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Nine Biotech Firms Sign Safety Pledge for Potential COVID-19 Vaccine; 16 Biggest School District Start Class Today 14 Entirely Online; Trump Launches Unprecedented Attack on Military Leaders He Appointed. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 8, 2020 - 10:00   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Of really a devastating summer.


The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. almost 190,000, if you can believe it. Experts signaling it's probably going to get a lot worse in the months ahead, especially as this pandemic stacks up with the flu season.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: New developments, however, this morning in the race for a vaccine. BioNTech CEO tells CNN he believes its vaccine made alongside Pfizer could be ready for approval as soon as the middle of next month. They are two of nine pharmaceutical companies now pledging to uphold, quote, high ethical standards, this as there are real concerns because the industry is facing pressure from the White House to have a vaccine by Election Day. The question are politics influencing the science here?

Right now, three vaccines are being tested here in the U.S., but here is another challenge, not enough minorities are signing up to participate in the trials. More on that in a moment.

Let's begin though with CNN's Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. Elizabeth, you've got -- just a big picture, you've got good progress on a vaccine. There's no question. You've got multiple paths here. And they seem to be seeing good data in these early trials. You know, the question is are they getting a thumb on the scale right to push this out before they have enough data. So what's happening?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: All right. So, Jim, there's no question but that huge progress has been made. I mean to go from, you know, having heard of this for the first time in January, that we need to get a vaccine to having trials starting in July in the U.S., that's amazing. I don't know that we have good data but that has not been announced yet. That's kept very quiet. There may be no data. You can start these trials and not get anywhere.

So when Pfizer and BioNTech say that they think they're going to have sufficient data to apply for, you know, permission from the FDA to market it next month, we have no idea if that's true or not. We have no idea what that is based on. And so it's interesting that these companies now have taken a pledge that they are not going to, you know, apply to the FDA for permission to market unless they have a vaccine that is safe and effective.

And they are doing that because there's so much hesitation about this vaccine in the U.S. Let's take a look at some polling numbers from a CBS poll that was recently done when asked would you take the vaccine. Only 21 percent said they would get it as soon as they could, another 58 percent said they would consider it and wait, and 21 percent, one out of five, said they would never get it.

Those numbers aren't great. Obviously, we want people to take a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible to get out of this pandemic, but those numbers just show the hesitation.

HARLOW: Yes. It's really scary how many people already don't trust this. And in terms of building trust, you need to sample the correct proportion of the population, right, and they have had a huge challenge in getting enough minorities, especially black Americans, to sign on to these tests. But there's a new ad campaign out today trying to change that is correct right?

COHEN: That's right. So this is an ad campaign that will be on major T.V. networks, as well as Univision, BET and other networks that are specifically focused on the Latino and black communities. And let's take a look at -- take a look at why they need to have more minorities in these trials.

So Dr. Fauci has said that he wants to see about 64 percent of the participants be from minority communities. When you look at Moderna's numbers, it's only 26 percent, and Pfizer is only 19 percent. You need minorities, as you said, Poppy, because you need to see how it works in a diverse population. But also you need minorities because in your trials, you need people who are likely to come in contact with the virus or else you'll never know if the vaccine works. You've got to test. It and so minorities, unfortunately, are more than twice as likely to get coronavirus than white people are.

So these ads are aimed at encouraging minorities to join the trials. Let's take a listen to a clip from one of them.


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 their grandkids. Walking the walk and rolling up their sleeves.


COHEN: So, again, we're expecting to see these ads today on major television networks. Poppy, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Elizabeth Cohen, it's an important message, thanks very much.

COHEN: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Let's go down to Berlin and more on a biotech company there, and their announcement that a vaccine could be ready for approval by mid-October. So, Fred, you've been covering this for a long time. Are we confident that this company, have they gone through all the phase three trials where they have been able to test this across thousands of people to get a sense both of safety and effectiveness?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Jim. Well, they said they are in the middle of the fades three trial right now. They said, so far, they have 25,000 participants taking part in some of these trials, including in the United States, including Argentina, including here in Europe and also in Asia as well. So they are saying they are getting that data in.

