The new chief executive of UnitedHealth Group expressed optimism Wednesday over pandemic trends while telling investors they should not expect big strategic changes at the Minnetonka-based health care company.

Andrew Witty was named CEO last month in a sudden shift with the retirement of previous chief executive, David Wichmann.

As the pandemic surged last spring, Witty took a seven-month leave to help the World Health Organization's program to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines before returning to the company in December.

"As I sit here today, while there could be things like extreme mutant variants which might change the course, I think I'm more optimistic now than I have been for a very, very long time in terms of what's happening in terms of the pandemic," Witty said at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference.

"By the middle of the year, I think there's no reason why the more advanced countries which have had access to large numbers of vaccines won't be in a position to start to bring this thing very much under control," he said. "It won't go completely — there's still risk of … a difficult surprise. But all else equal, I think we're in a much better position and the question then becomes how quickly can really the broader global population get into safe harbor. That will be important for all of us."

UnitedHealth Group operates UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation's largest health insurer, as well as Optum, a fast-growing division for health care services including patient care, health care data and pharmaceutical benefits management. Witty started at UnitedHealth Group in March 2018 as chief executive at Optum, which for years has grown at a faster rate than the company's health insurance business.

The drive for "synergy" between UnitedHealthcare and Optum remains a top strategic goal, Witty said Wednesday, along with developing data products for health care providers and digital tools for consumers.

"Don't expect any sharp rights or sharp lefts in terms of strategic direction of United," he said. "I think we have a very clear strategy of where we want to take this company."

Over the past decade, UnitedHealth Group has become a significant health care provider in South America. That includes a large insurance, hospital and clinic business in Brazil, which is currently struggling with a surge of pandemic illnesses.

Witty did not specifically mention the Brazil business, but said he thinks global governments in the coming years might turn to Optum for help providing health care that's high quality and also efficient. In the wake of the pandemic, those governments will be facing increased pressure to control deficits, Witty added.

"I think we're extremely careful about going beyond the U.S. kind of mother-ship space, because there's such a big job to do in the U.S. and there is so much value that we can deliver for our clients as well as our shareholders," Witty said. "But we are definitely looking internationally and I would hope and expect that you'd see us maybe demonstrate that over the next year or two."

UnitedHealth Group has made it a focus to help employees and subscribers get vaccinated, Witty said, noting that almost one-third of the company's clinicians have received vaccine. For health plan members and the general public, the company launched more than a month ago an online locator to find vaccine resources.

"While we cannot guarantee all sites with vaccines are included, we are updating the site as new information becomes available," the company said in a statement.

UnitedHealth Group shares were little changed Wednesday, closing at $349.60, down $2.36 on the day.

Before coming to UnitedHealth Group, Witty was chief executive and director of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, which is based in the United Kingdom.

From April to December 2020, he served as a global envoy for the World Health Organization's COVID-19 efforts while also advising the U.K. Government Vaccine Taskforce.

"I think the foundations which have been built and then extended over the last many years are absolutely the right kinds of assets giving us the right kind of connections and the right kind of networks," Witty said. That's true "both on the insurance/payer side as well as obviously on the care delivery side, and then the data platforms providing fantastic value-add opportunity."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck