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New Genetic Analysis Says Coronavirus Spread Quickly Starting in Late 2019; Medical Examiner in Illinois to Probe Earlier Deaths for Coronavirus; New Hot Spots Emerging as States Loosen Restrictions. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 6, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Force even as cases around the country go up. And now a new study shows this virus were spreading around the world far earlier than first thought. A genetic analysis reveals it has been mutating and circulating since late last year. We did not know that then, but we know this now. New hot spots are emerging across the country as states reopen.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Wow, that graph is so telling. It puts it into perspective. OK. Take a look, on the lower end, you see there, right on the left-hand side of the screen, you see New York cases and deaths going down, but more than a third of the country on the right- hand side still seeing the numbers going up.

All of this raising some serious questions about our nation's response and whether now is the time to back off strict guidelines.

Let's begin this hour with our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

Elizabeth, talk about this new study and what it reveals about the virus, why is it important to know, so important to know when it started circulating.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, so this is a study done out of a group in the United Kingdom. And they looked meticulously at the genetic sequence of viruses from people who were sick from all around different places in the world. And what they found as you mentioned is that this was circulating earlier than we thought. This is now the third piece of information we have, that leads to this same conclusion.

Autopsies in the U.S. from before we thought people were dying of this coronavirus showed the people were dying of it. Modeling that looked backwards also shows this and now genetic information shows us that this was circulating earlier than we thought. And when the book is written about coronavirus, probably one of the most important chapters is going to be that this was missed at the time.

I can remember covering this in early January. The thinking was, oh, this is something in China, well, it may have been here at this time as well -- Poppy, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, Elizabeth, I almost hate to ask this question, because so much hope now has been placed on vaccines. Does a mutating virus mean that any vaccine you have under way today will not treat a mutated version of this?

COHEN: You know, I was speaking with a vaccine expert about this, and he said, no, it doesn't mean that. A vaccine will still work. If we can come up with a vaccine, it's not a problem that it is mutating. And the reason why is that mutating is such a big scary word, I think, entire, you know, horror films have been based on that word, but that it's teeny tiny little changes. Even when coronavirus goes from one person to another, there are little tiny genetic differences.

But that is not a problem for a vaccine. Huge differences would be, but we're not seeing that with this virus and, you know, we're familiar with coronaviruses. There have been other ones and we don't see it with them either. So these little changes that we're seeing are important for tracking the virus and actually are helpful for tracking the virus, but a vaccine will still work despite these little tiny changes.

SCIUTTO: That's good to hear. Thank you, Elizabeth Cohen.

Let's get now to CNN's Omar Jimenez, he's in Chicago where officials there are now planning to review deaths as far back as November to see if some of those can be attributed to coronavirus.

And, Omar, specifically, they're going to look at deaths involving heart attacks and pneumonia. I mean, this would be alarming in some degrees, right, because I imagine if proven it would raise the death toll.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim, and when they're looking at these cases, they say they could very well go through this entire process and find their first confirmed case here was exactly as has been reported. But they want to make sure, and obviously if cases can be confirmed from before that date, even as early as November, potentially, that would change the entire way this virus has been studied at least here in this city.

Now specifically you touched on what exactly they're going to be looking for. They're going to be looking specifically at cases of viral pneumonia and at heart attacks not brought on by cases of heart failure. And I mentioned they're going to be looking at cases as far back as November, well, they also tell me if they do find a case back again months ago, that would prompt them to look even further.

So this is really a beginning step that could lead to another one as well. Now again, when they're looking at these cases, the timeline for this was back in late January, January 24th, when we saw the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Chicago. It's the second confirmed case in the U.S. at the time.

Then by March 16th was when we saw our first death here in this city and now here we are just at the beginning of May, that number is over 50,000 confirmed cases for this county. And nearly 2,000 deaths, again, just months and a half removed. The implications are huge for cases potentially earlier than January -- Jim.

HARLOW: Yes, for sure. Omar, thanks so much for the reporting from Chicago.

Let's get to Ed Lavandera, our colleague now in Dallas.

Ed, as states push ahead on reopening, there are reports of new hot spots as we just saw in that "New York Times," you know, that graphic, emerging around the country, right?


