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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Anxiety Grows Over Omicron Variant; Futures Look to Rebound After a Major Selloff; Twenty Seven Chinese Military Jets Enter Taiwan's Air Defense Zone. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired November 29, 2021 - 05:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CO-ANCHOR, EARLY START: Good morning everyone, It is Monday, November 29th, it's 5:00 a.m. here in New York, thanks so much for getting an early start with us, I'm Laura Jarrett, so nice to be back with you --


JARRETT: I missed you --

ROMANS: You had a good time?


ROMANS: Thanksgiving is always great when grandma is there, right? I'm Christine Romans, welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. We have reports this morning from London, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Washington, Paris and Kiev. This morning, the world is in a coronavirus holding pattern with anxiety growing over the new Omicron variant. The very same time, there are simply a lot of unknowns.


JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I think it should not be the lead story right now because it is a story that is based entirely on speculation. We will have data from really hard working scientists over the next few weeks that will help inform how we can, you know, put this new variant into context.


ROMANS: This holiday weekend, concerning early data put the whole world on high alert. The variant's emergence in southern Africa triggered a fresh round of travel restrictions including from the U.S. as the world tries to avoid another setback like we saw when Delta hit.

JARRETT: So, here's what we know. The variant appears to have a large number of mutations. Here's what we don't know. A lot. Whether that means it's more contagious or evades the vaccines we have. That's also being researched. In the meantime though, the bottom line here for medical experts is they say these vaccines are still the best protection we have.


FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: We don't know yet how much of an impact this will have. It ought to redouble our efforts to use the tools that we have, which are vaccinations and boosters, and to be sure we're getting those to the rest of the world too, which the U.S. is doing more than any other country.



FAUCI: Concerned of saying, let's put aside all of these differences that we have and say if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated, if you're fully vaccinated, get boosted.

COLLINS: Stay tuned. We're going to get better information about this. There's no reason to panic, but there's a great reason to go get boosted.


ROMANS: No reason to panic, great reason to go get boosted. Moderna now says if needed, it could have an updated vaccine for Omicron ready by early 2022. Pfizer suggesting the same. Scientists say vaccine inequality and hesitancy made the emergence of Omicron more likely since low vaccination rates of course are a breeding ground for variants. The White House says President Biden has been briefed by his COVID team and was told it will take about two weeks to have more definitive information on the variant.

JARRETT: All right, time to dig in on all of this with three questions in three minutes. Let's bring in Dr. Chris Pernell; a public health physician and fellow at the American College of Preventative Medicine. Doctor, so great to have you.


JARRETT: We need your help here.

ROMANS: I know. There's so much we don't know. I mean, I really want to stress, there's so much we don't know, and it seems like much of the world is reacting very quickly to avoid even the potential of a new outbreak. What information are you looking for this morning?

PERNELL: Good morning, so good to be with you. I'm looking to see what are we learning about those who have been infected with this Omicron strain. We really don't know if it leads to more severe disease as well as not knowing if it's more transmissible and if our currently available vaccines provide adequate protection against this variant.

I do want to use this opportunity to double down on the message, get vaccinated if you are not vaccinated, get fully vaccinated if you are only partially vaccinated and get a booster since you're eligible.

JARRETT: Doctor, where should the public health focus really be right now? Should it -- should we be focused on getting people their first vaccination shots for the holdouts that are still somehow out there? Should their focus be on getting those people vaccinated or should the focus be on the people who have already been vaccinated getting their booster shots because we know they're already willing to get vaccinated?

PERNELL: The public health science is clear. The focus should be on those who are unvaccinated. As long as we have considerable parts of the population who are not vaccinated, it's a breeding ground unfortunately for variants to continue to emerge. Look, we have a lack of vaccine confidence.

We still have access and barriers to the vaccine in certain parts of our country and even across the world. So we need to be doubling down around the importance of getting vaccinated, the safety and the efficacy of these vaccines, and also we need to be using the other tools in our war chest, testing, ensuring air filtration and purification, things of that nature in order to beat back this pandemic.

ROMANS: I worry about that vaccine hesitancy that people who have been holding out for a long time see this news and say, see?


What if the vaccine didn't work in the first place? Like you know, what do you say to those holdouts when you say, no, this is why you have to be vaccinated.

PERNELL: Exactly. I say, hold on. I did my round of calls and texting to family, friends, people that I knew were not vaccinated, and I said, look, this is another opportunity for you to consider what's causing you to hold back and to delay on getting vaccinated. We're entering the Winter months. We know that in the Winter months, we see spikes. We don't know how much of a spike we'll see here in the U.S. But with the emergence of now this variant which I'm sure will reach our shores, it's just more concern for those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated to get the shot.

JARRETT: Well, and the timing of this is really unfortunate and tough. Because just when we thought we could breathe a sigh of relief and have a somewhat normal holidays, here we are. Do you think people should be changing their plans over the next several weeks and months here? Do you think people should, for instance, stop traveling?

