Dr. Scott Gottlieb says a herd immunity by April estimate is too aggressive, but directionally correct
Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday he believed coronavirus cases in the United States will continue to decline well into the spring and summer, so Americans can ease some pandemic precautions for the time being.
In an interview on Squawk Box, however, the former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration disagreed with the recent Wall Street Journal title, “We’ll Hear Immunity By April.” It was created by Dr. Marty Makary, professor in the medical school at Johns Hopkins University, wrote and has sparked discussions since it was published Thursday.
US Covid cases are down 77% in the past six weeks, Makary notes in the article, claiming the decline is mainly due to the “almost certain” level of natural immunity in the American population. is higher than antibody studies suggest. If you take that into account with the pace of vaccinations, Makary writes: “I assume that Covid will largely be gone by April so that Americans can live normally again.”
Gottlieb said he didn’t “necessarily agree” with some of the numbers Makary used to back up his argument, but added, “I think the feeling is correct.”
Makary writes that around 55% of the people in the country have natural immunity to previous coronavirus infection. While Gottlieb agreed that Johns Hopkins’ confirmed US case number of 28.1 million was an undercount, he told CNBC that about 120 million people – or about 36% of the American population – were infected with the coronavirus throughout the pandemic .
After considering the vaccination data, Gottlieb estimates that around 40% of US citizens currently have antibodies to any previous infection or vaccination – a percentage that will increase as more people are vaccinated. According to the CDC, 43.6 million Americans have received at least one dose of Moderna and Pfizer’s two-shot Covid vaccines since receiving emergency clearance from the FDA in December.
“If you reach 40% or 50% of the population with some form of protective immunity, you don’t have herd immunity, but you have enough immunity in the population that it does [virus] just don’t transfer it so quickly, “said Gottlieb.
“I think as we get closer to the warm weather, as we vaccinate more of the population, and given that at least a third of Americans have had this, I think infection rates will drop dramatically over the course of spring and summer,” said Gottlieb.
The Chief Medical Officer of the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, previously said that 75% to 85% of the population would need to develop immunity in order to create a “protective shield”. CDC officials also recently said that if a rapidly spreading virus variant such as B117, first reported in the UK, became the dominant strain in the US, more than 85% of people would need to be insured to achieve something called herd immunity
The presence of contagious virus variants means that some parts of the United States have higher rates of infection this summer “than would otherwise have been the case,” added Gottlieb. “But I don’t think it changes the entire trajectory.”
If this trend continues and if the coming months are in a “low prevalence environment”, Gottlieb expects children to be able to safely take part in the summer camp, for example. “I think people are going to go out this summer and do a lot of things, a lot of pent-up demand for consumer spending,” he said.
“I think in the fall we have to take certain precautions, but we will be doing things again. Then when we get into the deep winter it starts to circulate again … I think, coming in December, maybe we pull back”, said Gottlieb. “That doesn’t mean we have shutdowns and will do what we did [past] December but it means we may not be hosting holiday celebrations. Board meetings in December may be zoom rather than face-to-face. “
Gottlieb stressed that he believes the US recovery from the pandemic will not be a “linear progression” with coronavirus risk steadily decreasing month by month. The winter months could be tougher as it is a respiratory pathogen, he warned. “As soon as winter returns in 2021, 2022, we have to take certain precautions. I think if there is a normal time in the next 12 months, it will probably be this spring and summer.”
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC employee and a member of the boards of directors of Pfizer, genetic testing startup Tempus, healthcare technology company Aetion, and biotech company Illumina. He is also co-chair of the Healthy Sail Panel of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean.