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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

FDA Authorizes Paxlovid, First Pill To Treat COVID-19; Top Researcher: South Africa Has Passed Omicron Peak; Time Capsule From Pedestal Of Robert E. Lee Statue Opened. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 05:30   ET




DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: In fact, it appears that in the context of South Africa there is a decrease in the severity compared to Delta. Literally, yesterday, there was another paper that came out from Scotland which appears to validate and verify the data that are in South Africa.

This is good news. However, we must wait to see what happens in our own population, which has its own demographic considerations.


ROMANS: The South African data that Dr. Fauci mentioned is encouraging. We'll have more on that in a live report coming up.

PAULA REID, CNN ANCHOR: And another sign of hope. You could soon be able to take a pill to treat COVID. The Biden administration has bought 10 million courses of the newly-authorized Pfizer pill. More than a quarter-million of those could be available next month. It might be a game-changer but with some caveats.

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen explains.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Christine, Paula, on Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization to Paxlovid. That's an antiviral pill. It's made by Pfizer.

And here's why it's important. In the early stages of COVID, there really hasn't been very much that people can do. There are monoclonal antibodies but you have to get an infusion or get shots, which means they have to go to find a place where you can get those, and that's been tough.

This is a pill. Theoretically, once we have this drug in abundance you should just be able to call your doctor and be able to get a prescription. There are two important points here.

One, the U.S. government is going to be distributing this drug. That's what they've done with all the COVID drugs and it hasn't always gone very smoothly. We'll have to see how quickly they can get this drug distributed around the country so that doctors can call in prescriptions for patients.

The other thing, and this is really important to remember, people in the clinical trial where they got those results -- they took Paxlovid within five days of feeling the symptoms of COVID-19. That's quick. You have to recognize you have the symptoms. You have to get yourself tested, call the doctor, get a prescription called in. And really, testing, in and of itself, has been an issue in the United States.

So we'll see how this pill actually works out in real life -- Christine, Paula.


ROMANS: All right, thanks so much for that, Elizabeth.

Joining us now, Dr. Elizabeth Murray. She is a pediatric emergency medicine physician and she has joined us several times on the program. We always love to have you and get your insight, Doctor.

There are two new reasons for hope this morning. Those studies are showing Omicron less deadly than Delta, and the pill that Elizabeth just covered for us.

How should we -- how should we process these two new developments?

DR. ELIZABETH MURRAY, PEDIATRIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN (via Skype): I think it's critical to acknowledge everybody's fatigue and desire for this to be done, but this information means we are not back to square one with the development of Omicron.

You know, with regards to the studies, I think a key point here is that these are preprints and preprints are studies that have not yet been fully published. And so, it's easy to kind of say oh, these studies are out here but they still need to go through a vetting process. But I do think they look very encouraging.

Key point is they were looking at people who are doubly vaccinated. So the message is not we don't have to worry about Omicron. The message is for those people who are fully vaccinated, even better for those who are boosted, Omicron does not appear to be as deadly of a disease.

With regards to the pill, it is a great new tool in our toolbelt but a fair bit of the population is still not going to be able to take it. It's only approved for those who are 12 years and older. And there are a lot of medications that people take, such as for high blood pressure, migraines, even some herbal medications that can go out of whack a little bit. It will need some extra monitoring if you need to take this medication. So, it is a medication that can be beneficial for some but not for all. So I think we still need to default back to what we know works, which is really high-quality masks and getting your vaccination, getting boosted, and being smart about your travel decisions --


MURRAY: -- in the holiday season.

REID: Even if Omicron is less severe though, Doctor, we're already seeing significant strains on hospitals. And that's, of course, partly because so many people, including hospital staff, are testing positive and then have to isolate.

So, should we be reconsidering the isolation time for asymptomatic cases, especially among those who are vaccinated?

MURRAY: I think we need a lot more data on that. It's definitely a good question to ask. You know, we are learning more and more every day and if we can get people back to their normal lives as quickly as possible in a safe way, then we should do that.

Certainly, vaccination appears to offer decrease of a viral load in people who do get sick. And so, if we can get them out of isolation faster we should do that. But I think we need to have the data, first and foremost, to support a decision like that. And then, we're looking at that now and I think that's a good thing.


ROMANS: It's been almost four weeks since the president announced a travel ban from South African countries. And yet, today, Omicron is -- it's all over the country. It's in all 50 states.

What does that say about that approach to the virus -- travel bans?

