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WH: Pfizer Pill "Dramatically" Reduces Hospitalization, Death; Fauci: 70 Percent Lower Odds Of Severe COVID From Omicron Than Delta; 1/6 Committee Seeks Interview With A Top Trump Ally, Rep. Jim Jordan; McConnell Openly Courts Manchin To Leave Democrats, Join GOP; Israel To Offer Fourth Dose Of COVID Vaccines As Omicron Surges; Milley Speaks With Russian Counterpart As Blinken Calls For Dialogue About Ukraine. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 22, 2021 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, the White House is touting the benefits of the first FDA authorized pill to treat the coronavirus, saying it dramatically reduces hospitalizations and deaths as Omicron spreads. Will the pills be available fast enough?

Also breaking, the January 6 Select Committee is now asking to talk to a top Trump ally. Republican Representative Jim Jordan, the panel, demanding details about Jordan's communications with the then president during the insurrection.

And as fellow Democrats fume at Joe Manchin for tanking the Biden spending bill, the senator is facing new incentive to switch parties dangled by the Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Will the GOP recruitment campaign work?

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get straight to the breaking pandemic news. A promising new COVID-19 treatment just authorized as the coronavirus Omicron variant sweeps across the United States. CNN's Amara Walker is working the story for us.

Amara, we just heard the White House saying this new pill by Pfizer will dramatically reduce hospitalizations and deaths.

AMARA WALKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that is the expectation, Wolf. The White House also saying that 265,000 courses of this antiviral treatment will be made available in January and all 10 million by the summer.

Now, Wolf, we're here at a drive up COVID-19 testing site in the northeast part of Atlanta called Viral Solutions. And I can tell you, patience is wearing very thin. Some people we've been talking to, they say they've been waiting up to three and a half hours to get COVID tested.

They've been here for -- they're all here for a variety of reasons, some saying that they're traveling ahead of the holiday season, others saying that they believe they may have been exposed at work or at home. And as you know, we've been seeing these long lines for COVID tests across the country. And thanks to Omicron, the demand for these tests are expected to skyrocket.


WALKER (voice-over): Today, the FDA authorizing the first pill to treat COVID-19. Paxlovid made by Pfizer will be available by prescription for adults and high risk individuals aged 12 or older who have mild to moderate symptoms, but a high risk of hospitalization or death. Pfizer CEO says they stand ready to begin delivery in the U.S. immediately.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: As quickly as Pfizer gets the pills manufactured and delivered, we will immediately provide them to states and jurisdictions for distribution.

WALKER (voice-over): The long testing lines across the country have already begun and miss the holiday rush. In Atlanta, frustrations are running high.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been here like an hour and a half. The line will stretch all the way back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're on almost our three. We're less than a mile but hour three.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Crazy busy. It's like it was back in, you know, January February timeframe.

WALKER (voice-over): Some taking precautions as the highly contagious Omicron variant has overtaken Delta as a dominant strain in just a matter of weeks. Omicron has now been identified in every U.S. state, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

DR. PETER DROBAC, INFECTIOUS DISEASE AND GLOBAL HEALTH EXPERT, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: There are a lot of reasons to be concern. And we know for sure about this variant is that it's incredibly transmissible. Each infected person infects on average five other people, which is much more than with previous variants.

WALKER (voice-over): For those gathering during the holidays, the CDC director stressing that all guests be vaccinated and or boosted and exercise caution and the days before they get together.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: I want to remind folks that, you know, so much about the safety of your gathering has less to do with the plane ride or the train ride that you're going to do to get there and very much to do with the behaviors that you have in the week prior to your gathering.

WALKER (voice-over): Case rates in the U.S. or back to level seen in the middle of the Delta surge, the highest they've been in three months. ICU beds are about 76 percent full and more than one in five are COVID-19 patients.

DR. RICHINA BICETTE-MCCAIN, EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: I'm pretty worried that the surge that we're going to see in the coming weeks is going to be worse than the surge that we saw last winter.


WALKER (voice-over): Meanwhile, South Africa has passed the peak of its Omicron outbreak according to one of the country's top scientific researchers.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's some evidence in South Africa where a lot of this started and is dropping off.

WALKER (voice-over): With the rise in breakthrough cases help the official stress the antiviral pills are not a substitute for getting vaccinated.

ZIENTS: Let's be clear, unvaccinated people are at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID, getting hospitalized and dying.


