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As coronavirus spreads, better care and younger patients means fewer will die, Dr. Scott Gottlieb says

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As the coronavirus infects younger people and doctors learn to provide better care to patients, the death rate of Covid-19 could drop in coming weeks, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Tuesday.

A number of governors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have said young people account for many new infections in their states. Young and otherwise healthy people are less likely to die of Covid-19, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though they can develop severe disease and scientists are still researching the long-term health effects of an infection.

“As the hospitals fill up with Covid patients, we’re going to see how much the mortality rate declines as a function of it’s a younger cohort, younger age cohort, but also we have better treatment,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “There’s no question that we’re going to preserve more life now that we have these therapeutic opportunities available to us.”

In Florida, DeSantis noted last week that the average age of those who test positive has fallen from 65.5 years old in March to 37 in June, citing that as evidence the state is effectively protecting the most vulnerable. Some health officials, however, have warned that even if mostly younger people are getting infected right now, they are likely to go on and spread the disease to older people and those with underlying conditions who are more vulnerable.

Hospitalizations, which lags behind confirmed cases as people develop symptoms and seek medical attention, are on the rise in Texas and at least 15 other states, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Gottlieb noted that hospitalizations are not rising at the same rate relative to new infections as they were back in March and early April. That means a smaller portion of those infected are being hospitalized. 

And doctors are better prepared to treat Covid-19 patients now than they were when some hospitals in New York City were overwhelmed about three months ago, Gottlieb said. He added that since then, doctors have begun to use ventilators more sparingly and opt instead for other treatment options that could be less traumatic for patients. 

“We will see that affect outcomes and we’ll preserve more life,” Gottlieb said. “No question about that.”

While there’s still no FDA-approved treatment for Covid-19, Gottlieb said that a number of companies are working on different therapeutics and making steady progress. He said he’s particularly hopeful of pharmaceutical company Regeneron’s potential antibody drug. Pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly, which began trials of its antibody drug earlier this month, said a treatment could be authorized, if all goes well, as early as September.

So far, Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir is the only drug to show some effectiveness in treating the disease.

Earlier this month, researchers from Oxford University announced they found that dexamethasone, a cheap and widely used steroid, reduced death rates by about a third among the most severely ill Covid-19 patients. Gottlieb previously said the drug could have an “immediate impact” in bringing down the mortality rate of the disease.

“I think one or more of these will be successful,” Gottlieb said. “The challenge is going to be that they’re probably going to be most beneficial when introduced earlier in the course of disease and we’re going to be dose limited.”

Some companies, especially vaccine manufacturers, have said they are ramping up manufacturing capacity before their potential vaccines are approved so that they can quickly roll it out at scale if it proves safe and effective in humans. Gottlieb said therapeutic manufacturers do not appear to be taking the same route, which could lead to constrained supply.

“If I was in the government now, this is what I’d be focused on, trying to free up domestic manufacturing capacity and make these drugs at scale,” he said. “We don’t seem to be doing that, which is a challenge.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina.

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