FULL EPISODE: 12/5/21 Fmr. UK PM and WHO Amb. Gordon Brown and CIDRAP Director Dr. Michael Osterholm on Omicron

Published: Dec. 4, 2021 at 6:15 PM EST
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and current World Health Organization (WHO) Ambassador for Global Health Financing, and Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University Of Minnesota, about COVID, the Omicron variant, vaccines, and the holiday season for Gray TV’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, December 5, 2021.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Van Susteren that the United States and other Western countries have over-ordered and stockpiled vaccine doses that may soon expire while billions of people around the world remain unvaccinated. Brown urged countries to release stockpiles and asked that President Biden, who pledged more than a billion doses of the vaccine to the world’s poorest countries, “speed up this delivery.”

“The longer we delay, the more likely these vaccines are going to be out of date, the more likely they are to expire,” said Brown. “So there’s an urgency about doing this, not just because it helps Africa and the low-income countries, [but] because it’s in our own self-interest to prevent the disease spreading, to prevent it mutating and prevent it coming back to haunt us as it’s coming to do with this new variant of the virus in Africa.”

On the Omicron variant, infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm said: “Mark my word, within two to three weeks, this is going to be much, much more widespread through much of the world.”

Osterholm also warned of Americans letting their guard down this winter. “I’ve never seen the number of holiday parties that are scheduled, social events, people not wearing a mask. All of these things are happening, which is just going to enhance the transmission here,” said Osterholm. “Until this virus is under better control, it’s not done with us … this virus will find you if you’re not protected. You can’t run the game clock out on this one.”

Prime Minister Brown and Dr. Osterholm interview excerpts are below.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown Highlights

On the Omicron variant

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

We are going to find out a lot more in the next few days, and I, like you, will rely on the scientific medical expertise that is investigating this and the sequencing that is being done of this particular variant.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

We know that where people are unvaccinated and unprotected and the disease spreads uninhibited, that is where the risk of these mutations are greatest. And that is where the threat is not only to the countries where the disease is happening; it’s also a threat to all of us, even to the fully vaccinated.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

I just keep having to say to people, it’s in our own self-interest to vaccinate the rest of the world. It’s probably the most obvious example of a global public good that everybody really should have the vaccination to prevent infectious disease, otherwise, we’re all still at risk. And if everybody remains in fear until nobody is in fear, we’ll wait a long time unless we vaccinate quickly.

On travel bans

Greta Van Susteren

There’s a lot of controversy over travel bans—your thoughts on the travel bans that have recently been imposed?

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

Look, I have got to understand why it is the case that when you hear that there is an infection breaking out in one country, you take action to protect yourselves. So I think we’ve got to understand that there are now many travel bans being imposed right around the world. But the corollary of that is surely that if travel to and from Africa is being stopped at the moment, you’ve got to help Africa get to the root of the problem that it’s dealing with. So you’ve got to give them the vaccines.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

I mean, only 3% of people in low-income countries are vaccinated even now. And that means that 97% go unvaccinated, unprotected, and it’s hardly surprising that the disease spreads. So the travel bans may be understandable, but the lack of support to deal with the disease, and that includes testing equipment, it includes medical oxygen, it includes ventilators as well, of course, there’s other medical equipment, as well as vaccines itself. It’s in all our interests to make sure that Mozambique or South Africa or Namibia or Botswana, all these countries where a relatively small number of people have been vaccinated can actually get protection into their people. And even into their health workers, many of whom have not been vaccinated, risking their lives to save lives, but not protected. We’ve got to do more to help them.

On the worldwide economic impact of the pandemic

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

Well, it’s been a disaster for the world economy because it’s set back growth in almost every country. And while America has recovered fast, in most countries, they won’t recover the levels of 2019 output until next year or maybe the years after. Africa, of course, has been particularly hit because while it had been growing faster than the rest of the world, it is now growing at half the rate of the rest of the world.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

And that’s bad news for the world economy because that means more migration, people leaving these poorer countries, but it also means that they are set back in their attempt to meet the sustainable development goals that they should be abolishing the poverty that exists in these countries, extreme poverty. And that’s been set back by many years as a result of this.

On vaccine distribution

Greta Van Susteren

You’ve been quoted that there will be 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of the year that are unusable. How does that happen?

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

What’s happened is that the Western countries, America and Europe have over-ordered vaccines. They’ve had a monopoly on the supply of vaccines for the first few months, and as a result of that they’ve built up a big stockpile of vaccines. Now, even after taking into account the boosters that are now being ordered, even after taking into account young people being vaccinated, we’ve got a lot of extra vaccines that are unused. And of course, sometime soon they pass their use-by date. They expire and they have to be wasted or destroyed. And my argument is we should get these vaccines out as quickly as possible to the countries that need them, because we will be able to get more supply very soon if we need it, if we want to do additional boosters or other things, because we’re soon going to be producing about two billion vaccines in the world every month. So there’s no need to stockpile, we need to get the vaccines out.