MURRAY: Yes. I've not been a fan of the travel ban concept just because by the time we know about it, somewhere in the world it's already far greater places in the world. And I think that perhaps maybe early on it could have got a little of time on the order of days. And so, I think it's time, for the most part, for those travel bans to be lifted. It's not going to be beneficial when you have such an infectious disease out there spreading.

REID: And Doctor, before we go, I am told that you also have a seasonal reminder about the flu for us. What should we know?

MURRAY: Yes, definitely. In New York State, we have already far surpassed -- we've actually seen twice the number of flu cases compared to all of last season. Now, of course, last season was a record-breaker for almost no cases. But in New York State, our trajectory puts us up at an earlier and higher peak than during normal years.

So, you know, flu has always overwhelmed or gotten close to overwhelming many, many hospitals during normal years. So if flu is back and we have COVID it could certainly be very problematic. So please don't forget to get your flu vaccination. That's including everybody six months and older who can be vaccinated against the flu should.

REID: That's a great point.

ROMANS: All right, everybody, get out there. Yes, great advice.

Dr. Elizabeth Murray, pediatric emergency physician, thank you so much.

REID: And there are signs of --

MURRAY: Thank you. Happy holidays.

REID: And there are signs of hope coming from overseas as well. South Africa's huge Omicron wave appears to be subsiding as quickly as it grew.

CNN's Larry Madowo is live in Nairobi, Kenya. Larry, do experts know why infections are suddenly falling?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they think it is because of two key factors. One, population immunity. That is because it spread so fast within the population some developed natural infection. And two, vaccination numbers have been inching up in South Africa. So those are two reasons.

The many scientists in South Africa now feel confident enough to be able to say they think South Africa has surpassed the peak of this Omicron wave. And that is largely because there's been a precipitous drop in daily case numbers in the epicenter. That's in the province of Gauteng in Johannesburg, which is really accounting for about 70 percent of the cases in the country. And many of the South African provinces also appear to have surpassed that peak, so this is a positive sign.

They have warned that there's a caveat here. It's still too early to tell so they might need a bit more time. But we now have about a month's worth of data to work with and it looks promising.

And there's also a clue for the rest of the world that it does appear that if the South African example is anything to go by that the Omicron wave might be less severe. So, fewer people in hospital and fewer people dying.

But the African CDC has warned today that we should not extrapolate this data from South Africa to the rest of the world because, for instance, they're seeing some inconsistencies in the severity rates in the U.K., which is a cause for concern. So even though it looks super- promising, there's still a lot more that we need to learn to be able to say definitively that the Omicron wave will be faster and less severe.

But that said, Paula, we certainly need some bit of positive news after the kind of pandemic we've had, right? REID: We absolutely need a little bit of positive news. Thank you so

much for that report.

ROMANS: All right, important information here if you have student loan debt for your budget. Omicron and the COVID resurgence is prompting President Biden to extend the pause on student loan payments until May first of next year. Payments have been paused since the beginning of the pandemic. They were set to restart February one. No payments have been required on most federal student loans since March 2020.

Democrats have been calling on President Biden for an extension of pandemic relief benefits.

Meanwhile, new data shows record sign-ups for Obamacare after congressional Democrats acted to lower premiums and some employers dropped coverage.

REID: And still no verdict in the trial of former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter. The jury will return this morning for the fourth day of deliberations. The jurors, who are sequestered, have deliberated for more than 24 hours in total over the last three days. Earlier this week, they asked the judge about what happens if they can't reach a consensus.

Potter is facing two manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright back in April. She mistook her gun for a taser while trying to help arrest Wright during a traffic stop.

ROMANS: It could be a rare white Christmas in a couple of major U.S. cities. Here is meteorologist Tyler Mauldin.


TYLER MAULDIN, AMS METEOROLOGIST (on camera): Christine and Paula, today is an extremely busy travel day because Christmas is right around the corner.

If we see any weather-related travel delays it's going to be out west as an area of low pressure continues to impact the west coast. So, from the Pacific Northwest all the way down to California we do expect impacts to both ground and air travel because of that area of low pressure, which will drop appreciable amounts of rain and extremely heavy snowfall to the parts west.


Meanwhile, as we get into Christmas Eve, it's not going to be feeling much like Christmas across the eastern third of the country as record heat builds up from the south. Meanwhile, out west, that area of low pressure producing the snow continues to push to the east. And it also causes the winds to pick up over the Plains. So, we see more in the way of travel impacts across the west and the central portion of the U.S. as that system pushes to the east.

