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Studies Suggest Omicron Milder than Delta; U.S. FDA Approves Merck Antiviral Pill; South Korea Filling ICUs; Interview with Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Afghanistan's Future; Putin Accuses Ukraine of Seeking War; Tiananmen Square Memorial Removed from Hong Kong University; Scientists Open Time Capsule from 1880s. Aired 10-10:40a ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 10:00   ET




BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST (voice-over): A dose of positive news: early studies suggest a reduced risk of hospitalization with Omicron, as COVID

case numbers continue to rise.


HAMID KARZAI, FORMER PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: I am very strongly critical of the way the U.S. military conducted itself in Afghanistan with

consequences and costs.

ANDERSON (voice-over): Former president Hamid Karzai brands the U.S. war in Afghanistan a disaster as he applauds the U.N.'s latest move to ease the

flow of aid to his country. My interview with Hamid Karzai is coming up.



VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): Not a single inch to the east, they told us in the '90s.

And what do you know?

They cheated.

ANDERSON (voice-over): He says he doesn't want a conflict but Vladimir Putin insists the ball is in NATO's court.


ANDERSON: It's 7:00 in the evening in Abu Dhabi. I'm Becky Anderson. You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD.

Doctors and scientists have suspected for weeks, now a ray of hope. Three preprint studies are adding to evidence that the Omicron coronavirus

variant may be milder than Delta.

The numbers vary but a working paper out of Scotland found people infected with Omicron are 65 percent less likely to be hospitalized than with Delta.

A preliminary study from England suggests a 40 percent to 45 percent reduction in that risk; while a South African paper suggests people with

Omicron are 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, compared with Delta.

Larry Madowo joins me live from Nairobi, Kenya.

Following the South African study -- and I will come to the other studies momentarily -- but following the South African study, the head of the

Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning, and I quote here, "We should not extrapolate South Africa's experience across the

continent or world."

What does he mean by that?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Becky, what the doctor is saying is, even though the South African study and all of the evidence so far points to

less severity of the Omicron variant in South Africa, there's not enough to go on to say definitively that the Omicron variant is less severe in every

part of the world.

In the U.K., it is slightly more severe than it is in South Africa. That's why he's saying, even though this is all promising and we have a month of

data to work with from South Africa, he doesn't want to go all out and say, yes, the Omicron variant is less severe as these studies show.

ANDERSON: You've seen the study. Tell us a little bit more.

What do we know?

MADOWO: So this study is from a very well-respected scientist. And what it shows is that those with the Omicron variant -- only 2.5 percent of those

with the Omicron variant were hospitalized. Compared to delta, nearly 13 percent of them were hospitalized.

So that is a positive sign and that's why they say those with the Omicron variant were 80 percent less likely to end up in hospital, which means

fewer people were less likely to die with the Omicron variant.

Also this is what scientists have told us before. And we saw a study from Discovery Health in South Africa, which had similar data and all the

epidemiologists, virologists and research scientists who follow this data say this is promised.

Now they are confident enough to say they think, based on what they have seen, that South Africa has gone past the peak of the Omicron variant and

now the cases are flatlining and that is likely because, in Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is, and at the airport, which is one of the

busiest in Africa, they are seeing new cases dropping quite precipitously. And these are all promising signs.

ANDERSON: Right. That's the story in South Africa. Larry Madowo, thank you for that.

My next guest says this about the study out of Scotland. The data, quote, "only takes us so far but it definitely takes us in the right direction."

He also cautioned that the size of this Omicron wave is still the big unknown. That's Mark Woolhouse, one of the authors of the early study from



ANDERSON: He's a professor of infectious disease and epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, a member of SAGE, which is a body of scientists

which advises the U.K. prime minister on a daily basis.

I have to caveat, he is speaking today with us in a personal capacity.

It's good to have you on. Help us understand what's going on here. There are several new studies coming out that suggest that Omicron has a lower

risk of hospitalization than Delta.

How are we getting this information and what does it tell us at the end of the day?

