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AstraZeneca Pauses Vaccine Trial After Unexplained Illness in Volunteer; Bradley University to Quarantine All Students for Two Weeks; Florida Nears 12,000 COVID-19 Deaths as State Tops 650,000 Cases; U.S. Announces Drawdown of Troops in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000; Trump Tells Supporters to Be "Poll Watchers" At Voting Locations; Justice Department Defends President Trump in Defamation Lawsuit Linked to Rape Accusation. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 9, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


This morning a roadblock in the race for the vaccine as the United States sadly inches closer and closer to 190,000 COVID deaths. Drug giant AstraZeneca this morning is halting its global trials after an unexplained illness in one of its volunteer participants. This is a standard precaution they say as the company reviews all the information.

But as we wait for a vaccine, top health experts are demanding more testing as a way to try to get a handle of this.

SCIUTTO: Directors for the National Institutes of Health say test as many people as possible. A new report from the Rockefeller Foundation at Duke University suggesting the bar should be set at 200 million tests per month.

Now to be clear that's not an unusual message. Health experts have been saying for months the key to stopping the outbreak is widespread testing and contact tracing. That's the secret. It works but the U.S. remains without a national plan to do so.

Let's begin with the latest on this halt to AstraZeneca's vaccine trials. CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us now.

Elizabeth, this is why you do broad phase three trials as they're called, tested across thousands of people to confirm that it's safe. How significant is this effect on one patient in the trial?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: This could be very significant, Jim, when they have an unexplained illness among their study subjects. Now when you're testing tens of thousands of people in your trials, there is a chance that one of them is going to get an unexplained illness. What you have to do is stop down, don't vaccinate any more people, and see if that illness is vaccine related.

This is one of the reasons why vaccine trials are so unpredictable. This is why we should not believe President Trump when he says, yes, I think we're going to have a vaccine by election day. You can't predict vaccine trials.

We also shouldn't be listening to pharmaceutical executives when they give rosy forecasts. Just yesterday, a pharmaceutical executive connected to the Pfizer vaccine said our vaccine is nearly perfect. How can you say that when it hasn't been tested?

You don't know if something like this is going to happen. And in fact, one of the executives from the University of Oxford, which is associated with this AstraZeneca one, the one that now has the delay, he was saying all last spring we are going to finish first. You just don't know. Vaccine trials require a great deal of humility -- Jim.

HARLOW: And Elizabeth, until we have very broad -- not just a vaccine, but very broad vaccination, a key issue here in being able to really get control of the pandemic is testing and you have the NIH coming out this morning speaking loudly in support of very broad testing. Basically, as I read it, saying test everyone you can, but that stands in contrast to that updated guidance from the CDC. So who should people believe?

COHEN: Yes, it certainly does stand in contrast. I was really -- this is quite an amazing statement from the heads of various institutes within the National Institutes of Health saying we do need to test people who have had -- you know, who have been exposed to someone with COVID. They've been, you know, close to someone with COVID for more than 15 minutes. They might be fine, but they still need to be tested even if they're asymptomatic.

That stands in contrast to what the CDC said a couple of weeks ago where they said, you don't really need to test people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. That is not the case. What the NIH is saying I think is what most experts are saying. You do need to test people even if they're not showing symptoms if they've had an exposure.

SCIUTTO: Well, I asked Dr. Fauci about that last week. I mean, it seemed he was trying to walk down that CDC confusion there.


SCIUTTO: It seems that there's disagreement within the task force in some way.

Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

Joining us now Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director under President Obama, during which time he led the CDC's response to the h1n1 influenza pandemic. Dr. Besser, always good to have you on. First, let's begin with we're

learning about the AstraZeneca trial. As Elizabeth Cohen is noting, listen, this is why you do broad-based phase three testing. What does this tell you? Because clearly there's a lot of political pressure to fast track vaccine approval here. Does this kind of thing give pause to the folks in charge of giving that approval?


Can it help stand in the way of that political pressure we're seeing?

DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CDC: Well, I hope it reinforces what you're just saying, the value of doing these large trials and not prejudging the outcome. You know, I continue to talk about, you know, if we have a vaccine rather than when we have a vaccine because there's no guarantee that we will have a safe and effective vaccine. I'm optimistic, but let's wait and see what these trials show.

