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Coronavirus Origins; Interview With Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Reaches 31,000. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 16, 2020 - 15:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington. It is Thursday, April 16, exactly one month after San Francisco and a number of California counties were the first to issue stay-at-home orders, beginning that domino effect of city and state shutdowns across America.

So, where are we now one month later?

Well, emergency federal funds to aid small businesses have run out as of today, almost $350 billion gone in just two weeks, as 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last four weeks.

And then the search for a vaccine and treatments to reduce the severity of coronavirus has scientists working overtime and getting creative, looking at vaccines specifically for elderly patients, and even at an Ebola drug.

We're going to talk as well to the mayor of Boston, where coronavirus is spreading among homeless Bostonians, who are not showing any symptoms confirming the worst fears about this virus.

And in a number of states, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, people are protesting the shutdown of their economies, this as sources tell CNN President Trump is pushing back on calls for greater testing before states can reopen.

And that's where we're going to start today, at the White House, with CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

And, Kaitlan, this was actually on a call where the president was pushing back on these calls for more widespread coronavirus testing. Tell us about this call.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was a call the president had today with senators. It was a bipartisan group, both Democrats and Republicans.

And this is part of this larger congressional task force that the president is building to help focus on reopening the country.

But one concern that we are told by sources that did come up during that call today was testing, which is exactly what the president heard from business executives yesterday, who basically were telling the president that, if we're going to reopen the country, we have got to dramatically increase the level of testing, so people feel comfortable going back to work and stores feel comfortable reopening their locations.

These senators today on this call told the president, basically, their concern was people who were asymptomatic going back to work, not having the ability to get tested, and then potentially spreading it to other people once they are, and just worsening the outbreaks that we're already seeing across the nation.

And we're told that the president pushed back on that, talking about how they have ramped up testing here in the U.S., which we know got off to an incredibly slow start and was one of the biggest failures of the response to the coronavirus outbreak here so far.

And so it's not clear if the president is heeding those concerns that he's heard for two days in a row now on this call with senators today and also on that call with business executives yesterday, because, in a few hours, he is scheduled to announce those new guidelines that he says are the first step toward reopening the country.

He's going to preview them on a call with governors first and then he's going to formally unveil them at his press briefing here this afternoon. So we're still waiting to see exactly what those are going to look like, if they're going to be state-specific.

We don't think they are right now, Brianna, but really -- we really don't have a lot of specifics, and we're still waiting on that.

KEILAR: All right, we will be waiting with you, Kaitlan. We know you will bring that to us. Thank you so much.

And the number of confirmed cases is continuing to rise in the U.S. It is now, as you can see on your screen, well above 600,000, this death toll eclipsing 31,000, obviously, as you can see there on your screen.

CNN's Erica Hill is in New York City. This is the epicenter of the virus.

And, Erica, the governor there, Andrew Cuomo, said that today they brought the rate of infection down, but he's still extending the social distancing restrictions for another month. Tell us about that.

ERICA HILL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he's extending what he refers to as New York on pause through May 15.

And it's interesting to note he often talks about working in concert with the tristate area, especially because, here in New York City, so many people who work in New York City, of course, may live in New Jersey, may live in Connecticut. So he wants to make sure that the states are coordinating.

But we also heard from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy today, who said schools will be closed in his state through May 15. And we know, of course, that Connecticut has its own pause in place through at least May 20.

So this continues. Schools will be closed. Nonessential businesses are also closed here in New York. And we also learned a little bit more about this face covering mandate that's going into effect here in just a couple of days.

And we know now that it applies to everyone over the age of 2, Brianna. You have to have a mask on. And, specifically, there were references made to transportation. If you're getting in an Uber or a Lyft car, if you were riding on the subway or if you're on a bus, you need to have your face covered.

And anybody who is operating those vehicles, the train or the bus, needs to do the same.

KEILAR: And it's so interesting, Erica, when you talk about progress. Progress looks like this right?

The governor gave this statistic, on average, about 2,000 people still going the hospital each day with coronavirus.


HILL: Yes, that's what he was saying. He said, we still had yesterday 2,000 people walk into a hospital. We had 600 people die.

