'If one state goes': Doctor on COVID-19 surge in Michigan

Dr. Murtaza Akhter, emergency physician at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down what what the surge of COIVD-19 cases in Michigan means for other states in the U.S.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: A new study out of Israel is raising concerns about the effectiveness of Pfizer's vaccine against a South African variant. We want to bring in Dr. Murtaza Akhter. He is an emergency physician at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. And Doctor, it's great to speak with you again.

Questions about this study coming out of Israel, which found that the South African variant was able to, quote, "break through" Pfizer's vaccine. Yes, we know that it is a small data set. It has not been peer reviewed yet. But I'm curious just to get your initial reaction to these results and whether or not it changes your opinion of the effectiveness of Pfizer's vaccine.

MURTAZA AKHTER: Yeah, thank you for having me. So as you know, when they were testing in South Africa, they thought that the variant would be one of the variants that the antibody protects against. And yet in Israel, they were quite surprised by how many people got infected with the variant. And so it does make you wonder how effective is the Pfizer vaccine, the BioNTech vaccine, against the South African variant?

Remember, this is what viruses do. They mutate. And that's why we really need to keep a lid on how much the virus spread and how long it lasted. That's why it is critical to stamp it out as quickly as possible. And as I've been saying, vaccination was basically a race against time. It was almost a miracle that it got ready that quickly. What we really need to do is make sure people are vaccinated before more variants spread.

Right now, that variant has a very low prevalence in Israel and probably here as well. But if you give it time, it will mutate, and that's why we need to get people vaccinated as quickly as we can.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Doctor, although it is, as Seana pointed out, a limited data set and not a peer-reviewed study, do we know if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, even though people might have gotten that South African variant, did they still wind up in the hospital? Was it any more deadly? Or did the vaccine provide some kind of protection?

MURTAZA AKHTER: That's a great question. Remember, the most important thing about vaccination isn't just prevention of infection-- which is, of course, very important-- but in particular, how well does it prevent severe disease and hospitalization? As you said, the numbers are very small, and we need peer-reviewed numbers to be really sure. But the real question is, can that vaccination help prevent severe disease, whether hospitalization or death, in all the variants?

So far the data have been good that we know of. But we just don't have enough data on the newer variant. So time will tell. And in the meantime, we have to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

SEANA SMITH: Doctor, the situation out in Michigan right now, a very high level of infection. Variants are, of course, thought to be one of the drivers of that. From your perspective, what needs to be done? Should we be sending more testing, more vaccinations to Michigan and other states in trouble? Should the state of Michigan begin shutting down like the CDC director suggested today?

MURTAZA AKHTER: I think people are sick of hearing me say this, but, you know, we are in a federation of states, basically. And I was sitting in Illinois just a couple of days ago, being, like, huh, I wonder how long it'll be until it gets here. And today, the numbers in Illinois are also spiking up.

And so, you know, that's the way the virus works, right? It knows no state borders. If one state goes poorly, it will spread to other states.

And so, of course, my opinion is you need to really tamper down, hold people accountable, make sure that they're not having large indoor gatherings. When states say things like, listen, people are being vaccinated, let's just open up, when all they need to do was wait a few weeks or a couple of months, it sends a message to people that, hey, I can do whatever I want, even though I haven't been vaccinated. That's the irony of it all.

And when people who aren't vaccinated start being at indoor gatherings, which they will, especially right now in cold states like Michigan, the virus will spread. So yes, I think people need to hunker down. And really, it should only be for a couple more months, which isn't bad given that we've been dealing with this for over a year. But I guess people have gotten impatient, and the virus is spreading at really high levels.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Doctor, there's news that Regeneron is going to ask the FDA to clear its antibody drug for use as a preventative treatment. But I thought this was the kind of drug you had to get intravenously. How good is a preventative if people have to go to the hospital to get it?

MURTAZA AKHTER: Well, that's actually one of the really fascinating things about the monoclonal antibody cocktail that Regeneron is pitching, that basically, it doesn't have to be a IV. You can give a subcutaneous injection, kind of like a vaccine.

Now, part of you might say, well, if there's a vaccine available, what's the point of the Regeneron monoclonal antibody, which is a great question. But remember, this monoclonal antibody works a lot more quickly-- is the thought-- than the vaccination. So if, for example, somebody has already been infected or a close contact has been infected, or, for example, there's a nursing home outbreak in people who haven't, for some reason, been vaccinated yet, then you could, in theory, use the Regeneron monoclonal antibody to get the people who are close contacts of the person infected to get that person those monoclonal antibodies to prevent spread of infection and hospitalization.

So I think it potentially is a big deal. It will be moot once people are vaccinated. But given that a lot of people aren't yet, it could be very helpful, especially in a real quick somebody is infected, what do we do for the people next to him or her, to get them an antibiotic cocktail? That, by the way, is subcu and not IV.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Murtaza Akhter, always great to have you on the show. We look forward to talking with you again soon.