Return to Transcripts main page
New Documentary Examines Israel Boycotts; Interview With Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE); Interview With Arkansas Times Founder And Publisher Alan Leveritt; Interview With "Boycott" Director Julia Bacha; Interview With NYU And Bellevue Infectious Disease Specialist And Epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired November 30, 2021 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The war is being undertaken with great feat.
AMANPOUR (voice-over): Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader defiant on the front lines of a brutal civil war, while crackdowns and a coup
trample democracy in neighboring Sudan. Can the United States help restore order in the Horn of Africa?
I ask President Biden's foreign policy man in Congress, Senator Chris Coons.
ALAN LEVERITT, PUBLISHER, "THE ARKANSAS TIMES": I have the right to boycott anyone I want to, and the state has no business getting involved in that,
AMANPOUR: A new documentary uncovers the American laws punishing boycotts of Israel. I'm joined by the Arkansas newspaper publisher who's fighting
back and the film's award-winning director.
DR. CELINE GOUNDER, FORMER BIDEN CORONAVIRUS ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER: I do think we will have answers to whether our vaccines provide protective
immunity and to what degree against Omicron really within about two weeks.
AMANPOUR: Walter Isaacson talks to infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder about Omicron and whether it will usher in another winter of
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
"We will repel, destroy and eliminate the enemy." Those are the stark words today from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize
winner who's now on the war front, literally. His government is accusing U.S.-based terrorists and Western diplomats of conspiring to overthrow him.
Since fighting broke out last year between government and rebel forces, thousands have been killed or pushed into famine-like conditions. Many
others have fled to neighboring Sudan, which is mired in its own turmoil. Protesters there were met by tear gas today, amid the ongoing fallout from
last month's military coup.
Ethiopia and Sudan were once sources of hope in the Horn of Africa, but their sudden unraveling is threatening to destabilize the region and
American-backed democracy projects. President Biden is taking notice. His secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was just in the region. And his
longtime ally, Senator Chris Coons, who's focused on African issues, has met with Abiy.
The Delaware Democrat joins me now from Washington.
So, Senator, welcome back to the program.
You have just come back from an event at the White House. What can you tell me about how the president is thinking about this issue now in the Horn of
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Well, Christiane, it was encouraging, a positive to be over the White House for a bill signing.
President Biden just signed four different bipartisan bills to support our veterans. But we had a moment to talk on the side of that event, and he
renewed his personal direct message to me that he really hopes those of us in Congress who are actively engaged in supporting democracy and to trying
to defend human rights will continue our efforts to pressure, frankly, both the coup leaders in Sudan and the combatants in Ethiopia to step back from
I have introduced a bipartisan piece of legislation here that would sanction individuals in Ethiopia who are accelerating what is an
increasingly ethnic-based conflict.
And, Christiane, one of my great concerns, to look back at history, is that the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, a large nation of 110 million people, a
multifaith, multilingual, multiethnic republic, may disintegrate the same way Yugoslavia did, with the same sort of tragic impacts in terms of human
rights, hunger, and even possibly genocide.
AMANPOUR: And you know, because that was our generation's, my generation's war, and we witnessed not just the human rights violations that you talk
about, but how it really hampered American foreign policy, Western Democratic foreign policy, and became a battleground for so many other
What would you tell Americans watching and, frankly, global citizens watching about why this Horn of Africa region is important to America? What
is the history that America looks to?
COONS: Well, first, Sudan, which you also just mentioned in the introduction, is a country that for decades was on the list of state
sponsors of terrorism.
There was a genocide in Darfur within Sudan, one of the largest countries in Africa. And they have just recently emerged. They overthrew their
dictator. They were just removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list. And widespread civilian demonstrations succeeded in securing a path towards
democracy, which just in the last few weeks has been pushed back by a coup.
At a moment around the world when democracies are under real pressure from authoritarianism, we in the United States who care about democracy and its
vibrancy globally should care about whether or not democracy succeeds in Sudan.
In Ethiopia, it's been the breadbasket of the region. It's been a significant contributor of peacekeeping troops in the Horn. They have been
a key partner to the United States in combating extremism in Somalia and have helped stabilize Sudan, South Sudan.
And there's a large diaspora community here in the United States. To have Ethiopia now suddenly turn, instead of being led by a Peace Prize-winning
peacemaker who was trying to build a modern democracy, to have that leader and his combatant opponents, the TPLF, now engaged in this death struggle
on a field of battle just outside of Addis, is a truly disheartening development that should concern all of us.
AMANPOUR: And, of course, TPLF is the name for the military entity of the Tigrayan region.
AMANPOUR: And, as you say, that is fighting now, mired in fighting with the government forces.
And as we said in the introduction, I mean, the extraordinary sight of this Peace Prize winner on the actual battlefront in his Ray-Bans and his
fatigues, talking about repelling and destroying the enemy.
But perhaps even more worryingly for yourself, his spokesman, presumably channeling the prime minister, has accused the diaspora in the United
States of being behind terrorists, as they call it, seeking regime change against the Abiy government, blaming Western governments, and, frankly, all
but blaming the United States for trying to overthrow the Abiy government.
