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Full transcript of "Face the Nation" on December 5, 2021

On this "Face the Nation" broadcast moderated by Margaret Brennan:

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
  • Governor Ned Lamont, (D) Connecticut
  • Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organization COVID-19 Technical Lead
  • Francis deSouza, CEO of Illumina  
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Former FDA Commissioner  

Click here to browse full transcripts of "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN, HOST: I'm Margaret Brennan.

And this week on Face the Nation: With the world still battling COVID's Delta surge, preparations are now under way to combat a new threat. The Omicron variant has now been identified in at least 16 states in the U.S. and more than three dozen countries. As scientists around the world race to unlock its secrets, President Biden says the new strain is cause for concern, but not panic.

(Begin VT)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.

(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Biden says he's doing everything that needs to be done to combat COVID, doubling down on his push for vaccines and boosters, plus providing more access to testing, both for the virus and on levels of antibodies providing immunity.

(Begin VT)

JOE BIDEN: We got to beat it back before we shut it down. In order to beat COVID, you have to shut it down worldwide.

(End VT)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Will the president's tighter testing protocols for international travel, set to begin Monday, help And why is travel restricted from some countries with Omicron, but not others?

We will get the latest from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont's state reported a new case of Omicron Saturday. They're also seeing a Delta winter surge. He will be with us. Plus, we will check in with former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

We will also hear from the WHO's COVID lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, about what is known about Omicron.

Francis deSouza, the CEO of Illumina, a company working to identify different viral variants and stop their spread in real time, will also be here. 

It's all just ahead on Face the Nation.

Good morning, and welcome to Face the Nation. We find ourselves today with many more questions than answers when it comes to Omicron, the new, highly contagious coronavirus strain discovered in Africa.

What we do know is that we are far from being done with the Delta variant. Senior national correspondent Mark Strassmann has more from Atlanta.

(Begin VT)

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): In COVID, Omicron is the Greek letter that means, here we go again.

WOMAN: Oh, God.

QUESTION: In Northwest Philly.

WOMAN: No. Are you serious?

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): A new variant, a new call to arms to put shots in them.

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY, CDC DIRECTOR: We're actively taking steps to stay ahead of Omicron.

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): We'd better. Omicron is a shadowy threat. Still unclear whether this highly mutated variant is the most contagious yet.

And consider a different worry, Omicron hysteria. It's a potential distraction, from New York...

BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: We have a much bigger current challenge with the Delta variant.

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): ... to Washington state.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE (D-WA): It would be really sad if people lose their lives today because they have been killed by the Delta variant, while they're worrying about Omicron.

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): Delta is dominating the U.S. now, 99.9 percent of this country's current caseload. In 47 states, cases trend up, roughly 76 percent of U.S. counties considered high transmission areas.

Hot spots? Iowa. Wednesday saw a 2021 record for COVID patients hospitalized, three in four of them unvaccinated, Massachusetts averaging more than 3,000 new cases a day for the first time since January, and Michigan, COVID hospitalizations almost doubled in one week, a possible storm of community spread because of Thanksgiving, all those travelers and family get-togethers, with COVID uninvited, but present.

It'll be a week, maybe two, before data starts quantifying the infection impact. Also ahead, our second COVID Christmas. What do scientists want?

DR. PETER HOTEZ, BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE: The answer is vaccines, vaccines
and vaccines.

MARK STRASSMANN (voice-over): Roughly 70% of Americans have had at least one shot. Only about 24% aged 18 and up have had boosters.

Waning protection is a genuine worry. Even fully vaccinated people can become spreaders after four months. Omicron has created one surge already, in vaccinations, 2.2 million shots given
last Thursday, including more than one million boosters. That's the highest single-day total since
May.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: If you were fully vaccinated before June, it's time for you to go get your booster.

(End VT)

MARK STRASSMANN: Omicron has prompted another travel change, this one starting at midnight tonight. International arrivals have to pass a pre-departure COVID test. The window used to be three days.Now it's one. And that's regardless of nationality or vaccination status — Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mark Strassmann, thank you. Concern over COVID is escalating around the world too, with a lot of attention focused on the ground zero of Omicron: South Africa. Senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer has more from her new post in Seoul, South Korea. 

(Begin VT)

ELIZABETH PALMER (voice-over): The fact is, the vast majority of COVID disease in the world is still caused by the Delta variant. It's hammering Germany in a fourth wave that had alarmed medical staff in Bavaria so much, they lit up the ICU facility in red as a warning. And the air force has been drafted in to transfer patients to hospitals that can still cope. South Koreans, all strictly masked, are lining up in droves to be tested, as the country reels under the biggest spike since the pandemic began. And Delta has been especially lethal in Russia, where it's killed more than 75,000 mostly unvaccinated people this fall. 

