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At This Hour

Merck Asks FDA To Authorize Promising Anti-COVID Pill; FDA Vaccine Advisers To Meet This Week On Moderna & J&J Boosters; Southwest Cancels 2,000-Plus Flights Amid Staffing Shortages; FBI Sting Bans Engineer & Wife In Espionage Case; Chinese Aircraft Repeatedly Enter Taiwan's Air Defense Zone; Whistleblower Accuses Capitol Police Officials Of Lying To Congress. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 11, 2021 - 11:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm curious, do you consider folks who make this 11-minute flight astronauts, once they're back on Earth?

LEROY CHIAO, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: I have no problem at all personally within taking that, you know, accepting that astronaut title. However, I would say it's a lot like getting an honorary doctorate degree or an honorary knighthood for that matter. So, you know, as long as they don't really go out and try to use that title, I think, it's fun.

HILL: Right. Leroy Chiao, good to have you. Thank you.

CHIAO: Good to be with you. Thanks.

HILL: Thanks to all of you for joining us today. I'm Erica Hill. Boris Sanchez picks up right now.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Buenos dias. Hello everyone, I'm Boris Sanchez in for Kate Bolduan. We appreciate you joining us.

Here's what we're watching at this hour. New hope in the fight against coronavirus. The number of cases plummeting and we could soon have a new weapon in the fight against the deadly virus. Plus, airline chaos, Southwest Airlines canceling thousands of flights stranding tens of thousands of passengers. What caused this meltdown?

And the spies next door. An FBI sting and snaring, two would be spies. We'll tell you about a couple accused of trying to sell nuclear secrets and peanut butter sandwiches.

We begin this hour with encouraging developments on the pandemic as the U.S. appears to be turning a corner in the fight against coronavirus. The U.S. now averaging about 93,000 new cases per day. That's the lowest daily average in more than two months. Hospitalizations and deaths also down significantly. And there's promising news on the vaccine front as well. The U.S. now averaging a million doses administered a day, that's the first time the nation has hit that mark in weeks.

And new this morning, Merck asking the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization of its new antiviral pill, which the drugmaker says cuts the risk of hospitalisation and death by half among patients with early COVID symptoms.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Elizabeth Cohen. Elizabeth, a lot of signs for optimism. But experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci are warning that we shouldn't prematurely be celebrating.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And because, Boris, if you can remember just a few months ago sort of the end of May, beginning in June, we were celebrating a little bit and then the Delta variant happened. Please God, we will not have another variant like that come around, but we do need to be careful. People need to get vaccinated, and people need to be sensible about the kinds of activities and the kinds of things that they're doing.

This pandemic is not over. But having said that, as you said, a couple of promising developments. One of them is that Merck applied for Emergency Use Authorization this morning for their anti-viral pill. Now, there are other treatments for early stage COVID.

In note, I'm talking early stage COVID not in the hospital, but they're a little bit tricky to administer. They're monoclonal antibodies where you have to get an infusion or a series of shots. And this would be much easier if doctors could just prescribe a pill, call it into the pharmacy for folks in early stage COVID.

So let's take a look at this data. Merck has put it out in a press release. It has not been published or peer reviewed, but let's look at what Merck has to say. They say that they had a clinical trial of 762 participants, again, in early stage COVID, they were not in the hospital.

And they -- half of them got a placebo, which is a pill that does nothing of those folks, when they followed them, 45 ended up in the hospital and eight died. The folks who got the actual antiviral drug, 28 of them ended up in the hospital and none of them died.

So if those numbers hold up under FDA and CDC scrutiny that is very promising. We don't know a timeline, Boris, for when the FDA might do their review. We know for monoclonal antibodies, another treatment when they applied for Emergency Use Authorization., it took about six weeks for the FDA to do the review for that. So that gives you a bit of a ballpark idea. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Some good news and a lot to look out for. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you so much.

Joining us now to discuss all things COVID is Dr. Paul Offit, he's a member of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Offit, always a pleasure having you on and getting your insight. Let's start with Merck seeking Emergency Use Authorization for that oral antiviral drugs. So how does it work, who's it designed for and how much of a game changer do you think it's going to be?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, FDA VACCINE ADVISORY COMMITTEE: Well, it prevents the virus from reproducing itself. And that's certainly an advantage and it's about 50 percent effective at preventing hospitalization. But remember, the vaccine is virtually 99 percent effective at preventing hospitalization. So, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, you'd much rather prevent getting the illness than treating it once you've already gotten it.