So much focus has been here on New York, but hot spots in other places as well. In rural areas.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we are seeing that in various places and there is a widespread plan on how exactly to handle this. Axios had an interesting map out this morning showing basically averaging the number of cases over the course of the last week in 50 states and what it showed was a worrisome trend in various places including Minnesota, Nebraska and Puerto Rico.

It showed that there were positive trends in about 12 states or so, but more than a third of the nation, and that includes here in Texas, over the course of the last week we've seen a growing number of cases. And this comes as the governor here in Texas, Greg Abbott, has pushed forward the opening date for hair salons, nail salons and barbershops. That will now happen this Friday.

Originally the governor had said that they were looking at about a mid-May timeframe to enter into that phase two of the reopening of the Texas economy here. But that has been moved up. The governor here says he's looking at trends of more than just the number of cases including positive infection rate and that sort of thing, and also the ability to send out teams to trace and contain the virus. They said that instead of blanket plan for the entire state, that there will be more focus on where the hot spots flare up within the state of Texas.

Despite that, here, Poppy and Jim, there are a number of people who say they are -- they're worried about how this plan will roll out and what it will do to the spread of the virus here in Texas.

Back to you guys.

SCIUTTO: Ed Lavandera, in Texas, thanks very much.

With us now, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, he's professor of medicine at George Washington University, also served as White House medical adviser under George W. Bush.

Doctor, good to have you on this morning. You've heard the news that the president planning to wrap up the Coronavirus Task Force. You have Jared Kushner declaring victory in the response here. I just wonder as a medical professional, looking at the data, the

spread of this, does that decision match with the data about the outbreak that you're watching?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, we're right in the middle of the outbreak. I think the one region of the United States where we're clearly on the downslope now is the New York metropolitan area. When you look outside of New York, across the country, we're still very much at the peak of the outbreak. So it's curious timing to dissolve the task force at this time.

But I'm not so sure that's necessarily the worst thing to happen. There's always been this kind of uneasy mix of science and spin at these task force briefings, and I sort of felt a little bit bad for Doctors Fauci and Birx, watch them cringe at some of the spin coming out of those sessions.

I would like to see a public briefing once a week from the scientists, you know, without any of the political spin. I think that would be helpful for the country to hear directly from Doctors Fauci and Birx once a week to get a sort of unvarnished view of where we are in the pandemic.

HARLOW: Yes. Thank goodness they're still, you know, doing interviews.


HARLOW: But, yes, it would be helpful. Let me ask you this. Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the CDC, said something yesterday that was striking and important, and I don't think should be missed. He said, quote, "If you have money and you're white, you can do well here. If you're not, good luck to you." And you couple that with a new study out of -- from four different universities who compiled this data that shows even though African-Americans only make up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population, they have accounted for some 60 percent of the deaths from COVID-19.

We knew this was a problem when the data started coming out. I wonder if you think states and the federal government are doing enough to address this and what can be done?

REINER: Well, the pandemic has clearly disproportionately affected the African-American community and the United States. And it's not that hard to understand why. In the African-American community, more folks have to go to work and can't telecommute. In that community, a lot of people, you know, work in public facing jobs with contact to the public. A lot of people take public transportation to work.

And these are all the kinds of venues that help to propagate the virus. So there is really been a terrible toll taken by the African- American community. And they also have a lot of the co-morbidities that have been associated with adverse outcomes once you acquire the virus, you know, such as hypertension and heart disease. So, yes, we have a long way to go to understand this more fully and to try and cut into this terrible toll. HARLOW: Yes.


SCIUTTO: Dr. Reiner, you know, if the mistakes early on in this outbreak were one playing down the danger early on before coming to grips with it, and, two, not testing and contact tracing widely enough as we saw other countries do that had better experience in terms of tamping this down, South Korea, for example.

If those are the mistakes early on, at this stage, and you say we're in the middle of it, are those same mistakes being repeated as the U.S. responds to this and moves forward with relaxing social distancing?

REINER: Absolutely. I think, you know, multiple groups have shown that in order to get really on top of this virus and contain it going forward, we need to test at a much higher level than we're testing now. The White House had touted the fact that we had tested 250,000 people last week. We need to be testing many multiples of that. People think we need to test perhaps in the millions of people every day and contact trace like crazy.

Countries in Asia have very aggressive contact tracing and seek to try and find all the contacts of the new case within a couple of hours of diagnosis. We don't have the people to do that. We need to build the army of people to do that and certainly have a lot of employed people who can be trained to do this and spin up in, you know, a quick period of time.

