Published on Jan 25, 2021

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. And you're watching Coronavirus in Context. A lot of folks have questions about these mutations, these strands. Should we be worried about it?

And how are people rating the distribution plan of the vaccine? Is it a success? And does it depend on where you live?

So to help provide some insights, I've asked one of the leading experts on COVID-19, Dr. Ashish Jha. He is the Dean of Brown University School of Public Health. Dr. Jha, thanks for joining me.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Thank you for having me here.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Let's get right to it. People want to know about these mutations, even the words-- mutations strains. How concerned should people be?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So let's just talk a little bit about the words. Mutations are pretty common. Basically, every time the virus replicates, there are a few mutations here and there. 99.999% of them have no meaning. They don't have any clinical significance. They're no big whoop, as they say.

The problem is, every once in a while, one of these mutations becomes functionally important. It becomes either more contagious or more lethal or, in some other ways, important. And that's what's happened. Now we have a few different mutations that have acquired these functional differences that means that they really are different strains.

I think we've heard about them-- the UK variant, the South Africa one, one from Brazil, maybe one from LA, though we're still sorting that out. I've been hearing about strains all through 2020. And most of the times I looked at the data and shrugged my shoulders and said, eh, there's not much to see here.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Does strain mean it's a new virus? Some people are saying, is it new? Is it different? Does it matter? Same

DR. ASHISH JHA: Virus. Same virus. Works in the same way, but just a bit more contagious, or a lot more contagious. And here's what's going on. On a molecular level, basically the spike protein, those little spikes on the virus-- that's what is really important for attaching to human cells and infecting people. There have been these mutations on the spike protein that just makes it attach more efficiently and infect cells more efficiently. And that's bad, of course.

And so the UK variant really does look like it is more contagious. As opposed to all the mutations of 2020 that I felt like we could blow off, this one is not one we can blow off. This is a serious-- this is an important issue.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: So when it's serious, what does that mean for listeners? Does that mean we definitely need to try to speed up vaccine distribution? Serious sounds serious. So what should people do?

DR. ASHISH JHA: And I don't say serious lightly. It is serious because what we are going to see is we're going to see this variant take off across the country. We're going to see it cause large spikes in infections and hospitalizations and deaths. And we got to do everything we can to prevent it.

So what do we need to do? We absolutely need to be vaccinating many, many more people as quickly as possible. Probably our single most powerful tool in the short run. Probably all of us need to be upgrading our masks and the masks that we're wearing. I think the standard cloth masks we've worn through 2020-- probably not good enough for this variant. We need better quality masks.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Do we need a double mask?

DR. ASHISH JHA: A double mask can be pretty reasonable under certain high-risk circumstances. So if you're out for a walk with your dog, you probably don't need a double mask. Even a simple cloth mask is maybe OK. But if you're going to go into a room with a bunch of other people, I think double masks, certainly high-quality masks like KN95s or KF94s-- these are all available on Amazon and other retail stores. Those are generally higher quality masks. A good surgical mask is also quite useful.

But again, in high-risk situations, a double mask may be the thing that's needed.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: What about the multi-layer cloth masks that maybe you put a filter in, a coffee filter?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. I think a multi-layer cloth mask with a filter can be quite good. It really depends there on fit, if you have a really good fit, a good seal. Again, you got to cover your nose. It's got to come below your chin. I think that can also be quite effective.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: You're a dean, so you're used to giving grades. So I want you to grade the distribution of COVID-19's vaccine. Would you give it a gentleman's C? Would you give it an F? Is it a D? What grade is it?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Well, it's certainly not an A or a B. So I would probably say it's somewhere like a C minus, D plus.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Was there even a plan, Dr. Jha? Some people are saying, there wasn't actually even a plan. It was just, let the states do it. And here they did a great job in terms of development of vaccines. And then when it comes time to get it out, some people could argue it's worse than the testing debacles that we've had. Why so wrong? How do we fix this?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So it has been a debacle. I think debacle is a good word for it. Basically, there was not much of a federal plan. The people who put this together on part of the federal government, fundamentally just misunderstood vaccinations and how it works. They just said, well, we'll let states figure it out. Everybody will go to their CVS and get it. Didn't think through the details and certainly didn't have any sense of urgency and then made a whole bunch of predictions like 20 million will be vaccinated by December, 50 by January, that clearly was never going to come true.

