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White House Changes Booster Rollout Plan, Third Moderna Shot Likely Delayed; Biden Admin Stares Down Multiple Crises on Labor Day Holiday; State Department Official Says, U.S. Helped Four Americans Escape Afghanistan Overland Route Across Border. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 06, 2021 - 13:00   ET



ERICA HILL, CNN NEWSROOM: Hello. I'm Erica Hill in for Ana Cabrera. Welcome to a special Labor Day edition of Newsroom.

Today, the White House apparently backtracking on its booster plan timing, just two weeks before the nation's targeted rollout was set to begin. So, the Biden administration no longer committing to that September 20th date, instead, it's now saying science will set the timeline. That, of course, is something the FDA wanted all along. A third dose of Pfizer's vaccine will likely be approved in a few weeks, but Moderna's could take a bit more time.

And while you wait, there is additional evidence on this Monday, the vaccines work and they are saving lives at a critical time. They are needed more than ever. Just take a look at the numbers now for this Labor Day versus last year. You're looking at a 300 percent increase in the seven-day average of new cases.

Meantime, several ICUs near or at full capacity. The U.S. is now reporting an average of 1,500 COVID deaths a day. Nearly all of those patients and deaths were unvaccinated.

Let's begin with CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. So, Elizabeth, bottom line here when it comes to the boosters, the data, the science will dictate that date ultimately for the rollout. So, what is the data showing?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Erica, a lot of this data is coming out of Israel. Israel is essentially a Pfizer-only country. It's Pfizer who has applied and will be heard first to see if they can do a booster rollout and Pfizer will be relying on the Israelis for the data that they have. So, let's take a look at what the Israelis have found about the effectiveness of a booster, of a third shot.

So, this -- the Israelis sort of spotted the problem. They found this summer that those who had been vaccinated in January had more than twice the risk of breakthrough infections compared to those vaccinated in April. That was the sign that something was not quite right. So, then what they found later is that the booster reduces the odds of infection by 70 to 84 percent. And in people age 60 and over, a booster decreased the relative risk of severe illness by more than ten times. So, I'm sure we'll be hearing about some of this data when Pfizer presents to the FDA advisers on September 17th.

Now, as far as the political part of this, the back and forth, when is this going to happen, I'm just going to sort of bottom line it here, which is that Pfizer will likely be offering a booster probably around the week of September 20th. So, if you got Pfizer, you may be able to get a booster the week of September 20th. For those who did not get Pfizer, you may not be, and you may have to wait a little bit. But it's not going to be long. The bottom line is you are going to be offered a booster at some point in the coming weeks. Don't know if it's September 20th or not, but sometime in the coming weeks.

So, let's look at some of those particulars. What Dr. Fauci has told us is the Pfizer looks like they're ready to go for the week of September 20th. Moderna might be behind by a week or two, which, by the way, my comment is not really such a big deal, and they could have data in the next couple weeks on mixing and matching vaccines. So, your first two shots were Moderna or your first shot was J&J. Maybe you'll follow-up with a booster by Pfizer, maybe the opposite, you started with Pfizer, you'll get a booster with Moderna. That is a possibility. Erica?

HILL: We'll be watching for all of it. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you.

Also joining us, Dr. Peter Hotez, Professor and Dean of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, he's also the chair of Tropical Pediatrics at Texas Children's Hospital. Always good to have you with us, Dr. Hotez.

So, as we look at where we're at when it comes to boosters, people understand they have a lot of questions, because it feels like we're hearing lots of different things. You know, there's this confusion too over six versus eight months, why the booster is being planned for at eight months by the White House. Take a listen to what Dr. Fauci told CNN's Jim Acosta.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: The plan for the rollout was at the September 20th, the week of September 20th. That would actually be about eight months from the time, the very first people in this country got their vaccinations in January. So that's the eighth-month issue.


HILL: So, that's the eight-month issue. Understandably, people are still a little bit confused when they're seeing what's happening in Israel. How much does it change things if we're looking at eight months for a booster?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, PROFESSOR AND DEAN OF TROPICAL MEDICINE, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: Yes. I think, Erica, part of the problem was when these vaccines were first rolled out at the end of December, beginning of January, it probably should have been messaged that most likely the two mRNA vaccines would each be a three-dose vaccine and likely the J&J would be a two-dose vaccine. And that's of the way the vaccines were given so close together, three to four weeks apart.


