Delta Variant Surge in States With Low Vaccine Rates, Says Ex-FDA Chief

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said U.S. states with low vaccination rates had experienced an "upsurge" of infections of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

The variant—first identified in India and now the dominant strain in the United Kingdom—bears an increased transmissibility rate and has spread to over 80 countries, according to the World Health Organization. Experts have found the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines to be effective against the Delta variant, or B.1.617.2.

Its spread within the U.S., so far confirmed in 41 states, comes as President Joe Biden's vaccination drive appears likely to fall short of its target of 70 percent of adults at least partially inoculated by July 4.

During a Sunday appearance on CBS Face the Nation, Gottlieb, who also sits on Pfizer's board, was asked by host John Dickerson about the Delta variant appearing to "be hitting in areas, not surprisingly, where people have not been vaccinated."

"Yeah, I think that that's right," Gottlieb said. "It doesn't necessarily appear more pathogenic, meaning more dangerous, but it's infecting people more easily and it's starting to become very prevalent in the U.K. in communities that are unvaccinated."

Gottlieb noted a "wide variance" in vaccination rates across U.S. states. "Some states like Vermont or Connecticut have very high vaccination rates above 80 percent," he said. "Other states are struggling to get to 50 percent."

"So Connecticut, for example, where I am, shows no upsurge of infection, but Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri show very substantial upsurges of infections," he continued. "And that's based entirely on how much population-wide immunity you have based on vaccination."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 15 updated its classification of the Delta variant as a "variant of concern." On Friday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky told CNN she anticipated it would become the predominant variant in the U.S.

As the White House's self-imposed July 4 deadline approaches, CDC data shows more than 65 percent of U.S. adults received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. This represents an almost 10-percentage-point increase in doses administered since Biden announced the target on May 4, when over 56 percent of adults were at least partially vaccinated.

According to government data compiled by The New York Times, Vermont, Hawaii and Massachusetts top state-wide vaccination rates at over 80 percent of adults receiving at least one dose. Mississippi is at the bottom of the list at 45 percent, followed by Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both at 48 percent.

Gottlieb called Biden's target a "stretch goal" that he believes the administration will miss "by a little."

"I think as a practical matter, from a public health standpoint, it's not going to have an impact whether we hit 68 percent or 70 percent," he told CBS. "The reality is we are vaccinating a large portion of the American population."

"We have to remember where we started and where we are right now," he continued. "It took us a full month to vaccinate, to fully vaccinate the 1.34 million residents of nursing homes."

"In the next five months, we vaccinated 300 million people. We delivered 300 million vaccines. So it's a substantial achievement."

Scott Gottlieb testifies at House hearing
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, then commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing concerning federal efforts to combat the opioid crisis, October 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images