What do you say to that? I mean, you have met with him.
AMANPOUR: This doesn't bode well for American efforts to broker some kind of halt to this war.
COONS: Christiane, leaders across the continent of Africa, across the world, the secretary-general of the United Nations, former heads of state,
current regional heads of state, have all met with Prime Minister Abiy and pleaded with him to show his skill as a peacemaker, exactly the sort of
capabilities that led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a few years ago.
He is a skilled military officer, someone who served in the Ethiopian armed forces for decades. And he is instead today showing that more martial side
of his experience and character. When I met with him months ago as President Biden's personal emissary, I was there to urge him to step back
from the brink of ethnically-based confrontation.
And he made a number of very encouraging commitments, commitments which he initially kept, but which ultimately have been broken.
I recognize that the TPLF fired first, that they launched a war against federal bases and armed forces up in Tigray, but both sides have
accelerated this. Regional players have been invited in. And this war has gotten absolutely out of hand.
And the prime minister has the ability to call for a cease-fire, to negotiate and to seek a resolution to this conflict before millions die
from both violence and starvation.
I think he has an opportunity here to show that he earned the Peace Prize based on his commitment to peacemaking, rather than what is currently the
path he's on. Last point, if I could, Christiane, social media is playing a critical role here, helping to accelerate some of the ethnic-based language
and activities that are happening here that are very concerning.
This is a tinderbox, a region that, if it goes up, could have real consequences, not just in Ethiopia, but throughout the region and, frankly,
in some ways, the world.
AMANPOUR: And you mentioned the humanitarian crisis.
I think perhaps one of the things many people in the world remember is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, which then led to Live Aid. And people remember
those kinds of human catastrophes. And if that happens again, it would indeed be a catastrophe.
But I just want to ask you again, why do you think this government is pointing at the United States as backing what they call terrorists and
seeking Abiy's overthrow? Does that -- I mean, why would they be doing that?
COONS: Well, in a number of meetings that I had, both in Addis in person months ago and subsequent conversations, the narrative of the Ethiopian
government is that there are Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, at senior levels in our government, who are taking the side of Tigray and the
Tigrayans against the federal government.
That's not true. But that is their view. And in a number of cases, they have asserted that very forcefully. And this latest statement suggests
that, rather than taking responsibility for negotiating and for compromising, they're seeking to villainize leaders from the West and
Ethiopia has recently expelled a number of U.N. diplomats, Western diplomats. And I, frankly, think this is very disheartening, Christiane.
This is a leader, charismatic and capable, who could be negotiating peace.
He is instead accelerating his pathway towards further conflict. Neither one of these militaries is, I think, able to have a decisive military
victory on the battlefield. They instead are likely to lead towards an exhausting, brutal civil war that I think could have very negative
We here in the Capitol are mostly focused on passing Build Back Better, on making progress in ways that will help families across the United States.
But we cannot ignore our global responsibilities as a country that cares about democracies around the world and cares about the humanitarian impact
AMANPOUR: So, as you mentioned, this is not just Ethiopia, but the spillover into Sudan. They share a border.
CNN has reported that the many victims of this Ethiopian war, I mean, have literally ended up floating downriver and discovered in Sudan. So it is
crossing borders. There have been skirmishes across borders. There have been soldiers killed in these border skirmishes.
And does that concern you, that that could end up in a cross-border war?
Christiane, this started as a cross-border war. Prime Minister Abiy invited the Eritrean armed forces to come in into the very north and to squeeze the
Tigrayan armed forces between the Ethiopian federal forces and the Eritreans.
I also made a trip to a refugee camp at the far eastern border of Sudan to meet with and hear from Ethiopian refugees who had fled West across the
border into Sudan, and heard horrifying stories of human rights abuses.
There is a hotly contested triangle of land between Sudan and Ethiopia, the al-Fashaga Triangle, that has recently been the site of armed conflict
between Sudanese and Ethiopian troops. I'm gravely concerned that this could turn into a regional conflict of even greater consequence than it
AMANPOUR: So, we mentioned what had just happened in Sudan with the coup and then the ousted prime minister essentially making a deal with
essentially the coup leaders to get back into power.
I want to play a little bit of a section of an interview that the prime minister had with CNN on why he signed that agreement to come back to
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ABDALLA HAMDOK, SUDANESE PRIME MINISTER: There is no perfect agreement. There is a good agreement. There is a workable agreement.
There is a possible agreement that would allow things to be normalized and allow the country to move forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Do you think it's a good agreement?
I mean, there are still protesters out on the streets. They don't think it's a great agreement. Do you think it's a good agreement?
COONS: Christiane, I think that is ultimately up to the people of Sudan.
I am relieved and encouraged that Prime Minister Hamdok is safe, that there is some beginnings of a path forward towards a reconciliation between
civilian forces and the military and that the coup leaders are not just driving forward.
