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News Brief: Novavax Vaccine, The GOP's Future, Biden's Environmental Justice Plan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a new vaccine that's proving effective in preventing COVID-19 and even some of the new variants of the virus.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This one is made by the U.S. biotech firm Novavax. The new vaccine showed an efficacy rate of 89.3%. But the most exciting part of this new addition to the vaccine roster is its resilience to a U.K. variant that's been spreading around the world. But we can't say it's all good news here. Early studies show it's not as effective against the South African strain, the one that's already made its way to the U.S.

MARTIN: So let's bring in NPR science correspondent Joe Palca to talk about all of this. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Sarah mentioned these early studies. What did they show exactly?

PALCA: Well, there were two studies, one in South Africa, one in the U.K. The U.K. study involved about 15,000 volunteers - so not small. And this is interim data, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt. But the people I spoke with were impressed. For example, here's John Grabenstein. He's editor of the Immunization Action Coalition.

JOHN GRABENSTEIN: It's great. It's the fourth vaccine candidate to report phase 3 efficacy data. It's the third to be above 85% and the first, you know, of this vaccine type.

MARTIN: What does that mean, Joe - what type?

PALCA: This type is called a protein subunit vaccine. It uses little pieces of the virus to stimulate the immune system. But it doesn't have the virus, so it can't make you sick. And it's a technology that's been used successfully to make other vaccines, so it's better understood. The vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer are what's called mRNA vaccines. They're a newer technology, and they don't have the same track record of being used.

MARTIN: OK. So what about the other study, the one out of South Africa?

PALCA: Well, this was a smaller study. There were 4,400 volunteers. And John Grabenstein said this was largely positive, too.

GRABENSTEIN: The only caveat - and I'm sure everybody is noting this - is, what does the South African part of the data mean? And it's - you know, that's still a glass more than half full.

PALCA: So in this study, the efficacy was closer to 60% or even less. And it seems that one of the reasons for that is there's a variant of the virus circulating in South Africa that has scientists worried.

MARTIN: Right. And I mean, this is the variant that was discovered yesterday in two people in this country, in South Carolina. Right?

PALCA: Exactly. And so what - the deal here is that the Novavax vaccine was designed based on the characteristics of the original strain of the virus. And the South African variant has different characteristics, so the vaccine doesn't do as well. But it did pretty well. And 60% isn't terrible, and that's what Grabenstein meant when he was - said the glass was more than half full. I mean, there are flu vaccines that only work about 60%, and we're all urged to go out and get those.

But the other troubling detail from the South African study is it seemed to show that people who had previously been infected with the original virus, the coronavirus, were not protected from this new variant. So it's like - not like you get it and you're all - you're protected. You might get sick from a different variant. And although numbers are small, it's not clear that they're being protected, so it's a little unsettling.

MARTIN: Right. So - I mean, this might be a naive question, but can they fix the vaccine? I mean, can they go back in and create a booster as Moderna did, I think, to make it more effective?

PALCA: Not naive at all. And no, there's not yet been a new version that's been actually made and tested. But Novovax says, yes, we can tweak the vaccine and try to make it - adjust it so it'll work on this new variant. And they're going to be rolling one of those out in the coming weeks.

MARTIN: When might we see this vaccine in the U.S.?

PALCA: Well, not right away. It's first going to - they're going to look for approval in the U.K. from regulators there. And they might show this data that they've got to U.S. regulators. But the other piece of good news is there's another vaccine coming along, this one from Johnson & Johnson. And we're expecting to hear results from studies of that vaccine very soon.

MARTIN: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks as always, Joe.

PALCA: You betcha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. After the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, many congressional Republicans did what they never had done before. They openly criticized President Trump.

MCCAMMON: But with the president now out of office and the urgency of the impeachment vote fading, most GOP lawmakers are back on Trump's side. And his most loyal allies have a new mission - to make fellow Republicans who supported impeachment pay a price. Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz traveled to Wyoming and held an event outside the Capitol building there yesterday to rally voters against the No. 3 Republican in the House, Liz Cheney. She is one of 10 Republicans who joined Democrats to impeach Trump two weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) U.S.A., U.S.A.

MATT GAETZ: If you want to prove that you have the power, defeat Liz Cheney in this upcoming election, and Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees.

(CHEERING)

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, former President Trump is watching it all from his home in Florida, where a top House Republican paid a visit to affirm loyalty to him.

MARTIN: All right. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is with us. Sue, I saw this photo yesterday - the top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, smiling, standing next to Donald Trump in a very fancy room adorned with a lot of gold.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Yeah, McCarthy went down to Mar-a-Lago for his first meeting with Trump since the president left office. McCarthy has been sort of all over the place on Trump since January 6. In the runup to the attack, he had supported his challenge of the Electoral College. After the violence, he said publicly that Trump bears responsibility for the attack. He even flirted with an idea, Rachel, of supporting a censure resolution against Trump during a House impeachment. And then he - and since then, he's kind of walked it all back.