MARK WOOLHOUSE, UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH: Well, In England and Scotland, it is still quite early days and these are preliminary results. They're based

on the data we have so far.

But we know how many people have been infected with Delta and Omicron over the past few weeks. And we can follow those in hospital. And to cut to the

chase, we work out that if Omicron was behaving like Delta in the Scottish population, we would expect about 45 of those people to be in hospital


In practice, there are only 16 of them and quite a lot fewer than we would expect. And that's the basis of the estimate that the level of protection -

- I'm sorry; the difference of the severity of the Omicron variant is about 70 percent.

ANDERSON: So I guess this begs the question.

Is this about the severity of the variant?

Or could this be about the fact that there are more people vaccinated at this point and those vaccinations are protecting the population, as it

were, from hospitalization?

WOOLHOUSE: We can't tell at this point and that's one of the reasons for caution in interpreting these studies. The study in Scotland and England

are done specifically against the background of the population we have here in the last few weeks.

So whatever levels of natural exposure we have and whatever vaccine history the people have had and all of the demographic characteristics -- and those

are unique to our population. And Scotland is a little bit different from England. And it would be somewhat different from South Africa.

Although all three studies point broadly in the same direction, it's not surprising that they come out with slightly different estimates and

difference. And that's why every country in the world will ultimately have to do this sort of analysis for themselves for their own populations.

ANDERSON: Is that data that you have seen -- and we are now beginning to collect enough data to be able to put these studies together -- is it

indicating that it is, over and above, the clear majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated at this point?

WOOLHOUSE: No. That's not the case and it's particularly not the case with the Omicron variant in Scotland. We do have cases in the vaccination and

the country is actually quite small. There aren't many people that are not vaccinated.

But we're getting many more cases in people who are either single or double vaccinated and we're getting quite a few still in the booster population.

Again, that's about infection. Hospitalizations, we still have to work up that data to see particularly if the booster vaccination does increase the

level of protection against hospitalization, which is the aim of the rapid rollout of booster vaccinations of the U.K. at the moment.


What does this mean for the U.K. in terms of how the government will carry forward with dealing with Omicron?

WOOLHOUSE: Well, it's good news but it's far, for me, the end of the story. The fact that, according to our best estimate, there will only be a

third as many hospitalizations had it been equivalent to Delta. And that's obviously a big step forward.

But in the U.K., we have a very fast-growing wave of infections and, very simple, even if there's only a third as likely to go into hospital, if

there are more than three times as many of them, you end up still with the worst public health problem. So it's the sheer scale and the speed of the

wave of infections that's causing us concern here in the U.K.

ANDERSON: Just before you and I spoke, we got some breaking news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just authorized another antiviral

pill to treat COVID-19, this one from Merck. It's for mild to moderate cases of the disease in people who are at high risk for it progressing into

a serious case.

And of course, Merck is the second drug authorized to take at home this week. Pfizer's was approved on Wednesday.


ANDERSON: And Merck has said it has agreed to supply more than 3 million courses of the drug. This news coming out of the U.S. and this is an

authorization by the U.S. FDA.

How does that news play into the wider story here?

WOOLHOUSE: Well, that is a very positive development and it could make a difference in the U.K.

One of the challenges of the pandemic is just managing the sheer numbers of people that have to be in hospital. Hospitals are overwhelmed with just the

sheer numbers of patients.

Even with Omicron and vaccines, those patients respond actually better to treatment and are more likely to recover. It's the sheer numbers that's the


So the more people we can keep out of hospital by treating them at home, in the community, at your general practices in the U.K., then the better. Of

course, this does require rapid rollout.

In the U.K. the Omicron waive is well underway. Last week we were having doubling times every two days so we haven't got anytime to spare. But

certainly this is a very positive development. We keep people out of the hospital that way.

ANDERSON: Yes. Sadly, the first death is now being recorded in the U.K. with Omicron variant, as has the first been recorded in Germany.

When we talk about it being a race against time, how long do you think this might take and how bad could it get?

