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President Biden To Make First Trip To Asia Since Taking Office; Soon: CDC Vaccine Advisers Vote On COVID Boosters For Kids 5-11; Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired May 19, 2022 - 11:30   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Biden will soon be leaving for his first trip to Asia since taking office. The list of challenges as he heads over is long. The issues he's facing are great. What is he hoping to accomplish, what message does he want to send China, and how the war in Ukraine factors into all of this? That's coming up.



BOLDUAN: President Biden will be departing soon from the White House for his first trip to Asia since taking office. The president is going to be visiting South Korea and Japan for a series of meetings with top leaders.

CNN's Arlette Saenz is live at the White House with a preview for us at this hour. Arlette, what's ahead for the president on this trip?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, any minute now, right behind me, President Biden will be leaving the White House making his first journey to Asia as president. A region that is really central to the president's foreign policy goals. The president will be traveling to both South Korea and Japan. Officials have said that he had hoped to get to the region much earlier in his presidency, but was constrained due to COVID and other crises like the war in Ukraine.

And this trip will offer the president a chance to once again bolster the relationships with these countries. The president first will be in Seoul, meeting with the country's new leader, Seok-youl, as well as then make his way to Tokyo where he will meet with the Prime Minister Kishida of Japan. Additionally, while in Japan, the president will be meeting with the so-called QUAD leaders that include, Japan, Australia, and India, as the president has really sought to reinvigorate that alliance since taking office.

Now, this trip to the region comes as there have been some provocations from North Korea. It appears that the country may be trying to test an underground nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile, the White House saying that they're preparing for all contingencies at this moment, but President Biden trying to make clear that this region is a key focus for him even as he has been pulled away to other foreign policy matters like Ukraine. BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Arlette, thank you so much.

And as Arlette was just mentioning, the White House is now making contingency plans in case North Korea conducts a nuclear or long-range missile test while President Biden is overseas in Asia. A U.S. official telling CNN that it appears Pyongyang is preparing to test an ICBM possibly within the next 48 hours. Let's get over to CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us. Barbara, what are you picking up on this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, the U.S. intelligence community watching around the clock as President Biden makes his way to the region. The concern, as you have said that preparations appear -- they are seeing signs of preparations for a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile test, of course, a missile that could potentially if it all works someday possibly reach the United States.

That is a threat that the U.S. has long said they would not let stand. The National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan openly talking about this just yesterday.


JAKE SULLIVAN, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan. We are coordinating closely with our allies in both Korea and Japan on this. We have spoken with counterparts in China.


STARR: Now, since earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community, the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence collection over North Korea, and then the waters around the peninsula, trying to get as much information, as much intelligence as it can about North Korean weapons plan so they will be ready if North Korea decides to move ahead, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Barbara, it's great to see you. Thank you. Joining me now for more on this is CNN Senior International Correspondent Will Ripley, and CNN Global Affairs Analyst Kim Dozier. She's a Time Magazine contributor. Thanks for being here, guys.

Will, we hear from the White House first and foremost, how important this overall trip is for them -- for the President to shift back to the focus of where he wanted it to be for so long. How is this trip being viewed from over there where you are?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think certainly here in Taiwan, they're encouraged to see President Biden coming to the region to show that the United States can handle two major hotspots at once. That would be Russia-Ukraine, and of course, China-Taiwan. President Biden entered office, viewing China as the number one foreign policy challenge. That was a similar viewpoint shared by the Trump administration when I had conversations with their diplomats several years ago. And so this is also a time that North Korea is stepping up

provocations that again, you have -- obviously you have increasing tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, Kate. So there's a lot -- plus trade in the economy and all these other things, there's a lot that President Biden can get done here in this very important part of the world.

BOLDUAN: That's a good point. Kim, the conventional -- I guess thought, would be that the war in Ukraine has distracted Biden from his focus -- his desired focus on China. But you also see that kind of -- that the alliance that has come together because of the war sends a very powerful message to China at the very same time. What is that message?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, absolutely. When the Ukraine war started, a senior U.S. official told me the Biden administration took it like a gut punch. They were in all the stages of grief, including denial, until they sort of embraced the fight and in doing so, rounded up an important alliance, which is something that China is watching.


DOZIER: I mean, right now where I am, I'm in Stockholm. I just came from Finland and before that, Estonia. Estonia is very happy to see Finland and Sweden joining NATO. And Japanese official I met along the way said that watching what the U.S. administration has done in service of protecting Ukraine, makes them feel a lot more confident that the Biden administration will show up if there's a threat to Japan.

