In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Biden struck a cautiously optimistic note about the COVID-19 pandemic as it enters its third year.
The White House followed up with a detailed strategy for the pandemic’s next phase including vaccinating here and abroad, testing, antiviral treatments, improving the quality of indoor air, expanding the nation’s capacity to track and treat new variants and supporting people with long-term consequences of COVID.
The Centers for Disease Control has also issued new guidelines suggesting most Americans can take off their masks.
We set out, in the wake of the State of the Union, to assess the state of the pandemic with some of the country’s foremost researchers, both at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at the University of Pittsburgh.
That’s where virologist Paul Duprex alerted 60 Minutes last year about the dangers of coronavirus variants — well before Delta and Omicron battered the United States.
Dr. Jon LaPook: It’s been about one year since we last spoke for 60 Minutes. Is the pandemic over?
Paul Duprex: The pandemic is not over. But we’re in a very different place today than we were one year ago.
Dr. Jon LaPook: How so?
Paul Duprex: There have been multiple more variants. But we’re moving in a direction where there are not as many people who are in hospital because of the disease. And we’ve got many more people vaccinated. And we understand a lot about first shots, second shots, and now boosters. So, it’s a totally different landscape.
Duprex, born in Northern Ireland, is head of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s hopeful the virus will continue to mutate into a milder form.
Dr. Jon LaPook: Is it possible that the coronaviruses that now cause the common cold long ago began as fiercely, as dangerous, as deadly as SARS-CoV-2 and that, over time, it became weaker and weaker? Now we have the common cold?
Paul Duprex: Oh, I would say it’s more than possible. I would say it’s very likely. But we just have to wait and see where the virus ends up, and that’s just good science. Scientists follow the virus, keep a close eye on it, and we understand how that virus changes over time and where it will go.
Keeping a close eye on the virus at the Centers for Disease Control is director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the former chief of infectious diseases at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. She was tapped by President Biden to lead an agency struggling to communicate effectively with the public.
This past week, Dr. Walensky took us behind the scenes at the agency that’s been fighting infectious diseases since it was formed in the 1940s to combat malaria.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: So here we are in our genomic sequencing lab.
Dr. Jon LaPook: This is the first time you’ve allowed a film crew back here?
Justin Lee: That is accurate.
Justin Lee leads the genomic sequencing laboratory and showed us how positive COVID test samples from all over the world are processed so genetic information can be extracted and analyzed in this sequencer to look for new variants of the virus.
Justin Lee: This was our most recent sequencing run.
Each square represents one person’s COVID test sample.
Dr. Jon LaPook: And about what percentage are Omicron?
Justin Lee: From the U.S. samples that are collected recently, 99% are Omicron.
Dr. Jon LaPook: Wow. So out of 96 wells, only one of them is yellow? Only one is Delta?
Justin Lee: Only one is Delta.
Since first being identified in the United States just three months ago, Omicron and its sub-variants have almost entirely replaced the Delta variant, which had caused more severe disease.
Earlier in the pandemic, the CDC was lagging behind in genetic sequencing. Now, hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funding have helped create a nationwide early detection system.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: We want to be able to detect about 0.1% of any new variant if it comes into this country with 99% certainty.
Dr. Jon LaPook: And are you getting any kind of a hint that there’s some new variant of concern?
Justin Lee: No. Not right now. Nope. I mean, we’re tracking things but there’s nothing that appears to be, you know, the next omicron.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: We breathe a heavy sigh of relief when we don’t see anything—
But no threat is too small. In one COVID-19 briefing, we witnessed Dr. Walensky ask staff for an update on what some are nicknaming “Deltacron,”a genetic hybrid of the Delta and Omicron variants. It’s only been found rarely in the U.S. and Dr. Walensky says the CDC does not consider it a threat at this time.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Anything more on Deltacron?
Dr. Mahon: No. I mean, it’s out there.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: But we’re still in the, like, handful of cases?
Dr. Mahon: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Not in the hundreds of thousands of cases?
Dr. Mahon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Ok.
Recently, news about the pandemic in the United States has been encouraging. Hospitalizations, cases and deaths are dropping and effective antiviral treatments are becoming much more available for those who do get sick. Dr. Walensky has announced a new set of guidelines – meaning, right now, about 90% of Americans can choose to drop their masks.
Dr. Jon LaPook: You hear the word “endemic” a lot.
Dr. Jon LaPook: What exactly does that mean?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: You’re at a steady state. Your pandemic or your disease is neither increasing nor decreasing.
Dr. Jon LaPook: So will there be a moment where it’s at such a low level that, even though it’s still on every continent, say, we’re not calling it a pandemic anymore?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: I think we’ll get there. You know I do think that we will get to a place with this disease where we live with a relatively low level all year long and that maybe we have some surges during respiratory virus season. Those surges are annoying and for some, they will likely be tragic. But they are not to the tune of two and three thousand deaths a day. I think we live that way with influenza.
Dr. Walensky has learned to be cautious after telling fully vaccinated Americans back in May 2021 they could take off their masks.
White House Press briefing
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Once you are fully vaccinated, two weeks after your last dose, you can shed your mask.
But the party only lasted a few months. New CDC research during a surge of the delta variant forced her to tell the country that masks should go back on.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: I will never forget the gut punch on that Friday night when I first saw the data out of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, that demonstrated that there were vaccinated people that were transmitting it to other people. We said, “we have to put our masks back on.”
