Gottlieb says Delta variant is unlikely to cause ‘raging epidemic’

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The former FDA chief believes vaccination rates will keep the nation from experiencing a repeat of last winter

Cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in India, codenamed Delta, are on the rise. However, Dr. Scott Gottlieb says it’s unlikely that Delta will send the country into another “raging epidemic.” 

Although the Delta variant is more contagious than the original version of COVID-19, Gottlieb says the percentage of vaccinated people in the United States will help keep it in check.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a raging epidemic across the country like we saw last winter,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “I think that there’s going to be pockets of spread, and prevalence overall is going to pick up.” 

Risk varies by region

The former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner said some parts of the U.S. are better positioned than others to keep the Delta variant from spreading. 

“I think in parts of the country where vaccination rates are high, and that’s certainly true in the Northeast, I think we’re largely protected — at least from the current variants that are circulating,” he said. 

Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Pfizer, added that parts of the country -- specifically, those with low rates of people who have previously been infected or have low vaccination rates -- will be more vulnerable to outbreaks involving the Delta variant. Missouri, he noted, is currently experiencing a rise in Delta cases and hospitalizations. He said that’s particularly true in parts of the state with lower vaccination numbers. 

“If you’re someone even who has been vaccinated living in those parts of the country, and there’s a dense epidemic of this new Delta variant, you’re at risk as well because we know the vaccines aren’t 100% and we know in vulnerable populations — people who are immunocompromised, people who are much older — the vaccines may not work as well over time,” he said.

‘We shouldn’t be cavalier about this’ 

Gottlieb said we shouldn’t take the variant’s risk lightly. However, he remains optimistic that the nation is in a significantly better place in terms of vaccination rates than it was when the pandemic was at its worst. About 46.4% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, and 54% of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The goal should be to try to reduce transmission as much as possible here in the United States. I don’t think we should be cavalier about this,” Gottlieb said. “But we’re going to see the overall impact of the virus be substantially reduced because so many people have become vaccinated.”

He also stated that boosting vaccination numbers should also take precedence over reintroducing pandemic precautions.

“I think the right response, first and foremost, is to get more people vaccinated,” Gottlieb said. “We’re at a point right now where our mitigation really should be reactive, not proactive,” he added. “We shouldn’t be shutting things down or putting in mask mandates in anticipation of spread. I think we should do it when we see signs of spread, signs of outbreaks.”

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