Ex-FDA Chief Expects U.S. Coronavirus Cases to Jump Rapidly
Travelers wear protective masks while walking through Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. (Photographer: Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg)

Ex-FDA Chief Expects U.S. Coronavirus Cases to Jump Rapidly

(Bloomberg) -- There may be “hundreds or low thousands” of coronavirus cases in the U.S. that haven’t been reported yet and “community spread” is under way in at least two and possibly four states, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

A treatment is likely to be available by September or October, with a vaccine a “much longer way off,” said Scott Gottlieb, who departed as President Donald Trump’s FDA commissioner in April.

Gottlieb spoke Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” a day after the nation recorded its first coronavirus fatality and as Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials defended the administration’s response.

“We need to get those cases diagnosed and identified so we can start getting people quarantined and into treatment to prevent more spread,” said Gottlieb, now a special partner at New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm that invests in the health-care and biotech sectors.

Pence, speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” declined to directly answer whether it was fair to say the U.S. will hear of thousands of new cases before long.

“I don’t want to put numbers on it,” said Pence, who was named by Trump last week as head of the White House coronavirus task force. “But there will be more cases.” Separately, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Pence said Trump would respect any decision taken by a local school, for example, to close over coronavirus.

Meetings Scrapped

Such moves, which could increase the nation’s sense of dread over the virus, haven’t yet happened. But several large gatherings in the U.S. -- most recently, the CERAWeek energy conference planned for Houston this month -- have been scrapped, and other cancellations are under consideration.

Pence and Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, defended Trump’s characterization of coronavirus as a Democratic “hoax,” a comment made at a campaign rally in South Carolina a day before the nation logged its first virus-related death.

“He’s talking about the partisan sniping that we’re seeing,” Azar said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Cclinical trials on a vaccine could start in six weeks, although a vaccine “will go through the process and will likely not be available for this season,” Pence said. “We are clearing the red tape out of the way.”

Testing Capacity

Gottlieb said the U.S. would have the capacity by the end of this week “to diagnose probably 10,000 people a day or screen 10,000 people a day with the public health labs.” Bringing academic labs into the mix will expand that capacity further, he said.

Community spread of the virus -- meaning cases for which the source of infection is unknown -- appears to be occurring in Washington state, California, and perhaps Illinois and Oregon, Gottlieb said.

The World Health Organization raised its global risk level for the virus as cases emerged up and down the U.S. West Coast, including the first patient in the country to die. Washington’s governor issued an emergency proclamation to coordinate the state’s response.

The U.S. has expanded travel restrictions to include any foreign national who has visited Iran in the past two weeks and Americans also are being advised not to travel to the areas of Italy and South Korea that are most affected by the virus.

Trump on Saturday didn’t rule out more stringent measures on the U.S.-Mexico border, although Azar on Sunday walked back that threat somewhat. Right now Mexico has very few cases,” he said. “That would take a real change in the epidemiological profile and the risk to the United States.”

‘Ramping Up’

Trump talked down the risk of the virus last week amid a bruising market selloff and rapidly rising global caseload. The benchmark S&P 500 index dropped 11% for the week, its most since October 2008, to hit a five-month low.

The Trump administration’s response to coronavirus has been hit by missteps, including problems developing and distributing a test for the infection and discordant public messages.

An initial test for the virus developed by the CDC was plagued by technical problems and has been in short supply. And federal health workers processing Americans evacuated from the outbreak’s epicenter in the Chinese city of Wuhan lacked adequate training and protective gear, according to a whistle-blower complaint.

“We’re ramping up testing,” Azar said. “We now have 75,000 tests available out there in the United States. And over the next week that will expand radically on top of 75,000 tests available.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.