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Hala Gorani Tonight

Putin Demands NATO Agree Not To Expand Eastward; Evidence Mounts That Omicron May Be Milder Than Delta; German Health Minister Calls For A Fourth Booster. Aired 14-14:28p ET

Aired December 23, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ZAIN ASHER, CNN HOST: Hello everyone, live from CNN in New York, I'm Zain Asher. Tonight, at his year-end press conference, Vladimir Putin reiterates

his demands over NATO expansion, and Ukraine saying that NATO has broken its promises. Some potentially good news about Omicron as study show the

rate of hospitalization is much less than with the Delta variant. And I'll speak to the artist whose Tiananmen Square sculpture has just been removed

from a Hong Kong university.

We'll get to all the COVID news and just to know that first, more tough talk today from Russian President Vladimir Putin as Moscow and NATO square

off over Ukraine. Mr. Putin says that he's encouraged that NATO wants to negotiate, but he's also making clear what he wants, ironclad assurances of

security. Mr. Putin held a year-end news conference that went on for hours. He reiterated his demand that NATO needs to guarantee it will never expand

further eastward, and he blasted the U.S. and NATO for inching closer and closer to Russia over the years, accusing the west of deception.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT, RUSSIA (through translator): How would the Americans react if we placed our missiles on the border between Canada and

the United States or on the Mexican border? Not a single inch to the east, they told us in the '90s. And what do you know? They cheated. They just

deceived us blatantly. Five ways of NATO expansion, and there you go, now in Romania and Poland, weapon systems appear.


ASHER: The crisis has sharply escalated in recent months as Russia amasses forces on the Ukrainian border. Mr. Putin hasn't said if he intends to

invade. CNN's Melissa Bell has been following the Russian leader's news conference for us from Moscow. So, it was a four-hour news conference,

Melissa. Just walk us through what else he said.

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he was asked directly that very important question, Zain, the one that's been on the mind of so many people

as they've watched that Russian troop build-up along Ukraine's border these last few weeks as they've watched those growing tensions around the

country, as they've watched that escalating rhetoric on both sides, the Russian, but also on NATO with those threats of sanctions, at the question

of what exactly Vladimir Putin plans to do.

He was asked directly would Russia invade Ukraine? The answer was fascinating. It was not so much to do with the negotiations that we expect

to start in January, although we have heard just in the last hour or so from the White House press secretary that the idea that those would be held

in Geneva has yet to be confirmed. Despite what Vladimir Putin said in his press conference, he said the question of whether Russia would choose to

invade was not so much a function of how those negotiations went, but whether the west would accept those full scale Russian proposals, namely

that NATO should commit to not expanding eastward.

Also that it should roll back essentially to pre-1997 lines when it didn't have either weaponry or manpower in those countries like Poland, like the

Baltic states like Romania, where it currently has them. But bear in mind that we've been hearing the reply to that over the course of the last few

days. These Russian proposals have now been on the table for several days now. We've heard the head of NATO saying, look, the era of spheres of

influence is gone.

We'd heard also from the U.S.' top diplomat to Europe saying that some of those demands were clearly unacceptable to NATO, although everyone is

welcoming those discussions. And what we've heard in the last hour or so from Jen Psaki is that, of course, dialogue is what everyone is seeking --

again, repeating that some of the demands are unacceptable. But also saying, look, it's important to note that despite what Vladimir Putin had

to say today in that press conference, the only aggressions, she said, has been coming from the Russian side.


Also pointing out that as far as NATO is concerned and despite those warnings that were given today during that press conference by Vladimir

Putin of the fact that as NATO has inched eastwards, Russia is now concerned about what that might mean for Ukraine, that is, weaponry

potentially on Russia's doorstep. Jen Psaki pointed out, look, NATO is a defensive organization, it is not an aggressive alliance, and really giving

the White House's view.

So, you see there is this great chasm, Zain, between the two sides, and it's very difficult to see the basis on which any constructive

conversations can have place, that they are happening, that they will take place is of course welcomed by everyone. But as we move forward, it's very

difficult to see on what basis anyone is going to be able to agree, Zain.

ASHER: Yes, there are so many sticking points. Melissa Bell live for us there, thank you so much. A short time ago as Melissa was just saying

there, the White House responded to Mr. Putin's comments, saying it will never agree to some of Mr. Putin's demand. I want to bring in Natasha

Bertrand for that side of the story. So, Natasha, Vladimir Putin clearly blaming the west for this build-up in tensions. What has the White House

had to say about that?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, Zain, so a senior administration official briefed reporters on this very subject earlier this

morning and reiterated essentially everything they have said previously, which is that, Russia has made these security demands of the U.S. and of

NATO, but that many of those demands are things that Russia itself knows that the U.S. is not willing to accept.

