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News Brief: COVID-19 Restrictions, Vaccine Cold Storage, Troop Drawdown

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden has a warning about the government's coronavirus response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: More people may die if we don't coordinate.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president-elect was referring to coordination between his incoming administration and President Trump's outgoing administration. The defeated president has so far declined to participate in the transition. Biden has talked of a more unified national approach to the virus once he takes office. For now, states are largely making their own decisions. Some are tightening restrictions now while other places where the virus is spreading are not.

MARTIN: NPR's Nate Rott is with us this morning from western Montana. Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we're getting reports all kinds of states are tightening restrictions. California today goes into a new, tougher round of restrictions. Cases doubled there in just the last 10 days. I mean, it starts to feel a lot like what it felt like in March when the pandemic was just starting, right?

ROTT: Yeah, it does feel a bit like "Groundhog's Day," doesn't it? Only, it's definitely not as funny. And yeah, the numbers right now are pretty grim. There were more than a million new COVID cases in the country just in the last week, cases arising in practically every state in the country, putting stress on health care workers and the health care system. So, yeah, in states like New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, you know, California, like you mentioned, we're now seeing restrictions being put in place similar to the kind that a lot of states saw last spring. So nonessential businesses are being asked to stop or limit in-person services. Gyms are closing down in some cases. North Dakota, which for weeks has either been at or near the top among states for new cases per capita, has now imposed a statewide mask mandate. But then, you know, in South Dakota, where the numbers are also really, really bad, statewide actions are not being taken.

MARTIN: So, I mean, in places where there are new restrictions, maybe for the first time, are people complying?

ROTT: You know, to an extent, yes, but, you know, it's still pretty early. You know, a lot of these restrictions are just getting implemented now. So you are seeing people online and on social media saying, you know, they're going to ignore mandates, that they think the virus is being overblown. That's happened the entire time. I recently did some reporting in Kalispell, Mont., where, you know, the state was trying to crack down on some businesses for not enforcing a mask mandate that's existed for a while. And when I asked folks there just out on the streets their thoughts about the virus, here's a little of what I heard.

MARVIN LOFTIS: (Laughter) It's a big joke.

ROTT: You think it's a big joke?

LOFTIS: It's just another cold.

SHAUNA UNGER: I don't know. I can't decide if it's a conspiracy or not...

ROTT: OK.

UNGER: ...You know what I mean?

ROTT: Is it something that you personally worry about?

ROB HUGHES: Does it look like I'm worrying about it? No. I'm not worried about it all. If a bug, you know, you can't see with a microscope is going to kill me, it's going to kill me.

ROTT: So that was Marvin Loftis (ph), Shauna Unger (ph) and Rob Hughes (ph) who, you know, was clearly not wearing a mask. And we should definitively say here, Rachel, COVID-19 is not a joke. It's killed hundreds of thousands more Americans than the common cold. But that does give you a sense what some people are thinking.

MARTIN: What about doctors? What about medical professionals in these same communities?

ROTT: So, I mean, they're incredibly frustrated. I talked to medical professionals here in Montana and in neighboring Idaho, where cases are also spiking. And there's definitely a sense of disappointment that, you know, some people are not taking this very seriously. But there's also a recognition, I think, out there that there's a lot of pandemic fatigue right now. There's a lot of fear, and there's an incredible amount of disinformation and misinformation swirling around. So there's some empathy there for people who are either confused or being a bit dismissive of the pandemic and a hope that, you know, if leaders start hammering kind of clear, concise, consistent messaging in the country, that people will come around.

MARTIN: NPR's Nate Rott, thanks. We appreciate it.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: All right. While some people might not be taking the pandemic seriously, others won't go back to regular life until there is a vaccine.

INSKEEP: That day may not be so distant. Yesterday, the pharmaceutical company Moderna said its vaccine is about 95% effective. That's the second promising vaccine to be announced in a week. Any effort to distribute these vaccines will have to confront a challenge - both of them must be frozen.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is with us to explain more. Good morning, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why do these vaccines have to be frozen?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, both of these vaccine candidates are what's called messenger RNA vaccines, and mRNA is very unstable. So to help explain what that means, here's an analogy. Think of the vaccine like a melty chocolate bar, OK?

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: To stabilize the vaccines, these drug companies used modified building blocks, or nucleosides, that would be like changing the chocolate recipe so it's less melty. And then they coated it with something called lipid nanoparticles. Margaret Liu explained this to me. She's a vaccine researcher who chairs the board of the International Society for Vaccines.

