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BioNTech and Pfizer Say Vaccine Could Be Ready for Approval by Mid-October; Nine Biotech Firms Sign Safety Pledge for Potential COVID-19 Vaccine; More Than 1.8 Million Students Begin School Today, Almost All Online; University of Illinois Leads Push for Increased Saliva-Based Testing; President Trump Cites Soldiers Love Him Except the Top Brass; Fire Sparked By Gender Reveal Party in California Grows to Nearly 10,000 Acres; Outbreaks of COVID Hit Universities Across the U.S. As Students Return. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 8, 2020 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. We're glad to be back with you together. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Indeed. Nice to be back paired up. I'm Jim Sciutto.

Post-holiday, in the midst of a pandemic, health experts worry about another surge, particularly after the holiday weekend, and tell Americans to stay vigilant, simple stuff like wearing masks.

Nearly two million students, and that means you too, parents, will return to school today mostly, though, online, we know what that means at home, and the race for a vaccine becomes more intense as the president digs in on his push for one by election day. Health experts have openly doubted that timeframe and they're also concerned about any political influence on the science. But this morning a new development.

HARLOW: Yes. An encouraging one. The CEO of BioNTech, it's a German biotech company, they tell CNN they believe a vaccine made in conjunction with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer could be ready for approval by the FDA by the middle of next month.

Now BioNTech is one of nine vaccine makers to sign a new safety pledge this morning to uphold, quote, "high ethical standards." It suggests they won't seek any premature approval for a vaccine until the trial is complete. This pledge comes after the FDA head said the agency would consider emergency authorization for a vaccine before the critical phase three trials are done.

We're following all of this this morning. Let's begin there, though, with our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, and he joins us in berlin.

I mean, Fred, you had a fascinating interview with the CEO of this company that I think for a lot of Americans they're hearing about this company for the first time this morning.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they certainly are. BioNTech, obviously very much a German company, Poppy, but they did come together with Pfizer to try and work on this COVID- 19 vaccine. And they do say that they are now very, very close to being able to submit it for approval.

Now, the CEO of that company, Ugur Sahin, I talked to him earlier today and he told me that they are right now in a phase three test. They obviously have a lot of people who are already part of this test. They say about 25,000 people so far. They say they want to get about 30,000.

They say the big unknown that they still have with all this, they believe they can get this done by the middle of October, but of course when you have big studies like this the way that you do this is you give some people the vaccine, you give other people a placebo, and a lot of people of course have to come into contact with the virus itself to show that the vaccine is actually fighting the virus off.

Now they say they're in the middle of collecting that data, but depending on how that goes, they say that they could have this vaccine, BNT 162, ready to submit for approval by either the middle of October, the end of October or maybe the beginning of November was the way that they put it. However, Ugur Sahin, the CEO of that company, says he's very, very confident in this vaccine in both the safety and the efficacy.

And one of the things that he made very clear is he said they did not cut corners in this any way, shape or form. They said that's not something that they would do and they believe it would be very detrimental if they did try to cut corners, but again very confident that they can get this done very soon -- guys.

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, thanks very much.

Well, in light of those fears about cutting corners due to politics, both Pfizer and BioNTech are two of nine biopharmaceutical companies that have signed a pledge, essentially promising that they won't seek premature government approval for any COVID-19 vaccines.

HARLOW: Let's bring in our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

Good morning, Elizabeth. I mean, obviously it's significant, but just thinking about why they even feel like they have to sign a pledge to say they're going to act ethically, it sort of -- it seems like it'd be a given.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's actually kind of sad that they have to make this statement. It's sort of like farmers saying, don't worry we're not going to sell you sour milk. Well, we all kind of assumed that no one would ever try to sell us sour milk. We all kind of assumed you would never go to the FDA and ask for permission to sell a vaccine that hasn't been proven safe and effective. But let's take a look at some recent polling numbers that kind of

explained why they felt the need to make this pledge. This is a poll by CBS. What they found is that only 21 percent of Americans plan to get it as soon as possible when a vaccine does come out.

If a vaccine comes out. And 58 percent said they would consider it but would wait. Waiting is not really what we want people to do. Right? We want to get out of this pandemic. And 21 percent, one out of five said they would never get it.

Those are not great numbers. We need this vaccine if and when it comes out to get out of this pandemic. And this kind of hesitation, it's not going to help us.

