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Athletes Test Positive for COVID; Twelve States Still with Low Vaccine Rates; Dr. Amy Compton Phillips; Talks about COVID rates and Olympics; Blaming China for Cyberattacks; Spyware is Used on Journalists and Activists. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 19, 2021 - 09:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Monday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy has this morning off.

We begin this morning with the degree of threat to the U.S. and countries around the world as we see a new uptick of COVID-19 infections. Just days before the start of the Tokyo games and coronavirus is now inside the Olympic village. A limited number. Four athletes have tested positive. This among the 11,000 athletes expected to compete. But some are getting positive COVID tests before they leave home and head to Tokyo. Among them, U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff. From abroad, to here at home, cases are now rising in all 50 states in the U.S., fueled by the spread of the new delta variant, as well as the problem of lagging vaccinations. They're slowing down and dangerous, dangerous disinformation about the vaccines.

But with just under half of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated, the vaccines are working for those that have them. Experts say that nearly all COVID-19 deaths, 99.5 percent, are among those who have not been vaccinated. More than 99 percent. Listen to that figure.

We begin, though, this morning in Tokyo with CNN's Selina Wang.

Selina, we've also learned at least one U.S. gymnast has tested positive for COVID-19. Any infection with a large event like this, of course, a concern. But tell us the true extent of the infection as the numbers indicate so far.

SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, this is actually the first case of a U.S. Olympic athlete testing positive for COVID-19 here in Japan. That raises the total number of cases in this country linked to the Olympics at 58 with, you've got athletes, contractors and officials testing positive for COVID-19 and within the Olympic village. We just learned that a Czech beach volleyball player has tested positive, two members of the South African soccer team and now 21 members considered close contacts of those South African athletes are now in isolation.

And this is only going to grow, Jim, as we have more than 80,000 Olympic participants that are going to be pouring into this country. And the situation on the ground is grim. You've got more than 1,000 daily COVID-19 cases here in Japan, just 20 percent of the population here fully vaccinated. And despite this litany of COVID-19 restrictions, you've got contact tracing, you've got regular testing. Even me, as someone who's been living here in Japan, as credentialed media, I'm tested regularly as well as having to fill out a daily health app.

Despite all of that, there are still concerns you can't completely separate that bubble from the population here, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Understood. And to be clear, I'm curious how these numbers of new infections and positive COVID-19 tests are being shared. Are the Olympic authorities there, the government authorities, sharing this information in real time?

WANG: Well, Jim, on the Olympic website there is actually a PDF that is getting updated regularly with how many known COVID-19 cases there are. The most recent metric we saw was 58. Sometimes these reports come out faster from local media and we then have to call the local officials, the organizers to confirm these cases.


WANG: But as I said, these tests are happening regularly, daily, and they are being transmitted to us as fast as we think. But these officials are playing down the extent of this. An adviser to the IOC says these cases are less than they thought.

SCIUTTO: We should note, I mean among athletes at least, single digits still among the 11,000 expected to come. But, of course, those numbers can change. We know you and we will watch those very closely.

Selina Wang, in Tokyo, thanks very much.

Well, back here in the U.S., let's look at the numbers as well.

The spread of the delta variant is fueling a rise in new infections and, in some places, a surge in hospitalizations. That, of course, means serious cases of COVID-19. Twelve states have yet to fully vaccinate at least 40 percent of their residents and health experts warn that the virus is particularly dangerous in communities where fewer people are vaccinated.

How do we know this? More than 99 percent of deaths from COVID-19 across the country are among people who have not received the vaccine.

CNN's Natasha Chen is live in Birmingham, Alabama.

So, Alabama, one of the states where low infection rates are now, in effect, costing lives because we're seeing a, you know, a jump in infections there. Tell us how much and what health officials are doing about that.

[09:05:06] NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, it is a real challenge here because Alabama is at the bottom of the list when you look at the 50 states and their vaccination rates. Only about a third of people in Alabama are vaccinated. And that is why we, today, are at a unique vaccine clinic setup that is actually by the city of Birmingham. They are having a rocket docket, a court -- a mass court event where people are coming in really to take care of their traffic tickets, but they're hoping that they'll also stop at this clinic that's being run by MedsPLUS.

And that's why we have Pauline Long here.

So, Dr. Pauline, can you tell us about what your strategy is here, because most of the people coming in will not be vaccinated and they also don't know that this is available to them.

