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Wuhan Lab Workers Hospitalized Before Pandemic Began; International Condemnation for Belarus "Hijacking"; Belarus Arrests Opposition Activist After Flight Diverted; U.S. Sees Another Weekend of Killings, Mass Shootings; CDC: More than 130 Million People in U.S. Fully Vaccinated; Madison Square Garden Welcomes 15,000 for Knicks Game; Spain Welcomes Tourists for U.K. and Japan Starting Today. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired May 24, 2021 - 04:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[04:00:00]

ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us here in the United States and all around the world. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM and I'm Rosemary Church.

Just ahead, new U.S. intelligence about hospitalized Wuhan lab workers is renewing the debate over the origins of COVID-19.

A fighter jet, a false bomb threat and a passenger plane forced from the sky. The brazen stunt Belarus pulled to get its hands on an opposition activist.

And the ambitious effort to count and conserve some of Africa's most iconic wildlife.

The good to have you with us. So what did they know and when did they know it? A U.S. intention report is raising new questions this hour about the origins of the COVID pandemic in China. But the director of the Wuhan National Bio Safety Lab calls the intel a complete lie. CNN's Steven Jiang joins me now from Beijing with more. Good to see you Steven. So what more are you learning about this, and of course, how is China responding to it?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: Well, Rosemary, the Chinese government has not officially responded to the latest of U.S. intelligence report with a foreign ministry spokesperson quoting a statement by the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March, saying that that institute had never come into contact with COVID-19 virus before December 30, 2019. And up until March, that institute's employees and researchers, no one among these people had contracted the virus. So that's a very strong denial.

And the spokesman actually went on to give the usual Chinese spiel about the growly likelihood of a multiple origin theory that the virus could have emerged from multiple locations around the world at the same time. And without providing any concrete evidence, again pointing a finger at a U.S.-military run bio lab in Maryland. So this kind of back-and-forth between Beijing and Washington is

really not going to stop. And with the latest report, it's only going to be intensified. But remember, most of what's in this latest report is not new. We have heard it before. Including the fact that some researchers at the Wuhan institute fell ill. That was actually revealed by a state appointment document in the final days of the Trump administration.

What's really new here is the fact these researchers had to be hospitalized. And really in the way pointing to the severity of their symptoms that, of course, is now drawing more attention to the lab and fueling more debate.

But from the Chinese perspective, though, this is not anything definitive. And that's actually something acknowledged by U.S. intelligence officials as well. Because we still don't know what these researchers were sick with. So there's really no definitive evidence to point to the lab being the origin of the virus.

And the Chinese, of course, have repeatedly pointed to a World Health Organization lab investigation into the lab early this year saying that experts had gone to the lab, doing their mission and talk to the scientists there in the open and candid fashion. And these W.H.O. experts conclusion was extremely unlikely that a virus leaked from the lab.

But then again, that conclusion was quickly disputed by the U.S. and other governments. Because they say the W.H.O. experts had very limited access to complete raw Chinese data and that kind of lack of transparency perceived a real is obviously not helping the Chinese cause. But at the end of the day, Rosemary, it's unlikely, at this point, given how politically charged this issue has become, the Chinese government would change its mind. So one thing, for sure, is this debate on the origins of the virus is going to rage on -- Rosemary.

Until there are some more answers that is exactly what will happen. Steven Jiang joining us live from Beijing. Many thanks.

Well Belarus's government is facing strong criticism and mounting questions over the arrest of an opposition activist after his plane made an emergency landing. Raman Pratasevich was on a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania when it was diverted. State media in Belarus report that it was President Alexander Lukashenko who ordered a fighter jet to escort the plane to Minsk, where the vocal critic of the president was detained. A friend of the activist and a senior advisor to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke with our Robyn Curnow earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANAK VIACORKA, BELARUS OPPOSITION: We don't know what is happening to him. But just imagine a young guy, journalist, flying back from Athens where he worked and had some vacation time.

[04:05:00] Coming back to Vilnius and suddenly he knew on the plane that the plane is turning to Minsk where he might face the death penalty. Of course, I can't imagine what he was thinking in that moment. And of course, all the passengers up to four or five hours were back on the plane but no Raman Pratasevich. And he is probably in KGB prison right now at the interrogation. And the interrogation usually takes several days. And, you know that in Belarus when they interrogate, they might use torture and other means.

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR: Why have they targeted him and gone to such huge lengths to do so?