SCIUTTO: We know -- we've talked about on this broadcast, Elizabeth, how they're actually manufacturing these vaccines as they're testing them so that the ramp-up to getting out to the population would be quicker than normal, but do we know anything about the timeline?

I mean, this country of 330 million, you know, once approval is reached, what is the most realistic time line that you, me, Poppy, and anybody watching this broadcast will get -- how many weeks or months after the day of approval?


COHEN: Well, you know, you and Poppy and I, we are not frontline workers. We are not residents of nursing homes. So we will not be in the first group to get this vaccine and rightly so. It will be rolled out over a number of months. And I also want to note that, you know, despite this optimism that we're hearing from Pfizer and from BioNTech, that Fred just talked about, you know, we need to take that with a grain of salt.

When you use the word could, it covers all sorts of things, right? I mean, I could get drafted by the WNBA tomorrow even though I'm 5'2" and 54 years old and extremely uncoordinated.


COHEN: I could. But I mean, come on, I am --

SCIUTTO: So, Elizabeth, I hope you're telling me I have hope as well? I just want to be clear about that.

COHEN: Right. Right. That's not going to happen. And every expert I've talked has said there's no way they're going to get the date. Could they? Sure.


COHEN: But they say that there is practically no way they're going to get the data they need. As a matter of fact, I interviewed a federal official. This is someone who works in the Trump government who said he has not spoken to a single scientist who thinks there is any way to get shots in arms by election day. HARLOW: OK. I'm not ruling out your WNBA dreams because there was

someone named Spud Webb. Do you remember?

COHEN: Well, thank you.

HARLOW: How tall was he? But on a much more serious and very important note, there's this new ad campaign out today and it's aiming to recruit minority participants in these trials where there's been a real dearth and that prevents an accurate reading of how effective this is across the board.

COHEN: Right.

HARLOW: What are they like?

COHEN: Absolutely. It's a real problem and so folks at the NIH said we've got to improve this, we're going to do some ads to kind of tell people what these -- sort of inspire people to join these trials. They're going to air starting today on major television networks as well as BET, Univision and other networks. Let's take a quick listen to a clip from one of the ads.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that someone, somewhere is full of hope and strength, and wants to take action and will take a step forward to hug her grandkids. Walking the walk and rolling up their sleeves to go back to normal sooner. Volunteer to find the COVID-19 vaccine.


COHEN: So again, these ads start airing today and they hope that it will inspire more minorities to volunteer to participate in the trials -- Poppy, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

Now to the 1.8 million kids, maybe some of your own, starting school today. Most of them online only classes and now we've learned sadly of a ransomware attack affecting some schools, getting in the way of those online tools.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is on it. So, Dianne, we saw a case in Florida, right, and it turned out to be a 17-year-old kid interrupting some of this. Well, what are we learning now here in Georgia?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So this is actually in Hartford, Connecticut.


GALLAGHER: It's Hartford public schools that was supposed to start classes today and instead they have to delay that first day of school because of a ransomware attack that is affecting their systems including in part how they do their transportation and their bus systems. So they sent out a message basically telling parents and students we are sorry, we really wanted to begin. They were doing both in-person and online classes. They're going to be unable to do that.

As you mentioned, Jim, look, this isn't the first case of ransomware affecting school days in children that we know of. Miami-Dade County students dealt with this last month and even beyond ransomware. In the state of North Carolina on the first day of school in August, they had a problem with their online system that prevented a lot of students from being able to go to school online that first day.

And look, going to school online many districts have decided is the safer option when it comes to the COVID-19 spread. But it's not without complications. We're talking more than seven million students who are online only right now. Among the largest 101 districts, 67 are starting the school year all online for at least a portion. And we talked about what a big first day of school this is right now, well, of the 16 largest districts that are starting today, 14 of them are online only.

And both of you are parents. You understand like so many other parents the complications that arise from having your children learn at home. It's this choice they've had to make and many districts deciding it is just safer this way.

HARLOW: Wish them a lot of luck. Dianne, thank you for that reporting.

Well, in an effort to keep college students safe and in the classroom, the University of Illinois has been using this saliva testing program, broadly across the entire university. They run 10,000 of these tests per day. Results can come in hours, not days or weeks.


Last Monday in Champagne County, with schools located, more than 15,000 test results were returned.

SCIUTTO: That accounts for one-third of results in the entire state. Since students returned to campus three weeks ago, the university has now conducted more than 200,000 tests.