But certainly, the fact that it's given by mouth, that it's about 50 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and at least based on small numbers, about 100 percent effective in preventing deaths. It is an advanced, but again, you'd rather prevent getting infected than actually treating yourself once you're already infected.


SANCHEZ: Dr. Offit, FDA vaccine advisers are going to meet this week to discuss authorizing boosters for people who got the Moderna and J&J vaccine. And for the sake of transparency, we should point out, you're one of those advisers, you're going to be part of that conversation. So assuming that both boosters receive that FDA authorization, how quickly are going to -- are people going to be able to get those extra doses?

OFFIT: Well, so the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices is going to be meeting on November 2nd and 3rd to discuss this. And assuming that the FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee does recommend it, and then the FDA agrees with that recommendation, and then it goes to the ACIP, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, really within a week, within a week, we should be able to have clear recommendations from the CDC on how best to use these booster doses.

SANCHEZ: And what can you tell us about mixing and matching doses if it's safe for people to get a booster shot that's different from the original vaccine they received?

OFFIT: We just need more information. I think that's the frustrating part here. For example, in September of this year, we had a -- an article that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looking at the AstraZeneca vaccine, given it to people and then followed with the AstraZeneca vaccine or the AstraZeneca vaccine followed with the mRNA vaccines a couple months later. And the mRNA vaccines were better, better at boosting, better at inducing a higher titer neutralizing antibody response, better inducing broader immunity against variants of concern.

Those kinds of studies need to be done with the J&J vaccines and the AstraZeneca -- and the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to give us more information. And when that information is generated, then the CDC will give us instructions on how to move forward. But right now, we really are waiting data.

SANCHEZ: Doctor, there has been something that's lingering in the back of my mind and I'm curious to get your perspective on it. Does it concern you that the Biden administration hasn't yet confirmed an FDA commissioner? There's been an acting commissioner for some time, but has that had any impact on the agency's ability to respond to COVID?

OFFIT: I don't think so, no. I mean, I think the advisory committees and the FDA itself has been able to evaluate data in the same sort of timely and rigorous manner as always. So I don't think the lack of a commissioner has made a difference, no.

SANCHEZ: And Doctor, we ran through the latest COVID indicators at the top of the hour cases, hospitalizations, deaths, all down significantly over the last few weeks. We're starting to see vaccinations tick back up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, as we noted earlier, warning this weekend about letting our guard down too quickly. Let's listen to the soundbite.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: We have to just be careful that we don't prematurely declare victory, in many respects. We still have around 68 million people who are eligible to be vaccinated that have not yet gotten vaccinated.

And even those who have been vaccinated, I mean, you want to look forward to holiday seasons and spending time with your family and doing those sorts of things. But don't just throw your hands up and say it's all over.


SANCHEZ: Doctor, when you look at the data, do you have any indication that we'll see a spike in the near future or another potential surge?

OFFIT: Well, you know, you do worry because this virus, SARS-CoV-2 virus is a winter respiratory virus like influenza virus, like respiratory syncytial virus. And if you look last winter, when we had it October, November, December, that's when it really took off.

So, it's nice that these -- the numbers are starting to come down. You know, you'd like to be cautiously optimistic, but this is a winter virus so you want to, you know, certainly keep your guard up.

It is frustrating, though, when you look now, we're sort of celebrating getting to a million doses a day. We were 3 million doses a day, you know, a couple months ago. And if we'd stayed on that course, at 3 million doses a day, really we could have been looking in a rear-view mirror at this pandemic, but we just didn't. We hit a wall because there was a critical percentage of people about 60, 65 million people who were just saying they didn't want to get vaccinated, hence the mandate. So it is frustrating.

We had the vaccine, we had enough vaccine, it was free. We were able to find distribution centers where we could have vaccinated everybody, but we just hit a wall in this country. It was sad.

SANCHEZ: It is said. So important to keep that context in mind when we think about the number of people that have died, so many of them, the last few months. Ultimately preventable because the vaccine is out there and it is accessible. Dr. Offit, we have to leave it there. Thank you so much for the time.

OFFIT: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: We also have an update for you on a developing story this morning. Southwest Airlines canceling more than 2,000 flights over the weekend, leaving tens of thousands of travellers stranded. The airline is trying to play the blame game, blaming air traffic control problems, but the FAA is now pushing back.

