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President Trump Attacks Science as COVID-19 Cases Rise; Johnson & Johnson Pauses Vaccine Trial; Interview with 'Contagion" Director Scott Burns and Epidemiology Professor Anne Rimoin. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired October 19, 2020 - 14:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It is the top of the hour, I'm Brianna Keilar. And the pandemic is getting worse just as the experts predicted. One of them now warning that America is about to enter the, quote, "darkest weeks of this crisis" with 8 million infected and close to 220,000 dead.

And the U.S., now averaging more than 56,000 cases a day. But today, instead of attacking the virus, the president is going after the leading authority on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him and other experts "idiots."

Today, the president told his campaign staff this on a call, quote, "People are tired of COVID. I have these huge rallies, people are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They're tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots. Fauci's a nice guy, he's been here for 500 years. Fauci is a disaster. If I listened to him, we'd have 500,000 deaths."

If the president had listened to Fauci and other medical experts, maybe he would have pushed for folks to wear masks and avoid big crowds. Scientific modelings show us that universal mask-wearing would have saved tens of thousands of lives. Instead, the president continues to hold big rallies where few wear masks and they certainly don't socially distance.

One is planned for tonight in Arizona, which is one of 27 states now showing a rising trend in new infections. Just as the weather is turning colder, driving people indoors where the risk of spread is so much higher.

It's not clear if Fauci has heard the president's latest slam against him, but today the doctor delivered this call to action for all those he called "defenders of science."


ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I can't help thinking that we're really, you know, going through a time that's disturbingly anti-science in certain segments of our society. That's very troublesome to me.

And we really need a group of scientists and physicians and health care providers really stick together in our principles because it is not going to be very easy as we go on with these challenges. This is a very, very difficult period in our existence, and we need to be the steadfast, vocal defenders of the scientific process.


KEILAR: Dr. Jorge Rodriguez is an internal medicine and viral specialist. He is a steadfast defender of science, which is why we have him on. And so first, Jorge, Dr. Fauci has been in the president's crosshairs for months now. But these new comments, there's something sort of about them where the president knew that reporters were listening and he called him a disaster and he said that he and other experts are idiots. What is your reaction to this?

JORGE RODRIGUEZ, INTERNAL MEDICINE AND VIRAL SPECIALIST: Well, my reaction is I hope I'm one of those idiots because that would really be like a feather in my cap, you know, to be called that.

Consider the source. Tony Fauci, Dr. Fauci has been around not just for 500 years, for 2,000. Seriously, he is an icon in both the medical and scientific world, he is the most published researcher in the world. He's been through the HIV crisis and Ebola, so. And he is a man that is really nonpartisan, so he knows what he's talking about.

So to refer to him in those demeaning terms, I think, is childish at best and it just creates a greater divide.

Unfortunately, all of the things that have been said, all of the statistics that were quoted before this happened have come to pass. So there is no reason to doubt that we are at the beginning of what is going to be a huge surge this fall and winter unless people really buckle down and do what has been recommended, which is social distancing and masks.

So you know what, that's just rhetoric. The science is the science, and the science proves that if we're careful we can save probably hundreds of thousands of lives before this is all over.

KEILAR: The president also mocked former Vice President Biden for wearing masks and for saying that he would listen to the scientists if elected. I mean, do you worry that there could be a lasting impact on public health, on the country because of the president casting -- I mean, he's politicizing science. Do you worry about a lasting impact?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, absolutely. I think that that is already here, and I think the lasting impact is not just on science but in a lot of the institutions that have basically pilloried this country since its inception.

And people now -- and we see it in our patients -- they do doubt what you say. Which is fine, people should question their physicians and their health care workers and we should have answers. But to blindly think that what we're saying, it's false? Listen, we really have no other motivation than to make sure that our patients stay healthy and alive.

So I think the damage is done. It's going to take probably decades to repair, and I really salute someone like Biden. You know, I don't think it's a dig on him to say that he's going to listen to scientists. I'm like, yes, that's exactly what people should be doing and politicians should be doing.


KEILAR: Yes. No, it's an odd criticism, right?

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

KEILAR: We did -- I want to listen, Dr. Rodriguez, because we did just get in this sound of what the president said about Dr. Fauci. Let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (via telephone): People are tired of COVID. I have these huge rallies, people are saying whatever, just leave us alone. They're tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.