VIACORKA: They targeted him because he's very vocal. He's very brave. He is -- he was covering protests since last fall when the elections were falsified. He was posting videos and pictures, and always commented on the events, and challenged President Lukashenko.

Until the last few months, he used to work on the Telegram messaging, a project in Belarus and the Ukraine, which was commenting on the development of late nights (ph) in Belarus, to Belarus audience in Minsk and the regions. So he became the personal enemy of Lukashenko. And right now, we are doing all possible to release him from jail.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHURCH: CNN correspondents are tracking the latest developments and the growing international outrage. Senior international correspondent Frederick Pleitgen is in Berlin and our international security editor Nick Paton Walsh is standing by in London. welcome to you both. So Fred, what is the latest on the detention of opposition activist Raman Pratasevich.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well it's pretty troubling at this point in time. Really there's no one who actually knows how he's doing or where he's actually being held by the Belarusian authorities. I think we heard from one of the advisors there, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who says, also, that the opposition right now is extremely concerned about the whereabouts of Raman Pratasevich and what could actually happen to him.

And you know of course, I was on the ground in Belarus last year when those protests were taking place. And we could see firsthand some of the brutality that was used by the authorities. And one of the things that we have to keep in mind, Rosemary, is that the Telegram Channel that Pratasevich helped found, the Nexta Telegram Channel, they actually brought to light a lot of police brutality that was going on at that point in time and it continues to go on. And that's most probably one of the main reasons why the Lukashenko wanted to try and arrest Raman Pratasevich. And, obviously, appears to have gone to these lengths.

Now it is absolutely correct that the opposition is saying that the torture is something that certainly is a very real responsibility when he's in police custody and he's also on a terrorism list there in Belarus. And that could mean that he could face the death penalty, even if bad comes to worse. So certainly, a lot of concern there. As far as the incident itself is concerned, the authorities in Belarus

quite clearly stating that they launched a MiG29 fighter jet to escort this plane to Minsk. It was interesting to hear, because Ryanair in a statement also said that the authorities had informed them there was possibly a bomb on that plane and ordered them to land at nearest airport as they put it, which they claim was Minsk. However, if you look at the flight path of the plane, there certainly are strong indications that it was actually much closer to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, than the Belarusian capital.

And obviously, a lot of condemnation coming from EU member states, from the European Union, as well. And a lot of folks they are obviously saying that there needs to be very, very tough action, very quickly. And of course, the U.S. also says that it's also in contact with the European Union and the member states, as well -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes, and let's talk about that. Nick, if I can bring you in now. Because the U.S. and EU are outraged over the actions of Belarus. What is the latest on that? And what are the likely consequences for Belarus?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: It's pretty hard to overstate the sort of boundary frankly of a plane flying between two European Union capitals being forced out of the sky on what seems to have been a false pretext of a bomb threat being forced to land in a further away airport than Vilnius, which was closest. And then people being forced, it seems, off the plane. That's the version of events that many of Lukashenko's critics are putting around.

And whilst many I think were initially quite surprised this had even happened. We've had some very harsh word coming out of European capitals and Washington, D.C., as well. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken saying this shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers. Remember there was a military jet forcing this passenger aircraft to change direction. Including U.S. citizens. Initial reports, Blinken goes on to say, suggesting the involvement of Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane, saying they're deeply concerning and require full investigation.

[04:10:00]

The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, she says the outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime will have consequences. And said that this hijacking must be sanctioned. Very stark words there as well.

What potentially could happen? Well it looks as though this morning as far as what I saw in a brief window, there were not any EU registered planes flying over Belarusian air space. That might be an immediate reaction. We've seen it happen in the past when people simply don't know what's happening. There was a Turkish airlines plane and Chinese planes flying over that particular air space.

But we may possibly see moves by the International Air Traffic Association who also strongly condemned in a statement this particular incident and the U.N.'s body, the ICAO are going to look into it, too. This could potentially make the already limiting landings and not fly over Belarusian air space. Something challenged in the time ahead.

But most importantly, it's sanctions here. Because they have had a limited impact, it seems, on the thinking of President Lukashenko in the time moving forward that can be more pressure on the U.S. to ramp those up. But remember, too, there's a bit of overreach potentially here, frankly. Because many had allowed the protests movement to subside in Belarus, began to take their attention off Belarus. And there is a strong possibility now the Biden administration and the EU will have to ratchet up pressure again on Lukashenko who is an important ally of Vladimir Putin and that frankly spells trouble for Moscow when it's trying for a rapprochement with Washington, D.C.