But I introduced legislation here to apply sanctions against any individual who is standing in the way of the restoration of democracy in Sudan. The
Sudanese uprising against the former dictator was a truly bright spot in the last year and something that we should encourage.
So I will just say, in terms of the agreement between General Burhan and Prime Minister Hamdok, I think that's up to the Sudanese people to
determine. But I do think it is better that there is some lessening of the forward movement of the coup leaders.
AMANPOUR: The United States still doesn't have an official ambassador or an ambassador in Sudan. I don't know whether that will be changed anytime
But I want to ask you about not baby-sitting, nurturing the democratic process around the world, something America has done for the last many
decades since the end of World War II.
I'm sure you saw a troubling new report done by an NGO, which should suggest that not only in the United States, but in countries aligned with
the United States and allies of the United States, they are showing very significant signs of backsliding on democracy, in fact, the greatest signs
of backsliding on democracy, from within.
How much of a -- well, I mean, how does this threaten President Biden's main international goal, which is to promote democracy?
COONS: Well, Christiane, this is part of why I have worked so hard on trying to help advance bipartisan legislation in this Congress.
After the shattering, profoundly concerning developments of January 6, the riot here in the United States Capitol, that sent a message around the
world. There is no more better known symbol of American democracy than our Capitol. And the world watched as an angry mob stormed the Capitol and
sought to overturn our election results.
It is important that we demonstrate the restoration of the rule of law, the impact of a peaceful and orderly transition from the previous to the
current president. It's important that we show the efficacy, the vibrancy of our democracy.
When President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill in front of the White House just last week, I thought that was a big step forward.
Today's bill signing is another important step forward, because I think other democracies around the world for which people struggle and sacrifice,
in some ways, look to us.
And if we fail at sustaining our democracy, I think that sends a very negative message around the world. We have a great deal to learn from each
other. Nations who are trying in this digital age, where social media has so much impact, where climate change is destabilizing countries, we have a
great deal to teach each other.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was just traveling through Africa and meeting with heads of state in European countries that are under
significant pressure, as there is a forward march of authoritarianism. The White House is convening a summit of democracies December 9 and 10. And I'm
looking forward to working to advance bipartisan legislation here in the Congress that will further support our global work in the effort to sustain
and advance democracy around the world.
AMANPOUR: And, finally, a related question, but a kind of a lessons-learned question.
When you see what happened in Afghanistan, the attempt to build, I guess, everybody said, a Jeffersonian democracy in that country, which has come
crashing down around everyone's ears, what lessons learned do you then apply to Africa, for instance?
In other words, what does promoting democracy actually mean for Americans like yourself now, in wake of what happened in Afghanistan?
COONS: Well, I do think that's apples and oranges. And I will make the argument briefly.
Afghanistan had very little in the tradition of national civic infrastructure. It was an enormous effort required to try and build a
nation out of a country that had known war continuously literally for decades, and had very strong regional, tribal, and religious divisions.
The United States is...
AMANPOUR: But, Senator, so did Ethiopia and Sudan, to be to fair.
COONS: That's right.
And so we should recognize that, if we're going to continue, as we should, to invest in democracies, to stand with young democracies, and to try and
provide encouragement and support for movement in the direction of democracies, it's very difficult to do at the point of a gun.
It's got to happen where the governments that we are working with, the people, we are working with are choosing it. The abrupt collapse of
Afghanistan, I think, was principally a collapse of Afghan elected leadership.
When President Ashraf Ghani abandoned the country, the collapse came far more swiftly than most of us expected. So, too, leaders like prime Minister
Abiy in Ethiopia, like Prime Minister Burhan and Prime Minister Hamdok in Sudan, leaders have a significant role to play, but so too do the people.
Without the courage and the bravery of protesters in Sudan, there would be no window for democracy in Sudan.
COONS: Without civilians stepping forward, the diaspora community stepping forward and saying we urge peace in Ethiopia, I'm not sure we can pull --
or Ethiopia can pull itself back from the brink of this conflict.
AMANPOUR: Oh, gosh, that sounds like quite a dark note to end on, but a realistic one.
Senator Coons, thank you very much indeed.
And the fight over democratic values is playing out, as we said, in the United States itself. But, in this case, there is a battle over free speech
and whether a boycott is actually protected by the First Amendment.
More than 30 states have passed laws against BDS. That is an economic boycott of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. To be clear, this
is not just a story about that contentious political issue, but we're focusing on how a foreign government seeks to influence America's basic
Some are challenging these state laws in court, including an Arkansas newspaper publisher, Alan Leveritt. Here he is in a clip from a new
documentary about the issue. It is called "Boycott."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LEVERITT: Any country that bases its founding mythology around the Boston Tea Party and the boycott of tea, you would think that, today, a few 100
years later, we would still see boycotts as a political -- a form of political speech and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, the judge in Little Rock disagreed.
So we lost. It doesn't make a bit of sense to me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So we're going to try to make sense of this with Alan Leveritt himself, who's joining me now, along with the film's director, Julia Bacha.
