On Sunday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the FDA, warned that a new strain of the coronavirus was found in Europe that promoted strict restrictions in most parts of the UK. The coronavirus’s new strain appears to be more contagious than its existing variants, but it is not more lethal.
During an interview on “Face the Nation,” Gottlieb said, “There is a new variant, and there’s a question of whether or not it’s become the predominant strain in London because of what we call founders’ effect — it just got into London and got into some early super spreading events — or whether or not it’s the result of what we call selective pressure, it’s being selected for because it has qualities that make it more likely to spread.” He said, “Increasingly, it does seem to be the latter. It seems like this new strain is more contagious.”
He added, “it’s probably not more lethal,” though he noted that public health agencies “don’t fully understand its contours” yet.
“It doesn’t seem to be any more virulent, any more dangerous than run-of-the-mill COVID,” he said.
In London and areas of southern England, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed new and stricter restrictions amid the rapid surge in coronavirus infections, which appeared to be driven by a new strain of the coronavirus that is more than 70% more transmissible that its existing variants. The U.K. alerted the World Health Organization to the new strain, and several European countries have stopped flights from the U.K. in response.
Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams reiterated Gottlieb’s assessment of the new strain, telling “Face the Nation” that officials “have no indications that it is going to hurt our ability to continue vaccinating people or that it is any more dangerous or deadly than the strains that are currently out there and that we know about.”
Gottlieb said the next issue is whether the new type will infect individuals who have already had COVID-19 and whether the new strain precludes vaccinations.
“The answer is probably not,” he said. “This virus mutates like all viruses. Flu mutates the most. And what viruses do is change their surface proteins. And once they do that, the antibodies that we’ve developed against those surface proteins no longer work. Now, flu mutates very rapidly, changes its surface proteins very rapidly. So, we constantly need to get a new flu shot. Some viruses like measles don’t change their surface proteins. And so the measles shot we got 20 years ago still works. Coronavirus seems somewhere in the middle. It’s going to mutate and change its surface proteins, but probably slow enough that we can develop new vaccines.”
On Dec 11. the FDA authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use. Healthcare workers, top elected officials, and Congress members started to receive their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine last week. On Friday, Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence, and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams were vaccinated on live television. On Monday, Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will receive their first vaccination shots.
Moderna developed the second coronavirus vaccine that the FDA issued for emergency authorization on Friday, and shipments will be rolling out Sunday.
While the vaccine approval marked a new, welcome phase of the coronavirus pandemic, cases continue to increase in the U.S., and the death toll continues to increase. More than 17.6 million infections and more than 316,000 COVID-19 fatalities have occurred, and Gottlieb estimated that the number of infections will peak in the first week of January.
“The health care system is going to continue to see a burden well past the peak in infections because of the delay in time to hospitalization and also a delay in time to death from COVID,” he said. “So after those infections peak, we’ll continue to see deaths continue to increase for another three weeks.”
Gottlieb said the nation is “at the peak of this pandemic right now” and said it’s crucial for doses of the vaccines to be delivered as quickly as possible.
“A vaccine that’s delivered next week is going to probably have a bigger public health impact than a vaccine delivered five weeks from now,” he said. “So we should be leaning forward and trying to get as much vaccine out as possible.”