Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Studies In South Africa Suggest Omicron Causes Less Severe Illness Than Delta; Saudi Arabia Building Ballistic Missiles With China's Help; Putin Blames West For Growing Tensions Over Ukraine. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 12:30   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Developing this hour, new infections across the country are skyrocketing, all due to Omicron. But a pair of studies in South Africa and Scotland offer some hope that the new strain may travel fast but may not be as dangerous as everyone fears.

Joining me now is the chair of South African medic -- the South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee. Thank you so much for being here. In Scotland, I want to ask you about these pair of studies and what people should take from it. Because in Scotland, they found the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds lower with Omicron than Delta. And in South -- the South African study, they said people were 70 to 80 percent less likely to need hospital care. Do those findings line up with what you're seeing?

DR. ANGELIQUE COETZEE, CHAIR, SOUTH AFRICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: Good evening from South Africa. Yes. The South African studies actually confirm what we are seeing. I would go further and say it should be 90 percent unvaccinated and 10 percent vaccinated. So and the reason why I based that, if we look at the majority of cases that we are seeing in the private sector and primary healthcare, remember, this is the first point of entry for patients. Out of 106 patients I only admitted one patient with pneumonia, and it was only recently two days ago. So again, if we also, you know, when you spoke with our colleagues in the ICUs it seems to be again about nine out of 10. So the 87 percent makes sense to ask its close enough to 90 percent to confirm. So I think Scotland carry on and go forward, they would also see, hopefully the same type of picture that we are seeing currently in South Africa.


BOLDUAN: And one question raised is, does the good news of this being less severe, outweigh the bad news of just how contagious this variant is? How do you see it?

COETZEE: Well, again, you know, 33 years in broad practice, for me, the fast spreading virus is less of a concern, because of the fact that the overall clinical picture that the patients are presenting were predominantly that of mild cases are on attack a fast spreading viral infection with predominantly mild infections, then a slow spreading with majority of severe cases. You always need to weigh up your healthcare sector. Can your hospitals, handle the load of severely ill patients and how infected are your own healthcare personnel? How can you protect them?

Is that -- those are the two most important questions because if you don't have enough healthcare personnel that's -- you need to quarantine or isolate, you're in trouble. If you don't have enough ICU beds, you're also in trouble. So the majority of people who is mild can easily be treated at home and that you can live with. And yes, I am amazed that people are concerned about the rising of cases. We have seated right from the beginning, this is a fast trading virus.

Yes, it's going to go everywhere, it will affect the whole globe. And the more you get your people to test, the more you can control because if you can get your public to test, and if they're positive to get them to isolate and to quarantine the few family members around the closest to them, you would actually prevent further spreading of the virus. So it is extremely important to this for these patients and don't take them by the number. It should go over these fast spreading.

BOLDUAN: Doctor, thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it.

Coming up for us --

COETZEE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: -- new exclusive CNN reporting Saudi Arabia is building its own ballistic missiles with the help of China. We'll be right back.



BOLDUAN: New reporting exclusive to CNN, U.S. intelligence assessing that Saudi Arabia is now building its own ballistic missiles with the help of China. Three sources familiar with the intelligence tell CNN. Saudi Arabia is known to have purchased ballistic missiles from China in the past, but has never been able to build its own until now. Satellite imagery obtained by CNN tells an important part of the story. Let's get over to CNN Natasha Bertrand. She has this reporting for us. Natasha, what are you learning?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. So basically what the U.S. intelligence community is telling my colleague Zach Cohen is that Saudi Arabia now has the capability and is actively producing its own ballistic missiles. Now, this is an escalation from 2019 when CNN first reported that Saudi Arabia was purchasing these ballistic missiles from China. But now given intelligence that there have been large scale ballistic missile technology transfers from China to Saudi Arabia, and satellite images showing this site in Saudi Arabia where these ballistic missiles are being manufactured.

