FULL EPISODE: 1/9/22 La. State Health Officer talks Omicron: Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer talks Paxlovid

Published: Jan. 8, 2022 at 6:53 PM EST
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Dr. Joseph Kanter, the State Health Officer of Louisiana, and Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer, about COVID, the omicron variant, antivirals, and vaccines for Gray TV’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, January 9, 2022. The program will also feature a discussion with WWSB-TV (Sarasota, Fla.) reporter Daniela Hurtado.

Dr. Joseph Kanter told Van Susteren that Louisiana is seeing a record number of COVID cases; and, he said, even though omicron infections have been milder than those caused by the delta variant, “we’re not letting our guard down.”

When asked how hospitals are coping, Dr. Kanter answered that it has been hard to retain and recruit staff. “The biggest limiting factor for our hospitals … It’s not physical beds, it’s not ventilators, it’s not PPE right now. It’s just keeping enough qualified staff on board.”

On vaccine mandates, Dr. Kanter said: “These mandates, on some degree, distract the conversation because we’re talking about the political side and we’re not talking about why it’s important to get vaccinated.”

And on the CDC’s messaging surrounding COVID, he said: “There’s clearly been bumps in the road in terms of communication.”

Pfizer’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Mikael Dolsten explained his company’s new oral antiviral, Paxlovid, “was designed to, by purpose, get into the cell and interfere very early with those vicious plans of the virus to take over our cell.” He predicted the medication would be “durable” and work against forthcoming variants.

When asked about the Pfizer vaccine and the potential need for another booster – a fourth shot – Dolsten said: “We are seeing data that is encouraging that it may add value.”

Interview excerpts are below.

Dr. Joseph Kanter Highlights

On COVID’s impact on Lousiana

Greta Van Susteren

Can you give me a brief overview of how COVID is striking Louisiana right now?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

It is a little bit mind-boggling to be back here after 21, 22 months of this pandemic, but we’re in the middle of what’s our now fifth surge. It’s almost entirely related to omicron like many other states, and we are recording record numbers day on day … So, we are worried what’s going to happen over the next few days.

Greta Van Susteren

Are you reacting differently as a state? I know early on in the pandemic, it seemed like everybody shut down. Are you making different recommendations in terms of schools and businesses? And Delta would seem to be a more serious disease virus; omicron, apparently not so serious, and with the vaccine, it’s been somewhat reduced. But are you reacting differently as a state?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

In a sense, yes, but we’re not letting our guard down. And what’s different this time is, number one, we have many more tools at our disposal. We have plenty of vaccines. We have therapeutics, even though two of the monoclonal antibodies don’t work against omicron.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

We’re urging people to mask when they’re indoors, particularly around other people. And just like the surges before, we’re keeping a very close watch on the hospitals. That’s what would push us to more aggressive measures if we had to.

On vaccine mandates for healthcare workers

Greta Van Susteren

The United States Supreme Court has heard two arguments this past week on the federal mandate from the Biden administration. One is for businesses with employees of over 100, have to be vaccinated. The other is for certain healthcare workers. If the Supreme Court upholds that mandate, do you have some sort of idea of how that would impact your state?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

Most of the hospitals had already moved forward with urging their staff to get vaccinated when the rule initially came out. I’ll tell you, my ultimate priority here is to get people vaccinated. And one of my concerns is that the more we talk politics, the more that we get inside baseball.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

These rules and these mandates, on some degree, distract the conversation because we’re talking about the political side and we’re not talking about why it’s important to get vaccinated, why it’s important for an individual, why it’s important to their family. I don’t know what the Supreme Court’s going to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the federal mandates, but I do know that a hospital provides safer care if their staff is vaccinated. I do know a nursing home is better set to provide care for their vulnerable residents if their staff are vaccinated. And any individual is safer and their family’s safer if they get vaccinated. I think we got to keep the messaging that appropriately and not try to get people bogged down in all the politics of it.

On the CDC’s COVID messaging

Greta Van Susteren

And the messaging of course has been a problem. I assume that you’re not crazy about the messaging. If we’re still arguing about it, you even got the CDC giving different directions and you’ve got the two administrations prior and current arguing about it.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

Oh yeah. There’s clearly been bumps in the road in terms of communication. A big part of it though is we’re living through this pandemic real time. And the playbook, if there is a playbook at all, is a 100 years old, it’s pretty dusty. So, there’s going to be bumps. There’s going to be things that we learn along the way. And that’s what you want your scientists and public health leaders to do. As they learn more information, go back and change the guidelines to reflect that. That’s normal. It’s tough to communicate sometimes, but we do need to remember, this is real time, none of us have ever been here before, and there’s going to be some course changes as new information comes to light.

On how hospitals are coping with the omicron surge

Greta Van Susteren

Are your hospitals having to make decisions like not to do elective surgeries?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

Not yet. We hope they won’t have to. They did in the last Delta surge a few months ago. They haven’t yet got to that point, but again, we haven’t peaked yet. So, it’s tough to say how many more cases we’re going to get. This is a little bit milder.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

The challenge, and this existed going into this surge as well, is staffing. Particularly nurses and respiratory techs. It’s so hard to retain staff for good reasons. It’s so hard to recruit new staff. And when hospitals try and seek augmented staff from staffing agencies, for example, that pull nationwide, every other state is going through the same challenges, so it’s hard to get staff. That’s the biggest limiting factor for our hospitals. It’s not physical beds, it’s not ventilators, it’s not PPE right now. It’s just keeping enough qualified staff on board.