So, the fact that Omicron is on the way now is deeply worrying. Early signs from South Africa suggest it's very contagious. Infections around Johannesburg tripled in just three days last week. The government is now doubling down, pushing everyone, especially the reluctant, to get a shot.

As for reinfection, another South African study yet to be peer-reviewed suggests Omicron does override immunity in people who've already had COVID, so they catch it again. Restrictions on travel may have slowed Omicron's spread, but haven't stopped it.

In Norway, at this restaurant, there was a super-spreader event last week. Oslo had been loosening restrictions, and then a company with South African operations threw a party.

Thirteen guests were infected with the Omicron variant, with even more likely to come.

The big question now is, how much protection will vaccinations and boosters give us against

Omicron? Scientists around the world are racing to find out.

(End VT)

ELIZABETH PALMER: Meanwhile, the emergence of Omicron has really highlighted the need for a solid global strategy to deal with this pandemic.

As the WHO has been saying since the very beginning, nobody's safe until we're all safe. — Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Elizabeth Palmer, thank you.

We want to go now to former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who sits on the boards of Pfizer and Illumina.

Good morning to you, Doctor.

DR. SCOTT GOTTLIEB, FORMER FDA COMMISSIONER: Good morning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We have heard from the administration there are a couple of dozen Omicron cases now here in the United States. 

Dr. Fauci said this morning, too early still, but it does not look, there's a great degree of severity to it.
Is it too early to say that?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: It's too early to say that. Right now, the infections, the best data is coming out of South Africa because they have more — they simply have more cases. And, right now, all the evidence is that a lot of the people who are presenting with infection from this new variant are people who have been previously infected
with Delta.

Remember, South Africa had a very devastating Delta wave. Probably more than 90% of people in South Africa who are unvaccinated were infected with Delta. So, we don't know whether or not this new strain is inherently less virulent, so it's a more moderate strain of COVID, it's not causing a severe illness, or whether it's presenting that way simply because it's infecting people who already have some preexisting immunity, so they have some protection from COVID, so they're getting infected, but they're not getting as sick. 

There was one study out of the Tshwane Hospital, which is in Pretoria, a very hard-hit part of South Africa, that came out yesterday. They looked at about 166 patients who have been admitted to the hospital since the beginning of the epidemic in South Africa.

They found 38 who are infected with COVID. Most were incidental pickups. They were people who were presenting to the hospital for an obstetrical reason or surgical reason who were found to be COVID-positive on admission.

Of the nine people who had COVID pneumonia in the hospital, all were unvaccinated. So, the question right now is whether or not this is reinfecting people who have Delta immunity and haven't been vaccinated, or whether it's going to also infect people who have — who've been vaccinated.

There's some reason to believe that vaccines could be more protective than just immunity acquired through natural infection from Delta. That's going to be a critical question we need to figure out in the coming weeks, because we have some important policy decisions that we need to make, depending on the answer.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the latest infection we heard of overnight was in the state of Connecticut, where you live. And it looks like that individual has a connection back to that New York City convention that happened around mid-November.

Is that now a super-spreader event? I mean, for gatherings of that size in New York, you have to go through some screenings. They do require vaccination. Is this indicating to you some greater degree of worry than what you were saying last week?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Well, look, it's certainly a greater degree of worry, hearing these anecdotes. Now, that conference in — that convention in New York only required one dose of vaccine. We don't know the quality of the masks that people were wearing. We have to presume most of them were cloth masks, which aren't going to provide a very high degree of protection against something that's airborne like this.

And we also have to keep in mind that we hear the anecdotes of the super- spreader events like this, where you have a single introduction and a lot of cases coming out of it, but we don't hear about all the situations where someone with this new variant came into contact with people and there wasn't any forward transmission, because those don't get reported because there's no cases that result.

So, I think we need to be careful about overinterpreting these events. Now, that said, it's concerning when you see a single introduction into a congregate setting and 30 infections resulting from it or more, like we saw in Oslo. That does suggest something that's clearly airborne and looks more like measles than like the flu.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In South Africa, you were also seeing a spike in hospitalizations of those under the age of 5. For parents, like me, how concerned do we need to be?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Yes, that's concerning.

I mean, overall, about 11% of the hospitalizations have been under the age of 2. And if you look a little above that, about — I think below the age of 9, almost 20% of hospitalizations in some of the hospitals.

It's confounded by the fact that they're having a very big flu epidemic also in South Africa right now. And when a toddler presents to the hospital with a respiratory illness, what I'm told by physicians on the ground is that they make a presumptive diagnosis of COVID, even if — even if the kid doesn't test positive for COVID, out of an abundance of caution.

