Transcript: Scott Gottlieb discusses coronavirus on "Face the Nation," January 17, 2021

Gottlieb expects virus variant to be dominant in U.S. in 5 weeks
Gottlieb expects virus variant to be dominant... 06:27

The following is a transcript of an interview with former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb that aired January 17, 2021, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to go now to former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. He sits on the board of Pfizer and Illumina, which is a company that is working on sequencing the virus variants. He is in Westport, Connecticut, this morning. Good morning to you.

DOCTOR SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Good morning.

MARGARET BRENNAN You just heard the incoming CDC director say 500,000 deaths by mid-February, that this will get worse. Do you agree?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, I think tragically, that's right. What we're likely to see is infection start to decline. I think we're seeing it right now. We're seeing a near-term peak in terms of the number of new daily cases. Now, unfortunately, deaths and hospitalizations will continue to grow over the next two or three weeks because they're a lagging indicator. But we'll see continued declines probably for about four weeks, maybe five weeks until this new variant starts to take over. Right now, this new variant is about 0.5% of all infections nationally. There's hotspots in Southern California and Florida that may be closer to 1%, but it's going to double every week. So it's about doubling every week. That's the experience from other countries and that's the experience we've seen so far in the United States. So it's 1% now. It'll be 2%, then 4%, then 8%, then 16%, then 32%. So in about five weeks, this is going to start to take over. The only backstop against this new variant is the fact that we will have a lot of infection by then. So there'll be a lot of immunity in the population and we will be vaccinating more people. But this really changes the equation. And I think what we're looking at is a relentless strike from this virus heading into the spring, whereas infections really would have started to decline in the spring. We would have had a quiet spring. We could have persistently high levels of infection in the spring until we finally get enough people vaccinated.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to clarify there, because we just spoke with the CDC dir- incoming CDC director, who recognized that there was not a good surveillance system in place to figure out these new mutations. The numbers you're citing, they're from the private sector?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, Illumina, the company that I'm on the board of, is doing a lot of the sequencing work right now and unfortunately, the sample is very small. We should be sampling about 5% of all the positive cases. We're doing a lot less than that. We're doing well under one percent. We haven't found any of the B1351 variant. That's the South African and Brazilian variant. But we have just started looking for it. What we're finding is B117. So it's about 0.3 to 0.5% of all infections as of this weekend, data that's available right now. But it's going to increase and we've seen it double already week over week. So this information is available. Illumina's tweeted some of it out. Their partner Helix has tweeted some of it- some of it out. They're working with CDC on this. So the data is starting to be available. But as the CDC director said, we're not doing a lot of surveillance work right now. So we're probably not detecting the full scope of what's underway in this country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Americans now age two-years-old and up will have to show proof of a negative COVID test to re-enter this country, even if they're a citizen. Will that make a difference, these kind of travel restrictions in reducing these other strains from permeating?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, it's going to have some impact. I think it's hard to estimate how much it's going to really affect introduction into the United States. And the bottom line is these strains are already here, even B1351 is probably in the United States now, even though we haven't detected it yet. I think testing people as they come in, you're going to catch some cases, but it's also going to be a deterrent. People who think they might be infected or might have been exposed to someone who's been infected, if they know there's a surveillance system in place, they're going to be less likely to get on a plane because they're not going to get- want to get caught in a quarantine. So, I think it's going to be more effective as a deterrent than actually catching positive cases as they come in. But it's something. You know, it's something that we can do. I just think we need to be honest with ourselves that these strains are here right now, and we need to start taking action. You know, the simple things are still going to work, wearing masks, avoiding crowds. And the quality of the masks really matters right now. If you wear a higher quality mask with this new infection, that's going to be very important.

MARGARET BRENNAN: That means surgical or N95 and B1351 is what you're calling South African strain, is that correct?

DR. GOTTLIEB:  Right. Right, that's the South African and the Brazilian strain.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And the Brazilian. OK, everyone take notes. I want to get you to the vaccine now because this just puts more and more pressure on getting protection out there for people. What is the bottom line? I- I asked the incoming CDC director if she had a good read on supply. She still thinks they can hit that 100 million mark with vaccinations. You sit on the board of Pfizer. What do you know about supply?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, I think they will hit that 100 million mark, I think the issue is going to become demand. I think they're going to have the supply in place and the distribution in place to do that. Right now, 30 million doses have been shipped to the states. About another 15 will be made available to the states as of this Tuesday. And 5 million have been ordered by the states, but not yet shipped. So that's a total of 50 million doses. And there was a very small bolus. I think the plan that the new administration put out makes a lot of sense. It's sort of an all the above approach, what we've been talking about, trying to push this through different channels like the big box stores, like pharmacies, trying to set up more federally chartered sites in conjunction with the states. You look at a state like Connecticut, the state that I live in. I think that they've been taking that approach and you see it working where they've turned to the National Guard early. They set up a diversity of sites to distribute this. They've targeted high-risk groups, high-need groups, but they've also recognized that every vaccination is important. And so when people got vaccinated out of turn, they didn't impose fines. They didn't impose penalties and impose restrictions. They tried to get out all the supply and the state's been successful. It's one of the leading states in the country right now in terms of getting people vaccinated. I think the federal plan that- that the Biden administration is modeling builds off what some states that have done well have done.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Those numbers you were citing, that's according to Pfizer? That's according to Operation Warp Speed?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, that's according to Operation Warp Speed, and I obviously have some insight into the one manufacturer, Pfizer, sitting on the board. I do think that there is ways that the administration can work with the companies to increase supply. It's going to take time, but there's machines that can help produce more vaccine. There's inputs that they can try to increase the supply of. And it might be things you could do on the fill finishing as you bottle the vaccines, trying to get additional doses out of the way you bottle the vaccines, making that process more efficient. I think it's going to be slow, but I think we can potentially eke out more supply with a full court press on all the different things that you can do to try to increase the inputs and the outputs here.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, Dr. Gottlieb, thank you as always, for your insight. We'll be back in a moment.