HARLOW: Dr. Reiner, quickly before we go.


HARLOW: Jim asked Elizabeth Cohen a really good question about if the virus mutates, will the vaccine not work, and she said, no, it will. But when, you know, I get a flu vaccine or my kids get a flu vaccine, you hope that it's as efficacious as possible, but it's not foolproof.

Is the same going to be true with the COVID vaccine or will it act more like a polio vaccine?

REINER: Well, we don't know. I think the big question with a potential COVID-19 vaccine is whether a single vaccine will give you durable immunity or will --


REINER: Or will you require vaccinations, you know, yearly? We simply don't know yet. It does appear that this virus has mutated which might have changed a little bit of virulence of the virus. It might explain some of the differences we've seen in the United States. New York, with possibly a more virulent strain of the virus than perhaps the West Coast. So we're learning a lot more about this as time goes on.

HARLOW: OK. Dr. Reiner -- SCIUTTO: That's -- I've not heard that thought yet, Poppy. That's


HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: The more virulent. Something to keep on top of.

HARLOW: Yes. It's a great point. Thank you, Dr. Reiner. Nice to have you.

REINER: My pleasure. Thank you.

HARLOW: Former Vice President Al Gore and director Spike Lee will join Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta live for a new CNN Global Town Hall, "CORONAVIRUS FACTS AND FEARS." It airs tomorrow night 8:00 Eastern, only right here on CNN.

SCIUTTO: And still to come this hour, the president just tweeting about the task force and its future. We're going to tell you what he's saying about it.

HARLOW: Also, are you ready to get back on a plane? Airlines taking measures to try to make your trip as safe as possible. The CEO of Southwest Airlines is going to join us to talk about what they're doing.

And grocery stores limiting the amount of meat you can buy? Some Wendy's restaurants out of beef? What is being done to shore up the nation's food supply in the middle of this pandemic?



SCIUTTO: Well, some news just moments ago, President Trump has tweeted in part that the coronavirus taskforce will continue on indefinitely with its focus on safety and opening up our country again. Interesting balancing of goals there. He did say that the administration might add or subtract some people.

HARLOW: It'd be good to know who. All of this as Dr. Rick Bright who once led the office in charge of helping to develop a vaccine for COVID has filed a whistle-blower complaint, saying warnings about the virus from him were ignored, that it became a hostile environment. Our Dana Bash and Jeremy Diamond join us to discuss. We'll get to that whistle-blower complaint because it is striking in a moment.

But Dana, if I could just begin with you and this announcement from the president following CNN's reporting yesterday that they were going to wind down the taskforce.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: CNN's reporting followed by the president himself --

HARLOW: Right -- BASH: During his trip to Arizona is not only pretty much explicitly

saying it, but coming up with lots of reasons why he thought it was appropriate to begin to wind down the taskforce, obviously, thinking largely politically with the notion that, you know, taskforce equals crisis. November is coming, and they want to get back to normal whatever that is. And this morning it's whiplash.

It's not the first time we all kind of, you know, need to steady ourselves to try to figure out where exactly the president is coming from. But you know, these tweets just happen, Jeremy and all of us are going to obviously start to do some digging to figure out what was he watching, who called him, you know, all of the likely scenarios that we have seen play out when the president does such a 180 frankly, like he did between last night and this morning.

SCIUTTO: Jeremy, notable in the president's comment there is that the taskforce will continue, but with a dual role, it seems not just getting a handle on --


SCIUTTO: The outbreak, but on reopening the country. I mean, is that -- I'm curious because these are health experts, but it's -- do you read in there that the president is going to switch some of their attention to ways to reopen the economy from their explicit mission early on, which was getting a handle on the outbreak.

DIAMOND: Well, look, there is no question that in recent days and weeks, President Trump has increasingly been trying to pivot towards focusing on the economy. We even heard the president's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner say last week that we are passed on the side of the medical aspect of this, which of course, certainly is not true, particularly as we see these rising cases, rising deaths.


But this is -- it seems to be the president's way to still do that pivot without disbanding the taskforce because of criticism that he has seen in the last 24 hours since that "New York Times" report, since our reporting, since the Vice President himself also confirmed that this is something that the White House was looking to do. But I do think that the point where President Trump says in his tweet, "we may add or subtract people to it as appropriate is especially notable here."

