Former FDA chief says another 'dramatically different' virus strain is unlikely after Omicron

Covid infections are falling in the U.S. for the first time since the Omicron variant erupted at the end of 2021, with cases falling at least 10 percent in over the past seven days as former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Scott Gottlieb saying that there is hope on the horizon that infections will drop even lower and that the virus will enter an endemic state in the near future. 

Gottlieb’s predictions are the opposite of what Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, predicted during a conference earlier this week – when he said there was potential for another resistant strain to emerge in the future. 

The U.S. recorded 721,651 new cases on Monday, a steep fall from the 1.364 million cases reported last Monday. America’s new daily case average has also dropped 10 percent over the past seven days, from 766,939 to 684,457. 

A analysis of Johns Hopkins University data found there were 717,874 new cases recorded between midnight Monday and midnight Tuesday. Monday is often the day when reported case counts are highest as lagging figures from the weekend are finally reported.

Last week’s 1.364 million cases recorded on Monday was the highest single day case total the nation ever recorded. This week’s total was affected by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, where many local governments and municipalities were closed and did not fully report cases. It is likely that some cases shift to Tuesday this week instead.  

But Covid cases have been plunging for days in those states hardest hit by Omicron when it first arrived in the US in early December, suggesting the latest phase pandemic could really be drawing to a close. 

Recent trends in case growth, combined with the more mild nature of the Omicron variant compared to its predecessors, has many hopeful that Covid will soon become endemic. If it reaches endemic stage, humans will be able to live normal lives with controlled circulation of the virus – similar to the flu. 

Gottlieb, who is also a current board member at Pfizer, told CNBC’s The Squawk Box that unless the virus dramatically shifts from its current state, it will likely enter an endemic state in the foreseeable future.

’I think the base case is that this signals the end of the pandemic phase of this virus,’ Gottlieb said.

His claim is backed up by figures coming out of the UK and South Africa. 

In the UK, cases are continuing to decline after a massive surge struck the nation last month. The country recorded 84,429 new cases on Monday, and the daily case average has fallen to around the 100,000 mark – and will likely only fall further in the coming days.

South Africa is now recording less than 5,000 new COVID cases per day after reaching the heights of more than 23,000 per day only a few weeks ago.    

In order for Covid to continue as a pandemic, another major shift in the virus’s nature would have to occur. He said that this type of dramatic shift would be unlikely, though it many experts did not see a highly transmissible, vaccine resistant, variant like Omicron emerging after Delta.

‘The worrisome scenario is that you get something that’s divergent evolution like Omicron did. Something that’s dramatically different than the variants that are circulating right now,’ he said. 

‘Most people think that’s unlikely to happen but most people felt that was unlikely to happen before and that Delta would be the dominant lineage, and then Omicron came along, it had been mutating in a sequestered pocket somewhere and re-emerged into the human circulation.’

On the other hand, Fauci warned at a virtual even that a there is potential for a new strain of Covid to emerge that evades the natural immunity provided by previous Covid infection, putting the world even further away from the endemic stage.

‘We’ve never seen a coronavirus undergo shift, where you’ve seen a dramatic change in the virus itself and the strain of the virus. What you’ve seen is these viruses undergo drift,’ Gottlieb said, explaining how these new variant emerge.

‘And that’s in fact what we’ve seen. We’ve seen this virus continue to drift and undergo gradual evolution, and that’s how we’ve gotten these new variants.’

Dr Scott Gottlieb (pictured), former director of the FDA, said Tuesday that he does not expect Covid to make another major shift beyond Omicron, and the endemic stage of the virus could be around the corner

Dr Scott Gottlieb (pictured), former director of the FDA, said Tuesday that he does not expect Covid to make another major shift beyond Omicron, and the endemic stage of the virus could be around the corner

Whenever a pathogen jumps from one host to another, it begins to replicate itself. Every time it has another chance to replicate, there is another chance a virus will slightly mutate. A vast majority of mutations individually do not have any impact on the science of the virus. When mutations begin to stack on each other, though, they start to caused problems.

The Omicron strain is the mutated version of Covid discovered yet, with more than 50 mutations, including dozens on the spike protein. Its mutations have allowed for it to rapidly transmit around the world and evade protection provided by the existing vaccines.

Variants usually come from a base lineage, and continue to mutate from there. Gottlieb expects Omicron to become that base lineage, but is not totally discounting Delta.

‘We’re gonna have a dominant strain and future mutations will occur within that lineage and Omicron may be it. It may be Delta. It’s unclear,’ he said. 

‘I think the conventional wisdom right now is that its likely to be Omicron and that we’re gonna be formulating vaccines against that variant going forward.’

Either way, Gottlieb still expects the virus to evolve – just as the flu does – in a situation that could require the use of regular Covid shots to control the virus.

‘[The virus is] gonna continue to evolve too, in ways that try to partially evade out immune system, and its probably going to achieve some new fitness level and that’s why we’re gonna have to re-inoculate the population at least for a period of time,’ he said. 

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, warned that Covid becoming endemic may not be as likely as many say at the Davos Agenda virtual event Monday.