CNN's Pete Muntean is live at Reagan National Airport with more. Pete, what's behind this discrepancy between Southwest and the FAA?


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, really a massive operational mess here, Boris. You know, it's not like Southwest can flip on a switch and get things back to normal right away. This is really more akin to unplugging the operation and plugging it back in again, because it says all of these problems began on Friday.

It pins the blame on weather and air traffic control issues. But as you mentioned, it is so interesting that the Federal Aviation Administration put out a rare statement saying that that was not a problem. On Saturday and Sunday, one Southwest experienced the lion's share of its cancellations.

Just look at the numbers here, 800 Southwest flights canceled on Saturday, 1,100 on Sunday, that's about 30 percent of Southwest total schedule for the day. But 350 flights canceled for today, that's about one in every 10 flights. A memo to Southwest employees really explains this ripple effect that this had on the operation.

People in planes were put in the wrong spots, some flight crews didn't even had hotels. This really all trickled down to tens of thousands of passengers who were stranded by this whole mess. They were scrambling to find new flights. They were waiting in those long lines that you've seen. They were waiting on hold for hours, and they are not happy about it.


MICHAELA VINCENT, SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CUSTOMER, FLIGHT WAS CANCELED: I was dealt a devastating blow that my flight was canceled. And they sent me a link to rebook, there will no other flights available at all, on Southwest, or any other airline actually. And that's when I just began to cry. I was just devastated.


MUNTEAN: There was also so interesting here on this memo that we obtained to Southwest employees, the airline lays out that this was actually made harder because most of these problems occurred in Florida, which is so central to Southwest operation. Also because the airline is smaller than it was back before the pandemic, about 7,000 fewer workers, which is making it harder for it to recover. One more important note about workers pilots for Southwest have issued a statement saying that this was not on them. There were rumours flying online over the weekend that there may have been some sort of protest by pilots against Southwest recently announced vaccine mandate. They say that is not the case, there was no such protest. And they're putting all the blame on Southwest saying it's the airline that mismanaged all of this. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Yes, notably, none of the other airlines had any issues of that sort of that magnitude. Pete Muntean from Reagan National.

MUNTEAN: Very true.

SANCHEZ: Thank you so much, Pete.

Coming up, an undercover FBI agent, U.S. nuclear secrets and covert messages, and a PBJ. The story of an American couple now accused of trying to spy for a foreign country. Incredible details after a quick break.



SANCHEZ: Now to a developing story that reads like something out of a spy novel, a U.S. Navy nuclear engineer and his wife accused of trying to sell secrets to a foreign spy who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. The details of how they allegedly tried to do it are comical.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is live in Washington with the details on this FBI sting. Jessica, I don't know where to start, the peanut butter jelly sandwich or how did the FBI get tipped off that this couple was trying to do this?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This certainly reads like something out of a spy thriller, Boris. And they got tipped off because this U.S. Navy nuclear engineer, he had been stealing these government secrets about nuclear powered warships for years.

And the FBI says that in 2020, he actually reached out to a foreign country. We don't know which one, it's not elaborated on on the complaint, but he offered to sell the secrets to that country and the country, it then turned it over to the FBI. And that's what started this month long undercover FBI operation.

So this nuclear engineer, his name is Jonathan Toebbe. He is now under arrest along with his wife, and they were picked up over the weekend attempting what was a third dead drop of this top secret information in West Virginia. Now they had already been paid more than $100,000 in cryptocurrency, this by an FBI informant over several months in this operation.

So this really all started in June, when the FBI tracked Toebbe and his wife as they traveled to a dead drop location in West Virginia, where they actually left this SD card with these government plans and these government secrets contained inside a peanut butter sandwich.

There was also another dead drop handoff in August, that's where Toebbe allegedly hand over -- handed over these schematic designs for the Virginia-class submarine, that's a nuclear-powered cruise missile fast attack sub.

And then it was this past Saturday, the FBI says Toebbe was attempting a third drop off of information again while all the while believing he was interacting with a foreign government agent and not an undercover FBI agent. That's when he was arrested along with his wife in West Virginia. Now Toebbe, he thought he would get away with this.

