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Biden Visits Texas to Survey Damage; FDA Set to Vote on Johnson & Johnson Vaccine; House Set to Pass COVID Relief Bill. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 26, 2021 - 15:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Top of the hour. Good to have you with us. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Brooke Baldwin.

Right now, an FDA advisory panel is meeting on Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine. Now, if granted emergency use authorization, this would, of course, be the third vaccine authorized in the U.S. And then, if the CDC signs off, President Biden says the first doses would roll out immediately.

For its part, J&J says it has about four million doses ready to go. For Americans, meantime, who are struggling financially because of the pandemic, it looks like the COVID relief bill will pass in the House today, but without that $15 minimum wage, the Senate parliamentarian ruling the increase cannot be included in the $1.9 trillion package.

The Biden administration says it is disappointed with the decision, but the reality, of course, is, without that increase, the overall stimulus may have an easier time moving forward in the Senate.

Also, this hour, President Biden and first lady Jill Biden are in Houston, where they're set to visit a food bank, meet some of the volunteers there. Earlier today, they surveyed some of the damage from the devastating winter storms in Texas.

We're going to bring you that video as soon as we get it.

But, first, we do want to get you an update on where things stand with this COVID relief bill on Capitol Hill.

CNN's Jessica Dean is there for us this afternoon. So, just how close are we at this point to the bill passing?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, we expect that this bill will pass.

As far as how close we are, we are many, many, many hours away from that actually happening. So, just to give everyone a timeline update, right now, that bill is still in the Rules Committee, which is where it needs to kind of get sorted out before they can take it to the floor. Once it gets to the floor, we estimate between six to seven-and-a-

half-and-a-half-hours that it will take to go through debate, the votes, all of the things that it will take to get to final passage of this bill.

So, members I have spoken to no, this is going to be a very long night for them here, a very long Friday night, which is somewhat rare for the House here on Capitol Hill. So, they know it's going to take a while.

But, again, we do expect this bill to pass. Congressman Jim Clyburn saying earlier, telling CNN that he does expect that some Democrats may vote against it. They can afford to lose up to three votes, but that he does expect it to pass that notwithstanding, that it will continue to go on.

And one interesting thing to note, you mentioned the Senate parliamentarian, of course, ruling that $15 minimum wage provision cannot be included on the Senate side. It will be in this House bill, because this is coming from the House. It will then get kicked over to the Senate upon its passage once that happens.

And that's where that will all play out. And the Senate will decide kind of how they want to move forward with everything -- Erica.

HILL: But that's the next step, of course, right.

DEAN: Right.

HILL: First, we got to get through tonight and the long night that you have ahead, my friend.

DEAN: We have a long way to go. That's right. Yes.

HILL: Jessica, thank you.

Well, happening right now, an FDA advisory panel about to vote on whether to recommend emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine. Now, if authorized, this would be the third vaccine available in the U.S. First shots would likely be in arms next week.

Right now, the U.S. is averaging one-and-a-half million shots a day. The rise of variants, though, across the country is also increasing concerns about another surge, despite a consistent drop in cases and deaths.

CNN's Alexandra Field has more now on the vaccine race and also some new details about the number of Americans who are willing to get their shot.


ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A third COVID-19 vaccine could be authorized as soon as this evening. We may see the new shots in arms early next week. DR. H. CODY MEISSNER, FDA VACCINES AND RELATED BIOLOGICAL PRODUCTS

ADVISORY COMMITTEE: We need every tool that we can possibly get to curtail the spread of this pandemic.

FIELD: Initially, Johnson & Johnson won't pump out as many shots as quickly as the Biden administration had hoped.

But the ease of the country's first single dose vaccine should boost critical efforts to vaccinate more Americans.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, NIAID DIRECTOR: The more vaccines that have high efficacy that we can get into play, the better.

FIELD: Pfizer's vaccine is also becoming easier to roll out. The FDA now says that vaccine doesn't require ultra-low temperatures for shipping and storage, meaning it could be distributed at more sites.

Good news, as demand for vaccines ramps up. A new Kaiser Family Foundation survey shows, for the first time, the majority of U.S. adults, 55 percent, have been or want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, up from 47 percent in mid-January and 34 percent in early December.

