Fauci compares COVID-19 pandemic to 1918 flu, says history is ‘repeating itself’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, spoke in a forum Thursday with National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Luciana Borio, a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, drawing a grim comparison between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 flu.

Speaking on lessons learned from previous pandemics, specifically the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Fauci said, “We know from historical little anecdotes that actually became studies, that when people took seriously the kind of things that I’m talking about, wearing a mask, physical separation, they did much better in cities that did that than in those that just said ‘the heck with it,’” he said. 

“So history is kind of repeating itself 102 years later,” Fauci said.

Fauci called the recent surge in cases across the U.S. “quite problematic,” adding that the “data speaks for itself.”

“When I testified before the Congress four months ago I said if we don’t get control of this then we could reach 100,000 infections per day, and people thought I was being hyperbolic, and now look what’s happening,” Fauci said.

RELATED: US reports over 144K COVID-19 cases in new single-day record, according to Johns Hopkins

Fauci said that public health measures including social distancing, universal mask wearing and washing hands, “sounds simple in the context of this ominous outbreak, but in fact can turn it around.” He added that a significant contributing factor to what brought the U.S. to the situation it finds itself in today was an inability to “act in a unified way.”

“When you’re dealing with an infectious disease, the infectious disease doesn’t know the difference between the border of Mississippi and Louisiana,” Fauci said. “An infectious disease means the entire country. We did not approach it that way.”

Borio called for a better system of communication.

“The American public is tired and they’re confused about what really needs to be done,” she said. Borio gave credit to Fauci for maintaining consistency, but added that the communication of measures to fight the disease has not been consistent nationwide. 

Before being selected to join the task force by Biden, Borio worked as vice president of technical staff at the In-Q-Tel strategic investment firm. Until last year, she was a biodefense specialist on the National Security Council under the Trump administration. 

Borio also had senior leadership positions at the FDA and National Security Council during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

With well over 100,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases reported daily in the U.S. for more than a week, President-elect Joe Biden has announced that he plans to create a COVID-19 task force filled with experts and doctors who have briefed Biden on the pandemic for months throughout his campaign.

Fauci’s discussion with one of Biden’s task force members comes as the nation surpassed 10 million COVID-19 cases earlier this week and has recorded more than 240,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

“Presented as the Cathedral's 2020 Ignatius Forum, Dr. Fauci will discuss the prospects for a second wave and a vaccine. Dr. Fauci, Dr. Collins and Dr. Borio will explore what future "normal" might look like and what the US and other countries have learned about the pandemic that can help us prepare for the next one," a description of the conversation read on the event's website.

The discussion comes after Trump’s White House coronavirus task force held its first post-election meeting Monday. Officials discussed the rising case numbers, the promise of a vaccine in development by Pfizer, and recognized the service of Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, a member of the task force who retired Monday.

RELATED: Ivy League cancels winter sports amid worsening COVID-19 pandemic

Earlier this month, Trump suggested he would fire Fauci after the 2020 election, should he win. 

Meanwhile, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris met virtually with their new coronavirus advisers this week, and Biden delivered remarks warning Americans that ”the challenge before us right now is still immense and growing.”

“We could save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democratic or Republican lives, American lives,” Biden said in a speech this week. “Please, I implore you, wear a mask.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci (R), director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, participates in the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University’s law school, said Biden will only be able to “scratch the surface” of tackling a pandemic that could be a “raging forest fire” by the time he takes office on Jan. 20.

He added that even the good news on Pfizer’s development of a vaccine that showed 90% efficacy in early trial results could be diminished if Trump doesn’t begin coordination efforts with Biden’s team on how to roll out the vaccine. Some public health experts believe the task of persuading Americans to take the vaccine and widely distributing it could be as complicated as the vaccine’s development.

Fauci has previously echoed the same sentiment, saying Thursday that it is highly unlikely that COVID-19 could be fully eradicated. He warned that a vaccine won’t necessarily bring a complete end to the pandemic. 

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine: States sketch out plans, logistics for coming immunization effort

“The cavalry is coming, but don’t put your weapons down, you better keep fighting because they are not here yet. Help is on the way, but it isn’t here yet,” Fauci said at a webinar hosted by think tank Catham House.

“So to me, that is more of an incentive of, ‘Please don’t give up. Don’t despair, the end is in sight,’ as opposed to: ‘Hey, we are good to go, don’t worry about anything.’ We are not good to go. We have got to continue to double down on public health measures,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.