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Transcript: Scott Gottlieb on “Face the Nation,” May 30, 2021

Scott Gottlieb, M.D.

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JOHN DICKERSON: We go now to former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who sits on the board of Pfizer and joins us from Westport, Connecticut. He has just finished work on a book that will be out this fall titled: Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed US and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic. Good morning, Dr. Gottlieb. 


JOHN DICKERSON: So usually when we’re together, we talk about the past and look towards the future, but this week we’ve been talking a lot about the past. Why is it that there is now a conversation about how this pandemic started and why is that important?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Well, look, I think the challenge is that the side of the ledger that suggests that this could have come- come out of a lab has continued to expand. And a side of the ledger that suggests that this could have come from a zoonotic source, come out of nature, really hasn’t budged. And if anything, you can argue that that side of the ledger has contracted because we’ve done an exhaustive search for the so-called intermediate host, the animal that could have been exposed to this virus before it spread to humans. We have not found such an animal. We’ve also fully disproven the market, the food market that was initially implicated in the original outbreak as the source of the outbreak. And so that side of the ledger probably has shrunken and China could provide evidence that would be exculpatory here. They could provide the blood samples from those who worked in the lab in Wuhan. They’ve refused to do that. They could provide the source strain, some of the original strains. They’ve refused to do that. They can provide access to some of the early samples that we could sequence. They could provide an inventory of what was in the lab, the Institute of Virology, the lab that has been implicated in a potential lab leak. They have refused to do that. And we know that that lab was poorly constructed, had poor controls. That was reported at the time that it was first opened. We know the lab was engaging in very high-risk research, including infecting transgenic animals, animals with fully human immune systems. We know they were working with SARS-like viruses that have never been disclosed before. And now we have new evidence that some lab workers became infected right at the time that this virus was believed to be first introduced. That’s been publicly reported. So that side of the ledger has expanded. And I think that’s why there is renewed focus on this. In terms of your final question, why this is important, I think if we assess that there is a probability or a possibility that this came out of a lab, it’s going to affect how we respond to this. We- we’re going to need to focus on trying to get better controls in this sort of high risk research going forward and get better controls over these BSL-4, these high security labs that conduct this research. Incidentally, China is not conducting this research in a BSL-4 lab. They were doing it in a lower security BSL-2 lab.

JOHN DICKERSON: So in terms of looking at this going forward, back to the title of your book, How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic, your argument is it’s important to know how this started in this case because there is this specific lab. But there have been also other cases where security has been lax and there have been leaks. And so it’s important to figure out what happened here in order to kind of lock the doors tight, to keep it from happening again.

DR. GOTTLIEB: That’s right. These kinds of lab leaks happen all the time, actually. Even here in the United States we’ve had mishaps. And in China, the last six known outbreaks of SARS-1 have been out of labs, including the last known outbreak, which was a pretty extensive outbreak that China initially wouldn’t disclose that it came out of lab. It was only for- it was only disclosed finally by some journalists who were able to trace that outbreak back to a laboratory. So it’s important to understand what the possibility is that this came out of a lab so we could focus more international attention on trying to get better inventories around these labs, what they’re doing, better security, make sure they’re properly built. We need to also look at public health through the lens of national security. This was an asymmetric harm to the United States. COVID hurt the US a lot more than it hurt many other countries. And that’s another thing I talk about in the book, looking at these kinds of risks through the lens of national security, including getting our intelligence services more engaged in this mission. Traditionally, we’ve been- we’ve relied on international conventions and scientists working together, multilateral agreements to try to assess the risks and try to uncover these kinds of outbreaks. I think we also need to get better surveillance in place and use our tools of national security to help engage in that mission as well.

JOHN DICKERSON: If there were an answer to this question, would it help with any way in which we- we are covering and responding to the coronavirus now? In other words, dealing with variants or anything, is there a public health benefit to knowing this at this moment?

DR. GOTTLIEB: Not right now. I think what we know about the virus, we already know about the virus. And there’s nothing that we’re going to learn about the characteristics of the current virus by knowing its origin. Quite frankly, we’ve had enough experience with this virus to fully understand it. I think it informs how we go forward. That’s why this becomes very important.

JOHN DICKERSON: And what about in the past? There was discussion of this very early in the response to the pandemic. People thought this might be one of the places it might have come from. If we had known for certain, which is- it’s an open question whether we ever could have known. But if in the early days of the pandemic we had known that it came from this lab, would that have changed in any way, the response to the pandemic?

DR. GOTTLIEB: I’m not sure it would have affected how we responded to it. Once this became epidemic in China and once it escaped China, it was going to behave the way it behaved. I’m not sure there’s things we would have learned or gleaned by knowing that it came out of a lab and perhaps was manipulated or humanized in a lab. We could ascertain that this was pretty humanized by the time it started to spread in humans. Again, I think this is more of a question going forward. And we may never really determine with precision whether or not this came out of a lab. I think what we’re likely to end up with is an assessment, a probability, unless we get very lucky and we either find the intermediate host, we find a colony of civet cats or pangolins where this is epidemic and it could have first spilled over into humans, or we have a whistleblower in China or regime change, which we’re not going to have. I don’t know that we’re going to find out with certainty that this came out of a lab. I think we’re going to ultimately come up with an assessment and a probability on whether this came out of a lab versus a zoonotic source. And it’s going to take some more data to get a better overall assessment in terms of the probability that this could have come out of a lab. But we might get that information.

JOHN DICKERSON: Is it your view that the Chinese know the answer to this question?

DR. GOTTLEIB: They would know the answer to the question because they would have blood samples from the workers in that lab. And that’s the evidence that they haven’t made public. If- if, in fact, the blood samples show that a high prevalence of people in that lab have been exposed to this virus, that’s pretty definitive proof that this coursed through that lab. And they would also have the samples from the time that they were first drawn, which was the time when they had those illnesses. There’s no question that when they had an outbreak of an illness in that lab that they would have done routine blood sampling in that lab. That’s just normal controls in a lab of that quality. So they would have that information.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, congratulations on finishing the book. Thanks again for being with us, as always. And FACE THE NATION will be right back in a minute with Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo. Stay with us.

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