Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday he believes states across the U.S. may expand coronavirus vaccine eligibility sooner than expected due to an underwhelming willingness to receive the shots.
"We're living in this sort of belief that the demand here is endless, and it's not," the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner said on CNBC's "Squawk Box." "I think by the end of February, we're going to find that we have to open up eligibility pretty wide to get people to come in to get inoculated. We're not going to be in this rationing situation. I think it's going to end sooner than we think."
Gottlieb sits on the board of Pfizer, which makes one of the two Covid-19 vaccines to have received emergency use authorization by the FDA. The other was developed by Moderna. With available doses being limited, the vaccine administration is being done in phases. Health-care workers and long-term care residents received priority in the initial wave, and some states have also moved into other groups such as elderly Americans and essential workers, which includes police and firefighters.
The pace of the vaccine rollout in the U.S. has received significant criticism after the FDA granted limited clearances in December. The Trump administration fell far short of its goal of having 20 million Americans vaccinated by year-end. As of Friday morning, about 6.7 million Americans had received their first shot of the two-dose vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 22.1 million doses have been distributed.
One hurdle in the vaccine distribution has been hesitancy to receive the shot among health-care workers, particularly for employees of nursing homes. Late last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that 60% of the state's nursing home workers were choosing not to be vaccinated.
Gottlieb, who led the FDA in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019, said the wariness of getting the shot likely permeates across the population, and he predicted it will remain present even as the number of available vaccine doses expands.
"My belief here is the demand is very deep — there's people who really want this badly — but it's not wide," Gottlieb said. In Florida, for example, there were reports of elderly residents waiting hours in line to be vaccinated, including some who waited overnight, and other reports of residents of other states flocking to Florida to get shots because they're open to anyone 65 or older.
Not everyone will go to such extraordinary measures to be vaccinated, Gottlieb predicted. "I think once we get 60 [million], 70 [million], 80 million Americans inoculated, we're going to find it's a little bit more difficult to get people to come out to a stadium or line up for a vaccination," he said. "We're going to have to look for other delivery routes to make it easy for people to get these inoculations."
Retail pharmacy chains such as Walgreens and CVS Health told CNBC last month they expected to begin offering vaccinations for the general public at some point in the spring.
Gottlieb also reiterated his belief that the intensity of the current U.S. Covid-19 outbreak requires a greater sense of urgency in vaccine distribution. The country's seven-day average of daily coronavirus deaths is 3,239, the highest figure on record, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The discovery of new variants of the virus that are believed to be more transmissible adds to the need to speed up vaccinations, according to Gottlieb. He also contended that states should not respond punitively to reports of vaccines being distributed to people who aren't in priority groups.
"The more rules, the more penalties we put in place, then fewer vaccines are going to be delivered. I think that's just the bottom line," Gottlieb said. "If we want to make sure that there's absolutely no one who purportedly jumps the line, we're going to have a system that really crawls. I think we need to get over that and recognize that every vaccine that we can get into someone right now, given the urgency and this new variant, is a public-health win in some regards."