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tv   On Assignment With Richard Engel  MSNBC  February 21, 2021 10:00pm-11:00pm PST

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the secret to survival on our planet is change. in its relentless quest to carry on, life has a remarkable ability to adapt to its environment. in a never-ending process of trial and error, over millions of years evolution has endowed our plants and animals with wondrous powers to withstand the bitterest cold and to turn hardships into advantages.
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and to soar with wings and to hunt in total darkness, but sometimes evolution works against us, which is where we find ourselves today. we are not in the same pandemici of 2020. we are in a new war against a virus that is split into several more terrible strains. we are in a battle against viral mutations, against mutants. our science and our stamina are being pushed to the limit as stronger, faster spreading, more resistant mutant coronavirus strains are spreading across thr united states. the coronavirus is an evolving enemy and many nations were vi unprepared for the new assault.
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the united kingdom was proud to be the first country to roll out the pfizer vaccine, giving it to a 90-year-old woman in a borrowed christmas sweater. the nation cheered. the uk was fighting back. prime minister boris johnson called on britons to once again summon the bulldog determination they showed during the blitz. >> we must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes. this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable. >> the country went on wartime footing. the army built covid hospitals and tested and traced the population. stadiums and racetracks were turned into vaccination centers.
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the venerable salisbury cathedral opened its doors to save lives as well as souls. >> the building has been here for 800 years. two purposes, one to give glory to god, and the other to serve the city and the people of this region. right now, in this public health emergency, there could be no better way of our doing both of those things. itt >> it was very efficient and very well done. >> 90-year-old aida watkins was uncomfortable to be at the front of the line. >> i think really and truly i should haven't had it, because i think that the young people r should have had it first. >> but she dutifully followed the government's advice. e british doctors nationwide improvised to distribute the precious vaccines as soon as possible.
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>> i came down to my car park and said that i have to do it as efficient as possible, and i have to make it happen. >> you just came down here one night? >> yes, i said i have to make it happen. >> dr. leora harvard showed me around her pop-up vaccination center. this is one of the most challenging but rewarding things the i have done in my career. >> not a single dose was wasted. how long do you think it is going to be before what is happening here, the vaccinations start to -- >> kick in? >> have an effect and people start to see this pandemic in the rear-view mirror? >> i don't know. the more people who are vaccinated the more protection in the community. >> but even with the nationwide rollout and can-do spirit, something was wrong. >> in the beginning, it was the
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elderly that were hit by it, and now across all age bands. the kids are getting it and mothers are getting it, and now a whole family that is covid positive. it does not make sense. >> doctors were baffled because the virus they thought knew and thought they were beating had changed. it had mutated. as the christmas holiday approached prime minister johnson had bad news. >> good afternoon, everybody. thank you for joining the latest coronavirus press conference. yesterday afternoon i was briefed on the latest data that shows the virus spreading more rapidly in london, the southeast and east area of england. >> he introduced the world to what would become known as the uk variant. >> it seems that the strain is now being driven by a new variant of the virus. >> within weeks, hospitals were swamped and the london mayor declared a state of emergency.
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covid deaths doubled. and this highly contagious mutant strain has already spread to the united states. >> if you let that virus spread in an uncontrolled way, sooner or later, they will acquire a mutation or series of mutations that will in fact change function. and that is exactly what we are seeing right now. >> dr. anthony fauci has been sounding the alarm about this virus from the beginning. i interviewed him a year ago before covid had swept across the united states. he predicted the coming storm. what are we dealing with, with this coronavirus, covid-19? >> we are dealing with clearly an emerging infectious disease that has now reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions. >> since then, almost half a million americans have died from covid-19. now dr. fauci has another warning. this virus is changing. >> this going to be tough.
