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Wuhan Lab Scientists were Hospitalized in November 2019; Georgia Set for Ballot Counting; Bee Nguyen is Interviewed about Georgia's Recount. Aired 9:00-9:30a ET

Aired May 24, 2021 - 09:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good Monday morning, everyone. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow.


This morning, new fuel and perhaps new intelligence to the debate over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

CNN has learned that a U.S. intelligence report found that several researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, that is a lab there in Wuhan, fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized. That is a whole month before China reported its first case officially of COVID-19. The important, new detail here, the researchers had to be hospitalized.

HARLOW: That's right, they were severely ill. The Trump administration's State Department in January of this year released a fact sheet that said Chinese researchers had gotten sick in the fall of 2019, but this intelligence that they were sick enough to seek hospital care shortly before the confirmed outbreak, well, all of that adds to demands of a broader investigation into the origins of the virus and for greater transparency from the Chinese government.

With the reporting this morning, our Natasha Bertrand and our David Culver, who joins us in Shanghai.

Natasha, let's just start with you and your new reporting on the intelligence, right, the intelligence community that has believed and continues to believe and have, in their words, low confidence on the virus' precise origin. Does all of this give them any more confidence?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Poppy, so -- so what we know is that the U.S. intelligence community has this report that just adds another data point to the broader picture, right? The assessment that Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, gave to Congress last month that the intelligence community still doesn't know the precise origins of the virus, where it originally broke out, exactly when it originally spread, is still very low and that remains to be the case.

So this -- what this does is it adds yet another question as to whether the pandemic started in a lab, which has become a pretty highly politicized theory, especially after the Trump administration. But it remains, you know, the case that we still don't have enough evidence to rule it out.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci actually said recently that he is not 100 percent confident that this escaped -- that this actually occurred naturally and that the lab theory does require more investigation.

So it is important to note that we don't know, and neither does the U.S. intelligence community for that matter, what these researchers actually got sick with. Their symptoms were consistent with symptoms of coronavirus but they were also consistent with other seasonal illnesses. So things like the flu, for example. So the intelligence community does not know whether they actually had COVID-19 and that is why they had to seek hospital care.

But, of course, that is something that the Biden administration and the international community has said needs more investigation.

SCIUTTO: Yes, exactly. I mean they're certainly not eliminating it. More open to that lab escape theory than they were before.

David Culver, in China, the Chinese government's typical response to something like this is to deny, deny, deny. That's what they're doing here. Do they have any evidence to back that denial?

DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That continued just a few hours ago, Jim, from the foreign ministry continuing to deny this, considering this to be hype from the U.S. side of things.

This is increasingly becoming one of the most sensitive issues here. Any talk about the origin and linking it to a potential lab link in Wuhan does not go over well. And state media coming out with their version of things, rebutting it, considering it to be a complete lie, as they're quoting the director of that lab.

But this is something that they have been pushing back against for several months, if not now more than a year. And part that have is because of the image that they're concerned this could portray globally. Not necessarily with western countries but what this could mean for developing countries that have been looking at China and, obviously, China's had spreading influence in those countries.

And China, to counter some of this, what we saw in the past few months, has even engaged in vaccine diplomacy. So that means using a lot of their vaccines here that were meant for the domestic population and shipping them out. Now, they portray it as good will but many are looking at that as a way to deflect against any culpability and potential blame, especially when it comes to the origin of the virus.

[09:05:07] It is something that they will continue to push back against because they believe that science at the core of everything will uncover what the actual source is. The problem is, Jim and Poppy, the WHO scientists have even said they haven't had full access to a lot of the data.

HARLOW: Right. And weren't they criticized, David, for being quite differential to Chinese officials, the WHO, throughout this investigation?

CULVER: That's received -- that team has received a lot of criticism. And we were in Wuhan in January when they made their visit a year after the outbreak. So that delay alone causes issues. But you're right, Poppy, with regards to how much influence China has on the WHO team, there have been questions as to the infighting amongst those scientists and the concerns that some have had perhaps more influence from China than others. And that's been a growing concern and really it has politicized the entire field mission and their results.

SCIUTTO: David Culver there in China and Natasha Bertrand, thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss more broadly, Dr. Carols del Rio. He's the executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine. Juliette Kayyem, she's a former assistant secretary at the DHS.