BOLDUAN: And, Will, as Barbara Starr was reporting on the possibility and you mentioned the North Korean missile test happening during this trip, how would you describe just Biden's overall approach to North Korea so far, and what would this test -- what would -- what would a test -- a possible test, what would it do?

RIPLEY: Well, President Biden's approach is not exactly President Obama's strategic patience, but it's pretty close. He has been very hands-off from what I've been told, not engaging, even, you know, just kind of letting these lower-level diplomats try to handle this but from the North Korean perspective, I'm talking with sources who speak with the North Koreans, they're not interested in lower-level talks.

After they had that summit -- those summits with the former President Trump, they want leader-to-leader communication. It was suggested to me that it would be really helpful if President Biden were to write a letter to Kim Jong-un. Of course, we have no idea if that might have happened secretly or not but Trump and Kim were exchanging love letters, as the former president put it.

So the North Koreans at this stage, they're not willing to engage with the United States, even though the U.S. is offering talks about preconditions and sort of forced themselves into the conversation. They get President Biden talking about them what better way than to launch a big missile or potentially a nuclear test while he's in the region. I don't think they would go that far, although in 2016m President Obama left the region and they did a nuclear test shortly thereafter so anything is possible.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely, yes. And, Kim, you've noted though, that missile tests are North Korea's go-to move to try and get any kind of talks started if you will. Do you think that it's going to work with President Biden?

DOZIER: Well, the interesting thing is that North Korea has also recently admitted it's got a COVID crisis. So generally, what it often does is make a threat and then also hold its hand out for some sort of aid. So this could present an opportunity. And what the Biden administration now has to do is prove that it can turn some of its new European coalition building into a strength that perhaps gets China to lever Pyongyang to be more reasonable and maybe open the way to peace talks. We'll have to see.

BOLDUAN: Yes. It's good to see both of you. Thank you so much. Coming up for us, the CDC could soon authorize the Pfizer COVID booster shot for kids five to 11 years old. The top pediatrician and vaccine adviser to the FDA joins us next.



BOLDUAN: In just hours, the CDC's vaccine advisors, they're going to be voting to formally recommend Pfizer's COVID booster shots for kids ages five to 11. If recommended, kids will be able to get that booster five months after their last shot. Joining me now for more on this is Dr. Paul Offit. He's a member of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee.

He's also the director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's -- at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It's good to see you again, Dr. Offit. Where are you with -- you and I have talked about boosters for a long time and boosters for all ages. Where are you on boosters for this age group five to 11 years old?

DR. PAUL OFFIT, MEMBER, FDA VACCINE ADVISORY COMMITTEE: Well, you know, from CDC data is that two doses of vaccine for the five to 11- year-old is protected against serious illness. What is also true is it's not as protected against mild illness. I think what the third dose will do is it will offer better protection against mild illness for three to six months. That's what you get with a third dose.

BOLDUAN: So the question then becomes, what is the goal of these vaccines? What is the goal of the boosters? Is that clear to you?

OFFIT: I think that's the key question. I mean, when we first started with vaccines back in December of 2020, the goal was protection against serious illness, to keep people out of the hospital, out of the intensive care unit, and to prevent them from dying. That was the goal. That's a reasonable goal. That's an achievable goal. That's the goal we have for the most part for all vaccines.

I think what's happened is there has been a little bit of mission creep. Now, we're trying to protect against all symptomatic illnesses. That's the way this seems to be playing out, which means frequent booster dosing, and I just don't frankly see that as a viable public health strategy.

BOLDUAN: That's a good question. So the White House resumed their COVID briefings yesterday, Doctor, in response to the recent jump-in in cases. One message from the White House team is very clear that they want Congress to act to approve more funding so they say they can be ready for the surge that they fear is coming in the fall. I want to play for you what the new White House Coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, what he said about this.



DR. ASHISH JHA, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: And I want to make sure we have enough resources that we can buy enough vaccines for every American who wants one. I think that is absolutely critical. We do not have the resources to do that right now. So without additional funding from Congress, we will not be able to buy enough vaccines for every American who wants one once these new generations of vaccines come out in the fall and winter.


BOLDUAN: What do you make of this war -- of the warnings like this from the White House?

OFFIT: So, again, what's the goal? I mean, what you have right now, you have a clear increase in cases. In many states in this country, you have an increase in cases of COVID because, what happened with Omicron, and now the BA.2 and now BA.2 sub-variants, those variants are immune resistant, essentially.

So, even if you've been vaccinated, you still are at risk of mild or moderate illness, but not a severe illness. And that's what you're seeing. You see this dramatic increase in cases, but what you don't see is you don't see a dramatic increase at all in hospitalization. You see virtually no increase in deaths.