PAULINE LONG, CO-OWNER, MEDSPLUS CONSULTING: Correct. Yes. So our strategy is to basically engage the community. Since these vaccine clinics have started, we've gone out and tried to engage the community. So we're going to go through the line, ask people, have they been vaccinated, and see what their -- what their issues are.

CHEN: And yesterday we were with you at another clinic in a church where, Jim, only 11 people showed up to that clinic in the afternoon. So, you know, this is a real difficult thing to convince people who have not gotten the shot.

What are you hearing from them? What's the hold-up right now?

LONG: Yes, at this point we're hearing everything from, I don't like shots, to, I don't trust anything that's free from the government. We're hearing all types of stories as far as why they won't get the vaccine. And a lot of it is just simply misinformation.

CHEN: So what do you tell them? What can you say?

LONG: So, at this point, we just -- we try to give them valid information about the vaccine, how it's very important because this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And it's just very important for them to get the vaccine. And then we answer any of their questions.

CHEN: Well, thank you so much.

And as she and I discussed yesterday, even though 11 people showed up to that afternoon clinic, another 11 people vaccinated is another 11 people vaccinated.


SCIUTTO: Yes, it's just got to move faster. It really does. We're seeing the effects now.

Natasha Chen, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Dr. Amy Compton Phillips, chief clinical officer at Providence Health System. Doctor, always good to have you back.

I want to begin, if we can, just on the Olympics, because that's where we're seeing some news this morning.

Based on the numbers we've seen so far, though, this is a fairly low positivity rate, single digits among some 11,000 athletes. Now, we should note, they have not all arrived in Tokyo yet. Based on the numbers we've seen so far there, as a doctor, are you concerned about the level of outbreak of COVID-19?


You know what, actually, I am is very encouraged that the Olympic village is doing the right thing, that they are screening, they're testing, they're isolating. They're doing what one does with a novel pathogen when you want to contain it, not mitigate the spread, not, you know, slow down the spread, but stop it in its tracks.

So what they're doing is actually preventing the COVID virus from getting out of control in the village. And, as you noted, out of control into the broader Japanese community. So they're doing the right thing there.

SCIUTTO: That's good to hear. Our understanding, based on the IOC chair, is that between 80 and 85 percent of athletes will be vaccinated. I mean you wish it would be 100 percent, but that's not unlike what we see, for instance, in Major League Baseball here in the U.S. And, by the way, they're holding, you know, a dozen games a day, right, in Major League Baseball and have largely managed to do what you're talking about there. Is that -- does that vaccination rate among Olympic athletes give you comfort?

PHILLIPS: It does give me comfort. You know, I would love it to be 100 percent, but there's always reasons that it can't be 100 percent, particularly access to vaccines in some of the other countries and being able to get people fully vaccinated before they get to the village. But the higher the number of vaccinated people go, the lower the risk of epidemic spread amongst the Olympic village.

SCIUTTO: Understood. OK, let's move here to the U.S. now.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, of course former FDA commissioner, he made an interesting point over the weekend. He said basically America is going to fall into three categories now as the delta variant spreads. You're either vaccinated and protected, you've either been previously infected as well and, therefore, your body has some immunity to it and that provides some protection, or you're going to get the delta variant.

You know, I wonder if you agree with that framing here, that basically the delta variant is primarily, perhaps even almost completely a threat to the unvaccinated. PHILLIPS: It is, absolutely. The delta variant -- you remember back at

the beginning of this pandemic we talked about the are not and how contagious something is?


PHILLIPS: And that that original virus had an are not or it spread every -- for every one person that got it, somewhere around 2.5 other people got it. This delta variant goes to about six other people. It's much more contagious. It is -- it is very easy to spread with a lower amount of virus to other people.


And that's why Dr. Gottlieb was talking about how, if you're not vaccinated, you're not immune because you got the infection, you're at very high risk of getting it because this stuff is floating around in the air anywhere that it's invaded a community.


OK, the numbers in terms of the most severe risk from COVID-19 today are clear. It's, you know, I'm not exaggerating by saying 99 percent of deaths are -- I mean that's in the data. In fact, it's more than 99 -- 99.5 percent of deaths from COVID-19 today are among the unvaccinated. But we are seeing what are known as breakthrough infections, that is people who have been vaccinated are testing positive for this. So folks at home, who may be vaccinated themselves, or thinking about a vaccination, explain what that means because if you're vaccinated and you do still contract this, you are, based on data, still remarkably safe from getting severely ill.