Juliette, if I can begin with you.

There's been notable movement here from a theory that was dismissed early on and movement, by the way, in the medical community, when you hear what Dr. Fauci, for instance, say, hey, we can't eliminate this lab theory. But also now intelligence indicating that scientists became ill as early as November 2019.

How significant is that movement there? And are we closer to determining that this whole story about the wet market, right, and that the release of this was not so innocent?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right. I think we are getting closer to at least having more data points and intelligence to open up a realistic and reasonable investigation into the origins. And people -- why do origins matter? Well, the origin of a harm matters because we -- if we want it to not happen again, it makes a difference if it started in a lab, in a careless lab, or in a market.

I think the second thing is just -- makes me so mad, and I want to commend "Washington Post" and "Wall Street Journal" reporters who went up against a lot of naysayers on these stories, is time. Time is the only thing you have in a pandemic. And so I'm focused less on the where than the fact that China seems to have evidence that something was wrong in the lab in November.

Four weeks, as we now know, means a lot in a pandemic, especially if it could prepare us. And you can say Trump -- former President Trump wouldn't have done anything. That's just not -- we just don't know at this stage. Would we have been better prepared, greater transparency, greater situational awareness to get cities and states ready. So I -- so the when is the thing that is just inexcusable.

HARLOW: And don't --

SCIUTTO: It's a great point, right, Poppy, because it's not just time is money here but in this case time is lives, right, because early response, you know, would have made a difference.

KAYYEM: Right.

HARLOW: Yes, for sure.

And, Dr. del Rio, to you, what also matters about the origin is how do you prevent it from happening again? Even if -- if the lab theory proves out, and we're a long way from that, you know, what is to say that something akin to that from increased testing to try to make something more contagious, et cetera isn't done again? Like, what are the global laws, rules protecting against them?

DR. CARLOS DEL RIO, EXECUTIVE ASSOCIATE DEAN, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT GRADY HEALTH SYSTEM: Well, that's exactly right, right, we need better global health security framework that actually allows those things not to happen and not to occur, whether it's by accident or by intention.

But, more importantly, also, with the increasing, you know, (INAUDIBLE) that we have of humans into animals and the changes in the environment, we are likely going to continue seeing synodic pandemics emerge. And most of them are not going to come from labs, they're going to come from nature. So we also need to address that because better surveillance and better animal surveillance is going to be critical in order to avoid future pandemics.

SCIUTTO: Juliette, this will be quite a challenge for the Biden administration, will it not, if and -- again, listen, it's early. It hasn't been firmed up, but it's certainly been reopened, right, this debate about where this came from. Major questions about the original story here.

What options would that leave the Biden administration to respond to this because a major power in China hiding the real origins and, as you say, the timing of this had global consequences?

KAYYEM: Right. I think this is an opportunity, actually, for the Biden administration. As you noted in the run up, China has used vaccines and its help around the world as a form of diplomacy, vaccine diplomacy. The United States has been generous or is starting to get more generous with vaccines. But I also think if the Biden administration can lead an effort to do two things, one is a full accounting, of course, of what happened in China.


The second is a reckoning for the WHO. I am a fan of the WHO and the U.N. but it's sort of passiveness when it came to China's story throughout really was harmful and the United States, as -- you know, as a leader at the U.N. can really lead an effort in reforming the WHO to be less accepting of country narratives and more like an independent investigator.

So they can use this as an opportunity and, you know, look, I -- you know, I mean, the -- and to -- and to create governance systems that allow for more time. In the end, that's all that -- that's what we need most. We need vaccines. We need all sorts of other -- we need time when there are these -- when there are these outbreaks. And that's what the Biden administration could demand.

HARLOW: Dr. del Rio, what are you -- what is your biggest or are your biggest outstanding questions this morning?

DE RIO: Well, there are a lot of questions, Poppy, but I think two things, what Juliette said, I absolutely agree, it's time, but it's also collaboration. We need better international cooperation. I think China, you know, not only in this pandemic, but in 2003 with SARS, it was slow to open.

It's been -- it's been very secretive. And we need transparency and international collaboration because the reality is, this pandemic has caused over 3 million deaths globally, still ongoing. And if we didn't -- if we didn't have -- if we had had better national collaboration at the beginning, I think the trajectory of this pandemic could have been very, very different.

