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Gottlieb expects new virus variant to dominate U.S. infections in 5 weeks

Melissa Quinn
·3 min read
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Washington — Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb predicted Sunday that the new variant of the coronavirus discovered in the United Kingdom will be the dominant strain in the U.S. in a matter of weeks.

In an interview with "Face the Nation," Gottlieb said the new variant is roughly 0.5% of all infections nationwide but said that likely will double each week. 

"That's the experience from other countries and that's the experience we've seen so far in the United States," he told "Face the Nation." "So it's 1% now. It'll be 2%, then 4%, then 8%, then 16%, then 32%. So in about five weeks, this is going to start to take over."

Transcript: Dr. Scott Gottlieb on "Face the Nation"

Known as B.1.1.7, the new strain was detected in the U.K. in December and has since spread to more than 30 countries and at least 10 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a report Friday that the variant discovered in the U.K., which is believed to be more transmissible, will be the dominant strain by March. Another variant, known as B.1.351, has also emerged in South Africa

While B.1.351 has not yet been detected in the U.S., Gottlieb said "the bottom line is these strains are already here."

"This really changes the equation, and I think what we're looking at is a relentless strike from this virus heading into the spring, whereas infections really would have started to decline in the spring," he said. "We would have had a quiet spring. We could have persistently high levels of infection in the spring until we finally get enough people vaccinated."

There have been more than 23.7 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and the death toll is nearing 400,000 according to Johns Hopkins University. But Gottlieb echoed a prediction from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden's pick to lead the CDC, that the nation is likely to see 500,000 coronavirus deaths by mid-February. 

"I think tragically, that's right. What we're likely to see is infection start to decline. I think we're seeing it right now. We're seeing a near-term peak in terms of the number of new daily cases," he said. "Now, unfortunately, deaths and hospitalizations will continue to grow over the next two or three weeks because they're a lagging indicator. But we'll see continued declines probably for about four weeks, maybe five weeks until this new variant starts to take over."

Gottlieb has said the new strains and growing death toll underscores the need for the speeding up the pace of administering the coronavirus vaccines.

The incoming Biden administration has set a goal of 100 million vaccinations in Mr. Biden's first 100 days in office, and Gottlieb said that goal is achievable. 

"I think the plan that the new administration put out makes a lot of sense," he said. "It's sort of an all-the-above-approach, what we've been talking about, trying to push this through different channels like the big box stores, like pharmacies, trying to set up more federally chartered sites in conjunction with the states."

According to the CDC, there have been more than 31.1 million coronavirus vaccine doses distributed and more than 12.2 million administered.  

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Gottlieb expects new virus variant to dominate infections in U.S. in 5 weeks