Thank you both for joining us on the program.
Julia, let me start with you, because this is your film, and you followed several plaintiffs against these state laws. Alan is one of them.
Why did you choose to take this subject and focus it on the United States?
JULIA BACHA, DIRECTOR, "BOYCOTT": Thank you, Christiane, for having us.
I have been making documentaries with the team at Just Vision for the past 17 years. And the films up until "Boycott" have focused on Palestinians and
Israelis who are building -- who are working to build a future of justice and equality for both communities in the region.
When our team saw that there were laws being passed across the United States that were aiming to suppress the ability of Americans to express
their political dissatisfaction with Israeli policies towards Palestinians, and were saying that, basically, Americans had to sign a pledge that they
would not participate in boycotts against Israel if they wanted public contracts, we knew that it was really important to follow that story.
And when plaintiffs like Bahia Amawi, and Mik Jordahl, and Esther Koontz, and Alan Leveritt, coming from different political backgrounds, decided to
sue their states. We knew we had a storyline to follow and to bring that story to Americans.
AMANPOUR: So we're going to focus on one plaintiff, and he is sitting right there, Alan Leveritt.
And I'm going to get you.
But I just want to also say, for our viewers, I think it's important to know, that your group, Just Vision, was founded by an Israeli. And I think
that's important, so that we understand what we're discussing right here.
So, Alan, you came a foul of this anti-BDS state law that was passed in Arkansas. Tell me what it meant for you, as the publisher and founder of
LEVERITT: Well, this -- this is a battle we were not looking for. This is a fight that we did not pick.
We're an intensely local publication here in Arkansas. We have been here for 47 years. I started it back in college. And all we want to do is, we
want to write about Arkansas. But, somehow or another, the state legislature, and also I think 32 other state legislatures around the
country, decided to pass a bill that said that we had to pledge not to boycott Israel if we wanted to continue receiving advertising from the
state of Arkansas.
And in our mind, that meant that we had to take a political position, which would be not to boycott Israel, a pledge, in return for money. And that's
something that we're just not going to do.
We have no intention of boycotting Israel. We're not mad at anyone. But we don't -- we don't exchange political positions for advertising.
AMANPOUR: And, in fact, you wrote in "The New York Times" it was puzzling. "Our paper focuses on the virtue virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on
Broadway. Why would we be required to sign a pledge?"
LEVERITT: A fabulous barbecue joint, by the way, yes.
AMANPOUR: Which I'm sure we'd all like to taste.
"Why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?"
So that was the question that you had, as you have outlined.
So now, let me put -- perhaps this is a bit of the answer from the film and Julia's interview with the state senator in Arkansas who rammed this
through and got it through the state Senate. He is the Republican state Senator Bart Hester appearing in the film.
And this is what he tells you, Julia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STATE SEN. BART HESTER (R-AR): I sponsored the anti-boycott bill because I think it's the right thing to do. Jewish people are God's chosen people.
And I felt like an obligation to do anything within my control or power to support them or protect them.
STATE REP. JIM DOTSON (R-AR): Members, the title says what this does. This is an act to prohibit public entities from contracting with and investing
in companies that boycott Israel. It's a good pro-Israel bill by Senator Hester. Appreciate a good vote.
HESTER: The state is not protected from the church, but the church is protected from the state. I would say, if there's 35 members of the
Arkansas Senate, I would say 35 members would say that they are believers and followers of Jesus Christ.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question before the House is passage of Senate Bill 513. Prepare the machine, Mr. Clerk.
HESTER: I would say probably half would identify as evangelical. They understand how important it is to support Israel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sixty-nine yeas, three nays, and zero present. The bill is passed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Julia, this is now, I think, a situation in 30 states around America.
How do you account for that? From your documentary and you're interviewing in different states, how do you account for the spread of this, almost
under the radar in terms of how it affects Americans' basic rights?
BACHA: Yes, Christiane.
The film "Boycott" traces not only the lawsuits of several Americans who are suing their states in order to be able to keep their public contracts,
but it also weaves an investigation into how these bills were able to pass in 33 states in America, as you mentioned, with very little public debate
and public scrutiny, about the huge consequences that these bills have for basic First Amendment rights of everyday Americans.
And what we learned is that, in addition to traditional Israeli lobby organizations, there is a growing organizing of conservative right-wing
evangelical groups, which Senator Bart Hester represents. And he's not really a unique person sitting on the state senates across the country.
This is a growing movement that has gained incredible political power across the country.
And they were very engaged and involved in advocating and lobbying for these bills to be passed, including with the support of an organization
called ALEC, which is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is an organization focused on lobbying for state level bills.
Traditionally, they're focused on pro-business type bills, but they became involved in pushing these cookie-cutter anti-boycott bills across the
country, very effectively, because they have a pretty well-oiled system for getting these bills across the country.
We also learned in the film, in the making of the film that there is -- there was a strong push by the highest levels of the Israeli government,
including with evidence coming from Prime Minister Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who speaks very openly on Twitter about how the
Israeli government is pushing anti-boycott laws to punish Americans if they want to...
