John Fuller: Here’s a perspective from Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Francis Collins: This is a great moment for Christians to be in this space of recognizing that we have a responsibility for those, uh, who particularly need that support, uh – for those who are most vulnerable. In this case, it’s people with other medical issues or the elderly. It’s up to us to help protect them by not catching this disease ourselves and spreading it all around.
End of Excerpt
John: Dr. Collins is our guest today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and we truly hope that, uh, you and your family are doing well despite these somewhat chaotic, unpredictable times. We’re going to offer hope and practical help for you about the coronavirus with our guest. And we’re so glad you joined us today.
Jim Daly: John, we’re aware that there’s a lot of fear and confusion about the impact this disease is having in our nation and around the world. Unfortunately, that’s led to stockpiling and shortages and even some mass hysteria about this virus. I am concerned about how that reflects our faith to a watching world today. You know, Christians, living in the Roman Empire were known for living very differently from everyone else. They served the poor and the sick even at risk to themselves. And I hope we can have that same kind of mentality. Knowing, too, that we want to protect ourselves as best as we can. We’ve invited Dr. Francis Collins to join us as our special guest by phone. He heads up the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He’s a physician and a prominent, uh, geneticist. Plus, he’s also a man of profound faith and I know he will have good insights and perspectives to share with us. Dr. Collins, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Dr. Collins: It’s great to be with you, Jim.
Jim: I so appreciate it. I know – I can’t imagine how busy you and your team are, uh, throughout the medical field right now. Give me a picture of what that landscape looks like.
Dr. Collins: Well, it’s 24/7 for anybody who is trying to help out with this unprecedented crisis – this pandemic of coronavirus. And since we are the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, uh, we are full-out in everything we can do to speed up the process of identifying possible treatments for people who do get infected. As well as moving this vaccine forward as fast as we can, and we’ve already outstripped every previous timetable by getting the phase one trial started this past Monday. But we have many more steps ahead of us, so that vaccine won’t be ready for at least a year. We want to be sure that nothing goes wrong along the way. We’re going to need it probably a year from now or a year and a half from now. In addition to that, of course there are all of these other supportive things that NIH needs to do in terms of both basic science and clinical science. But we are also worried about our staff and so we’ve sent almost everybody to work remotely except for the people involved in patient care. And we do run the largest research hospital in the world so there’s a lot of patient care issues here. And we, of course, are concerned about our patients – many of who are very vulnerable and immunosuppressed. Uh, we have to be sure that they’re kept safe from coronavirus.
Dr. Collins: So yeah, we’re running around a lot.
Jim: Right. And it’s a good reminder for us to be praying for you and for the NIH and CDC and all those professionals. I mean, that’s something the Focus listeners will certainly do, I trust. So, uh…
Dr. Collins: I really would appreciate that.
Jim: Good reminder. Let’s specifically get to the virus itself. I mean, we’re watching the news. Um, there’s real consistency, which is good, but can you right from the top at NIH – can you give us some context of what we’re facing with this virus. How serious of a problem is it? I know some people were kind of discounting it thinking, like, “This is just a little more than the flu, maybe.” Help shore that up for us medically.
Dr. Collins: It’s very serious. I wish I could say otherwise, but this is a virus that spreads extremely quickly. Uh, it is so transmissible even by people who have no symptoms, but who’ve gotten exposed and are carrying it around. They may develop symptoms a couple of days later, but they may be already spreading it. And certainly, the way in which that travels then means that our entire country is at risk as were earlier people in China, uh, for catching this. And it is a more serious disease than the flu just in terms of its consequences. It is a respiratory illness. It gets to the lungs and that is the greatest source of concern and particularly for older people or people with chronic diseases. It can be very serious and can be fatal. We estimate right now without really good numbers, uh, that the mortality rate from this particular virus is probably in the neighborhood of 1% or 2% and that is ten times higher than influenza. So, you can quickly see why we are taking this so seriously. If this is a virus for which none of us have immunity ’cause its brand new and it spreads through the whole population, so maybe 30% or 40% of Americans will get it…
Dr. Collins: …And it has the mortality that high, we are facing something that we have not seen in my lifetime. Reminiscent more of the very frightening things that happened back in 1918 with that influenza flu epidemic. Now having said all of that, there are ways that we can lessen the consequences of this and that’s why this is being taken by the president and everybody else with the greatest seriousness in asking people to do things that normally, you wouldn’t even consider. Like basically sequestering yourself at home and avoiding interactions with other people where the virus might be spread.
