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At This Hour

Minnesota Identifies Omicron Variant in Resident; Russia Warns of Return to Military Conflict over Ukraine; House Strikes Short-Term Deal to Avoid Shutdown. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 02, 2021 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

We begin with hour with breaking news on the pandemic. The second confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States has just been confirmed; this one in Minnesota. We don't know much about the patient yet, except that they had only traveled domestically.

This announcement comes less than 24 hours after the first case was confirmed in California. All of this information important. But we must remember that these discoveries of confirmed cases of Omicron are expected. And the numbers of confirmed cases are expected also to continue to grow.

This comes as President Biden is about to announce his new strategy for tackling the pandemic in his speech at the National Institutes of Health. The White House says that the nine-point plan includes an extension of the existing mask mandates for air travel and other public transportation through at least March.

And the Biden administration also will be announcing a new requirement that should offer every American free at-home testing. The White House says this plan they're rolling out will help battle against both the Delta and Omicron COVID variants this winter.

More on that plan in just a moment. Let's start with Natasha Chen, with the news of this new case of the Omicron variant.

What are you learning?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This latest case we're talking about is a man who is from the Minneapolis area, the Minnesota Department of Health saying that he had traveled to New York for AnimeNYC, an event at the Javits Center from November 19th to 21st.

And this man had felt symptoms around the 22nd. So we're talking about potentially this person being around a lot of other people. Right now, of course, still just identifying this particular case as well as the case identified yesterday in San Francisco. He sought a test on November 24th. It came back positive and the state

said they have a robust system of testing variants. So again, what you're seeing on the screen there, this patient traveled domestically to New York.

The California patient, however, had traveled to South Africa. That is a resident of San Francisco, came -- arrived in San Francisco on November 22nd, started feeling sick around Thanksgiving; tested positive on November 29th.

Now both of these people, the local health departments say, were fully vaccinated. Now the San Francisco resident we know had not gotten booster because it had not been six months yet since the second shot. Not sure about the Minnesota case.

But that press release did say that person was vaccinated as well. Luckily, we're hearing that the symptoms in both these cases have been mild.

BOLDUAN: Natasha, thank you so much. We'll get more detail on all of this.

Back to President Biden's new plan for tackling the pandemic this winter. He's going to be making this announcement during a speech at the National Institutes of Health this afternoon. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is live at the White House.

Jeremy, what more are you learning about this plan that the White House is laying out?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This afternoon, President Biden will announce a slate of new actions to combat the coronavirus, heading into the winter months, to combat both the Omicron variant as well as the Delta variant, which has been circulating in the United States for months already.

This will be a mix of increased screening for international travel, ramped-up efforts to get Americans vaccinated and increasing access of testing in the United States.

On the international travel front, inbound travelers traveling to the United States from abroad will have to provide proof of a negative test taken one day before travel.

On the testing front, expanded availability with a requirement for private insurers to reimburse the cost of those at-home test kits.

Vaccines, more clinics, including family focused clinics, providing doses for children and adults. Also outreach to seniors in particular to encourage them to get their booster shots.

One thing that is not happening right now is a vaccine requirement for domestic travel. That is something that the administration is not currently contemplating.

But Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said everything is still on the table and they are still considering additional actions, particularly as they wait to learn more about Omicron and if they realize more actions are needed to combat what could potentially be a more serious variant -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Still so much unknown. Thank you so much, Jeremy.

Joining me is Dr. Peter Hotez, the co-director for the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital.

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BOLDUAN: It's good to see you. Let's start with the second confirmed case of the Omicron variant, this person in Minnesota. The health department says that he recently returned from -- had recently traveled to New York City for a big conference at the Javits Center.

What do you make of this with the caveat, of course, that we're going to see more cases as they continue to test more, to find more cases of this Omicron variant?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, PROFESSOR AND DEAN OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Yes. I think, Kate, the difference is that this one was likely acquired locally within the United States, either within Minnesota or this traveler picked it up during a visit to New York City.

So potentially now, it's on both coasts and that means we'll continue to see the number of cases rise.

In terms of what we're dealing with, therefore, we should consider the possibility that now we've got to fight COVID on two fronts; one, the existing Delta variant, which is still highly transmissible and possibly this Omicron variant, as well as the cases pick up.

One of the big questions is will Omicron overtake Delta so that this becomes the dominant one, just like Delta overtook the Alpha variant this year?

I don't think so. I think we'll wind up having both variants potentially affecting different populations. So I still think we'll see a lot of Delta cases, especially among the unvaccinated.

The advantage of the Omicron variant is that it has, because of its immune escape properties, I think, particularly those who are partially immune, either because they've been infected and recovered and chosen not to get vaccinated after that or because individuals have gotten two doses of the vaccines and have had waning immunity.

What that means also is I think we'll have to change the definition of what full immunization means to three doses, because that's what's going to give you that 30- to 40-fold rise in virus-neutralizing antibodies and other properties and I think could potentially help you fight off clearly Delta but also potentially this Omicron variant as well.