AMANPOUR: Well, we just have -- we actually have that very tweet, because you had it in your film, and we got it off Twitter. And here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Whoever boycotts us will themselves get boycotted.
In the last few years, we have promoted in the USA -- and there are now laws in most states there -- that anyone who boycotts Israel will
themselves be punished.
So, it won't help them. We don't care. And we are fighting it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Well, there it is. It's out there. It's open. It's policy.
I want to ask you, though, Mr. Leveritt, this was affecting your business. And I just wonder how much reporting that your newspaper did on it. Did it
sort of -- was it a news story? Did the people of Arkansas know a lot about it?
LEVERITT: No. No, it has nothing to do with Arkansas. When
I talk to people here, they just kind of look at me blankly. And they said, why did we do -- why did they do that? And -- but I think the reason is, is
because, as Senator Hester says, is that these are conservative evangelicals.
And part of their -- part of their religious point of view is that they have stitched together through several books of the Bible, Revelations,
Isaiah, a number of other books, a belief that, in order for the second coming of Christ and the -- and Armageddon to take place, that Israel has
to regain its biblical borders, its borders from the time of David and Solomon.
And when that happens, then we will have the second coming of Christ and we will have Armageddon. And all the Christians will go up and all the non-
Christians and the Jews, as Bart Hester says, will go to hell.
So, it's interesting that the Israeli government has been able to weaponize the evangelical conservative community in the United States.
And -- but the irony here is, is that from their point of view, from the point of view of the evangelicals, the Israeli government is hurrying the
day that Armageddon will take place and the citizens of Israel and the non- Christians will go to hell. It's very strange.
AMANPOUR: It is slightly strange. And to that end, while we know that a former Israeli ambassador has suggested that Israel should now pay much
more attention to American evangelicals than to American Jews because, as you've laid out, they're firmly in, you know, of that belief. The -- one of
the main rabbis in your state was also interviewed for this program and I just want to play what he said about the state legislation and particularly
about your case.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RABBI BARRY BLOCK, B'NAI ISRAEL: Temple Here I am, the rabbi of the largest congregation in the state. Nobody had to talk with me about this proposal.
Supporting Israel is of the greatest importance to me. I could not be stronger in my opposition to boycotts of any Israeli products. However, I
was appalled that a newspaper would have to sign an oath that it would not participate in any kind of political action.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, that's from the voice of the rabbi. I think it's really important to hear what he says. And I just want to ask you Alan Leveritt,
where is your case? Where do you stand? Do you have to sign this thing in order to get some advertising money? What's up?
LEVERITT: Well, we're not signing it. And something that's been little reported about this bill, that it's very odd. There is a clause in this
bill that says that the State of Arkansas has a compelling interest to support the foreign policy of the State of Israel. However, you do not
actually have to sign this pledge if you give the State the Arkansas a 20 percent discount off your price.
So, if we'll tip the State of Arkansas 20 percent, then they'll go away and they'll continue to do business with us on merit as they've done for 47
years and we can go forward. So, what we're doing right now is we're giving the State of Arkansas a 20 percent tip every time they buy an ad. And
that's how we're surviving.
AMANPOUR: Oh, boy. Well, let me ask you then. Because this really goes to a much bigger American tradition, and that is obviously the First Amendment
and free speech and the ability to have your free political views.
So, Julia, you know, you start the documentary and you weave through the documentary, the really effective boycotts, frankly, economic pressures
that had been used in the United States throughout its history to achieve civil rights and all sorts of different rights, whether it's farm workers'
rights, women's rights, probably not. But, I mean, you show the busboy card, you show all of those things. Not to mention America's leading role
in the anti-apartheid movement and the sanctions that finally led to justice in the country in South Africa.
Talk to us a little bit about, I don't know, the dichotomy between America's experience with boycotts and the attempt to ban them now.
BACHA: Christiane, it's extremely troubling the degree to which this bill could go, right? What we are seeing right now is that governments, like the
State Government of Texas, has passed new bills that now condition public contracts on people promising that they won't boycott fossil fuels or that
they won't boycott the firearms industry.
So, they're using the model bill that was created and passed with bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats, passing it across the
country to now attack the ability of Americans to fight climate change. The ability of Americans to demand change to gun laws in America.
The basic rights of your children to be safe of the future of your children in the world, you're not going to be able to use the tool of boycott to
advocate for it, which, as you mentioned, Christiane, has been essential in most of the progressive change that we all today, in retrospect, look back
to with great pride like the civil rights movement was --
The boycott was critical in so many aspects, not only the bus boycott but also the boycott in Port Gibson Mississippi against white businesses that
the NWCP and citizens of Port Gibson organized in order to demand an end to segregation in the institutions in their city.
And I want to mentioned briefly in terms of the legal background here, that boycott in Port Gibson, Mississippi ended up going all the way to the
Supreme Court because the merchants in Port Gibson sued the NWCP. And the Supreme Court, in 1982, the case took 15 years to get to Supreme Court
ruled unanimously that boycotts are protected by the First Amendment. And so, the government cannot interfere on American citizens' ability to use
boycott to express their political views. And now --
AMANPOUR: Well, actually --
BACHA: Go ahead.