I also think, though, Jim, it's important not to overinterpret the pause in the AstraZeneca trial. This is why you do these big trials. If you see something, you stop, you investigate, you see was this related to the vaccine or not. You know, in these large trials you have hundreds of thousands of people in vaccine trials. You will see life events. You'll see people who die from other things totally unrelated. Someone may have a heart attack or have cancer.

But if someone dies in the vaccine trial you have to take a pause and look to see what happened. If it is related to the vaccine, then that will raise some questions and say, OK, is this type of vaccine a safe vaccine and can we proceed? But this is what you expect to see. It's a good sign that they're taking this pause, and hopefully it will increase the pressure to let CDC and FDA do their jobs and make sure that we don't get a vaccine approved before we know it's safe and effective.

HARLOW: And, Dr. Besser, both Dr. Fauci yesterday saying that it's just very unlikely that there will be an effective vaccine before election day, adding to what the chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, said to NPR last week that it's extremely unlikely, but not impossible.

Explain to our viewers why you are at the point of an if, meaning there may not in your opinion be a vaccine that is broadly taken and proves effective so that we can all get back to life as normal before. Like this may change everything for us going forward.

BESSER: Yes, that's right. You know, Poppy, there are billions of dollars -- hundreds of billions of dollars that are being invested to try and get us a safe and effective vaccine, and I think that's terrific. And I'm optimistic. But if you look at the history of vaccine development, HIV, malaria, dengue fever, diseases that have killed hundreds of millions of people around the globe, we don't have vaccines for those yet.

And so there's no guarantee that we will have one. And we have to make sure that every effort is done to make sure that if we have one, it's scaled up and it's produced and it's great the efforts that are going in that way. But we can't prejudge the notion that there will be one. That's what these trials are for. All of the data we've seen so far that's been optimistic has been done in dozens of people. And that's not enough to give you anything but a signal that it's OK to move forward with these larger trials.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And Russia is moving forward, right, with just testing on something like 78 people.


SCIUTTO: Let's talk about broad-based testing. So to hear that from the NIH, in no uncertain terms, you and I have talked about this, it's not new. You know, every expert involved in outbreaks has been saying for months, you've got to do broad-based testing and contact tracing. I mean, does it make a difference at this point? I mean, clearly the president, the federal government has decided not to go down this path. Where does that lead us as a country?

BESSER: Yes, I think the NIH is even saying more than that. That if we get to the point where we had, you know, a cheap point of care test, something where you could do a quick swab and get a result, it might change how we approach kids going back to school and teachers and staff where you could test people every day. You wake up in the morning you do a test. If you're negative, you go to work, or if you're not, you stay at home.

But clearly, clearly everyone in public health is saying the same thing that if you've been exposed to someone who has a COVID infection you need to be tested. And it's really important that we're breaking data down by race and ethnicity in neighborhood to make sure that adequate testing is available everywhere because the data are still coming in to show that this pandemic is having dispirit impacts on lower income communities and communities of color. And as school reopen, I really worry that that impact is going to be amplified.

HARLOW: Thank you so much, Dr. Besser. Always really good to have you. We appreciate it.

BESSER: Thank you so much.

HARLOW: So let's talk now about some of the newer hot spots in the Midwest. Omar Jimenez joins us in Chicago.

Good morning, Omar. You have just learned that the university not too far from where you are in downtown Chicago is enacting a two-week quarantine. Which one?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Bradley University here in Illinois just put in place a two-week quarantine for all of their students, and are temporarily moving to all online classes as they are now seeing dozens of students test positive on their campus.

And they specifically point to social activity outside the classrooms saying they were observing large and small gatherings where people were not wearing masks and were not physical distancing and that they can trace a lot of their cases to those gatherings.


This quarantine is meant for them -- to give them time to get a handle and assess on the virus' extent on campus. And it's a story we've seen it play out at universities across this region. At the University of Iowa, for example. Their athletics program is just now resuming voluntary and mandatory workouts after having to stop everything altogether with 93 athletes testing positive.

Now the recent wave of testing got that number down to 21 which is good news. But when you look at the university as a whole, since they began tracking cases back on August 18th, they have had more than 1300 people on campus test positive for coronavirus, and according to their own dashboard those are just self-reported cases.

And then when you expand to look at the region as a whole, there are a lot of states in the red when it comes to confirmed cases per 100,000, for example. Numbers that have increased we've seen in some cases over recent weeks.