WOOLHOUSE: Well, that's the million dollar question we're all struggling with here. The initial rate of increase in the U.K. was incredibly fast. It

was every two days. But quite clearly the number of infected people can't go on doubling every two days. And it has started to slow down already.

Personally, I am taking some comfort from the data emerging from South Africa that you were discussing with your correspondent just a moment ago,

where they do seem to have peaked in the earliest affected province in South Africa.

I'm hoping very much that -- our most affected region is London in the U.K. -- and we will start to see a peak soon. And it's very difficult to predict

this. And with the fast doubling time, if it goes on doubling, even for another week, we will have a truly enormous number of cases.

And then how much they translate into hospitalizations and, also, I should emphasize that the sheer number of cases is itself a big problem. There's

an awful lot of people now who are having to take time off work because they're sick or even more because they're having to self-isolate because

they tested positive.

And that's putting tremendous strain on essential services and ordinary workplaces and institutions. So the infections themselves have been a

problem for us.

ANDERSON: The work you do has never been more important and your insight for our viewers is invaluable. Whatever you are doing over the holiday

season, I wish you the best. Keep it up and we will talk again. Thank you, sir.

The fourth time COVID spread has prompted China to put a major city on a controlled area lockdown. This is happening in Xi'an ahead of Lunar New

Year travel. And it is impacting millions of people. Selina Wang reports from Tokyo.


SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Chinese city of Xi'an and its 13 million residents have been put under strict lockdown. The city has

reported over 200 COVID-19 cases since December 9th.

Residents are largely banned from leaving their homes but one designated person from each household will be allowed to leave every two days to buy

groceries. Otherwise, residents are only allowed to leave in the case of a medical emergency or for, quote, "urgent or necessary work." That's

according to the local government. Xi'an has shut down all schools, public transport and facilities except for

essential service providers.

This is the fourth time a major Chinese city has been placed under strict lockdown. The first was Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic. With the games

less than 45 days away, the country is doubling down on its zero COVID strategy. Cities are locking down and mass testing residents in response to

just a handful of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Olympic participants will have to be in a strict bubble and tested daily. If they're not vaccinated, they'll have to quarantine for 21 days upon

arrival. If China pulls off the Winter Olympics successfully, it will be a propaganda win for its handling of COVID-19 and for its authoritarian

system -- Selina Wang, CNN, Tokyo.


ANDERSON: South Korea says that, for the second day in a row, the country admitted a record number of critically ill COVID-19 patients.


ANDERSON: Only about 20 percent of ICU beds are left and more than 100 people there died on Wednesday of the virus. That is the highest single-day

COVID death toll since the start of the pandemic.

New York state reporting its highest-ever daily total of new cases on Wednesday and the latest numbers show nearly 60 percent of those infections

are concentrated in New York City and its surrounding area.

New COVID testing sites at subway stations at Ground Central terminal and at Times Square are expected to open on Monday.

You're watching CONNECT THE WORLD from the broadcasting hub in Abu Dhabi. The time is a quarter past 7:00.

Ahead, the darker side of the Taliban takeover and the impact it had on daily life in Afghanistan.


KARZAI: The issue of atrocities, ma'am, is a very unfortunate part of our lives and atrocities have been committed by all sides.


ANDERSON (voice-over): My exclusive interview with the former Afghan president is next.

Plus Vladimir Putin shifts the blame for the military buildup near Ukraine's border. You'll hear how the Russian president is justifying his


And later, it is often said the past is full of surprises. Well, why some U.S. scientists got just that when they opened a time capsule from the era

just after the American Civil War.




ANDERSON: The world is finally responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a

U.S.-backed resolution to get humanitarian aid into the country. The Biden administration also easing restrictions on the Taliban to speed up the flow

of this aid.

Help coming after global aid groups, and I have to say, this show has warned for months about the coming winter in Afghanistan. Millions there

face hunger and cold as they live in poverty in a country left in complete financial ruin after the Taliban took over.