The nation’s Covid czar warned that a new variant could emerge that makes ‘natural vaccination’ – or immunity via previous infection – ineffective. If that does happen, then humans will not be able to enter an endemic stage of Covid. 

His warning runs counter to the positive predictions coming from Gottlieb and from some officials in the UK who believe that the virus could have a ‘flu-type’ relationship with people by the end of the year based on its current spread.

Dr Anthony Fauci (pictured) warned that even if Omicron - which has caused a massive surge in new cases worldwide but is not as severe or deadly as its predecessors - is the final strain of COVID, it will likely become endemic

Dr Anthony Fauci (pictured) warned that even if Omicron – which has caused a massive surge in new cases worldwide but is not as severe or deadly as its predecessors – is the final strain of COVID, it will likely become endemic

‘I would hope that that’s the case. But that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response of the prior variant,’ Fauci said. 

Fauci has previously made grim projections about new COVID variants, and was ultimately proven correct about a variant like Omicron emerging. 

In August, when the Delta variant was first rising in the US, Fauci warned that with transmission of Covid so rampant it was likely that a vaccine resistant variant would eventually emerge.

Months later, than variant did come about, when South African health officials discovered the highly infectious Omicron variant in late November.

He fears that there is a chance another variant emerges that has mutated in a way that allows it to get around protection provided by recovering from Omicron. 

COVID becoming endemic as a result of Omicron has become a common theory among health experts and officials, and has served as a beacon of hope for the population suffering through the recent surge.

Omicron is burning through people so quickly, causing daily COVID cases to hit records almost everywhere in the world, that it could soon run out of people to infect. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Omicron accounts for 98 percent of active cases in the US, almost entirely pushing out the much more severe Delta variant.

Add that COVID booster shots have been found to be effective against the variant and the number of people left for the variant to infect is quickly running out.

Once it does burn out, infections will continue at a lower rate, and due to the mild nature of the variant and regular availability of vaccines in the developed world it should be possible to control the virus. 

Fauci said reaching that level is what would be needed for COVID to be shifted from a pandemic to endemic.

‘Control means you have it present but it is present at a level that does not disrupt society,’ he said. ‘That’s my definition of what endemicity would mean.’ 

At this point, life would basically be back to normal. Lockdown measures, masking and vaccine mandates would no longer be needed even though the virus is still circulating.

‘It’s not going to be that you’ll eliminate this disease completely. But hopefully, it will be at such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our normal social, economic and other interactions with each other,’ Fauci said. 

‘To me, that’s what the new normal is.’ 

Whether Covid develops into an endemic or not is still in the air, but in the short term, America’s Covid situation is starting to look better by the day. 

Covid cases are finally on the decline in New York. The Empire state was hit hard and fast by the Omicron variant last month, with cases jumping ten-fold in a matter of weeks. After peaking at 40,000 new cases per day in early January, the state is now recording a 27 percent decrease in new cases over the past two weeks. 

The state was once the leader in infection rate in the U.S., but has now fallen out of the top 15 states with 249 of every 100,000 residents testing positive for the virus daily. 

Neighboring New Jersey, which was also hit hard by the new variant, has seen a similar dip in its caseload. The Garden state has recorded a 28 percent drop in new cases over the past 14 days, the biggest drop of any state in America. Like New York, New Jersey experienced a massive seven-fold case increase when Omicron first arrived in the U.S. early last month. It seems that the surge is finally starting to burn out.

Others states that were once among the nationwide leaders in case growth are seeing daily cases start to slow as well, like Illinois, Maryland, Florida and Georgia. 

Declining case growth nationwide is providing even more evidence that the Omicron-fueled surge is starting to reach its peak. While the MLK day holiday also affected case change counts as well, many states were already trending downwards.

Two-week case averages are generally the most stable figures and can smooth out single day outliers. Over the past 14 days, overall cases in the U.S. are up 40 percent, though that figure is expected to decline further in the coming days as many previous Covid hotspots in the U.S. are now seeing case counts trend in the right direction.

As of Tuesday morning, Johns Hopkins reports that the U.S. has logged 66,456,516 cases and 851,730 deaths since the pandemic first began. That means there has been one reported Covid case for every five Americans so far – with the figure likely being even higher due to the mass underreporting of cases and test shortages that have been a problem during different waves of the pandemic. 

Georgia, once one of the states leading the south in Covid case growth – mainly fueled by outbreaks in the greater Atlanta area – is now only recording an 18 percent increase in cases over the past two weeks. The Peach state has also dropped all the way to into the bottom five states in infection rate, with only 159 of every 100,000 residents testing positive for the virus every day. 

Maryland is also among the states with the lowest infection rate in America. The state is recording 155 cases per every 100,000 residents, the fourth lowest mark in the U.S. Maryland was among the case leaders earlier this month, but a 21 percent decline in cases over the past two weeks has turned the state’s Covid situation around.

Outbreaks in the Chicago area placed Illinois among the U.S. leaders in case growth earlier this month as well, but the city, and state as a whole, are now showing signs that the Omicron variant is starting to burn out their as well.