All right, Nick Paton Walsh in London, Fred Pleitgen Berlin, many thanks to you both.

Well we are now hearing from passengers on board the Ryanair flight that divergent to Belarus. One man sitting just a few rows away from the opposition activist said there was large police presence when they landed in Minsk. He also described what was going on inside the plane.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then it was announced that they are going to land in Minsk. So were told to stand up, to really open the luggage door and take the luggage and was trying to split their things. Like computer give it to girlfriend, iPhone or ever I think take to the girlfriend. I think he made small mistake because it was around twenty people so he couldn't give his things not to the girlfriend, which was also I think arrested. So we could give it to me or other passengers and then we can let's say deliver this now when we come back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

The plane spent several hours on the ground in Minsk before it continued on and arrived safely in the Lithuanian capital.

Well this past weekend saw another wave of gun deaths and mass shootings across the United States. Not even halfway into 2021, more than 7,500 people have been shot and killed. And there have been more than 200 mass shootings. CNN's Natasha Chen reports from Atlanta.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A weekend of blood sheet across the country has rattled many communities. Especially those mourning the loss of young people.

ALEXIS CLOONAN, 6-YEAR-OLD BROTHER KILLED IN SHOOTING: He said mommy, my tummy hurts. So she went and she picked him up and he was bleeding on her. She had blood on her clothes.

CHEN (voice-over): The sister of 6-year-old Aiden Leos pleaded with the public for help after someone shot into their mother's car Friday morning in an apparent road rage incident killing the child in the backseat.

CLOONAN: Please help us find the people that did this to my little brother. He's only six, and he was so sweet.

CHEN (voice-over): He just celebrated his sixth birthday last week. Aiden Leos was killed in Orange, California in one of at least ten shooting incidents across the U.S. since Friday.

Charlie Johnson was shot and killed in Minneapolis early Saturday morning. The day he was set to graduate from The University of St. Thomas and St. Paul.

The university president said -- on a day he and his family should have been celebrating his graduation from our school of engineering, we are devastated by this loss.

In Youngstown, Ohio three people are dead and five others wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a father of four, unnecessary violence, our young people, unnecessary violence. It breaks my heart to hear when we have young men and women who die at a young age with so much potential ahead of them. So much life in front of them.

CHEN (voice-over): The same is true for a 14-year-old child killed in North Charleston, South Carolina late Saturday night at what police say was an unauthored neighborhood concert for a 16-year-old killed in Columbus, Ohio the same night at a private event promoted on social media. And for a 15-year-old one of five people killed in Chicago in a drive by shooting.

[04:15:00]

In the Bronx police said two were injured in a subway shooting after a robbery gone wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I took cover behind the booth.

CHEN (voice-over): According to gun violence archive, the number of gun deaths, not counting suicides, is about 7,300 so far this year. This outpaces the number of gun deaths for the same period in previous years. More than 20 percent higher than this period in 2020 and more than 40 percent than the same period in 2019. While some have felt their neighborhoods perhaps grow quieter during pandemic lockdowns --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're getting over COVID. It looks like the violence is coming back.

CHEN (voice-over): Natasha Chen, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHURCH: And another one of those weekend shootings happened in New Jersey. Gunfire killed two people and wounded a dozen more at a house party. Shots rang out just before midnight on Saturday in Fairfield, New Jersey. Police are still looking for a motive in the shooting and no information about any potential suspects has been released. A local minister said he heard at least nine shots and saw people running from the house.

Ahead on CNN, how the U.S. is winning in the race to vaccinate against COVID-19. And one of New York's largest crowd since the start of the pandemic gathers to watch the NBA playoffs.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:20:00]

CHURCH: Here in the United States, promising new signs in the fight against COVID-19. The CDC says 25 states and Washington, D.C., have now fully vaccinated at least half of their adult populations. Nationwide more than 130 million people of all ages are now fully vaccinated. It is an astonishing achievement when you consider the first vaccine authorized for use by the FDA was given in December. CNN medical analyst Dr. Celine Gounder has more on the latest data.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: That 50 percent threshold is really important. Because that's when we saw cases really start to decline in Israel, in the U.K., that were a bit ahead of us in their vaccine rollout. And that's when we really start to see the impact. It's not herd immunity. But you are really seeing a dramatic decrease in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It's sort of this critical tipping point in vaccinations.