Black and Hispanic adults and young adults are more likely to say they will wait and see, this as new cases and hospitalizations are down significantly from all-time highs. But the CDC says they're seeing a concerning shift. Those declines may be stalling.


DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: CDC has been sounding the alarm about the continued spread of variants. We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants.

FIELD: As to whether vaccines could help combat potential new surges, Dr. Fauci saying they can play a big role. They don't have to specifically target a new variant in order to be effective.

FAUCI: Get as many people vaccinated as you possibly can. Everything you throw at us about a mutant is going to be countered by getting people vaccinated.


FIELD: And, Erica, you just can't overstate the need for more of a supply right now, that as we inch closer to the possibility of more supply becoming a reality, this advisory committee set to vote soon on whether or not to recommend the emergency use authorization.

Once the FDA issues an emergency use authorization, you would see things start to move forward. A CDC committee is scheduled to meet over the weekend. They would look at whether to recommend the vaccine and who it should go to. The Biden administration saying they are ready to distribute those Johnson & Johnson vaccines just as soon as they get the go-ahead.

They say they have got three to four million shots in the pipeline, shots that could be getting into arms next week -- Erica.

HILL: All right. And so we wait, right, for that announcement, hopefully a little bit later today, to start the ball rolling.

Alexandra Field, thank you.

Joining me now, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent.

So, Sanjay, as we look at this, the good news, right, is that, as we just saw in Alex's piece, hospitalizations, new cases, even deaths are dropping, but the numbers are plateauing at fairly high levels.

I know that's concerning. And I know, yesterday, you spoke with NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who told you that there is a real risk here of another surge.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, people have sort of raised this concern ever since we sort of identified some of these variants and recognized that they're simply more transmissible, Erica.

So, what -- frankly, just in your regular life, what you may have gotten away with in terms of not actually causing a viral transmission may be harder if the virus in fact is more contagious.

So, that's what they're really talking about. I think the big question, as we have asked all along through this pandemic, as you see an increase in the number of people who are diagnosed, does that translate to a corresponding number of hospitalizations a few weeks later and then, sadly, to a corresponding number of deaths after that?

The hope is that that doesn't happen as much, right, as more people have immunity, as more people get vaccinated, that, even if cases do go up, hopefully, you're not seeing the most tragic consequences of that. We don't know the answer yet. But that's what everyone is hoping for.

HILL: Yes, absolutely.

As we look at what is hopefully coming down the pike, right, the FDA advisory panel meeting right now could recommend emergency use authorization for J&J's single-dose vaccine.

There's so many questions about these variants. Do we know how that particular vaccine potentially protects against these emerging variants?

GUPTA: Yes, I think we have a pretty good idea.

I mean, we saw the initial data, and then we saw the FDA's analysis of the data. We can put it up on the screen. I think here's the best way to sort of think about it is, I think that there is a impact of the variants on the vaccine, meaning that, for some of these places where the variants were circulating widely, such as in Latin America, the variant associated with Brazil, you see a drop off from 72 to 68 percent, South Africa, 64 percent. But that was for moderate disease. If you look at the right side of the screen, that is global data, so it takes into account all the variants in all these various locations. And what they found that it was 85 percent protective against severe disease. So that's really significant, Erica, and no hospitalizations or deaths at the one-month mark for people who received that Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

That's the sort of data the FDA is going to pay attention to. Remember, their bar for an emergency use authorization is, do the benefits outweigh the risks? It's as simple as that.

One other data point I want to show you, Erica, because you and I have talked about this before, we know the vaccines protect against illness. It's been a longstanding question. Do they also help prevent you from becoming infected?

Early data, Erica -- this was sort of buried in the addendum. But what they found was that people who received the vaccine were far less likely, 70 percent less likely, to have asymptomatic infection. So, that kind of means that it seems to be protective, to some extent, against people actually carrying the virus.

You remember, even if you're vaccinated, you have still got to wear a mask. Why? You could be carrying the virus and spread it. This data seemed to suggest that, ultimately, this should help address that issue as well.

HILL: And which is exactly what we want to hear, moving in that direction.

There's also a new IHME model. We have looked at this model so much over the last year or so, right? This new model showing the cases and deaths are actually falling faster than expected. I know you spoke with a doctor who's the head of that modeling team last night.

So, what did you learn? Why are we seeing this drop?


