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Ex-FDA Commissioner Gottlieb Says Biden's Vaccine Mandate Could Backfire

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

How do you go about implementing a federal rule that calls for companies to require their employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing? That's the proposal of the Biden administration. Now, under the plan, businesses with more than 100 employees will be forced to do so or face fines. This morning, we have the perspective of the FDA's former commissioner, Scott Gottlieb. He served from 2017 to 2019. And we should note that Dr. Gottlieb is a member of Pfizer's board. Doctor, you've argued that President Biden's COVID-19 action plan could backfire and actually delay more people from getting their vaccines. Explain that for us.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Well, look. I think the administration's done a very good job rolling out this vaccine, and we now have 75% of adults over the age of 18 who have had at least one shot of the COVID vaccine. Most of them will complete the series. I think the administration is well within their purview to mandate vaccinations for federal employees, for members of the military, people who fall within the scope of federal employment.

I think when it comes to small businesses, though - businesses with 100 or more employees, what you mentioned at the outset - it gets a little bit more challenging. They're going to try to apply this mandate on businesses through OSHA, through the Labor Department. It's going to take time to get that rulemaking in place.

Then, we're going to have to issue guidance on how businesses should implement that and give them a grace period to actually implement this provision. I think in the interim period, a lot of businesses that might have been contemplating imposing mandates on their employees requiring them to get vaccinated might now wait and see what these new rules are going to look like. And the - inevitably, I think it could delay a lot of businesses that might've made a decision to mandate vaccination for their employees from going forward and doing that. I also...

MARTINEZ: But Doctor, why couldn't it be argued that these companies, if they haven't gone forward - like, say, a Cisco, a Citigroup, Google or Delta - that they were going to wait anyway, and they were waiting for cover from the federal government to go ahead and do this?

GOTTLIEB: Right. I think businesses have a lot of cover now. I think that the fact that the federal government's requiring vaccination for federal employees gives them a lot of cover. I think the risk is that you take something that has been furtively political, which is the decision around mandating vaccination and getting vaccinated, and now you make it objectively political. This is going to be more of a political discussion. And I think some of the fault lines that we've seen evolving in society are now going to be hardened.

And the question is, are you going to achieve a lot more vaccination with a mandate like this? And I think it's an open question. We're going to - we've got 75% of the adult population with at least one dose. We were going to get to 80% on our normal course. I think with some added measures, we could have gotten perhaps to 85%. Most childhood vaccinations, which were mandated - we don't get above 90%, 92%. So we're not going to get to that kind of a level with this vaccine.

So the question is, where do we think we're going to end up? We may end up around 80%, 85%. Will you pick up a couple of extra percentage points with this kind of a mandate? Perhaps. But now I think you're going to take something that has been sort of a quietly political discussion, and it becomes more objectively political. I don't think the federal...

MARTINEZ: It's been political for a long time, Doctor.

GOTTLIEB: That is true.

MARTINEZ: Yesterday I spoke with Geoff Freeman. He's the president of the Consumer Brands Association trade group that represents more than 2 million workers. He's in support of vaccines but has unanswered questions about this new proposal. Let's listen to what he said.

GEOFF FREEMAN: We certainly hope answers are coming soon. They are aware of our concerns. Unfortunately, our experience throughout the pandemic, going back 19 months, is that too often, we're waiting weeks or even months to get answers. This is not going to work in this environment.

MARTINEZ: So Doctor, what needs to happen, in your view, to answer these industry questions and concerns?

GOTTLIEB: Well, the administration is going to have to put out guidance now to implement this new mandate, this new regulation, which isn't written yet, by the way. I think this could be a multi-month process, and it's going to get litigated. You know, my personal view is, I don't believe governors should be preventing businesses from imposing mandates. I don't think the federal government should be forcing them to. I think this is something that should happen at a community level with local communities implementing mandates around schools, around businesses.

People have to make objective decisions about how they best protect their workplace, their school environment, their local community. In many cases, that's going to be with vaccine mandates. I would do everything possible to support them in those decisions, to give them guidance on how to implement those decisions. But let those decisions happen as local as possible so this doesn't become a national political debate over vaccination, which, I think, in the end, is going to discourage or harden certain positions of people who don't want to get vaccinated, unfortunately.

MARTINEZ: And Doctor, quickly, while I have you here - you sit on Pfizer's board. The FDA meets this Friday to discuss Pfizer's request to authorize a booster shot. How soon are you expecting a decision?

GOTTLIEB: A decision could come right away, depending on what the outcome of that meeting is. They're going to review new evidence, including the evidence from Israel, which is going to be presented in an open forum at that meeting.

MARTINEZ: Dr. Scott Gottlieb is the author of "Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us And How We Can Defeat The Next Pandemic." Doctor, thanks.

GOTTLIEB: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.