U.S. may never reach ‘true herd immunity,’ says Dr. Scott Gottlieb

Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday he believes the United States may struggle to achieve “true herd immunity” to Covid, suggesting there will be coronavirus infections in the years to come.

However, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stressed that new cases alone should not be the metric that gets the greatest focus as more people are vaccinated against Covid.

“I don’t think we should think about achieving herd immunity. I don’t know that we will ever achieve real herd immunity where this virus simply no longer circulates,” said Gottlieb at “Closing Bell”. “I think it will always be circulating at low levels. That should be the goal of keeping virus levels down.”

Gottlieb, who serves on the board of directors at Covid vaccine maker Pfizer, expects the US to make significant strides toward that goal in the coming weeks.

“I think we’ll reach a point this summer where the spread of this virus will be extremely low. We’ll likely see the cases collapse pretty soon sometime in May. We’re already seeing it in parts of the country.” said Gottlieb.

Even so, according to Gottlieb, the US could flatten about 5,000 to 10,000 new coronavirus cases per day this summer, partly due to how commonplace Covid testing has become. “We’re going to see a lot of asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic infections,” he said.

“I think the bottom line is that vaccination is dramatically reducing the susceptibility of the American population, and that’s what we really need to focus on,” said Gottlieb, who headed the FDA in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019.

“We shouldn’t just focus on cases. There will be cases, but we should focus on how many people are hospitalized and get this virus. That will drop dramatically when we introduce the vaccines,” he said.

Public health experts have stressed throughout the pandemic that the more people in a population have immunity protection for a particular virus, the less easily it will spread. While vaccines have been shown to reduce transmission, Gottlieb isn’t the first to point out that achieving permanent herd immunity is likely to be a challenge for Covid.

The Chief Medical Officer of the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has estimated that 75% to 85% of the population vaccinated against Covid would create an “umbrella” of immunity. “That could even protect the vulnerabilities that weren’t vaccinated or where the vaccine wasn’t effective,” he told CNBC in December, shortly after the FDA approved Pfizer’s emergency use of Pfizer.

About 41% of the US population have now received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, and 27.5% are fully vaccinated, according to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC data show that a total of more than 220 million doses were administered.

Gottlieb previously said that the US could theoretically get to a point where Covid, like other diseases like polio and smallpox, will be eradicated. “It is possible. We do not seem ready to do this and take the collective action that is required,” he told CNBC on April 16.

“It will take people who practice a civic virtue to get vaccinated, even if they individually feel low risk of infection,” he said. “Because even if they are at low risk, they can still get and transmit the infection, and you cannot eradicate a disease where you have a significant contingent of people who will continue to catch and transmit it.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC employee and a member of the boards of directors of Pfizer, genetic testing startup Tempus, health technology company Aetion Inc., and biotech company Illumina. He is also co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean’s Healthy Sail Panel.

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