And he talks about -- and I think we hear this from a number of elected officials around the country, just a reminder that each one of those who make up the 600 is a person who is connected to family and friends.

And this is still so personal. And while the numbers, as you point out, hospitalizations, the need for ICU, are coming down, this is in no way over. And that's why the measures are being extended.

KEILAR: All right, Erica Hill, thank you so much for the latest there from New York City.

And joining me now is Dr. Ofer Levy. He is an infectious disease specialist who is working on a vaccine at Boston Children's Hospital. He's also a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Doctor, thank you so much for joining us.


KEILAR: It's -- obviously, we want to hear a lot about these vaccine efforts.

I want to talk about first, briefly, on the fact that, since we don't have a vaccine, and we're seeing the president pressuring to reopen the economy, there's this question of what happens if you reopen it too soon without a vaccine.

What does that look like? LEVY: Well, first of all, let's identify the deep desire of probably

every American to get back to some semblance of normalcy. So, that's very understandable.

That said, the virus is out there. There's still a lot of susceptible people out there. We don't know exactly the proportion, but there are many. And if you reopen too soon or without careful consideration to how you reopen, the risk is another huge wave of infection that could potentially overwhelm hospitals.

KEILAR: So, you are -- we were talking in the break about this -- doing fascinating work, and you're doing it basically around the clock, modeling the human immune system outside of the body for young people, for basically babies, children, for grownups, as well as for the elderly.

Tell us about what you're looking at specifically when it comes to the elderly, because they have been so impacted by the coronavirus.

LEVY: Right. Well, thank you for that, Brianna.

Typically, vaccine development, early on, at least, disregards the characteristics of who you give the vaccine to, right, whether it's a man or a woman, young or old. But it turns out that some of these factors can play a big role in how you respond to a vaccine.

And typical vaccine development can sometimes take quite a long time. We at the Precision Vaccines Program are taking a very different approach. And we're trying to put the human aspect of the design very early in the process.

And we do that outside the body. We have bio-banks of white blood cells that have been donated by elderly individuals who want to support this effort. And we're able to test outside the body different types of candidate vaccines to see which may work best in that age group, because the immune system is very different in the elderly.

And, obviously, they're at greatest risk of severe coronavirus disease.

KEILAR: It's so beautiful that you have elderly Americans who are giving you those white blood cells to try to forward your research here.

I wonder what you think about something Dr. Fauci said yesterday. He said he believes that a vaccine could be ready for public rollout sooner than that 12 to 18 months that we have been hearing.

Do you share that optimism?

LEVY: Cautiously, I do. We're very grateful to Dr. Fauci's leadership.

And his National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he directs, is a major supporter of our research. I know how hard everyone at NIH and across academia, government and industry in the U.S. is working on this.

We would all -- listen, Brianna, we would all love to have a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible. In fact, we'd all love to have it yesterday. The fact of the matter is, if we manage to launch a safe and effective vaccine in less than a year, that sounds like it -- we wish we could have it even faster.

But to step back a second, traditionally, vaccine development has taken 10 to 20 years. We don't have that kind of time. But these are very, very fast timelines. They're basically based on using the most cutting-edge technologies, having unprecedented levels of collaboration between medical centers, academia, government and industry, which is what I see happening right now, and having this kind of concerted effort.

KEILAR: I want to revisit what you said about just how long this takes.

Just remind us the different phases this has to go through in order to develop this vaccine, just for people at home who are wondering, why does it take so long?

LEVY: Right.

So, to remember that vaccines have a key component -- we call that component an antigen. Why? Because it generates antibodies. You inject somebody with an antigen, and their immune system remembers that. And over a few weeks, you might form antibodies against that antigen that may protect you.


In the case of coronavirus, one possibility is that the antigen might be the spike protein on coronavirus. Many of your viewers have seen what the virus looks like, a ball with spikes on it. The tips of those spikes are a good protein antigen candidate, because we believe that antibodies against them will block the ability of the virus from infecting human cells.

So, all vaccines have some sort of antigen. But some vaccines also have a second component that we call an adjuvant. The adjuvant boosts the immune response. It's like rocket fuel to make the immune response much faster and stronger.

