Gottlieb says vaccines still effective at preventing serious illness

Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said COVID-19 vaccines still provide strong protection against serious disease and death, even as new research shows vaccinated individuals can spread the worrying Delta variant.

Gottlieb noted that the COVID-19 vaccines were primarily intended to significantly reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Unvaccinated individuals account for the overwhelming majority of new hospitalizations and deaths.

“That premise is still fully intact,” said Gottlieb. “We still see that these vaccines are doing a very good job preventing symptomatic disease, preventing hospitalization and death.” 

The vaccine was also intended to reduce both asymptomatic and symptomatic infection, thereby reducing the spread of transmission and making the vaccines an important public health tool in combating the pandemic.

“That premise is still intact,” Gottlieb says. “But what we see with the Delta variant is it’s diminished. There is more evidence that people are likely to spread the Delta variant even after vaccination than they were likely to spread the other variants. But it’s still a very small percentage of people.”

The Delta variant, scientifically known as B.1.617.2, can spread more easily than other variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

Last week, the agency released sobering data indicating that vaccinated individuals could still spread the Delta variant. The study found that three-quarters of new cases during a recent outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, were among those who were fully vaccinated.

The CDC said the finding that fully vaccinated people can also spread the virus is what prompted the agency’s swift change in mask guidance last week. 

“We know that there [are] more people with this Delta variant who’ve been vaccinated who are probably spreading the infection,” Gottlieb said. “But it’s still a very small percentage of people who are becoming infected after vaccination and who then are going on to spread the infection to others.” 

On Thursday, President Biden announced a number of new steps the administration will take to give the country’s vaccination campaign another boost, including a new requirement that all federal employees provide evidence of being vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to strict protocols and testing. Mr. Biden also called on both state and local governments to redirect unused COVID-19 relief money to provide $100 incentives to the newly vaccinated.  

Gottlieb said those who are vaccinated and may come in contact with young children, the elderly, or immunocompromised individuals should be conscious of putting others at risk and spreading the virus.   

“We need to recognize, especially for vaccinated people who might be in contact with young children, with elderly individuals who are at risk, that there is a risk that they could develop a mild or asymptomatic infection and go on to spread it to others,” he said.