WALKER: And underscoring just how rapidly Omicron is spreading New York saying that it has broken his own record again for the fifth time in less than a week with the highest daily total of COVID-19 cases. Cases up 24 percent from the previous record, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Amara Walker reporting for us. Amara, thank you very much.

Let's go to the White House right now. Our CNN Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us.

Jeff, how is the White House responding to all the criticism that's out there that it was caught flat footed by this really fast moving Omicron variant?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if you can hear the defensiveness in President Biden's tone when he talks about this, specifically in testing, that is the central question and area of criticism from experts. This has been months in the making. Testing has been a challenge long before this variant came into view. But now it certainly is a big challenge.

And we asked Dr. Anthony Fauci and other advisors at the COVID briefing this afternoon if there was one thing that they wish they would have done over the last month to prepare for this moment differently. And Dr. Fauci said, you know, not to say we've done everything perfectly. He stopped well short of that, but he could not point to one thing. But Wolf, experts are pointing again to the testing challenges.

Now the administration is promising half a billion test to be sent to homes in January. But that is not the beginning of January, that is likely the middle to the end of January. Those tests have to be manufactured. They have to -- there has to be a website set up for them to be requested.

So, there are many questions about how that is all going to work. But testing remains the central question of the criticism here at the White House, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, there's a lot of frustration out there. People want to get tested and they apparently have to wait long, long in long lines to get it.

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny, for that.

Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us now, Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Also with us, William Haseltine, Chair and President of ACCESS Health International and a former Harvard Medical and Public Health School Professor. He's the author of the book, by the way, "Variants, The Shape Shifting Challenge of COVID-19."

Dr. Schaffner, first to you, how big of a difference will this new Pfizer pill make in the fight against the pandemic?

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, VANDERBILT MEDICAL CENTER: Well, it's certainly good news, Wolf, that we have some treatment available in addition to the vaccines. The treatment is not a substitute for the vaccines. But we need a good system in order to get this good treatment to people. You make a very good point in the in the segments coming just up to this, because testing is key, you have to get a positive test before you can qualify for the use of Paxlovid.

And so, we're going to have to improve testing so people can get their tests quickly. Then when they're positive, they'll have to go to their healthcare provider, those providers will have to learn how to write those prescriptions, but then you can go to the pharmacy quickly get your medication. And it's very, very reassuring that these medicines reduce the risk of the infections maturing to seriousness, such that you have to be hospitalized. So, we look forward to it. And it's all now in the implementation.


SCHAFFNER: The theory is great. It's available, but we've got to implement it smoothly.

BLITZER: It's so, important and so encouraging.

Professor Haseltine, President Biden says 250,000 of these pills will be available in January. Why aren't these ready to roll out now?

WILLIAM HASELTINE, CHIEF & PRESIDENT, ACCESS HEALTH INTERNATIONAL: I can't tell you why they're not ready to roll out now, but it's a good thing that they're coming. You know, Dr. Schaffner was very clear in the advantages of having this drug. It's a great thing.

I would just caution also, that you really have to know what other pills you're taking. There are a lot of adverse reactions, the drugs for example that I'm taking for high cholesterol. So you've got to be careful from the drug interactions.

That being said, I also want to emphasize the importance of testing. It's clear that we dropped the ball on testing.

I wrote as early as September 2020, we needed to have enough tests so everybody can do it at home at least three times a week. That will make a big, big difference at least at times like this when Omicron is surging. We just didn't do it. Some countries did, but we didn't. And I think it's time that we made tests available for free for everybody to get it at least two or three times a week.


BLITZER: Yes, I think it's so important as well.

Dr. Schaffner, amid all the confusion over Omicron, Dr. Fauci just cited studies from South Africa. And now Scotland showing that this new variant is less severe than Delta. What will you be watching to see if that holds true here in the United States?

SCHAFFNER: Well, you see my fingers crossed, I hope that that certainly is the case. Because potentially, a highly contagious virus that is less serious actually could contribute to the growing herd immunity in our population.

And that might issue in the beginning of the end of at least the pandemic phase of this virus here in the United States. So, we hope certainly that that's true, but it should not discourage people from getting vaccinated who still are not. And if you still haven't entered your booster, get that.

BLITZER: You should -- we certainly should Professor Haseltine, South Africa, already coming down from the sharp Omicron spike, which is being described as steeper but shorter than previous waves. Is that an encouraging sign for those of us here in the United States?