And that might be particularly important here, because even if we have a vaccine that's safe and effective, that will be a great milestone. But, remember, Brianna, we also are going to need to scale it up to hundreds of millions or billions of doses. That's far from trivial.

So, an adjuvant sometimes allows you to use less of the antigen, which is the expensive part, and an adjuvant lets you boost an immune response, so that a population with weak immunity, such as the elderly, may respond better to the vaccine.

Finally, the adjuvant may allow the response to last longer, so that if you do form an antibody against the coronavirus, it'll last for longer and you don't need as many doses of vaccine.

So, for all these reasons, we think that adding an adjuvant might be an important part of the ultimate solution here for an effective coronavirus vaccine. But the thing is, Brianna, that adjutants have different effects sometimes depending on the age of the individual.

And that's where our precision vaccines program is modeling which adjuvant might look best in the elderly.

KEILAR: Yes, you're taking care of all of the groups here, especially our elderly.

Dr. Levy, thank you so much for walking us through all of this and just taking us inside of the work that you're doing. Dr. Ofer Levy, we appreciate it.

LEVY: Thank you so much, Brianna.

KEILAR: Up next: President Trump wants to reopen the economy.

We will be talking to the mayor of Boston about what that could mean for his city, which is struggling right now to keep the virus under control.

Then, a Navy captain was fired for raising the alarm about coronavirus on his aircraft carrier. There may be, though, a new twist for his future.



KEILAR: A problem in a Boston homeless shelter is exposing a bigger issue with talk of reopening the entire country.

A Boston nonprofit tested everyone entering one homeless shelter. And, according to preliminary results of a study reported by NPR affiliate WBUR, out of almost 400 people, more than a third tested positive for the coronavirus, but most stunning of all, they were all asymptomatic, according to the nonprofit, no fever, no reported symptoms.

I want to bring in Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to talk to us about this.

And, Mayor, this speaks to the difficulties that we have been hearing a number of mayors talk about, which is treating the homeless population and mitigating their risk.

But this also speaks to the challenges that you're facing generally when you talk about trying to reopen your city. How do you do that, knowing that you could have a lot of people coming back to participate in the economy, and they're silent carriers?

MAYOR MARTY WALSH (D-BOSTON, MA): Well, I think, on that part of your question, I mean, I think that that's why, before we even open our cities, we have to have a plan for massive testing ability in the city of Boston and every city in America. I think having these conversations about reopening right now, I think

they're important conversations to have. And I think they should be being planned out in city halls and in state capitals all across the country.

But I think having an open conversation like this, and taking our attention off what's really first and foremost the most important thing, continuing talking about social distancing, continuing talking about isolation, staying six feet away from each other, washing your hands, covering your face, those are things that we should be focused on and stay focused on, because, if we don't stop the spread of the virus, if we decide to come back to work, whenever that is -- whenever we decide to come back to work, I should say, what's going to happen is, we could have another spike.

And then that will cause another whole head -- whole slew of other issues.


And I want to ask you about something the mayor of Los Angeles is saying. He's saying that gatherings such as concerts and sporting events, that these may not even come back until next year. Do you think that's going to be the case for Boston as well?

WALSH: Well, I think Mayor Garcetti could be right.

When you think about -- again, it depends on the data and the information that we have available to us and where we are with the coronavirus, what cases are still active. How much testing do we have? How many people are immune to the virus?

I think all of that -- all of those questions are still -- can't be answered right now. I know that very smart people are trying to figure that out. And I think, as we get this information, some of our decisions that we make moving forward will be clearer.

KEILAR: You have a number of universities in your area there. Do you think that they're going to reopen in the fall, as scheduled?

WALSH: I think -- I think they're going to -- they will.

But I think what it will be, it might be a different type of learning. I think colleges, universities have the ability to have social distancing in a classroom, and they're able to spread it around. They're able to do some online learning as well.

I think their biggest issue is going to be people living on campus. A lot of the dormitories are two and three roommates in a room. I think that that's where their challenges could be eventually.

But I think they certainly have the time right now to plan out what it looks like and what a college campus could look like. It'll probably be a lot different than maybe the freshman and sophomore experience this year, at least until the shutdown.