And so, while there are certain things, the official did not elaborate on what those things are, that they are willing to discuss with Russia as soon

as January in multiple different forums, there are other things that are just simply non-starters. And so, this has given rise to many fears by U.S.

officials that Russia is perhaps putting this out there as a pre-text for an attack on Ukraine's foreign invasion, saying that their demands were not

met and therefore they have to protect their own security.

But the U.S., again, saying that they are willing to negotiate, they do still see a window here to deter a potential Russian invasion because they

do not believe that Vladimir Putin has actually made a decision yet to invade, and therefore there is some time here for a diplomacy. But at the

same time, they are weighing all of their options. Again, the administration official telling reporters earlier today that in conjunction

with U.S. allies, with the Europeans, with NATO, they are prepared to impose very severe, harsh consequences on Russia if it does move to invade


Those include economic penalties like very harsh sanctions, and they also include the possibility that NATO capabilities will be moved much closer to

Russia, which, of course, is the opposite of what Russia has wanted to see. So, they are laying out kind of the carrot-and-the-stick here, saying that

if Russia comes to the table, then they're willing to discuss some of their concerns with regard to the security, but also they're willing to act and

fast if Russia does move to invade.

ASHER: Natasha Bertrand live for us there, thank you so much. All right, it's been grim COVID headlines all week, but now we're seeing some

potentially good news about Omicron. Early studies suggest the variant carries a reduced risk of hospitalization. The numbers vary, but a working

paper out of South Africa suggests that people with Omicron are 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital as compared with the Delta variant.

Early studies in England and Scotland also show less risk of hospitalization.

And South Africa is seeing a big decline in its Omicron cases as well, suggesting the wave there may have peaked. CNN's David McKenzie has been

talking with paramedics he met during earlier COVID waves. Here's what he found out.


DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dispatched south of Johannesburg, Paramedic Mohammed Rasul(ph) says Omicron is nothing like


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: During then, it was only COVID, and nothing else. Will you be able to work, sir?

MCKENZIE: We were with them during the chaos. When the Delta wave of COVID-19 ripped through South Africa, severe patients crashed quickly.

Resource teams spent hours looking for hospital beds, charities like Gift of the Givers rushed to set up field clinics, scrambled to distribute

oxygen concentrators to save lives. With Omicron, they say they haven't sent out a single one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a patient that's complaining of tightness in chest.

MCKENZIE: Resource says they call out now for less severe patients like this 46-year-old who tested negative, but it's still suspected of having


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For the SS, after 5 minutes, check the chest.

MCKENZIE (on camera): But there's been a surge of cases of COVID-19 with Omicron, but there hasn't been a surge of severity or hospitalization. This

kind of call out is pretty typical. What advice do you have for other countries that are facing an Omicron wave?

NICHOLAS CRISP, ACTING DIRECTOR-GENERAL, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Don't panic. This is -- it will -- you will ride the wave, farther issues of

oxygen, far fewer people being admitted despite the high numbers of cases. Very high transmission of people getting mild illness, not even getting

diagnosed at home.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): It's still unclear why it's seemingly milder or whether that will translate globally. Scientists here believe up to 80

percent of the population in South Africa may have had COVID-19 before, likely providing a shield of immunity against severe infection.


Vaccine coverage plays a major part.

CRISP: This would have been an absolute nightmare if it was Delta. So I think we can just be very grateful that it has not been as devastating as

it could have been.

MCKENZIE (on camera): But there's still reason to be cautious, it seems.

CRISP: Yes, well, we've learned that with COVID, generally, you never let your guard down.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): For a brief moment though, we still dare to hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Severity of the illness is not that as it was. So, I'm actually quite optimistic about it.

MCKENZIE: David McKenzie, CNN, Johannesburg.


ASHER: But CNN's Larry Madowo tells us no one is getting too excited yet. Here is why?

LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Zain, we're getting several doses of good news out of South Africa which first detected the Omicron variant. But

before I get to that, I need to preface you with a caveat, a caution from the director of the Africa CDC. It's their regional public health body in

Africa. Dr. John Nkengasong says we shouldn't extrapolate the South African experience with Omicron to the rest of the world.

