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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

FDA Meets Today To Debate COVID Booster Shots; Murdaugh Surrenders And Admits Trying To Stage His Own Murder; France Outraged Over Trilateral Submarine Deal With Australia. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired September 17, 2021 - 05:30   ET




CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, good Friday morning -- it is Friday. This is EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: You made it to Friday. I'm Laura Jarrett. It's 30 minutes past the hour here in New York. Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.

The Department of Homeland Security issuing a warning about the potential for violence today and tomorrow at the Justice for J rally at the U.S. Capitol. An unclassified intel briefing obtained by CNN says DHS is not aware of any specific or credible plot connected with this event but it is aware of online chatter.

ROMANS: President Biden promoting his goal of raising taxes on the wealthy to give the middle class a fair shot, as he says. In a White House speech on the economy, he blasted the Trump tax cuts of 2017, vowing to make big corporations and the super-wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

JARRETT: Congressman Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Trump earlier this year, says he will not run for reelection in 2022. Gonzalez cites toxic dynamics inside his own party as a significant factor in his decision.

ROMANS: Special counsel John Durham charging a cyber security lawyer with lying to the FBI. Michael Sussmann is accused of hiding the fact that he worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign when he submitted a tip about a possible link between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank. His attorney argue he did not lie, vowing to fight that charge.

JARRETT: Mayim Bialik and Ken Jennings will share duties hosting "JEOPARDY!" for the remainder of the year. The show's executive producer, Mike Richards, had been named permanent host but ultimately, he left both jobs in a cloud of controversy for previous sexist comments that he made about women.

And just hours from now, independent scientific advisers will huddle with the FDA to discuss COVID-19 boosters and whether Americans need that extra dose of vaccine.

ROMANS: Yes, this is a really pivotal moment in the booster story, folks. Three reports out this week support the idea that people need a booster of the Pfizer shot over time, but not all vaccine experts agree.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Well, Christine and Laura, this is an important meeting. It's an advisory committee meeting so there's not going to absolute definition coming out of it. But I think we're going to get a little bit more clarity on some of the big questions about boosters.

Let's look at it this way. There's four main questions here.

How much is immunity really waning? A study came out of Pfizer saying that every two months the immunity wanes. The protectiveness wanes about six percent. But overall, when you look at the protection for severe illness it holds pretty steady between 96 and 97 percent.

Another question, how severe are these breakthrough infections? Really keep an eye out for that one. I mean, a breakthrough infection can be somebody who has no symptoms -- they're surprised that their test comes back positive -- to somebody who has significant symptoms.

So who are the majority of people with these breakthrough infections? How old are they? What are their preexisting conditions? That might give an idea of the best population of people to boost, if not the general population.

How long does the booster effect last? Another big question. Does it just give you a lot of protection -- you know, really fortify the walls for a short period of time but then the antibodies wane? That's going to be an important question for the FDA advisory committee to answer.

And finally, how much do boosters really reduce transmission? Now, keep in mind, the purpose of a vaccine is really to keep people from getting severely ill. It wasn't clear that they were actually going to prevent people from becoming infected and develop these breakthrough infections.

In fact, take a look at what's been happening in Israel. We've often looked to Israel because they're a little bit ahead of us in terms of vaccinations. They have 63 percent of the country vaccinated. They've also been doing boosters since August.

And look what's happened with their overall case rate. They're at some of the highest levels they've been throughout this entire pandemic.

So, it's going to raise the question are breakthrough infections the right metric to really be measuring in terms of whether or not to boost. [05:35:06]

It's anybody's guess today. In the past, we've had a pretty good idea of how the FDA advisory committees were going to lean. Here, I think there's going to be a lot of spirited debate back and forth. If we get more details -- as we get them, we'll certainly bring them to you.


ROMANS: All right, Sanjay.

To boost or not to boost. That's the question.

JARRETT: I'm ready to boost.

ROMANS: It's time for the -- me, too. It's time for three minutes -- three questions in three minutes. Let's bring in Dr. Chris Pernell. She is a public health physician and a fellow at the American College of Preventive Medicine.

Do you think the FDA, Doctor, is going to recommend boosters for everyone here?

DR. CHRIS PERNELL, PUBLIC HEALTH PHYSICIAN, FELLOW, AMERICAN COLLEGE OF PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: You know, I'm with Sanjay. I don't have a clear crystal ball on this. I'm going to be eagerly tuned in to the science and to what I think is going to be a very robust debate. Bottom line, ultimately, I think certain populations will need a booster.