I also think that we need to look forward and see how to prevent it from happening again. What are the things that need to happen to create that independent body that is able to investigate and able to act rapidly and get over country politics in order prevent pandemics.

HARLOW: Dr. del Rio, thank you.

Juliette Kayyem, to both of you, we appreciate it.

We have a lot ahead this hour.

Still to come, Georgia becomes the latest state to take yet another look at 2020 election votes.

Arizona's so-called audit also starts back up today. Is this all a sign of what's to come elsewhere?

And National Guard troops have left the Capitol, but months after January 6th, with shortages of Capitol Police, how secure are those grounds?

SCIUTTO: And at least 11 people are dead, 69 injured in an explosion of gun violence across this country this weekend. Is the shooting, the gun violence crisis getting worse?



HARLOW: Welcome back.

As early as this week yet another election audit based on former President Trump's big lie that the election was stolen, it could begin in Georgia's most populated county, Fulton County. And that would be the fourth time -- four -- four times ballots are reviewed and recounted there, including a hand recount, all finding no widespread voter fraud.

SCIUTTO: Remember, Republican election officials stated the same and yet it continues. A judge says 147,000 mail-in ballots in Fulton County can be reviewed. Critics calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars. Bigger issues there, too, the big lie.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is following the details here.

So, Dianne, I mean, we saw this in Arizona. No basis. It continues. It creates a lot of political talking points. So how exactly will these ballots be reviewed? By whom?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and so, Jim, we're kind of still waiting for more information on how the audit is going to be conducted. Now the plaintiffs in this case say that they're going to deliver their proposal to the judge before May 28th. So we should learn a little more this week.

But we do know there's going to be one key difference between this audit and the so-called audit that's happening over in Arizona, and that is that the judge has said that due to federal and state law, the ballots have to remain in the custody of Fulton County. So it's likely going to involve copying and scanning and taking those copies to their own authors, their own experts who will then look at the ballots.

Now, look, this was one of more than two dozen lawsuits filed in the state of Georgia after the former president, Donald Trump, lost the state in the 2020 election. And, look, even the president has continued -- the former president has continued to kind of say that their election was rigged, that he actually won the state of Georgia.

But you mentioned, there have been audits. There has been a full recount. There have been investigations. Even the former president's own attorneys have admitted that the rigged claims that he has just, well, they don't hold up. They've been debunked.

Gabriel Sterling, who is an official with the secretary of state's office in Georgia, has said that, look, we spent thousands of hours investigating the exact claims in this lawsuit, that there were counterfeit ballots. This is what he had to say about the upcoming audit.


GABRIEL STERLING (R), GEORGIA ELECTION OFFICIAL: Their -- the claims are they're pristine ballots, that they're unfolded ballots that were just inserted -- that there's machine marked ballots. There's no evidence for any of that.

Our law enforcement officers and secretary of state's office spent literally thousands of hours examining ballots in Fulton County and other counties trying to track these kind of claims down and so far we've seen nothing to give any merit to it.


GALLAGHER: Now, Jim, Poppy, it is important to point out that no matter what comes of this audit, it can't change the results. They've already been long certified. The plaintiffs in this say that, look, this is simply so they know more about what happened in the election and they can know that their votes were, indeed, secure.


HARLOW: OK. Dianne, thank you for that reporting.

Let me bring in Democratic Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen. I should note she also recently announced her candidacy for Georgia secretary of state.

Good to have you, Representative.

STATE REP. BEE NGUYEN (D-GA): Good morning, Poppy. Thank you for having me on.

HARLOW: I thought it was interesting to hear current secretary of state of Georgia's, Raffensperger, response to this. He welcomed this -- what is essentially a fourth recount, saying that it would bring transparency. He said Fulton County has a long-standing history of election mismanagement that has understandably weakened voters' faith in the system. Allowing the audit provides another layer of transparency and civic engagement.

I think what he's saying is, why not if it makes people trust it more. Is he wrong?

NGUYEN: Well, the secretary of state has a history of double speak, which means on one hand he is saying there's no evidence of voter fraud whatsoever. We have done this multiple times, including a hand count. It is going to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. The election results are not going to change.

On the other hand, he has a history of deflecting blame and placing that blame on counties such as Fulton County. It is a dangerous messaging to continue to deflect the blame on Fulton County.