Joining us now, Dr. Martin Burke, he's associate dean of research at Carle, Illinois, College of Medicine.

Doctor, thanks so much for joining us this morning.


SCIUTTO: So you say you want to turn testing like this into a weapon to rid us of this virus here. You know this is a big -- it's an experiment, right, happening across the country. Particularly at universities, people come back, and we've talked to a lot of university administrators on the show here and many of whom have said, listen, if you test aggressively you could do this safely, right? You find the folks who have it. You isolate and therefore you can keep the campuses open, right, with those controls.

And I just wonder if you think that this is a tool that can effectively do that.

BURKE: Absolutely. So our initial results are very encouraging. So as you mentioned, we've performed now 200,000 tests since our students returned. There have been challenges but overall it looks very encouraging that we've been able to keep the pandemic under control and our numbers now after an initial bump with the students coming back, they're coming down. And we feel very optimistic that this could be a model for how to open and stay open safely, which we're really hopeful we can get extended to many others.

HARLOW: Dr. Burke, it's really nice to have you back. We had you a few weeks ago as you were just rolling this out so I'm just so glad to hear how effective it has proven and the fact that it's 10 bucks a test. Right? So it's affordable. I'm about to actually administer a saliva test to my 4-year-old this afternoon. That's what her school in New York City is asking for. And I know the state of Illinois wants to do this across the state. How far do you think we are from that statewide?

BURKE: Great. We're working really hard to achieve that. We've stood up a university-run organization called Shield Illinois. This is being led by Ron Watkins and pioneered by our president Tim Killeen in partnership with Governor Pritzker. And there's an all-out effort to expand our testing capability throughout the entire state. Again, our encouraging results suggests this can work and so we're doing everything we can to try to expand that as fast and as far as possible.

We're building mobile labs that would actually be testing labs on a truck that you could roll in to hotspots and really help even further increase testing in places that need it most. There's a lot of innovation going on, a lot of creative hard work. And we're really hopeful this could make a difference.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it's frustrating, right? Because for months experts have been saying, you've got to test aggressively to control this. It's not a new discovery here. But just glad to see that you guys are putting it in action.

A question for you, a big portion of this on campus is student behavior, right? And wear the mask, don't go to parties, hug everybody, you know, this kind of thing. What luck are you having with college students in both encouraging that behavior and then I know punishing is the right word, but, you know, for folks who break it, what do you do about them?

BURKE: So we have fantastic students at the University of Illinois. And I got to tell you, the vast majority of them are doing everything they can. It's actually been incredibly encouraging to see how much they've partnered with us.

You know, I think they're rightly proud that their university is being viewed as a global model for how we might be able to reopen safety and stay open safely. That said, two weekends ago we did have some students who made some really bad choices about their socialization behavior. And it did cause a problem and we saw a transient rise in cases.

Now the really good news is because we were testing everyone fast and frequently, we saw this very early and we were able to make quick, corrective actions. The students were disciplined and the rest of them honestly rose up and with the most strongest voices to say come on, let's knock it off, and let's really make sure that we get this back on track. And now actually we're very much headed back in the right direction.

As of today, we're actually going to pivot our testing strategy a bit to focus even more on testing our undergraduates faster and potentially even more frequently in some cases to follow the data and follow the science and help make sure the program can be as effective as possible.


HARLOW: Very quickly, do you know if the university is going to mandate when a vaccine is approved by the FDA, whether all students and staff need to get it?

BURKE: Yes, I don't think any decisions have been made on that point thus far. And it's still very much a part of the discussion and work in progress.

HARLOW: OK. Dr. Burke, congratulations. We're going to be watching it.

BURKE: Well, thanks so much. Thanks. Thanks.

HARLOW: Of course.

All right. Well, still to come another university town, the University of Iowa has seen more than a thousand COVID cases recently, but we'll talk to a student who says despite that, the school should keep in- person classes.

SCIUTTO: And the president denies allegedly dismissing U.S. service members who died in battle as losers and suckers. But at the same press conference he launches an unprecedented attack on military commanders.

Plus, wildfires raging across California yet again. We're live at the site where a gender reveal party ignited a blaze that's now burning 10,000 acres.



HARLOW: This is a huge debate and it rages on. Should college campuses be open right now? This morning, the University of Iowa is one of several facing some push-back since tracking COVID cases in mid-August, 1,395 students and 19 faculty members have tested positive there for COVID-19.