In many ways, that's what you want. You have probably 95 percent of population immunity right now from vaccination or natural infection, or both and so you're seeing what you hope to see, which is cases which doesn't surprise you, but not a consequent increase in hospitalizations and deaths. That's what you want.

So, I'm not sure how this is going to play out come winter. Certainly, it's a winter virus so you would expect to see an increase in late fall and early winter. We've seen that for the last two seasons. I suspect that will be true here too. But with those increasing cases, are you also going to see a consequent increase in hospitalizations and deaths? Maybe not. I mean, we'll see.

The thing about -- the thing that was upsetting about Omicron is across the line. Now, you had an immune evasive strain and it's been true with the subsequent variants so now we're seeing a lot of mild illness. But is that something we're trying to prevent? And if so, it's going to require a frequent booster dose. And already I think at some level, you have booster fatigue.

BOLDUAN: Do you see a scenario then, where people are asked or expected to get boosters every, what, five months? Do you see a scenario like that?

OFFIT: Well, it's a scenario that's not going to be accomplished. I think people are not going to do that. You're already seeing that. I mean, at some level, how many people have gotten a third dose? You know, it's about a third of the country who've gotten a third dose. So already, you're seeing sort of booster fatigue. I don't see that playing out that way.

I think at some level, you know, we're coming off zero tolerance for this virus. We did -- don't accept asymptomatic infection, we don't accept mild infection. And if you have that, you're asked to sort of quarantine yourself, wear a mask for a certain number of days. Even if everybody in this world were vaccinated, this virus is still going to circulate.

It's a short incubation period mucosal infection, and like all short incubation period mucosal infections, it's going to continue to circulate even if everybody in this world was vaccinated or previously infected. And at some level, we're going to have to learn to live with that mild infection. Right now, it doesn't seem we can.

BOLDUAN: The CDC director is saying that about -- that a third of people should consider masking indoors right now because of their COVID risk, because they live in areas of medium or high COVID risk, as we've seen, you know, COVID cases are jumping up. But mask requirements, we are also seeing they're not being reinstated. Do you think this is -- that officials don't believe -- you talked about booster fatigue, that officials don't believe people are going to follow these rules anymore, or is it they're less necessary now because of the other tools at hand, vaccines, and antivirals?

OFFIT: I think that's right. So I mean, all three are value, masking, vaccines, and antivirals are all value. But I mean, I think people are basically voting with their faces if you will, I mean, we -- what's the definition of pandemic? A pandemic changes to the way that you live work or play, an endemic or epidemic doesn't. And I've been -- I can tell you, in Philadelphia, and Avalon, New Jersey, when you see, for example, 90,500 people go to a Philadelphia 76ers game, virtually none of whom are wearing masks, they're telling you, they think we've moved beyond this pandemic.

You know, two years before this pandemic hit this country, influenza caused 800,000 hospitalizations and 60,000 deaths. We didn't do anything about that. We live with those numbers. We could have -- we could have missed social distance, tested people, vaccinated twice during the season, keep neutralizing antibodies high that would have dramatically lowered those numbers but we accept that. At some level, we're going to -- we're going to accept this too, with this virus. I just don't know what those numbers are. We'll see. BOLDUAN: I'm curious of your take because, on the kind of a new thing that we're seeing with these anti-viral, CNN is reporting that the White House is now tracking these cases of people. It's kind of being called like rebound COVID, like symptoms rebounding after taking the anti-viral, Paxlovid. The White House is looking into whether it should be providing guidance on this. Are you -- are you seeing this? I mean, what do you think of -- are you surprised by this?

OFFIT: Well, it's actually in the package insert when the -- when the product was licensed for use. We're at about a 2 percent rebound. It's not surprising in the sense that antivirals aren't antibiotics. I mean, antibiotics can kill bacteria. Antivirals don't do that, they sort of limit replication. And so it's not surprising that after five days of treatment, for example, there still would be viral particles that are viable that could then reproduce themselves and cause disease.


OFFIT: But again, it's really important certainly, if you're in a high-risk group, certainly if you're not vaccinated to take up Paxlovid within the first few days of illness to decrease your chance of going on to develop severe COVID.

BOLDUAN: So, do you recommend people still take the antiviral if they -- if they can get it?

OFFIT: Yes. I mean, if they're -- certainly, if they have already increased risk because of their age or because of comorbidities. A young healthy person doesn't need Paxlovid, but certainly, those at high risk do.

BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Doctor, thank you so much.

OFFIT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: All right. Thank you all so much for being here AT THIS HOUR. I'm Kate Bolduan. INSIDE POLITICS with John King starts after this break.