And when you look specifically within that at the -- or things look a little bit better, I should say, when you compare the numbers from the previous week to what they look like last week as well, and then specifically when you look at states in general on confirmed cases in total, Illinois does lead the pack but they have set record levels of testing here in the state as their positivity rate has been right around 4 percent -- Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Omar Jimenez in Chicago, thanks very much.

Now to Florida, a state that could reach 12,000 COVID-related deaths as soon as today, but, Rosa, Florida has gotten some of these figures under control. What's happening there? Give us your best assessment as to where Florida stands.

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Jim, if you look at the big picture, Florida is definitely heading in the right direction. The Florida Department of Health reporting yesterday 1,823 cases, the day before that 1,834.

Look, we hadn't seen such low numbers since mid-June, but there are two concerns looming right now. First of all, the potential effects of the Labor Day weekend, and also the return to face-to-face instruction. According to the Florida Department of Education, at least 1.6 million students in this state are now learning face-to- face.

Now I wish I could give you an exact number of how many students, how many teachers have contracted the coronavirus, but the state of Florida still has not released this information. I continue to push. The last e-mail that I received from the state said that the state was working on how to structure the report to release the data. But they haven't released the data. Here's what we do know. At least two counties have been very good

about releasing this information. I just heard back from Martin County. That county reports that 433 students have been transitioned to remote learning because of the coronavirus. And Hillsborough County which launched their own dashboard shows that 60 students so far have contracted the coronavirus and 148 employees as well.

Look, in the two biggest counties in the state, most impacted by the coronavirus, Jim and Poppy, they are still in virtual learning. I'm talking about Broward and Miami-Dade where I am. But they are planning to take a look at the metrics within their county at the end of this month to determine if they can then transition to face-to-face learning -- Jim and Poppy.


HARLOW: Rosa, always pushing for the answers, thank you. Let us know what you do hear back.

Still to come, the president calls on his supporters to act as poll watchers to prevent what he says will be voter fraud without any evidence. On the same night that a top Republican election attorney says the party tried for decades to find double voting, but never did.

SCIUTTO: And now the president is encouraging people to do it. Plus, taxpayer dollars for Trump's defense. The DOJ has asked to take over the defense of President Trump in a defamation lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who says Trump raped her in the 1990s.

And at least 25 wildfires burning right now in California. One of those fires burning in the area about the size of Central Park every 30 minutes. Just the scale of this is off the charts. We're going to speak to someone in charge of battling those blazes.



HARLOW: Well, the U.S. is announcing that it is drawing down the number of troops in Iraq.

SCIUTTO: Yes, part of a broader effort by this president to reduce troop deployments in a number of countries. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon. Barbara, I'm curious what senior military officials thought of this. Do they think it's the right idea at the right time?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Jim and Poppy. This is something that they were perfectly willing to do. It was announced earlier today in Baghdad, taking the current level of about 5,200, although many will tell you it's less than that, drawing it down to about 3,000 during the month of September.

General Frank McKenzie, the commanding general talking about this earlier today in Baghdad and why the military thinks it's a good idea. General McKenzie saying in part, and let me quote, "this decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces increased stability to operate independently.

The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant." You'll recall when U.S. troops several years ago first went back into Iraq to try and push ISIS back, in large part it was because Iraqi forces were not able to really fight against ISIS. So these last several years has been a massive training and assistance program to get them to this point.

But it's interesting that they are being so blunt, saying 3,000 by the end of September, because you will also remember, it is President Trump who so often had said he doesn't want to signal military moves to America's adversaries and right now, signaling to ISIS, but also --



STARR: Signaling to Iran which certainly is stepping up its support for militia activity inside Iraq, according to U.S. military commanders.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and he certainly made his desire public on reducing forces in Afghanistan. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

SCIUTTO: President Trump digging in on his strategy to cast doubt once again on the integrity of the U.S. election.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Got to be careful with those ballots. Watch those ballots.



TRUMP: I don't like it. You know, you have a Democrat governor, you have all these Democrats watching that stuff. I don't like it. Watch it. Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all of the thieving and stealing and robbing they do. Because this is important. We win North Carolina, we win.


