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U.S. Starts Distributing Johnson & Johnson Vaccine; BioNTech CEO: Studying Vaccine's Effectiveness Against Variants; U.S. Schools Begin to Tackle Problems of Reopening Safely; Pope to Visit Iraq Despite COVID and Terrorism Threats; Britain's Prince Philip Moved to Second London Hospital; Prince Harry Compares Split from Royals to Princess Diana. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 2, 2021 - 04:30   ET



ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Health experts are hailing the much anticipated rollout of a third coronavirus vaccine in the United States. Johnson & Johnson has begun shipping its doses and shots could start going into arms as early as today. But America's top infectious disease expert warns against comparing its efficacy to that of other vaccines.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: The J&J, if you look at them, particularly in things that we really care about are important, has got greater than 85 percent efficacy after severe disease and critical disease and there were no deaths or hospitalizations in any of the countries that were tested. And remember, they tested in the United States, in South Africa and in South America. This is a good vaccine. I think we need to pull away from this comparing and parsing numbers until you compare them head to head.


CHURCH: Several variants of COVID-19 have been documented around the world, and they have raised concerns about how effective current vaccines are at fighting them. The CEO of BioNTech told CNN it will take another six to eight weeks to get real world data that shows just how effective his vaccine is against the variant first identified in South Africa.

For more on this, let's bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. He spoke exclusively with BioNTech's CEO. Good to see you Fred. So what more did he have to tell you?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well in general, Rosemary, he said that he's very confident of the performance of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against a lot of these coronavirus variants. He said so far BioNTech had tested the vaccine against 25 coronavirus variants and it was really the only one that was the one in South Africa where the efficacy seemed to somewhat drop. But in general he says that with these variants there's really two

main issues. On the one hand, some of them seem to spread quicker. He said that's a real concern and therefore countries do need to step up their vaccination campaigns as fast as possible and as soon as possible.

He also said that he's against storing some of the vaccine doses. He said the moment that countries get vaccines, they should administer them as fast as possible.

The other big issue with these variants, the other concern with these variants, Rosemary, is that they might be able to evade some of these vaccines, making the efficacy less. And he says that's something he believes they can keep under control. Here's what he said.


UGUR SAHIN, CEO, BIONTECH: The first concern is, for example, the concern related to variants like the U.K. variant, which is spreading faster. And this is of course, a relevant concern. But there is also a second concern that the variants could escape immune response.

The second concern is relative concern. I'm not too much concerned about that. We believe particularly that mRNA vaccines and BioNTech and this is the 162b2 is designed in a way which is -- which is very robust against variants.

PLEITGEN: To what extent do you think a single dose strategy, vaccinating everyone as fast as possible, is something that could be possible or at least stretching out the amount of time between the first and second dose? Is that something that you think is feasible? And how feasible do you think it is?

SAHIN: So, first of all, it is important that indeed the vaccination campaigns go as fast as possible. And the first strategy for that it would be not to store the second dose, but really ensure that everyone, that we don't have vaccines in the freezer but vaccines really being used.

PLEITGEN: At what point do you think that it could be available to the entire population?

SAHIN: We have already vaccinated children at the age of 12 to 15 years. We are going to start clinical trials in children of ages 5 to 11 years and in children younger than five years already in 2021. So, this is important also to support school openings.


PLEITGEN (on camera): Another thing that BioNTech is also doing, Rosemary, which we learned yesterday. They're also massively trying to scale up their production and a new plant is going to be open fairly soon in Marburg. He said production is already going on there. But they do have to get approval from the European Medical Agency to actually be able to use those doses and to send them to countries. So you can see there that the vaccines, not just the BioNTech, but

surely also from other makers as well, they're constantly being analyzed. They're constantly being tested against variants. But also, may still be better than they were before.


One of the things BioNTech is saying is they're working on a new formula to be able to ship and store the vaccine at just refrigerator temperatures -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All very encouraging stuff. Frederick Pleitgen bringing us the latest there from Berlin, many thanks.

Well Slovakia is buying 2 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine as the country faces one of the worst COVID death rates in the world. The Prime Minister watched as the first batches arrived on Monday. Slovakia is just the second European Union country to approve the shot. buy the vaccine. It's neighbor Hungary began using Sputnik last month even though the vaccine lacks approval for emergency use in the EU. The head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund says more and more European countries want the vaccine.

Well the European Commission is hoping a COVID-19 digital passport will jump start travel for the upcoming northern summer. The passport would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated, test results for those not yet vaccinated and information on COVID-19 recovery.

Well now that vaccines are rolling out across the United States, President Biden says reopening schools is a priority for his administration. How do you do that safely though remains a major question. But some large school districts across the country are making progress.

In Chicago children in grades K through 5 whose families chose in- person learning were able to return to schools on Monday and Mayor Lori Lightfoot was on hand to welcome some of them back.


