Why U.S. is at 'critical point' in fight against coronavirus: Johns Hopkins Doctor

Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit Medical Director Dr. Brian Garibaldi joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith to discuss the latest coronavirus developments as new hot spots emerge in the U.S.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: I want to turn to the latest on coronavirus. Now cases worldwide topping 3.7 million at this point. The number of cases here in the US has now climb to more than 1.2 million. Now for more on this, we have Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins biocontainment unit medical director.

And, Dr. Garibaldi, thanks so much for taking the time to rejoin the show. We last spoke just around two weeks ago. And the number of cases have continued to climb a pretty substantial amount. I just want to get what's your assessment just where things stand right now.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yes. So I think we're at a critical point. Some states are starting to slow down the rates of infection. Other-- others are still seeing rises every day in both the numbers of new infections, but also in death rates.

So I think it really depends on where you are in the country. Here in Maryland we're still seeing a rise particularly in the DC area, but, you know, overall in our hospital, we've had sort of a plateauing of the number of cases. Although, we still continue to have several hundred across our health system. And many of those patients in critical care.

So I think it's still-- we're still early on in this if you think about how quickly this virus has moved. You know, in March we had less than 100 cases across the country. And now we're well over a million in the span of just two months.

So I think things can move pretty rapidly with-- with this virus. And we're all very anxious to see what happens in the states that are opening early, even in areas where maybe the indicators are not yet where they might need to be to be able to safely do that.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Dr. Garibarldi, I want to talk about the safety and how we do this the right way, because in an interview last night, President Trump was saying-- and he said quote-- "that's it possible there will be some deaths as states begin to roll back their restrictions." So he's acknowledging the fact that it was a choice that the country faces to reopen and jumpstart the economy that there will, in fact, be more deaths. From your perspective, from what you know from what your colleagues are saying, what is the safest way to reopen the economy?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, you know, I think it's going to be different in-- in every location based on what the number of cases are in the community at the time, whether or not the hospitals in that area have the ability to flex up to take care of more cases, which will ultimately happen in areas that are opening up. And I think it also really depends on the ability of local and state health departments to be able to do contact tracing, to be able to provide testing for patients who might have coronavirus, but also potentially for their contacts to really get this under control.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Garibaldi, speaking of the fact that you were saying that we're at a critical point right now, we're still seeing cases rise in certain areas. What does this tell us about our containment measures right now? What do you think about contact tracing, just how important that could be in trying to contain the spread of this virus?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think, you know, we're well past containment at this point, obviously. You know, we're-- we're leading the world in terms of numbers of infections and deaths. So we're really at mitigation.

And the only way we're going to-- to get this back under containment is the ability to identify hotspots of transmission and the ability to trace patients, but it's really hard to do that if you still have over 1,000 cases per day in a certain area. There are many places I can think of that have the ability to do that level of contact tracing to be able to really identify who is at risk, who needs to self-isolate, because we do know that you can transmit this infection days before you become symptomatic. So just telling people stay at home when they don't feel well is not going to work.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Garibaldi, I want to get your thoughts on President Trump yesterday, saying initially that the tasks-- that the task force will begin winding down. And today, he reversed what he said yesterday and saying that now we'll continue indefinitely. What does the health care community's reaction to his initial comments? And how critical do you think the task force is at a time like this?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, you know, I think we-- were all worried about how quickly we're opening up. And I think we recognize that-- that there's obviously damage that can be done from the economy staying stagnant and not being able to open, but we have to balance that with the risk of what happens to folks who potentially become infected. You know, I think the task force, particularly Dr. Fauci and his ability to be honest and upfront and tell people what he thinks, I think has really been critical at having someone to look-- to look for in the health care community who-- who really, you know, as a world expert and has been doing this for decades. So I think-- we're all thankful that it seems like he is going to continue to remain involved in that role, particularly as the NIH has taken on obviously a big role in both vaccine development as well as in therapeutic trials.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Garibaldi, I want to get your thoughts on asked-- we had Dr. Gershon on from NYU yesterday and asked her about this alert that health authorities in New York City issued. And they were talking about a condition that they're seeing in children that they don't fully understand yet. And they described it as a multi-system inflammatory syndrome potentially associated with COVID-19. We don't know much about this at this point. What can you tell us about what this means and really just the bigger picture that there is still so much that we don't understand about this virus?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yes. So I think there are reports about similar instances in the UK that came a few weeks ago. And now we're starting to see it in New York. I think there were 15 cases that reported in kids who had this systemic inflammatory syndrome.

Not all of the children tested positive for coronavirus. Although, some of them tested negative had antibodies suggesting they had been previously infected. This type of inflammation, we know can happen from other viral infections.

So I think it probably suggests that despite the fact that we haven't seen very many children hospitalized with this, it probably is a marker of how many children have probably been infected. So now we're starting to see these sequelae of those infections potentially. So you know, I think it's something that we'll have to monitor and something that we'll have to understand, particularly as we start talking about opening schools and understanding, you know, what the risk is to children, but also what the risk is of children potentially being relatively asymptomatic and then spreading the disease throughout their communities.

SEANA SMITH: And when we talk about opening up and really looking down the road, I want to hear your thoughts on some of the recent developments that we got on the treatment front, but also specifically on vaccines. We have Pfizer beginning human trials of a vaccine. I mean, how optimistic are you on these recent developments? And what do you think the realistic timelines are?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yeah. So-- so I think you know we have to be careful not to put all or all of our eggs in the vaccine basket, because there are plenty of infections where, you know, if you think back to the HIV epidemic in I think 1984 '85, the thought was we would have a vaccine in a year or two years. And obviously, we're almost 40 years later. And we still don't have a successful vaccine.

I think this virus is different and seems like certain proteins in the virus induce a strong immune system response. So the hope is that that means we're going to be able to come up with a successful vaccine. I think for the first time ever Dr. Fauci kind of gave a potential timeline of perhaps by next January. We might have something that's ready for-- for-- for widespread deployment. I think that's hopefully true, but, you know, that-- that would still be the fastest vaccine development in the history of vaccines.

There are numbers of companies working on it in multiple different ways of trying to devise a vaccine. So I think it's very likely we will have one, but I don't think we're going to have one until 2021.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Garibaldi, what are some of the risks of pushing through a vaccine too quickly?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Well, I think the biggest risk is that unless you test this in enough people, you know, if we're going to give a vaccine to hundreds of millions or millions of people, a very small percentage of side effects would mean hundreds or thousands or potentially millions of people would be affected by that. So I think we have to be really careful to not push things through so quickly that we don't have a clear idea of what the safety risks are going to be from any vaccine, because we've seen this before. You know, most vaccines are quite successful and have low side effects, but there have been cases where vaccines have looked promising and then it had unexpected consequences.

SEANA SMITH: And Dr. Garibaldi, I know we've talked about this in the past, the need for tests. There's lots of talk about when we will have enough tests or what exactly we need to meet the demand that's out there. How does this change since the last time we spoke? And when do you think we'll have robust testing here in the US?

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Yes. I still think it's still an issue. And we don't have enough tests to test-- to do the contact tracing that we need to do. We certainly have enough tests right now in our health care system to test all the patients that present with concerning symptoms, or patients who-- who need elective or urgent procedures, we can test them to make sure that-- that we understand what precautions need to be in place for their safety. But we're still nowhere near being able to test the number of people in the community that we would need to do to really make informed health care policy decisions.

SEANA SMITH: All right. Dr. Brian Garibaldi, Johns Hopkins biocontainment unit medical director. Thanks so much for joining us again this afternoon.

BRIAN GARIBALDI: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.