PHILLIPS: You are absolutely remarkably safe because -- and particularly think back to those baseball players that they are getting screened for exposure, right? Many of them have been exposed to COVID out in the community. They don't even have any symptoms. But because they're going looking for it, they're finding it. And that's considered (INAUDIBLE) infection, right? That's a lot different than a breakthrough infection in somebody who's not vaccinated -- or an infection in somebody who's not vaccinated who ends up on a ventilator in the hospital.


PHILLIPS: So vaccine prevents against those severe complications of disease in the vast majority of people.

SCIUTTO: So, as a doctor, I wonder what you would recommend to patients, and I'm asking you for myself, too, I've been vaccinated for a number of months now and I, like a lot of Americans, have changed some behaviors, well, understandably, go to indoor restaurants, right, flying more frequently, et cetera. What changes, if any, in behavior do you recommend for people who have been vaccinated to avoid being exposed to this?

PHILLIPS: I do think that being vaccinated is number one through ten on that list, right, of things to do.


PHILLIPS: And if you have been vaccinated, that you literally are safer, much, much safer to be around other people, much -- to be around indoors without a mask.

That said, I probably -- and I -- my family will not be going to very large, crowded concert venues, for example, where there's a very large population of people indoors, sharing the same air, where you may be able to be exposed to things like very high volumes of the delta variant that might be able to overwhelm our immunity.

SCIUTTO: Understood. It's about making judgment calls, once again.

Dr. Amy Compton Phillips, thanks so much again.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: In just a few hours, President Biden will make his case for an infrastructure deal that still has a tough road ahead in Congress, as well as a new deadline looming.

Plus, the U.S. and its allies plan to accuse China today of overseeing major ransomware attacks. Four of its citizens are now indicted for trying to hack into dozens of computer systems. We'll speak about the significance.

And billionaire Jeff Bezos is set for launch tomorrow with a lucky 18- year-old and a lucky 82-year-old along for the ride. I'm going to speak to a future astronaut about what this means for the future of space travel.



SCIUTTO: New this morning, the U.S. and its allies are planning to publicly accuse China of state-sponsored cyberattacks. In the announcement planned for later today, they will blame China for using criminal contract hackers in attempts to extort money through what is known as ransomware attacks. Among those attacks, the massive hack of Microsoft's exchange email service back in March. One that had global implications.

CNN's senior national security correspondent Alex Marquardt is here with his reporting.

And, Alex, hey, listen, China's been doing this for decades, been stealing U.S. private sector and government secrets. What's new here is that they've been using as well, like Russia, these kind of like hacker groups, right, to do this.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right. Right. People that they hire. What is also new here is that they are banding together with a huge

coalition of allies, the European Union, NATO. This is the first time that NATO has ever condemned China for its cyber activities. The Five Eyes intelligence sharing coalition, which is Australia, New Zealand and others, as you know.

And so what they're doing here is essentially really highlighting a new tactic that the Chinese are undertaking there. They're saying, yes, China continues to carry out all these malicious types of attacks against universities, against governments, against companies, for espionage. The classic kind of cyber espionage that they've been up to.

But now the administration and its allies are saying that the Chinese have started hiring criminal hackers by -- they're being hired by the ministry of state security, which is the civilian intelligence service, to go after these targets and make money on the side. They're doing -- they're doing extortion attacks. Something called crypto jacking as well. They're also carrying out the classic ransomware attacks that of late we've seen from Russia. Ransomware attacks where they've demanded millions of dollars in payment, including from one American company that did not -- that was not named by the Biden administration.

This new tactic of hiring these criminals is what one senior administration official said was really eye-opening and surprising.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Notable too that the Biden administration teaming up with allies in a way that the Trump administration did not when China is involved.

What's not contained in the statement is any statement of new penalties on China for this. But they did just identify and indict four Chinese nationals.

MARQUARDT: Yes, and that's an excellent point. There are no -- there is no punishment per se, the kinds of sanctions that we've seen leveled against the Russians back in April. What the administration is hoping is that essentially by the world, all of these countries calling out China, that that will be enough of an incentive for China to essentially knock it off or at least create a baseline for which sanctions could be later applied.


But you're absolutely right, the Department of Justice today indicting or unsealing an indictment of four Chinese nationals, four Chinese residents who have been working for -- for the MSS (ph), for that intelligence arm, for essentially what it has been, their traditional kind of cyber espionage, targeting academic research facilities --


MARQUARDT: Hospitals, governments and companies.

SCIUTTO: Yes. and some of that, too, is to say, hey, we know who you are.