LORI LIGHTFOOT, (D) CHICAGO MAYOR: This is exactly what we fought for. This is the moment that we knew would be possible and important in the lives of our young people, in our students and that's why this, giving parents an option, to come back in person for their students is so important.


CHURCH: The Los Angeles Unified School District is planning to vaccinate its staff and reopen elementary schools in mid-April, and that's no small fete. The city is the second largest school district in the nation with more than 86,000 employees.

And in Philadelphia officials have agreed to start bringing back pre-K through grade 2 next week.


CHURCH: Keven Gessner is a resident of Upper Mayfield, Pennsylvania, and the parent of four children. Good to have you with us.

KEVEN GESSNER, PARENT: Thank you for having me.

CHURCH: So a year into this pandemic there's still a lot of kids out there doing remote learning, and now you and some other parents in Philadelphia have decided to take things into your own hands. What are you planning to do about this?

GESSNER: Well, I'm planning to run for local school board in the Castle Rock school district here in Pennsylvania.

CHURCH: And what are you hoping to do once you gain membership of that board?

GESSNER: Well one of the key focuses is to make sure that parents and children are put first and that all parents have an option for five- day in person learning and also to keep the virtual programs running. But hopefully an enhanced virtual program for those parents, students that need that option because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CHURCH: So it's currently four days, and that's not enough for you and for your wife and your four kiddies. So how and why? Why has the school decided to only do four days? Is there a particular reason that they're not able to cover that fifth day?

GESSNER: Well, some of the elementary schools are on a four-day in- person and then fifth day is virtual while some of the other schools are five days. So it's kind of a mixed bag here in this district, and I think that's the case in many of the districts. I know that even like a five day option, and it's really difficult when you don't have one. For example, my wife had to leave the work force this year to make sure she's staying at home and focusing on the children and their education. And that's not an option for everybody in the districts.

CHURCH: What about the problem of screen time? Kids are on zoom all through the school day and then on screen again with friends in the afternoon and evening or playing video games. What impact does that likely have on kids, do you think?

GESSNER: Yes, I actually find it fascinating. Years ago we talked about kids being on the screens too much all the time, and now we're putting on the screen for 7, 8 hours a day. And it's not healthy in my opinion. We try to limit screen time.

And even when the kids are not going back to school, they're often being put on screens when they're in person as well because the teachers are -- some of the teachers are having to try and teach both the virtual students and the in-class students as well.


So even when they're in the schools they're often getting too much screen time as well. CHURCH: Now that we have three vaccines available in the United

States, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, not only for the pandemic but for remote learning. But the reality is there will still be a lot of kids who will have to continue at home with remote learning for the next couple of months, even possibly to the end of the school year. What do you think this generation of students lost this year? And how do they catch up?

GESSNER: Well I think one of the biggest things they're losing is what normal socialization is. Now I know that there was some of that that was necessary. But my first grader, you know, told me the other day that, you know, not interacting with children and talking and staying away from kids is the normal thing and the good thing to do. So I think they are going to struggle as they adapt back to normal socialization skills once they come back together.

And I think we're really putting kids in a tough spot here because, you know, kids are having two different experiences now. You have groups of kids staying at home doing virtual learning, you have some kids going back to schools and quite frankly different schools are handling it differently in terms of the way they interact at school as well.


CHURCH (on camera): Keven Gessner talking to me earlier.

And still to come here on CNN, a look at major concerns surrounding the Pope's trip to Iraq on Friday. Live reports from Rome and Baghdad when we come back.


CHURCH: Nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria on Friday have been rescued. A government official says the girls were taken by gunmen who raided their school in the country's northwest. Nigeria's president is celebrating their release and says authorities will search for the kidnappers.


The girls' abduction is the latest in a string of similar kidnapping cases in Nigeria.

Well Pope Francis is determined to visit Iraq on Friday despite threats from COVID-19 and dangers of terrorism. It will be his first trip outside of Italy since the global pandemic started and the first ever papal visit to Iraq. The Vatican says the Pope's four-day visit includes multiple stops and is meant to promote peace, diversity and tolerance.

But some fear the nation's Christian population will come out in large numbers to see him and there are worries that his appearances could become COVID super spreader events.

CNN's deal CNN's Delia Gallagher is covering this story for us from Rome. And our Ben Wedeman is in Baghdad. Good to see you both. So Delia, let's go to you first. Some are questioning the wisdom of the Pope's trip to Iraq in the middle of a pandemic, given it will put people at risk. How determined is the Pope to make this trip?

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Vatican says, Rosemary, the trip is on and the Pope certainly has really been looking forward to it in terms of what he has said about it in the past. You know, it's sort of the culmination of a long chair's dream, if you want on the part of popes, even before Francis. As John Paul II really wanted to go to Iraq. He was never able to go.