But what about that heat? Yes, it's not going to feel much like Christmas this year. More than 100 records are in jeopardy this upcoming weekend. Temperatures are going to be about 20 degrees above average by the time we get to Christmas Day.


ROMANS: Wow, that's something. All right, Tyler Mauldin. Thank you so much.

We'll be right back.


ROMANS: The University of Hong Kong tearing down a statue from its campus that has commemorated pro-democracy protesters killed during China's Tiananmen Square crackdown for more than two decades. This 26- foot tall statue of a contorted human torso known as the Pillar of Shame was one of the last iconic memorials in Hong Kong to victims of the bloody 1989 crackdown, which is taboo in Mainland China where it cannot be commemorated.

A witness says students were seen crying on campus after the removal. The university's governing body says it will be kept in storage.


REID: And a smalltown police chief is on unpaid leave after he allegedly told officers how to get COVID vaccination cards without getting a vaccination. Town officials in Oakboro, North Carolina, near Charlotte, say Chief T.J. Smith told officers about a clinic where they could get the bogus cards. An independent probe determined Smith violated police and town policy. He issued a statement to the local paper admitting he made a mistake.

ROMANS: A Utah billionaire, thought to be the richest man in the state, is cutting ties with the Mormon church. Jeff Green requesting the removal of his records in a letter to the LDS president. He's also donating $600,000 to Equality Utah, an LGBTQ civil rights group.

In a letter, Green says the church has, for generations, not done nearly as much as it could. He writes, "Given you claim to represent the will of God and act as a special witness of Jesus, the Mormon church should be doing more to help the world and its members with its wealth. I believe the Mormon church has hindered global progress in women's rights, civil rights, and racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights."

REID: And history rediscovered in Virginia. A time capsule buried inside the pedestal of a Robert E. Lee statue for more than 130 years is opened. What was inside and what wasn't.

CNN's Randi Kaye has the surprising reveal.


RANDI KAYE, CNN ANCHOR AND 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 sat buried in the base of the statue of Confederate Gen. 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, too, using tiny spatulas, tongue depressors, and --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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, the time capsule was unlocked.


GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D-VA): Inside, three books, a cloth envelope, and a single coin.

I saw one book that's an almanac from 1875. There was another book. I saw the word "love" on it and the author, Burgwyn -- B-U-R-G-W-Y-N. So I will let the historians take a further look at that 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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 (on camera): The big question is, is this the right capsule. Because they were expecting to find 60 items in there and they certainly didn't find that. That was what the newspaper had recorded back in 1887 -- that there would be about 60 items inside.

So, where are they? Where is that picture of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin that certainly was not in there? 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.

So they are going to try and preserve these items. They were pretty wet. They weren't in great shape. The coin was stuck to one of the books. One of the books was stuck to the base of the time capsule. So they're actually going to freeze them, they said, so they can

prevent mold from forming on them and prevent any further deterioration. But we should have more information about these items in the weeks ahead.

Back to you.


ROMANS: All right, a little bit of a mystery through the ages.

Let's get a check on CNN Business this Thursday morning. Looking at markets around the world, gains in Asian shares. They've closed for the day. Europe has opened higher. And on Wall Street, stock index futures this morning also leaning up.

Strong economic data boosted stocks again Wednesday. The Dow up. Both the S&P and the Nasdaq up about one percent.

It was better than expected consumer confidence. Americans are worried less about inflation it seems, thanks to paychecks rising at the fastest pace in years.


And we saw third-quarter GDP revised up. America's economy grew at an annualized rate of 2.3 percent. Stronger consumer spending and inventory investment there -- the reason.

At a meeting with his supply chain task force, the president highlighting shorter backlogs and progress untangling the supply chain snarled by the pandemic.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Earlier this fall, we heard a lot of dire warnings about supply chain problems leading to a crisis around the holidays. So, we acted. We brought together business and labor leaders to solve problems.

And much -- you know, the much-predicted crisis didn't occur. Packages are moving. Gifts are being delivered. Shelves are not empty.


ROMANS: And it looks like 2021 will have been a strong year for Wall Street. All three major indices are on track for double-digit gains. Companies operating well through the pandemic and making an awful lot of money.

The U.S. housing market is booming. Homes sold in November at their fastest pace in 10 months. Sales on track for the best year since 2006, driven by a strong job market and buyers rushing to take advantage of low interest rates.

Meanwhile, home prices soaring here. That's pushing the share of first-time buyers in the market to historic lows. You're just priced out.