These people, these people that have gotten it wrong. Fauci's a nice guy, he's been here for 500 years. He's a disaster. I mean, this guy is -- if I listen to him, we'd have 500,000 deaths.


KEILAR: And -- OK, so there, I was reading the quote before but now we have it in the president's words. He knew that this would get out, right? This comes on the tails of Dr. Fauci doing "60 Minutes" and raising just kind of normal concerns but certainly the president feels it's negative for him.

I do want to ask you about something that a doctor on the task force who the president likes, Dr. Scott Atlas, something he did. His advisor actually put out a tweet about masks, saying that they don't work when they do work, right? This statement is so erroneous --

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

KEILAR: -- that Twitter removed it. He has been a proponent of herd immunity, though then he's also denied that. Let's listen to something he said last week.



SCOTT ATLAS, ADVISER, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS TASK FORCE: We can allow a lot of people to get infected, those who are not at risk to be -- to die or have a serious hospital requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected, generating immunity on their own. And the more immunity in the community, the better we can eradicate the threat of the virus including the threat to people who are vulnerable. That's what herd immunity is.


KEILAR: You know, Jorge, two months ago, he was very quick to defend himself to my colleague Michael Smerconish and insist that he was not pushing herd immunity. Which, you know, one other Harvard Medical School professor calls actually mass murder. And here he is now, openly talking about it. What do you make about this transition, this kind of shift, where now he's just unabashedly talking about herd immunity?

RODRIGUEZ: You know, this is what -- Brianna, this is what makes this so nauseating to a point, is the fact that you can tell that there are different political agendas at play here. If we had herd immunity with this infection, seriously, there would be millions of people dead in this country.

Herd immunity may work with a lesser infectious disease but you still need 70 to 80 percent of the people in this country with antibodies. We don't even know how long antibodies last, so this is a very cavalier -- at best -- thing that he's proposing.

And as far as masks, he did something which most scientists would be kicked out of the university for, which is to mine the data. Meaning that he picked and he chose what information he wanted from a study to sort of validate his point, which was completely erroneous.

in this study that showed that people that go to restaurants are more likely to get COVID, he basically just said, oh, look, they were wearing masks and they still got it. You know, that's just bupkis. Masks save lives. This is completely irresponsible, and people just need to take care of themselves

And you know, let me tell you something, my patients and the people that I (ph) know? Yes, people are tired of this. Women with breast cancer are tired of chemo, but they persevere, all right? We cannot diminish the human spirit and our ability to persevere. SO yes, we are tired but you know, dammit, we're going to persevere. And if that takes wearing masks for another year or so, we're going to do it.

KEILAR: Very well put. Dr. Rodriguez, it's great to see you, thank you,

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: The mayor of Chicago says her city is now seeing its second surge of the coronavirus. CNN's Adrienne Broaddus is in Chicago. Fill us in on what's happening there, Adrienne.

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well good afternoon to you, Brianna. Chicago's mayor Lori Lightfoot said if the city doesn't see a drastic turnaround, she will not hesitate to take action. And by "take action," she's talking about reverting to phase three.

Phase three only allows bars and restaurants to be open for delivery, drive-through and pickup. And if you want to get together with your family or friends, no more than 10 people. Indeed, Chicago is one Midwest state struggling to maintain and stop the spread of the virus.


Now by contrast, when you look at Chicago compared to, let's say, the state of Wisconsin, the positivity rate here is low in comparison, 5.4 percent here in Chicago whereas in Wisconsin, it topped 25 percent. But the mayor of Chicago said she does not want her city to reach those numbers. Earlier, she said every day, someone in Chicago dies from COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, health officials thought mass transit would drive up the number of new cases and infections. But that is not what they're seeing. Contact tracing revealed two out of three Chicago residents who were diagnosed with COVID-19 said they likely know the person who infected them.

KEILAR: Adrienne Broaddus, thank you so much for that report from Chicago. We appreciate it.

And one week after Johnson & Johnson abruptly paused its vaccine trial, there are still critical unanswered questions. But Johnson & Johnson and the FDA refused to answer them. CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has been following this from the beginning.