So, there may be some overreporting of COVID positives when it comes to very young children. But that's concerning. And we have to surmise that the kids are sort of a preserved population.

They haven't had Delta infection at the same rate as adults, and they also haven't been vaccinated because they haven't rolled out vaccines to children below the age of 12 in any appreciable numbers.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: So, the kids are a more vulnerable population to any new variant.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president said no more lockdowns. He said he wants schools to try to stay open.

Does the administration need to look at getting vaccine manufacturers to kind of reboot the existing vaccine to chase these mutations in the new variant?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Yes, look, the companies are doing that. Pfizer, the company I'm on the board of, is doing that. And they're going to start some manufacturing of that to be ready.

This is going to be a really critical decision, because what we've seen in the past, for example, when we engineered a vaccine to specifically target 1351, the old South African variant, was that vaccine worked well or appeared to work well against 1351, but didn't appear to provide as good coverage against all the other variants.

And there's reason to believe that, as you develop vaccines that are very specific to some of these new variants, they may not work as well against the full complement of different variants that we've seen. So, you want to try to stick with the ancestral strain, the Wuhan strain, in the vaccine, I think, as long as possible.

What happens is, as the virus mutates, it probably starts to hide some of the viral targets on its surface. And so you get a vaccine that doesn't provide as broad immunity to the full complement of targets on its surface, so you get a more narrow vaccine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we'll hear from the World Health Organization later in the program. But I know they have suggested changing the vaccine could add to the issue of iinequity around the world that we are seeing.

They have said that it is all about available supply. That is the key problem they see on the African continent. Last Sunday, you told us, of the eight countries under the U.S. travel ban, five of them had turned down shipments from Pfizer.

We know Johnson & Johnson also said their shipments were turned down because the supply in at least South Africa, that their coffers were full. Exactly what is the problem here?

Why is the donation pile that the White House says they are making not getting where it needs to go?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: And the White House has said the same thing, that the donations from the White House have been turned down as well.

Look, there was a point in time when there was inadequate supply, and the supply wasn't flowing into these countries. We're at a point right now where there is a lot of supply. Pfizer's pledged to donate 2 billion doses. And there's — we have to do the hard work of getting the infrastructure into the ground. That also — on the ground. 

It also includes getting sophisticated technology into some of these regions, like the cold chain storage that's required. I think this is where the WHO could be providing more global leadership. It's largely a political body. It's not on the ground.

We need to do some kind of heavy lift capability to get resources into some of these countries, so they have the logistical capacity to distribute these vaccines.

You know, going into next year, we were probably going to be oversupplied with the vaccine. That equation may change now that we have this new variant and it's going to increase the premium on boosters. But, regardless, I still think we're going to have enough supply to distribute it equitably around the globe, and it's going to be a question of getting shots in arms on the ground.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden himself said that vaccine offers had been turned down.

But he did talk about logistics. I want to ask you about something Chelsea Clinton tweeted, though, which I thought was interesting. I know you've seen it. She said: "We cannot donate our way out of the pandemic. We need tech transfers and investments to enable the world to vaccinate itself. Why does the White House continue the drip-drip donation approach, rather than provide the global leadership to the world?"

Is she right?

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Well, look, I can't speak for the White — I can't speak for the White House.

We do need to get capacities into these countries, so this isn't a recurrent problem. If COVID is going to be a long battle, and it's going to be a recurrent virus that continues to mutate, countries need to have the capacity to deal with it on their own with global assistance, but not have to be so dependent upon Western nations.

Pfizer has worked to get a manufacturing facility into South Africa. They've partnered with a local company there. So, you are seeing efforts like that take root, where there's — they've also donated the patents to the U.N. patent pool, our new orally available drug.

And the U.N. is going to turn to Indian manufacturers to manufacture that for local — low- andmiddle- income countries. So, you are seeing efforts like that take shape. Merck's done the same thing with their oral pill. J&J's gotten manufacturing into South Africa.

We need more of that. There's no question about that. But I think that's going to come through business collaborations and private collaborations directly between some of these countries and the companies. I don't think it's dependent upon march-in rights and sort of taking away intellectual property.

I think there's ways to partner these efforts and get the support of the Western manufacturers to build out resources in local markets.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, we'll watch for that. And we'll get some answers from the World Health Organization shortly.

Thank you. Dr. Gottlieb.

Face the Nation will be back in a minute with the governor of Connecticut.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Connecticut is now one of 16 states in the U.S. with a confirmed case of Omicron. Plus, they are seeing a spike in Delta cases.

And we want to bring in now the governor of that state, Ned Lamont, who joins us from Stamford.

Good morning to you, Governor.

