Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today opined that recent vaccine rollouts and natural immunity acquired through previous infection will likely help the U.S. avoid a fourth COVID-19 surge, despite the increased travel we’re seeing during the spring break season.
Appearing today on CBS’s Face the Nation, Gottlieb said, “We’re talking about some form of protective immunity in about 55 percent of the population,” referring to the number of folks who’ve already contracted the virus and/or received at least one dose of a vaccine. “There’s enough of a backstop here that I don’t think you’re going to see a fourth surge,” he said.
Close to 30 million Americans have thus far been infected with COVID-19 and untold tens of millions more have contracted the virus without obtaining a positive test, which should provide them with some natural immunity, he said. And, at this stage, roughly 81 million have already received at least the first of their vaccines, offering them at least some degree of protection.
Still, the U.S. will continue to see new COVID-19 cases and related deaths, Gottlieb conceded, partly due to the variant B.1.1.7, which originated in the U.K. and is now present in all 50 states.
Not only is it more contagious than previous strains, but some evidence suggests that it’s also more deadly for those who do contract it.
To clarify his predictions, Gottlieb said, “I think what you could see is a plateauing for a period of time before we continue on a downward decline—in large part because (the U.K. variant) is becoming more prevalent, in large part because we’re pulling back too quickly, with respect to taking off our masks and lifting the mitigation.”
The number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has plateaued at roughly 50,000 per day over the past seven days, CNN reported. But reaching a plateau doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods just yet, as several experts who are concerned about a possible resurgence have been reminding us.
While the present perception may be that the U.S. had gotten a handle on the COVID-19 scourge, the nation’s epidemiological trajectory hinges on our ability to stay one step ahead of current and potential viral variants, Gottlieb warned. It’s essentially going to be a race to vaccinate enough of the population to suppress the virus’ spread before it can mutate into something even more dangerous.
“The only thing that can be a real game-changer here is if you have a variant that pierces prior immunity, meaning it reinfects people who’ve either already been infected or who have been vaccinated,” he said.
But, at least one such strain already exists and has just been identified in New York. Known as P.1, it emerged from Brazil, where it has recently overwhelmed the national healthcare system and continues to kill thousands each day. It may be more than twice as transmissible as previous widespread strains, and has reinfected people who’d previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19. The next question researchers are working to answer is Just how vaccine-resistant this version of the virus may be.
“This is crunch time,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN yesterday. “This is going to be our most difficult period right now in terms of seeing who wins out.”
“Our progress with Covid-19 is fragile.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state of Michigan’s chief medical executive, cautioned. “While we’re making great progress with our vaccination efforts, and many people are doing the right thing by wearing masks and not gathering in large groups, what we are seeing now is very concerning data that shows that we are going in the wrong direction.”
At present, only about 13 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, with a long way still to go in order to achieve the immunity levels needed to suppress the virus. Yet, just the fact that vaccines have become available, paired with a collective impatience to break free of year-long quarantines, threatens to lull us into a false sense of complacency.
Many states have already partially or even fully lifted health and safety restrictions, and spring-breakers are turning out in record numbers to let loose on vacation. In Florida—one of two states where B.1.1.7 is already becoming the dominant COVID-19 strain—Miami Beach has just declared a state of emergency in an attempt to contain the masses that have descended upon its sunny shores.
“It remains to be seen,” Dr. Rob Davidson, an ER physician in Michigan told CNN. “We just would rather not wait and find out. We’d rather get people to mask up, keep distancing and get those numbers down.”