Greta Van Susteren

So what’s the problem? Is it a delivery problem or people in some parts of the world just don’t want the vaccine, or is there not enough education as to the importance of the vaccine? What’s the problem?

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

The problem is that we haven’t coordinated the delivery of vaccines to the places that need [them] the most. We over-ordered in certain countries, we overstocked. And instead of getting them out quickly when we know we don’t need to use them, we’ve held back too long. So it is a problem of coordination. It’s a problem of, first of all, the Western countries releasing the doses that are not being used. And then the issue would be switching some of the delivery contracts. So every month, lots of delivery contracts are being honored to America, Canada, Europe, United Kingdom, Japan, and other countries.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

The longer we delay, the more likely these vaccines are going to be out of date, the more likely they are to expire. So there’s an urgency about doing this, not just because it helps Africa and the low-income countries, because it’s in our own self-interest to prevent the disease spreading, to prevent it mutating and prevent it coming back to haunt us as it’s coming to do with this new variant of the virus in Africa.

Greta Van Susteren

All right, let me look at the United States for instance, have we over-ordered in the United States? Do we have a surplus? And how do you sort of reconcile that with now we’re going into boosters, which is essentially the vaccine? Do we have enough for boosters or we’re using the so-called “over order “to satisfy that demand?

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

Yeah. Greta, our figures are calculated after taking into account the policy decisions on boosters, and indeed the policy decisions to help young people. And there is still a surplus of vaccines in America and in Europe.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

Now, Joe Biden did a very good thing. He promised a billion vaccines to the poorest countries of the world. He had a summit in September where he said that this would happen, but they promised there would be 40% vaccination by December. Unfortunately, about 25% only of the promised vaccines have been sent out already.

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

And I’m really asking the American administration who have done a better job than the Europeans by the way, and a better job than the United Kingdom in getting them out to the poorer countries, but I am asking them to speed up this delivery. So first of all, we get them out quickly to avoid further infections where people are vaccinated, and secondly to avoid the waste. And I know that the American public like the British and European public, what they will hate most of all is the idea that vaccines are being wasted. All that genius put into the discovery and then the manufacturing of the vaccines, and then having to be destroyed. That’s really not good politics or good organization.

Greta Van Susteren

When President Biden made the one billion doses commitment, did he say when we would meet that commitment?

Fmr. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing

He said that by the summer of next year, that this billion would’ve been provided. In fact, his original offer was 500 million and he doubled it to a billion, which is to his great credit. But the problem is that Africa and the low-income countries need these vaccines now. Now, six months ago, we were only producing as a world community about 500 million vaccines. Now we’re producing 1.5 billion a month. Soon we’ll be producing two billion a month. By the end of December, the total number of vaccines produced around the world will be about 12 billion. And that’s enough to vaccinate the world and indeed to give two vaccines to every adult in the world. The problem is that there is a failure in distribution, and that’s the failure that America can play a big part in solving. It’s a problem that can’t be solved by the World Health Organization on its own, because the people who have the monopoly of the supplier of vaccines are still the richest countries.

Dr. Michael Osterholm Highlights

On the Omicron variant

Greta Van Susteren

When you look at this virus, the Omicron, is it profoundly different in how it appears and what it does than the Alpha and the Delta?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

What makes the Omicron variant so really difficult and challenging is it’s kind of combined the best that the variants had to throw at us into one variant. If you look back, the Alpha variant that you just referenced, which emerged in the United Kingdom last fall, was a much, much more transmissible virus, but it didn’t really add anything else to the picture. When you look at the Beta and Gamma variants, which didn’t persist long, but they did persist for a while in South Africa and South America, they brought the mutations in that had the immune evasion component where they could actually escape the immune protection potentially of vaccines or previous natural infection.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

What this new variant has done is combined both.

Greta Van Susteren

Do we need a new vaccine that somehow answers that evasion element of the Omicron? Are we going to have to have a new vaccine for us?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

Well, we’re still trying to understand that, but let me share one really good piece of news. I think that means that we still have a lot of control in our own hands. And that is if you go back and look at the vaccine trials that were done in South America and in South Africa late last year and early this year, and when the two variants, the Gamma and the Beta were present, it turned out that they did, in fact, have a big impact on whether you got infected or not. That against infection, it was the vaccines weren’t all that good. But against serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths, there still was substantial protection with the vaccines. So even now, if we can get the world vaccinated with the current vaccines, we might not be able to stop the Omicron variant from transmitting, but we can sure stop a lot of the serious illness that might occur with it.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

Now, having said that, we are working on vaccines as a public health community, that would address specifically this new variant. The problem is they wouldn’t even be available for three and a half to four months. And the scale-up in manufacturing would take months more before we’d have enough to even vaccinate a large part of our country, let alone the world. So they’re not going to be an answer for the short term, which is what we’re going to be dealing with this new variant. Mark my word, within two to three weeks, this is going to be much, much more widespread through much of the world.

