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Gottlieb says virus variant may cause cases to "tick back up" but surge unlikely

Gottlieb: Variant may cause infections to "tick back up"
Gottlieb says virus variant may cause cases to "tick back up" but surge unlikely 05:41

Washington — Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb suggested Sunday that new coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S. could lead to a slight uptick in infections but said a surge in new cases is unlikely. 

Scientists have identified several new coronavirus variants circulating in New York, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, with the latter three now also discovered in the U.S. Gottlieb warned the U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, is likely to become the dominant strain in the U.S. and crowd out the others.

"There's probably some crossover in the immunity you get from B.1.1.7 and immunity against those other strains. That's going to probably cause infections to tick back up," he said in an interview with "Face the Nation." "I don't think we're going to see another surge of infection this spring, but we might see a plateauing before we see continued declines again."

The U.K. strain, of which there are more than 2,600 reported cases in 48 states, has been found to be more transmissible and deadly than the original strain of the virus, and public health experts have stressed the new variants underscore the need to vaccinate Americans quickly. More than 87.9 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and President Biden has predicted by the end of May, there will be enough vaccine supply to cover all adults.

The CDC is finalizing new guidelines on activities for those who have been fully vaccinated, and Gottlieb recommended the guidance take into consideration the confidence Americans who have received their shots will feel going out again.

"We can't be so far behind the aspirations of the public that the guidance itself gets ignored," he said. "I think people are rightly sensing that vulnerability overall is declining right now as you see more and more people get vaccinated, as we have more population-wide immunity from this virus from prior infection as well. So people are going to want to start to do things. They're going to want to start to go out more. And we need to take that into consideration in terms of how we're putting out guidance."

This week, Gottlieb estimated the nation will likely see 70% of those over the age of 75 vaccinated and 60% of those over the age of 65 to have received their shots. Additionally, nearly 25% of adults are going to be vaccinated by the end of the week, Gottlieb predicted. In nursing homes, which were prioritized to receive the first batch of vaccines, he said deaths are declining drastically, down to 13% from 40%.

"We're reducing the overall vulnerability of the population," he said. "Some of the optimism is also being driven by growing science, suggesting that these vaccines, all the vaccines not only prevent COVID disease, prevent symptoms, but also prevent transmission. So they could have a dramatic effect on reducing the overall tenor of the epidemic."

While there has been a steep decline in the number of new daily coronavirus cases over the past few weeks, the rate of new infections has plateaued at between 60,000 and 70,000 per day, which has public health experts urging Americans to remain vigilant in wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.  

But as the country enters the second year of battling the pandemic, which sent states into lockdown and jolted daily life for Americans, Gottlieb said guidance from the federal government in the early weeks of the crisis against mask-wearing was "the single biggest mistake."

"If we had recognized earlier all this spread through asymptomatic transmission and the fact that this is spreading not just through droplets but also aerosolization, enclosed environments, we probably would have recommended masks and high-quality masks much earlier," he said. "So that was probably the single biggest mistake, largely because it was a single easiest intervention that we could have reached for early."

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