BOLDUAN: As Jeremy Diamond was laying out, we'll hear later today about the new measures that the administration is putting in place to take on COVID this winter, including requiring -- I was reading with interest the fact that they were going to include a requirement that private insurance companies reimburse the costs of at-home tests for people.

So free at-home testing is going to be much more widely available very soon, at least it would seem.

How significant is that?

HOTEZ: I think it's important. I wish the measure would have been taken earlier. The question is that, is that as efficient as simply making the kit available for a dollar or $2 a dose at the local pharmacy?

One of the things we learned, Kate, is our health system cannot tolerate any complexity. The minute things get the least bit fussy or complicated, it all breaks down. That's been the history the last two years.

So the less fussy, easy breezy we can make it, the better. I think the other really impactful aspect of the plan is you can see the Biden administration straining and pulling and pushing every lever possible to employ the full force of the federal government to get people vaccinated with three doses of mRNA or two of the J&J vaccine.

The problem is, you know, it can only get us so far. We still are going to need cooperation from the governors and local officials to make this happen.

To me, I think, this is going to be the toughest part. Even after all this time, we have only 59 percent of the country vaccinated. And of that 59 percent, only a small proportion have gotten three doses. So we have a long way to go. Ultimately, that's the only way, aside obviously from the masks and things like that.

But our major tool is vaccination. So you know, the Biden administration is doing everything it can within the power of the federal government. The problem is, by constitutional design, the way Madison and Jefferson did this, there are limits to the reach of the federal government so that we'll need the cooperation of the states.

BOLDUAN: Dr. Anthony Fauci joined CNN's town hall last night. He was asked on the conversation about vaccines, was asked if he thought the COVID vaccine will become a yearly necessity, a booster every year, if you will. Let me play what he said.

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DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF COVID-19 MEDICAL ADVISER: The honest answer is we don't know what's going to be required. I hope we get a durability of protection from the boosts that we won't have to be chasing all the time against the new variant. That just remains to be seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BOLDUAN: You know, a lot of people have started thinking that this could become something like the flu shot, right, that you get it every year.

What do you think about this?

What's the science behind it?

HOTEZ: Well, the science was that this was always a three-dose vaccine. When we gave this -- I've said this since the beginning, since January, February.

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HOTEZ: That when you gave those first two doses so close together, you guaranteed that immunity would wane and would require a third immunization in order to give you that 30-fold rise in virus neutralizing antibodies and prolonged immune responses.

And that's not what's finally happening. And I guess it should have been messaged from the beginning that it was a three-dose vaccine. I'm actually not convinced we'll need boosters every year. I'm hoping that although it won't be one and done, it could be three and done.

As Dr. Fauci points out, we won't know until we know. But I have some optimism that three doses may be adequate for this right now.

BOLDUAN: Interesting. Good to see you, Dr. Hotez. Thanks.

HOTEZ: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Russia warning of a return to military confrontation over Ukraine as the United States tells Moscow that there will be serious consequences if they move the invade Ukraine again. The very latest from the region next.

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BOLDUAN: Developing this morning, Russia's foreign minister warning Europe could be returning to what he calls a, quote, "nightmare scenario" of military confrontation over Ukraine.

Just as CNN has been reporting of a diplomatic clash playing out behind closed doors last night between U.S., Russian and Ukrainian diplomats over Russia's new, aggressive military moves against Ukraine.

Matthew Chance is live in Kiev with much more.

You have good reporting on this. What are you hearing about where things stand?

Is the situation getting better or worse, as the secretary of state has been having these meetings?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's clearly some tension behind closed doors because that clash took place at a dinner last night ahead of the meetings between Secretary of State Blinken and his Russian and Ukrainian counterpart.

They were all having an informal dinner the night before with other foreign ministers as well. They had a harsh exchange of words.

What Russia says it wants -- something it's reiterating again now -- is legal agreements for NATO and the United States and its military allies not to expand any further toward the east, toward Russia's borders.

They say, have been saying for a while and they're reiterating it now, they say that affects negatively Russia's national security. And they want a binding, ironclad agreement to have it stopped.

The United States have essentially, you know, ruled that out. In fact, U.S. Secretary Blinken called that perplexing and he's warned Moscow again there will be consequences if they continue to adopt this aggressive military stance toward Ukraine. Take a listen.

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ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: In my meeting with foreign minister Lavrov, I made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies, to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.

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CHANCE: In terms of stopping NATO or Ukraine joining NATO, the Ukrainians have reacted angrily, saying, frankly it's none of Russia's business if they speak to the Western military alliance about the possibility of joining.

BOLDUAN: Matthew, thank you for continued great reporting.

In the meantime, joining me is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst.

Good to see you again, Ambassador. Thanks for being here. How serious do you think this moment is in terms of Russia's military moves and the posture we're hearing from the secretary of state, Blinken?

JOHN HERBST, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Moscow has positioned itself, having 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders in various places, to launch a major invasion of Ukraine.

They're positioning this way because their covert secret war in Donbas -- not so secret -- has failed. So they want to have something else to push Ukraine away from the West.

