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Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the White House providing the public with at-home COVID testing kits, what the Biden administration can do to counter the pandemic, and vaccine performance data.
AKIKO FUJITA: Well, Americans now have access to free at-home COVID tests for the first time in this pandemic. The White House launching the website COVIDtests.gov allowing people to order four at-home tests for each household. All of this comes as the testing sites continue to be plagued by long lines and delays.
Let's bring in Dr. Eric Topol, Executive VP Scripps Research Institute and Director and Founder Scripps Research Translational Institute. Doctor, it's good to talk to you today. So the website is up. That's the good news. Most who put the order in for those tests won't get it for another week, potentially 12 days. How much of this is too little, too late?
ERIC TOPOL: Well, yeah, of course it is. But you got to give them credit-- finally, they came through. There was a lot of reluctance to do this, and it's just a start. It's associated also with tens of millions of N95 masks that are going to be distributed through pharmacies. It's something that we've been asking for a year, but at least we're seeing some response. And since the pandemic is far from over, this will help over the long run-- over the year that we have to deal with this, at least for the months ahead.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Topol, Anjalee here. I know that, you know, there was a lot of criticism of the prior administration, but there seems to be a lot building up for the current one as well. When it comes to responding to this pandemic, the US seems to be either woefully behind or unable to really clearly message. I just wonder, looking back on two years, how do you think we're faring? Have we caught up at all?
ERIC TOPOL: Yeah, this is a really serious issue that I wrote about in "Science" yesterday. We have profound data deficiency here, and there hasn't been one word uttered by this administration in all their public addresses that they intend to fix it or even recognize that it's such a serious issue. We should know right now whether boosters are protecting from Omicron hospitalizations and also whether the time, you know, from a booster is significant an issue-- and so many other things that we should have that data, but we rely on other countries.
In addition, there's a lot of infighting among the public health agencies. And if we had a Secretary of HHS who was actually active, who showed up, we would have much better mediation, a single, unified, consistent messaging, whether it's for boosters, or for high quality medical grade masks, or for isolation guidelines. We have so much inconsistency. We must do better.
BRAD SMITH: And so you've written about this extensively as well, including the things that the White House and President Biden cannot control opposition to vaccines, masks, science, and main defense tactics. But what are some of the things that are in the control of the administration that you believe, even as some of the Senate Democrats and congressional Democrats are calling on more from the White House to come forward?
ERIC TOPOL: Right. Well, a really important question. Perhaps the biggest one, which obviously would have been ideally put in place on day one, was to block the misinformation and disinformation-- anti-vax, anti-science, anti-mask, anti-mandates, everything. And that would have needed a very aggressive team that every day debunked all of the lies, distortions, and falsehoods that are, essentially, having tens of millions of Americans not get vaccinated.
So that would have helped. It still would help, because we have such a large number of people in this country so far different than most other countries now. We're over 60th in the list of countries as far as their population vaccinated, and similar in terms of getting boosters. So an aggressive counter-aggression to all the anti-vaccine-- and a hall of shame, every day, to do fact checks, to name the names of the people and the organizations that are putting out this anti-science work, that would help.
Obviously, we finally are seeing the promotion of high quality masks. The testing is a real debacle since day one of the pandemic back in 2020. And hopefully, we're starting to see inroads to fix that.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Topol, really quickly on the booster point-- we've seen one study out of Israel saying the fourth dose isn't as effective. We also know that Omicron is breaking through for that third dose. What are your sense of more vaccine doses needed this year?
ERIC TOPOL: Yeah, this is really important. The public has a misread about the Omicron booster effect. It's really important to stress that it's a 90% reduction of hospitalizations with the booster-- 90%. And perhaps after three months, it gets down in the high-80s. But that is excellent. That's as good as two shots were against the original strain of the virus.
Now, yes, there are lots of breakthrough infections, but that's a different matter. So we are so vulnerable because our booster rate is very low. Now, the question you asked is about the fourth shot. The fourth shot in Israel, from the preliminary data and health care workers, it's only a few hundred. It doesn't show a lot of effect on reducing infections.
But what we don't know is whether that fourth booster, if someone is now four months, five months out from the original booster, whether that's going to help to prevent hospitalizations, deaths, severe disease. That data isn't available yet. We'll know that in the weeks ahead.