But it's actually interesting, one of the things that Elizabeth said is something that this company is very well aware of as well.


They told me right now their aim is to have something ready for approval to have this vaccine, BNT162, ready for approval by the middle of October, but they also say, of course, all of this depends how many people who are taking part in the studies or in the trials are actually exposed to the virus.

So there is still a little bit of unknown. They say it could get pushed back to the end of October, possibly to the beginning of November, but they also say the things that they are seeing so far make them very, very confident, both in the safety and the efficacy of their vaccine candidate. Here is what the CEO told me.


UGUR SAHIN, CEO, BIONTECH: It has an excellent profile. And I consider this vaccine as a vaccine that is near perfect, which has a near perfect profile, yes. We have done pre-clinical experiments. They have shown that this vaccine is able to protect animals from infection in really tough challenge experiments, and they have, of course, done much more testing than we have published so far.

And this provides us a lot of confidence in combination with the understanding of the mode of action in combination with the safety data coming in from the running trial. Yes, we believe that we have a safe product, and we believe that it will be able to show efficacy.


PLEITGEN: So, as you can see there, a very confident CEO there of BioNTech. And he went out of his way in the interview that we did to say, look, they didn't cut any corners as far as safety is concerned, and they have the regulators along with them the entire time checking their data to make sure that they are adhering very closely to everything. And there, of course, both BioNTech and Pfizer as well signed that pledge to do all of this according to the highest standards.

Now, they say if everything goes according to plan, guys, that they plan to have about 100 million doses ready by the end of this year, and they say by 2021 or in 2021, they could have as many as 1.3 billion. Guys?

HARLOW: They are going to need it. Fred Pleitgen, thanks for the reporting. It's fascinating.

Another federal official though making it clear that despite the president's repeated predictions that there will be a vaccine maybe at the end of next month or before the election, there's hardly any chance that one will be ready, widely available to Americans by Election Day. So the president is repeating his optimism for this quick timeline.

SCIUTTO: CNN's John Harwood joins us from the White House. John, you, of course, have the coronavirus task force and folks like Dr. Fauci on this broadcast who have said science is going to rule here. Who is the president listening to on this?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president, I think, is listening to his own internal dynamics and understanding of what he needs for this election. He needs a mood-lifter in this country. He's trailing Joe Biden in the polls. A large majority of the American people say things are going in the wrong direction in this country. So it's not surprising that the president at his news conference yesterday was holding had out the possibility of breakthrough news on a vaccine sometime before the election. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: We're going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I'm talking about.


HARWOOD: Now, here is the problem with that. If you talk to officials close to Operation Warp Speed, one of them said yesterday, I don't know of any scientist involved in this effort who thinks we're going to get shots in arms any time before Election Day. Emergency use authorization, perhaps for health care workers, that's one thing, but broad availability to the American public, I don't know of any public health expert who is predicting that on any substantial scale before 2021 after the election, guys.

HARLOW: Thank you, John. That matters what those experts say to most. Thanks so much.

Joining us now is Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. Good morning. Thanks for being here, Doctor.


SCIUTTO: The fact that you have the biggest names in pharmaceuticals, right, Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novavax, Moderna, BioNTech in Germany, all signing this pledge saying that they will uphold the highest ethical standards, that they will not seek FDA approval until they are really through phase three. How remarkable is it that they feel like they have to do that for the public?

ADALJA: I think it's a sign of the time that we've had this kind of degeneration pandemic response from the very beginning and that companies have to really be very mindful about getting sucked into the politics of this and not being used as some sort of tool to increase confidence when there isn't a reason to have an increase in confidence.

So this is something that I think is really important, and I do think these companies have made us vaccines for decades and decades. And I think we can trust them to do the right thing despite the pressure that they may be getting from politicians to speed things along or to go along with ideas that are not necessarily scientifically based.

SCIUTTO: Doctor, how will we know though, right?


I mean, will the data be published in such a way that the doctors like yourself who are looking at the science, not the politics, can be confident that that's what's driven the decision? When I spoke to Dr. Fauci last week, he made that point. He said, we'll need to see that data, I assume we will see that data with confidence. I mean, is there going to be, you know, an ability for a public appraisal of these decisions?