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a year into the pandemic, the coronavirus has evolved to become more deadly, more contagious, and more difficult to defeat. >> every time a virus copies itself, you have several errors per thousand bits of the genetic code. >> neil ferguson is a professor
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of mathematical biology and advises the british government on the genomic code. >> a few of them make changes in the virus which actually don't benefit the virus. >> it is basic evolution, all life forms change over time because of random genetic mistakes that sometimes produce advantages. giraffes born with longer necks found more food and multiplied. cheetahs that happened to be born a little faster thrived and passed on the genes that gave them their speed. evolution happens over generations. in mammals, it is slow, because of their relatively long lifespans and small populations. in viruses, evolution is much faster. >> the lifetime of a single virus particle is measured in hours and maximum days rather than the years or the decades
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that human lifespans are measured in, and secondly, the rate at which they accumulate mutations is many fold higher than any mammal or any organism indeed. >> so is it just a matter of math, more virus out there means more chance for errors and more errors occur over time? >> yes. there are literally trillions upon trillions of coronaviruses out there, and every infected person probably has trillions of viruses in them, and we have many tens if not hundreds of millions of people currently infected worldwide. >> it only takes one random mistake, one mutation to give the virus a tiny edge over the trillions of others and a whole new strain is born. >> of course, it is not so much the virus directing it, because it is completely random, but the few changes which should give a benefit, those viruses have an advantage and replicate and continue to spread. >> the advantage that the coronavirus developed was in its spikes.
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all coronaviruses have spikes to bind to and enter into our cells. in the uk strain, the spikes mutated ever so slightly to allow them to penetrate about 50% more efficiently making the virus far more contagious. scientists identify this new strain by the main mutation, b.1.1.7 and they say that this superspreader is going to be dominant by march in the u.s. >> by the pure kinetics of the replication of the dynamics of the outbreak, after a couple of months, it will gradually take over the turf, as it were. >> i think that we are in a few phase of the pandemic, this is a whole new challenge, and in some way sars co-v-2 version one is going to look like the easy part.
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>> debbie sridar is a professor at edinburgh. >> it is going replicate more times and accidental co-mistakes or advantages occur, and of those, some of them die out, because they don't have an advantage, and others thrive, because they do. so you will get a selective pressure of those that thrive are those that are able to spread more readily. >> already over the last year or so, version one of this killed hundreds of thousands of people in the united states, and millions of people around the world. do you expect these variants are going to do that kind of damage? >> yes. i think that we are going to see a lot more death and hospitalizations due to this virus and the variants make it harder. >> the uk variant has the potential to be far more deadly to communities than the original virus. according to research from london's school of hygiene and tropical medicine, if 100 people are infected with the original
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virus in a month, the infections will likely grow to 160 and cause 1 1/3 deaths. with the uk variant 100 infections, killing 10e 10 help. >> richard, you don't even need an increase in lethality. that means that automatically more people are going to be hospitalized and automatically some of those are going to die, so you may not influence the inherent lethality, but there are going to be more deaths when you have a much more easily transmittable virus. >> and unfortunately the fast-spreading uk strain is not the only one out there. another mutant has been found in
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the united states that may be even more dangerous. it was likely born in the amazon. the brazilian city of manaus was devastated by the first wave of covid. with poor medical care and a dismissed government, around 70% of the population contracted the virus. >> if you look at what it did in the city of manaus, it has essentially infected the majority of the people in that particular location, which that's pretty aggressive when you get that percentage of a population infected. >> this high level of contagion should have protected the population through natural herd immunity, because once people are infected, they're resistant to becoming infected again. except in brazil, that didn't happen.
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>> but herd immunity, we are seeing increasingly, is a myth, because we have seen now in brazil, a very poor pocket of the city where the virus tore through and infected 70% to 80% of the people, and it did not stop there. we are now seeing reinfections, and hospitals running out of oxygen and mass death. so the path of herd immunity is the path of mass death and economic collapse. >> and the same troubling pattern was repeated in south africa. people kept getting infected. their previous infections failing to protect them. the virus had independently evolved into a new mutant strain. the south african variant has also spread to the united states. >> so i think that what it is showing you is that this virus is evolving in ways to facilitate its ongoing spread.
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>> dr. richard lessels from the nelson mandela school of medicine discovered the south african variant. >> if there are many people already infected in the population, then mutations that enable the virus to reinfect people may be selected out so these are advantageous mutations, advantageous variants but then are selected because they can reinfect people potentially. >> so the virus was cornered and running out of hosts, because people had already been infected, so that the virus adapted and found a new way to reinfect the people who already had it? >> yes, that is virus evolution in full picture. >> the south african and brazilian mutants developed thousands of miles apart, but evolved with similar capabilities.