JARRETT: OK, Doctor -- I guess question one b) if you will then is what's the downside of the booster? This is what I've never understood about this whole so-called debate. What would be the downside of just making sure we have that little extra sense of protection -- or really, not even a sense -- real protection?

PERNELL: Well, we --

ROMANS: Right.

JARRETT: Go ahead -- sorry.

PERNELL: Yes. The downside would be why boost if you don't need it and why boost if it's not going to change the end goal? The end goal is to prevent severe infections and to prevent hospitalization and death. So we really want to make sure that any intervention -- anything that we're recommending to the public is worth the recommendation. It's worth in value.

So I don't want to suggest boost-to-boost. I want us to boost those who need it to prevent severe disease and hospitalization and death.

JARRETT: Fair enough.

And speaking of deaths from COVID, they've been on the rise in the last two weeks even though reports of new cases are slightly down. I wonder, heading into these cooler months this fall and winter, do you expect to see another spike in cases and death, even in places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles that thankfully, so far, have avoided the worst of the Delta variant?

PERNELL: You know, I would be surprised if we didn't see a spike into the fall and the winter months. We know that when we have colder weather people go indoors. When people are indoors they're not always masking 100 percent, especially in places where there are lots of people. And I think we'll begin to see a spike. I think we'll see a spike, unfortunately, in children because those who are 12 and under are not vaccinated yet.

So, I would for us not to spike. I don't think it will be as worse as it was the past winter but I do think we'll see a surge.

ROMANS: You know, there's this -- an emotional display at the National Mall. I want to show these pictures of 600,000 white flags. Each of these flags represents one COVID victim. I mean, it's just a powerful display.

As of this week, one in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19.

How close are we to wrestling this deadly disease from a pandemic into a routine nuisance -- something less deadly? You know, wrestling it into the category of a seasonal flu. Are we close?

PERNELL: You know, Christine, I'm glad you mentioned the flags. My father's life is represented among those flags. And I don't want the American public to ever lose sight of the persons and the souls behind those numbers.

And actually, I don't think we can say with any type of certainty whether or not we have turned the corner with this pandemic because we still have a significant portion of the population that is not vaccinated and because mutations continue to arise. We can beat this pandemic but we have to do more in a comprehensive and cohesive fashion to get there.

ROMANS: Doctor, we're so sorry for your loss and we are so thankful for your guidance for us throughout this whole pandemic.

PERNELL: Thank you.

ROMANS: Thank you, Dr. Chris Pernell.

JARRETT: Thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right. New evidence vaccine mandates work.

United Airlines says 90 percent of its staff has been vaccinated. Last month, the airline set a September 27th deadline for its 67,000 U.S. employees. United's CEO notes a high level of compliance -- high compliance with very few resignations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SCOTT KIRBY, CEO, UNITED AIRLINES: The ones I'm aware of are in single-digit number of people. We're going to have more by the time it finishes but it's going to be a very low number of people.


ROMANS: Yes, we have not seen the mass resignations that opponents of mandates had predicted. Many companies have been offering incentives to get vaccinated, requirements for vaccines, and then implementing routine testing if you don't get the vaccine. Bottom line, companies need vaccinated employees to get back to normal.

And President Biden, last week, announced plans to require all large employers ensure their workforces are vaccinated or face weekly testing. Biden enlisted some American CEOs Wednesday to help push that mandate, asking the heads of Disney, Walgreens, and Microsoft for input.

The vaccine has become an asset, by the way, on the resume. Get this -- the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas recommends -- hey, jobseekers, put your positive vaccination status on your resume. Put it on LinkedIn. The idea here, the firms says, is vaccinated jobseekers have an edge over unvaccinated applicants.


JARRETT: Along with Excel proficiency --


JARRETT: -- and scuba dives (ph). You know what? Vaccinations status, another asset. And this one will actually help other people.

ROMANS: I can use Excel spreadsheets and I'm vaccinated.

JARRETT: All right, to immigration now. And nearly 10,000 migrants who arrived at the southern U.S. border in Texas in just the last 48 hours -- look at this -- they're living under a bridge this morning. And thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming days.

One local sheriff worries federal and local authorities are reaching a breaking point. And a congressman from Del Rio, Texas calls it a humanitarian crisis on steroids.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is tracking the latest developments here. Priscilla, good morning.