So, he did point out, for instance, that the Omicron variant appears to be slightly more severe in the U.K. than in South Africa. And, so, whatever

experience that South Africans have seen will not apply neatly in every country in the world. Having said that, a new preprint from respected

scientists in South Africa seems to add to the body of evidence that's growing that the Omicron variant has been less severe in South Africa. It

has led to fewer people in hospital and fewer people dying.

This preprint study says that people with the Omicron variant are 80 percent less likely to end up in hospital. In real terms, they found that

only 2.5 percent of patients with the Omicron variant were hospitalized in South Africa. Compare that to 12.8 percent with patients with the Delta

variant that came before it. So, that is a promising sign. They are saying that is likely because of population immunity, the vaccination numbers have

increased in South Africa, and some people have natural infection.

They did catch COVID, and that did protect them to some degree. So, these are promising signs. I'm also hearing from a lot of South African

scientists, virologists, epidemiologists who now are feeling confident enough to be able to say, Zain, that they think South Africa has gone past

the peak of its Omicron wave. This is largely driven by new data that comes from the province of Gauteng, that includes the city of Johannesburg,

popular city, also home to one of Africa's largest airports.

And they saw a drop in new cases detected in Gauteng and in several other provinces. Nationally, South Africa's National Institute of Communicable

Disease also reported a 20.8 percent drop in new cases detected in the country in the week up to 18th December. So all of these, again, tracks

with everything we've been hearing from doctors treating patients with Omicron from people tracking the data, that they think in South Africa, the

Omicron variant has been less severe.

But that does not mean that it will be the same in the U.S. or in the U.K. or in other parts of Europe, in any other part of the world. But it is a

promising sign, and I spent most of this month reporting in South Africa. I saw how quickly the Omicron variant spread, but it seems, it did lead to a

huge strain on the healthcare system of South Africa, and that is truly a positive sign out of that country for other public health experts in other

parts of the world trying to figure out how it might behave in their own countries. Zain?

ASHER: Larry, thank you so much. So Europe is not past the Omicron peak. The U.K.'s new daily COVID cases are surpassing 100,000. Today, that

number stands at almost 120,000 new infections, one in every 45 people in England likely had COVID last week. An estimate from the Office of National

Statistics, but we are not seeing similar trends in deaths. Deaths are sadly above zero. But as you can see, they are not spiking. Germany is

calling for a fourth booster shot and mandating vaccines in more situations. But not all Germans agree with this move.

We're looking at was a scene in Munich on Wednesday, 5,000 people protesting COVID restrictions. Police say at least one officer was injured

and about 11 people were detained. Let's get more on the picture across Europe from Salma Abdelaziz who is joining us live now from London, we've

also got Cyril Vanier in Paris for us. Salma, I want to start with you. When you think about these numbers, 120,000 daily COVID cases that the U.K.

is seeing, at the same time, the British government is clearly not going to impose further restrictions before Christmas, clearly, because Christmas is

only two days away. So what steps are they taking to keep people safe?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: Zain, it's really overwhelming when you think about the fact that yesterday a record was broken, today, a record

was broken, and now I'm wondering are we going to have another record broken tomorrow? These positive case-counts are simply climbing and



There is no end in sight, at least here in the U.K. yet. And you just simply don't know how many of those people are going to wind up in hospital

in a few days. But as you said, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised no new restrictions will be announced before Christmas day. But today,

there are some good signs. I know you heard from my colleague Larry Madowo there on the South African preprint papers. Here in the U.K., we have a

couple of more preprint preliminary evidence papers coming from scientists that seem to indicate the same thing.

That seem to indicate that the Omicron variant is less severe, that you are less likely to wind up in hospital. The latest coming from the U.K. Health

Security Agency that shows the risk of the Omicron variant, with the Omicron variant of winding up in hospital is two-fifths less, so 40 percent

less than it was with Delta. We had that earlier study from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland that said it was two-thirds less likely that you

would wind up in hospital.

So, you have varying estimates here from 40 percent to 80 percent, but the overall picture is you are less likely to wind up in hospital. But again,

that question, Zain, of this case-count, this massive case count the country has never seen these numbers before all at once, tens of thousands

of people getting sick with COVID-19, how many will fall ill? That could still be a huge proportion. And separately, the other thing that

authorities have to watch is staff sick-outs in the health industry, because we've already seen thousands of NHS workers call out in recent

days, call out sick themselves from COVID-19.

