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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

New South African Variant Alarms Scientists; U.S. Lawmakers Defy China, Visit Taiwan; Smash & Grab Robberies Escalate Ahead of Black Friday. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired November 26, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A new coronavirus variant in South Africa -- why scientists are concerned and why it's ricocheting through global financial markets.

Defying Beijing. Five American lawmakers spend Thanksgiving in Taiwan, amplifying the tension between the U.S. and China.

And is Black Friday your best bet to get what you want? You have to go to an actual store. But could a series of smash and dash robberies keep people away?

Good morning and welcome to a special Thanksgiving Friday edition of EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans. Laura Jarrett has the day off. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

We have reports this morning from Hong Kong, California, France, Istanbul, Capitol Hill, Rome and Virginia as only we can.

But we start with breaking news this morning from Johannesburg. Serious concern about a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa. Scientists worried because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people. Remember, lower vaccination rates allowed the virus to mutate more easily. Every unvaccinated person is a host for a new variant.

This morning, infections in South Africa are dramatically up. A development ricocheting through financial markets around the world. You can see Tokyo, Shanghai, all down sharply. And Europe has opened up down sharply as well. In the U.S. stock index futures pointing to a very dim session here in the U.S.

David McKenzie is live on the ground in Johannesburg with the latest.

David, what do we know?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, here's what we know, and it's important to stress what we do not know. What we know is this variant which hasn't yet been designated as a variant of concern is very troubling, say scientists. It has many mutations, more than 30 of them on the key spike protein of the virus, which means some of them are known to scientists, some of them are not known to scientists.

There are early indications here in South Africa and in the region that this is rapidly taking over the delta variant. South Africa is currently in a pretty good part of its pandemic, but this alarm was rung very quickly because of the potential danger of this variant, which we do not know, is whether it can escape immunity. There are some worrying signs it could. And more importantly, possibly, whether it can escape the efficacy of vaccines.

At this stage, the scientists here saying they believe vaccines could be effective in stopping severe disease, but they don't know yet. And it could take several weeks of lab tests before they know that. Already, countries around the globe are shutting their doors to this region. The U.K. putting several countries in Southern Africa on its so-called red list. Parts of the European Union, and now, Asia also shutting the door because of the possible risk this vaccines will pose.

There are plenty -- that this virus will pose. There are plenty of vaccines available in South Africa, but uptake has been slow. Scientists stress that vaccines are important and that people need to take them. The next few days will be critical to see how this transmits through this region and around the world.

Israel, the latest country, saying that travelers from Malawi in Southeast Africa did go to that country and test positive for this variant. So critical hours and days ahead -- Christine.

ROMANS: Absolutely. All right, David McKenzie, we know you'll stay on it. Very important there is a lot we do not know about this variant.

So, it is the uncertainty that is what is really roiling global markets now. Let's take a look at their global markets sliding on the news -- thanks, David. It is a shortened trading session in the U.S. because of the holiday. So, that could exacerbate some of the response here.

But you've got U.S. stock index futures down sharply here. They had been down as much as 5 percent. Now they're off that just a little bit. Markets in Asia you can see and Europe all tumbling on this news.

Again, markets hate uncertainty. Financial markets tend to fall when there is uncertainty and there is nothing more uncertain than what goes forward here with this South -- variant found in South Africa. We'll continue to keep an eye on that this morning.

Meanwhile, the federal government is sending military doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to Michigan to help the state cope with one of the worst outbreaks of COVID in the entire country. Two teams of 22 health professionals each are on the way. Right now, nearly 4,000 adults are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan. That's up 87 percent from a month ago.

A group of 5 U.S. lawmakers defying China, meeting with government officials in Taiwan.


Their visit comes after another congressional delegation made an informal trip to the contested island earlier this month.

CNN's Will Ripley joins us live with the latest.

Will, nice to see you.

Taiwan is a key facet in the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing, China made no secret that it does not like this -- you know, recently showing aggressive force around Taiwan. What do we know?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're absolutely right, Christine. Taiwan is in this kind of difficult position where they're, in the words of one diplomat I was speaking with, at risk of being loved to death by the United States, because with each door that the U.S. opens, it potentially pushes Taiwan closer to a dangerous situation where Beijing feels some red line has been crossed and they take more drastic action. Of course, they never ruled out taking back Taiwan by force if necessary to complete their vow of reunification which they say is not just a matter of if it's going to happen, but when.

So when these lawmakers are visiting showing support for Taiwan, those gestures are welcomed by the Taiwanese government. All parties have to be sensitive here.