Cook county, which includes Chicago, was recording just under 10,000 cases per day as of January 14 – the last time it reported cases – a near 25 percent decrease from the 13,000 cases it was recording as of January 9.

Cases in the state are up 28 percent over the past two weeks, though that figure has massively declined in recent days, and is likely to drop further as the variant continues to run out of people to infect.  

Rhode Island remains the national leader in infection rate by a large margin despite the Ocean State’s high vaccination rate. The state is recording 457 new daily cases for every 100,000 residents, the only state with a rate of over 400. It is also tied for the national lead with 78 percent of its population fully vaccinated.

Vermont, which is tied with Rhode Island with a 78 percent vaccination rate, also finds itself among the national leaders in infection rate. Every day, 320 of every 100,000 Vermonters are testing positive for Covid – the third highest rate in America.

The Omicron variant was spreading rapidly across the UK just last week, with many areas recording more than 1,600 cases per day

Daily Covid cases are not declining nationwide in the UK, with once-hotspots seeing the virus finally recede after the December surge.

The Omicron variant was spreading rapidly across the UK just last week, with many areas recording more than 1,600 cases per day (right). Daily Covid cases are not declining nationwide in the UK, with once-hotspots seeing the virus finally recede after the December surge (left).

SAGE modeler predicts UK will have a ‘flu-type’ relationship with Covid by the end of the year

Britain could have a ‘flu-type’ relationship with Covid by the end of 2022, one of the Government’s scientific advisers said today.

Dr Mike Tildesley, who sits on an influential modelling sub-group of SAGE, warned the country ‘was not there yet’ because hospitalization levels from the virus are still ‘relatively high’ — despite being just a fraction of those seen in previous waves.

But he predicted even milder variants than Omicron would emerge over the course of the year, bolstering the UK’s wall of immunity and creating an even bigger disconnect between infection numbers and hospitalizations and deaths. 

Dr Tildesley, a modeler at Warwick University, said the data suggested the pandemic was ‘turning around’ following the Omicron wave, meaning ministers could start discussing what ‘living with’ Covid would be like.

Infections are now in freefall across the country, with MailOnline analysis suggesting outbreaks are now shrinking in 96 per cent of England’s 7,000 neighborhoods. Hospitalizations also appear to be trending downwards. 

Education Secretary and former vaccine tsar Nadhim Zahawi today described the figures as ‘promising’, and a sign ‘Plan B’ restrictions could be lifted before the end of this month because the country is set to be in a ‘much better place’ within weeks. 

The optimistic comments came as a World Health Organization expert today said there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for Britain amid plummeting case numbers and stable hospital rates.  

Wisconsin has joined the national leaders as well, posting the second highest infection rate with 396 of every 100,00 residents of the Badger state testing positive daily. Delaware (314 of every 100,000 residents testing positive daily), Utah (304) and Massachusetts (303) make up the rest of the national leaders. All of these states have fully vaccinated more than 60 percent of their populations.

New Mexico is now the national leader in Covid deaths per every 100,000 residents, and the number of states recording more than one per every 100,000 residents every day has increased back to eight. The state is averaging 1.1 deaths per every 100,000 residents.

Indiana held the dubios honor over the past week, and remains second with 1.09 deaths per 100,000 residents. The mortality rate in Maryland and Michigan – states that were previously among the leaders before experiencing declines in recent months – have risen again as well, with both logging 1.08 deaths per every 100,000 residents daily.

Ohio (1.04 daily deaths per 100,000 residents), Pennsylvania (1.06), New Jersey (1.01) and New York (1) are among the national leaders as well.

Across the pond, Covid figures are continuing to shrink in the UK.  The UK Health Security Agency reported Tuesday that 96 percent of neighborhoods in the country are reporting a decline of infections since January 11. 

The sharp decrease in cases comes only weeks after the country was overwhelmed by the Omicron variant. The European nations quickly emerged as the worst struck nation by the new variant last month, and its capital city, London, became a global Covid hotspot.

It comes amid growing optimism among the Government, its own scientific advisers and even the World Health Organization, who say the UK is on the cusp of taming Covid.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a modeler for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – a UK government organization that advises in times of crisis – predicted yesterday that the country would have a flu-like relationship with Covid by the end of the year. 

He said the country has almost reached a point where ministers could start discussing what ‘living with’ Covid would be like.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, said there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for Britain amid plummeting case numbers and stable hospital rates.

France’s record Covid wave seems to be cresting as well, with the European nation finally seeing rampant case growth slow down in recent days. The country is averaging 286,000 cases per day, a ten percent increase over the 262,000 cases being recorded daily a week ago.

For comparison, over the previous week, cases had increased by 63 percent.

Denmark was one of the first countries to suffer an Omicron-fueled Covid outbreak. The nation saw cases rapidly increase, and officials in the state instituted partial lockdown measures to counter the spread of the virus. Over the weekend, restrictions were lifted, signaling the nation is more comfortable with Omicron at the moment.

The country is averaging 23,000 new cases per day as on Monday, a record for the Nordic nation. Denmark has never suffered a massive surge of Covid cases, with its record being around 35 per day last winter. Currently, the nation is recording ten deaths from the virus daily.


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