that vaccination complemented by booster shots is the best defense against severe illness. “Everybody’s going to get infected. You’re going to be exposed to this virus because it’s essentially going to be everywhere,” says del Rio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is preparing to address the nation Tuesday about the government’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 Omicron variant, which is rapidly spreading across the United States and the world. The U.S. is now averaging over 130,000 new COVID cases a day, nearly double the numbers of nearly a month ago. New York state has set new daily COVID records on each of the past three days. Outgoing NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins warned the nation could see a million new cases a day by February.

The new surge has led to many schools halting in-person classes and the postponement or cancellation of a number of professional sporting and entertainment events. Long lines for COVID tests were seen in many parts of the country ahead of the upcoming holiday weekend.

Despite the new surge, many scientists have expressed hope the Omicron variant will prove to be less dangerous than the Delta variant, especially for individuals who have received a booster shot.

Earlier today, Moderna announced its own internal studies show its vaccine booster considerably increases antibody levels against the Omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. He said Omicron was raging through the world.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: The one thing that’s very clear, and there’s no doubt about this, is its extraordinary capability of spreading, its transmissibility capability. It is just, you know, raging through the world, really. And if you look even here in the United States, you have some regions that start off with a few percent of the isolates that are positive now going up to 30, 40, in some places 50%. So, yes, there is this issue of whether or not it is or more or less severe. The information we’re getting from our South African colleagues still suggests that when you look at it totally, the hospitalization-to-case ratio is less than with Delta. There seems to be less durability of symptomatology, less requirement for oxygen. But you’ve got to be careful. That might be due really to the fact that their population has so much experience with prior infections that it might be underlying immunity that’s making it look like it’s less severe.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Atlanta, Georgia, where we’re joined by Dr. Carlos del Rio, distinguished professor of medicine, epidemiology and global health at Emory University, also the international secretary of the National Academy of Medicine and the former executive director of the National AIDS Council of Mexico.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Dr. del Rio. Why don’t you start off by explaining what Omicron is, how serious it is for this country and around the world, and this issue of its incredible infectiousness, but, on the other hand, whether in fact it makes people as sick as the Delta variant?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO: Well, good morning. And first of all, let me just say that this has been a horrendous pandemic, right? We’re now into our second year, we’re going to be starting our third year, and there really appears to be no end in sight. This virus has thrown to us a variety of different, I would say, curveballs at every step of the process.

We developed vaccines. The vaccines were initially developed to combat the original strain, the Wuhan strain. And then, over the course of the pandemic, we have seen different strains evolve that have been quite serious, first the Alpha strain and now the Delta strain and now the Omicron strain. The Delta strain is still a major problem globally and here in the U.S. I mean, the great majority of hospitalizations cases and deaths in our country continue to be caused by the Delta strain. But we’re seeing the Omicron strain emerge and becoming the dominant variant in the next several weeks.

What is happening? Well, this virus is a respiratory virus, and it’s an RNA virus that, as it reproduces, as it’s multiplying, is producing mistakes. And some of those mistakes, those mutations, benefit the virus, and others don’t. The ones that we worry about is mutations that increase transmissibility, that increase clinical severity or that increase what we call immune evasiveness, i.e. the ability of the virus to evade our immune system either from prior infection or from vaccine-induced immunity. When a virus has some of those characteristics, the WHO calls it a variant of concern.

The most recent variant of concern is actually Omicron. And what Omicron has, it appears to be — we’re learning. You know, we’re still learning. But it appears to be much more transmissible than Delta. Delta was already more transmissible than the original strain. The original strain had what we call a reproductive number of 2.5 to 3. What that means is that one person would infect two-and-a-half or three, and each one of those will infect two-and-a-half or three. If you did that 10 times and you did it in an immune population, you would have about a little bit over 9,000 people infected. When we go to Delta, Delta appears to be having an R naught of about six to eight. That means that one person infects six; each one of those infects six. If you put that into a naive population, after 10 cycles of transmission, you’d have 30 million people infected.

Well, Omicron appears to be two to three times more transmissible than Delta, so that would put Omicron in the neighborhood of measles, which has an R naught of about 15 to 18. And with an R naught of 15 to 18, everybody is going to get infected. You’re going to be exposed to this virus because it’s essentially going to be everywhere. And if you’re going to be exposed to this virus at this point in time, you’re better off if you’ve been vaccinated and if you’ve been boosted than if you’re not, because if you haven’t been vaccinated, if you haven’t been boosted, you will get infected. Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you have a chance of getting infected.

As far as clinical severity, I will just say that I agree with Dr. Fauci: It’s too early to talk about whether it’s more severe or less severe. But even if it’s less severe, if the numbers are really, really high, we still may see a lot of people in the hospital, simply because it’s a numbers issue, right?

AMY GOODMAN: You have the South Africa numbers, and many are saying perhaps they’re saying it’s less severe there because it’s a much younger population, and Britain is reporting something different. But I wanted to ask you about — on television, on all the networks, you know, you have the experts repeating what has to be done here — the basics. You’ve got to test. You’ve got to vax. You’ve got to wear a mask, socially distance and be extremely careful. But what’s not added to that list, repeatedly, is this issue of vaccinating the world. What has Omicron taught us about — it’s not just a matter of altruism that you want people to be as safe as perhaps people are in the United States, though many who are unvaccinated are not safe, but that if someone is unsafe somewhere, you are unsafe here?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO: Well, I think we’ve seen this over and over. The variants — Omicron emerged probably in South Africa. Delta emerged in India. In areas of the world with low vaccination rate and high transmission, you’re going to see these variants emerge.

