Health and Science

Dr. Scott Gottlieb: U.S. coronavirus deaths could reach 300,000 by year-end if trends continue

Key Points
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Wednesday the U.S. may see over double the current deaths from the coronavirus by year-end if current trends were to persist.
  • "Right now we have close to 1,000 casualties a day; so if we don't change that trajectory, you could do the math," he said on "Squawk Box."
  • The former FDA chief said mortality rates are falling. However, he warned that "the problem is we're hospitalizing a lot of patients." 
Gottlieb: U.S. coronavirus deaths may hit 300,000 by year-end if trends continue

Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Wednesday that the U.S. may have around 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus by year-end if current trends were to persist. That would be more than double the current total.

"Right now we have close to 1,000 casualties a day; so if we don't change that trajectory, you could do the math and see where we are towards the end of the year," Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box."

The U.S. has at least 142,000 deaths related to Covid-19, the most of any country, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. America's 43.40 deaths per 100,000 people is 10th highest in the world. The U.S. has a total of 3.9 million infections.

Daily deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus are still well below levels seen early in the pandemic, when more than 2,000 new fatalities were recorded on some days in April. But after rising cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, deaths picked up in certain parts of the country. On Tuesday, the death toll topped 1,000 for the first time since May 29, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Donald Trump, said mortality rates in the U.S. have likely fallen as medical workers learn to better treat the novel virus. He said he has talked to physicians who are treating Covid-19 patients who say "it may have been cut in half."

The death rate from total confirmed cases was around 3.6% as of Wednesday. However, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the actual death rate may be just a fraction of that, considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes Covid-19 cases may be six to 24 times higher than the confirmed count.

While saying for months that the real count case is probably much higher, Gottlieb told CNBC on Wednesday that "The problem is we're hospitalizing a lot of patients." He added, "Even if we end up preserving more life in the hospital, which we're doing, if we end up hospitalizing a whole lot more patients, you're ultimately going to have a lot of casualties, unfortunately, from this virus." 

Gottlieb's comments Wednesday came one day after Trump warned that the nation's outbreak of Covid-19 will probably "get worse before it gets better." The president, who has with a few exceptions avoided wearing masks in public during the pandemic, also urged Americans to wear face coverings to help limit spread of the virus. 

A virus model, once cited by the White House, currently projects more than 220,000 people in the U.S. could die of Covid-19 by Nov. 1. However, the model projects a lower death count by that date — slightly over 183,000 — if the U.S. had universal masking.

Gottlieb also said he believes the U.S. mortality rate from the coronavirus could decline into the fall if more therapeutics to treat the virus come onto the market, such as the drug from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics which is being developed in collaboration with Merck. It is being studied for both in-patient and outpatient use

"That's likely to be an in-hospital use drug because of its side effect profile, but it does in early studies look like it might have activity against coronavirus," he said. "So there are promising therapeutics on the horizon, and it just underscores the fact that we're going to improve in-hospital mortality with this virus as we progress into the fall and winter."

Many companies, including Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna, are working on possible coronavirus vaccines, with hopes for one that works and can be approved early next year.

Gottlieb emphasized that the U.S., in the meantime, must ultimately control the transmission of the coronavirus, saying "there are ways to keep this under control." He added, "some states have chosen not to do that, and that's why you're seeing this continue to spread." 

"We have the specter right now of parts of this country where the local school boards are making a decision to close schools, but the bars and restaurants are still open," Gottlieb said. "We need to make a decision what's important to us and what we're willing to sacrifice right now until we get to the other side of this." 

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Merck. The two companies are collaborating to develop the potential Covid-19 antiviral.

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