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♪♪ 2020 was a brutal year. more than 2 million people died from covid worldwide. 2021 was supposed to be so much better, but evolution is working against us. the coronavirus has mutated. at least three deadly strains of concern are contaminating the planet. the uk variant adapted to spread
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quickly. the mutation from south africa has mutated to infect the victims again and again, and that is a powerful weapon, because if viruses can get around our body's immune system and evade our natural defenses, they can also get around our vaccines. how are they doing that? imagine a video game. at the most basic level, vaccines block viruses, preventing them from destroying our cells. vaccines are incredibly good at defending us. each vaccine is created to instantly recognize a virus by its shape. once the vaccine identifies the shape it has been programmed to look for, it blocks it very efficiently. but when a virus mutates, it changes shape, making it more difficult for the vaccine to identify its target.
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and if a vaccine can't recognize what it is trying to block, we are all in trouble. >> if the virus changes and your body won't recognize it anymore which means that you are unable to mount the full immune response to protect yourself, then you are susceptible to the infection. >> because it has changed shape, and the vaccines don't recognize the target. >> right. your body's immune response which has been trained for the previous version can't recognize the new version, and it has changed too much. >> if everything stayed the way it is, the vaccines would be able to protect maybe not as good, 94% or 95%, but they would be able to protect against those strains. the thing that is of concern is that as these viruses continue
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to evolve, they will begin to accumulate more mutations that all of the sudden make the vaccine not able to protect against it, and that is the threat that we are concerned about. >> how many variants are out there now? do we even know? >> i don't think that we know how many are out there, but we can estimate dozens at least if not hundreds, because we will only find them if we are picking up the genetic sequence rather than if they just have covid-19. >> now it is no longer good enough to know if someone has covid or not, but which covid. cambridge is home to one of the world's oldest and finest universities. charles darwin, who developed the theory of evolution through natural selection, studied here, and just off-campus sprawls the sanger institute which is focused on finding and identifying new mutations.
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>> this is where all of the sequencing takes place. >> dr. naomi park manages this lab, which is doing more of the sequencing than anywhere else in the world. >> the nature of the virus is identified by the genetic code. >> identifying the different strains is critical, but not an easy task. each strain must be analyzed piece by piece comparing one code to another and look for differences. and any difference is a mutation. it all requires skill and enormous computing power. how often when you run the sequences do you find anomalies, cases of the virus that are not like the others? >> a slight variation is normal and it is not alarming, because it is part of evolution, and the
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parts that are alarming are quite rare and only more recently that they are starting to come to light. >> what is the nightmare scenario, that you will find more variants that are worse than the ones that have been discovered? >> yes, i think that something that would be more transmissible, perhaps more lethal than the one that we are concerned about at this time that the vaccines are rolling out, and that could offer a evolutionary advantage that could evade the vaccine. >> scientists talk about the viruses evading the vaccines because the vaccines work to degrees, and it all depends on the mutations. if the virus mutates a little bit, then the vaccines we have still work. and so far this virus has only mutated a little bit. but if it mutates a great deal, then our vaccines won't work anymore, and the big changes often come from animals. the coronavirus was first noticed in china a year ago.