Jim: Yeah, and hopefully many are doing that. Certainly, here at Focus we’ve done what you’ve done and that’s, uh, to put as many people at home – to work from home that can. So, we are on a minimal staff level here, but we still have our phones open. Our response team is working from home, so the phone lines are open. They can do that in the, uh, comfort, and the, uh, health…
John: Safety of their homes. Yeah.
Jim: Safety of their homes. Thanks, John. Uh, Dr. Collins, let me ask you this too: um, I have seen on YouTube there’s the one woman – and this – this is what creates, I think, some – I think misunderstanding about the severity of this. She was a healthy probably 35-year-old, fairly young. And she said her symptoms were very light. It was confirmed through a test that she had had, uh, Covid-19, but that is was like a light cold to her. She didn’t suffer many consequences and she was encouraging people which I think is great to calm down. Don’t over-buy at the grocery store. And – and I just want to re-emphasize that. The way it presents really depends on your physical makeup. Your age…
Dr. Collins: Mm hmm.
Jim: …You compromised situation. Speak to that a little more thoroughly about what she was experiencing.
Dr. Collins: And her situation might be fairly typical for a relatively young, healthy person. And that’s part of the reason I think people are having a trouble getting their minds around why this is so serious. If you’re young – in your 20s or 30s – and you have no chronic illnesses, you could get this disease and have a fairly mild course of it. But think about all the other people around you and particularly people as they get older where the susceptibility goes up. Estimates are from China that people in their 80s who got infected with coronavirus – the death rate was about 23%. I mean, incredibly high number.
Dr. Collins: So, it goes up very steeply. This is a really important point, Jim. If we were all just thinking about ourselves, then all the young people would probably be our carousing and having a great time, because if they get coronavirus – “Ah, what the heck. I might be sick for a few days.”
Dr. Collins: But then they’re getting it and they’re spreading it. Oftentimes even before they know they have it. And then, we have our whole country infected. Including all of those vulnerable people. This is a great moment for Christians to be in this space of recognizing that we have a responsibility for those who particularly need that support, uh – for those who are most vulnerable. In this case, it’s people with other medical issues or the elderly. It’s up to us to help protect them by not catching this disease ourselves and spreading it all around.
Jim: Boy, it’s…
Dr. Collins: That’s really important.
Dr. Collins: So that woman on the video, she was fine. But if she bumped into a grandparent, they might not be.
Jim: Yeah, exactly right. And we’re going to talk a little later about some of the things we can do as the Christian community and get your input there. Um, a question that came to me, which I think is a valid one – what about catching this twice? Can, like this woman, can she have a recurrence and be re-exposed or is it something that once you have it your body’s immunity system is built up and you won’t catch it again?
Dr. Collins: The data we have indicates that you don’t get this over again at least not with this particular coronavirus that’s circulating right now. That the immunity that you generate is protective and of course we’re counting on that cause that’s how a vaccine works; it’s generating that immunity without having you get the disease. There are a few anecdotes of people who maybe sound as if they got a recurrence but I’m not sure that I believe those entirely. Some of those maybe people who weren’t actually quite over it and then had a bit of a relapse. I think we right now have the best evidence that say you get this once and you’re done.
Jim: Yes. You know, some of us have heard in the news about the trial that’s begun I think again up somewhere in Washington.
Dr. Collins: Yes.
Jim: Describe that uh, from a doctor’s perspective for us, describe how long that can take. What are they looking for?
Dr. Collins: Right.
Jim: When, if it goes successfully how long could it be before we see a vaccine for those uh, to protect us?
Dr. Collins: Well, this is an unusually rapid pace, the fastest ever in fact, in the history of human kind to have patients who are volunteers now being injected with this trial vaccine. Uh, just about two months after when we first knew there was a virus and knew what its uh, instruction book – its RNA sequence look like. So, it’s using a very rapid approach at collaboration between NIH and a company called Moderna. Basically, injecting the vaccine into muscle and waiting for the muscle to see what it is and make the proteins that the immune system will recognize, but this is not a dangerous vaccine. It’s not actually injecting the coronavirus. It’s injecting one little part of its protein coat which it can’t do anything on its own. And that sounds really promising, like, oh wow you must be almost there. Well it doesn’t work that way. We have to figure out whether this does in fact raise antibodies that you would predict would be protective. And you have to make sure it’s safe, that it doesn’t have some surprising other effect. If that goes well, then it’ll take several more weeks to see whether these volunteers in Washington state have the results that we hope. Then you gotta scale it up to a phase two trial which would be hundreds or maybe a thousand patients and try to show whether it actually is protective, and that will certainly run through the summer and early fall. If that all goes well then you have to phase three it, which is an even larger study and find a pharmaceutical company that’s ready to scale it up because if it works, we may need to cross the globe hundreds of millions of doses of this.