The picture is becoming clearer for the U.S. that Saudi Arabia is now producing its missiles -- these missiles on its own. So this obviously poses a lot of major issues for the Biden administration, particularly because it could cause ripple effects throughout the Middle East. So for example, the U.S. and the West are trying to get Iran to rein back its ballistic missile program, but Iran is a major adversary of Saudi Arabia. So if Saudi Arabia is building its own ballistic missiles, Iran is likely to say, why should we give up our program if our chief adversary and rival in the region is producing their own. And of course, when it comes to China, very delicate diplomatic dance that the Biden ministration is having to do with them, trying to reengage on issues like trade and climate and the pandemic, at the same time having to call them out for giving these kinds of capabilities to our allies.

BOLDUAN: Yes, Natasha, thanks so much for bringing it to us. I appreciate it.


Just ahead for us, Russia's president blames the West for tensions at the Ukraine border, Vladimir Putin's message now to the U.S. and NATO.


BOLDUAN: As Omicron spreads, knowing whether you're positive or negative could have life changing consequences, of course, but getting a COVID test it's becoming apparent is an everyday challenge. CNN's Brian Todd has more.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From California to D.C. the lines of people waiting to get free COVID tests many of them unable to buy test kits in stores are now extending around city blocks. And to say patience is wearing thin is putting it mildly.

NEISHA BLANDIN, IN LINE FOR COVID-19 TEST IN WASHINGTON, DC: I'm very frustrated. I've been looking for a test for about a week actually for a few days now. All of the CVS's near me are out they don't expect to get any until Friday.

TODD (voice-over): The demand for test kits is so high that CVS, Walmart, Amazon, and Walgreens are limiting the number of at home COVID test kits customers can buy, but many simply can't find them at all.

TAYLOR GERY, LOOKING FOR AT-HOME COVID-19 TEST IN LAKE FOREST, CA: We searched around like on CVS, on Walgreens, on all the websites, everything is full because of the holidays

TODD (voice-over): Compounding the problem, at this point many people are confused over what kind of COVID test to get.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So it's kind of confusing on what's actually correct and what I need to get to be able to do go home for Christmas, see my family all that stuff.

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, EMERGENCY ROOM PHYSICIAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY: So there are three big categories of tests and within each of those categories there are of course a bunch of different manufacturers, a bunch of different ways that you can do the tests, it's all awfully complicated for the average American to figure out.


TODD (voice-over): Over the counter at home tests from these manufacturers are now authorized by the FDA. Experts say they all work well.

DR. MICHAEL MINA, CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER, EMED: In general, for the purposes that most people are using tests today, which is to ask, am I a risk to others around me, the rapid tests you can pick up on the shelf tend to perform very, very well for that use.

TODD (voice-over): There are three basic categories of tests. There are laboratory PCR tests, PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction. Experts say those are the most accurate, more expensive tests done in labs which amplify the virus's genetic material that may be in your system. Experts say the PCR test is what you want if you want to figure out whether to go back to the office or travel. There are also rapid antigen tests which people can conduct at home, which are cheaper and can return results in as little as 15 minutes.

RANNEY: The antigen test that rapid at home test is the right thing to do. If you want a rapid time sensitive assessment of whether or not you are infectious right before you go into a gathering.

TODD (voice-over): And there are antibody tests, which can indicate if you have some protection from a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccine. One expert says no matter what kind of test you want to take, because of the test kit shortage, it's important to make your test count if you have just one test available.

MINA: If you feel symptoms come on, don't use the test right away. Assume you are positive and isolate and quarantine, use the test on day two or day three.


TODD: Another key piece of advice we're getting from experts as we head to more holiday gatherings. They say if you've got a test at home, and you're going to or are hosting a holiday gathering, take the test as close in time to the gathering as you can, not one or two days before not a few hours before, but maybe 20 to 30 minutes before the gathering so you can get the most accurate gauge of what to do.

Experts say we're going to have to ride this out for probably one or two more months before more tests are widely available for everyone.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

BOLDUAN: Brian, thank you. Let's turn to this now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is blaming the U.S. and NATO for worsening tensions in Eastern Europe and blaming the West for his country's military buildup on the Ukraine border. In his annual news conference, Putin lashed out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): How would the Americans react if we placed our missiles on the border between Canada and the United States on the Mexican border? Not a single inch to the east they told us in the 90s. And what do you know, they cheated? They just deceived us blatantly. Five ways of NATO expansion and there you go now in Romania in Poland weapon systems appear.