You would not design that schedule for durability or length of protection or for long-lasting protection. You did it because we needed to save lives when so many people were losing their lives in nursing homes and the health care providers were at risk. But when it was rolled out, it could have been a little bit better emphasized. I tried to do it that this will be a three-dose vaccine.

And the determination of exactly when you would boost is partly reflective of when there's a decline of protection. And now, as Elizabeth points out, Elizabeth Cohen points out that in Israel, the effectiveness has gone down from 90 percent to 40 to 50 percent for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and that's primarily for asymptomatic and low grade symptom infections. It's still holding up pretty well for hospitalizations. So, all of that is going to come out VERPAC meeting on September 17th from the FDA.

And the other piece that we need to hear just to confirm its safety is to make certain that there's no unexpected rise in side effects, such as myocarditis. I don't think there will be, but I think we'll move forward.

So, I think the problem has been, one, articulating a little bit better from the beginning that it was a three-dose vaccine. But in fairness to the White House, there's this terrible anti-vaccine aggression out there that's exploiting any slight, little weakness in communication and blowing it up and frightening the American people. And that's something new that I don't think they're used to, I mean, as opposed to someone like myself who has dealt with these guys for 20 years.

HILL: I was going to say, unfortunately, you've been on the receiving end of that for far too long, although it's certainly increased.

So, the mixed messaging on this point yet again is an issue. I do want to get your take on another thing that we're seeing in the country which is this just sky -- I mean, the change in cases from Labor Day of last year to what we're looking at today, 300 percent increase in a seven-day average of new cases. When you look at that number, what does it tell you? I mean, overall, where are we in this fight now?

HOTEZ: Yes. We're not in a good situation, Erica, and it's for two reasons. One, the big one, of course, is the delta variant is so much more transmissible than anything we've seen before and is basically picking off anyone who is not vaccinated. So, that's why it's really accelerating in the south, especially among young adults and adolescents who have the lowest vaccination rates in the country, unfortunately. 20, 30 percent in the adolescents, not much better in the young adults.

But the scary thing that I'm really looking at is now it's spreading. So it's going north up into Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and it's heading west across where I am in Texas. And now you're seeing a second node form after Sturgis that's moving into Wyoming. And my concern is that, as this progresses into the fall, you'll start to see confluence between those two big nodes in the south/midwest and then in the mountain west. And I think the regions that could be spared potentially are the New England states, some of the mid- Atlantic states, where they did such a good job at vaccinating everyone and some of the west coast areas. But other than that, I think we're in for a pretty tough ride as we move into the fall.

HILL: Yes, tough to hear, but we have to face the reality if we're ever going to move past this. Dr. Peter Hotez, always good to have you with us, thank you.

HOTEZ: Thanks so much.

HILL: The pandemic just one of several crises the Biden administration is staring down today. CNN's Arlette Saenz is in Wilmington, Delaware, where the president is spending the holiday weekend. Arlette, the summer began with so much hope, really though coming to a tough end for the president. And he's paying a political price at this point.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Erica. After a rocky summer, the president is now seeing his lowest approval ratings to date since he took office. And the White House is aware that there is very little room for error going forward.

Now, the president is spending this Labor Day here at his home, in Wilmington, Delaware, but will return to the White House this evening with challenges stacking up on his plate. Much of August was spent focusing on that chaotic drawdown from Afghanistan. And now the administration's priority in Afghanistan is trying to get the remaining Americans out of the country. The White House has estimated there are roughly 100 Americans who still want to leave Afghanistan that the State Department is working to get out.

Now, as there was a focus on that international issue, the president over the coming weeks will also be shifting the focus to his domestic agenda. And, really, the top priority is getting that COVID-19 pandemic under control. You heard that reporting earlier about the state of booster shots, which some may be coming as planned on September 20th, but others might not be authorized to come until a bit later. And trying to tackle the health component of the coronavirus pandemic is also critical and goes hand in hand with the economy.

Last week, there was a sluggish jobs report and the president directly said that the delta variant affected those numbers that ultimately were a lower than expected jobs report.