One of the lawmakers, there are five U.S. lawmakers on the trip, Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, who tweeted that her office received a warning from the Chinese embassy when news of this trip broke, urging them to call the trip off. She said, of course, obviously, they didn't call the trip off. They had just come from South Korea where they were celebrating Thanksgiving with the U.S. troops. And she said there are a lot of critical issues she and her con constituents care about in Taiwan, specifically the semiconductors, those chips that power everything from our smartphones to our automobiles.

And, of course, Michigan is a car production and auto production hub, a district where that's a very important issue. But there is another U.S. lawmakers from South Carolina, Nancy Mace, she's a Republican. I have a tweet on my phone. We might be able to pull it up on my screen.

After they landed, she tweeted: Just touched down in the Republic of Taiwan. It is very important to note there is no Republic of Taiwan. It's called the Republic of China. They call it Taiwan as a colloquialism. But the Republic of Taiwan would be tantamount to a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence which Beijing has warned that is a red line that if Taiwan were to cross, they could very likely intervene militarily.

So there is now a big debate happening on the island of Taiwan whether this U.S. lawmaker meant to say Republic of Taiwan or whether it was an uneducated quickly rushed out tweet, which we know lawmakers tend to do from time to time. This visit comes just one day after President Biden invited Taiwan to

join its summit for democracy happening next month, another action by the United States that has infuriated Beijing. So you have tensions escalating once again on the diplomatic front. What we haven't seen and what we need to watch for is whether that moves to the military of front if Beijing once again sends large number of war planes to fly near Taiwan as they did after previous visits by U.S. lawmakers -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah. That tweet is really interesting. We know that a lot of major American companies are careful about how they label Taiwan on the maps, on their websites, in drop-down menus because they don't want to anger the Chinese government with even just a few words can really get blowback.

Nice to see you, Will Ripley. Thank you.

With that all that in mind, join Fareed Zakaria for an in-depth look at China's leader. "China's Iron Fist: Xi Jinping and the Stakes for America" begins Sunday night at 9:00.



ROMANS: It is Black Friday traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Last year, many stores were closed on Thanksgiving because of the pandemic. No Thursday night, Friday morning scenes of frenzy this year. Many closed state -- stores stayed closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. They won't open for Black Friday until later this morning.

Also new this year, supply chain crunch. Your best bet may be shopping at the store instead of online. High demand, supply chain delays and worker shortages mean items could be limited across the board. Trying your luck at physical stores could be better than sweating out shipping delays.

According to Adobe Analytics, web shoppers saw more than 2 billion, 2 billion "out of stock" messages in October. Analysts buy online and pickup in-store orders will boom this holiday because of shipping concerns this season.

So, how have been retailers been preparing for the inventory crunch? Well, they're hoarding. Stores like Walmart and Costco have been chartering their own ships and bypass clogged ports. Others are leveraging long-term relationships to get what they need.

Walmart inventory levels actually rose 11-1/2 percent year over year during its most recent quarter. Target's inventory levels increased 18 percent.

A growing issue hangs over retail shopping this Friday morning, of course. Those smash-and-dash robberies, there's been a series of them lately especially in California.

CNN's Camila Bernal takes us to one store that was targeted in Santa Rosa.


CAMILA BERNAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine, there are investigators in a number of police departments here in California and they're now having to go over hours and hours of surveillance video, trying to figure who is responsible for these crimes.

Here in Santa Rosa, we know that at least four people walked into this mall in the middle of the day, with shoppers and employees around, and they were able to come out with about $20,000 worth of Apple products, and the Santa Rosa Police Department even saying that these are teenagers ages 14 to 18.

So, it's extremely concerning in this case, and also in the cases in southern California, including the Nordstrom where we know that one of the security guards was pepper sprayed. At least five people were able to come out of that store with a number of expensive purses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very disturbing because now I'm reluctant to come to Nordstrom's or even the mall for that matter, to come and make my purchases.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's unfortunate because these -- the people that are here are just trying to shop for the holidays, you know, shop for their families.


We've deployed extra officers here. It just so happens this is one part of the mall where they were able to get in and get out even with our officers being deployed here.

BERNAL: The police department in Los Angeles is saying they are going to increase patrols and it's a similar situation here in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, we're seeing more and more police officers outside of these luxury stores, but the reality is that for some of them, it is too late. We saw this happening at the Louis Vuitton, at the Nordstrom, the Bloomingdales, at the Burberry, even pharmacies like Walgreens.

And the chief of police in San Francisco promised to hold these people accountable, to continue these investigations, and even promised future arrests. But the reality is it then gets handed off to the district attorney.

And in the case of San Francisco, he is a controversial figure. He has vowed to keep people responsible or accountable for this, but also said that it's the responsibility of the judges who will decide whether or not these people remain in jail. So, you're seeing essentially people handing off the responsibility and the blame, but the reality is that these in the meantime continue to happen -- Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Camila, thank you so much for that.