So a lot of disappointment and frustration. But I think if we look forward, the way I see it is states are starting to figure this out. The new federal government has been very clear that they're going to work with states to augment state capability. I do think we can turn this around. But it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of resources.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: When do we need to turn it around? Do we have several week leeway? There are several states where people are having the second shot appointment canceled. And my concern is that some people are just going to say, well, I got one. That's better than none. And that's not necessarily true.

So how much leeway do we have? And does all of this decrease confidence in vaccination-- we're making some progress in terms of people willing to take the vaccine. And now people can't even get it or can't get their second shot. So it becomes, why bother?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. Yeah. So a couple of things. First, when do we need to turn this around? Yesterday would be a good day to have turned this around, meaning that we don't have time to lose on his.

And the second point is, absolutely everybody needs a second vaccine. If you've gotten one shot and you're wondering, do I need a second-- yes, you do. You need that second shot because that's what's going to give you a durable protection. One shot will give you inadequate protection that will wain over time. So in my mind, it's a no-brainer. Everybody needs to get a second shot.

Look, the new team has a lot of work to do. They just got into office. They've got to sort out the details. I think we've got to give them at least a few days to come up with a plan. The plan they have so far looks good, but it's going to be the reality on the ground of, how many vaccines do we have? What are the capabilities of the states and how do we augment it?

If people have had their second doses canceled, they need to get rescheduled more or less right away. And we've got to get the vaccines out to individuals. So there's a lot of work to do. I remain pretty optimistic we can do it, but there is going to be a lot of work.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And the President has talked about 100 million shots in 100 days. So that's a million shots a day. We're at about 800,000-900,000. But some experts, as you may know, Dr. Jha, have been arguing, we need to be at 1.4 million if we want to vaccinate everyone by the end of summer. How optimistic are you that we're going to be able to get to-- we need to be at more than a million because we need to make up in terms of what's going on. And then we need people to actually sign up. And that's where the frustration is.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So I'm pretty confident. We're going to get there. Here's why. Look, the first couple of weeks of the administration is going to be tough. They're going to be picking up the mantle. They're going to be trying to do a lot of stuff. And I wouldn't be surprised if they can't quite hit a million a day. But I think over time you are going to see more.

There are a couple of things that give me optimism. Right now we have Moderna and Pfizer. I'm hoping we'll have Johnson & Johnson online soon. We may have Novavax. We may have AstraZeneca. So these are, again-- we don't know. We don't know. And I don't want to count on those.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Those are expected not to have good manufacturing capabilities until April. So even if they apply for EUA in February, that's a couple of months away. To your point, if we have this variant that's more transmissible, we need to be getting shots in the arm now.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I don't think any of them are going to make a material difference, as you said, until April. We may see some impact, maybe of J&J, by March. But again, not a lot of doses. So right now, between now and March, it's largely a Moderna and Pfizer game. But once we get into April, we could have help from several other vaccines.

And that's why I do think within 100-day target-- we're going to hit that. But the question is, how much of that can we do front loaded? And that's where the game of trying to outpace the variant is all about. 100 days is too late for the variant. We've got to move in the next 30 to 60 days.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And finally, I want to ask you about public health. Here you're at one of the most prestigious schools. You're working with students who are excited about being involved in public health. Do you think the way the public perceives public health is changed because of COVID? And has it changed for the better? Because in some ways, people may be saying, you know what? Hasn't worked out so well.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yes. I think a majority of Americans are pretty-- well, first of all, I should actually start off by saying, I think most people didn't even know what public health was. I think people now know what public health is.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: They think it's the water supply.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Right. Right. So people now know what public health is. You don't have to explain it to folks. I think the second is, most people have seen the public health community as part of the solution, that they've been helpful. And we haven't gotten everything right. There have been missteps. But in general, I think people have relatively favorable views of public health.

I'll tell you. At our school, we've seen a greater than 100% increase in our applications.


DR. ASHISH JHA: There is so much interest in public health right now, just excitement about people who want to come and learn public health and study public health and do public health. And I think that's great. And we've got to turn that excitement into education and learning and action.

So I'm pretty optimistic about the future of public health. I wish it didn't take a horrible crisis like this just to stir it on. But if that's one of the silver linings, that's OK, I guess.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Well, we'll leave it at that. Dr. Jha, I want to thank you for taking the time today and sharing your insights.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Dr. Whyte, thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it.