ADALJA: I think it's going to have to be that way. And we're going to get our medical journals publishing these articles. We're going to see other regulatory agencies in the E.U. and the U.K., for example, as well as professional societies like the Infectious Disease Society of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, all weighing in on this evidence so it will help the general public have more confidence.

And it won't be something like what we saw with hydroxychloroquine or convalescent plasma, where there's this question that looms over the whole decision-making process. But it is going to be essential that we're as transparent as possible. We want a vaccine that people are willing to take and we want to have the data to support that decision so people know the risks and benefits. And we don't want a vaccine that doesn't get into people's arms is going to be worthless. So we need to make sure that we do this correctly.

HARLOW: You're so right. I mean, that is the key difference between a vaccine and vaccination. And for it to be effective you need a broad swath of the population to be vaccinated. How do you -- how do you do that when that CBS News poll just a few weeks ago showed only 21 percent of Americans polled said they would actually get this vaccine right away? I mean, is it too late to turn the tide on that and to really boost confidence?

ADALJA: I already think there's been a lot of damage done to the whole vaccination effort by the politics being injected into it. We also have a vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine movement that are going to capitalize on any kind of false step that gets taken. So there are going to be people already undermining the uptake of this vaccine. And we know from H1N1 in 2009, only 23 percent of people got that vaccine.

So this is going to be very challenging and we're going to have to be able to speak very frankly and honestly to the American people about what the risks are, what benefits are and what those risks and benefits, where they lie inside different risk groups, if you're older, if you're pregnant, all of that has to be very transparent. It's going to be a very daunting challenge, something like we've never done before.

SCIUTTO: Okay. Let's talk about the good news here because there is good news. The progress on this has been remarkable, right, and the data does seem to be really good for many, if not, all of these mainline -- these mainline vaccines here. Given that, what is the likely timeline that the three of us, our children, we're not -- you may qualify as a frontline worker, we do not in terms of health care worker, that this vaccine will be wildly available to the American public.

ADALJA: For wide availability, I would say, we're going to be well into 2021 when that happens, if everything goes perfect in phase three clinical trials. I think I might be able to get a vaccine maybe by the end of the year if everything went well and we had an emergency use authorization for health care workers, but this is something that we're going to have to take some time to get into the arms of Americans. And we're going to be fighting this virus without a vaccine for several months at a minimum.

So we still need to continue to work on testing, tracing and isolating because the vaccine isn't going to be some kind of a magic bullet that we have all of a sudden and everything just disappears. It's going to take some time.

HARLOW: Do you believe, Doctor, that when there is a vaccine that is effective and approved by the FDA, schools and universities should mandate that every child and every college student get the vaccine because that's a whole another level of, you know, of debate?

ADALJA: I do think that this is going to be something that becomes a routine vaccination. We know that schools mandate the measles vaccine, for example, as part of entry. We know that colleges mandate, for example, the meningitis vaccine as a condition of entry.

So I do think if we have the data to support this vaccine being safe and effective and being able to blunt the damage that this virus can cause, I do think it's something that schools and universities should think about mandating. And I would probably be supportive of it if the data supported it.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, this country had difficulty mandating masks, right, a very simple step. So the question is even if there is a push, would it happen practically? Dr. Adalja, great to have you on. We appreciate your help on all these questions.

ADALJA: Thank you. SCIUTTO: Well, President Trump is attacking U.S. military leaders. Their motivations, suggesting they start wars simply to fund defense contractors. We're going to discuss the fallout, coming up.

HARLOW: Plus, back to school during a pandemic. Some of the biggest districts in the U.S. are reopening today but with most children still learning online at home. What do parents need to know.

And Colgate University's president leading by example when it comes to mitigating the spread of COVID-19. He has spent the last 17 days quarantined in a dorm room right beside students adhering to his own mandatory quarantine. He got out of quarantine at 8:00 A.M., and he'll be here with us this hour.