A pandemic record, more Americans in the skies at any point during COVID. What it means for the trip home for the holidays this weekend.



ROMANS: So, here's some evidence that the U.S. is emerging from the COVID pandemic era. The TSA reporting more than 2.3 million passengers were screened at airports on Wednesday. More than double last year's travel numbers.

CNN's Pete Muntean has more from Reagan National Airport.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we have seen a new pandemic era air travel record, 2.3 million people screened at airports across the country on Wednesday by the TSA. That number is significant. It's the highest we've seen since March of 2020, double than this time a year ago, 88 percent where we were back in 2019.

So these numbers keep going up and up, and the TSA anticipates that a total of 20 million people will take to the skies for Thanksgiving. What's so interesting is there was a lot of concern airlines couldn't handle this onslaught of people. Remember, they got smaller during the pandemic.

Just check FlightAware. So far, no big cancellations either on Tuesday or on Wednesday. It seems that the airlines were ready for this and head of the TSA, David Pekoske tells me exclusively the industry has been coordinating on this for months.

DAVID PEKOSKE, TSA ADMINISTRATOR, RONALD REAGAN WASHINGTON NATIONAL AIRPORT: We work with carriers and the airports and collectively we're ready for the Thanksgiving holiday. Our goal is to make it as safe and secure and as enjoyable for people as we possibly can.

MUNTEAN: We're only part way through this mega travel period. It is typically the Sunday after Thanksgiving where the numbers are the highest. That's when the TSA says everyone who left for the holiday will begin coming home all at once. United Airlines is anticipating 450,000 people that day on its airline alone -- Christine.


ROMANS: All right, Pete, thank you so much for that. Members of Congress are home for the thanksgiving holiday. They'll return to a full dance card with some critical deadlines ahead.

CNN's Daniella Diaz is live for us this Thanksgiving Friday on Capitol Hill.

So nice to see you. They have a lot of work to do when they come back. DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Christine, that's exactly

right. You know, this week they are in their home states enjoying the holidays like most Americans, but when they come back next week, they're going to have to deal with an array of issues before the end of the year. Of course, the first being government funding.

Right now, the funding for the government is set to expire on December 3rd. Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said they plan to address this with a short-term funding bill to buy themselves time to address this problem, but in the meantime, they're going to have to work on how they're going to fund the government. Now, what could be probably a bigger problem for Congress is the deadline for the debt ceiling. The nation is currently set to expire -- excuse me, default on its debt by mid December, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, which means Congress needs to address this as soon as possible.

Now, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said again and again, he would not help Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer address the debt ceiling, there was a breakthrough in these negotiations before they left for the holiday. They had a meeting about this.

Now, while there was no agreement reached or announced at least, it does seem that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is now negotiating with Schumer on how to address the debt ceiling before the nation defaults on its debt.

Now, there is also, of course, the Build Back Better Act, a major priority for the Biden administration in the hopes -- they hope to pass this before the end of the year. This would, of course, be the tax and spending bill that would expand the nation's social safety net.

And then there's also the National Defense Authorization Act. This must pass defense bill, of course, funds the Defense Department. It's a major bill that needs to be passed. They are also going to have to work on that, and of course also voting rights.

These are all priorities for Democrats before the end of the year and they are going to have to see how they work with Republicans to pass some of these issues so we expect an incredibly busy next couple of weeks -- Christine.

ROMANS: Absolutely. We know you'll be covering it for us early every morning. Thank you so much. Nice to see you, Daniella.

All right. Twenty-five minutes past the hour. Programming note: during the 1920s, the Osage people of Oklahoma were some of the richest in the world. That wealth made them a target. Watch an all new "THIS IS LIFE WITH LISA LING" Sunday night at 10:00 on CNN.



ROMANS: All right. Are you missing a package? It may not be the supply chain to blame. Between 300 and 400 FedEx packages were just discovered in a ravine in Blount County, Alabama. The local sheriff says it appears they were tossed into the ravine.


LOCAL SHERIFF: We won't have a final count until they get them all scanned so they can get us a list of everybody who was supposed to have a package delivered that didn't get one. This morning, the guys that are loading it up and picking up the packages found the date on one from the 18th of this month, but that was at the bottom of hill. This is more than one truck full of packages that's been dumped. This is something that we believe has happened at least two or three different times.


ROMANS: FedEx says it is cooperating with law enforcement and taking steps to get packages where they need to be as quickly as possible.

EARLY START continues right now.


ROMANS: Good morning. This is EARLY START this Friday morning. I'm Christine Romans. Just about 30 minutes past the hour.