The U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs calls the Security Council action "a milestone decision that will save lives and livelihoods" in

Afghanistan. But Martin Griffiths warns the road ahead is neither easy nor straightforward.

Against that backdrop, I spoke today with the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He remains in the country. Our wide-ranging

interview covered Afghanistan's present-day problems and its future under Taliban rule.


ANDERSON: And I started by asking Karzai about the new global efforts to lift the country he once led out of catastrophe. Have a listen.


KARZAI: I welcome very much the resolution by the U.N. Security Council in addressing the liquidity issues in Afghanistan, of the flow of money, and

in trying to provide -- and hopefully as soon as possible -- assistance to the Afghan people. This is a welcome step and we welcome it.

ANDERSON: Is it enough?

KARZAI: We appreciate it.

It may not be enough but it is a start and a good start. The inner part (ph) will be when our own economy runs well, when we have our own

institutions functioning and when we have our own efforts producing for us our bread and butter. That is what we must do sooner rather than later.

ANDERSON: Does that mean the international community, working with the Taliban?

I mean, this effort by the U.N. and others is to unfreeze assets and to provide some liquidity into the system to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

Does the international community need to work with the Taliban?

KARZAI: There definitely, definitely will be instances where they need to work with the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is that the

Taliban are now the de facto authorities in the country, so they'll have to work with them in order to reach the Afghan people, in order to provide

assistance to the Afghan people.

But it is also then for the Taliban authorities -- and ask all Afghans together, the people of Afghanistan -- to make sure that our country

remains peaceful, to make sure that our country progresses on its own.

This entails and this means that the Taliban authorities must contact all those Afghans, who, for one reason or another, have left the country and

must invite them back to Afghanistan and must begin to talk with all Afghans so that a national effort is made for the governance of the country

and for the country to function as a normal state.

ANDERSON: How much contact do you have with the Taliban at this point?

And what are you telling them?

KARZAI: Well, from the very beginning, some of the Taliban leadership have contacted us. When I was staying together with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the

chairman of the peace council, as the Taliban arrived in Kabul city, they did come to meet with us, many of their leaders.

Good meetings, in which both of us, myself and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah expressed ourselves on how we believe the country should be run, the need

to bring security to Afghan lives and protection and the need for psychological security as well to the Afghan population and the need to

make sure that the country does not go to a new conflict.

And we must do everything necessary to bring all Afghans together.

ANDERSON: You weren't included in the new government, despite the fact that you stayed.

So what's the prospect of what you just delineated coming to fruition at this point?

KARZAI: Yes. Well, unfortunately, the fighting in Panjshir took place. It should not have taken place. And our advice today is to the Taliban that

they must contact other leaders who have left the country for the same reason and begin to negotiate on national issues toward the stability that

we all need.

As for our inclusion in the government, we never wanted that and we don't want that.

ANDERSON: Hamid Karzai, a recent report by Amnesty International documents torture, extrajudicial executions and killings by the Taliban during the

final stages of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The report indicates that it was a far from seamless transition of power that the Taliban claimed.

How can the world stand behind this group, the Taliban, when these atrocities have been documented and when so little of what you hope will be

achieved in the future is actually evidenced today?

For example, the treatment of women and getting women and girls back into education and work, for example.


KARZAI: The issue of atrocities, ma'am, is a very unfortunate part of our lives. And atrocities have been committed by all sides. All Afghans have

suffered. Our troops, our army and our police have suffered, the Taliban and their soldiers have suffered, the common Afghan people have suffered,

civilians have suffered.

The suffering from atrocities is on all sides. So you cannot say that one side has done it, the other side has not. No, the bombardments and the

forces of Afghanistan and the searches in homes at night by foreign forces in Afghanistan, bombs in the cities, bombs in the village, bombardments in

the villages, suicide bombs in the cities.

The American mother of all bombs on our villages and our country that was done in 2017, these were all atrocities. And the suffering, the victims

were the Afghan people. What I am asking, what I am saying, what I have been saying, the reason I called the Taliban brothers was exactly this,

that we, the Afghan people, are suffering for someone else's interests and designs.