Now how do we get the remaining people vaccinated? I think you still have a combination of access issues, barriers. For example, the Latin X population in the U.S. having Spanish language services is a major challenge for many of them. That they're not able to get information in Spanish, make an appointment in Spanish, seek services say at a vaccination clinic and have somebody there who can explaining the things to them in Spanish.

And then things like having paid time off work. Not just for the day that you get vaccinated but let's say you do have side effects. You could end up needing to take one, two, three days off work for each vaccine that you get. And so I think we need to take into consideration that it's not just about people maybe not trust the vaccines. It's also practical everyday issues that make it different for them to seek it out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHURCH: The more people are vaccinated, the more events like this can happen. New York's Madison Square Garden was host to an expected 1,500 basketball fans on Sunday. They saw the New York Nicks play the Atlanta Hawks in a playoff game, with the Hawks edging out a slight victory has more. World Sports Carolyn Manno has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CAROLYN MANNO, CNN WORLD SPORT: The crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the latest sign of a return to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic. 15,000 diehard Knicks fans gathering under one roof in the arena for the first game of their playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, the largest event indoors in the state of New York since the pandemic began.

Knicks owner James Dolan said that about 90 percent of the crowd was vaccinated and that proof was required upon entry, either proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test within a 72 hour period. Fans I spoke with said they feel comfortable with the guidelines in place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The city is back, the tri state area is back, it's a great feeling we could get back to our regular lives and move on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously, we're taking -- being safe, taking the right precautions so as long as everyone's vaccinated, I see no problems with letting in as many people as possible using the right safety precautions. Because at the end of the day, everyone needs to be safe. But obviously everyone here still loves their Knicks. So we got to get as many people in here as possible.

MANNO: The excitement here at Madison Square Garden is twofold, of course. First, the fact that fans are allowed to go back to sports the way that we're used to and dare I say it does feel a little bit normal out here, at least by our typical standards. And then of course, the fact that the Knicks are actually pretty good, fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, making it into the playoffs when they haven't won a playoff series in close to a decade.

All in all, very good night to be a Knicks fan in New York City.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHURCH: Carolyn Manno with that report.

Well Spain is also hoping for some return to normalcy. Starting today, travelers from the U.K. and Japan can visit Spain on nonessential trips. The Spanish Prime Minister has removed the need for British and Japanese tourists to present a negative COVID test upon arrival.

So let's go live now to Valencia, Spain where Atika Shubert is standing by. Good to see you Atika. So how is for Spain to accept tourists without testing requirements? Particularly those from Japan where cases are surging right now and very few people are vaccinated.

ATIKA SHUBERT, JOURNALIST: Yes, I think Japan still remains a concern here. I think the question really is how quickly Spain can be vaccinated. Right now less than 20 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated. In some of the areas such as here in Valencia, up to 40 percent of the people had at least one shot. So many people here are protected. But it will be a concern.

I think the reality, though, is that even though Spain is open for business to Japan and the U.K., we won't see a flood of tourists coming in.

[04:25:00]

And that's because, for example, in the U.K., Spain is still not on the green list. So any tourist that's coming in from the U.K. is going to have to go back into quarantine when they go back home. Ten days of quarantine and two PCR tests. And so that already is a deterrent for a number of tourists who want to come here.

Now what's probably going to happen is that Spain is already trying to ramp up its vaccination rate. So it might find itself on the green list soon come the summer. But it's not there yet. And so I think for Spain, the focus is really on getting those vaccinations up to speed. And as you can see on the beach still, you know, COVID regulations are still enforced. You have to wear a mask, if you're jogging or doing sports you don't have to, but in public spaces still out in the open you do. So that's something for visitors to be aware of when they come here.

CHURCH: Yes definitely. Vaccinations are key. Atika Shubert bringing us that report from Spain. Many thanks.

Well with the ceasefire holding, people in Gaza are making plans to rebuild.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's no other option. We have to keep living. We have to keep doing this again and again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCH: Officials are assessing the damage and the need for humanitarian aid. We will have a live report from Gaza.

And tragedy in the Italian Alps after more than a dozen people are killed in a cable car accident. We'll have the latest just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHURCH: With a fragile ceasefire holding, Jewish visits to the Jerusalem's Temple Mount resumed Sunday for the first time in weeks. The site is known to Muslims as the "Noble Sanctuary." Clash there between Palestinians and Israeli police.