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the outbreak most likely began in a wet market in wuhan where scientists believe that the virus crossed from bats, where it was harmless to a human. then it became a killer. now an animal could take the virus to a whole new level where it becomes a vaccine buster. call it revenge of the mink. in november, 2020, the mink raised for their fur in denmark started to catch the coronavirus. even more disturbingly, the sick animals reinfected hundreds of people. the virus had crossed the species barrier, and when that happens, viruses can mutate radically. >> it seems to jump easily, meaning that cats are being infected, dogs, there was a dog in hong kong who was quite ill with this. gorillas now in a zoo in los angeles, and mink and lions in
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new york, and what you can see in the animal, it can mutate, and change and go among the animals in a rapid way. >> fearing the mink could become incubators for new drastically different vaccine-proof strains, the danish government ordered a mass cull, killing all 17 million mink in the country. the prime minister broke down in tears. the united states also farms a lot of mink. and animals infected with the virus were discovered in at least four states. but there were no mass culls. instead, the infected animals were only isolated. >> we don't need to be worrying about bioweapon factories if we have animals kept in factory conditions that are natural bioweapon factories themselves. >> so the hunt is on at capron
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park zoo in massachusetts. >> we are swabbing anything from the golden lion tamron up to the african lion. we have primates like lemurs and monkeys. also a warty pig as well. >> they are checking every mammal there. >> you go in there and they open up the mouth for you, and you swab their tongue and get some saliva on there. >> they are worried that new mutant strains could be brewing inside the animals and emerge so different that our vaccines don't recognize them. >> animals can sometimes act as a mixing vat where virus form to make a new variant where they are more infectious or
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godzilla, king of the monsters. >> we have always been afraid of mutants that nature could transform into a monster and destroy us all. >> a story behind your wildest dreams. >> the science fiction has happened. our abuse of nature has come back to haunt us. there are at least 4,000 known coronavirus mutations already
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worldwide, but the main one spreading across the united states came from the united kingdom, and it is a tough one. i met an intensive care nurse when the uk and the world was first hit before the variants were even part of this collective nightmare. >> a father and son in here, and the father came in, and he was very sick. he died. the son didn't know that his father had died, so we had to tell him, and then put him on a ventilator and he died as well. >> so you had to tell this man that his father had died and that he was going to go to sleep, so the last conscious thought that he had was of his father dying? and he didn't pull through. >> yeah. >> lisa has ridden the waves of this pandemic, 12 to 14-hour
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shifts, one day on, one day off. how have things the been here since i last saw you? >> so, we had a little built of respite from the covid, and we were busy with other thing, and now we are going back into the covid mode bit by bit each day. >> how does that make you feel, nervous, i guess? >> well, anxious, because we know what it was like last time, and going back into it again, and it feels like there is no end to it. it feels like you are coming out of a dream-like sequence. we feel like it was a nightmare. >> i was with lisa on the day she got her first dose of the pfizer vaccine. as a front line nurse she got hers early on, even before the vaccine was approved for use in the united states. >> are you feeling okay? >> great. perfect. >> how do you feel now? >> really, really happy. i can't quite believe that it has come as quickly as it has. it is just very exciting times.
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you just feel like it is almost like the dawn of a new era kind of thing, that we might be coming out of this darkness. so it is just, it is fantastic, it really is. >> but after her shot, the uk variant started spreading like wildfire. lisa kept a video diary as the variant showed what it was capable of. >> it has been four patients today who died of covid. the morale of the staff is getting lower and lower. people are crying at work. it is really taking a toll on everybody. it is just -- it is so relentless. >> the uk soon had the highest covid death rate in the world. the united states has closely followed the united kingdom every step of the way with a lag time of about six weeks. >> people dying. so many people dying. the death is just everywhere.
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it is emotionally, physically draining. it is just, it is exhausting. i will cry most nights when i come home, and sit in the car and cry all of the way home. and then i don't sleep before i go to work, because the anxiety of going in, and not just dealing with the people who are dying, but watching my colleagues struggle. it is just getting very, very hard. >> what are you thinking about that, when you are crying in the car alone, coming and going to work? >> kind of wishing that it would come to an end to it really, and just -- it sounds so dramatic, but wondering how much longer we can do it. >> the uk variant seems even less discriminating of its victims than the original virus. >> we are seeing patients now with no medical history, and people going to the gym in their 40s and dying.
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>> what would you say to americans who have not woken up yet to the fact that this is coming? >> if you love your family, and love the people you know, be careful and stay indoors and wash your hands and wear the masks and be careful, because this will kill. >> without a doubt, we are in a new era of the pandemic. it was an inevitable phase. we knew that the virus would change, evolve, mutate. >> sir jeremy ferrer helped to tackle the pandemic with his colleague dr. fauci. but new he's with the brit ish government. >> this is a brand new infection, it has a long way of evolution ahead of it, as it adapts to humans. humans evolve as well, of course, but we evolve over
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decades and decades. and viruses are evolving minute to minute and hour to hour, and if we allow the virus to remain at the current level, it is inevitable that the new strains are going to appear which escape vaccines. >> but hope is not lost. science may come to our rescue. the new type of mrna vaccines developed by pfizer, moderna, and others are so revolutionary that they can be quickly reprogrammed to adapt as viruses mutate. remember our game? vaccines block viruses, but a vaccine can only stop a virus it recognizes. so when a virus mutates and changes shape, the vaccine struggles to identify it and can sometimes miss the target.
