Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said Sunday the coronavirus vaccines currently being distributed throughout the United States should provide "reasonable protection" against new strains that were detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
"I do think that the existing vaccines are going to offer reasonable protection against these new variants. And we also may be able to develop in a timely fashion, maybe in four or six months, a consensus strain that bakes in a lot of the different variation that we're seeing to have boosters available for the fall," Gottlieb said in an interview with "Face the Nation." "So I think that there is a reasonable chance that we're going to be able to stay ahead of this virus as it mutates."
Gottlieb said as a "rule of thumb," it can be assumed the vaccines are going to be roughly 20% less effective against the new strains from Brazil and South Africa. But he stressed that even if there is a reduction in their effectiveness, "you're still getting very good protection" from mRNA vaccines, like the shots from Moderna and Pfizer, which were approved by the FDA.
The new variants, which are circulating globally, were identified in the final months of 2020 and early 2021 and have since been detected in the United States. The strain from the U.K., B.1.1.7, has been found in 33 states, while the South African strain, B.1.351, has been found in two states. The variant from Brazil, P.1., meanwhile, has been detected in one state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the U.S., South Florida and southern California have emerged as hot spots for the U.K. strain, which public health officials say is more contagious. In southern Florida, the new variant makes up between 5% and 10% of infections, and in southern California, roughly 5% of infections are the U.K. strain. But for the rest of the country, Gottlieb said the variant is less than 1% of infections.
"I think for the most part around the country, it's probably too little, too late," he said. "We'll probably get ahead of it with our vaccines and the seasonal effect from the warming weather."
The new coronavirus strains have underscored the need for the pace of vaccine distribution to be accelerated, and the Biden administration has taken steps to get more shots into the arms of Americans faster, including by sending doses directly to retail pharmacies.
Gottlieb said the new administration has "made a lot of progress" with vaccine distribution, delivering as many as 2 million vaccine doses on some days. He predicted by the end of March, there will be 250 million vaccines delivered onto the market if the one-dose coronavirus vaccine from Johnson & Johnson receives an authorization for emergency use by the FDA, with another 100 million vaccines delivered in April.
"If you assume a 60-40 split between first doses and second doses, you assume about 60% of the supply that's coming onto the market is going to first doses. By the end of March, we'll have delivered 150 million vaccines and in April, another 60 million," he said. "We're going to run out of demand. I mean, I think we need to start thinking about the demand side of this equation soon."
In addition to vowing to administer 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office, President Biden also pledged to have most schools reopened in that timeframe. The CDC is expected to unveil guidelines this week on safely reopening schools, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky suggested Wednesday that vaccinating teachers is not a "prerequisite" for getting children back into classrooms.
Gottlieb said implementing mitigation steps, such as wearing masks, maintaining distance and taking precautions in the classroom, should be a condition for opening schools.
"The schools are not a vector of transmission and especially children under the age of 14 are less likely to both get infected and transmit the infection," he said. "I think it certainly would be good to be able to prioritize teachers to get them vaccinated so they're not at risk from contracting the infection and spreading the infection. But I don't think it's necessarily a prerequisite. I think schools have demonstrated that they can open safely if they take precautions in the classroom."