The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, that aired on Dec. 3, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The CDC announced Friday the number of respiratory illness cases is increasing across most areas of the country. That's RSV, COVID, flu. So we go now to former FDA commissioner and Pfizer board member, Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Dr. Gottlieb, thanks for coming back. What should we be bracing for the season?
DR. SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Yeah, we're probably looking at a more typical winter pathogen season. And what we've seen in past years, there was a very dense epidemic of respiratory syncytial virus, as you noted at the top, in the south. That's now abating. We're seeing it spread to the northeast right now and other parts of the country. That's an infection that affects little children, particularly hard and older adults. Thankfully, there's some treatments available and some ways to protect infants that people could take advantage of this year. With respect to flu, flu has started later than it did last year. It's predominantly Flu A. The vaccine does appear to cover it well, and the vaccination rates have been quite good this year. About 38% of adults and children have been vaccinated for flu, there's no reason to believe that we're going to have a worse flu season than what we've seen in past years, and probably hopefully less than what we saw last year where we saw a very dense and early epidemic of flu. With COVID, cases right now are less than what they were last year at this point of time. We're averaging about 600,000 cases a day based on some modeling work that has been done off of wastewater and a predominant strain that's increasing in prevalence is the BA.2.86 strain, the one we talked about a couple of months ago, that spread through parts of Europe and a particular variant of that called JN.1 that does appear to spread more easily. There's no reason to believe that it's more dangerous than previous strains of COVID. And people who've been vaccinated with the new variant vaccine or who had a recent COVID infection should have some protection against this new variant.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But, we've seen these clusters of this unusual pneumonia in the state of Ohio. There's some reports in Massachusetts. In Ohio, 145 cases in children ages three to 14 years. What's making these kids sick in these clusters?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, when CDC has looked inside these clusters, what they're seeing is typical pathogen, so adenovirus, Strep pneumonia and Mycoplasma pneumonia, and Mycoplasma pneumonia is the one that a lot of people have their eye on. It caused very dense outbreaks in parts of Europe. It's also what's responsible, in part, for the outbreak that we saw in China affecting children. It's a known bacteria that is epidemic every three to five years so we've seen epidemics of this in the past. We haven't seen an epidemic wave since COVID first broke out. So in some respects, we're due for it. A lot of children don't have immunity to it. They haven't- they haven't experienced a Mycoplasma pneumonia infection. For most people it's a mild illness. It's self limiting, but it can cause a chronic cough, and you need to be alert for it. Some children will get into trouble with it. They will become more sick, they'll develop fevers, rashes, a persistent cough, and doctors need to be alert because the typical antibiotics that we use to treat usual strains of pneumonia don't work with Mycoplasma. You need particular kinds of drugs called Macrolides. Drugs like Azithromycin or Clarithromycin, with- which are both available as generic drugs so doctors need to be looking for it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Parents are taking notes on that one. You mentioned China, there were including me. Republican senators, including Marco Rubio sent a letter this week. And he's, you know, ranking on intelligence committee, someone who when he speaks people listen to he says a ban on travel could save our country from death lockdowns, mandates and further outbreaks. Is that appropriate?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, look, I think right now we have more information about what is spreading in China. And it does appear to be more usual strains of illness. So there's no reason to believe that there's something novel spreading there. I think at the outset of that outbreak in China, when the reports first surfaced, we didn't have a lot of information, the World Health Organization, expressed frustration that China wasn't being forthcoming. And it's more of the same. I mean, China needs to - Chinese government needs to be more forthcoming when these things do arise so that they can help inform other countries because inevitably, what's spreading there is going to spread in other parts of the world. And we all need to be working together. So I think some of the initial concerns that something novel could be spreading in China were well founded because China just wasn't being forthcoming - the Chinese government.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And the CDC director said something similar to you that this is not a new or novel pathogen. How can the US be confident if like you're saying China's not sharing info?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, I think we've learned that we need to have more active surveillance. So you still see testing of wastewater on planes coming out of certain parts of the world, hopefully, including China. That's one good way to detect if something novel is spreading there. We have good flu surveillance in that parts of - that part of the world as well. So if there was a novel strain of flu spreading, I think we would detect it. But the reality is that we're subject to the cooperation of foreign governments, and foreign governments need to be working with global health authorities. We should have learned our lessons coming out of COVID. A lot of nations did and do share more readily. China does not still, and that is a real frustration and a cause for concern.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Gottlieb, always good to have your analysis. We'll be right back.
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