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Dr. Sanjay Gupta's new book tells us what we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic


I talked with Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently. He is CNN's chief medical correspondent, and he's got a new book out about the pandemic. I asked him to characterize where we're at right now in this crisis, and this is what he said.

SANJAY GUPTA: If I were to think of the country as my own patient, I think, you know, the patient is still in intensive care.

MARTIN: Gupta talked with the country's top public health experts for his book, including White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and former head of the CDC Robert Redfield. He came away from all his research convinced that it just didn't have to be this bad.

GUPTA: In the beginning, the idea that a pathogen would come and indiscriminately sort of affect the wealthiest countries in the world more so than other countries, I don't think that really crossed anyone's mind. And it was a bit shocking in retrospect to sort of hear the thoughts on that. We'll be OK was sort of, I think, the idea from a lot of people. It's the United States. And then there was this idea that we are going to swing for the home-run sort of hit or the knockout punch. And everything's going to be on the vaccine; we don't really need to lean in as much to the basic public health measures. That's not something we need to do. So I think there was all these things.

MARTIN: Thus all the confusion about messaging on masks - do they really work, and do we really need to social distance - that kind of stuff.

GUPTA: You know, with masks, for example, I think when the evidence became really clear this was a virus that could spread robustly even if someone didn't have any symptoms, that was a real novel thing. I think a respiratory pathogen that spreads predominantly through people who don't have symptoms, that was really, really surprising and even shocking. But it also made masks mandatory.

MARTIN: The development, ultimately, of the vaccine was just a monumental achievement, obviously. But I hadn't heard the anecdote you have in the book about Dr. Fauci finding out and how emotional it was for him. And that really did underscore how significant it was to turn this vaccine around so quickly.

GUPTA: Dr. Fauci - his life's work has really been HIV/AIDS - 40 years. We don't have a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. People look at this and they say, well, it's great. We got a vaccine within a year. You know, that's just the way it is. Forty years, he's been working on a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. We still don't have one. So the idea that we would have one at all wasn't preordained for him. The idea that we would have one within a year - I think it boggled his mind.

MARTIN: Yet here we are.

GUPTA: Here we are.

MARTIN: The U.S. has the lowest vaccination rates of any of the G-7 countries. How does that change?

GUPTA: Vaccine hesitancy is not a new thing. I immersed myself in this so deeply. I went down all the rabbit holes. I started talking to people who had worked on vaccines for smallpox. I said, you know, what is historically - like, what are we dealing with here? I think it's more common in wealthy countries. On one hand, they want the vaccine because it's that home run hit. On the other hand, they're very suspicious of it. There are some people who are just frightened of new things or some people who point to the really terrible history with regard to experimentation with medical therapeutics, like Tuskegee. There's other people who just think, look; I'm healthy. I don't really need this.

So there's all these different reasons. And when you boil it all down, about 15 to 20% of the population will fall into this category, and they will die on this hill. And I don't mean die. I'm not trying to be pejorative. I mean, this is their issue.

MARTIN: Dr. Redfield told you this virus is with us probably for as long as this nation's a nation. So what does that mean for how we live our lives?

GUPTA: It's a tough way to look at things, I realize. But ultimately, what I've learned - having covered not just this outbreak, but other outbreaks, even pandemics, and traveled to places around the world - is that it's the hospitalizations probably more than any other metric that make the biggest difference in how much attention we're paying to this. Hospitals are overwhelmed in many places around the country. That affects everybody. Sixty-six percent of our ICU patients are COVID patients. Ninety-five percent of those COVID patients are unvaccinated. So it feels very, very preventable.

But my point is that I think once the hospitalizations rates go down - and they are going down now. I mean, we are starting to trend downward. That's why I am guardedly optimistic. Once they go down to a point where we're not feeling the impact on society as much, I think we live with this. We dance with this. We'll have outbreaks that occur from time to time. But through vaccinated immunity and through natural immunity, it'll have a lot less of an impact at some point.

MARTIN: But in the book, you really drive home the point that as we try to negotiate what our lives look like living with COVID-19 in some iteration, the odds are the same of another pandemic happening today as they were in the fall of 2019 before COVID. So we have to constantly be negotiating the current pandemic while preparing for the next one, which is still as likely to happen, even though we just went through one.

GUPTA: Absolutely. The two things that sort of struck me as I was interviewing people and they were leading me to this idea of just how likely is this to happen - we used to think of this in 50-year cycles, right? 1918-1919. 1968-1969. That was 50 years later. Fifty years after that - oh, wait, 2019. Fifty-year cycles. But when you start to really look at what's happening with these emerging pathogens, these viruses that are constantly jumping from animals to humans, you realize those jumps are happening much more frequently.

But what I would say is that emerging pathogens, I think, are inevitable. But the idea that they have to turn into a pandemic is not. I really believe that. From the point of first interaction between a animal and a human, the virus hunters that are out there finding these pathogens of concern, to the immediate sort of mitigation, containing of that virus - to the therapeutics that were developed so rapidly, there's so many things that can be done to prevent these emerging pathogens, these organisms with which we dance on this planet Earth constantly. But that dance can be a pretty controlled one. It really is not that hard to do when you start to put all these puzzle pieces together.

MARTIN: The book is called "World War C: Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic And How To Prepare For The Next One."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

GUPTA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOEUR'S "BREAKING THE CIRCLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.