And in a response, hundreds of them protested on campus, calling for it to be closed, staging a sickout. My next guest, however, disagrees. He e-mailed the university's president, saying, we should stay open. Jacob Siefke is with me, he is a sophomore at the University of Iowa, good morning, thanks for being here.

JACOB SIEFKE, STUDENT, UNIVERSITY OF IOWA: Good morning, nice to see you.


HARLOW: When you look at those numbers and you look at the huge uptick we've seen across the state of Iowa in just the last week, why? I mean, what is your argument for keeping the university open, and those classes that were in-person remaining in-person?

SIEFKE: Good question. I got a few things. Now, one thing I got I think is a symbol of your old and some professors old as that college education is very important to the student life, and it gives you a valuable experience that you'll have later in life. And we all say that college teaches you how to think, and that's the importance of it.

Another thing I have is actually one of this thing and my university does, they send out e-mails every two days of the new number of cases. And last week, yes, there was a big uptick. There was about 200 to 300 cases every few days, but in the last e-mail, I got, now there actually has been a bit of a downturn. There was about 175 new cases.


SIEFKE: So I believe if we keep -- if we act responsible and do things like social distancing, wearing mask, et cetera, don't go to parties, then we can keep COVID reasonably contained.

HARLOW: I'm so glad, and I saw that number too, that the cases are going down, now that's good. I know the university said 76 percent of the classes are online, right? The majority of them aren't in person. But what you said right there is key, right? If we don't go to parties, if we act in a safe manner and you do, right? And you've talked about that. But I want to talk about the impact more broadly on your town. It is a college town, right? And when you --

SIEFKE: Exactly --

HARLOW: Despite the mandatory mask-wearing on campus, despite restricting parties to 10 people and more college kids don't always follow that, and I think that has been shown in the first few weeks there.

You've got the mayor of Iowa city saying that there's a 30 percent positivity rate within the 24-hour period last Wednesday, and then a "New York Times" reported this, quote, "within days, students were complaining they couldn't get coronavirus tests, then they were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation. Undergraduates were jamming the sidewalks, in downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins." How do you get students --

SIEFKE: Sure --

HARLOW: To all act safely when that's happening?

SIEFKE: Well, then I think the only thing the university needs to do is enforce actual discipline. I'll give you an example. I read this story actually comes from Purdue University is that at the beginning of the year, there's a group of students who are over 30 of them, they held a party, they didn't social distance, they didn't wear masks, and the university suspended all of them. And I think that's something that Iowa needs to do. They need to be -- have stricter rules and regulations for students to act responsibly and keep each other safe.

HARLOW: What about testing? Because we just heard from the University of Illinois in the last segment where they're doing universal saliva testing and it's proved really effective. There's not universal testing at the University of Iowa, the university points us to the CDC. They say the CDC says that you don't have to universally test before kids come back to college. But one of your fellow student, Ever Sellar(ph) tells CNN it's profoundly quote, "irresponsible that the university didn't mandate universal testing".

And the White House taskforce recently said "university towns need a comprehensive plan that scales immediately for testing and returning all students with routine surveillance testing." Was it a mistake for the university not to implement universal testing?

SIEFKE: Well, I think given -- I don't think they've yet adopted the saliva testing that U of Illinois has, but I think if there's a safer way to do it, as in -- so that not everyone -- crowd around one place, where guys hanging out, then I'm all for it.

HARLOW: You think it would help?

SIEFKE: I think it would.


SIEFKE: Because there are still a lot of cases, sometimes it's asymptomatic.

HARLOW: Yes, exactly. Jacob, good luck to you, stay healthy, we appreciate you being here.

SIEFKE: All right, thank you very much.

HARLOW: Thanks, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, the president professes his love for the military, at the same time he attacks leaders, commanders of the military. CNN learning more about this increasingly strained relationship from the inside coming up next.

And we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, stocks should start the day lower as investors will keep an eye on Brexit, British and European Union officials begin trade talks today, the transition period for the U.K. to leave the EU is over at the end of this year. And worry is growing, the time is running out for some sort of agreement for that departure.



HARLOW: Welcome back. Well, several defense officials tell CNN the relationship between the president and Pentagon leaders is increasingly strained for days. The president has denied reports that he made a series of disparaging remarks about the military, about service members and veterans. And then, he said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not saying the military is in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people and the Pentagon probably aren't, because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy. But we're getting out of the endless wars.


SCIUTTO: Joining us now, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and CNN White House correspondent John Harwood.