He met with Trump in a pretty public way, I think, in a pretty obvious way to show support for him. Both men's political teams put out statements on the meeting, and both said they plan to work together to win congressional majorities in the 2022 midterms. In Trump's statement, they said, quote, that the president's "popularity has never been stronger than it is today and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time."

MARTIN: So does that mean all the talk about holding President Trump accountable, from the GOP side, for the January 6 insurrection - has that just faded?

DAVIS: It has. And I'm not sure there was ever high confidence that the Senate had the two-thirds vote it would need to convict Trump in the upcoming Senate trial. But any doubt was eliminated earlier this week in a test vote from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in which all but five Senate Republicans sided with him. You know, in the Senate, no one is defending what Trump did or said, but many are falling back on this process argument that the Senate shouldn't try a president once he leaves office. I do think, though, it's worth noting that the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has not shown the same loyalty to Trump that McCarthy has. He's been much more critical in public, and he hasn't walked back any of his statements.

MARTIN: And he hasn't said how he'll actually vote in the trial.

DAVIS: Right.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, let's pivot. Let's look forward. President Biden is trying to get his coronavirus relief bill through Congress, trying to find common ground with Republicans. Where's that stand?

DAVIS: Not great. Republicans have been pretty lukewarm about this package. They don't like the cost of it. They don't like a lot of policies in it, like raising the minimum wage. Democrats are now looking at using special budget rules to get around needing Republicans to support this package in the Senate. Republicans involved in the talks with the Biden administration say if the president goes that route, it could poison the well for bipartisanship going forward. But Democrats are looking at starting that process next week.

MARTIN: NPR's Sue Davis. Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. People of color in this country are much more likely to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water.

MCCAMMON: The Biden administration is promising to change that, starting with an executive order the president signed this week.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: With this executive order, environmental justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color, so-called fenceline communities, especially those communities, brown, Black, Native American, poor whites.

MCCAMMON: But Biden is not the first president to make such a promise.

MARTIN: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team is here with more. Becky, what did Biden do with this order?

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Well, the order creates a White House Council on Environmental Justice. So that council will suggest ways that the federal government can address environmental impacts of systemic racism. And you have to remember, the government helped create this situation. You know, discriminatory housing and zoning policies - they are the reason that people of color are more likely to live near power plants and refineries and highways, you know, things that release a lot of pollution. So the federal government is promising to undo some of that.

MARTIN: So this isn't the first time a president has acknowledged that responsibility by signing an executive order. How is Biden's approach going to be different?

HERSHER: Honestly, it's not very different. All the way back in 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order that also created a special group to work on environmental justice. But progress has been really slow since then. You know, overall, air quality and water quality in this country have gotten better. But the places that were most polluted in the '90s are basically the same places that are most polluted now.

And that's not just frustrating, it's deadly. You know, neighborhoods where people of color are exposed to chronic pollution, these are the neighborhoods where some of the highest mortality rates of COVID are happening, some of the most severe damage from climate-driven disasters. So there are layers of environmental racism going on, and they just haven't been fixed.

MARTIN: Right. So how are the people living in these communities - places with a lot of pollution - how are they responding to this move?

HERSHER: People are frustrated with the past inaction. So all those past promises, they make people wary of new promises. So I talked to a man named Devon Hall. He runs a local antipollution group in North Carolina. Specifically, they're trying to cut down on pollution from hog farms. So the feces from the farms get into the air and the water, and it makes people sick. And Black people are hit the hardest.

DEVON HALL: If you look at the map - I mean, you begin to look at where these facilities is located, it's pretty much in communities of color.

HERSHER: So Hall has been trying to reduce pollution for 20 years. And regulators have acknowledged the problem, acknowledged that Black people are the ones who are suffering, even said that what's happening in Hall's home county violates the Civil Rights Act. But the pollution is still happening. So I asked Hall what he would say to the new administration, and he has some questions that he thinks people in power should ask themselves.

HALL: How do you give a voice to the voiceless? How do you give those people a platform to voice their concerns? And then who is going to have a listening ear? And how long will you listen to those crying out?

HERSHER: So he says actions speak louder than words. And people like him will be watching if the new administration follows through on their promises.

MARTIN: Is there anything specific, any specific action the Biden administration could take beyond this executive order?

HERSHER: You know, Vice President Kamala Harris sponsored an environmental justice bill. That could have new life now that Democrats control the Senate. And the Biden administration is also planning to spend a lot of money. So whether that will be equitably spent, we'll see.

MARTIN: NPR's Rebecca Hersher, thank you. We appreciate it.

HERSHER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Legendary actress Cicely Tyson died yesterday at the age of 96. Tyson played iconic roles like Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King.

MCCAMMON: She was an elegant and inspirational presence onstage and on screen. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Cicely Tyson helped change the way Black characters were portrayed in Hollywood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.