AMANPOUR: Sorry to interrupt you. But one of your plaintiffs who you profile also went all the way up to the court and she also got a favorable
ruling. So, that's interesting. But you mention, you know, Democrat and Republicans, bipartisan, state legislatures passing it. One of the most
extraordinary pieces in your documentary was a door stopping of -- you know, of a Democratic senator. Let's just play this because he voted for it
but seemed clueless about what it was.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, did you get pushback for voting from the bill or - -
SEN. GREG LEDING (D-AR): Sometime last year, somebody posted something on Facebook. They had just discovered that we had done it. And I had
completely forgotten about it. I wasn't even sure how I voted. I had to go back and look it up. And so, people were complaining, like, why did you do
this? It's just one of those bills we vote a couple thousand times during a session and it was one of those that, for whatever reason, just wasn't on
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Yikes, Alan. Clearly, not many are paying a huge amount of attention to these bills.
LEVERITT: Well, they're totally irrelevant to Arkansas. And Senator Leding may be forgiven just because he figured it didn't have any -- it was more
culture war stuff that had nothing to do with governing. But unfortunately, it really does affect, you know, First Amendment rights.
And I would like to add to what Julia said, you know, these cuts both ways. Blue states can -- I mean, how about -- you can't do business with the
State of Massachusetts if you boycott planned parenthood or any number of progressive organizations or causes. So, you're just opening up a pandora's
AMANPOUR: Well, on that note, we need to end this conversation, but absolutely fascinating. Thank you both so much.
And turning now to the Omicron coronavirus variant that has the world on edge, at least 70 countries and territories have now imposed travel
restrictions on several African countries after South Africa alerted the world to the variant. Epidemiologists and infectious disease specialist,
Dr. Celine Gounder, was part of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. And she's joining Walter Isaacson to tell us more about how
the U.S. should be responding.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And, Dr. Celine Gounder. Welcome to the show.
DR. CELINE GOUNDER, INFECTIOUS DISEASE SPECIALIST AND EPIDEMIOLOGIST, NYU AND BELLEVUE: It's a pleasure to be here.
ISAACSON: So, the big news today is that the CDC recommends that all adults should, they say should, get their booster shot. At first, a few weeks ago,
you were a little bit cautious saying maybe you weren't going to get that booster. Have you changed your mind, and if so, why?
DR. GOUNDER: Walter, the reasoning has changed significantly. The debate that we were having, scientists were having about boosters before was
really about waning immunity. Were we seeing waning protection against infection and we were seeing waning protection against more severe disease?
That calculus has shifted now. This is really a debate now or a decision about whether Omicron is immune evading and can you overcome some degree of
immunization by giving an extra dose of vaccine?
We know from another variant, the Beta variant, which was an earlier immune evading variant that you can, in fact, overcome that immune invasion with
another dose of vaccine.
ISAACSON: So, in other words, if this mutation of the Omicron has caused it to be able to evade some of our immune structures just by building up more
immunity with the booster shot, we might be able to overcome it?
DR. GOUNDER: That's right. That's right. So, by giving an extra dose, you might be able to overcome that relative evasion of the immune system and it
also buys us time, time in which Pfizer, Moderna, other vaccine manufacturers can formulate second generation vaccines that are specific to
Omicron. So, you know, if that booster buys us six months, that would be quite significant because we think it will take about three months or so
for Pfizer and Moderna to update those vaccines and to get that into manufacturing.
ISAACSON: Now, tell me what mutations have occurred to make this new variant more dangerous?
DR. GOUNDER: Well, looking at Omicron variant, there are over 30 mutations of concern. It's really the best hits of all the scary mutations we've seen
in all the different variants. So, it's hard to predict exactly how it's going to behave just from its genetic sequence. But what we're seeing, at
least, in terms of individual mutations is concerning.
ISAACSON: Well, some of the mutations not to the spike protein but to the rest of the virus makes it seem like it could be sort of a stronger variant
of the virus. Is that true?
DR. GOUNDER: Certainly possible. The three main characteristics of viruses that we worry about like this is, is one, is it more transmissible? Is it
more infectious? Does it spread more easily from one person to another? And that we certainly saw with the Delta variant.
The second question is, can it evade our immune responses, particularly, the immune responses we get from vaccination? We saw that, as I mentioned,
with the Beta variant, and we are worried that we might see that with Omicron.
And then, the third characteristic we really pay attention to is what's called virulence. So, in an individual who's infected with the variant,
will they have worse disease than with other earlier forms of the variant? And we just don't know really the answer to any of those three questions
ISAACSON: Now, the mRNA vaccines we have, it uses a particular type of coding, you know, it's a messenger RNA that goes after certain parts of the
spike protein to replicate it so that our system develops immunity to that. Can we tell by looking at the sequence of this new variant how the mRNA
vaccine might work?