One reason the median price is rising is that the homes being sold are more expensive. Sales of homes priced over $1 million were up 50 percent from last year -- over a million. Homes of -- sales of homes between $100,000 and $250,000 were down 12 percent because, frankly, inventory there is scarce, Paula.

REID: Wow.

So, Texas A&M has also been forced to pull out of next week's Gator Bowl due to COVID-19 issues.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report.


So you can add the Gator Bowl to that long list of sporting events now that have been affected by COVID this month. You know, this is the first college football bowl game in jeopardy because of the virus. Aggie's head coach Jimbo Fisher says he doesn't have enough players to fill the team due to COVID. And Texas A&M's A.D. telling ESPN the team is down 38 scholarship players right now because of the virus.

Now, A&M's opponent, Wake Forest, is working with officials to find another team to play in next Friday's game. Rutgers and Illinois are possible replacements. The game, again, a week from tomorrow.

The college football playoffs management committee, meanwhile, making plans to cover potential issues caused by COVID. And this year's national champion -- it could be decided without playing a game at all.

Alabama is set to take on Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan is going to face Georgia in the Orange Bowl. If any of the four teams can't play on New Year's Eve, they're going to forfeit and the other team will move on. The same goes for the National Championship game on January 10th in Indianapolis. But the committee says the title game could be pushed back to no later than January 14th if needed.

All right, the NBA's schedule continues to be affected by the spike in COVID cases. Last night's Raptors-Bulls game and tonight's Nets- Blazers game have been postponed because Brooklyn and Toronto don't have the required eight players available.

The NBA currently has more than 80 players in the health and safety protocols and that now includes Mavericks' superstar Luka Doncic. The 22-year-old missed Dallas' last five games with an ankle injury. He was hoping to return to action this week.

The NBA's Christmas Day showcase now likely going to be missing quite a bit of star power. Luka, Trey Young, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all, right now, in the protocols.

And with so many players out, lots of teams signing replacement players. And the Celtics going back in time and bringing back 40-year- old, seven-time all-star Joe Johnson. He hasn't played in the league since 2018. He got in two minutes last night against the Cavs and made a jumper.

Get this -- Johnson is the only current NBA player who played against Michael Jordan. So, Johnson letting us hold onto that era for just a little bit longer.

All right. And finally --


Holy Trinity School third-graders celebrating teacher's great shot.


ROMANS: (Laughing).

SCHOLES: Yes, Ms. Fitz (ph) forever a hero after that shot. She promised the third-grade class all hot chocolate if she made it, guys. Nothing but net.

You know what? I can just imagine those kids are going to remember that moment for the rest of their lives, guys. You know, they're going to be graduating from high school and they're going to be like -- hey, remember that time Ms. Fitz made that shot and we all got hot chocolate?

ROMANS: How --

SCHOLES: But a pretty cool moment there.

ROMANS: I needed that today so much, Andy. No one will ever remember our names. Everybody remembers their third-grade teacher, right -- Ms. Fitz.


ROMANS: It will go down in history.

SCHOLES: Ms. McCarthy -- I remember, yes.

REID: Good for -- good for her and everybody wins. The kids get hot chocolate and she gets that glory.

Thanks so much for that Bleacher Report.

SCHOLES: All right.

REID: Now this is a scandal. Puzzled "WHEEL OF FORTUNE" fans are saying it's time for a rule change after a contestant lost a new car on a technicality.


PAT SAJAK, HOST, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE": You have 10 seconds to talk it out. Good luck.

[05:55:03] CONTESTANT: Choosing the right card?


CONTESTANT: Choosing the right (pause) word?

SAJAK: You know, this one's tough because you said all the right words, including the word "word" -- but, as you know, it's got to be more or less continuous. We'll allow for a little pause but not four or five seconds.

I'm sorry. You did a good job in getting it but we can't give you the prize, and it was the Audi.



REID: Pat Sajak, a stickler for the pause rule. Fans, though, sure didn't pause for 10 seconds. They had lots of words on social media, some calling the show "the Grinch."

ROMANS: But he said you have 10 seconds -- sound it out. I mean, in 10 seconds I think she sounded it out.

REID: Yes, she did.

ROMANS: I know.

REID: She deserves that car.

ROMANS: It would be a nice P.R. move if Audi would just give her that car, you know? That would be nice, right?

REID: That would be lovely.

ROMANS: Thanks for joining us, everybody. Nice to see you again, Paula. I'm Christine Romans.

REID: And I'm Paula Reid. "NEW DAY" is next.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Thursday --