Dr. Scott Gottlieb predicted Friday on CNBC that by the end of the month nearly one-third of the almost 331 million people in the U.S. could have gotten the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic.
Covid-19 cases across the nation, tracked by Johns Hopkins University as of Friday morning, totaled nearly 21.6 million. Gottlieb has often said that actual infections among Americans run much higher than the official count.
The former FDA commissioner in the Trump administration also told “Squawk Box” that he believes about 10% of the population could be vaccinated by Jan. 31. However, the U.S. rollout of the vaccines has been rocky and only 5,919,418 doses have been administered as of Thursday morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those forecasts have implications for how fast the coronavirus will continue spread across the country, Gottlieb said, adding that as more people develop antibodies, whether through prior infection or a vaccine, “the virus is going to start to burn itself out.”
“It won’t go away, but prevalence will decline,” acknowledged Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Pfizer, which makes one of the two Covid-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. The other one is made by Moderna.
“By the end of this month, we’ll have infected probably about 30% of the American public and maybe vaccinated another 10%, notwithstanding the very difficult rollout of the vaccine. You’re starting to get to levels of prior exposure in the population where the virus isn’t going to spread as readily.”
Based on Gottlieb’s prediction that would mean slightly more than 99 million people in America would have been infected since the novel virus emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. That would also mean about 33 million Americans will have received their initial doses by the end of January.
Gottlieb’s comments Friday come as the U.S. continues to face significant coronavirus outbreaks in states across the country. On Thursday, the U.S. recorded more than 4,000 deaths from Covid-19 in one day for the first time, according to Johns Hopkins data At least 365,359 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19. The nation’s seven-day average of new coronavirus cases is 228,497, which is a record high, according to CNBC’s analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
How life may look next fall
Even as transmission of the virus hopefully starts to decline as the year wears on, Gottlieb reiterated that Americans will not simply be able to return to living their lives just how they did before the pandemic gripped the world. However, by the fall of 2021, he added that he believes people will be able to travel more freely and return more regularly to the office thanks to the broader rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.
“I think it’s a new normal where we’re much more vigilant about respiratory pathogens,” Gottlieb said. “We go back to work. We go back to travel, but we’re doing things differently.”
People may still be wearing face masks, for example, but they likely will be doing so voluntarily, according to Gottlieb’s forecast. The physician also said he believes temperature taking before people enter public venues will be commonplace.
“People are asked to fill out symptom questionnaires before they come to work, and they’re told to stay home if they don’t feel well,” Gottlieb predicted. “Things will be different, at least for one cycle. I think we have to get through one cycle with this, trying to do normal things and preventing an outbreak.”
Gottlieb has previously stressed that even though people may receive one of the Covid-19 vaccines, which have demonstrated strong effectiveness in preventing symptomatic disease, more research and data are needed to determine whether the vaccines prevent people from transmitting the coronavirus to one another.
“The vaccine is probably preventing some people getting infected and probably reducing likelihood of people who are infected [from transmitting] the virus,” Gottlieb told CNBC earlier this week. “What we don’t know is the magnitude of that effect.”
Another reason why some caution around the coronavirus is likely to be exercised in the fall is because not everyone will be willing to take the vaccine, Gottlieb suggested Friday.
“We need to start understanding that it will be hard to vaccinate the public. Right now, there is more demand than supply,” Gottlieb said. “But at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, there is going to be more supply than demand and we’re going to really have to work at it.”
In the fall and winter of this year, Gottlieb said he expects the intensity of Covid-19 outbreak to be akin to a difficult flu season. Since 2010, the CDC said the U.S. sees between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths from seasonal flu annually.
“I think the best-case scenario is it looks like a really bad flu season where we don’t have hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths, but there will be tens of thousands,” he said. “We won’t fully extinguish this.”
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ and Royal Caribbean’s “Healthy Sail Panel.”