And that has to end. This opportunity today that we have, when the Taliban are now in charge, can be used the best by the Taliban and all of us, the

rest of the Afghan population together.

Those who are outside and those who are inside, to come together and address our issues and find solutions to our sufferings and plan for the

future, that is what I'm seeking and that is the right way forward.


ANDERSON: That is part of my interview with Hamid Karzai. In the next hour of CONNECT THE WORLD, part two of that exclusive interview, the former

Afghan president with some blunt criticism of the U.S. military's actions in his country. That is coming up.

Also the youngest faces of Afghanistan's hunger crisis are heartwrenching. A look at the suffering going on in the country right now.

Vladimir Putin has made his demands clear, if NATO wants to quell tensions in Ukraine, stop expanding in his backyard. The details are just ahead.

And then later, taking time for kindness. The Duchess of Cambridge offers a Christmas thank you to the unsung heroes of the pandemic.





ANDERSON: You're with CONNECT THE WORLD. I'm Becky Anderson. It is half past 7:00 here in the UAE.

Russian president Vladimir Putin says the ball is in NATO's court. In his annual end of the year conference, he says his country doesn't want war but

he says Ukraine looks like it does.

Ukraine has been seeking help from NATO as Russia continues to amass troops near the border. Mr. Putin says his demands are clear: no more NATO

expansion eastward and no letting Ukraine join the alliance. Melissa Bell is following the story for us from Moscow today.

The U.S. President, Joe Biden, suggesting a summit next year in Geneva.

Does it, from what we heard today, sound like Mr. Putin is up for that?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think there was this hope that there would be these talks in Geneva involving NATO, the United States and

Moscow. This has come in the last few days and finally a breakthrough after all these months of tension.

And what we heard during the nearly four-hour press conference today were more insights into exactly what Vladimir Putin was thinking and I think

when it comes to those talks it sounds grimmer than we would imagine.

He would not be making a decision as to whether invade Ukraine or not, according to how the negotiations went but rather whether NATO and the West

more broadly accepted the idea of Russia's demands, meaning that NATO should guarantee that it would guarantee no eastward expansion.

We've heard it from the mouth of the U.S.' top diplomat to Europe. So it does sound like the prospects for any common ground found at those talks is

perhaps not as substantial as we might have imagined, as the world might have hoped.

And of course, we also know now about how Vladimir Putin sees events specifically in Ukraine and talking about the fact that, as far as he's

concerned, the blame that needs to be laid in terms of the tensions rising around Ukraine should be laid squarely at the feet of Kiev and those

threatening sanctions against Russia. Have a listen.


PUTIN (through translator): Now hear, war, war, war. One gets the impression that maybe a third military operation is being prepared in

Donbas and we're warned in advance.

Do not interfere and do not protect these people. If you intervene and defend them, such and such new sanctions will follow.

Are they preparing perhaps for war?


BELL: So it was pretty belligerent language, a warning, an idea of what he's thinking. And even as he amasses the troops along the border but, as

you say, also saying, look, the ball is in NATO's camp and expressing a great deal of distrust toward NATO.

And he explained more of his thinking in terms of guaranteeing it won't expand eastward, saying in the early '90s, NATO had guaranteed and promised

that it wouldn't move an inch eastern.

And what we have are countries like Romania and Poland and accusing NATO of having blatantly lied to Russia in the '90s with regard to its intention

and giving some idea of his thinking as to the fresh demands that were made and that would lead to talks, of course, Becky, that look like they'll fall

before it started given the nature of the demand and his insistence that that's what he'll be watching and NATO's insistence that's not going to


Fascism. He also revealed Russia is working with China on high-precision weaponry. Thank you.

Let's get you up to speed on the stories on our radar. Right now in Saudi Arabia building its own ballistic missiles with China's help from U.S.

intelligence agencies. The news could have an impact on destroying the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the Saudi's top regional rival.