So you also have fears that the health system won't be staffed, won't be resourced in the coming days. So, officials here saying they're watching

the data hour-by-hour. But no restrictions for now, but it's not just about these findings in these papers. Hour-by-hour data means watching staffing

in hospitals, watching these positive COVID cases and figuring out when it's finally going to peak, Zain.

ASHER: All right, Salma, thank you so much. Let's bring in Cyril Vanier from Paris. So Cyril, across Europe, we're seeing more and more

restrictions every single day including mask mandates and also tougher restrictions on British travelers trying to head to other parts of Europe.

CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Zain. Look, what we're seeing is that the Omicron variant is already dominant in at least three countries

that we know of, the U.K., Denmark and Portugal. And now Omicron is ripping through the continent at an unprecedented rate. The estimate is that the

number of Omicron-related cases double every 48 hours. So, in countries where it is not yet dominant, it is going to be dominant pretty soon. It's

going to be dominant here in France before the end of the year.

Germany expected will become the dominant Omicron -- the dominant coronavirus variant within two to three weeks. And as a result, you are

seeing European countries batoning down the hatches as they're faced with this storm as the World Health Organization has termed it. Some

restrictions obviously have already been put in place. A lot will be kicking in just after Christmas for obvious reasons, governments trying to

let people enjoy their Christmas.

So, you mentioned outdoor mask mandates, those are back in Spain. They were gone as of June and they're back just after Christmas. In Portugal, they're

closing schools, they're closing bars, they're closing restaurants. In Belgium, they are shutting down all indoor spaces, and you have severe

restrictions coming in, social gathering restrictions in Germany also just after Christmas. In terms of preventing U.K. travelers from coming on the

continent, yes, you have multiple countries that have done that, notably France and Germany.

They have both pretty much shut their borders to U.K. travelers, unless they have a very good reason to be traveling to that country. For instance,

in France's case, you have to have a medical emergency or something akin to that in order to be allowed in, or you have to be a resident here. All of

these European countries, they know they're not going to stop Omicron. We've said that for several days running now, Zain, they just want to slow

it down, give themselves a few more days, a few more hours to keep boosting their population as they're doing.

ASHER: And what are we likely to see, Cyril, just in terms of more countries beyond Austria, say, and possibly Germany, looking to vaccine


VANIER: Yes, I think that's something that multiple governments are looking at. But the -- in terms of a strict mandate, you might not see that

many more. The reason being that governments have become, quote, unquote, "smart" about it, and they have found pretty much -- they have found ways

around a mandate that will squeeze the unvaccinated, compel them, highly incentivize them. You can term it any way you want, that pretty much forces

the unvaccinated to get vaccinated without calling it a mandate.

So, in Italy, they have a super green pass. In France here, they have a health pass, which is about to become next month a vaccine pass. And what

that does is, you have to show your phone, right? You have to -- I have to show my phone pretty much before I enter any store, and I have to bring

up my health pass, which will become a vaccine pass, meaning, I have to be vaccinated to go to a restaurant, to go to the cinema, to go to a train

station, to go to an airport.


There's very little you can do in this country if you don't have this pass. And, therefore, governments can pretty much force the unvaccinated to start

getting vaccinated even without calling it a mandate, Zain.

ASHER: Right, so forcing them without forcing them. They make your life so difficult without a vaccine that you end up having to go and get the

vaccine, right?

VANIER: Pretty much, yes.

ASHER: Cyril Vanier live for us, Salma Abdelaziz, thank you both so much, Merry Christmas to you and your families. All right, still to come here

today is expected to be one of the busiest holiday travel days of the year even though many are concerned it might not be safe to see their relatives

right now. That story next.


ASHER: As we've been reporting, there are cautious signs that Omicron may, and we stress may, not be as deadly as earlier forms of COVID. We've been

telling you about those early studies showing fewer hospitalizations from the Omicron variant. And our Larry Madowo told us South Africa is feeling

more hopeful. But it remains incredibly infectious. And, sadly, nobody is letting down their guard.

The EU is pressing ahead with efforts to vaccinate children as young as 5 years old. I want to bring in CNN's senior medical correspondent Elizabeth

Cohen. So, yes, we know that this version, this variant Omicron is certainly highly transmissible. But at the same time, the fact that

hospitalizations seem to be lower is certainly encouraging news, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is encouraging. There have now been several encouraging studies, and I'm going to get to

those numbers in a minute. But first, I want to give two caveats. There is so much Omicron out there because it's so transmissible that even a small

percentage of a big number can still be a big number. Also experiences that countries have with the coronavirus or really with other viruses as well,

it's not always the same. It does not always translate from one country to another country because of specific circumstances.