SCIUTTO: We know what you're up to. It's a little bit of like --

MARQUARDT: It's naming shaming essentially.

SCIUTTO: Exactly.

Alex Marquardt, thanks very much.

Now to a stunning investigation that highlights how military grade spyware was used to target people around the world, including notably activists, dissidents, journalists, political leaders as well. "The Washington Post," with the help from a consortium of media organizations, uncovered dozens of phones infected with this spyware. CNN has not been able to independently verify "The Washington Post" story, we should note.

Joining me now, one of the journalists behind what's known as the Project Pegasus Investigation, "Washington Post" national technology correspondent Craig Timberg.

Craig, good to have you on this morning.

I mean this is notable, one, because of the scope of it, but, two, also the kinds of people involved. I mean this is a deliberate attempt to follow, to track, to surveil journalists, dissidents, political leaders. How far did it go?

CRAIG TIMBERG, NATIONAL TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT, "WASHINGTON POST": We'll probably never know how far it went. What we do know is that, as you said, this technology, which is designed to track terrorists and criminals, such as pedophiles and drug lords, in fact, has been used against human rights workers and business executives and journalists in many parts of the world.

SCIUTTO: Would these people have known? And can they have confidence now, right, once identified, that they can get rid of this kind of software?

TIMBERG: No and no.


TIMBERG: You know, it gets delivered in different ways, but in some cases you don't even know that you've gotten a malicious link. They can just take over your device. And you can certainly get a new device. But, in one case, we -- we interviewed a woman in France whose iPhone 11 was infected. And so we found that -- we found that infection. And then she borrowed another iPhone, a 6s, and then that was infected literally the same week we interviewed her, her second device was also infected. So, if these governments really want to track you, this spyware really makes it pretty easy, I think.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, you wonder, because, of course, your profile, uploaded to the cloud. You get a new phone, it's downloaded. You know, does that stuff still live in there?

Tell us about this company behind this software that licenses. It's based in Israel. Significantly, the NSO group, it -- they say it's intended only for use in surveilling terrorists and major criminals. As you mentioned, folks accused of sex crimes. Of course, that's not whose using this now entirely. Is that company responsible?

TIMBERG: It's a good question. I mean one useful metaphor is, is Smith & Wesson responsible for the way its guns are used once it sells them? And the company says, you know, we don't really know exactly in real time what happens once it's in the hands of a government client.

Now, they do do investigations. They do go back and get phone numbers sometimes. But they tell us that they have no real-time visibility. So is it their fault when abuses happen? It's really up to our readers and your viewers to decide.

SCIUTTO: Well, but, wait a second here, I mean if I sell a gun to a hunter, that's one thing. If I sell it to a -- you know, the head of a drug gang, I mean that's another thing. And the trouble is the -- the -- you know, the countries involved here are known, you know, authoritarian regimes, right? I mean did the Israeli companies sell it to these governments knowing their past behavior in terms of handling dissidents, journalists, opposition leaders?

TIMBERG: Your metaphor is a good one to a point, but what if the hunter also runs a drug ring, you know? So, you know, the reality is --

SCIUTTO: Wow. Jesus. I mean, that's a nice excuse, but, I'm sorry, if you're selling this kind of spyware to an authoritarian regime, you've got to bear some responsibility for how it's used.

TIMBERG: I'm not disagreeing with you on that.


TIMBERG: But what I am saying is that they claim to vet their client governments thoroughly. They tell us that they've cut off clients, and in some cases given us lots of revenue. And they also say that there's lots of countries that it will never sell to, just (ph) regulated.


TIMBERG: But, yes, I share your concern that once it's in the hands of governments that have human rights records that we know about, yes, I think it's reasonable to ask, should NSO have been doing business with these companies and should -- countries, and should they still be doing business with these countries?

SCIUTTO: Yes. No question.

Well, listen, it's great reporting here. A great team that uncovered really an alarming scope of this kind of surveillance.

Craig Timberg, thanks to you and your team. [09:25:00]

TIMBERG: Yes, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

SCIUTTO: In minutes, a Capitol rioter will be sentenced for his involvement in the January 6th Capitol attack. Up next, why this could be a major benchmark for other insurrection cases. Remember, there are more than 500 of them.

And we're moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. Futures down this morning. Worries about the rising numbers of COVID cases due to the delta variant. That is concerning investors. Shares of companies in sectors that were widely thought to benefit most from reopening of the economy, they're getting hit the hardest. Among them, airlines, cruise operators. We're on top of all of it.