Because what does that mean? Does that mean that the president is going to add economic experts and take away some of the medical experts from the team? It's not exactly clear at this point. But certainly, it seems like the president is leaving the door open to that possibility. I mean, look, it does seem at times like this administration is trying to kind of will this pandemic out of existence.

We saw that yesterday with the -- what we expected to be this decision to disband the taskforce, but also frankly, the president's comments that the U.S. testing capacity is far beyond what it is. Jared Kushner's comments about being --

HARLOW: Yes --

DIAMOND: On the other side of the medical aspect of this. But ultimately, facts and figures are stubborn things.

HARLOW: They are. Very well said. Dana, this whistle-blower complaint from Dr. Rick Bright who used to run the office in charge of trying to develop the vaccine to fight this, let me just read part of it because he was removed, he says, because -- partly because of his warnings about that drug that the president touted so much, hydroxychloroquine. And he told reporters, quote, "I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government." What is the White House saying about it?

BASH: Well, they're coming out with some criticisms that have now been reported including by CNN of Dr. Bright, pre-coronavirus pandemic and even during, heard about personnel issues and other problems he allegedly had. The good news is that, you know, as much as the White House is trying to hold back on allowing Congress to do its oversight function, which is constitutionally-mandated, I should say, we are going to see Congress do that next week because Dr. Bright is apparently as of now planning to testify before a house committee.

So that we can hear lawmakers ask him under oath questions about his experience, and it will be a bipartisan obviously, as it is supposed to be. One other quick point when you mentioned whistle-blower, I also think and it's sort of in keeping with the notion of allegations that we heard from Dr. Bright about cronyism, the unbelievable "New York Times" story which started out with a smaller "Washington Post" story yesterday about the way Jared Kushner brought in volunteers, young volunteers with no experience from Wall Street and other places to almost supersede what is supposed to be a government function by FEMA.

People who are trained and training for their entire professional lives to deal with a pandemic like this, and they were told to put people who know the president, higher --


BASH: On the food chain, more than others, and to me that's exhibit A of what happens when you have a government that comes in, that just cannot stand the notion of government, and you have the president's son-in-law who has kind of a carte blanche.

SCIUTTO: Well, the other consistent part of that story is the cronyism allegation there, right? Is there, the VIP list --

BASH: Exactly --

SCIUTTO: Where they steered contracts to particular places with ties to the president, even to calls from "Fox News" personalities to get direction.

BASH: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Well, anyway, worth reading for everyone at home. Dana Bash, Jeremy Diamond, thanks to both of you.

BASH: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: This morning, the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is expected to be back at work but from her hospital bed. She will join the court's teleconference as it hears oral arguments. Justice Ginsburg is recovering at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after being treated for a gall bladder condition on Tuesday. A spokeswoman says she is, quote, "resting comfortably and will stay in the hospital for a day or two.

HARLOW: Wishing her the best and a quick recovery. All right, uncertainty in the sky, the airline industry hammered as you know by COVID-19. We're going to talk to the head of one of the country's largest domestic carriers about how it is adjusting and keeping passengers safe. The CEO of Southwest Airlines is here, next.



HARLOW: All right, to fly or not to fly. That is going to be the major question for so many Americans as businesses reopen across the country. Southwest Airlines says it sold just 6 percent of its seats to paying passengers last month, and this month, the airline again expecting revenue to be down at least 90 percent. Joining me now to talk about the state of the industry, Southwest Airlines Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly.

Gary, it's so nice to have you. I've known you and covered the airline for more than a decade, and certainly, I know you never expected to be in a position like this. Let's start with safety, right? Because that is the most important issue at hand here. For people living in states that have opened up, would you advise them to bring their families on a plane right now for any travel that's non-essential?

GARY KELLY, CHAIRMAN & CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: Well, thanks, Poppy, it's great to be with you and I look forward to seeing you again soon. But yes, we have two basic priorities right now, obviously, safety and health is the overarching priority. Safety is always our top priority, but certainly now. And the other is cash which I'm sure we'll get to.

But yes, we've got a multi-layered approach to making sure that we've got a healthy environment, first of all, for our employees, and we have a duty to them. And then second of all, you know, for our customers. So we're urging the TSA as an --