Dr. Collins: So, to be realistic, uh, Tony Fauci who you’ve probably been seeing on every news program. (Laughter)
Dr. Collins: Uh, turned on who works at NIH, he is my expert in infectious disease and he’s probably the most well-respected and knowledgeable infectious disease expert in the world. He’s saying its gonna take a year to a year in half so don’t count on the vaccine being ready before that. We have to certainly implement all these other measures in the meantime if we’re gonna try to protect those vulnerable people.
Jim: Right, and in 12 to 18 months as you said we’ll still be the fastest deployment of the vaccine that, uh, we’ve ever accomplished. Correct?
Dr. Collins: Oh yeah, by a factor of three at least. Normally these things take four or five years.
Jim: Well again, another great prayer point for our listeners to – to pray about and give clarity to the scientists working on this. I should of asked this before but what, what are those symptoms that we should be looking for with ourselves, our kids, maybe our parents?
Dr. Collins: The symptoms are generally fever and cough and shortness of breath. Some people get sore throats, some people don’t. I know what people are thinking hearing this. It sounds like just the regular winter cold, and it kind of is like that, which is one of the reasons it’s a little hard to figure out. Who’s really needing a test and ought to be taken seriously cause there’s lots of other colds and flu around. So, at the moment it’s kind of those symptoms; some people get a little bit of stomach trouble but not so much, it’s really a respiratory disease.
Jim: Well, I have a friend who has allergies as an example and –
Dr. Collins: Mm hmm.
Jim: She and her husband were talking about it, they called their doctor. The doctor said we think you’re okay. There’s no need to come in for a test. How do we, at this level where we don’t have a, uh, doctors’ degree. (Laughter) How do we determined that? What insight would you give us? How – when should we get concerned?
Dr. Collins: Yeah, I think you contact your physician and explain what your symptoms are. They now have the instructions from the CDC about really what should trigger, uh, the need for taking this, uh, to the next level, which is to seek out and get a test done. And I think Docs can be pretty well trusted to interpret those now. CDC has been very good in educating all of the healthcare providers about coronavirus. Uh, we have all those same questions here. I have 40,000 people who work for me at NIH. Almost every day we have a debate about somebody who’s at home and has a little bit of a cold and should they actually get tested and we kinda go through those same discussions, ultimately trying to decide. And of course, the easier it is to get the testing done – and that’s going to come a lot more available here in the coming days – the more you can afford to say, “Uh, yeah, just do the test.” As opposed to trying to limit the test to the people that have the highest risk which is what we’ve had to do so far.
Jim: Right. And so be patient is what I’m hearing from you.
Dr. Collins: Yes.
Jim: And people can probably do that drive through testing that many states are beginning to set-up, right?
Dr. Collins: That’s what you can watch for coming in the next, uh, few days or a week where more and more of these drive-thru operations will be set-up. Where you have to first, of course, get online and let people know what you’re symptoms are and get an approval because they don’t just want people lining up for miles, uh, when they aren’t really appropriate for the test. But, then, if it looks as if the symptoms, uh, do fit, uh, then you come through the drive thru. You simply roll down your window. Somebody who is dressed up in protective garb gets a swab from your nose and sends it off to the lab. You go home and wait for the results – quarantining yourself at the time. If you were sick enough to have the test your shouldn’t be around other people.
Jim: Right. Let me ask this – a practical question. I have two boys, Jean and I, of course. We have one – is a junior in high school. The other is a freshman in college. I believe he’s gonna come back now. He doesn’t want to be in the, uh, dorm setting or the apartment setting he’s in.
Dr. Collins: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Jim: What if someone in our home gets sick? Should we kind of count it a fait de accompli that all of us will most likely get it and just live with it? Or, what are some things we can do within the home if…
Dr. Collins: Yes.
Jim: …Somebody becomes ill in the family?
