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Gottlieb says new coronavirus strain in Europe appears to be more infectious

Gottlieb says new coronavirus strain could be more infectious
Gottlieb says new coronavirus strain could be more infectious 05:11

Washington —  Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), warned Sunday that a new strain of the coronavirus discovered in Europe that prompted stringent restrictions in parts of the United Kingdom appears to be more contagious than existing variants but likely is not more lethal.

"There is a new variant, and there's 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," Gottlieb said in an interview on "Face the Nation." "Increasingly, it does seem to be the latter. It seems like this new strain is more contagious."

But Gottlieb said "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.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed new, stricter restrictions in London and areas of southern England amid the rapid surge in coronavirus infections, which appears to be driven by a new strain of the coronavirus that is more than 70% more transmissible than 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 echoed Gottlieb's assessment of the new strain, telling "Face the Nation" earlier Sunday 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 question is whether people who have already had COVID-19 can be infected by the new variant, and whether the new strain precludes vaccines.

"The answer is probably not," he said. "This virus mutates like all viruses. Flu mutates the most. And what viruses do is they 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."

Following the FDA's authorization of Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use on December 11, health care workers and top elected officials, including members of Congress, began receiving their first doses of the coronavirus vaccine last week. Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams were vaccinated on live television Friday, and President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden are set to receive their first shots Monday.

The FDA issued an emergency use authorization for a second coronavirus vaccine, developed by Moderna, on Friday, and shipments began rolling out Sunday.

While approval of the vaccines marked a new, welcome phase of the coronavirus pandemic, cases in the U.S. continue to increase and the death toll is still rising. There have been more than 17.6 million infections and more than 316,000 deaths from COVID-19, and Gottlieb predicted the number of infections will peak around the first week in 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 possibly.

"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."

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