GUPTA: Well, when you look at this -- I mean, I will preface by saying, as people have said to me, all models are wrong, but some are useful. And we're seeing some of that here as well.

It's a wide range, Erica, when you look at the model here, but we can put it up and show you. First of all, you're right. They are seeing a faster drop-off than expected.

A few reasons. One is, we are still sort of off that surge now from the winter holidays and the early part of the year. Two is that people may be better about mask-wearing than was originally modeled or projected. And three is that you are seeing the impact of immunity.

I mean, we all talk about the herd immunity as sort of being that benchmark. But the reality is that, even along the way, as you gradually increase immunity, that makes a difference overall. So, people who've been naturally affected have some immunity. The vaccinations are adding more immunity. Mask-wearing is possibly better. And we're coming off the surge.

So all these things seem to make a difference. It could reverse. You could see the case numbers go back up, as everyone has been warning. But hopefully, again, you don't see the corresponding increase in hospitalizations and deaths.

HILL: Yes, exactly.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, always good to see you, my friend. Thank you.

GUPTA: You got it. Thank you.

HILL: Any moment now, President Biden and the first lady said to meet with Texans who are still suffering from that brutal winter storm that crippled the state. We are live in Houston.

Plus: the Biden administration releasing a long-awaited report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. And it says the Saudi crown prince, it believes, approved the operation to capture or kill the Saudi journalist. So, what happens now?

And some of the biggest names in the GOP taking center stage at CPAC today. Also, how about that golden Trump being wheeled around? Many others, though, choosing to skip the conservative conference altogether this year.

That and, again, the statue, we will discuss it all next.



HILL: Happening now: President Biden and the first lady are in Texas. They're there to see the damage firsthand left by last week's deadly winter storms.

This marks the first trip to a disaster zone for Biden since taking office.

CNN's Arlette Saenz is in Houston.

So, Arlette, what is on the president's schedule today?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, President Biden is here in Houston getting that firsthand assessment of those recovery efforts after that severe winter storm battered this state last week.

Now, the president just wrapped up touring the Emergency Operations Center in Harris County, where he was accompanied by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. And he heard from local officials who have been working day and night since the storm about the efforts that have been under way as the state recovers. He heard about the FEMA response that's come into the state, as well as everything, like the number of boil- water notices still ongoing in the state, as well as even school buildings and how many school buildings across the state were facing leaks amid this winter storm.

Now, in a short while, the president will be arriving at the Houston Food Bank, where both he and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, will be receiving a tour and meeting with volunteers. The first lady was actually there earlier today packing up food and water supplies for the local community.

And once they wrap up there, they're heading over here to the complex at NRG Stadium, where one of those federal mass vaccination sites just opened up yesterday. The president will be delivering remarks here, as this is one of those sites that's trying to dole out 6,000 vaccines a day in the coming weeks.

Now, part of what Biden's goal here on this trip is to assess what kind of federal assistance can still be offered to the state of Texas. But it also gives him the chance to play that role of a comforter. You see president's step into this position many times in the wake of natural disasters, as well as other major tragedies.

And it's really something that Biden is quite familiar with, as he -- his empathy has really been a calling card of his for years. You have seen the president go into communities in the past to meet with families who've lost loved ones or cities and towns that have faced destruction.

You have also seen him over at the White House offering sympathy to the country as that COVID pandemic has taken so many lives. Now, while he is here in the state, he's accompanied by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Texas Senator John Cornyn is also a joining him for some of these events. The other Texas senator, Ted Cruz, was over in Florida earlier today speaking at a conservative conference.

The White House says that neither an invitation nor a request from Cruz was given to the White House to ask him to attend here with Biden. Now, there could be some opportunities for the president to face questions over the course of the day when it comes to that explosive and damning report related to the death of "The Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi and also those strikes in Syria.

But, so far, the focus for the president today has simply been on these recovery efforts here in Texas in the wake of that storm -- Erica.

HILL: Arlette Saenz with the latest for us.

Arlette, thank you.

Well, breaking news as we wait for that White House vote on the COVID stimulus package for struggling Americans. CNN has just learned that some Republican members are saying they can't make that vote because of a -- quote -- "public health emergency."

What is interesting is, they're actually set to speak at CPAC.


Stay with us.