Dr. Collins: If somebody in your home is ill and gets the test and it’s positive and it’s not the flu and it’s not a cold and it really is coronavirus, then everybody in the home should consider themselves as having been exposed and should quarantine themselves for the next 14 days to see if they develop symptoms. If you don’t develop symptoms in 14 days, and by that time the person in the home has presumably gotten better, then you may have escaped it. But during that two week period, um, again nobody in the home should be our circulating because even if you feel okay, you may already be infected and might be sharing that virus with people in your vicinity. I know that sounds pretty challenging to try to cope with, but of course, a lot of people in some parts of the country are already, kind of, restricted to their home even without somebody who’s been diagnosed. Uh, if you lived in the Bay Area, for instance, that’s what you’re required to do. Those sound like extremely, uh, draconian measures, but when you think about the fact that if we don’t do something, we might see 1,000,000 to 1,000,000 and a half people in the United States die of this disease, nothing seems very draconian. I think if people tell you, “Oh, these measures are over-doing it.” Just think of the consequences. And I think we need to be over-doing it considering what might happen otherwise.
Jim: Yeah. Let me – I mean your – your kind of at the top of the pyramid when it comes to fighting the disease, et cetera. Working with 40,000 within NIH to combat this, et cetera. Let me bring it down to the grassroots level. My sister works for a large grocery store chain. She’s a manager at one of these stores and she said the people are just panicking. She had a woman just the other day come into the store. They wanted to buy $3,000 worth of beef.
Dr. Collins: Oh my gosh.
Jim: Basically, wipe out the entire beef department of this grocery store.
Dr. Collins: (Laughter) Oh, no.
Jim: And thankfully they said, “No, no, no, no. We don’t need to do that. You can certainly buy an allotment, but we’re not going to wipe out our meat department for you.” And then, of course, we had the paper run – the toilet paper run. You know, the whole thing – dairy products, et cetera. She said it’s just on the edge of crazy.
Dr. Collins: (Laughter)
Jim: And what would you suggest to people who are overreacting perhaps in that way. If we just reacted normally to our shopping requirements the supply chain, I think would be fine.
Dr. Collins: It – it would help. I understand people are getting pretty anxious about what’s going to happen, and will they be basically locked in their homes for weeks at a time. Uh, that’s not going to happen. There will be an opportunity, no matter what kind of measures are put in place, for people to go out occasionally to get supplies, medicines and groceries. Um, it will be, of course, a good idea to not do that every day if you don’t have to, so I strongly support…
Dr. Collins: …the idea that families should be making their plans for going to the grocery store efficiently, so maybe you’re just going once a week and then you’re fine for the rest of that week because you are trying to avoid interactions and any kind of social gathering or in a store. We’re very much about this idea of social distancing and that means staying out of busy places. But the idea of buying $3000 worth of beef so that nobody else can have any…
Dr. Collins: …that doesn’t seem very right, either. But uh, that generous spirit we’ll hope people have.
Dr. Collins: So, be rational. Be thoughtful. Yeah. Do… do a buy once a week, but not once a year.
John: Uh, Dr. Collins, my wife’s mother is in a care facility and um, we’re very much missing the daily visits we had with her.
Dr. Collins: Yeah.
John: What can we do in that kind of a circumstance? My wife was saying, “Well, how do we know the staff doesn’t have this and is gonna transmit it?” It’s a very difficult situation, emotionally, for a lot of people.
Dr. Collins: It is. I’m glad you brought it up. It’s one of the wrenching aspects of what is a wrenching situation. And, of course, we all saw what happened at that Life Care facility in Washington state where coronavirus just ran through that assisted living nursing home with terrible consequences. Uh, that’s where a significant fraction of the deaths in our whole country happened. In that one facility.
John: Mm hmm.
Dr. Collins: That was a bit before people really recognized the risks. Now that they know that, you have to agree that it’s a good idea for people who are that vulnerable not to have a lot of visitors coming in, so they’ve had to pretty much stop that. The responsible places, that I hope your family is in such a place, have been very careful about staff and anybody on the staff who has even the tiniest hint of a symptom should stay home and get tested. I know people are sometimes going to visit by, you know, standing at the window and talking to each other (laughing) so you can at least see each other through the glass and maybe talking on a phone. Some of my friends have been doing that you haven’t completely broken the connection with your loved one. But at a time like this, uh, just for their safety I think this is the right decision that many of those facilities have made and I would support them.
Jim: Yeah. And I appreciate that compassion. And I’m so grateful that the Lord has put you in a place of leadership and your experience. Let me kind of turn the corner in that direction because, you know, in my friendship with you, I’ve always been so impressed that you’re, you know you’re at the top of the game. And yet, you have a faith in Christ and it’s so reassuring to us, as Christians, that you are there. I guess the best question is as Christians, as believers, um, how should we respond to the fear and the challenges that this disease creates. What’s your recommendation, both as a Christian and a medical professional?