GOVERNOR NED LAMONT (D-CT): Good morning, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about this news that you released overnight that now Omicron is in your state.

Is there any indication on exactly how widespread it is? I know, in the release your office put out, it did indicate the individual was inoculated. Did he receive or she receive a booster shot?

NED LAMONT: I'm not sure about the booster shot. I do know that the patient was immunized and over the age of 60.

I think, sometimes, there's too much emphasis upon the infection. The good news is, on the vaccination, in this case, the patient is at home resting peacefully and no need to go to the hospital. And that's one of the key things that the vaccines we know are effective at.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, thus far, the indication is a mild type of infection; is that right?

NED LAMONT: Exactly, yes. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, you are situated between two major cities, Boston and New York. We know Omicron is in both places.

How concerned are you that this is a wider infection in your state right now?

NED LAMONT: I'm concerned.

Look, Omicron is coming up from New York on the I-95 Corridor, but Delta is coming down from New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts. And no state is an island, and no country is an island.

So, the good news is, we have 95 percent of our folks over the age of 12 have had some vaccine. So I think we are prepared. And I would like to think that we're not going to have the surge in hospitals you see in some less vaccinated states.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you are having some surge, as you mentioned there, from Delta right now.

Given that you already have that, it's holiday season time, and people gather. Are you going to issue new restrictions? Should people call off holiday parties? Are you going to mandate mask- wearing?

NED LAMONT: I think, right now, the people of Connecticut have been through this for a yearand-a-half. They're doing the right thing.

Like I said, they're overwhelmingly getting vaccinated. They're more likely to wear a mask and do the right thing. So they don't need me pushing.

But there's no question about it. Especially folks of a certain age, stay out of contagious situations. We just don't know enough about this variant. Be careful.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When it comes to the most vulnerable, those living in assisted living facilities, why don't you mandate a booster shot?

NED LAMONT: That's a good question.

Look, we got hit hard in nursing homes, as did everybody else. I mean, the good news is that we brought the boosters back to all the nursing homes. Overwhelmingly, the residents have gotten their booster. But we don't have as many of the nurses getting their booster.

You say, why don't you mandate that, Margaret? The balancing act is, we're having a hard time keeping nurses, getting nurses in the nursing homes. Some wings are closing down, and they're turning back some patients. So, I have got to get the right balance.

But good news, I think, is, is that, overwhelmingly, well over 90 percent of those nurses at least got their first two shots.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why are they leaving? Is it exhaustion, or is it something to do with the vaccine?

NED LAMONT: I think we're just having a hard time hiring in general. A lot of folks are hesitant.

I think there's some hesitancy in terms of nurses at hospitals, nurses at the nursing homes as well.

Look, we're at 95% capacity, but it's a balancing act. You want to make sure you keep people working, but you want them working safely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You have given schools in your state the option of using a screen-and-stay system. It's like the test-and-stay system we heard President Biden say he would like the CDC to look at for parents who would be able to test their child and send them into the classroom, not automatically quarantine them if they have a direct exposure to someone else with COVID. 

What's your advice to nervous parents when they hear this kind of strategy being adopted? Why do you think it has worked in Connecticut? 

NED LAMONT: We opened our schools almost universally a year ago September. Our schools were some of the safest places to be. Now, a year and a half later, 90-plus percent of all of our teachers are vaccinated. We're getting 5 through 11 vaccinated.

What I didn't want to have happen, Margaret, was, uh-oh, there was somebody exposed at home, let's quarantine the whole class or the whole grade for a period of time. So that's why we came up with, look, if you're not showing symptoms, come back into the classroom.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, we'll wait for the CDC to issue its guidelines. They haven't yet on how to implement that for other states.

You were pretty critical of the CDC and its language when it came to booster shots. You said, at one point, the CDC speaks Latin. They're just hard to understand exactly what they're trying to tell you to do.

Are you seeing much improvement in communication from them? Are you getting enough guidance from the White House itself? Are they briefing you?

NED LAMONT: I get plenty of briefings from the White House. I think they're really good.

But I would say to the CDC, you've got to be consistent, and you've got to be clear, and you've got to keep it simple. Early on, when it came to the boosters, early on, when it came to the vaccines, there were five pages of small print about who's an essential worker and what's an appropriate comorbidity, if you smoked in high school.

(LAUGHTER)

NED LAMONT: My God, that included two-thirds of the people I knew.

So, you have to be a little stricter. You have to be a little clearer and simpler if you want people to get their booster. So, early on, we said 18 and over, it was more than six months ago you got your last shot, get the booster. People are coming in. It's simple and easy for them to understand.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And have you seen an uptick in booster shots since news of Omicron first broke?

NED LAMONT: Absolutely.