In fact, he told the undercover agent at one point this. He said, "I was extremely careful to gather the files I possess slowly and naturally in the routine of my job, so nobody would suspect my plan. We received training on warning signs to spot insider threats. We made very sure not to display even a single one. I do not believe any of my former colleagues would suspect me, if there is a future investigation."


But little did he know that it wasn't a future investigation, this had been an ongoing investigation for more than a year or as he'd been communicating with this FBI undercover agent. And finally over the weekend, they moved into arrest him. Both he and his wife are scheduled for a court appearance tomorrow. Boris?

SANCHEZ: A wild details. Jessica Schneider, we appreciate you walking us through them. Thank you.

So tensions this morning are rising between Taiwan and China. During a speech celebrating the island's National Day, Taiwan's president said they would not bow to pressure from Beijing, as Chinese aircraft have repeatedly entered Taiwan's air defense zone.

Let's go to CNN's Will Ripley, who is live for us in Taiwan. Will, Xi Jinping has called for peaceful reunification between Taiwan and China. The Taiwanese making clear they don't want reunification, and that makes the chances for peace slim, right?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, here in Taipei they point out, there wouldn't be a reunification because this self-governing island has had its own system for more than 70 years since the end of China's Civil War.

Beijing has never ruled Taiwan, but they certainly want to. They have it on their to-do list, probably right there at the top. And it's an indication of just how sensitive this issue is, that within hours of President Xi speech, you have this very strongly worded response from China.

I'm going to read you a portion of it because it is very indicative of how China feels and how seriously they take this Taiwan situation. They say that President Xi's comments that Taiwan won't bow to pressure, "incites violence, divides history, distorts facts, and uses the so-called consensus in unity as a guide to try to kidnap Taiwan's public opinion, cozy up with external forces", meaning the United States and its allies, "and provoke claims for independence."

And it's that word "independence" that is really the trigger here for Beijing, and particularly for President Xi Jinping, who is now in command of perhaps the most powerful army that Mainland China has ever possessed an army that military analysts say might actually be able to take Taiwan, even in a matter of days, even with U.S., and allies backing it. That's why, you know, as China continues to expand in the South China Sea, you have Japan putting missiles and troops in their outlying islands that are within 100 miles of Taiwan.

You have the AUKUS partnership, giving Australia nuclear powered submarines in the coming years. And you also have naval exercises happening throughout the region. So, a lot of military movements and a lot of concern. And of course, the United States Forest, Boris, coach (ph) right in the middle here with President Biden trying to juggle and balance these two relationships. Both very important for very different reasons.

SANCHEZ: Yes. Taiwan very quickly becoming the center of the conflicts between the United States and China. Will Ripley from Taipei, thank you so much.

Coming up, nine months after the deadly Capitol insurrection, one of the highest-ranking Republicans in Congress still refuses to say whether the election was stolen from Trump. Spoiler alert, it was not. We'll discuss the former president's grip over the Republican Party when we come back.



SANCHEZ: So, a former high ranking U.S. Capitol Police official is offering a scathing rebuke of the agency's leadership over how some responded to the Capitol insurrection on January 6th. In a letter to Congress, the whistleblower accuses two assistant chiefs of hiding critical information and not acting once the deadly violence started.

CNN's Whitney Wild is live in Washington with more. Whitney, what can you tell us?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, this report -- or this letter rather, was first reported by Politico and as you mentioned, but it bears repeating the claims to top U.S. Capitol police officers failed to act on January 6th, as this violence descended on the Capitol.

The letter also says that former Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman lied to Congress earlier this year. The whistleblower says in the letter, again, that they are a former high-ranking officer with 31 years on at Capitol Police and this person came forward because assistant chiefs Yogananda Pittman and Acting Assistant Chief Sean Gallagher play a role in disciplining officers for the actions they took on January 6th, but were not themselves fully held accountable on a personal level. That's how the whistleblower feel.

So some of the allegations mirror conclusions of other reports, but this letter takes particular aim at Pittman and Gallagher and accuses Congress of failing to investigate those missteps, Boris.

SANCHEZ: And Whitney, one major issue that was raised in the allegation is that Assistant Chief Pittman hasn't been honest about how threat intelligence was shared among agents.

WILD: Right. And the threat intelligence sharing with rank and file, with command staff was one of the big sticking points for rank and file who feel like there was intelligence out there, but they were blindsided and that is the fault of their leadership.

Specifically, the whistleblower takes issue with what Pittman told Senate investigators.