HASELTINE: I would say we are -- this kind of situation is a little bit more complicated, because as you will recall from past waves of infection, it sort of sweeps across our country very slowly along with the weather. And t's not exactly all you would project. In the summertime down in Florida and Texas can be really serious. So we are much more complicated.

My rule of thumb is we take numbers from Great Britain and multiply by five and stretch it out by five to six months. That's the reality of what's happened in the past. Now, that doesn't predict exactly what will happen.

I also like to say I think it's unfortunate that everybody is focusing on the fact that this might be less dangerous. We don't know that. And it gives people, I think, a false sense of security. Certainly for those people who are at highest risk, older people, people with immunosuppressed status, people undergoing cancer therapy, and a variety of other situations. This may not be mild. So, I think it's really premature.

We have to treat this as if it were dangerous, as dangerous as anything else. It's out for sure. We know it's not.

BLITZER: And we know it's extremely contagious. And that could affect a lot of people out there because it moves very, very quickly.


BLITZER: Professor Haseltine, Dr. Schaffner --


BLITZER: Yes. Thank you very, very much to both of you. Appreciate it very much.

There's more breaking news we're following. The House January 6 Select Committee seeks to interview what a former President Trump's top congressional allies, Representative Jim Jordan. Will a subpoena follow if he refuses?



BLITZER: There's breaking news in the House investigation into the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The Select Committee now seeking an interview with top Trump congressional ally, Representative Jim Jordan.

CNN Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is working the story for us. Jessica, for the second time this week the January 6 committee has asked a Republican lawmaker, one of Trumps allies on Capitol Hill to come in, answer questions and talk. What are you learning?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. The committee now telling Congressman Jordan they want to hear from him about his communications with the former president on January 6. They said that Jordan had at least one and possibly multiple chats with Trump that day. And now they want the congressmen to sit down for a voluntary interview, they say as soon as January 3.

But really from what we've seen, it is highly unlikely that Jordan will cooperate. He's already warned the committee that targeting GOP lawmakers in any capacity would be met with political retribution if Republicans retake the House after the midterms.

And of course, we saw Republican Congressman Scott Perry lash out at the committee's legitimacy already this week. He has eagerly rebuffed their request to interview him.

We have not yet seen a response from Congressman Jordan yet. But the committee is already trying to throw Jordan's words back at him by writing in their letter to him that Jordan said back in August that he had, quote, "nothing to hide." So Congressman Jordan did have at least one text message of, note the committee has already referenced it.

And his spokesperson confirmed that in fact, Congressman Jordan forwarded a text to former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on January 5, outlining a legal theory of how Vice President Pence could block the certification of the election. But Jordan spokesperson said that the text was actually written by a former Defense Department Inspector General, and that the Congressman was just forwarding that text on to Meadows.

But it is clear that this committee wants to know through Jordan what Trump was up to inside the White House on January 6. And they say that Jordan had at least one, if not, multiple communications with Trump.

And interestingly, the committee is also saying they know that Trump was watching T.V. coverage of the attack from his private dining room right next to the Oval Office that day. And that even after the crowd dispersed Trump, they say, was still trying to delay or impede the vote count. That's all in that letter to Jordan.

So, Wolf, unlikely that Jordan would actually sit down for this voluntary interview, and then we'll have to see if the committee goes so far as to subpoena him or possibly the other GOP lawmaker. They're trying to talk to Scott Perry. It's all up in the air right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll watch it together with you, Jessica. Thank you.

Let's get some more on this. Joining us now, CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig. He's the author of the book "Hatchet Man, How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutors Code and Corrupted the Justice Department." Also with us, CNN Senior Political Analyst, Kirsten Powers. Her new book, by the way, is entitled "Saving Grace, Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered, and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts."

Elie, let me start with you. It may be wishful thinking that Congressman Jordan will voluntarily cooperate with the committee but he's a critical figure in this investigation, isn't he?


ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: He is, Wolf. The committee is made clear that they're playing hardball, that they're going to pursue the truth no matter who may hold the truth up to and including their own colleagues in Congress.

And let's be clear here, Jim Jordan is not being picked on. This is not the committee saying, hey, let's go mess with Jim Jordan just for fun. He has absolutely earned this request for information which could soon become a subpoena because we know for a fact that Jim Jordan spoke with Donald Trump and -- on January 6. Jim Jordan has now admitted that. Sort of reluctantly and in a way that suggests he's not super proud of what he talked about with Donald Trump on January 6.