Look, we've tried a lot of incentives to get people vaccinated. You know, you had drinks on us. Other people did lotteries. Nothing gets people vaccinated and boostered like a fear of another variant coming.

And so that's a good thing, in the sense that we have more and more of our people getting the booster. Every — not everybody, a vast majority of people over the 65 have not only had their two shots, but also had their booster as well. That's a big plus, build some defenses for us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, Governor, thank you very much for your time. And we'll be right back with a lot more Face the Nation, so stay with us.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: If you're not able to watch the full Face the Nation, you can set your DVR, or we're available on demand. 

Plus, you can watch us through our CBS or Paramount+ app.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: We will be right back with the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization, and Illumina's CEO, Francis deSouza, and some thoughts from John Dickerson on politics and decorum.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS) 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION.

We go now to the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Good morning.

VIVEK MURTHY, M.D. (U.S. Surgeon General): Good morning. It's nice to be with you today.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Oh, thank you for joining us. 

We wake up and at least 16 states now have this new variant Omicron detected. Many are seemingly to be around the vaccinated. Not clear if they all were boosted. Do we know how widespread this infection is in the U.S.?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, we're still learning a lot about the omicron variant. We detected a couple of dozen cases here in the United States. There are a number of countries around the world which have now found Omicron.

But this is actually the pattern that we see with these variants. They start and they're discovered in one place and then they quickly spread around the world.

The important thing is, as we work hard to again answers to the three critical questions about Omicron, about its transmissibility, its severity and its response to our vaccines and therapeutics, it's critical to people that we do have tools that we can use right now to protect ourselves against this variants and against the delta variant, which is still the predominant variant in the United States. And those include getting vaccinated, getting boosted.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, you know, the public's exhausted at this point. Are people going into the holiday safe to travel? The president did say infections are going to go up. Masks are required while in transit. But what do you tell someone who just bought a ticket to go away for Christmas? Should they cancel their plans?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, first off, I understand that fatigue. You know, we've been at this for 22 months as a country and the prospect of another variant I know can be exhausting and frustrating to many people out there. And I get that.

What I want to say, though, to everyone is that we are not back in March 2020. We are not at the beginning of this pandemic, back at square one. We have learned a tremendous amount about how to gather safely. Just take — just take last Thanksgiving, for example. Think about Halloween this year. I took my children trick-or-treating for Halloween. Many families gathered for Thanksgiving, things that they didn't do last year. We can still do that for the holidays, but we
have to use —

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, and a surge is — is expected on the back end of that?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, what we do know is that if people use the tools that we have, that you can actually gather with much, much less risk. The concern and the challenge we have right now in the country, Margaret, is that we have millions of people who are still unvaccinated, which possess a risk to their lives but also poses an increased risk of transmission. But if you do, as many families did, you get vaccinated and boosted, you use testing judiciously before you gather, you gather in well- ventilated spaces and use masks whenever you can in public. 

Indoor spaces, your risk can be quite low and your holidays can be quite fulfilling. That's what so many families experienced this past Thanksgiving.

MARGARET BRENNAN: For Americans at home right now, should they just put on their cloth mask or do they need to go buy an N-95 because of these new variants and expected uptick?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, what we've seen throughout the Covid pandemic is, you know, better quality masks offer you better quality protection. You know, if you wear a cloth mask properly, you know, then you can — you can get a lot of protection. If you, you know, upgrade to an KN- 95 or an N-95 in certain circumstances, that can give you even more protection.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are dozens of countries that now have this Omicron variant. The only regions of the world under a U.S. travel ban are eight countries in Africa. That doesn't really seem fair. While single out South Africa and its neighboring countries?

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, I'm glad you asked. And so let's talk about this. This was put in place, these restrictions in travel first, because they were — and a growing number, a rapid growing number of cases that were found in South Africa. And the travel restrictions, they don't permanently keep the variant out. We know that. What travel restrictions can be do is buy you some time.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's here.

VIVEK MURTHY: They can buy you some time to do important things. And what are the important things that we are doing with our (INAUDIBLE). One is that —

MARGARET BRENNAN: But I have -- I've heard this from the White House, respectfully, but my question, though, is, what we learned at the beginning of the pandemic. China is put under a travel ban. Meanwhile, in the back door, travelers are coming in from Europe bringing in Covid.

That was one of the facts established when we looked at pandemic preparedness.

You only, right now, have a travel ban on eight countries in South Africa. The rest of the world is still traveling in. Omicron is already here. 