Greta Van Susteren

If I got COVID today, would I necessarily, I’m in the United States, get the Delta variant or would you be suspicious that I have the Omicron variant? And does it matter?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

I wouldn’t know.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

I think one of the most poignant moments of the pandemic occurred this past week when the state of Vermont announced that they had, at that point, exceeded the most number of hospitalizations in the state in the entire pandemic this week. And they have the highest vaccination rate in the country. It just points out how we need so, so many people to be fully protected before we’re going to slow this virus down.

On vaccines and boosters

Greta Van Susteren

The vaccination, at least, tends to wane over time. And maybe that might be a partial explanation why people who were vaccinated in Vermont now are getting the infection?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

Well, in fact, that is an important point. There are 100 million people right now in the United States who were fully vaccinated before June of this year. And now they are reaching that six-month time period where booster doses are going to be important. But if you look at the number of people who are in our hospitals, and who are particularly in intensive care units, it’s still predominantly those who are unvaccinated. And when it’s pointing out where if you even have a state like Vermont with 73% or 74% of the population vaccinated, that still leaves a lot of human wood for this coronavirus forest fire to burn.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

So it just I think really points out the fact that, yeah, 70% sounds good. But with this virus, you’re going to need levels of protection even much higher than that. And to your point, and if we don’t continue to get boosters in people, those who were once protected will slide back into the unprotected category.

Greta Van Susteren

Can you get too many booster shots? Is there any danger in them?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

No, not at this point.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

I think that the booster dose recommendation is a good one. I’ve always disliked the term “booster dose. “I think if we go back one day, we’ll realize that this should have been a three- dose mRNA vaccine to begin with, should have been at least a two-dose adenovirus platform vaccine like the J&J one. And I think the whole world will ultimately have access to that going down the road.

On masks, traveling, and indoor gatherings

Greta Van Susteren

Let me ask you this: Masks, indoor gatherings, yes or no? Travel, planes, travel bans, where are you on all that?

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

First of all, I’m a realist. And I look out my window, whether I’m driving a car or I’m in my home or I’m looking down the street, and I realize America has gotten over the pandemic. The problem is the virus hasn’t gotten over us. And we’re seeing things open up. I’ve never seen the number of holiday parties that are scheduled, social events, people not wearing a mask. All of these things are happening, which is just going to enhance the transmission here. Until this virus is under better control, it’s not done with us. And so I worry about this. So I very strongly support this, but most Americans hearing somebody like me say that, look at me like, “you don’t get it.” And that’s the challenge in the end, this virus will find you if you’re not protected. You can’t run the game clock out on this one. It will find you.

On travel bans

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

I think in the very first hours of the information coming forward, I think it was smart to just lock down. I mean, we do that at a crime scene. The police lock everything down for several hours or more, and then it’s back to normal. I think for us now we realize that the whole world is basically going to be infected with this. Are we going to ban travel from every country to every country? And I think no. At the same time, as the president announced this week, I think we need to do a much better job at monitoring and trying to reduce the potential for these viruses to move from country to country.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University Of Minnesota

I think people were somewhat surprised if not shocked when they realized that two flights incoming from Johannesburg and Cape Town landed in Amsterdam had, among the 634 passengers, 61 individuals who turned out to be infected of which they should have been screened before they left South Africa. And they should have either that or been vaccinated. How did that happen? So I think that there is really a need right now to do a much better job of understanding who’s on these planes. Are they infected or not? But to think that a travel ban will make that happen, it won’t.

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About Greta Van Susteren:

Greta Van Susteren is the Chief Political Analyst for Gray Media and host of Full Court Press. Ms. Van Susteren is a veteran of Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. Her prime-time Fox News Channel Show, “On the Record,” was number 1 in its time slot for 14 1⁄2 years. Before joining Fox News, she hosted CNN’s prime-time news and analysis program, “The Point with Greta Van Susteren,” and co-hosted the network’s daily legal analysis show, “Burden of Proof.” Her legal analysis for CNN’s coverage of Election 2000 earned her the American Bar Association’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Journalism. She continues to host the weekly 30-minute program “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” on Voice of America, which broadcasts exclusively outside of the United States.

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