Dr. Jen Ashton talks COVID variants, impact on flu season


The Daybreak team spoke with ABC’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Jen Ashton over a wide array of questions in regards to the pandemic such as the Merck COVID pill, and what impact it could have on treatment. They also took a look at what the upcoming flu season could hold with COVID in the mix.

Gretchen: What are your thoughts about the Merck pill to treat COVID?

Dr. Jen Ashton:  I think when you talk about this anti-viral pill, for example, that’s being developed by Merck, they are asking for emergency use authorization, it’s possible, I want to underscore possible, that we can see that by the end of this calendar year and people should think of that similarly to the medication Tamiflu as both prevention and for treatment for influenza. So, I think that the more we have in our tool box, the better we will be, but whether it’s the Regeneron antibody cocktail or this Merck antiviral pill, they are not substitutes for vaccination. This is about a situation where medically I think the evidence is pretty clear you want to do more and not less.

Jake: And we’ve talked about the Delta variant, so much Dr. Ashton, it seems to now be the dominant strain, at least in our area, in the Midwest of the country. Should we be concerned about more variants in the future maybe the near future as we grow closer to the the holiday season or do you believe the Delta variant is what we will now call COVID-19?

Dr. Jen Ashton:  That’s a great question. I think the short answer is yes, we should all be concerned about the emergence of new variants. As the saying goes, viruses mutate for a living, so as long as there is a part of the world where this virus can circulate and replicate there will be new variants whether those variants are more dangerous to human beings or not remains to be seen, but that is always a possibility. So that’s why there’s a push to vaccinate so many people, not just here in this country, but around the world. If you talk to infectious disease experts, they say right now, it’s all about Delta, but tomorrow it may be another very and so that’s why we can’t relax and we can’t take our eye off the ball when you talk about what we’re dealing with with this pandemic and dealing with this virus.

Gretchen: Vaccine mandates, obviously a big hot topic right now we’re seeing with government workers, then California became the first state for schools so should we be vaccinating children and should be required for them to attend school. Should we be vaccinating children? And should it be required for them to attend school?

Dr. Jen Ashton: Well first of all, you know I like to stay in my Lane, and my lane is one of being a doctor and that of science. Luckily, I’m not making public policy and I’m not an elected politician or part of the administration when it comes to, you know, corporations or school districts, but I think that we’ve seen certainly in the course of this pandemic that vaccine mandates are effective. And there is a precedent there in public health, you know, in my hospital, for example, in the suburbs of New York City it is required to show that I’m tested and negative for tuberculosis every single year for me to work at that hospital. They also require influenza vaccination and children have a certain amount of childhood immunizations that are legally required for that child to attend school. Luckily, it’s not my decision to make, but I think that it’s a very fine line between respecting someone’s autonomy and protecting not only that person but the public health and well-being so I think that is we’re in uncharted waters in some ways when it comes down to this. When you talk about the pediatric age group I can tell you in all of our talks with the FDA and CDC here at ABC News, they have reassured us time and time again they are not taking any chances in terms of safety with this age group and they are prepared to take their time. And enroll more participants in these clinical trials to make sure that if they give authorization or approval in this pediatric age group, that they they are taking no chances when it comes to safety.

Jake: Dr. Ashton last question we’ve talked about for the last year and a half you have and we have, and for good reason is COVID, but we are getting into what is traditionally the flu season. Last year we basically had data showing us there’s virtually no flu, at least in our area, are you concerned about this flu season now that there is so much stress on COVID that people aren’t going to get their flu shot at a normal rate they usually do?

Dr. Jen Ashton: I’m glad you asked about influenza, you know, the short answer is I’m always concerned about flu because the only patient I’ve ever had die in my medical career was a patient who died of influenza and happened to be a pregnant teenager. So, I take it very seriously. I’ve had influenza twice even after having been vaccinated because the efficacy hovers around 35-40% and I can tell you that as a young healthy person, I actually thought I was going be hospitalized and put on a ventilator, I’ve never been so sick in my life. So, I’m always concerned about it. The concern with respect to this country this season is that we saw relatively zero influenza last year, so there’s not a lot of natural immune protection against flu here in the United States. As the saying goes, flu season is unpredictable, we really won’t know what we’re dealing with until it’s behind us and that’s why the CDC is still vigorously recommending that people get vaccinated whenever they can, certainly by the end of October is the CDC recommendation, but it is never too late and I will be getting my vaccine next month for sure.

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