So there is a real reason and purpose behind this subpoena. Jim Jordan has said he has nothing to hide. And so we'll see if he can back up that talk.

BLITZER: This is someone, Kirsten, who actually wanted, he pushed to serve on the committee investigating January 6 to protect the former President Donald Trump. What sort of fight do you expect him to put up against the committee now?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would expect him to put up a big fight because the Trump allies have really tried to delegitimize this committee, right, so calling it a sham committee, witch hunt. And one of the things they love to point to is that they, you know, that Jim Jordan, who was one of the people who Kevin McCarthy wanted to put on the committee was not allowed to be on the committee, of course, because it was pretty clear that he wasn't really interested in doing an investigation.

And so, when you have a committee that's designed to investigate something, you can't have people on the committee who aren't interested in investigating it and who were very much, you know, possibly involved in what happened.

He had these conversations, at least one conversation, and maybe more conversations, he was involved in some meetings that are pretty suspect. He, you know, has forwarded this -- a text message outlining a legal strategy of how to overturn the election. So, this is a person who obviously has a dog in the fight.

And so, he, you know, he -- it's in his political interest, and probably in his personal interest to fight this. And so, you know, that's what I would expect them to do.

BLITZER: You know, Elie, you say this move was long overdue. How aggressively do you think the committee will have to be to pursue Jim Jordan to make up for that lost time?

HONIG: Yes, this is not going to be an easy fight for the committee. Here's how it's going to play out, Wolf, assuming Jim Jordan stonewalls them, then the committee will have to issue a subpoena, which is now a formal request for information.

Jim Jordan, at that point is going to have three options. One, he can comply, seems unlikely. Two, he can take the fifth. If he believes he may have some criminal exposure, he can invoke the fifth, I think that's very, very unlikely from a sitting member of Congress. And three, he can defy the committee again.

If that happens, then the question for the committee is going to be, do you have the political will, the political backbone to hold him in contempt and to send them over to the Justice Department for potential prosecution? We've already seen them do that with Steve Bannon, of course, DOJ is prosecuting him, with Mark Meadows. Of course, we're waiting to hear from DOJ. So that's the road that this could go down, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Kirsten, it is pretty extraordinary when you think about it. Some would say outrageous for these Republicans, all sitting members of Congress to essentially obstruct this congressional investigation into the attack on their own workplace. We're talking about the U.S. Capitol.

POWERS: Yes, it's -- I mean, that's what you can never lose sight of. What -- exactly what this committee exists for, and that is to try to prevent something like this from happening again. And it was a dark, dark day in the history of the United States.

And so, this investigation isn't about persecuting Jim Jordan or persecuting anybody. It's about trying to get to the bottom of what happened, so that we can be sure that it doesn't happen again. And that's something that Republicans are not interested in doing. And I would say somebody like Jim Jordan, in particular, has really actively been against.

BLITZER: Kirsten Powers, Elie Honig, thanks to both of you for joining us.

Coming up, Mitch McConnell's full court press to get Joe Manchin to join the GOP after the Democrat broke with his own party on the Biden spending bill.



BLITZER: Tonight, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is seizing on a growing split between Senator Joe Manchin and many of his fellow Democrats. McConnell is publicly urging Manchin to switch parties saying he'd be more comfortable, his words, more comfortable in the GOP after his rejection of the Biden spending bill.

Our Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill for us. Manu, how serious is McConnell about trying to get Manchin to change sides?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, McConnell remembers what happened 20 years ago when Jim Jeffords then in the Republican conference decided to instead caucus with Democrats and made the 50-50 Senate in charge of Democrats. He's hoping to do the same with Manchin.

He's had conversations with the senator for some time. He said on and off, this has been a conversation they've had for a matter of years. Even more recently, they've sat down behind closed doors in McConnell's office talking about a wide range of issues. And undoubtedly this has come up.

Now, at the same time McConnell today dangled an incentive for Joe Manchin to break ranks with his party. Saying, come over to the Republicans and you can still chair the Senate Energy Committee.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I've had this conversation with him off and on for a couple of years.

[17:30:03] HUGH HEWITT, "THE HUGH HEWITT SHOW" HOST: Would he get to keep his chairmanship of Energy?