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if a virus mutates a great deal, the vaccines can fail completely. but our new generation of vaccines play the game in a whole new way. reducing everything to pure genetic code, the building blocks of life. like a computer, new vaccine technology can simply copy and paste a virus' genetic code to make perfectly matched vaccines so as the virus mutates, scientists can quickly update the vaccines so that they always recognize their targets. the process can be repeated no matter how much or how many times the virus mutates. >> it is a modern way of making vaccines which gave us also the ability to respond so quickly
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with an effective and safe vaccine. >> this man invented the pfizer vaccine and he is the ceo of biontech. is it like copy and pasting like with a computer? >> yes, it is a copy and it is the genetics of the virus, and it is safe and easy to replicate, and it is of course not easy, but it is a process that allows us to make it fast. >> so it is a copy and paste of the genetic material. >> copy and paste. yes. >> and no matter how many times it changes, you copy and paste the new image. >> copy and paste. >> it's a transformative way of making vaccines. >> absolutely. it could really become faster by increasing our production capacities. and we will be prepared the next
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time when an outbreak happens to be even faster than we were this time. >> he says it takes him about six weeks to update the vaccine to account for viral mutations, but each update, while now possible, could create enormous logistical challenges of manufacturing and distributing multiple vaccines for multiple strains. far better, contain this wildfire now before we need to reinvent the tools to do it. >> so that is the reason why i keep emphasizing that in addition to trying to make upgraded vaccines to specifically address the mutations, you want to with the vaccine that you already have really start suppressing in a big way the replication of the virus in this country and hopefully throughout the world. >> what would you say to people who are concerned about taking the vaccine now? they say, why should i bother taking this vaccine if the virus keeps changing?
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will the vaccine that i have now still be effective against a strain that is emerging or yet to emerge? >> well, what you do is give them the facts and explain it in a manner where it is precisely the reason why you should be taking the vaccine, because right now the vaccines are effective against the mutant strains. it is always, always better to be vaccinated than not to be vaccinated, but even if you have strains out there that are trying to elude the vaccine. >> but we haven't always been presented with facts. >> we have it totally under control. it is like the regular flu. it is a like a miracle. it will disappear. nobody thought this could happen. now we have the lowest infection fatality rate by far. >> do you think that president trump did a bad job? how much does he bear responsibility for letting the
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virus run rampant in the u.s. for so long? >> in the health security community we constantly rank the united states first or second for pandemic preparedness, but we did not anticipate the abysmal leadership of donald trump. to first ignore the problem and then try to present myths about it, and then deny it as an issue and then when he got ill, and got the top medical care and treatment for himself and those close to him, and he bears a huge responsibility for the lack of information and the lack of leadership, and the deaths and the economic pain. >> how much time did we lose under president trump when he was fighting the severity of the virus and we saw it all play out in front of our eyes, how much time did we lose? >> i don't want to really get into that kind of discussion, because then it is becoming finger-pointing and things like that.
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let us say in general without putting down any individual, but let's just say that our response had been somewhat mixed. there were mixed messages, and there was not the kind of full court press as i call it of the states working with the federal government to contain it. >> massive damage. massive damage. the political leaders, and leaders in every sector of society really mattered. hundreds of thousands of deaths were not inevitable. they have come about because of poor decision-making, fragmented systems, inequalities the throughout society, and a lack of basic public infrastructure to deliver public health. >> and this virus expanding and mutating is now president biden's inheritance and all of our problem. thousands of women with metastatic breast cancer, which is breast cancer that has spread
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please raise your right hand and repeat after me. >> by the time president biden took office, 400,000 americans had died from covid. as many as in world war ii. but even that appalling toll didn't focus many americans' attention. minds were elsewhere. the foundations of our democracy were being challenged. >> we've had a very disruptive period in politics and an assault of the capitol. we had a president who didn't want to leave. what should have americans have been waking up to? what has happened while they were focused on other things? >> i would be very, very concerned that the epidemic will
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continue to expand in the united states. it will spread around the states in the ways that happened in 2020. and if we allow that to happen and millions of people become infected, then the united states itself may be the place that new variants appear, which escape vaccination as well. and we must not let that happen. >> there are already thousands of variants and at least three in the united states of major concern. the fast-spreading uk variant and the hard-to-stop south african and brazilian strains. and now the united states appears to be growing its own mutant strain. scientists believe a variant has emerged in california, cal-20-c, that may be responsible for a spike in deaths in los angeles. the variant is spreading across the country. there may be others. what can president biden do now? we have these variants. they're moving into animals.
