In a short, drama-free keynote address at a virtual meeting organized by a Philadelphia-based cancer organization, Anthony Fauci spoke dispassionately about the coronavirus, which continues to wreak personal, economic, and political damage in the United States and has reportedly caused tension between him and President Donald Trump, who promotes a more optimistic message.
“Here we are in mid-July with close to 14 million cases globally and 580-plus-thousand deaths so far with essentially no end in sight,” Fauci, who is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told an audience gathered by the American Association for Cancer Research.
Speaking from an unadorned room without the shelves of weighty texts that serve as a backdrop for so many virtual talks, Fauci said that SARS-CoV, the first deadly coronavirus to spread in people in 2002, was tamed in a matter of months with public health measures. MERS, another vicious coronavirus that emerged in 2012, continues to smolder at low levels.
But the new coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2 because of its close similarities to the first SARS, has proved a much tougher opponent. It is less deadly, but spreads more easily, often without symptoms.
“The United States has been hit harder than any country in the world with the most cases, 3.4 million now, and the most deaths at about 136,000,” he said. (As of Monday morning, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center estimated the U.S. had 3.8 million cases and more than 140,000 deaths.)
David Tuveson, a cancer biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and president-elect of the cancer research association, introduced Fauci as a “Renaissance man” and “beacon of knowledge and truth” in the fight against the new virus.
Fauci noted that some have projected that a lockdown-related reduction in cancer screenings could result in 10,000 extra deaths from breast and colon cancer over the next decade.
He said he has been most struck by the “extraordinary” variety in the way the coronavirus affects infected people. Roughly 20% to 45% have no symptoms, but the disease can also lead to serious illness with long-term impact and to death. Among identified cases, he said, 81% of people have mild to moderate disease, 14% have severe symptoms, 5% need critical care and 2.4% die. When you consider how many people likely are not identified as cases because they lack symptoms, he estimated that the fatality rate is 1% or less.
Fauci summarized the most promising findings on potential treatments and vaccines and said that physical distancing remains the “bottom line common denominator” in the public health battle against the virus. He also mentioned the importance of wearing a mask in public, covering coughs and sneezes, and washing hands frequently.