Dr. Collins: Well, it is hard for people not to be – be fearful when this kind of information is being shared, including some of the things I’ve just been saying. But we as Christians “don’t have a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline,” quoting 2nd Timothy. Um, somebody who’s a wonderful friend of mine sent me this morning a verse from Joshua that I know but I hadn’t thought about in this circumstance. Joshua, uh, chapter one, verse nine: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord, your God, will be with you wherever you go.” Even in the face of coronavirus, I claim that as Truth. So, we are called to be strong and courageous. We are also called to be people of generosity, and of willingness to put ourselves out there to try to help others. And we are called to do that in a very special way in this circumstance. And I hope people listening to this will be encouraged by that, and also feel that it is a moment here for us, as Christians, to be particularly willing, uh, to be flexible, to be generous, to be loving. To try to help in every way we can.
Jim: Absolutely. And Dr. Collins, I think this is a good spot to ask this question: Many people can see science and religion as irreconcilable today. It’s unfortunate that that’s true because so many of the great early scientists rooted themselves in faith, kind of discovering God’s creation rather than competing with it. You’ve had to go through that struggle. Uh, and you have evolved over time in that way. You believe they are mutually enriching, I think, and complimentary. Explain that.
Dr. Collins: Absolutely. And, um, people might assume, as I’m a person of faith, that’s something I grew up with. That’s not the case. I was an atheist in graduate school studying physical chemistry. And when I went to medical school and had to face the reality of life and death, realized that I hadn’t really thought that through. And through a bunch of struggles trying to support my atheism, I ultimately, with a lot of help from C.S. Lewis, ended up becoming a believer and a Christian. And I’ve never found a conflict between what I know as a scientist and what I know from reading the Bible. They are two different ways of perceiving God’s Truth. People talk about this based on the words of Francis Bacon about they have the two books: the book of God’s words, the Bible; and the book of God’s works, which is nature. And how could they be in conflict if they’re both created by God? I’ve not found that conflict. I found plenty of places where we humans have created one by our interpretations either of a scientific finding or a particular verse of scripture that somebody decides has to have only a single meaning, even though there might be reasons to interpret it in various ways. And I think science is a wonderful way of investigating this awesome creation that God has given us. And science can be thought of not just as curiosity, although it is. And not just a detective story, although it is. And not just as a way of learning about things that can help people. But also, as a form of worship.
Jim: Mm. That is so good. You know, at the end here, Dr. Collins, can I ask you to pray for our nation? Would that be okay?
Dr. Collins: I would be happy to. Dear God, we are at a time in our country of considerable stress and concern, and a threat is very much all around us with this unexpected infection. And we have in our own strength not enough resources to know exactly what to do. And yet, we do have understanding enough that there are things we collectively can do to try to reduce the amount of pain and suffering and death that may otherwise happen. Please fill our minds with the kind of wisdom and insight that we need ’cause we’re often lacking in that in our own work. Please help us, though, to be free of a sense of paralyzing fear but rather to be energized and empowered. And to be strong and courageous and to seek out a path forward here so that we cannot just feel like the clouds have closed in but also see a break in those clouds. A time in the future where we can come through this with a sense that we have done what we were called to and that You have been right beside us all the time. That part we know. We give You thanks for that. Bless our nation. Bless all those who put themselves in harm’s way to try to care for the sick. And help us to be brought together somehow by this whole thing, ’cause goodness knows this country needs more of that, too. In Jesus name I pray, amen.
Jim: Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health. Thank you for taking time to be with us. We are so grateful and so encouraged that you’re at the helm there and you’re a man of faith. Thank you.
Dr. Collins: Ah, thanks Jim and John. It’s great to be with you and, uh, we’ll get through this.
Jim: Uh, John, I think the bottom line message is we need to be informed and take this virus seriously and do everything we can to protect ourselves from getting sick. But, don’t give in to fear. God is in control. Even when life and the future seem so chaotic. And remember that Focus on the Family is here for you. Most of our staff are working from home, and that’s good. But we’re still providing bible-based encouragement and help for your family. Our team of Christian counselors, for example. They’re available to consult with you by phone if you need to talk with them, and maybe need somebody to pray with. And I want to encourage you to visit our website, as well. We have many helpful articles and links about the coronavirus and how to navigate the next few weeks with your family. And please pray, as we said before, for those doctors and scientists at the NIH, the CDC. And then, pray for the most at-risk people. Those that are immune compromised and those over 60. Pray for them that they will have minimal exposure within those communities. And I think if we do all of this, we’ve honored the Lord in every way we can. And, uh, again, I hope your family is safe and healthy and trusting God with the outcome.
John: Mm. Let us know how we can help. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. And online we’re at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.