Omicron could fade in ‘weeks,’ former FDA head tells travel industry

Jan 13, 2022

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One of the country’s best-known health experts had some good news Thursday for travelers and the travel industry: The wave of omicron cases in the U.S. that has disrupted everything from flights to cruises over the past month is likely to fade fast in the coming weeks.

“It’s peaking right now,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb told travel agents during a conference call to discuss the future of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If you look at the epidemiology on the East Coast, certainly … you’re seeing cases come down week over week.”

Gottlieb, who spoke with the agents at the invitation of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, suggested the omicron wave could significantly diminish across the U.S. in just weeks.

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“The way down [for the omicron wave] looks a lot like the way up. We’ve seen this before,” Gottlieb said. “And so it took us three weeks to get to the peak. It’s going to take us three weeks to get all the way down.”

Gottlieb consults on COVID-19 safety for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which is the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. He’s also on the board of Pfizer, which makes one of the most-prominent COVID-19 vaccines.

Gottlieb noted the omicron wave wouldn’t crest in every part of America at the same time. It’s already cresting now in places like New York City and Boston where it arrived earlier than in other parts of the country, but it’s still on the rise in some areas, he said.

“The mountain states were engulfed a little earlier, so they’re further along,” Gottlieb noted. “The parts of the country that are a little bit further behind — and when I say further behind, I’m talking about maybe two weeks behind the East Coast, at most three [weeks] — is the Southwest … and the Heartland … states in sort of the Midwest [and] Great Lakes region to some degree.”

Gottlieb said California and the Pacific Northwest were other areas where the omicron wave has probably already peaked — something that will become much more apparent in the coming days.

Related: More cruise lines requiring COVID-19 booster shots to sail 

“I think once you get a week from now, maybe two weeks out from now, people are gonna be looking at those charts [at news sites] and seeing infection rates come down,” he said.

Gottlieb also talked a lot about the arc of the COVID-19 pandemic from its first appearance more than two years ago to this latest omicron wave. He said his bet was that omicron would be the last major spike in infections associated with the pandemic.

Even if new variants of COVID-19 emerge, growing immunity in the population from vaccines and prior infections would make additional large waves of illness unlikely, he suggested. He noted that between 30% and 40% of the entire population of the U.S. will probably have been infected by the omicron variant by the time the current wave is over.

“You’re going to have a sufficient wall of immunity that you’re not going to see this virus spread in the same way,” he said. “Then this will become a more manageable respiratory pathogen.”

New oral drugs and other treatments for COVID-19 also will make it more manageable, he added.

“I think that this is going to be the year that we start to transition out of the pandemic phase of this virus, where we [have] successive waves of infection that … sweep over [the] population,” he said.

COVID-19 is quickly approaching “an endemic phase where this becomes a persistent issue, but an issue that fades into the background of our daily lives,” he added.

Asked specifically about the situation right now on cruise ships, which have been in the news a lot in recent days, Gottlieb suggested that ships weren’t any more risky a place to be when it comes to COVID-19 than tourism venues on land. In fact, they are likely far safer places to be, he suggested.

He cited the unusually extensive COVID-19 protocols that cruise lines have put in place on ships, including requirements that passengers be vaccinated for the illness and test negative for COVID-19 before boarding, and detailed plans to quickly isolate passengers and crew that test positive for the illness and provide treatment if necessary.

Related: Everything cruisers need to know about COVID-19 on ships

Cruising is a leisure activity that “lends itself to implementing measures that can tightly control the risk,” he said, adding that it “could be a safer vacation than going into a hotel or a foreign city where you really have no control over the environment you’re in. You have no way to measure the risk, and you don’t have ready access to care.”

Gottlieb noted that he had planned a cruise for the coming summer and had no qualms about being on board a ship.

Not everything Gottlieb said was so upbeat. He noted that while the vaccines currently available for COVID-19 still greatly reduced the risk of hospitalization or death from the illness, they have become significantly less effective at stopping its spread.

Gottlieb suggested the vaccines eventually could be reformulated to restore their effectiveness in preventing transmission. Pfizer, where he is on the board, and Moderna both are working on new booster shots that would do just that, which could be available by the fall, he said. 

Gottlieb added that, eventually, COVID-19 would just be another illness that you get an annual shot for in the fall along with an influenza shot.

Adding that the data already is clear that the omicron variant is less dangerous than the delta variant, Gottlieb suggested the bottom line was that the worst is now about to be behind the country when it comes to COVID-19.

“It won’t be dominating our lives in the future like it’s been able to dominate our lives in the past,” he said.

Featured image courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line 

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