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NIH head: Masks are 'lifesaving medical instrument' not 'invasion of your personal freedom'

NIH head: Masks are 'lifesaving medical instrument' not 'invasion of your personal freedom'
© Greg Nash

The head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is urging the public to abide by safety guidelines and socially distance, saying that while recent results for COVID-19 vaccine candidates are "encouraging," people must take extra precautions for at least "a few more months."

The comments from NIH director Francis Collins come as pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna recently announced that their vaccine candidates were shown to be more than 90 percent effective at preventing the coronavirus. Collins told Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour on Monday that he felt “extremely encouraged” by the results and said “we're pretty optimistic that we're on a good path.”

“But let me be clear. That means that this is good enough to be submitted to the FDA for an emergency use authorization [EUA]. That will include a public session of their advisory committee, so everybody will get a chance to look at the data. And only then will [the] FDA decide whether to issue this EUA," he said.

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Collins stressed that even with promising vaccine results coming out, it would still be some time before immunizations would be widely available to the public. He urged individuals in the meantime to continue wearing masks in public.

"Wearing the mask. This is not an invasion of your personal freedom. This is actually a lifesaving medical instrument. We have the data for that. With Thanksgiving coming and other holiday gatherings, I think we're all really concerned that this could get even worse if we don't follow those guidelines, those three W's,” said Collins. “You know what they are, wear your mask, watch your distance and wash your hands. We have got to do that.”

According to the NIH director, if things go as well as health officials are hoping, up to 20 million people could be immunized in December.

Collins dissuaded any concerns that the speed at which the vaccines were being developed had rushed the process unnecessarily and caused corners to be cut.

”They are not. And to have done these trials with more than 30,000 participants and to have the data analyzed by an independent group, which is what happens here with this Data Safety Monitoring Board, and then to go to FDA, this is as rigorous as it gets anywhere in the world,” he said.

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Woodruff asked Collins for his thoughts on President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia MORE's warning that "more people may die" if the Trump administration does not provide intel and help in the transition process.

Collins agreed that a clear plan was needed going forward and that more public health messages needed to be sent out to the public.

"It is not a good time to be losing even a day in terms of organizing that effort," said Collins.

Collins concluded by offering an optimistic message to the public.

"The cavalry is coming," he said. "The vaccines are working. Biotechnology and this hard work of industry and academia and NIH has paid off in a dramatically rapid fashion, that we have never seen anything quite like it before. It usually takes eight years to get to this point."

"We did it in 11 months, and yet no corners were cut. So, be enthusiastic and be excited and be encouraged about that," he added. "But, still, we are also in a dark period here with this pandemic. It is up to all of us to further increase our attention to what we can do day by day. Just like wearing a seat belt, put on your mask. It's a way to save lives."