So, if it's a question of fairness, it's either all countries get banned or lift the ban. And you have scientists in South Africa saying this is discriminatory.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, again, Margaret, if you look at this, we're in a very different situation than we were at the beginning of the pandemic when travel restrictions were put in place. And one of the big differences, Margaret, is that we have travel measures, safety measures, that actually are helping reduce the risk. And those include guaranteeing that people get on international flights are vaccinated and pre-travel testing and that we use the time to actually strengthen those travel measures. The CDC announced that it's going to be shortening that window to 24 hours. We use that time to vaccinate millions of more Americans.

But, listen, the bottom line is, these were meant to be temporary measures. Nobody wants them to be on for any longer than they need to be. And that's why we're continuously re-evaluating them so that we can get them off as soon as it's appropriate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just before I let you go, the World Health Organization has called booster shots a scandal that must stop now, saying they're unfair, unjust, immoral. How do you justify having that as a center piece of your policy?

VIVEK MURTHY: You know, our job is both to protect people in America and to protect, obviously, the world from a global pandemic. But the data is very clear, that getting a booster shot increases your protection. And we've got to do both, Margaret, both boost people here and make sure that the rest of the world has vaccines.

This exactly impacts what we're doing. That's what the U.S. has committed more than a billion doses. That's why we're investing in strengthening local infrastructure, training health care workers around the world, including in the African subcontinents, supporting mobile units to get vaccines to where people are and supporting public education efforts. We will continue to do that. But we've got to do both, Margaret, protect our population with boosters and make sure the rest of the world can get protected with vaccines as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Dr. Murthy, thank you very much for your time. We'll be back in a minute.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: The World Health Organization, on Friday, called the Omicron situation a fast and furious one.

For more now we go to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist and Covid-19 technical lead for the WHO.

Good morning, Doctor.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE (WHO Covid-19 Technical Lead): Hi, Margaret. Nice to be on your program again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Nice to have you there from Geneva. I know there's a little bit of a delay.

Do you have any indication yet on whether omicron causes more severe diseases?

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: So, our data that we have on severity of omicron is coming in by the day. We do know that people who are infected with omicron variant can have mild disease all the way through severe disease.

Initial reports suggest that people with omicron tend to have more mild disease, but it's too early to tell. And the reason for that is because it takes time for people to go through the full course of their infection. It may take some weeks before we actually understand how many of those individuals will go on to develop severe disease. So we do see that full spectrum.

But even if it is a mild disease, it's important that we still act fast now to take measures to control its spread because even if we have a large number of cases that are mild, some of those individuals will need hospitalizations, they will need to be -- go into ICU, and some people will die. And so more cases can mean more hospitalizations, more hospitalizations could mean more deaths, and we don't want to see that happen on top of an already difficult situation with Delta circulating globally.

MARGARET BRENNAN: More measures -- take more health protective measures. Exactly what does that mean? I know the WHO has cautioned against travel right now.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: So, there's different types of measures that we're talking about. If we're talking to governments right now, our message to governments is, don't wait to act. Everything that we need to do for delta will benefit omicron, no matter how this variant unfolds.

It's not just the emergence of a new variant of concern, like omicron. The big question is whether or not omicron will outcompete delta. Remember, delta is dominant in that it's an extremely dangerous variant. So we want governments to act now to take measures to increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, as well as take measure to drive down transmission. This is about having policies in place to reduce the spread, wearing of a mask, physical distancing, improving ventilation, supporting people to work from home who can, and making sure you take measures to keep yourself safe when it comes to gatherings. There's a lot of things that people can do to reduce the risk of spread when they come into contact with others.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We've seen that the virus is flourishing among the vaccinated. COVAX is part the — part of the World Health Organization initiative that was supposed to avoid vaccine inequity. It's not meeting its own goals.

Why isn't the international system getting vaccines to the people who need them?

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: It's an excellent question, Margaret. I think there's a combination of factors of why COVAX has not had access to the vaccine, to be able to distribute those to those who are most at risk in all countries. It's a matter of having enough production, it's a matter of having the deals in place with manufacturers, with the companies that are producing these vaccines, to be able to get those to the countries who need them most.

I think, you know, if we look at one year of use of safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19, it is an absolute triumph that we actually have so many safe and effective vaccines that keep people alive, prevent severe infection and prevent deaths. But the failure to actually deliver those around the world is catastrophic. And COVAX and partners — all of the partners within COVAX have been working hard to do that. But countries actually need access to the vaccine itself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But why isn't COVAX, the U.N., the WHO able to do that last-mile delivery and help with the logistics you say are so badly needed.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: So it's not even about the last mile. I mean what we need are countries to be able to purchase the vaccines themselves. We need companies to be able to allow us to purchase those vaccines through COVAX. We need those donations to be given through COVAX so that they can be allocated to those who need them most.