MCCONNELL: That's something we'd talk. Obviously, he -- I'm sure enjoys being a chair of that committee. It's important to West Virginia and all those things that things we discussed.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now McConnell acknowledged it is unlikely that mentioned will ultimately become a Republican. Remember, Joe Manchin also voted supports the Affordable Care Act. He opposes the 2017 Republican tax law. He voted to convict Donald Trump twice in his impeachment trials. And he has sided with the Biden administration a number of issues including the $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan earlier this year.

And last night, Joe Manchin was on a conference call with Democrats in his caucus talking about the path forward. Now he also made clear that he is not supportive of the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan wants some serious changes here. It says he has been consistent in his opposition for that for some time. But Wolf, he said he would continue talking with his colleagues, but can they get in smaller deal, something that gets to the President's desk? That is the big question in the New Year.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right, Manu, thank you very much. Joining us now a key house Democrat, the senior whip Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, she also serves on the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. As you know, Mitch McConnell says Joe Manchin would be quote, more comfortable in the GOP. Is he right about that?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-MI): I think if we'd be more comfortable in the GOP, he would have changed parties a long time ago. This is a man that was a Democratic governor. He his close friends with Joe Biden. There have been some policy differences this year. But I suspect in the end his comment to, I think it was Rolling Stone earlier this year, that people love to chat or they love to gossip, but I think we're going to see Joe Manchin continue to caucus with the Democratic side of the Senate.

BLITZER: I sense you're right. Mitch McConnell also says Democrats are basically calling Manchin a liar. In fact, House Progressive Chair Pramila Jayapal told me, here in the Situation Room this week, Democrats can't trust Manchin's word. So how does this relationship and, you know, Washington well, you know Capitol Hill well, how does this relationship get pulled back from the brink?

DINGELL: I think it's got to start at the White House with the President. I was surprised myself when Joe made the statement on Sunday. But I'm somebody as you well know that we respect everybody that I work with the relationship open.

The person that you're mad at today, you're going to need tomorrow on the next bill that you're working with. I think this Christmas break, came at a good time admit the pandemic's been going on for two years, people are tired, they're working hard. Everybody needs to take a deep breath.

There are a lot of things that we need to deal with many of them in the Build Back Better bill that would come back in January, fresh and get back to the table and figure out how we're going to help people that need us to be there.

BLITZER: Senator Manchin excluded the child tax credit for his $1.8 trillion counter proposal offered to the White House last week. Is a bill without the Child Tax Credit, from your perspective, a non- starter right now?

DINGELL: Wolf, I love you, but we are not going to negotiate on public television. I think his reaction to the child tax credit is nuanced. And I think negotiators, starting with the President and the Speaker, and others need to get back to the table, figure out what we must have for me.

I have parents that are looking for that money to be able to ensure that they can put food on the table. It helped them a lot this year. I've had a mother who told me what it allowed her to do. So, that's one of the many other issues that is on the table.

I mean, people want they're -- are really worried about the cost of their prescription drugs. I know Joe Manchin cares about that one of the bill that -- the bill that I have that then there is about long term care for seniors, and it's in your program. I'm not abandoning all the work that we've done to get us there with Senator Casey and the president.

We got a lot of important issues. There have been a lot of sharp words. It's Christmas. It's the holidays. Not everybody celebrates Christmas. Both you and I do but we need everybody to really just take a deep breath because these issues are too important to just let them get lost in anger right now.

BLITZER: What's your message, Congresswoman, to voters out there who are simply frustrated that the Democrats can't seem to get across the finish line on this critically important issue, despite being in control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives?

DINGELL: I'm going to remind them that we've got the thinnest majorities in the House and in the Senate. It's a 50-50 Senate. But you know, Democrats have got, look, I'm going to put it on me as well as everybody else. We got to do a better job at talking about what we have done. Look at where we were last holiday, we're finding ourselves a bit back there is we're dealing with COVID and Omicron but we're not scared.


You don't have people worried about when they're going to get vaccinated, or whether what -- now we have to talk people into getting booster. We got the American Recovery Plan passed. We got shotgun arms. We got people back to work. We got money back in the pockets of people. We got schools we open. We've done the infrastructure bill.

We are going to fix our roads and our bridges. We are going to make sure that people have access to affordable water. We're going to deal with the internet. We're not going to be equivalent to a third world country once these investments are made in terms of our infrastructure. We made a lot of good progress, and we're going to keep making it. That's what we've got to focus on what's gotten done and what we're going to get done.

BLITZER: I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, thanks so much for joining us.

DINGELL: Thanks Wolf. A healthy 2020 to everyone.