HARLOW: Where is his evidence? Also, a top Republican election attorney, someone who's done this for nearly 40 years this morning is shooting down those claims, laying out all of it in his "Washington Post" op-ed, saying the party has searched for such voter fraud for decades in vain. Our White House correspondent John Harwood is with us, good morning. I mean, to hear this from Benjamin Ginsberg says a lot.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely does. There's no greater authority within the Republican Party on election administration than Ben Ginsberg. But what we've seen from the president is in recent days his rhetoric on race, on law and order, on the integrity of the election itself is getting more and more raw and incendiary.

Now, you could hear a little bit of performance art in that clip from the president. He was bathing in the reaction from the crowd. He loves being out and amongst his supporters. But it's not hard to imagine that we're going to move from a situation where the president is casting doubt on the integrity of the election to where he's actually mucking up the administration of the election itself.

You could imagine, for example, that in the same way that vigilantes have entered scenes of protest in Oregon, in Wisconsin, where two people ended up getting killed, and one of his supporters with the long gun has been charged with homicide, you could see people taking it on themselves to try to intervene at election polling sites.

He's also suggested of course, that people show up having cast an absentee ballot and try to verify that their ballot was cast or vote again, and in that case, again, the potential for chaos at voting sites is palpable. And that's one of the risks that the president is creating right now.

SCIUTTO: John, this is just the latest in a series of times that the president has publicly called for his supporters to vote more than once which is illegal. We've seen after each of those times, an attempt by his advisors to say that's not what the president really said. I mean, you said it once again, what is the answer you get from the White House here? Is the president encouraging people to vote twice and do they have any defense for that?

HARWOOD: They're trying to make a distinction, Jim, between actually voting twice and having sent in your absentee ballot and going to check and see if it was recorded. The challenge of course --


HARWOOD: Is that if the ballot was sent in close enough to the election, it won't be marked on the poll watchers' poll book that will allow them to say, no, you've already voted. In that cast, you can cast a provisional ballot, that's not illegal, but if people actually blow through and try to vote again, not having ascertained whether their vote was counted or not, that would be illegal and that's what Ben Ginsberg called out in that "Washington Post" op-ed.

And he -- what he said was that this suggestion by the president is doubly wrong. One, because it's suggesting that the supporters take an illegal act, but secondly, because it raises doubts about all of the Republican Party's posture on this and litigation across the country.

Republicans are trying to say they're sincerely interested in an honest election, and if the president is asking his voters to vote twice, that raises the question of whether or not this is simply a tactic to try to keep other people from voting but not his own supporters.


HARLOW: John Harwood, thanks very much. It is very unusual this move, but the Justice Department now wants to defend the president in a defamation lawsuit that has been filed against him by E. Jean Carroll. She has accused the president of raping her in the '90s. The president has denied the allegations, saying it is quote, "totally false".

SCIUTTO: This comes amid ongoing criticism, broader criticism that the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr has repeatedly acted in the president's personal interest. CNN's Kara Scannell joins us now with more. How unusual is this? I mean, you look for instance the Paula Jones case with Clinton, personal lawyer handled that. Now, you have the Justice Department here. Does this break with precedent?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Hi, Jim, this is extraordinary. Even if you think of the challenges that the president has taken to try to block subpoenas for his financial records, those were handled by private attorneys. This is extremely unusual. The Department of Justice saying now that they're going to represent the president in this defamation claim against him, in part because they say he denied the allegations by E. Jean Carroll that he raped her in the 1990s while he was in office.


So they're saying it now falls within the scope of the presidency. But E. Jean Carroll's lawyers, you know, came out with a statement where they said this is just absolutely a shocking claim to make. Now, what's very interesting here is the timing. This claim, this lawsuit was filed in November of 2019.

A state judge just last month said that it could go forward, and E. Jean Carroll is moving to get a sample of the president's DNA because she says she has the black dress that she wore the day of the alleged assault. You know, by moving it into federal court, it's put before a different judge and resetting this table, it's going to cause arguments about whether this is a valid use for the Department of Justice to step in here.

So, it seems for now, I mean, two months before the election, as this case was really tee-ing up and moving into what's known as the discovery phase that it is now going to be delayed. So, you know, this is an extraordinary move. It will be challenged by her lawyers and we'll see what's going to happen there, Jim, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Kara Scannell, thanks very much. Well, the home of the Little League World Series is one of many American towns waiting for relief after taking a major financial hit, economic hit because of the pandemic. Will lawmakers step up to the plate there?