DR. GOUNDER: You know, it is really difficult to predict by looking at a sequence. I do think we will have answers to whether our vaccines provide
protective immunity and to what degree against Omicron really within about two weeks. Scientists are hard at work in the lab and that is a question
that could be answered through laboratory testing. And so, I think, at least, that first of those three key questions, we'll have an answer to
pretty soon here.
ISAACSON: Now, the mRNA vaccine can be reprogrammed pretty easily. So, if indeed it's not quite aimed at given immunity to this variant, you could
just sort of put in a new sequence. If they do that, if BioNTech or Pfizer or Moderna are able to reprogram these vaccines, will they have to go
through clinical trials again or can we get them quickly as possible?
DR. GOUNDER: So, the approval process is a bit different for an updated vaccine. It's more similar to the approval the FDA gives for updated flu
vaccines every year. And so, really, they're looking at laboratory testing, not those big clinical trials for that approval. It's a far more expedited
ISAACSON: Explain some of the recent state data to me. Let's start with New Mexico, a place highly vaccinated and yet, it's having one of the worst
spikes and it's very warm there, people still outside and people generally wearing masks inside. Why does that happen when everybody is doing
everything right and getting vaccinated
DR. GOUNDER: Well, if you look at the hospitals in New Mexico, they're not just taking New Mexicans. In fact, there's a lot of overflow from Colorado,
which we know has also been experiencing a huge spike recently, a lot of overflow from Texas, which -- and I have colleagues in New Mexico right
It's been creating a lot of challenges for them because they have found themselves in a situation where their ICUs are full of out of state
patients and they then are trying to call, you know, literally up to 40 local area hospitals for a local New Mexican.
So, you know, I think we have to remember that this is not confined within our state borders, that what's happening in the state next door can very
much impact your hospitals as well.
ISAACSON: But you look at states like Minnesota, Vermont, New Mexico, having spikes, having a lot of cases, but also having high vaccination
rates. That seems counterintuitive.
DR. GOUNDER: Yes, Minnesota is a really concerning sign as is Michigan. They have high vaccination rates, but it is not evenly distributed. So, if
you look at the twin cities, they have very high vaccination rates. But if you go out to the rural areas in Minnesota, the vaccination rates drop
And even if we say, you know, a state has high vaccination rates, that's high within the U.S., if you actually compare those numbers to other
countries in the world, very few of our states measure up. So, if you're only hitting 60, 70 percent vaccination rates, that's still not nearly
enough. You still have far too many people susceptible to infection and who could still land in the hospital.
ISAACSON: Should we have more easy to get tests that you can just buy at the drugstore and do self-testing? Would that help
DR. GOUNDER: Yes. I think it would. I think, right now, the rapid tests range in price from $7 to $25 a piece. That is still far too expensive. If
you think about, you know, a family of four that might have wanted to test on Thanksgiving Day at $25 apiece, that's $100 just for that. And so, this
is really not affordable for most people. We really need to make this freely available, for free as have other countries. The U.K., for example,
you could have them shipped to your home for free. Singapore proactively mails rapid test kits to their citizens for free.
You know, and then there's the behavior change of getting people used to the idea of testing and how do you use the results to inform your behavior.
But I think the biggest obstacle hurdle here is you've got to make it free.
ISAACSON: Why isn't it free? Why -- who makes that decision that it's not going to be something covered that would be free?
DR. GOUNDER: Well, you've got a combination of issues. I think one, the demand for these rapid tests has not been consistent. So, it's difficult
for the producers, the manufacturers of these test to scale up and to provide at scale cheap rapid testing when they are not sure exactly what
the volume of demand is going to be from month to month. And then secondly, it needs to be subsidized by the federal government to make it free from
ISAACSON: Do bans on travel make sense now or is the genie out of the bottle?
DR. GOUNDER: I do think, Walter, that the genie is out of the bottle. Travel restrictions can work but they need to be implemented far more
quickly. Are American travel restrictions didn't go in effect until Monday, so you still had several days where people could travel back and forth.
Those travel restrictions need to be implemented on citizens, not just foreigners. And that's much more akin to what countries Australia and New
Zealand did. That also left many of their citizens stranded overseas for months. And I don't think we have the political will to be that strict.
But if you have Americans who are still traveling back and forth to these countries, the virus can hitch a ride on them just as it can on somebody
from South Africa.
ISAACSON: 16 percent of Americans will say they're not going to get vaccinated. What does that mean? Does that mean we'll never be able to stop
this or can we get herd immunity?
DR. GOUNDER: I think herd immunity is off the table. I think, with respect to that remaining 16 percent that says that they will never get vaccinated,
I think this is a long-term project for all of us, public health leaders, community leaders, to really address what is an ideological issue, a trust
issue, and that's going to take a long time to bridge that gap.
ISAACSON: We can't even vaccinate ourselves more than, say, 80 percent in the United States. Are we ever going to be able to get the rest of the
world to be vaccinated enough that we're not going to see these variants? People are talking a lot about we should focusing on making sure we have
vaccines in Africa to stop these variants. Is that really reasonable?
