Gottlieb warns of potential for new outbreaks fueled by New York virus variant

Washington — Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), warned that a worrying coronavirus variant could be fueling new outbreaks in New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the early days of the pandemic.

“You’re seeing a lot of infection surging in pockets of New York City. What we don’t understand with 1.526 is whether or not people are being reinfected with it and whether or not people who might have been vaccinated are now getting infected with it,” Gottlieb said Sunday on “Face the Nation,” referring to B.1.526, the scientific name for the variant first detected in New York.

Gottlieb said that the B.1.526 variant is concerning because it carries a mutation found in another variant first detected in South Africa, B.1.351, which could allow it to reinfect those who have previously contracted COVID-19 or who have since been vaccinated against the virus.

“The question is whether 1.526 is responsible for some of the increases that we’re seeing in New York right now and whether this is the beginning of a new outbreak inside the city,” stated Gottlieb. 

In New York, Gottlieb said virus variants are known to account for 50% of new infections, with B.1.526 being the most prevalent strain. He urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to step in and help the city health officials sequence virus samples to get a better understanding of how the variant is spreading.

“We’re just not very good right now at collecting the cases and linking it back to the clinical experience. So we need to step in much more aggressively and start sequencing cases, especially people who report that they either were previously vaccinated or already had COVID,” the former FDA commissioner said.

Gottlieb said the CDC should encourage doctors to come forward and report potential cases of patients who had previously had COVID-19 becoming infected yet again.

“We don’t know that’s happening. But anecdotally, some doctors are reporting that now and that could potentially explain why you’re seeing an upsurge in cases,” he said. “It could just be that, you know, 1.526 and B.1.1.7 is becoming more prevalent and that’s responsible in and of itself. But you want to make sure that it’s not reinfecting people.”

According to John Hopkins University, the testing positivity rate in the state of New York stands at 3.3% over the past month, although Gottlieb noted that testing has slowed and positivity rates are as high as 15% in certain parts of New York City. The state has had an average of 6,337 new daily infections over the past week.  

New York state has administered more than 7.4 million coronavirus vaccine doses. Roughly 2.4 million people have been fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins, representing about 12.6% of the state’s population. 

Nationwide, Gottlieb said the growing number of vaccinations, as well as immunity among those who have had COVID-19, should be enough to prevent a “fourth wave” of infections.

“I think the fact that we have so much prior infection, 120 million Americans have been infected with this virus, the fact that we’ve now vaccinated, we’ve gotten one shot in at least 70 million Americans, even if you account for the fact that maybe about 30% of the people being vaccinated previously had COVID, we’re talking about some form of protective immunity in about 55% of the population,” Gottlieb said. “So there’s enough of a backstop here that I don’t think you’re going to see a fourth surge.”

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