Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump until 2019, was one of the first experts to call out the slow development of COVID-19 testing in the United States.
Now the prescient Gottlieb is sounding the alarm again, and Americans ought to take heed. This time, it's about a new, more transmissible variant of the COVID virus. It has sent cases surging in Britain and could do the same on this side of the Atlantic.
"As current epidemic surge peaks, we may see 3-4 weeks of declines in new cases but then new variant will take over. It'll double in prevalence about every week,'' said Gottlieb in a grim Twitter thread on Sunday. "It'll change the game and could mean we have persistent high infection through spring until we vaccinate enough people."
The statement was especially noteworthy because of who Gottlieb was replying to — U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. Apparently trying to boost morale, Adams had pointed to a modest recent national decline in COVID hospitalizations and asked Americans to stay the course for another "rough" two to three weeks.
The reality is that a longer haul could loom in Minnesota and elsewhere as the virus circulates, and although the new United Kingdom strain doesn't appear to cause more severe illness, it could be up to 70% more transmissible, according to a Jan. 5 report in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal.
Infectious disease experts are also monitoring other variants. While the new COVID vaccines appear to be effective against the U.K. strain and others, vaccine supplies remain limited. There's a potential for the U.K. variant to spread faster than people can be immunized.
That's risky when COVID is still circulating at high levels in many countries, including the United States. The national seven-day average for new cases has ticked down from a pandemic peak of 259,564 on Jan. 8, but this metric is still very high — 218,971 as of Sunday, according to the New York Times COVID tracker. A sudden rise in cases would strain health care systems already struggling with care capacity or oxygen shortages in parts of the country.
Federal health officials are also sounding the alarm about the U.K. strain, warning late last week that it could become the "dominant source of infection" in six to eight weeks, the Times reported. The variant has been detected in multiple U.S. states, including Minnesota. Earlier this month, the state Health Department reported that five people from four Twin Cities counties had been infected with it.
While the Upper Midwest's late fall and early winter COVID surge has ebbed, the declining case numbers carry no guarantee against this region becoming a hot spot again. The U.K. variant's risks add urgency to rolling out existing vaccine supplies more efficiently in Minnesota and elsewhere and finding new ways to produce more. President-elect Joe Biden's team will need to innovate and move quickly.
But the responsibility to act doesn't just lie with the new administration or vaccine manufacturers. Individuals continue to have a vital role in halting COVID transmission, and there is still a window of opportunity for responsible decisions — masking, distancing and avoiding risky settings — to slow the new variant's spread.
Said Gottlieb: "We need to buy time while we ... vaccinate."