Some of these questions are pretty basic, Elizabeth, so why aren't we getting the answers?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: They are basic. And, Brianna, I don't know why we're not getting the answers. Johnson & Johnson is one of just four companies in phase three clinical trials in the United States, so every trial that goes on pause is time that is lost to getting us to a vaccine.

Let's take a look at those four trials. So Johnson & Johnson started just September 23rd, and they're on pause. They went on pause not even three weeks into their trial. AstraZeneca was just going on for a short period of time, and then they went on pause more than a month ago and still haven't come back. Moderna and Pfizer are the only two that are currently, going; those both started July 27th.

So with Johnson & Johnson, I asked the company repeatedly, can you tell me two things? What happened with this trial -- what we know -- is that a participant became ill, a participant in the trial became ill. It was an unexplained illness, and so they paused the trial, which is the right thing to do so you can investigate what's going on.

The question is, did that participant get the vaccine or the placebo? because it's half and half, 50-50 chance. And they don't -- they say that they don't know or they won't tell us whether that person got vaccine or placebo, and that's very important. They also won't tell us whether this is the first pause for the trial. Maybe it paused earlier, we just don't know but they won't answer the question -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, it seems like they should be able to answer that. The American College of Cardiology has just released an in-depth look at how COVID-19 impacts the heart. What have they found?

COHEN: You know, this is not good news. There has been a lot of concern because COVID-19 is known to cause inflammation and it is known to cause damage to the heart.

So let's take a look. This is a study that looked at several other studies and summarized those findings. So what they found is that one quarter, about one quarter of hospitalized patients have myocardial injury, which is a type of heart injury. Those patients who had that injury tended to be older, have high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease already, so that's what we know about that.

But one quarter is unfortunately a very high number. Those folks, unfortunately, who have that myocardial injury, Brianna, they are more likely to die before they leave the hospital, they are also more likely to need to go on a ventilator.

We don't know what the long-term effects are of having that kind of injury. It's one of many things that doctors are trying to study. There are concerns that there are long-term effects not just on the heart but on the lungs and on other bodily systems, even after people recover from COVID-19 infection -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you so much for all of that information.

Packed rallies, few masks and a crowd-surfing politician in the middle of a pandemic? The president's campaign events flout CDC guidelines putting science and common sense on the defense. I'm going to speak to the writer of "Contagion" next.


Plus, coronavirus spreads like wildfire in nursing homes, and new research could explain why. We'll have more on that, ahead.


KEILAR: Coronavirus is ripping through the United States. There have been more than 8 million infections in this country, there have been nearly 220,000 deaths. But there's still a segment of the American population that is not taking this threat seriously, and that stems largely from the president who, just days after being treated for coronavirus at Walter Reed, held an event at the White House with hundreds packed together on the lawn.

The president held his first campaign rally post-diagnosis in Sanford, Florida. You can see there, folks are cheering, many of them are not wearing masks. There is no social distancing except for maybe the president. Just listen to what some of the president's supporters say about the pandemic.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's all kinds of other viruses out there that could jeopardize your health as well, so can't stop living. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, if I'm going to get sick and die, I

guess it's my turn. But I trust God and I'm not scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not worried. I figure the sooner we all get it, the sooner we'll be done with it.


KEILAR: Then you see other politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, running around a rally maskless, exchanging high fives with the crowds. But this spectacle is probably the most bizarre. Georgia state lawmaker Vernon Jones, crowdsurfing in the middle of a pandemic without a mask.

I want to bring in Scott Burns who wrote and directed the movie "Contagion." And Anne Rimoin who is a professor of epidemiology at UCLA.


You know, first to you, Scott. I'm curious, I heard some of what you said at the beginning of the pandemic. Now we're several months into it and I'm curious what you think, because you had to conceive of a fictional account -- and clearly you did a lot of research because there were many things that I think you got spot-on about what a pandemic would happen. But in all of your research and in the writing of your movie, did you ever imagine this kind of behavior that we're seeing?

SCOTT Z. BURNS, WRITER AND DIRECTOR, "CONTAGION": Absolutely not. I mean, I spent years speaking to public health experts, epidemiologists. And they all told me the same thing, that it wasn't a question of if this is going to happen, it was a question of when. And so I'm not surprised that this is happening. There's a lot of science that would have foretold this.

What I would have never anticipated -- and could have never, you know, taken into a studio is the notion that beyond the appearance of a novel virus, there would be a government response anything like this.