What exactly is the plan for this roughly 9,500 migrants who are living under that bridge? Are they getting food? Are they getting water? What's the plan here?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: U.S. Customs and Border Protection is providing water, towels, portable toilets to those under the bridge while they await processing. But they are also increasing manpower and they're doing so with the Department of Homeland Security and with local agencies on the ground. But this is the ongoing challenge for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They are not equipped to handle this number of arriving migrants, particularly in the Del Rio sector where you're seeing these images. That is a sector that is more remote and has limited capacity.

So it's an urgent situation on the ground that also comes amid tensions within the Department of Homeland Security. Sources tell me that there's disagreement between different factions -- moderates, progressives -- over how to handle the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. And that, at times, can leave little room for decisions and solutions. So, sources tell me it's paralysis and exhaustion for a department that has been on crisis mode since day one.

We learned this week that two senior DHS officials announced their resignations. They provided different reasons for why they were departing the department, but -- and it's unclear whether these tensions played a role. But still, a shake-up at a time when the department has a number of pressing issues on its plate -- Laura and Christine.

JARRETT: All right, Priscilla. Thank you for staying on top of that one for us.

So we rarely hear from conservative justice Clarence Thomas -- currently, the longest-serving justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But he gave a lecture Thursday at the University of Notre Dame and was critical of judges wading into politics.


JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS, U.S. SUPREME COURT: And when we do that and we begin to venture into political -- the Legislative or Executive branch lanes -- and resolving things that are better left to those branches, those of us, particularly in the federal judiciary with lifetime appointments, are asking for trouble. I think a lot of the pressure on the nomination and selection process is because of that. I think the court was thought to be the least dangerous branch and we may have become the most dangerous.


JARRETT: Justice Thomas says the high court must remain independent from political polarization and warned against destroying our institutions just because they don't give us what we want when we want it.

And a programming note for you here. Mass shootings, gun violence, and the NRA's role in U.S. law. What's the cost of the war on gun control? A CNN film, "THE PRICE OF FREEDOM," airs on Sunday at 9:00 p.m. eastern.



ROMANS: All right. Prominent South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh turned himself in to police Thursday. He is accused of plotting his own murder so his surviving son could collect a $10 million insurance policy a few months after his wife and other son were shot and killed at the family home. That's a crime that is still unsolved.

CNN's Martin Savidge is in South Carolina with more.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Christine and Laura, Alex Murdaugh is, once again, back in a drug rehab program. This, after he received a $20,000 personal recognizance bond. He was charged with conspiring to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report.

This all goes back to the September fourth shooting in which he originally told police that he had been changing a tire at the side of the road when somebody drove up and shot him in the head. We now know through the confession he's made to his attorneys, who then were informed to the authorities, that was all a scheme. Apparently, he had hired a hitman to kill him so that his son would benefit from a $10 million life insurance policy.

The investigation into that particular crime is ongoing. And there are a number of other investigations ongoing, including, first and foremost, who killed Alex Murdaugh's wife and son in June. So far, no one's been arrested and no motive has been given.

Then there's the separate investigation looking into the allegation that he stole millions of dollars from his own law firm.

Then there is the other investigation looking into the death of a housekeeper in 2018 on the Murdaugh property, who originally was supposed to have died due to a trip and fall. But now, the coroner has questions.

And finally, there is a separate investigation into the death of 19- year-old Stephen Smith, in 2015, who was found dead in the middle of the night in the middle of a road not that far from here. Investigators say there was something they learned while looking into the deaths of Alex Murdaugh's wife and son that now has them opening up a new look at Stephen Smith's death.

Alex Murdaugh may be on the road to recovery but he is followed by so many questions -- Christine and Laura.


ROMANS: Yes, Martin. That story just keeps -- twist after twist. Thank you for that.

OK, France is furious over the new security partnership between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. The trilateral deal replaces a longstanding submarine contract between Australia and France. French officials accusing President Biden of backstabbing and acting like Donald Trump.

CNN's Cyril Vanier live in Paris with more. The French even canceling a big event in Washington over this.

CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, absolutely. Look, France is seething, and look at it from their point of view. The way they see it, they lost a huge amount of money -- $65 billion. It was referred to by the French press here as the contract of the century.

They lost face because they had been negotiating this contract for multiple years at the very highest level of state and they didn't even get the courtesy of a heads up from their allies, U.S. and Australia, the deal was going south.