Now, the president also has a very heavy lift up on Capitol Hill as he is hoping to get his multitrillion dollar infrastructure packages across the finish line. What he needs to do over the course of the next few weeks is hold all those Democrats together. We've already heard some skepticism expressed by Democrats, moderates, like Senator Joe Manchin, who suggested putting a pause on that legislation. But the White House insists that they can still plow ahead and move forward with this bill.

Now, tomorrow, President Biden will be in New York and New Jersey to tour the area, and see the firsthand, the storm damage after Hurricane Ida which affected not just the south but also the northeast, all of this facing the president as he heads back to the White House tonight. Erica?

HILL: Arlette Saenz, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Just ahead, the Taliban say they have captured the last stronghold resistance in Afghanistan, as a U.S. congressman claims the Taliban is not allowing U.S. citizens to leave an Afghan airpot.

And later, outrage growing among critics at the new Texas abortion law, who say it allows Texans to be bounty hunters, this as Democrats are pushing to protect abortion rights through congressional action.



HILL: Just into CNN, the U.S. helped evacuate four Americans from Afghanistan via an overland route to a third country. A State Department official tells, quote, the embassy greeted the Americans as they crossed the border and confirms this was the first escape in this manner.

Now, all of this comes as one Republican lawmaker claims the Taliban are preventing planes carrying Americans from taking off.


REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): We have six airplanes at Mazar-i-Sharif Airport, six airplanes with American citizens on them, as I speak, also with these interpreters. And the Taliban is holding them hostage for demands right now. The state has cleared these flights and the Taliban will not let them leave the airport.


HILL: Now, a source tells CNN the U.S. government is not aware of a hostage situation like the one McCaul described.

CNN's Nic Robertson is live in Islamabad. So, Nic, what more do we know about this overland evacuation and the effort to get the remaining Americans out of Afghanistan?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, I think key, we don't actually know which country they went to but there's two that are quite likely, and that would be Pakistan or Uzbekistan. We heard about the planes that are on the ground in Mazar-i-Sharif. It's about an hour's drive, less than in good conditions to get to the border in Uzbekistan. So, potentially that could have been the route taken but we don't know.

We do know, speaking to local reporters in Mazar-i-Sharif, that some of the people that wanted to fly out that the Taliban wouldn't allow the planes to leave was because they didn't have the proper documentation. Some of them didn't have passports. Some of them didn't have right paperwork for the countries that they were going to. But the reporters we spoke to said that the people that they had seen Afghans, who were due to be on those flights, were sitting in local cafes or in hotels.

It has to be said that the Taliban have been allowing domestic flights from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul. But what the State Department is saying at the moment, and I'll read you the statement because I think the words of it are quite important for anyone in Afghanistan right now, American or otherwise wanting to get out of the country.

This is what the State Department says. They say, we understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to -- try to facilitate further charter of other passengers out of Afghanistan. However, we have no personnel on the ground. We do not have any air assets in the country. We do not control the air space whether over Afghanistan or in the region.

And that's the reality at the moment. You know, the United States doesn't have a lot of go-to places on this. We know that the Pakistan's intelligence chief was in Kabul over the weekend. And one of the things he was talking to the Taliban about was allowing those U.S. citizens and other citizens and Afghans associated with them if they wanted to get out of Afghanistan to be able to do that by road or by air.

And as from what I understand, Pakistan is facilitating the crossings of the border for foreign nationals more readily, perhaps, than they are at the moment for Afghans, done by arrangement and detail and agreement with the Pakistan government, but Pakistan certainly aiding in that effort at the moment.

HILL: Nic Robertson with the latest for us, Nic, thank you.

For a closer look, let's bring in our CNN Military Analyst, retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton.

Colonel, the president's chief of staff noted there are still about 100 Americans left in Afghanistan. Do you expect many more of these evacuations would be land-based given the challenges that we're seeing at the airport?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Erica, that's going to be quite a tall order if they do land-based evacuations. Certainly, it's technically possible with those four that Nic mentioned in his report. That certainly is a way of doing it. If the Taliban allows that kind of access to the land border crossing points, it could be done. More likely though, I think it will be an air bridge to some place, maybe Qatar, maybe one of the other countries in the region. That is perhaps more likely. But either way, as long as they get out, the administration will have achieved its goal at this point.

