In the past 12 months of struggling with the coronavirus, one figure has come to symbolize forthrightness, scientific rigor, and epidemiological experience—at least to the majority of the American public that doesn’t boo when his name is mentioned. Of course, that’s Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It was no surprise when President Biden appointed Fauci the chief medical adviser of the new administration as it attempts to end the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last few weeks, Fauci—who was sometimes silenced in the previous administration—has been ubiquitous in explaining vaccines, mask protocol, and the impact of potentially dangerous variants of the virus. Naturally, WIRED has some questions for him as well. In my third time interviewing the vigorous 80-year-old public official, we talked about vaccines, masks, and how he’s been portrayed on Saturday Night Live.

WIRED: We have a new variant of the virus in New York City, called the 526, and it sounds troubling. Is this the one where our luck runs out, and the vaccine might not do so well against it?

Anthony Fauci: I don’t think that’s going to be the case. It’s not as open-and-shut as you might think. For example, when the South African isolate was tested against the antibodies that are induced by the vaccine, the isolate diminished the effectiveness multiple-fold, but didn’t eliminate it. That’s the reason why in the Johnson & Johnson trial in South Africa, even though the efficacy against the variant was about 50-something percent, there were no hospitalizations and no deaths associated with that variant. I don’t think the 526 in New York is going to be any worse in the sense of evading the vaccine or evading the monoclonal antibodies. I think we’re going to see that it likely transmits a bit better than the standard wild type, and may even be a little bit more evasive of the vaccine. But that’s another good reason to get people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible. We take the New York variant very seriously. We’re following it very closely, but you asked a very provocative question—is this going to be the one that does ascend? No, I don’t think so.

That’s the narrative—that we’re in a race between vaccination and variants.

There is a tenet in biology that viruses do not mutate unless you give them the opportunity to replicate. The easiest way to prevent the spread in the community is to vaccinate as many people as possible at the same time that you stick to the public health measures of wearing masks, of avoiding close contact, of avoiding congregate settings. Let’s not declare victory yet, right? You don’t want the decline that we’re seeing to plateau at an unreasonably high level. Right now, the level of daily infections is somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 a day. That’s absolutely too high a level to be acceptable. I don’t want to be a downer on all of this. But you’ve got to continue to practice public health measures until the level of infection goes way, way down. [Less than a day after this interview, the governor of Texas announced he would do the opposite.]

It seems to me that it’s almost like a game of Russian roulette—if we don’t do vaccination fast enough, sooner or later one of these chambers will have a deadly bullet.

I would say it a different way. Vaccines are the answer to communicable diseases, spread from one person to another. Throughout our history, we’ve been confronted with diseases that have threatened our health, life, and even our survival. Smallpox, measles, polio—every one of them has been conquered by vaccines. We are fortunate that already we have three highly efficacious vaccines that have a very good safety profile. Soon, we will have even more. It is our task now to, as quickly and as expeditiously as possible, get as many people vaccinated as we can, in a very organized, quick, and efficient manner. When you do that, you suppress the virus enough that the threat diminishes and diminishes and diminishes.

Considering that urgency, some have argued that we should hold off on giving people the second doses of the Moderna and the Pfizer, to address the supply shortage.