HARLOW: All right. It's a big day, right? so many kids starting their first day of the new school year. but for most of the 1.8 million U.S. students doing that, it is online. So it's very different than what we're used to. Complicating things, a ransomware attack is interrupting the first day for a lot of students.

SCIUTTO: Yes, no more walks out the front door with the backpacks. Just turned around and go back to the bedroom.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is following this all.

So we saw something like this happened in Florida, now in Connecticut. I mean, how many students is this disrupting now?


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're looking at the entire Hartford Public Schools District. They are dealing with this ransomware attack to their system. Today was supposed to be the first day of school. And some of those students were going back in person. Others have chose virtual learning. But everybody's first day has now been delayed because of this attack. That is in part affecting the basic (ph), the dispatch and tracking of the bus system there.

They said they are working to get everything back online in Hartford, but you mentioned, Jim, we saw this happened last month with students in Miami-Dade County schools, a ransomware attack there that interrupted their learning. And with so many kids going virtual, more than 7 million across the country are online-only. 67 of the more than 100 largest school districts in the country are online at least to start the school year and, you know, with all of them starting today.

14 of the 16 largest districts are starting strictly online. A lot of these districts have just made the decision that it is safer when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, but there are all sorts of complications that do come with it just from going off line, of course. And dealing with issues like the state of North Carolina dealt with last month on its first day of school, the portal that is used went down on the first day of school.

So, simple stuff like that to more complex issues, like parents having to continue to try to work and also attempt to help and educate their children at home.

HARLOW: For sure. It's a huge challenge, Dianne. Thanks a lot for the reporting from there.

Let's go to Miami. Beaches were open for holiday weekend. We'll have to see that that has led to another spike in COVID cases, just like we saw after Memorial Day and at 4th of July.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Rosa Flores joins us now with more from Miami. Rosa, Florida is on track to mark 12,000 coronavirus deaths, but we have seen some more positive trend lines. Tell us what the big picture is there and then also the concerns about fallout from the holiday.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Jim, and we have talked about this before, Florida is very curious as to how it reports its numbers. If you actually add the number of Florida non-residents and Florida residents who have died from the coronavirus, the state of Florida has already crossed the grim milestone of more than 12,000 cases. According to the Florida Department of Health, 11,871 Florida residents have died and 152 non-residents.

But if you look at the big picture, Florida is trending in the right direction with the Florida Department of Health reporting yesterday, 1,838 cases. The state had not reported that low of a case count since June 15th.

Now, officials here believe that some of the mitigation measures that they have implemented are working, things like a mask mandate, the curfews. But they also fear that during holidays like Labor Day that people will put their guard down, that they will have large gatherings and not so much in public, like in public beaches, but in their homes.

Here is Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.


MAYOR DAN GELBER (D-MIAMI BEACH, FL): It's not been the beaches that have been as much of the problem as the crowds that are often attendant at home parties and get-togethers elsewhere during these kinds of holiday weekends that have been the real challenge and concern.


FLORES: Now, Jim and Poppy, we've talked about this before. It will take a few weeks before the effects of holidays like Labor Day before they actually reflect in the numbers. So, of course, officials and experts will be on the lookout in the come weeks to see if there's an actual effect. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: We saw exactly the same after Memorial and July 4th. Rosa Flores, thanks very much. Well, the president has leveled serious accusations against serving U.S. military leaders, accusing them of going to war purely to benefit defense contractors, in effect, caring for more them than troops on the ground. Coming up, I'm going to speak with a former senior commander for his response.



SCIUTTO: Well, the president's chief of staff is trying to clean up the president's comments over the weekend, reassuring top commanders at the Pentagon that Mr. Trump was not talking about them when the president talked about them and made this accusation against them yesterday.


TRUMP: I'm not saying the military is the in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in 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: You heard the president there accused the top people at the Pentagon today of going to war, in effect, to benefit military contractors.

Joining me now, General Wesley Clark. He's a former NATO supreme allied commander, now a CNN Military Analyst. General, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first of all, I mean, historical record shows that it's the military that usually is advocating against the use of force.


If you go back and look at all of the examples going back even into the Vietnam War, it was the military.