I think the executives at the movie studio would have sent me back home if they would have -- you know, if I would have walked in there and said that the president of the United States would spread misinformation, that his party would, you know, neglect the people that they're sworn to represent.

KEILAR: Yes. And I mean, I even think of kind of your person in the movie who is trying to profit -- Jude Law's character -- off of the pandemic. I mean, even he took it seriously, even he knew that it could spread. And certainly the virus in the movie is more deadly, but never did you have anyone who was kind of denying the way we are seeing coming from the White House. No one can really imagine Matt Damon crowdsurfing without a mask in that movie.

So when you look at this, you know, is it almost like a situation where reality has jumped the shark? BURNS: Yes. I mean, you know, it would be a comedy if people weren't dying. I mean, the other part of it that I think is sort of stunning is, you know, if I was going to try and account for the divisiveness we now face, I think I would have pointed out, as Goldman Sachs did months ago, that everybody who wears a mask saves the U.S. federal government $3,000.

And so I don't understand why the party that has always been about fiscal responsibility, or a president who wants to get businesses back has decided to be on exactly the wrong side of an issue that would in fact shorten the pandemic, save lives and make it easier for us to get back to work. It doesn't even make sense within the construct of what we've all been led to believe the Republican Party is.

KEILAR: And Anne, you know, just this morning the president was on a call and he said that people are tired of hearing about the deadly pandemic. He also referred to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health officials as idiots. How worried are you that Americans may be losing their faith in science -- or at least some of them are -- as we see even science here and scientists being so politicized.

ANNE RIMOIN, PROFESSOR, UCLA DEPARTMENT OF EPIDEMIOLOGY: Well, absolutely. You know, I think I -- having Scott Burns on the show, his movie the tagline was "Nothing spreads like fear." And maybe if you redid it now, you might think it would be "Nothing spreads like disinformation and pseudoscience," and that's exactly what we're seeing.

We're seeing the White House, the place that is supposed to be the model of good behavior and taking good scientific information, is spreading information that is dangerous the public, and creating a lot of chaos that we could not have imagined.

We are coming into a very dangerous time. Every expert you've had on this show -- Dr. Fauci, Dr. Wen, Dr. Hotez, everybody has said over and over again, we are coming into a very dangerous moment here. People are moving indoors, the virus will spread. We do not have a silver bullet. This isn't a movie, movies end in two or three hours.

We have a long way to go. And so all we've got are masks, social distancing, hand hygiene -- things we've been talking about from the very beginning. And when we do have a vaccine, it's not going to just be the next day everything is OK and we move on to the next thing. This is going to be a long haul, and we need good science, good information coming all the way from the top.

KEILAR: And you know, Scott, on the issue of the vaccine, when I re- watched "Contagion" at the beginning of the pandemic, that was kind of one of the things that stood out to me. Because you capture in the movie sort of an idea of how one might be ruled out, right? It's almost sort of like a lottery based on birthdays, I think it was, about how people would access the vaccine. And so there was this long waiting game for a lot of people.

[14:25:12] I mean, we still don't have a vaccine, there's a lot of questions about it. But that was one of the things you found in your research, was that this is something that will take a long time. It's not like the vaccine is discovered and then, bam, everyone gets it.

BURNS: Well, and the other -- that's exactly right. And one of the other things about it is you don't actually need to have the vaccine in hand to begin to make a plan. And so we talk about -- you know, or the president has talked about, you know, how soon the vaccine will be here, and I'm sort of stunned that nobody seems to understand, you know, when it does appear, who gets it first, how it's going to be dispersed, who's going to pay for it.

And you know, I'm a screenwriter, I'm not a scientist and I'm happy to be here but people like Anne are the people we need to be listening to right now to help us get a plan together for what happens when we do have a vaccine.

KEILAR: Yes, I think you might have put more thought into your screenwriting, Scott, than the White House has put into their pandemic plan.

Scott Burns, thank you so much. Anne Rimoin, thank you so much. Really appreciate it, you guys.

BURNS: Thank you.

KEILAR: Utah is in the middle of a major coronavirus outbreak. The hospitals are overwhelmed, they are at risk of running out of room in their intensive care units. We're going to get an update on the front line, next.

And the rent plummets in San Francisco after the coronavirus pushes many people out of their tiny and very pricy apartments.