So the possibility of Russia striking large is there. I don't think, however, it will happen. I think it's bluff. In part I think it's bluff because there was reaction by the Biden administration, very strong.

Blinken has more than earned his pay over the past couple weeks in sending a very clear message to Putin that, if in fact they strike, there will be major American sanctions, which will do real damage to the -- additional damage to the Russian economy as well as military support in the form of weapons for Ukraine.

The fact the U.S. has taken such a strong position and coordinated that position with our European allies and partners makes the risk for Moscow much larger. Therefore, I think Putin will not strike.

BOLDUAN: So interesting, because getting to Blinken's forceful language on this, because I wanted to ask you about that, because part of his warning is that the response to further Russian aggression in Ukraine, as he put it, is the U.S. would respond with high-impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past.

Ambassador, what would those sanctions look like?

Blinken has not laid that out so far.

Do you think that is convincing enough to deter Russia?

HERBST: He has not laid it out, which is actually smart.

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HERBST: But the things we're discussing-- I think the Russians know this and certainly we've been doing real coordination with the E.U., so they know this -- would be, for example, going after major Russia banks, which are not affected right now.

It could be going after a new sector of the Russian economy, such as minerals. It could also be going after Russia's secondary debt, which would have a major impact on Moscow's economy.

The sanctions we have in place right now already cost the Russia economy 1 percent of GDP or more. These sanctions would, at a minimum, double that and perhaps more. So this is a serious disincentive for the Kremlin.

BOLDUAN: This issue -- look, after 2014, I'm kind of wondering, like, how far does the United States let Russia go?

And what does -- before the United States would do more and I'm wondering, if it moves -- do you think it can move past anything more than the very tense words that we're seeing right now?

Because, right now, as you've said, Russia is amassing troops at the border.

How far do you think the United States lets Russia go before taking these major steps?

HERBST: Well, again, the sanctions I've just described will be if Moscow, in fact, sends its convention of military forces in Ukraine in a major fashion.

And that, again, is a serious deterrent. But also we've begun to provide additional military equipment to Ukraine to make sure that Russia will have a harder time if it does, in fact, go large into Ukraine.

To my mind, this is probably sufficient. I wish, in fact, we provided more military equipment. I think we've been hesitant in the past to do that. We need to do more. But what we're doing already now is pretty good.

And don't forget, if you look back on the pattern of Russian aggression, going back to a march into Georgia in 2008, when it seized Crimea, the Western reaction in those instances and the U.S. reaction was in fact weak and late.

After the Russian military operation in Donbas began in April of '14, the reaction was a little bit late but reasonably strong. In this instance, with the threat of a major invasion, the reaction from Washington and more broadly the West has been fast and strong. That's why I think that this will probably work.

So I give the Biden administration high marks on this and, generally, the policy against Russia, except for the disastrous decision by Biden on waiving sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which was a huge gift to Putin.

BOLDUAN: Ambassador, thank you for your time. Your perspectives are so interesting. Thank you.

HERBST: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, live to Capitol Hill, where Congress is facing down a possible government shutdown. The top Senate Republican is weighing in. We'll go there next.

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BOLDUAN: Breaking news on Capitol Hill, the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, just declaring, "We are not going to shut the government down," this after the House reached a short-term government funding deal to avoid just that.

That might be reassuring but how they actually get this over the finish line is still not clear. Both chambers of Congress need to pass a bill to continue funding government operations by Friday. Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill with all the breaking details. Manu, you were in the press conference with Speaker Pelosi.

What did she have to say?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: She expects the vote to happen today on this short-term funding bill to keep the government open until mid-February. But that is virtually assured it will pass the House. The Democrats have a majority in the House. The rules allow them to pass it pretty quickly.

In the Senate, it is an open question about whether they can actually pass this before the deadline, 11:59 pm tomorrow night is when they have to pass the bill in order to avoid a brief government shutdown that could potentially last into early next week if they do not get some sort of resolution.

The reason why there's a question about why there might not ultimately be a quick vote is because of a separate debate over defunding vaccine mandates. So something that two Republican senators in particular have been demanding to be added as part of this bill -- those two senators, Roger Marshall and Mike Lee.

Marshall said this morning he would object to any effort to have a quick vote to keep the government open unless he gets a separate amendment voted on to defund the vaccine mandate on businesses.

Now the key point here is he wants the threshold to be set on passage as a simple majority. That means it could potentially pass if they get one Democrat to vote yes. The one who could is Joe Manchin, who told us this morning he is not ruling out backing that amendment.

Democrats don't want it to be added to this and they're not going to allow this to pass at a simple majority, which raises the questions about how this can be resolved.

But the larger issue is the leadership has just released this deal, has just cut this deal to keep the government open on the brink of the shutdown deadline. In order to get anything passed in the Senate, they need all 100 senators to agree to a quick vote. Otherwise, anyone could hold up the process and that remains a possibility here.

So there could be last-minute drama for a brief government shutdown, if any of the Republican senators insist on one.

BOLDUAN: Good to see you, Manu.