Coronavirus developments in Europe are likely no longer early indications of what will happen weeks later in the U.S., due partly to America’s progress vaccinating its population, Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday.
The former Food and Drug Administration commissioner’s comments on “Squawk Box” come one day after White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said the situation in Europe shows why U.S. states should not completely ditch pandemic precautions right now.
Italy is imposing more severe restrictions on business in certain parts of the country after a rise in new infections, including an upcoming nationwide lockdown for Easter weekend. Health officials in Germany also have warned about a rise in Covid cases.
“Earlier I said we were sort of four to maybe six weeks behind Europe, and we pretty much were,” Gottlieb said, referring to previous phases of the global health crisis. “Everything that happened in Europe eventually happened here. Now I think the tables have turned. We’re ahead of Europe.”
“I don’t think the conditions in Europe and the situation in Europe is necessarily predictive anymore of what’s going to happen here because we have much more immunity in our population both from prior infection — which they have as well — but also now from vaccination,” added Gottlieb, a board member of Pfizer, which makes a Covid vaccine.
About 9.5% of the population across member states to the EU and European Economic Area have had at least one Covid shot, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Roughly 7.5% of the Italian population and 8.5% of Germans have had at least one Covid vaccine dose, per ECDC data.
By contrast, 21% of the American population has been given at least one Covid shot, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna both require two doses for full immunity protection. Johnson & Johnson‘s vaccine, which requires just a single shot, was recently cleared for use by the European Union. U.S. regulators granted emergency use authorization to J&J’s vaccine late last month after clearing Pfizer and Moderna in December.
“I think we should be concerned that things can turn in a direction that we’re not predicting,” acknowledged Gottlieb, who has previously urged states to continue requiring people wear face masks to prevention coronavirus transmission. In fact, he’s said that ending mask mandates should be the last public health measure to be lifted.
However, the former FDA chief in the Trump administration said emerging Covid strains, such as the B117 variant first discovered in the U.K., have proven less problematic in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.
“Right now you’re seeing B117 become pretty prevalent across the United States. It’s more than 50% of cases in Texas and Florida and Southern California, and you’re not seeing the big upswing in cases that we might have expected once that variant claimed hold in the United States,” Gottlieb said, attributing it to the level of prior infection in the country along with vaccination rates.
Last week, he estimated on CNBC that about 50% of Americans have “some form of immunity” to the coronavirus.
“The fact that we haven’t seen the coronavirus upsurge gain … even as B117 becomes the prevalent strain across the United States, I think bodes well,” Gottlieb said Monday.
New York, where researchers discovered a new strain called B.1.526, is one worrisome area for Gottlieb. He said there are indications that certain mutations to the virus in that strain “could make it more resistant to our vaccines and make it more likely that people get re-infected.”
“We really don’t understand that mutation well, but that is a cause for concern, so we need to watch that pretty closely,” he said, adding the next couple of weeks should give officials more answers.
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings‘ and Royal Caribbean‘s “Healthy Sail Panel.”