National Institutes of Health chief says he understands why coronavirus guidelines confused Americans

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The head of the National Institutes of Health said it’s understandable that Americans have been confused by shifting medical guidance around the issue of wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19, but denied that the different messages have been contradictory.

“I do understand that must be confusing to people because the message did change,” said Francis Collins, director of the NIH. 

But Collins, in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, said that Surgeon General Jerome Adams “was doing exactly the right thing” when he repeatedly told the American public not to buy masks for more than a month from late February to early April.

Adams, who was echoing the guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was “trying to preserve a precious resource for those who needed it most,” Collins said.  

And at the time, a limited supply of masks — especially those that filter air before it is breathed — were in short supply. This prompted medical experts and government leaders to urge the public not to buy them to make sure that hospital workers and other first responders had enough. 

But Adams, like others, also said at the time that masks had “not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.” 

Collins told Yahoo News that public health experts at the time didn’t understand the degree to which asymptomatic people could spread the virus, and the degree to which the virus could be spread through respiratory droplets, which are heavier than air and fall to the ground, but can still be spread person-to-person by coughing or close breathing.

Transmission through respiratory droplets made the novel coronavirus “different than most viruses we’ve known about,” Collins said. And “probably 40 percent of the new infections with COVID-19 are derived from people who have no symptoms at the time they pass the virus on. That wasn’t clear until some time had gone by. So it really does reflect a change in what the public health needs are.”

“There’s nothing here that’s not consistent. It’s just based upon new information that we’ve been gathering over the last three months,” Collins said. “This is a totally different idea. That is, ‘I should now wear a mask so that I’m not infecting somebody else.’ It's not to save me. It’s to save them from me.”

Masks have become a politically charged issue in large part because President Trump has repeatedly refused to wear one. He has also mocked a reporter for wearing a mask and poked fun at Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing one. And on Tuesday the president retweeted an article that said masks were promoting “social control” as well as a “culture of silence, slavery, and social death.”

But the president is increasingly isolated in this view even among his most loyal allies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that people “have an obligation to others” who are at risk to wear masks and that there is “no stigma attached to wearing a mask … to staying 6 feet apart.”

Even Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who is one of the president’s fiercest and most bombastic cheerleaders, chastised people who gathered over the Memorial Day weekend without social distancing and masks. “If you can’t social-distance, please wear the mask for your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa. My humble advice,” Hannity said Tuesday night.

Francis Collins. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)

Collins, a prominent convert to Christianity, expressed surprise and dismay at the level of resistance to wearing masks, especially among other Christians. 

“The church ought to be a place where politics is not the currency. It ought to be the place where truth really is valued. And it particularly ought to be a place where we’re worried about the most vulnerable people,” Collins said. “And for the church to adopt approaches that put people at risk of getting a terrible disease really doesn’t seem right in the current climate. And yet, in some instances you see that.

“Now let’s not overstate it. I would say most churches are, in fact, doing everything they can. They’re making masks. They’re running food banks. They’re making sure to wear masks themselves if they’re out and about. They’re not having large gatherings, even if their state has told them they could start to do so. But there are exceptions, and they get the most attention, as is always the case in our current media climate.”

Collins is a significant figure in American science, having overseen the Human Genome Project. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.  

President Barack Obama appointed Collins to head the NIH in 2009, and Trump reappointed him at the beginning of his presidency. Collins in 2011 was included on a list of Washington’s “most powerful, least famous people.”  

That partly explains why even though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reports to Collins, Fauci is by far the more well-known figure.

But Collins is in charge of coordinating the hunt for a vaccine in the U.S. He said there are now 18 pharmaceutical companies joining with several U.S. government agencies under the umbrella of the NIH effort known as “Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines,” or ACTIV. 

And Collins said that “in an optimistic scenario, by the end of 2020, we might have 100 million doses of a successful and safe vaccine.

“That would be pretty remarkable in such a timetable. But there are lots of things that could go wrong. So one needs to be realistic about this,” he cautioned.

Collins admitted he is concerned about the levels of skepticism regarding a vaccine for COVID-19, which are building on years of anti-vaccine activism by those who continue to make the debunked claim that vaccines are linked with autism.

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 44 percent of Republicans surveyed believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements — a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.

Collins called these kinds of conspiracy theories “deeply disturbing.”

“I am worried if we get a vaccine for COVID-19 by the end of the year, current polls would say maybe 20 percent of Americans say that they wouldn’t take it. And why would they not take it? Just because they don’t trust that vaccines are going to be safe, and that all sort of builds upon the stories coming from anti-vaxxers in the past,” he said. 

“This is a terrible tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying across the world. We could stop that. And 20 percent of Americans say, ‘I wouldn’t want that vaccine, because it might not be what I think it should be because maybe they’re lying to me about whether it’s safe.’ How did we get there?”

But Collins also acknowledged that establishment organizations and leaders need to engage more meaningfully with the concerns of anti-vaccine activists.

“There’s virtually no human intervention, including drinking water, that is without risk for certain people in certain doses. So let’s be clear. When I say vaccines are generally safe, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a rare instance where a vaccine does lead to a negative outcome, some sort of side effect or a secondary illness of some sort. What we ask, I think, though, scientifically is how do you balance the benefits and the risks? And I think we ask every consumer to do that same calculation,” he said.

“I’m afraid we have not done a great job in terms of explaining how one makes a thoughtful, rational decision, that you have to really get quantitative about it,” he said. 

“If somebody says, ‘Well, there’s a risk there.’ Of course there is. How big is the risk? What does that mean for the individual? And how do you factor that into what’s the benefit? Then you could have a reasonable conversation.”

Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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