MARGARET LIU: That formulation helps protect the RNA. It's kind of like putting your chocolate inside a candy coating and you have an M&M so the chocolate doesn't melt.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So then the freezing is also done to protect the RNA and make the vaccines more stable. It's the same concept as freezing food so it doesn't spoil. Although only Pfizer's vaccine requires ultra cold conditions. That's minus 70 degrees Celsius, which is extremely cold, like, Antarctica cold. And that presents challenges.

MARTIN: So what does all that mean in terms of getting the vaccine distributed out to the country and, really, around the world?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it means that the immunization managers who are in each and every state are expecting that they're likely going to get both of these vaccines and they'll have to figure out where to send the different vaccines to different kinds of places. Christine Finley is the vaccine manager in Vermont. She's still finalizing the state's vaccination plan. And she told me it might make sense that the Pfizer vaccine, which comes in huge quantities and requires dry ice or specialty freezers, would be sent to big population centers.

CHRISTINE FINLEY: If you have a large university where you're going to be able to reach a larger number of people, that would make sense that you might consider distributing your ultra cold there. And then in areas where it might be more difficult to use up such a large order or they may not have the storage, you've now got another option.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says, especially at first when there are limited vaccine doses, they need and want as much stock of vaccine as they can possibly get.

MARTIN: Interesting. So each could have its own distinct purpose. So once these are ready for distribution, who gets them first?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, before anybody outside of the clinical trials gets vaccinated, the vaccines need to get emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Once that happens, the initial doses can start to go out. And at first, the limited doses are going to be directed to front-line health workers because they're the people who are most at risk and then other groups at risk, like seniors and people with conditions that make them more likely to get seriously sick. And as for when the general public gets it, that will likely be many months after that, which is why public health experts are frantically trying to get the message across that people still need to social distance and hand-wash and wear masks, especially now that the virus is spreading so much across the country.

MARTIN: Well, I like thinking about it as a frozen M&M, Selena, I'm not going to lie.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, the latest on the vaccines, thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

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MARTIN: American troops are coming home.

INSKEEP: President Trump said so yesterday. He promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Somalia, in the next couple of months. That is all the time that he has left. The outgoing president leaves office in exactly 64 days, noon, January 20, 2021. Under his orders, the troop presence in Iraq would drop a little and in Afghanistan by a lot, from 4,500 to 2,500. Now, Trump has often promised to bring troops home, but his move here drew criticism from a powerful ally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: A retreat would embolden the Taliban, especially the deadly Haqqani wing, and risk plunging Afghan women and girls back into what they experienced back in the 1990s. It would hand a weakened and scattered al-Qaida a big, big propaganda victory and a renewed safe haven for plotting attacks against America.

MARTIN: So how does all this look from the region? NPR's Diaa Hadid is based in Islamabad. She's on the line. Good morning, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the U.S. had already pledged to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by this spring. This came as a promise under an agreement it signed with the Taliban. Of course, the Afghan government was not party to that agreement. But what are Afghan government officials saying now about this accelerated U.S. timeline for withdrawal?

HADID: Well, actually, they were expecting it because it's something that President Trump has long signaled, most recently last week when he appointed a senior adviser to the Pentagon who calls for an immediate withdrawal. At this point, they're actually eyeing the military equipment that American forces might leave behind as they rush to the exit. But there's also a sense of anger. I spoke to a senior official, Javed Faisal (ph), and he told me this...

JAVED FAISAL: Afghans do not want the U.S. to stay here forever. We want the withdrawal to be a very responsible one, and we don't expect our ally to burn the house once it leaves.

HADID: They don't expect their ally to burn down the house as they leave. They're worried a hasty withdrawal could embolden the Taliban because it would signal to them that they don't have to abide by commitments for foreign forces to go, echoing quite what Mitch McConnell just said.

MARTIN: Well, is the Taliban doing that? Are they upholding the commitments they made when it signed this agreement with the Trump administration?

HADID: Yes and no. The Taliban are abiding by two key commitments. They're not attacking foreign forces, and they are engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government, even though they've been at a stalemate since they began. But it's understood that the Taliban also promised to reduce their violence. But in reality, they've stepped up their attacks against security forces across the country, and they're believed to be behind a series of unclaimed murders. Most recently, they may have killed an Afghan journalist in Helmand.

MARTIN: What are ordinary Afghan citizens telling you, Diaa?

HADID: Educated Afghans appear to be worried, especially women. They worry withdrawal will allow the Taliban to seize power and that their rights might be swept away. Others are tired, like a nurse I spoke to, Marzia Khawari (ph).

MARZIA KHAWARI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says the fighting is getting worse, so maybe it doesn't matter if they stay or go.

MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad on those anticipated troop withdrawals of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.