PERNELL: Not quite. Not quite. I think people should continue to use caution and to be vigilant. We can never fall asleep at the wheel with this pandemic, and the emergence of this variant is showing us that. There's more information for us to learn. If we do learn that, indeed, it is more transmissible and it leads to more severe disease, then that should give people some reason to re-evaluate how they're moving about the country. The most important and critical information will be do our vaccines

provide adequate coverage? And I believe the scientists are ahead of the pandemic in that nature. I think these vaccines will hold up. We're just waiting for --

ROMANS: That's right --

PERNELL: The data

ROMANS: Hope you're right. Dr. Chris Pernell; public health physician, thank you so much, have a great day.

JARRETT: So great to have you, doctor --

PERNELL: Thank you --

JARRETT: Thank you. All right, later today, President Biden will provide an update to the nation on this variant hopefully, armed with more information for us after meeting with members of the White House COVID Response team on Sunday. Let's bring in White House reporter Jasmine Wright live from Washington D.C. Jasmine, good morning. So, these travel restrictions for seven countries in Africa pretty controversial. They're getting some push-back here, they kicked in overnight. What are you hearing about what's really driving the White House response so far?

JASMINE WRIGHT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, the response is all to show Americans that this White House is taking this latest variant seriously. And it's interesting, Laura, to note the difference between now with announcements of daily briefings and of course this new travel ban with over the Summer their response to the Delta variant that kind of drew accusations that the administration got caught flat- footed and surprised by the outcome.

And of course, the impact of the Delta variant really flew in the face of President Biden's promise of Summer time normalcy. So, here, the White House is actively trying to avoid that. So, yesterday, the White House released photos of President Biden, you see it on the screen here, meeting with Dr. Fauci and other medical advisors on his team, really learning about the Omicron variant after he returned from his holiday travels back to D.C. And in a statement released afterwards, the White House said that Dr. Fauci told the president that it would take two weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant.

Now, in lieu of that information, Laura, the best thing that Dr. Fauci and other medical advisors says is for Americans to double down on getting those vaccines. We just heard from the doctor say the same thing. Get those initial vaccines that they have and get those boosters if they are eligible after those six months because that is a way that officials see Americans ahead of getting out of this pandemic, no matter what the variant may be.

But It is true that right now the White House is kind of staring down this messaging challenge as they really try to project severity of the issue, but also project -- try to project that reassuring Americans that they are able to take care of them, so we will see. The president today really showing up for that messaging challenge, trying to convey all of those things, trying to show Americans that his administration is ready.


WRIGHT: Laura?

JARRETT: It's a delicate balance. But clearly, the history of Delta looms large for this White House. Jasmine, thank you.

ROMANS: All right, investors bracing for a nervous week over concerns about the Omicron variant looking to bounce back from very steep losses on Friday. You see a little bit of gain there for Dow futures and S&P 500 futures over global markets. You have Asian shares that closed lower. But Europe looking to rebound. Bottom line here, uncertainty is stock market kryptonite and all the questions surrounding this variant sent stocks tumbling Friday.

The S&P saw its worst day since February, the Nasdaq's worse since September. Remember, it is still a COVID economy and a COVID stock market. Even with Friday's selloff though, the S&P 500 is still up 22 percent this year and double where it was in Spring 2020. Two big questions that need time to answer, does the new strain evade vaccines and is it more transmissible? And all these questions as we start to get the answers I think will put stock market investors back at ease.

What I'm really watching this morning, also, is a big bounce back in oil, 5 percent jump in oil prices after a huge double digit decline on Friday.


Oil is sort of a bellwether, I think, for what people --


ROMANS: Think is going to happen with the global economy. If it's going to slow down with massive travel restrictions, oil will fall.

JARRETT: Of all the things people talked about at Thanksgiving dinner, it was oil.

ROMANS: Was it?

JARRETT: Surprised that gas --

ROMANS: Oh, wow --

JARRETT: Four-seventy-nine in Chicago.

ROMANS: That's amazing.

JARRETT: Yes, it's incredible. All right, still ahead for you, another intrusion by China sending jets into Taiwanese air space. How this exercise was different. A live CNN report next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Another intrusive show of force by China in Taiwanese air space. Twenty seven Chinese military jets entered the self-governed island's air defense zone, Sunday. CNN's Will Ripley live in Hong Kong for us. And Will, this happened as President Xi was meeting with generals to discuss further strengthening China's armed forces. What do we make of this?


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He was telling their military, Christine, that they need to train, they need to get out in the air to gain the upper hand in future wars. And of course, this is a president who has said repeatedly that he won't rule out the use of force to reunify with the island of Taiwan, an island that has its own military, its own government, but is claimed by China's communist rulers. And they have claimed it ever since the end of China's civil war.