BLITZER: Let's hope 2022 is better than 2021 better than 2020. I can't believe we're entering year three of this COVID pandemic. Thanks so much for joining us.

DINGELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead will the U.S. follow Israel and recommending that some people get a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine? We're going to hear what the head of the CDC is now saying.



BLITZER: More now on the Coronavirus crisis that Israel has begun rolling out a fourth vaccine does to vulnerable people, including those over 60 and medical workers. Let's go to our Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen. She's got details for us. So Elizabeth, walk us through how Israel arrived at this key decision.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so Israel has been seeing really for many months now that this vaccine tends to wane. And boosters tend to wane as well. They're just another shot of vaccine after all. And also Omicron it doesn't react as well to the vaccine. In other words, the vaccine doesn't neutralize it as well. So they're saying let's sort of speed up this process.

So there's -- right now recommending this was just announced last night, fourth shots for people ages 60 plus, medical workers, and for those who are immune suppressed. In the U.S., the there's only an allowance for that last one for the immune suppressed. The CDC told them a while back, you know, you can go ahead and get a fourth shot if you want to. Now, all of these fourth shots in Israel it's got to be at least four months after your third shot. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's been four months since I got my third shot. So let's see what the U.S. decides on that front. It seems, Elizabeth, as you well know that Israel is often a step ahead of other nations when it comes to reacting and taking action against COVID. Remind our viewers what Israel has been saying and doing. COHEN: Right, so Israel actually started their third dose rollout back at the end of July. So that was, you know, about two months before it started in earnest in the United States. And in Israel they just did it. In the U.S. it was, for this group, no for this group, and it sort of went on and on.

And I think there's several reasons why Israel has been ahead on this. First of all, Israel just acts quickly. I know it seems strange to make this reference. But I think back to when I was covering the Haiti earthquake in 2010, we were waiting for the Americans to come build a mobile hospital for the Haitians.

And actually, Israel got to Haiti before the U.S. got to Haiti, like way before the U.S. to build those hospitals. They just tend to move quickly. They have a centralized health system. They essentially have one insurance company and they can see all the data that they need to see. The U.S. has at least hundreds of insurance companies.

I think another thing that we're seeing here, Wolf, is that American experts tend to like data really pretty tight up in a bow laid out fully research, preferably published in the New England Journal of Medicine is really aren't that way.

It's just sort of a cultural thing in some ways. They don't expect things to be all settled up. They sort of act on less information. They kind of connect the dots, not necessarily less information, but they don't need it laid out quite as nicely as Americans do. Wolf.

BLITZER: You say they have world class doctors and scientists there as well. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much for that update. Meanwhile, the National Hockey League says its players won't, won't take part in the men's ice hockey tournament at the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing citing increasing COVID cases and dozens of postponed games.

Let's dig deeper with CNN's sports analysts Christine Brennan. Christine, the NHL has already had to postpone with 50 games. So how much of this decision to skip the Olympics is about being able to compete in its -- to complete its own season to compete here at home.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: That's it Wolf, because the NHL will now not be sending players to the Olympics. They will have that three weeks to be able to reschedule some games.

And it's an opening to put some games that are not being played right now into that time period if and also if it taken off, and if those players were in China, great concern exactly how long a quarantine period would be in China at the Olympics if you test positive there.

The NHL was talking about three to five weeks in quarantine. Those numbers sound exaggerated. That's a very high side for the Chinese -- to Beijing Olympics. But that fear was put in the hearts in the minds of many hockey players and NHL leaders and coaches saying wait a minute, one of my players goes to the Olympics and isn't back until April that of course was untenable for a league that is already struggling. [17:45:07]

BLITZER: Good point. The NBA, as you know, has postponed already eight games this season. But amid this surge in Omicron cases, the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says he doesn't see the logic of pausing the season right now. What message does that send to players and everyone working on those teams?

BRENNAN: Well, it means you're scrambling. They are really scrambling here. They -- it's different than March of 2020. For many reasons, the vaccines, of course, the chief among them, but the NBA is not going to shut down as they did on March 11 2020 signaling how serious COVID was to all of us back then.

The NBA is going to keep going on. Obviously, Christmas Day. You're a big NBA fan. You know this well that the Christmas Day games are huge. They're big ratings games, people are sitting at home able to watch the NBA and the NBA certainly doesn't want to lose that.

Of course, the NHL is dealing with going back to hockey is dealing with the border issue much more than the NBA is. So they'll keep playing and keep scrambling and see how they can do it.