Dr. Jon LaPook: Do you think communicating, “We don’t know,” was done well enough to the public from the very beginning?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: You know (sigh)…
Dr. Jon LaPook: Or, “it may change.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: There were so many times where we were optimistic. There were so many times where we didn’t know. And since my getting here what I said is, “we’re gonna lead with the science.” The implication was that science was black and white, and in fact, in an ever-evolving virus, and a two-year-long pandemic, the science isn’t always black and white. It’s– it’s oftentimes shades of gray.
Dr. Jon LaPook: But from the point of view of the taxicab driver who drove me here a couple days ago, he remembers it as, “They told us you could take your mask off and then they changed their mind.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Right.
Dr. Jon LaPook: One recent poll showed that less than half the American public trusts the CDC when it comes to advice about the virus. Do you take it personally?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: I certainly don’t love to see statistics like that. But I think they will get better as we emerge from this pandemic.
During her 13 months on the job, Dr. Walensky has been on a mission to improve public trust in the agency. She’s done more than 90 press conferences and hundreds of interviews. She told us she wants Americans to know the crucial work the CDC’s 13,000 scientists, medical professionals, and public health workers do around the world.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Do they know that we deliver antiretroviral therapy to 12 million people around the world every year?
Dr. Jon LaPook: With AIDS?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: With AIDS. No. Do they know that we’re working to eradicate polio? Do they know that when somebody gets sick with salmonella, that we look for the source? Do they know that we’re responsible for, you know, opioid statistics in the country?
Dr. Walensky took us into the CDC’s emergency operations center — a command post normally packed during disease outbreaks.
Dr. Jon LaPook: I hear phrases like “command center,” “deployments,” “task forces.” It’s kind of got a military sound to it. It feels like it’s war.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: We have to act like this is war. We are at war against this virus.
A top priority has been improving the collection and analysis of data. Dr. Walensky showed us how, at the beginning of the pandemic, fewer than 200 hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices could send automated information on things like diagnoses, outcomes, and immunizations.
Dr. Jon LaPook: How could you do your work with so little data?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Boy, did we have to work hard to put the pedal to the metal and create the infrastructure. We’ve built that in the last year. So we now have in December of 2020, we had 6,500 facilities. And end of last year, we had over 10,000 facilities, and we have more work to do.
Dr. Walensky says they can now better use data to gain insight into things like the effectiveness of vaccinations.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Here we’re looking at deaths. And we can map it towards the unvaccinated versus in the people who’ve received two doses of a vaccine, versus people who’ve been boosted. And so you see this massive difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Dr. Jon LaPook: It’s kind of stunning.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: It is stunning. 41 times the risk of dying from COVID-19 in December of 2021 if you are unvaccinated compared to if you are boosted.
Virologist Paul Duprex used an animation to show how the body creates more and more immune cells with each shot of vaccine. That’s why almost every immunization we get, like measles and polio, takes more than one dose to be long-lasting.
Paul Duprex: There are lymph nodes all across the body. When we get immunized, the vaccine is taken up by the lymph nodes in the armpit. These white cells are produced. These white memory cells patrol the body. And whenever the second immunization occurs, they remember. They explode in the lymph nodes. And those memory cells are able to produce antibodies but they’re also able to recognize infected cells and take those cells out really quickly, before those cells start producing more virus in the body.
Dr. Jon LaPook: So months or even years after a vaccination these memory cells may be there kind of asleep…
Paul Duprex: But with one click of an infection, they wake up and they explode into action.
Dr. Jon LaPook: And with each vaccination, the amount of immunity goes up?
Paul Duprex: Yes. You can think of it like a staircase. The first vaccination, we’re up one step. The second vaccination, maybe we get to the third step. And the boost, we’re up at step ten. So we get this really faster, more robust response as we vaccinate once, twice, and then boost.
The CDC says research is ongoing to determine if, down the line, periodic COVID-19 immunizations will be needed, just like the annual flu shot.
The coronavirus vaccines were developed so quickly because scientists at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere had already done the research needed to understand coronavirus’s molecular structure. Last fall, the NIH asked Paul Duprex to join a team to study other viruses that can harm humans.
Dr. Jon LaPook: So kind of a most wanted list?
Paul Duprex: Some of the most deadly agents are represented here.
The NIH has prioritized these seven viral families that cause potentially lethal illnesses like Ebola, Lassa fever, and encephalitis. Duprex says more transmissible viruses emerging from any of these families could unleash another global pandemic.
Dr. Jon LaPook: What are scientists doing in the lab today?
Paul Duprex: Looking at the three-dimensional structure of these, understanding the genetics, understanding how they evolve, how quickly they change. By understanding the viruses we’re ready to fight them whenever they come along and cause trouble.
Like so many Americans, Dr. Rochelle Walensky is taking advantage of a new phase in the pandemic. But as we head towards what may be the off-ramp of the pandemic, she told us she is taking nothing for granted.
Dr. Jon LaPook: The country is waking up.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: Yeah.
Dr. Jon LaPook: Does it excite you or scare you?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: We’re tip-toeing back into it. And how energizing and exciting to be able to do that right now? And yet, we’ve been hit with so many curve balls, right? And so my job is to protect the public against those curve balls. And so we have to be, you know, vigilant to make sure that those curve balls don’t come.
Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta. Associate producer, Katie Brennan. Broadcast associate, Eliza Costas. Edited by Warren Lustig.