Even though, they've never actually controlled the island. Taiwan's Defense Ministry says they believe that these repeated aerial incursions are a deliberate message on the part of China to try to intimidate them, but also an attempt to exhaust the much smaller Taiwanese Air Force to make them feel tired and overwhelmed. But the defense minister of Taiwan firing back this morning, saying that they will not be intimidated, that they do have counter measures in place.

I actually visited a Taiwanese airbase a couple of weeks ago, they showed off their new upgraded F-16 V fighter jets which well formidable, frankly, would have a hard time in direct combat with some of the more advanced Chinese fighters that were flown near the island on Sunday. And I just got an alert from the defense ministry, there were five more flown near the island today You're talking about 18 fighter jets on Sunday, 5 nuclear capable bombers.

And for the first time, an aerial refueling aircraft known as the Y- 20, that is significant. It's the first time that, that refueling aircraft has flown near Taiwan. And it shows that China is demonstrating its capability to conduct longer-range missions which could also pose a threat to U.S. troops stationed in Japan and in Guam and other areas.

Now, this Air Defense Identification Zone is not Taiwanese air space which extends 12 nautical miles from the coast. It's a larger area that's patrolled by the Taiwanese military. But we've seen a significant uptick in the number of Chinese war planes flown in this area including 150 war planes over a period of just four days at the beginning of last month, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Will Ripley, keep us posted. Thank you, sir.

JARRETT: All right, back here at home. Former Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the Pentagon is trying to silence him. Esper is now suing the Defense Department for refusing to clear portions of his book before its publication next May. He says the DOD Is demanding that he redacts certain details including quotes from Trump and others. Esper alleges quote, "significant texts being improperly withheld under the guise of classification." He says he does not believe there is any classified information in his manuscript.

ROMANS: All right, the U.S. is back at the table as nuclear talks resume with Iran and the state of play has changed significantly since the last negotiations.



JARRETT: Welcome back. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin once again today in Vienna after a six-month hiatus. The U.S. is making it clear it's prepared to use other options if diplomacy fails. At the same time, Iran is making rapid progress on its uranium enrichment program. CNN's Nic Robertson joins us live from London this morning. Nic, a lot has happened since the last round of talks. What should we expect today?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, the clock is ticking which means that Iran has been able to produce more highly enriched uranium use more sophisticated centrifuges. All of which break out the original terms of the nuclear deal that they signed back in 2015. So, these are proximity talks. So, in a way, I mean, they're not officially called proximity, but he U.S. Isn't in the room with the others here.

Iran, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France all around the table with the Iranians to try to work out how to bring the United States back in around the table. The Iranians have a much more conservative, hard-lined president than they did when the talks broke up in the Summer more than five months ago.

He has said that the only way that this can move forward and bring the United States back into the deal is for the U.S. to drop sanctions. Well, in recent weeks the United States has put additional sanctions on Iran for cyber crimes, essentially trying to, you know, change the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2020. They put sanctions on senior figures within Iran's drone production and military use of drones. So, you know, from Iran's perspective, nothing can change until the United States backs off on its position from the United States position and that of its European partners at least.

Iran must come back into compliance with the terms of the deal which would mean sideline some of the sophisticated enrichment. Get rid of some of the highly enriched uranium they have, which makes it much quicker when they have that type uranium to make a nuclear weapon. They say they're not -- but they're not giving even the International Atomic Agency the international body that oversees the -- Iran's compliance with this deal.

Just a few days ago, the IAA's chief was in Tehran trying to get access to a centrifuge site that was blocked. So, all of this is on the table, I don't think anyone is expecting any quick improvements. The United States is very clear, move forward from the talks when they stalled in June or consequences.

JARRETT: All right, Nic Robertson, thank you.

ROMANS: All right, to this now, after almost 400 years, Barbados will sever ties with England and remove Queen Elizabeth as head of state tonight. The arrangement faced renewed scrutiny in the last few years, many Brits made fortunes from sugar and slavery in Barbados. Sandra Mason; the country's 73-year-old Governor-General will be sworn in as the first ever president, Prince Charles is in Barbados for the ceremonial transition.

JARRETT: So early warnings are of course good when it comes --

ROMANS: Right --

JARRETT: To COVID, but the earlier the warning, the less we know. So, we're going to break down what exactly we know and what we don't know about this new COVID variant. That's next.



JARRETT: Good Monday morning everyone, this is EARLY START, I'm Laura Jarrett.

ROMANS: So nice we're on, good Monday morning Laura Jarrett --

JARRETT: I'm trying to be helpful --

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans, it is 29 minutes past the hour, time for our top stories to keep an eye on today. The entire planet facing two weeks now of uncertainty. That's how much time scientists think they will need to determine whether the Omicron variant is resistant to the current COVID vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci believes the vaccines will provide at least some protection.