HILL: When it comes to getting out, this claim from Congressman McCaul, which CNN has not confirmed, that planes are being grounded by the Taliban, what leverage does the U.S. have at that point to make sure that they can actually leave, to get those planes up and in the sky?


LEIGHTON: Right. Well, I think that leverage is certainly limited. You know, if you have boots on the ground or some other kind of presence in a place like Afghanistan, you're going to be able to achieve more than you would if you're not there. But having said that, one of the key things that the U.S. does have is economic leverage over Afghanistan. Basically, all they'd have to do is shut off the connection to the international monetary system. And if that were the case, that would affect aid. It would affect the ability of the Taliban to govern. And the Taliban definitely does not want that. So, that, I think, is the biggest point of leverage the U.S. has at this juncture.

HILL: The Taliban also is really seeking legitimacy from the U.S., wants to be recognized as a legitimate government in Afghanistan. If countries like Turkey, China, Russia, Pakistan plan to deal with them officially, should the U.S., right -- we're already talking to them for other negotiations that are needed, should the U.S. officially recognize the Taliban and what would that change?

LEIGHTON: Well, that is certainly -- it would be a bridge to cross. I think there would be some political issues with that, and there would be a lot of people who would resent the idea of having a direct recognition of the Taliban. But there are other ways to do this where we kind of work incrementally with them. We have perhaps another country like Turkey, like Qatar, one of the other countries that has worked with the Taliban and with us.

That could kind of be the bridge from us to them. That could work. It could facilitate to not only the evacuation of the American citizens but also of Afghanistan SIV holders and others who have served the U.S. military and U.S. contractors during the last 20 years. That, I think, is going to be a moral imperative and that moral imperative may very well speed up some kind of relationship that the U.S. has with the Taliban at the moment.

HILL: As we look at where the country stands, and this weekend, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs gave, frankly, a really dire assessment of Afghanistan's future. Take a listen.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I think there's at least a very good probability of a broader civil war. And that will then, in turn, lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to reconstitution of Al Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other myriad of terrorist groups.

So, I think the short answer to your question is we don't know yet. But the conditions are very likely, in my opinion, that -- and I've testified this and said it in public, that you could see a resurgence of terrorism out coming out of that general region within 12, 24, 26 months.


HILL: A possible resurgence of terrorism. Is there a military solution? Is there a diplomatic one? I mean, how can or should the U.S. be involved in trying to stop that?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think we have an obligation to try to stop that, Erica, even without being physically present in Afghanistan in a military sense. So, what that would entail is both a diplomatic and military possibility. We can do a lot from standoff locations. In essence, what President Biden is talking about from his over the horizon capabilities. That's not just intelligence. It's not just gathering information. It's also using standoff weapons to potentially disrupt the formation of terrorist cells on Afghan soil. That is a possibility.

The other, of course, is diplomatic. And the threat either implied or explicitly stated of sanctions against the Afghan government, should they not take action to prevent terrorists from using their soil to plan attacks and to carry out attacks against either the U.S. or its allies.

HILL: To that end, amazing counterintuitive, but would a stronger, more organized Taliban, in some ways, be better for this country if, in fact, it would mean that they're taking better control, obviously, of Afghanistan and potentially squashing some of that terror threat within their own borders?

LEIGHTON: It depends on how the Taliban actually view terrorism. They're making the right noises at the moment, saying that they would not allow terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda or like ISIS, to gain a foothold in their country. But if they fail to act in that regard, then, of course, all bets are off.

So if they plan to uphold that end of the bargain, they would then be -- it would be the paradox that you talk about. They would then be better poised to do that if they are stronger and if they are actually in control of large areas of territory. If they're not in control, even if they intend to prevent terrorist attacks, then it becomes far more difficult for them to do so. So, there is a paradox there that we really need to pay attention to.

HILL: Yes, absolutely. And to your point, it will be about the actions, not just the words. Colonel Cedric Leighton, I always appreciate your insights, sir.


Thank you.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Erica, any time.

HILL: Coming up, the northeast and the gulf coast still reeling from Hurricane Ida and its remnants. We're live in hard-hit LaPlace, Louisiana, and in New York ahead of President Biden's visit tomorrow. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)