They lost some influence in the strategic region of the Indo-Pacific because now Australia will be switching to American technology, American-made and U.K.-made subs, as opposed to French technology.

But long-term, to answer your question, the French also are losing some degree of faith in their alliance with the U.S. because -- and this started under Donald Trump. But even before Donald Trump, it is not the first time that French diplomatic and military efforts fall -- become collateral damage to U.S. foreign policy priorities.

And the French president, Mr. Macron, has long thought that to remedy that, Europe, as a whole -- not just France -- needed to build its joint military -- a joint defense force to back up its foreign policy initiatives.

ROMANS: How serious, I guess, is this ding to the U.S.-French alliance here? I mean, the French are America's very first ally. They were there with the U.S. at the very beginning. How serious is the ding to that relationship?

VANIER: Look -- this, too, will pass like all the other diplomatic rows, crises, or dings -- it's not a bad word -- that have occurred between France and the U.S. Ultimately, there is more that brings them together than separates them.

But this feeds the notion that the French president has -- his vision that France does need to back up its own diplomacy with a military not just at the national level but at the European level. And only if Europe is able to do that, then Europe will have a stronger voice and will be able to diverge more forcefully from where the U.S. is in terms of foreign policy which, at the moment, is not the case.

ROMANS: All right. Cyril Vanier for us on what looks like a beautiful morning in Paris. Thank you. Have a nice weekend, Cyril -- Laura.

JARRETT: So, China is also blasting the trilateral security deal, furious that Australia will have nuclear-powered submarines.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Hong Kong. Ivan, what has the reaction been from China? IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Real anger. You had the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Thursday night who said that this announcement basically, quote, "undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race, and undermined international non-proliferation efforts" -- referring to nuclear power.

There are Chinese state media outlets that have gone much further. "The Global Times," which is this very nationalist, state-run tabloid, has gone much further, basically threatening Australia, calling it a running dog of the U.S. And saying that if China is provoked by Australia, China will punish Australia and show no mercy.

But the fact is that relations between China and Australia, two formerly close trading partners, have been deteriorating, really for some time now.

China was furious in 2020 when the Australian government called for an investigation into the origins of the COVID pandemic. Of course, the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019.

China has been accused of punishing Australia, blocking its exports to China. And this relationship has really been unraveling for some time.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in comments with his Australian counterpart, said we're not going to leave Australia alone out in the field, as kind of justification for these even strengthening defense ties with Australia -- and the U.K. by extension.

Expect more of this. The Indonesian government, for example, has expressed concern about an intensifying arms race in the region. Meanwhile, Japan is welcoming the announcement. And that makes sense because next week, the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia -- a group called 'The Quad' -- are going to be holding their own summit.

These are countries that have been coming together closer on defensive fronts with military exercises -- widely seen as a counterbalance to China, which is growing increasingly assertive on economic and military fronts here in Asia.

Back to you.

JARRETT: All right, Ivan Watson. Thank you so much for that -- appreciate it.

ROMANS: All right, 54 minutes past the hour this Friday morning.

Let's get a check on CNN Business. Looking at markets around the world to close out the week, Asian shares closed the week higher, and European shares have opened very narrowly mixed. On Wall Street, stock index futures this Friday morning are leaning lower a bit.

Wall Street closed mostly lower Thursday. September, of course, is historically a bad month for stocks. The Dow and the S&P 500 are lower for the month, so far. That drop is despite an unexpected rise in August retail sales.

Weekly jobless claims were higher than expected, rising to 332,000 for the first time.

JARRETT: The weather is expected to be gorgeous tomorrow in the nation's capital, but law enforcement is on edge about this right-wing Justice for J6 rally.

Stephen Colbert had this take.



STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, CBS "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": Folks, do we really -- do we really need to go through this again?


COLBERT: It reminds me of the famous quote, "Those who fail to learn from history will be at this rally."

At first, I thought this rally was some kind of sting operation where they offer Super Bowl tickets to very stupid fugitives. Ah, I was told I could meet Tom Brady and now I'm being handcuffed. Can I at least meet Gronk?


ROMANS: Very funny, Stephen Colbert.

JARRETT: All right, stay safe out there, D.C.

ROMANS: Yes, please.

Thanks for joining us this morning and have a great weekend, everybody. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: I'm Laura Jarrett. "NEW DAY" is next.