Anthony Fauci said a vaccine could diminish coronavirus as successfully as the polio vaccine did for polio, enabling workers to return to offices and restaurants in the second half of 2021.

But hurdles exist, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert said. They include people’s hesitancy to get vaccinated, a successful and swift vaccination program, and getting through a rise in Covid-19 cases that is now being fueled in part by misinformation about the virus, Dr. Fauci said at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit on Tuesday.

“There are a substantial proportion of people who do think this is not real, that it’s fake news, or it’s a hoax. This is extraordinary. I’ve never seen this before,” he said. Dr. Fauci added that he will convey the following to President-elect

Joe Biden’s

administration: “We have all got to be on the same page telling the American public we have to pull together. That, to me, is the most important thing.”

Dr. Fauci and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, who also spoke Tuesday at the summit, both reiterated their calls for people to adopt public-health measures to combat the spread of the virus.

White House coronavirus response coordinator explains why masks and asymptomatic testing remain crucial to slowing the pandemic. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said the virus infected people in the U.S. in mid-December 2019, a few weeks before it was officially identified in China and about a month earlier than public-health authorities found the first U.S. case. It has since caused almost 15 million diagnosed cases and more than 283,000 deaths. Cases have surged since the fall, with more than 2,000 daily deaths being reported. It is too early to know whether the Thanksgiving holiday will add an additional spurt of cases.

The death toll could surpass 430,000 by March 1, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The Trump administration is aiming to have enough coronavirus vaccine for everyone in the U.S. who wants to take it by the second quarter of 2021.

“We have to go head-to-head with the misunderstandings people have with this virus,” said Dr. Birx, who added that she doesn’t know what role she will have in the president-elect’s administration but will remain in federal government.

Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was upbeat about the promise of a vaccine to bring coronavirus to heel.


‘If we don’t change how we gather, we’ll continue to have this surge across the country.’


— Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator

Health-care workers and people in nursing homes and extended-care facilities will get the vaccine first, he said, followed by various prioritization levels that are likely to include seniors, people with underlying health conditions and workers with critical jobs, such as teachers.

Dr. Birx also said vaccines need to be prioritized for communities of color that have been hit hard by Covid-19.

Younger people and people with no underlying conditions will likely be able to get the vaccine by the end of March or beginning of April if the vaccination program runs efficiently and the majority of people take the vaccine, Dr. Fauci said. With about 75% of the public inoculated, there should be low levels of circulating virus and a return to workplaces.

The stringency of public-health measures will gradually diminish, he said, and chief executives should use surveillance testing once workers return to quickly identify any potential outbreaks.

“I don’t think we’re going to eradicate [Covid-19] the way we did with smallpox, but I think we can do what we did with polio,” Dr. Fauci said.

More on Vaccines and the Pandemic

The Food and Drug Administration could approve vaccines from

Moderna Inc.

and

Pfizer Inc.

and partner

BioNTech SE

shortly. The agency on Tuesday concluded in a detailed analysis that the first Covid-19 vaccine being considered for U.S. distribution “met the prescribed success criteria” in a clinical study, suggesting the agency will soon green-light the product.

Meanwhile, with the U.S. facing worsening spread, the Trump administration is pressing governors to step up rapid testing systems to help curb transmission.

“We sent out, I think, 90 million antigen tests, really asking state mayors and governors to use those tests in a new way,” Dr. Birx said. She said new scenarios for testing would let people come and get their results immediately. “These tests could be enormously helpful,” she said.

Restaurants and bars that closed need resources to help offset their losses, Dr. Fauci said. Congress has been working to craft a coronavirus-relief bill, with Democratic leaders backing a $908 billion bipartisan proposal.

“There has to be resources to help enterprises like restaurants and bars to participate in the public-health endeavor. We seem to sometimes forget that,” Dr. Fauci said.

STAY INFORMED

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The Trump administration is writing reports to governors about trends such as test positivity, and they include public-health recommendations, increasing testing supplies, and urging people who traveled on Thanksgiving to get tested early, Dr. Birx said.

Addressing the effect of Covid-19 on the Black community, Dr. Birx said the virus preys on people with certain comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes and people who had to work when others stay at home, and has laid bare inequities in health care.

The impact of Thanksgiving will start to be seen next week and the week after.

“If we don’t change how we gather, we’ll continue to have this surge across the country,” said Dr. Birx, who wore a mask during her appearance. The majority of spread is occurring among people who are asymptomatic, she said, and “that’s the real warning we’re sending to states.”

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com

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