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the vaccines are under pressure like never before. what can he do? >> the first is get your testing up and going. you need to have testing in every community, in every place. the second is really good messaging. we've already seen this around face coverings, around washing your hands, around distancing, keeping space, avoiding crowds, trying to give people basic information. >> it sounds like we're back at the beginning again. >> this is almost like the united states starting from scratch and trying to do it right this time. >> the united states is now being guided by science. president biden has promised to vaccinate at least a million americans a day. >> this team, this team will help get at least 100 million covid vaccine shots into the arms of the american people in the first 100 days. >> dr. fauci, sidelined by former president trump, is back guiding policy and informing the public. the united states has bought enough doses to vaccinate the
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entire population several times over, but they're not ready yet. >> we have 330 million people in this country, and we want to vaccinate at least 280 million of those. richard, we don't have right now 280 million doses of vaccine ready to go. if we had 280 million doses of vaccine ready to go, then roll out the trucks. go and open up the auditoriums and the stadiums and do it. but we don't have that right now. so we have to deal with what we have. >> the global vaccine shortage is a serious issue for all of us. the united states and europe are fighting over vaccines. people are cheating to get theirs first. but in many parts of the world, the vaccine rollout hasn't even begun yet. leaving plenty of fertile ground for mutations. what happens if we leave huge parts of the world unvaccinated? do those areas just become petri dishes for more mutations where
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there are just going to be new strains are going to be born every month, every week, every year? >> yes. if we don't drive the amount of virus in the world down in every country, then new strains will appear, and they will appear with an advantage against the treatments, the vaccines, and they will come to every country. you can't close your borders forever. you can't prevent the respiratory virus that may start in midwest america, may start in china, may start in brazil, or subsaharan africa. you can't prevent it coming to the united states or to europe. it will come eventually. it's in all of our interests that we vaccinate the world, and we drive down the amount of virus and we prevent these new strains coming because without that we're back to january, 2020, again. >> the vaccine rollout in the united states is finally moving
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ahead quickly. it can't go quickly enough because we are now in a race between our rollout and the virus' ability to change, a race against evolution. what would you say to americans who are very discouraged right now? they thought we were going into 2021, things were going to be better, and now we're in a new battle against this -- these mutants and it feels like a game of whack-a-mole. we deal with one virus, we understand what covid-19 is about and what we're supposed to do, and now there's all these other strains that have other characteristics. >> now is not the time to give in to covid fatigue. we can't give up. we can beat this. we can beat it with public health measures, and we can beat it with science. yes, we're dealing with a formidable foe, but we have suppressed formidable foes, richard. we have completely eradicated smallpox. we've eliminated polio from
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almost the entire world. measles, one of the great killers, we've eliminated it in our own country. so we have had challenges of infectious diseases that have had the capability of eluding us. but we have won, so i think we can do the same with this virus. >> the coronavirus will be with us for a long time. scientists are already preparing for vaccine updates to cope with future mutations. we may need new covid shots every year, like the flu shot. but before the coronavirus can become a manageable fact of life, it first needs to be contained. how long that takes is up to us. ok everyone, our mission is to provide complete, balanced nutrition for strength and energy. whoo-hoo! great tasting ensure with 9 grams of protein, 27 vitamins and minerals,
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it never goes away. there's not a day that goes by that i don't think of them. the pain becomes a part of you. >> get everybody out here to my house now! >> reporter: he came home and found them. his entire family -- gone. >> i said, "what? what are you saying?" >> is this real? am i really here? it was just, surreal. >> reporter: his fellow cops suspected him! >> i did not do this. i did not do this! >> reporter: she was upset. she felt like history was

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