Ex-FDA chief urges US to stay united in coronavirus fight

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The U.S. does not currently have the coronavirus testing capacity to ease up on social distancing efforts, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Thursday. 

If health officials “knew where this virus was spreading, different parts of the country could take different measures and relax some of these measures based on an assumption and knowledge that the virus really wasn’t spreading in their community,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “But I think every part of the country really is at risk right now. People who say, ‘Well it’s not spreading in my community,’ probably don’t know.”

The argument that certain communities and possibly states could attempt to restart their economy sooner than others is “eminently reasonable,” said Gottlieb, a CNBC contributor who sits on the boards of Pfizer and biotech company Illumina. A dense urban environment is not the same as a rural community, he said. But right now, he stressed, “we don’t know where the risk is.” 

Additional testing and contact tracing efforts are critical in obtaining the information needed to “move the economy forward,”  Dr. Robert Bollinger of Johns Hopkins University told CNBC earlier this week. He pointed to contact tracing programs in Massachusetts and Maryland as examples that need to be adopted more broadly in the country. 

The strategy involves contacting everyone who tested positive for COVID-19 and then contacting those with whom they’ve had close interaction in recent days. It allows governments to more precisely understand who has been infected and who hasn’t. 

Gottlieb has previously said parts of life in the U.S. will not be able to return to normal by the fall unless there’s an effective therapeutic.

He said Thursday he believes the U.S. could have one developed by that time. “But we’re not going to have the capacity to produce it at scale to give it to the millions of people who might be eligible for it, who might need it.”

In the absence of such a drug and expanded testing capacity, Gottlieb said he thinks it is “unfortunate” people are trying to “circumvent what is clearly working, which is the mitigation steps that we’re taking right now.” 

“We need to be very careful that we don’t pull back some of these measures too soon,” he said. “We’re going to be coming out of this towards the end of April, we’re going to be transitioning in May.”

“I think the country should try to stick on a coherent and uniform timeline here,” he concluded. 

CNBC’s Will Feuer contributed to this report. 

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