Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration during the Trump administration, predicted Sunday that declining COVID-19 infection rates are "likely to continue" due to more Americans receiving their vaccines and the amount of people who have already contracted the.
"This has taken a tragic toll on the United States, but we should be optimistic, in my view," Gottlieb said in an interview with "Face the Nation." "I think we're going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now, they're falling quite dramatically. I think these trends are likely to continue."
There have been more than 28 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and the death toll is approaching 500,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. But there has been a decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and hospitalizations are continuing to drop.
Gottlieb said new variants of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil do create new risk and could become more prevalent in the U.S., but not enough to reverse the declines at this point.
"I think it's too little, too late in most parts of the country," he said. "With rising vaccination rates and also the fact that we've infected about a third of the public, that's enough protective immunity that we're likely to see these trends continue."
Vaccine manufacturers, meanwhile, are developing boosters and working to re-engineer their shots to protect against the new strains.
The Biden administration has worked to accelerate the pace of vaccinations and boosted the vaccine supply going to states. More than 61.2 million doses of COVD-19 vaccines have been administered and nearly 75 million doses have been delivered as of Saturday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gottlieb said it will not be possible for the U.S. to reach herd immunity without children being vaccinated, and contrasted COVID-19 with measles and smallpox, which were all essentially eradicated after successful vaccination efforts.
"COVID is going to continue to circulate at a low level," he said. "Hopefully we'll continue to vaccinate the vulnerable population, so we'll protect them from hospitalizations or severe illness and dying from this. But this is going to continue to spread."
With both the Trump and now Biden administrations pushing China to share more data about the origins of the coronavirus, Gottlieb said Beijing should make available information on antibody tests in people who worked at a lab in Wuhan, China, where the first cases of the coronavirus were detected, as well as the original strains to allow scientists to study how the coronavirus evolved over time. The World Health Organization is investigating the origins, but the White House has raised concerns about possible intervention in those efforts by China.
"The most likely scenario here is that this came from nature, that this was bouncing back and forth between people and animals for a period of time and finally broke out," he said. "I think the lab leak theory, the fact that this could have been an accident out of that lab is never going to be fully dispelled. And the WHO shouldn't walk away from that so easily."