The former chief of the Food and Drug Administration said on Friday he believes the United States is undercounting COVID-19 delta variant infections by a large margin, making it hard to know whether the strain is leading to more hospitalizations and fatalities.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as FDA chief under former President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2019 and is a member of vaccine maker Pfizer’s board, warned the highly contagious delta variant could also be spreading among vaccinated populations who are less concerned about getting tested for the virus after taking the vaccine.
“I think we’re vastly underestimating the level of delta spread right now because I think people who are vaccinated, who might develop some mild symptoms or might develop a breakthrough case, by and large, are not going out and getting tested,” Gottlieb said on CNBC‘s Squawk Box.
“If you’ve been vaccinated and you develop a mild cold right now, you don’t think you have COVID,” the former FDA chief added.
The delta variant has emerged as the most common strain in the U.S. in recent weeks, accounting for 57% of cases reported between June 20 and July 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says vaccinated individuals have a reduced risk of transmitting the disease through asymptomatic spread. “However, the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus,” the agency reported on May 27.
“There’s no clear evidence that this is more pathogenic, that it’s causing more serious infections. It’s clearly more virulent. It’s clearly far more contagious,” Gottlieb said of the delta variant.
More than 79% of people 65 and older are fully vaccinated, and 68% of adults have had at least one vaccine, CDC data show. Gottlieb noted younger people are becoming sick with delta at higher rights because they “remain unvaccinated.”
Despite an uptick in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths reported in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Gottlieb said in a tweet on July 10 that those trends “aren’t increasing at same rate as past waves … reflecting fact that more of most vulnerable are protected through vaccination.”
Although nearly one-third of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated and susceptible to a greater risk of infection, Gottlieb said people who are “worried about COVID have largely been vaccinated.”
“People who remain unvaccinated aren’t worried about the infection and don’t want to be wearing masks either. Now, the bottom line, that means this is just going to spread through the population,” the former FDA chief added.