The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Scott Gottlieb that aired Sunday, January 23, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to the COVID pandemic, now entering its third year. Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a former FDA commissioner and sits on the board of Pfizer. Good morning to you doctor. The CDC says case numbers are coming down. You said we’d be back in person in the office in February. Do you stick by that timeline?
DOCTOR SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Yeah, I think that’s timeline still intact, you’re seeing a lot of businesses make decisions to do, return to work March 1st because I think they want to give themselves a cushion, especially having been surprised before. You’re seeing cases come down very rapidly in the East Coast, the states that were the early outbreak states Florida, the mid-Atlantic, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles. This virus is spreading to the Midwest. You’re seeing cases pick up in states like Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wyoming, Idaho, so it’s not done yet. Across the United States, there’s still states that are probably in the thick of this. They have another week, maybe two weeks to go until they peak and start to come down. But in places like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., you’re seeing cases decline very rapidly. And I think that thesis around a February return is intact.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Nearly a million children were infected with COVID in the last week, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A million. Is it too soon for mask mandates to be lifted in schools, as the governor of Virginia just ordered?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Look, I think it is too soon to do that because a lot of schools have built their preparations around the use of masks and whatever we want to say about the benefit that masks are providing, it’s providing some benefit. And a lot of schools that couldn’t implement social distancing couldn’t implement testing of relying on masks as their only tool. So, to withdraw it right at the peak of the epidemic. I think it’s imprudent we should wait. I think within two weeks we’ll be able make that decision. But this whole COVID epidemic, I think, has been colored by the fact that policymakers have not prescribed clear endpoints to when they are going to withdraw these measures. I think parents are willing to tolerate masks in schools, recognizing it’s very disruptive to children if there is an end date to it, if it’s clearly prescribed, when we’re going to use these masks and when we’re going to withdraw them, so they don’t disrupt two years of a child’s socialization and school activities. So, I think policymakers stepping in and saying, look, we’re going to put an end point on this when prevalence declines to a certain level and in sticking to it is very prudent. But to do it in a setting of the peak of this epidemic, I think puts a difficulty on schools that have based their mitigation around the use of masks.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What’s that benchmark in your mind?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, the benchmark we prescribed last summer was around 10 cases per 100,000 people per day when we withdraw all mitigation. I think you can lean in and prescribe a higher benchmark when it comes to children in schools because the first thing that we should do is try to withdraw these measures in the school setting. If you’re going to implement masks among adults in congregate settings in a township, you want to lean in and try to withdraw it in the schools first and try to preserve as much of that environment for learning as you can.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Fauci raised a lot of hopes this week for parents of young children like me, whose kids aren’t yet eligible for vaccines. He said for children under five, you may see a vaccine available in the next month or so you’ve been saying sometime between April and June. Which is it?
DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, I think a month is probably premature to remember the reason why this was extended was because the vaccines in the clinical trial that Pfizer did – I’m on the board of Pfizer as you know. Pfizer tested a low dose in the children. They tested a number of different doses and chose the lowest possible dose because at a lower dose, you’re going to have less reactogenicity, less vaccine related side effects like fevers at injection site reaction. You want to make sure the vaccine is very tolerable in young kids, but probably because of that low dose, we saw less vaccine effectiveness. There were more infections in the children who were vaccinated than what we saw in a comparable group of 16 to 25 year olds. So, the decision was made by regulators working with Pfizer to extend that trial to look at a third dose to see if that third dose restored the efficacy in the setting of Omicron, where the vaccines are providing some protection against infection about 50 percent a year. You’re 50 percent less likely to get infected with Omicron if you’re fully vaccinated with a booster. The primary utility of the vaccines, nonetheless, is the protection against severe disease hospitalization. And in that regard, getting any vaccine into young kids probably is going to afford them a measure of protection by getting baseline immunity to them. So, any reconsideration of the vaccine timeline right now by regulators is probably based on that. But I think even if the FDA were to reconsider the approval of the vaccine, you’re looking at a timeline when this would get pushed at best, perhaps to into late March, because you’d have to re-adjudicate the data having to add comp to get the vaccine out into the supply chain. By the time that happens, I think you’re looking at a March date, maybe late March. So I don’t think this is something that’s going to happen in the next month. Right now, Pfizer and the FDA looking very closely at the data that’s accrued to see if they can make a decision around this.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll still have to wait know doctor, because this is so highly transmissible. This Omicron variant, there are a lot of people who are coming back from infection. How vulnerable or protected are they? Because I’m getting the sense that people think they’re bulletproof.
DR. GOTTLIEB: Yeah, look, what we’ve seen from the data is that if you get infected with any one of these variants, you probably have a period of immunity that’s quite robust. We don’t know how long it is, but you have a period of immunity that’s quite robust and you probably have as good, if not better immunity against that subsequent variant as if you were just vaccinated and never infected. So, people who are infected with Delta probably have a pretty robust immunity against Delta, and perhaps it’s as good, if not better than if they were just vaccinated, never infected with Delta. But what we notice is the vaccines provide the broadest possible immunity, so people with Omicron might have good protection against Omicron. They probably don’t have as good protection against Delta.
MARGARET BRENNAN: OK, which is why these mutations in these new variants are something to watch. Thank you very much, doctor. Coming up next, a closer look at what some Americans are thinking about COVID and the economy.