Greta Van Susteren

What about the CDC? The ordinary consumer is a little frustrated because we’re getting different directions. We realize that this is an evolving science, but sometimes we do get sort of mixed signals when to get tested, when not to get tested. Is the federal government assisting your state enough in getting the testing facilities that you need?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

I think they’re assisting to the best of their ability. The problem is the demand for rapid at-home tests has skyrocketed and the supply, just unfortunately, has not kept pace. We have progressed nicely throughout this pandemic, even though it’s tough to see that. This time last year, we didn’t have any over-the-counter take-home tests available. So, it’s a new thing, it’s really good. My family used them over the holidays to make sure that when we did gather, we did so in as safe a manner as possible. And families want that. We’re eager to get more a supply. The feds have been in very close contact with us. They’ve been a very good partner, but let’s be real, there’s just not enough of these rapid at-home tests at the moment to go around.

On antibody testing

Greta Van Susteren

Would it be helpful, there’s a new antibody test, it’s emergency use authorization, which means you have to have a doctor give it to you. But at least you could, as another tool over-the-counter test for antibodies for the disease. Would that be helpful in the fight against COVID?

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

It’s really unclear. And the utility of these antibody tests to show if you’ve been exposed to COVID in the past is still, I mean, 22 months into this thing is still really uncertain. They don’t always test for what you think they’re going to test for. And even when they do, it’s not clear what you do with that information. We know a lot of people are getting reinfected in December. For the calendar month of December, 11,000 people in Louisiana had reinfections. People who had COVID earlier and got COVID again, they would’ve all been antibody positive prior to being reinfected. So, I think people want to think you can get an antibody test, have it be positive, and then you’re scotch free. You can do what you want, you’re not going to get COVID. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. You can still get reinfected. You still have to be careful. So, I don’t know what to do with that information that you get from an antibody test.

On pandemic fatigue

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

It’s a big problem. I feel it too. I think we all feel it. It’s been a long, hard road and this is not the way any of us wanted to start the new year.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana State Health Officer

And I think what’s happening with omicron is, we are in this transition from a pandemic that disrupts society to an endemic. That’s something that’s more manageable. I think we’re living through that transition right now, and I think as this year goes on, we’re going to find that we can keep COVID at bay without the mass disruptions. I think this is going to be a very positive year. We just have to get over this hump right now.

Dr. Mikael Dolsten Highlights

On how Paxlovid works

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

Paxlovid was designed to, by purpose, get into the cell and interfere very early with those vicious plans of the virus to take over our cell, hijack our cells. And it blocks one of the key steps the virus has in unleashing its ability to take over our cell. And by intervening like a key in a lock very selectively, it stops the virus on its march to produce more virus particles.

On whether Paxlovid is durable

Greta Van Susteren

Okay. Is it durable or do you have any reason to believe it’s a durable pill in the sense that I expect that we’re going to have another variant? And if it’s been good to protect against delta, presumably omicron, is it likely to be a durable treatment against the next variant?

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

We do believe this is going to be very durable. We have not seen at all the same type of mutations’ ability to change at this intervention point as we have seen for antibodies, whether given by infusion or as a vaccine, and we do hope that it will stay like a strong intervention point for many years to come. That’s our assumption and it was really designed by purpose to be like that.

On Paxlovid supply

Greta Van Susteren

Obviously, the first question people now have is supply, who gets it and how much is available … We built a 440-foot cargo shift during World War II in four days. Why can’t this be manufactured faster?

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

This project took like 20 months. Normally this would take many years to develop a medicine like this, and you have a lot of time to prepare to build your cargo ship. But we invested actually parallel, before we even knew that this would defeat COVID-19, a billion-dollars to ramp up in manufacturing.

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

We have now agreed with the U.S. government, and I really want to acknowledge our proactive planning for the American people, to have 10 million treatment courses by end of June and another 10, up to 20 total, by end of September.

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

I hope we’ll all feel that this has been a tremendous contribution in our wellbeing and to reduce the fear we have that one of us, whether in the family or a neighbor, may be struck by this virus.

On the Pfizer vaccine and boosters

Greta Van Susteren

In Israel, they’re now saying that you should need a second booster, which would be a fourth shot. Are we now going to have to continue to give boosters, do you think?

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer

Right now we’re in the transition between a full storm pandemic and to more what we call “control pandemic,” where the virus is here, but it’s mainly hitting us in the cold season. So we are testing whether a fourth boost with a current vaccine or with an omicron-specific vaccine is the way to go. And we think that the pieces in the puzzle hopefully will translate to more of an annual boost to keep you really refueled with its great antibodies that protect you from getting symptomatic disease.

Dr. Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer Chief Medical Officer

But even today, if you vaccinate, you reduce the risk of getting into the hospital and a really bad outcome. So that’s why I say take the advice from CDC that says you should get vaccinated 12 years and up. Take it seriously. And we are learning now from the fourth boost what added value that may have or not have. We are seeing data that is encouraging that it may add value. So that’s good. And of course, Paxlovid, that we discussed, is a second line of defense here.

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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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