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Is the ‘biggest wave’ of coronavirus about to break on US? Former FDA chief Dr Scott Gottlieb issues stark warning

There is no ‘backstop’ against the spread that the US is seeing, says Dr Scott Gottlieb
UPDATED OCT 20, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The worst of the Covid-19 pandemic may not be over for Americans. Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has warned that the US is likely to face the “biggest wave” of coronavirus infections till a vaccine gets approved or authorized for emergency use. Acknowledging that people are exhausted, Dr Gottlieb added that the US is probably in the “seventh inning of the acute phase” of the pandemic currently. And with cases rising in many states, he emphasized that the US is entering a very difficult period. 

According to Dr Gottlieb, who sits on the board of Pfizer, which is developing a coronavirus vaccine, a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 will not be ready soon enough to limit the current rise of infections. He explained that even if companies file applications at the end of November, it will take the FDA two to four weeks to turn that application around. “Then it will take us another two to four weeks to get the initial tranche of people, the most vulnerable who are indicated for the vaccine, vaccinated. Then they need to get a second dose and that happens in the next three to four weeks. And then it takes two weeks for the immunity really to kick in,” Dr Gottlieb said during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

He explained, “So you’re looking at a situation where the first tranche of people to get vaccinated really won’t be protected from the vaccine probably till February and maybe March. And so that’s a long way off. We’re going to have to endure this wave of spread right now. And it’s probably likely to be the biggest wave that we endure without the benefit of a vaccinated population. So we’re going to have to rely on mitigation steps.”

The first tranche of people to get vaccinated will not be protected from the vaccine probably till February and maybe March, according to Dr Scott Gottlieb (Getty Images)

When questioned as to where the US is headed as a country, he said that it is probably the most difficult phase of the pandemic and that the next three months are going to be very challenging. “There’s really no backstop against the spread that we’re seeing. And we’re probably two or three weeks behind Europe. And Europe’s in a very difficult position right now too. I think as we enter the winter, we’re going to see continued spread. There’s 42 states where hospitalizations are rising. There’s 45 states where the rate of transfer, the Rt is above one, meaning they have expanding epidemics. And there’s really no backstop. There’s not going to be an intervention that thwarts this short of the ability to get a vaccine, which is probably an event that happens late in next year,” he added.

According to the Covid-19 data tracker of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of October 19, 387,692 cases have been recorded in the last seven days. Some of the worst affected states are Texas (31,301 cases in last 7 days), Illinois (25,447 in last 7 days) California (20,738 in the last 7 days), Florida (20,077 in last 7 days), Wisconsin (16,912 in last 7 days), North Carolina (14,557 in last 7 days), and Tennessee (14,027 in past 7 days), among others. 

The Johns Hopkins tracker shows that the pandemic has killed over 220,090 in the US as of October 20, and more than 8,210,860 Covid-19 cases have been reported from across the country.  

Coronavirus cases and deaths as of October 19 (CDC)

The former commissioner said the uptick in Covid-19 cases is happening despite several states following mitigation measures such as wearing face masks and encouraging social distancing. “Look, the spread we have right now is with the mitigation that we have in place. And so we are taking some steps. If we weren’t taking those steps, if people weren’t wearing masks generally and some states weren’t adhering to some mitigation tactics and we weren’t testing and tracing, then we’d have a much worse spread. 

Dr Gottlieb, however, argued that it is safe to go to polling places as long as people can protect themselves by wearing a high-quality mask such as a surgical mask or an N95. “When you talk to the governors about where the spread is occurring, it’s occurring in congregate settings where people feel more comfortable, a local Elks Club, a large family gathering. The biggest risks are the settings where we’re not on our — on guard, where we let our guard down, where we are not taking those kinds of precautions. So I think you can vote safely, even in places where there’s high prevalence. But you’re going to need to be careful,” he emphasized. 
President Donald Trump, who is campaigning, has been holding large rallies where many are not wearing masks. Dr Gottlieb called this problematic. He also criticized the White House strategy to prevent transmission, which he says have come out against universal masking, and against testing asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic people. “They want businesses and schools reopened, as we all do, and they’re against targeted mitigation like closing restaurants. There was criticism of New York when New York kept the restaurants closed. So it begs the question, what is the strategy? And I think the strategy is just to endure the spread until we get to that vaccine,” he said.