But I think that they can come up with plans to safely put people back to school. But, again, it goes back to the testing and where we are on testing.

The White House and Washington keeps talking about this -- all these tests coming down, and we haven't seen them yet. We have tested in Massachusetts about 125,000 people. We're a state of about 6.5 million people.

That's a small fraction of who we need to get tested to really get an understanding of where we -- what we look like in reality.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about a measure that you have taken, because I think a lot of people have anxiety when it comes to grocery shopping, right?

You have reversed the plastic bag ban in Boston, out of concern that reusable grocery bags could carry coronavirus more than normal bags. Can you just tell us what the basis was for that? What kind of science was the basis for that?

Because you do have so many people all over the country who are trying to look toward best practices.

WALSH: You know, it was also access to bags. A lot of our supermarkets were running out of bags. And being able to get -- the plastic ones were quicker to get.

It really came down to a safety concern. I think that a lot of people are still recycling. But we figured that this was one thing that we could do to get more bags in the hands of people, to get them in and out of the supermarkets faster.

And I think, as soon as this crisis is over, we're going to go back to all paper bags or recyclable bags in our stores, because, certainly, we do a lot of work here on the environment and environmental justice here in Boston. We're proud to be one of the leading cities in America.

And we want -- we look forward to going back to that. But it was just about getting the opportunity to get people in and out of these stores as quickly as possible.

KEILAR: All right, Mayor Walsh, thank you so much, Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston. We appreciate it.

WALSH: Thank you very much. Stay safe.

KEILAR: You as well, sir.

And we're going to talk about why the Trump administration is now looking into a theory that claims the coronavirus may have originated in a Chinese lab.

We will take a look at that next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KEILAR: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today says the U.S. government is -- quote -- "working diligently" to figure out the origin of coronavirus.

Sources tell CNN they're specifically looking into whether the virus spread from a Chinese laboratory, rather than a market, as previously reported.

Now, while those sources say it's premature to draw any conclusions, China continues to deny this accusation.

CNN's Kylie Atwood is joining us now live from the State Department.

And, Kylie, tell us about this, because, of course, this is coming as the administration is also focused on deflecting blame and focusing instead on the Chinese.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, that's right. That is extremely important context here, Brianna.

We have seen the Trump administration and allies of the president tried to deflect criticism by criticizing others for how they have handled the outbreak of this pandemic. It is a distracting mechanism.

But, at the same time, there are remaining questions about the precise origin of this novel coronavirus. So, national security and intelligence officials have told us that the U.S. government is looking into the possibility that this novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, instead of in a wet market.

Now, they are not saying that there's any reason to believe that this is a bioweapon, that this was a manmade by a weapon, but rather that it could have spread from a Chinese lab accidentally.

And it's important to note that, in the context of this conversation, the Chinese government has not been forthcoming over the last few months with regard to information they have provided to the world about this pandemic.

And that's one thing that Secretary Pompeo highlighted when he spoke about this last night and said that the U.S. is working to get to the origin of this virus. Let's listen to that.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The mere fact that we don't know the answers, that China hasn't shared the answers, I think, is very, very telling.

We really need the Chinese government to open up. They say they want to cooperate. One of the best ways they could find to cooperate would be to let the world in, to let the world's scientists know exactly how this came to be, exactly how this virus began to spread.


ATWOOD: Now, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also this morning said that it's inconclusive with regard to what they have yet seen about the origin of this virus.

So there are many unanswered questions. We know the U.S. government intelligence officials are looking into this as we speak -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Kylie, thank you so much for that report.

I want to talk now with Jamie Metzl. He's a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council. And Jamie also served on the National Security Council under President Clinton.

Jamie, thank you so much for joining us.


KEILAR: I mean, what do you make of this, this lab theory?

METZL: I think that it seems pretty likely to me -- I certainly don't have enough information. It sounds like U.S. intelligence doesn't have enough information to determine whether this is something that was a virus that was being studied, made, perhaps very likely, with very good intentions in a Chinese lab.

And there are two very high-level Chinese virology labs in Wuhan. And there was some kind of security breach. And they have had many security breaches.

And then there's the other story that -- which I don't believe at all, is that it emerged in this seafood market.