DR. GOUNDER: Yes. I certainly think we can slow the emergence of variants tremendously by vaccinating the rest of the world. Too much of the world
remains unvaccinated, and that includes people right here at home in the United States. In addition to vaccination, another key group we need to be
paying attention to are people who are highly immunocompromised. What we have seen is these variants are more likely to emerge from people who are
highly immunocompromised who tend, when they get infected, to have longer infections, where in a sense, it's a training ground for the virus. It
keeps mutating and mutating and testing different mutations out in those highly immunocompromised people.
So, that's a group where not only we should vaccinate but unfortunately, vaccines don't always take in people whose immune systems are weaker, we
need to have other back-ups which would include perhaps using monoclonal antibodies preemptively. So, even before they're exposed, giving them,
perhaps an infusion of monoclonal antibodies every three to four months so that they're already blanketed with this layer of protection.
Another thing we could be doing for that particular group is when they are exposed, have a known exposure, preemptively starting them on treatment
with the antiviral drugs like Paxlovid and Molnupiravir to prevent them from ending up with an infection or to nip that infection in the bud. I
think that's a group we really do have to pay some very special attention to.
ISAACSON: You were on President Biden's task force, and one of the things you all stressed was the racial inequities that had to be addressed and
something you talked about on your podcast. Tell me about that. What can we do now to address the inequalities that come out of the COVID situation?
DR. GOUNDER: This is one reason I think we have to be very careful when we talk about living with COVID that we do so through a public health lens, so
to speak. Which means that you're thinking not just about, you know, what does it mean for you but that you're looking at what it means for an entire
population. In particular, thinking about vulnerable populations and equity.
And so, what that might mean for you, you know, I've been vaccinated, I've had my booster. I don't work face-to-face with people. I can work from
home, in my office. Yes, sure. You know, for you, it might not be much of a threat, but I think we need to be thinking more broadly when we talk about
living with COVID, it needs to be, how do we all live safely with COVID, not just you, the individual.
ISAACSON: One of the devastating things about this pandemic has been closing schools. People having a year, sometimes a year and a half, where
they aren't in school and we're seeing enormous effects because of that. If Omicron spreads, do you think we should close schools again or should we do
everything we can to avoid closing schools?
DR. GOUNDER: I think we can do everything we can to avoid closing schools. And I think we learned from our experience with prior variants that you can
keep schools open as long as you layer certain protective measures. So, that includes, of course, masking, improving ventilation and air
filtration, buying HEPA air filtration units for classrooms, testing on a regular basis to make sure that the kids who are attending school are not
carrying the virus.
There are billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan, the Cares Act and other -- the infrastructure bill and so on for improving K through 12
school infrastructure, including ventilation and air filtration. For whatever reason, the school districts have not prioritized spending those
funds in that way, and that's truly a missed opportunity to buffer ourselves against whether it's Omicron or other variants.
ISAACSON: You've had a lot of experience earlier on battling Ebola and you were an aid worker for that. Tell me what parallels you see between that
and the current virus.
DR. GOUNDER: Well, one very important parallel is how both epidemics, pandemics have been politicized, and that was really chilling for me back
in December of 2019, January of 2020. For me, it was deja vu.
If you think back on the Ebola epidemic, that hit during our 2014 midterm elections. That was highly politicized. The question of travel restrictions
at that time. How to treat returning aid workers at that time. And then, on the ground in West Africa, they were in the middle of their own
presidential elections. And so, you saw the response to Ebola, something as simple as hand washing, which you could compare to, you know, mask wearing.
Both basic hygienic measures were highly politicized in that context.
ISAACSON: Why has it become so politicized here?
DR. GOUNDER: Well, I think part of the problem is the pandemic did emerge at a time when, one, this country is extremely polarized, and during an
election where it was really feared by the former president that this would have set his chances at reelection.
You already are hearing politicians saying that Omicron has been invented to win the 2022 midterm elections. And I think unfortunately, where you
have something scary that threatens both the health of the people, the economy, the political stage, I think you do see conspiracy theories emerge
in that setting.
ISAACSON: Dr. Celine Gounder, thank you so much for joining us.
DR. GOUNDER: My pleasure, Walter.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
AMANPOUR: And finally, as Barbados bids Queen E, a fond farewell, becoming the world's newest republic, Queen Ri is crowned instead. Popstar, Rihanna,
was recognized as the island's national hero at last night's transition ceremony where she was honored by Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIA MOTTLEY, BARBADOS PRIME MINISTER: On behalf of a grateful nation but an even prouder people, we therefore present to you the designee for national
hero of Barbados, Ambassador Robyn Rihanna Fenty. May you continue to shine like a diamond and bring honor to your nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Now, Prince Charles himself was watching all of this as Barbados disengaged from royalty after 400 years and sworn in Sandra Mason as its
first president. A new beginning for the island and one less jewel in the crown.
That is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thank you for watching and good-bye from London.