There's finally a light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci — but only if the "overwhelming majority of people" get vaccinated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer and BioNTech's Covid vaccine on Monday. For Fauci, the White House's chief medical advisor, that means more Americans will feel comfortable getting vaccinated — and the U.S. could have enough control over Covid to return to some degree of normalcy by spring 2022.
But even with the end in sight, this particular timeline is not a guarantee. Back in April, Fauci projected that the U.S. could return to "normal" this summer, before that prediction was thwarted by the rise of Covid's delta variant. "This is a very wily virus," Fauci told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" on Monday.
Currently, 52% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. It's not yet clear what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve a comfortable level of immunity, Fauci told CNN. But unvaccinated people cannot "keep lingering," he said — because as long as the virus circulates, more dangerous and potentially vaccine-defeating variants can continue to emerge.
With the new target of next spring on the horizon, "our fate is in our own hands," Fauci told NBC's "TODAY" on Tuesday. Here's what needs to happen to get there and what normalcy could actually look like:
A lot is riding on the country's vaccination progress between now and early 2022, Fauci told CNN.
According to CDC data, 73% of American adults have received at least one vaccine dose — and a June survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 3 in 10 unvaccinated adults said they'd be more likely to get vaccinated if one of the vaccines received full approval.
But getting through the winter will be additionally complicated, Fauci said, by two other viruses that typically circulate during the season: influenza and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common upper-respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms and is particularly dangerous in children under age 2. Parts of the country are already seeing surges in RSV, much earlier than usual.
Last year, both flu and RSV cases dropped due to Covid protection measures like hand hygiene and social distancing. As a result, fewer people obtained natural immunity from a prior infection, which some experts believe is fueling the RSV surge. A similar scenario could occur with the flu in the coming months, potentially overwhelming hospitals and health care systems and prolonging the fight against Covid.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease physician at the University of North Carolina, adds that Covid cases could also rise again as temperatures drop and Americans resume indoor activities by necessity. "Unfortunately, I'm worried that we're going to have a very tough autumn and winter," Wohl tells CNBC Make It.
Fauci told CNN that, come springtime, "we could start getting back to a degree of normality ... restaurants, theaters, that kind of thing."
That normality could still include plenty of mask-wearing and other safety measures. "All sorts of facets of our lives are really going to be a little different because of some of the things we learned from Covid," Wohl says. "And because we realize Covid is not going to go completely away."
The most important measure that businesses can take when returning to in-person work, for example, is to require vaccination, Dr. Mark McClellan, a Duke University health policy expert and former FDA commissioner, said in a briefing Monday. The FDA's approval of Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine could increase the number of company-driven vaccine mandates: Many companies have been waiting for this official step to initiate vaccine requirements.
Such measures could "contribute greatly" to nationwide vaccination rates by motivating unvaccinated employees to get the jab, Fauci told "TODAY."
However, if a community's Covid infection rates jump or remain high, even fully-vaccinated local businesses will need to pursue other indoor mitigation measures like improving ventilation, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. "As long as we have high Covid rates, [businesses] need to be thinking about this combination of steps," McClellan said.