We know that local election boards have had their fair acknowledges but the secretary of state should be coming to the table and working with them to correct those challenges.

And Fulton County has done that. They made changes so that we ran smooth and efficient elections in Fulton County. And now we are back to the same space of that same predicated on lies, undermining the results of the election with no basis, and we're going to see the same results again, no voter fraud.

HARLOW: You bring up some issues that Fulton County has had in the past there. Would you change more? Would you work, if you are elected secretary of state, to change more in the process as Fulton County runs the voting there? Do you think there's more work to be done?

NGUYEN: I think there's more work to be done across 159 counties. That's a lot of counties to work with. And when we are looking at the challenges made last year because we're in the middle of a public pandemic, because we were rolling out new voting machines, the reality is all 159 counties could use those supports.

All counties face different things, but, obviously, when we're dealing with these metro counties who are most populist, they're going to have more (INAUDIBLE) other election counties. And the reality is, the secretary of state should have been coming to the table this entire time to help local election boards work out whatever challenges they were facing. We, as elected lawmakers, worked closely with our election boards to make those improvements, to make sure that elections were run more smoothly in November than they had been in June.

So certainly I think there's plenty of opportunity to build collaborative relationships with election boards, including Fulton County.

HARLOW: You -- you're running against Secretary of State Raffensperger, who interestingly garnered a lot of praise, as you know, from your fellow Democrats for standing up to the big lie, telling the truth, refusing to overturn the election, fighting for transparency, pushing back against conspiracy theories.

How do you run against that? Because you running, are you saying you don't think that he is -- do you think he's fit for that role?

NGUYEN: The secretary of state upheld the law. And I was one of the many Georgians who was holding my breath waiting to see what was happening. And I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that he followed the law.

But where we -- where we -- we are different is the secretary of state currently supports Senate bill 202, the bill that stripped him of his own power. He elected to do this job. He has certain responsibilities that come with that job. And instead of fighting against a bill that was predicated on lies, he's now supporting Senate bill 202, which not only dilutes his own responsibilities, but it will make it harder for people in the state of Georgia to vote.

HARLOW: Explain to our viewers, this is really an important part of SB 202. If it passes, it would basically allow partisans to take people like the secretary of state out of their role of overseeing elections completely in the middle of an election.

NGUYEN: Right. The senate bill -- exactly. The senate bill that passed already renewed the secretary of state as chair of our state election board. So that's the entity that was responsible for being able to pass emergency ruling last year to address some of the issues that came up during the pandemic. The secretary of state would no longer be a voting member of that board, which automatically dilutes his power and responsibility. And the second dangerous provision is the ability for the state to

take over local election boards, up to four local election boards at the same time, which theoretically, in worse case scenarios, they can choose to have a partisan takeover of our four metro Atlanta counties at the same time.


And in that takeover, they would have the ability to remove anybody from those local election boards.

HARLOW: Final question for you. We just have about 30 seconds left.

But if you win and become the next secretary state of Georgia, you'll be the first Asian-American and only the second woman of color to hold that post. As I understand it, you actually spoke to Stacey Abrams about your decision making process. What did she say to you on the front?

NGUYEN: Look, Stacey Abrams is somebody who gave us a vision of what a leader could look like in Georgia. I remember in 2018, when she decided to run for governor, there was question about the same thing, we have never had a black woman lead as governor in the state of Georgia and people asked the same questions of who is electable and who is not. And she has proven to us not only is she a leader, she has transformed what electoral politics looks like across the entire country. She is a household name.

And so Stacey said to me, sometimes people just have to see it before they can envision for it themselves. And she certainly showed us that was true when she stepped out in 2018.

HARLOW: Georgia State Representative, candidate for secretary of state, Bee Nguyen, thank you.

NGUYEN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Ahead next hour, we will speak with Arizona's secretary of state, Katie Hobbs. We'll talk about the partisan so-called audit happening there right now.

SCIUTTO: National Guard troops are leaving D.C. after a month's long stay to keep the Capitol safe following the insurrection. This as the general who lead the security view in the wake of the attack is urging lawmakers to approve a funding bill that would help bolster security at the Capitol. Lots of road blocks to that. What does that mean? We're going to speak to him.

And we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Futures pointing higher this morning. Investors are still keeping a close eye on inflation and the pace of economic recovery. But they're pointing up. And we're going to stay on top of the markets.