HILL: This just into CNN.

Several Republicans have just informed House leadership they will be unable to attend votes this evening, including that critical vote, the crucial vote for Biden's COVID-19 relief package. They say they can't be there for votes because of the -- quote -- "ongoing public health emergency."


Here's the thing, though. Those same lawmakers are actually slated to attend this weekend's CPAC conference in Orlando.

Of course, former President Trump will also be there.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju breaking this story for us now.

So, Manu, one of these is sort of part of the job, part of what taxpayers pay you to do, elect you to do. The other one is not.


What's not is attending a political committee, a political conference on the day in which you're supposed to be in Congress voting. And they set up these rules to vote by proxy in order to ensure that members who could not come back to Capitol Hill could vote. And they -- the reason why they couldn't come back, if that were the case, was because of the pandemic.

In fact, they are required to sign letters with the House clerk saying -- quote -- "They cannot attend due to the ongoing public health emergency."

But what we have found is that several of these Republican lawmakers are actually speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference today and tomorrow. That includes some of the president's -- the former president's closest allies, Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who addressed the conference this morning, Congressman Paul Gosar, who helped lead the effort to overturn the election results in six states, as well as Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Ted Budd of North Carolina, Jim Banks of Indiana, among others.

There are potentially even more, but those are the ones that we have seen. And then to think about this system of voting by -- it's called voting by proxy on Capitol Hill. You can actually designate another member to vote on your behalf and at your direction, tell them how to vote one way or the other.

Republicans actually fought this system when it was first instituted. They said the Democrats should not be pushing forward on this. They actually went to court to try to battle this, and it was rejected in court.

But here we have several Republican lawmakers signing this letter saying they need to vote by proxy because of the public health pandemic, but instead are addressing conservative activists. And expect some Democrats, I'm sure, and perhaps some Republicans to respond on this, because this is not what the system is designed for -- Erica.

HILL: Yes, definitely not. I look forward to those responses from both sides of the aisle.

Manu, great reporting, as always. Thank you.

Well, that conference, of course, is CPAC. And so far, there's a pretty clear focus for this year's event. It is to promote the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. It's pretty evident, if you look at the session lineup. And sources tell CNN the widely debunked conspiracy theory will actually be central to former President Trump's speech on Sunday, which we're told he will also use to remind Republicans that he's here to stay, although not really clear they need any prompting.

Take a look.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): There are a whole lot of voices in Washington that want to just erase the last four years. They look at Donald J. Trump, and they look at the millions and millions of people inspired who went to battle fighting alongside President Trump and they're terrified.

And they want him to go away. Let me tell you this right now. Donald J. Trump ain't going anywhere.


HILL: Ted Cruz, he's got his backing.

Well, if that's not enough of an endorsement, though, check out this 6-foot-tall golden statue. Here it comes. Wait. Wait for it. There it is being wheeled around the conference exhibit halls.

It's something.

Charlie Dent is a CNN political commentator, former Republican congressman of Pennsylvania.

Always good to see you.

I have to start with this reporting that we just got from Manu, the fact that there are Republican lawmakers who are at CPAC. They are scheduled to be there. They said they can't take care of their business in Washington because of the -- quote -- "ongoing public health emergency." I guess, on the one hand, it's not surprising. It should be, though, I would think, somewhat disappointing. And, also, it's pretty easy to figure out where they are.

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Erica, it's never a good look for a member of Congress to skip doing their official work for a -- quote -- "campaign activity" a non-official activity that are not in their district.

So, I think it's a very bad look for members to be doing that. I mean, obviously, they can vote by proxy. Ordinarily, they can't. But that's where they are, but they have to do some explaining back home. I mean, I would never want to be in that situation if I were a member.

HILL: I'm guessing you probably wouldn't put yourself in that situation. I'm going to go out on a limb there, but I feel like it's pretty -- a pretty safe, sturdy limb.

Will it matter, bottom line?

DENT: Will it matter? Probably not in many of their districts, because I think most of those members represent very safe districts.

And they're out there beating the Trump drum. And in their districts, they probably think that's very effective politically. So, they're willing to take the hit. And they will be recorded as voting because they will be voting by proxy.

So, I don't think it's going to have much of a political impact on them.

HILL: Yes, but it really does say a lot, doesn't it?