A memorial to victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre has been removed from Hong Kong university. The sculpture, called the "Pillar of Shame,"

stood for more than 20 years. The 8-meter tall sculpture, the last of its kind in Hong Kong, will now be held in storage.


ANDERSON: The U.S. Navy says on Wednesday it seized the massive shipment of Iranian weapons on a stateless fishing boat bound for Yemen. And the

cache included AK-47 assault rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The vessel was sunken and the five crew members on board are

being returned to Yemen.

Still ahead --



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

ANDERSON (voice-over): Winning numbers in the world's richest lottery announced in song. Find out where those lucky tickets were sold.


ANDERSON: They often say that, when you are seeing red, you're feeling angry, right?

If you are seeing red literally, this is what happened to football star Sergio Ramos last night.




ANDERSON: Talk about standing the test of time, workers in the United States have now learned what was inside a time capsule from the late 19th

century. It was found last week in the pedestal of a Confederate statue in Richmond, Virginia.

CNN's Randi Kaye reports on the artifacts they have uncovered and why scientists were surprised when they opened it.


RANDI KAYE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's delicate and tedious work. And yes, opening a 134-year-old time capsule is time

consuming, too. The task was shared among conservators from Virginia's Department of Historic Resources.

For more than a century this time capsule set buried in the base of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. It was

discovered Friday morning, months after this historic moment in September.

Crews dismantling the statue's base found what appeared to be a copper box as described in "The Richmond Dispatch" back in 1887. The list of articles

in the copper box was said to include dozens of items, including a battle flag, compass, 12 copper coins, even a picture of former President Lincoln

lying in his coffin.

But it turns out this capsule was made of lead, heavily corroded and partly covered in mortar. The box itself is an artifact. So they had to take care

to preserve that to using tiny spatulas, tongue depressors and ...

KATE RIDGWAY, CONSERVATOR, VIRGINIA DEPT. OF HISTORIC RESOURCES: A very controlled tool that vibrates and has a hard metal tip that is much more

easily controlled. It's good for getting the mortar separated from the lead.

KAYE (voice-over): Finally, late this afternoon, the time capsule was unlocked.



KAYE (voice-over): Inside, three books, a cloth envelope and a single coin.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D-VA): So one book is an almanac from 1875. There was another book that has only the word "love" on it and the author, Burgwyn,

B-U-R-G-W-Y-N. So I'll let the historians take further look at them and figure out what why that's in there.

KAYE (voice-over): In the end, there was no picture of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin and, even more puzzling, along with the 1887 almanac was a book

that appeared to be published in 1889, two years after the time capsule was apparently sealed.

RIDGWAY: The original time capsule was supposed to be put in there closer to 1887. And so something published in 1889, obviously, that is -- we will

have questions. And that's where the historians come in to help us.

KAYE: So the items weren't in great shape. Most of them were pretty wet. In fact, the coin was stuck to one of the books. One of the books was stuck

to the base of the capsule. So now they'll freeze them to try to prevent mold from forming on them and deterioration.

The question is, is this the right capsule?

They were supposed to find 60 items. That's what the newspaper had recorded in 1887, that there would be around 60 items inside.

So where are they?

Where is that picture of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin?

Is there another time capsule that exists?

Or was that one moved?

Still so many questions because of what they found -- and really didn't find -- inside that capsule -- Randi Kaye, CNN, Palm Beach County, Florida.


ANDERSON: The intrigue.

For the Duchess of Cambridge, Christmas is all about kindness. And she has recorded a message to introduce a Christmas carol service from Westminster

Abbey, to be aired on British television.

And she's keen to thank all of the people who have gone above and beyond during the pandemic. Have a listen.


KATE MIDDLETON, DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE: We wanted to say a huge thank you to all those amazing people out there who have supported their communities. We

also wanted to recognize those whose struggles perhaps have been less visible too. But I suppose, through that separation, we've also realized

how much we need each other and how acts of kindness and love can really bring us comfort and relief in times of distress.