But let's take a look at what the South African study found. So, what they found is that when they looked at cases in October and November, 2.5

percent of them that were Omicron ended up being admitted to the hospital. But if they were Delta, 12.8 percent of them ended up in the hospital. So

that's obviously quite a significant difference. If you look in Scotland, they sound -- found something similar, a two-thirds reduction in

hospitalization risk, and they found that a booster would lead to a 57 percent reduction in the risk of symptomatic infection.


So, again, doesn't mean that everything is going to be smooth-sailing, but certainly encouraging news. And we know that if you get vaccinated and if

you get a booster, you are less likely to get sick, less likely then to pass on to others. Zain?

ASHER: And we're seeing a lot of countries around the world or more countries around the world now offering vaccines to 5 to 11-year-olds.

COHEN: Right, so the U.K. is and there are other countries, Germany, Denmark. It's that 5 to 11-year-olds range that was authorized in the U.S.

back a few months ago, and now other countries are doing the same. And so that's important not so much because -- well, not just because children

can't get COVID, but also because they can be a big vector, any parent knows, you know, little kids are great at spreading disease. So, it's so

important to get these children vaccinated, and of course, younger than five hasn't happened yet, hopefully there will be new data on that in the

coming year.

ASHER: And then, also, the U.S. is now authorizing another company Merck to basically administer a COVID-19 pill. How does this particular pill

compare to Pfizer's pill?

COHEN: You know, it's interesting. It does not seem to be as effective, and it also has safety concerns. And that's why the U.S. Food and Drug

Administration said we've authorized it, but they also said that if you can do something else, if you can do another treatment, do that. So, in other

words, Merck is sort of the treatment of last resort. But they didn't want to leave it off the table. So let's take a look at what they found when

they -- when Merck did a clinical trial.

So when they did a clinical trial, they divided the people up, it was hundreds of participants in half, and half of them got a placebo and half

of them got -- half of them got the actual drug. The one who got a placebo, a pill that does nothing, 68 were hospitalized and nine died. The ones that

got the drug, only 48 were hospitalized and one of them died. Obviously, quite a difference there. The safety concerns have to do with pregnant

women and children.

Pregnant women, it's recommended that they don't take this Merck drug, and it is not being offered to children. Zain?

ASHER: All right, Elizabeth Cohen live for us there, thank you so much. Vaccine uptake is not what it could be in the United States, hovering

around 60 percent. But the vaccine may have just gotten a boost of its own from the former president. Donald Trump spoke to Candace Owens of the

conservative media outlet, "The Daily Wire".


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don't take their vaccine. But

it's still their choice. And if you take the vaccine, you're protected. Look, the results of the vaccine are very good. And if you do get it, it's

a very minor form. People aren't dying when they take the vaccine.


ASHER: Former President Donald Trump there trying to convince a conservative audience on the benefits of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. All

right, just in to CNN, New York City will ring in the new year in a scaled- back fashion. The city's mayor has just announced the revised plan in the face of rising COVID cases. New York's famous Times Square can hold up to

58,000 people, but this year's party will be limited now to just about 15,000. Today, you see the Square is full of people trying to get COVID

tests, certainly a sign of the times.

All of the new year's revelers will still have to wear masks and will have to show proof of vaccinating -- vaccinations. All right, we just got

breaking news, I've just been told there's a verdict now in the Kim Potter trial and I'll hand you over to my colleague Poppy Harlow.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: From the court is a trial outcome. They have not said the word verdict, but they have said trial outcome. There you see

the former officer Kim Potter awaiting this, it will all be read live, so you'll see it all right here. You may have been following this, watching

days and days of testimony. Kim Potter herself took the stand, this is all over the killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a father of a 2-year-old who

was killed in April.

There we have the judge who is about to gavel in. I think, as we wait for this, that's Judge Regina Chu. Let's go and monitor this and bring in my

colleague Adrienne Broaddus who's been covering this case and this trial from the beginning. Adrienne, forgive me if I have to interrupt you because

we want to bring this all to the viewer live. But remind our viewers what we're waiting for here.

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are waiting to find out the future of the former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter. Just

moments ago, as you saw here on live TV, Judge Chu asked for the jury to be brought in. Right now, defense attorney Earl Gray as we see just put his

arm around the back of Kimberly Potter.