And I think you mentioned the right word. It is “vaccinating” the world, not giving vaccines. If we get vaccines to countries but we don’t, you know, develop, don’t have the infrastructure to get vaccines into people, you will then not have vaccination. We need to do a better job.

I’m surprised that up to now there’s still not national and international leadership to make this happen. We need, really, somebody in charge of making this happen at a global level. And we need coordination, because, you know, they — initially what’s set up was something called COVAX, and COVAX essentially has failed, and it has failed because there hasn’t been support from the different nations, the different organizations. We continue to treat global vaccination as charity: “Well, we have these vaccines left over. We’re going to send them.”

You know, most recently we sent a bunch of vaccines, Johnson & Johnson vaccines, to Haiti, and we were very proud of that. Well, we did that, and, you know, the State Department made a big announcement about that. It was done the same day that the CDC said Johnson & Johnson is not a good vaccine. You know, at the end of the day, we’re contradicting ourselves, and our foreign policy on vaccines is not aligning with what the reality is and what needs to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: An analysis published Sunday by the Financial Times found wealthy countries have administered more COVID boosters than the total number of all doses given so far in poorer countries. According to the countries, as defined by the World Bank, where it’s just under 11 shots per 100 people by any doses had been given to low-income countries, something like nearly 16 booster doses per 100 people were administered across the world’s 59 high-income countries, Dr. del Rio.

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO: Yeah, no, that’s absolutely true. I mean, I think that the disparities in this world are being seen in vaccination. Rich countries are hoarding vaccines and are boosting and are doing things that, you know, is for their own benefit and the benefit of its citizens, but they’re not — they’re being myopic. They’re not seeing beyond their borders. And when you’re controlling a pandemic, you have to look beyond your borders. This is a global issue. And if we don’t have a global approach, we’re never going to beat this.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the issue of Medicare for All at home, whether this would have made, or could make for future healthcare in this country, a massive difference? And this might go also to the issue of the unbelievable lack of testing available. I mean, we’re here in New York City. The lines are around blocks everywhere for anyplace that is offering a test. That if you had Medicare for All, for example, there would be more preventative care, and this issue of whether tests should be available for free everywhere here?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO: I think you’re talking about important issues, but I think they’re a little bit separate from each other, right? Medicare for All may be one thing, but, again, this is not an issue of Medicare. This is an issue really about the government doing the right thing during a pandemic.

Setting up testing sites — you know, we’ve left a lot of things to the market. And, for example, rapid tests continue to be run by industry, by corporations that produce the tests and want to make a profit out of this. They should have been taken over by the government like we’ve seen in the U.K. and many other places. And basically, rapid tests ought to be available for everybody to go to the drugstore and the supermarket and buy for a reasonable price, not for the price that we’re currently paying. I mean, I bought some rapid tests yesterday to use in my family gathering, and I’m paying $25 for a package of two tests. That is simply something that most of the people in this country cannot afford. And I should have been able to go there and get them for under $5. But the reality is, for that to happen, the government should have stepped in.

We did it with vaccines, right? But imagine if the vaccine approach had been that of the rapid test approach, that the government said, “Well, you know, buy them and then submit a claim to your insurance company to get reimbursed.” Well, imagine if the vaccines had been the same way: “Well, get vaccinated, but you have to pay for it, and then you submit a claim to your insurance company to get reimbursed.” We would have never had the number of people vaccinated that we currently have in this country. The vaccines are — you know, we reached the number of vaccinations we reached in this country because the vaccines are available and are free. And that’s exactly what we needed to happen with rapid tests, but we haven’t done that. And I’m baffled that we haven’t done that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, facing widespread criticism for her comments about making at-home COVID tests available to all Americans.

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Look at what we’ve done over the course of time. We’ve quadrupled the size of our testing plan. We’ve cut the costs significantly over the past few months. And this effort to — to push — to ensure insurers are — you’re able to get your tests refunded means 150 million Americans will be able to get free tests.

MARA LIASSON: That’s kind of complicated, though. Why not just make them free and give them out and have them available everywhere?

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Should we just send one to every American?


PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Then what — then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost? And then what happens after that?

MARA LIASSON: All I know is that other countries seem to be making them available in greater quantities for less money.

PRESS SECRETARY JEN PSAKI: Well, I think we share the same objective, which is to make them less expensive and more accessible, right? Every country is going to do that differently. And I’m just noting that, again, our tests go through the FDA approval process. That’s not the same process that it — it doesn’t work that way in every single country.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Carlos del Rio, your response?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO: You know, I think, you know, yes, they’ve increased test capacity, but the reality is it’s still not sufficient. So, you know, laudable efforts but not enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Dr. Carlos del Rio is distinguished professor of medicine, epidemiology and global health at Emory University, also international secretary of the National Academy of Medicine.

Coming up, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan appears to be dead, after Democratic Senator Joe Manchin surprises the White House and comes out against the plan to expand the nation’s social safety net and combat the climate crisis. He made the announcement on Fox TV. We’ll speak with one of the six congressmembers who voted against the infrastructure bill, saying, “If we don’t tie it to Build Back Better, Build Back Better will die.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “El Rey” by Vicente Fernández. The Mexican singer recently passed away at the age of 81.

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