Countries are working very hard right now on the actual delivery systems once they have access to those vaccines in hand. We have been working with country partners around the world, in ministries themselves, to be able to deliver once those vaccines come online. But we need to know when the vaccines will be available. It's not just about you can have X number of vaccines in the next month. You have to plan to be able to have — to be ready to deliver those.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: And it's not just about waiting for the leftovers. This is not even just about equity. It's the most epidemiologically sound thing to do, ethically sound thing to do, and economically sound thing to do, and it's just not happening.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

But there's frustration in the world, though, because these international systems are supposed to help implement all of these things. We hear from the White House consistently that — that the United States has shipped for free more vaccines around the world than all other countries in the world combined. They told us 273 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent to help train health care workers in South Africa. That the White House says it's donated 100 million vaccine doses to countries on the African continent. So we, in America, are being told, there is an effort. Why isn't that getting to people in need? Why can't the WHO do more?

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Well, frankly, it's not enough, and we need it from more countries. So we are incredibly grateful for what the United States has delivered, but we need that from other leaders around the world. We can't have enough — we — this is a global problem that we're seeing with this pandemic —

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: With the Delta variant, with the emergence of the omicron variant. We need more. And it's not a failure of COVAX to be able to deliver. The failure is the ability to have access to those vaccines to deliver.

It's more than just rhetoric. What we need are the — to be able to purchase themselves ourselves, to have — to get in line, to get ahead of the line so that the vaccines can actually go to those countries in need. 

You know, don't get me wrong, what the United States is doing, we are very grateful for, but we need much more of it, and we need it from around the world. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: You can't protect only one country while the rest of the world suffers. That is not how we are going to get out of this pandemic.

MARGARET BRENNAN: On that point, I know the World Health Organization has said that if you — booster shots is unfair because people are getting another dose here while in the rest of the world they're still waiting. We heard from the White House to argue against that and say both things can be done at the same time.

Why don't you think both things can be done at the same time?

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Because it has an impact on production. It has an impact on supply.

So our argument is that people around the world who are most at risk need their first and second doses before others get more doses. Many people in the world are protected, very well- protected against severe disease and death. And adding another booster on top of that at the expense of others in other countries is what we're saying is unjust. It's unfair. It's not right. And so you can do both, but it has an impact. It has an impact on supply. And there's no other way around that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK.

Doctor, thank you very much for your work and your time today.

We're going to go now to Francis Desouza, CEO of Illumina, a company that identifies and tracks COVID variants through genomic sequencing.

Good morning to you.

FRANCIS DESOUZA (CEO, Illumina): Hello there.

MARGARET BRENNAN: From what you are seeing, the $2 billion that U.S. taxpayers just helped allocate towards improving sequencing in this country, is America better now than we were at the start of this pandemic at figuring out exactly where the virus and the variants are?

FRANCIS DESOUZA: Yes, we're making progress, and we're in a lot different position than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. And certainly even a year ago we were sequencing very little in terms of the positives that we were seeing in this country. But over the last year, we started to see sequencing infrastructure being rolled out. And now, if you look at the course of the — all of 2021, we'll probably — we've probably sequenced over the course of 2020 on about
3% of the positives that we've seen this year.

Now, our best practice is to do between 5 percent and 10 percent. But if you look at the last three months, we're now in that 5% to 10%. So I think, overall, we're starting to get the right amount of sequencing done in the U.S.

The challenge is that it's very variable across the states. And so you have some states that are close to 30% of positives, and you have some states that are closer to 1%. And so, overall, I think we have the capacity we need, it's just that we clearly have blind spots in parts of the country where we need do more.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And to that point, in the United Kingdom, within 48 hours of the first cases, they knew, you know, after South Africa sounded the alarm, the U.K. detected they had Omicron on their shores. Here in the United States, it was out of Minnesota. It took a week of time to pass between when the patient was tested and state health officials in Minnesota confirmed it.

Why are we slower? Isn't that more dangerous?

FRANCIS DESOUZA: It absolutely is. And you want to be -- you want to be ahead of this.

There's no questions that the U.K., specifically, has been one of the leaders in terms of rolling out a global genomic (INAUDIBLE) infrastructure. So they have been doing surveillance since April of 2020. So they were one of the first countries in the world to recognize the value of doing genomic sequencing of the positives identifying how the virus was mutating.

And so they started in April of 2020, and, frankly, not many other countries followed until December of 2020, when we started to see new variant emerge and it became clear that there was huge value in understanding how this virus was mutating, that we needed to understand it so we could tract how it was spreading, but also to know if the tools we were using to fight the pandemic, the vaccines, the diagnostics, the therapies, whether they were still going to be effective.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

In terms of how this virus mutated, there's speculation that it either jumped back and forth between animals and humans, or that there was something unique to its mutation within immunocompromised individuals.