Iraq has such importance even in terms of its historical religious importance. It's considered the birthplace of Abraham. Who is considered the father of the world's three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is considered a place of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. A community that has dwindled significantly in the past decades to the point that some people are saying it risks extinction.

So that is one of the major reasons the Pope has said he wants to go. He wants to be close. He says he's a pastor and wants to be close to the Christian community there and encourage those Christians who have had to flee to come back and to form a stable community once again in Iraq.

The other thing he'll be doing, Rosemary, is meeting with the head of the Shia Muslim community there, the Iman Al-Sistani -- the Ayatollah Al-Sistani. That's a really important meeting because Pope Francis has really made a part of his pontificate, this effort to get Muslims and Christians in dialogue for peace. So a lot of important reasons for this trip -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: OK, Delia, thank you for that. And Ben, Iraq is preparing to welcome the Pope. But will authorities there be able to meet the multitude of security and COVID-19 challenges posed by this papal visit?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In terms of security, Rosemary, the Iraqi military (INAUDIBLE) for this visit. And keep in mind that ISIS, which at one point occupied large parts of the country, has been defeated and, therefore, the real worry is not his security. All of the events are being very carefully controlled in terms of access and numbers of people.

The real worry is, of course, COVID, mind keeping in mind that Iraq is currently experiencing a spike in the number of new cases. Today the number of daily new cases reported is three times what it was a month ago. Despite that, if you go around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities you might be forgiven if you were to conclude that COVID does not exist here because from what I've seen, a purely subjective point of view, is that masks are a rarity, social distance as a concept doesn't seem to have sunk in.

And of course keep in mind, Rosemary, this is a country that over the last 40 years has seen repeated wars, occupations, almost a civil war and, therefore, the number of people who have died from COVID really is relatively small to be around 1.7 million people who have died as a result of sanctions and wars over the last 40 years -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right. Many thanks to Delia Gallagher in Rome, Ben Wedeman in Baghdad. Appreciate it.

Well the Biden administration is preparing to impose sanctions on Russia for the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. It's the latest sign that Russia will not be getting the same treatment it did under Donald Trump who failed to take any action under the poisoning.


According to two administration officials, the new measures will be rolled out in coordination with the European Union with the exact timing to be worked out in the coming days. The White House is looking to send a strong message on human rights as well as the importance of acting alongside allies.

And we'll be right back. Do stay with us here on CNN.


CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone.

Well Lady Gaga's dog walker is speaking out for the first time since he was shot. Saying he is still in recovery from a very close call with death. Ryan Fischer was shot during a robbery last week that ended with two of the singer's three French bulldogs being stolen. In a message on Instagram, Fischer says he's humbled and grateful for the outpouring of support.

He also thanked Lady Gaga saying, your babies are back, and the family is whole. We did it.

Thankfully, the two stolen dogs were safely returned to Los Angeles police by an unidentified woman. Police are still searching for two men suspected in that attack.

Well Britain's Prince Philip has been moved to another hospital in London. Now undergoing heart tests along with treatment for an earlier infection. The 99-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth has been in hospital since February 17th.


Details now from CNN's Anna Stewart.


ANNA STEWART, CNN REPORTER: It's already been the longest hospital stay that Prince Philip's ever had, and it's getting longer.

After 13 nights staying in a small private hospital in central London, the 99-year-old was moved by ambulance to this much bigger facility. St. Bart's is an internationally recognized hospital, and Britain's National Health Service say it has the largest specialized cardiovascular service in Europe.

The palace say the Duke of Edinburgh is now undergoing testing and observation for a pre-existing heart condition. That's in addition to being treating for an infection.

In 2011, we know the Duke received stent treatment for a blocked coronary artery. But it's unclear whether the two are related.

The palace say the Duke remains comfortable, but he's likely to remain here until at least the end of the week. A much longer stay than anticipated, and particularly concerning, given the Duke is just months shy of his 100th birthday.

Anna Stewart, CNN, London.


CHURCH: Prince Harry says his split with the other royals has been unbelievably tough, much like what his mother, Princess Diana, went through before her death. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex spoke with Orpah Winfrey for their first interview since giving up royal duties last year. Prince Harry credits his wife Meghan for helping to get him through the worst of times.


PRINCE HARRY, DUKE OF SUSSEX: You know, for me, I am just really relieved and I'm happy to be sitting here, talking to you, with my wife by my side. Because I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for her, going through this process by herself, all those years ago. Because it has been unbelievably tough for the two of us, but at least we have each other.


CHURCH: The highly anticipated interview will air this Sunday on CBS.

And thanks so much for your company. I'm Rosemary Church. "EARLY START" is up next. Have yourselves a wonderful day.