BOLDUAN: Joining me now for more on this is CNN Global Affairs analyst Susan Glasser. It's good to see you, Susan. So Putin claiming that it's Ukraine that is preparing for military action. It's his impression, I believe is how he put it. Why is he even saying that because it's not clear because it's not true?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I you know, Kate, I mean, lying works, unfortunately, and Vladimir Putin has shown this over a long career, two decades in power. We see it in our own democracy as well lying works. Unfortunately, there's nothing truthful about that statement. What you have is Russia, which is mobilized, a military force that could grow to be 175,000 troops on the border of Ukraine by next month according to U.S. intelligence estimates already more than 100,000 troops there.

Would you mobilize your military to respond if there were 100,000 hostile forces on your border? Of course, you would, number one. Number two, the comments about NATO. This is I cannot underscore this enough. This is a manufactured crisis that Putin has constructed. NATO is not one bit closer to having Ukraine, join it today. There's no imminent action on the part of NATO that would suggest anything like this kind of response is warranted.

The last time Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. And remember, he's already done that he did that in 2014. Ukraine was not a member of NATO then, it's not a member of NATO now, nor is it in any prospect of doing so anytime in the near future.

BOLDUAN: You're talking about what he said about NATO. I mean, he was asked directly if Russia would guarantee not to invade Ukraine. And Putin said it depends on whether or not NATO would expand eastward. I mean, he says NATO has repeatedly broken their pledge not to do that. Here's how he said it. It was the U.S., it was a USA who came with missiles to our house. It is a warning to Biden. But what does Biden do with it?


GLASSER: Well, again, just to be clear like that there never was any NATO pledge not to expand obviously, number one. Number two, the statement that he's quoted in his news conference is saying is one that he's -- is a false claim. He's made many times before, the implication being that the U.S. that it would not ever move one inch to the east. That's not an accurate statement of any commitment the U.S. made Gorbachev has reinforced that. Many times he's been asked about this. So the question of what is President Biden going to do? I think we're in the anxious phase of the moment where, you know, Jaja is better than war, war. That's the famous quote. So the effort to begin diplomatic negotiations that, by the way, do not exclude Ukraine that include the U.S. and Europe, as well as Ukraine, that's very important. You don't want big powers determining your fate if you're a country like Ukraine stuck between Russia and Europe.

And so I do think there's an urgent effort. There are some indications there will be talks with the Europeans and the Russians next month in January. That obviously is preferable to any imminent military action. I would note that we're coming up on the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union Christmas, December 25th, 1991. Vladimir Putin has called that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. That's a very resonant date for him.

BOLDUAN: Yes. In responding to Putin, a senior administration official just told reporters, Susan, that if Russia invades Ukraine, similar to what we have heard before, of course, the U.S. and here's what the administration officials said is ready to act if and when we need to. And we have been clear that there will be significant consequences, but is it totally clear yet what that action would be?

GLASSER: The answer is no. There are certainly an array of options available to the United States and its partners in Europe, Germany, France. One thing is that Germany could absolutely cut off and end permission for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. That's certainly being actively discussed. The U.S. has supported that. But Biden has stopped short of imposing full sanctions on companies that help to build that pipeline. So Nord Stream is one option, sending more military equipment to Ukraine to sending military advisors. In addition to Ukraine as a possibility -- there is the possibility of stepped up sanctions. There have been round after round of sanctions, as you know, Kate, but there are still ways to go even more directly after Putin and his inner circle, ruling regime was U.S. has stopped short of doing in the past.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Susan it's always great to have your perspective. Thanks for being here. Thanks for coming in.

GLASSER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Really appreciate it. And thank you all so much for being here with us these two hours. I'm Kate Bolduan. And "CNN NEWSROOM" with Ana Cabrera continues right after this.