Do you have any insight into why omicron seems to be so uniquely threatening?

FRANCIS DESOUZA: Ye, what really is surprising about the genome of this variant is that it is so heavily mutated. So we have over 50 new mutations, 30 of which are in the "s" gene, which makes the "s" protein, and that's important. But the fact that there are so many that we haven't seen before, coming from a virus that only mutates two to three times a month, tells us that it's been somewhere mutating for a long time and we haven't seen it.

And so there are a number of hypotheses. One, it could have been as part of a chronic illness that somebody who was perhaps immunocompromised had over a year and so they weren't ever really able to clear the virus, and so they had it and it was mutating. And then, for some reason, it started transmitting again over the last couple of weeks. Or it could have been, as you said, you know, transmitted to an animal, it mutated there, and then come back into humans. Or it could have been circulating in a part of the global population that's just not being sequenced. And so we're trying to figure out, you know, where it was for so long mutating undetected.

The other thing that's important is that the mutations we're seeing, the 30 mutations on the "s" gene are important because the "s" gene coats the "s" protein. And that's important for two reasons. One, that is how the virus interacts with human cells and gets into human cells.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

FRANCIS DESOUZA: And we've seen with other variants of concerns that certain mutations make variants more transmissible. And so there's an indication, and we're seeing that with some of the early data, that this variant might be more transmissible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.

FRANCIS DESOUZA: But the second reason it's important is that the "s" protein is actually  target for some of the vaccines. And so the question now is, is it mutated enough that it will escapes some of the vaccines.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. And we will be watching what the South African scientists find on that, of course.

In this country, though, do you think there is a national strategy, to go along with the money we talked about, the $2 billion, to improve sequencing? 

FRANCIS DESOUZA: I think we're starting to put it together. Clearly there wasn't at the beginning of the pandemic. And there are lots of elements of the national studies that are essential.

So, you know, one, sort of understanding, you know, what are we trying to shoot for in terms of a percentage of positives that we want to sequence. Two, how is that going to happen? So how are the samples going to go from, you know, clinics, where testing is happening, to labs that can do the sequencing. Well, those connections needed to be -- to be made. And then there's got to be more work around, you know, how is the data going to be shared?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yes.

FRANCIS DESOUZA: And so all of that, I think they're ideas and they're being put together, but there's still work being done to get it together.

MARGARET BRENNAN: OK. All right, thank you very much, Mr. Desouza, for your time this morning.

We'll be back in a moment.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: Decorum and politics have never been synonymous, but our John Dickerson takes a look at why decorum in politics has gone from bad to worse.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

JOHN DICKERSON (voice over): In May of 1984, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil was furious with Congressman Newt Gingrich.

TIP O'NEIL, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: And you challenged their Americanism, and it's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 23 years in Congress.

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Mr. Speaker, if I may reclaim my time.

JOHN DICKERSON: His remarks were quickly stricken from the record because personal attacks are not allowed on the House floor.

The standards of decorum were so strict, the most powerful member of the body took the rebuke, the first of a speaker since 1798.

House and Senate rules keep passionate debates from divulging into personal insults because serious work can't be done by people acting like children.

On their own time, members can say what they will. And, recently, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert did. On at least two occasions she made bigoted slurs against Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

REPRESENTATIVE LAUREN BOEBERT (R-CO): And there she is, Ilhan Omar. And I said, well, she doesn't have a backpack, we should be fine.

Well, look at there, it's the jihad squad.

JOHN DICKERSON: The problem for democracy is not just one member's actions, but that this behavior is applauded, as it was in Boebert's case.

When opponents are seen as the enemy, crassness, once seen as a lack of character, is considered the right artillery.

Congressman Paul Gosar can promote a video in which a cartoon version of himself kills Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If party leaders respond by doing more than privately wrinkling a brow, these empowered members aim their followers at them, as they did Republican colleagues who voted on bipartisan legislation with Democrats.

South Carolina Republican Representative Nancy Mace was one of the few voices in her party to speak out, criticizing Boebert's racist tropes. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked Mace as trash and said Boebert was just speaking for the party's voters. Party leaders agree, which is why they stay mum. They need those voters in 2022 to win back control.

But what happens when they do? We've seen this move before. Members who win attention, styling themselves as the most pure, turn on their leaders when those leaders try to govern.

When Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned, he railed against cannibals in his own party. And Speaker John Boehner used a term for these members that Boebert would recognize. He called them political terrorists. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we'll be right back.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

MARGARET BRENNAN: That's it for us today. Thank you for watching. Happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate.

For FACE THE NATION, I'm Margaret Brennan.

(ANNOUNCEMENTS)

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