BLITZER: Let's hope for the best. I'll be watching those games of course. Christine Brennan, thanks as usual for joining us. Coming up, we're getting new details of talks between the top U.S. General and his Russian counterpart as tensions are clearly rising over a possible move by Moscow against Ukraine.



BLITZER: We're learning new details right now the high level call between the United States and Russia amid growing concerns of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann. So what's the latest, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Joint Chiefs Chairman the top U.S. General, General Mark Milley spoke with his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov earlier today. And in the readout of the call, the two discussed operational deconfliction, which is a fancy way of saying, trying to avoid a fight or conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It's not the first time they've talked in recent months. They spoke about a month ago as the U.S. was already concerned about this buildup Russian forces.

And this is just part of the effort to try to find some kind of off ramp and avoid an escalation of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. Part of it is the diplomatic side. Russia saying they hope there are U.S.-Russia talks and Russia NATO talks. Next month they try to find what Russia calls security guarantees to avoid a greater fight. But it goes beyond that.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking with EU today, and that's to coordinate what would be a punishing and sweeping sanctions package against Russia's energy sector, against its economy and against its financial sector should Russia decide to invade Ukraine. This is all part of the effort to deturn (ph) that Russian action.

But what's concerning here and what the U.S. continues to watch is the rhetoric coming from Russia, and specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin who said just yesterday, claiming that the U.S. does what it wants in Ukraine and that Russia has nowhere else to retreat to, that it seems is setting up this narrative before a possible fight. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Oren. Thank you very much, very disturbing developments. Indeed. Let's get some more in all of this. CNN military analyst retired US Army General Wesley Clark is joining us. He's the former NATO supreme allied commander. General Clark, how much can a conversation between the Joint Chiefs chairman and his counterpart in Moscow actually accomplish amid Putin's increasingly provocative rhetoric?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it's good to be talking but I don't think that the General Gerasimov is going to tell any key operational details to General Milley. I think it's just a matter of communications.

But what's actually happening is the Russians are rolling your forces forward. They're arming them, they're preparing them. We have strategic warning of an attack now, probably President Putin hasn't pulled the trigger on this, because it would happen very quickly. But we're approaching the window where their force readiness is there, the ground is freezing over so they can maneuver off roads. They've got overwhelming air support superiority over the Ukrainians. And this could be very, very ugly very quickly.

And Wolf, if we have to consider this, it may be impossible for us to conceive this. But the way the Russian diplomacy is unfolding, the charges, the statements by Putin, the complaint by the Defense Minister, that we have chemical weapons in Ukraine, it looks like he's preparing the Russian people and the Russian authorities for force, the use of force.

Could he do that? Why would he do that? Because he knows every time we've used our military that has brought a huge boost in U.S. prestige when we solve the Kosovo problem in 1999, with the shock and awe campaign in Iraq, people jumped back with newfound respect for the United States.

This is not about Ukraine. This is about the future of Russia, and the future of NATO and the future of the United States. Ukraine is just a demonstration piece.

So, we have to be aware that he may have in his mind that he really does want to use force. Forget about the casualties, forget about the economics. He wants the Soviet Union restored to its rightful place as a centerpiece of Europe, let's say.


CLARK: And this could be really, this could be very serious.

BLITZER: I know you're really worried about this. One of the chances you believe the United States can deter a Russian invasion?

CLARK: I think the sanctions the energy work are helpful, but I don't think it's going to be sufficient if Putin really wants to demonstrate Russian military power. One thing I would like to see is I'd like to see the United States and NATO send some air reinforcements into places like Romania, to make sure that there's no spillover to the Russians that, you know, stop right here.

But there's been talk about maybe we would supply Ukrainian guerrilla forces and have a counterinsurgency campaign and stuff. This isn't serious talk. The Ukrainians will fight hard, but the Russians, they're full of themselves, they're arrogant. They believe they've learned everything


They've got new equipment. They're itching to go at the military level is my reading of it. Putin may decide not to, but he's not getting those notes of portion (ph) from his military. They think they're good and they can run this in a few days. So this could be really a real shock to the international system in New Year.

BLITZER: It certainly could very disturbing developments. Indeed. Retired General Wesley Clark, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. Thank you so much for joining us. And there's more breaking news we're following here in the Situation Room for the White House touts the first pill to treat COVID-19 as it gets FDA authorization, all the latest pandemic news, that's next.