News Brief: Senate Rebuke, Opioid Lawsuit, Gene-Editing Embryos
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Senate Republicans disagree with the president.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated. And American national security interests require continued commitment to our mission.
MARTIN: That's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell there.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah, as the Senate did something it does not do that often - Republicans have been reluctant to break with President Trump, even when some may disagree with him. But they did just that yesterday, rebuking his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us this morning. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: As Steve noted, it is not that often that Republicans publicly break with President Trump on policy. Tell us exactly what was voted on yesterday. What are the consequences of it?
HORSLEY: Well, Rachel, this rebuke of the president was big. And it was bipartisan. Sixty-eight senators voted for this resolution, including 43 out of 53 of Trump's fellow Republicans. The resolution is nonbinding, but it does give a strong sense of the Senate, that a precipitous withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan could put at risk what senators called the hard-won military gains that the U.S. has in those countries.
MARTIN: And, of course, the president had come out and said explicitly that he wants all troops out of Syria and kind of ripped the rug out from under negotiators in Afghanistan who are trying to come up with a peace deal. I mean, do you think Senate Republicans felt emboldened because of what they heard from intelligence officials this week on Capitol Hill?
HORSLEY: Well, certainly, that was one of a number of areas where the intelligence community took issue with what the president has been saying. They stressed that ISIS has certainly not been defeated, even though its territorial holdings have been dramatically reduced. They said there's still a lot of ISIS fighters out there. And they still pose a potential threat.
INSKEEP: Scott, I just want to note. I'm trying to do a little bit of math on the fly here. You said 43 Republicans voted to rebuke the president, that 68 overall did. It sounds to me like Democrats, actually, were more divided on this than Republicans were. The Republicans were more strongly in favor of keeping troops in Syria and Afghanistan.
HORSLEY: Well - and in particular, the senators who are running for president (laughter) were mostly opposed to this resolution.
MARTIN: What does this mean practically for U.S. policy in these countries? I mean, does this - is this just talk, as we often hear, or does this actually affect the Pentagon's plans?
HORSLEY: Hard to say for sure - obviously, this is not the first rebuke of the president. This is the issue that forced the resignation of Trump's defense secretary Jim Mattis, as well as his anti-ISIS czar Brett McGurk. And the president himself has already backpedaled somewhat, at least in terms of the timing of withdrawing troops from Syria. Remember; back in mid-December when he first announced this move, it was supposed to be virtually immediate. But then after a Christmas visit to Iraq, the president suggested, well, if the military needs a little bit more time, that's fine with him. In now the month and a half or so since the president's announcement, we've actually seen very little in the way of troop withdrawal, although there has been some equipment pulled out of Syria.
HORSLEY: So we'll see.
MARTIN: Just briefly before I let you go - another rift between Congress and the president - obviously, border security. This bipartisan group is trying to negotiate a deal to prevent another shutdown - President Trump now indicating none of what they are doing actually matters.
HORSLEY: In an interview with The New York Times, the president suggested that he is prepared to go ahead with a national emergency if the Democrats don't give ground at the bargaining table. Although we should say he has hinted that before and hasn't pulled the trigger yet.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: Here's a startling number. More than 130 people in the United States die every day because of an overdose on opioids.
INSKEEP: One common culprit is the painkiller OxyContin, which is produced by Purdue Pharma. And we now have a bit more information about the way that Purdue Pharma spread the use of that drug. New disclosures came from a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma in Massachusetts. They allegedly show that a member of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, gave directions to the company in an email. And this email said to prioritize selling higher doses of OxyContin in 2008. That order came even after the company had admitted to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction. The disclosures also allege, by the way, that the Sacklers earned more than $4 billion in opioid profits just since 2007.
MARTIN: Martha Bebinger of WBUR is here to give us even more details. Martha, people will hear that and think, this is awful. Were people profiting knowing that these drugs were highly addictive?
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: That's right. This is a lawsuit, Rachel, that was filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. She is claiming that Purdue and the Sacklers marketed the opioid drugs as safe, even though they knew the risk of addiction, and in doing so did help cause the opioid epidemic. Now, this is all playing out in Massachusetts, one of the hardest hit states, where between five and six residents are dying every day on average. And one report found that Massachusetts lost $15.2 billion as a result of the epidemic in 2017 alone.
MARTIN: What more can you tell us about these new filings that came out last night?
BEBINGER: Well, the latest version of the complaint, which is the heart of this lawsuit that's been filed, lifts hundreds of lines that had been blacked out. So what we see now are board notes about payments that allegedly totaled hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Sacklers. In 2009, for example, the complaint says the Sacklers paid themselves $335 million. They spent 122 on sales reps to ramp up their profits. At the same time, they allegedly acknowledged the harm OxyContin was causing by approving 2.7 million in personal injury claims. So, Rachel and Steve, there's some more in here. There's emails directly from the Sackler member, as Steve mentioned earlier, pushing for greater sales, allegedly. There's talk of Purdue starting to sell drugs that would treat addiction. So that's the problem they were allegedly fostering...
BEBINGER: ...And also getting into the business of Narcan - the drug that reverses an opioid overdose. That plan did not go forward.
MARTIN: There are hundreds of lawsuits against Purdue in states and cities across the country for the company's role in the opioid epidemic. So how could this case in Massachusetts have an influence over those other suits?
BEBINGER: Hundreds of those lawsuits are consolidated in one court in Ohio. The documents used to build this case that we're talking about in Massachusetts are all on file in Ohio. Massachusetts was the first state and the first suit to name the Sacklers and other board members. But other parties could use that same model going forward.
MARTIN: Any word from the Sacklers and Purdue on any of this?
BEBINGER: The attorney for the Sacklers claim they don't even belong in the lawsuit. She - the attorney plans to argue that there's no jurisdiction because they had no direct dealings in Massachusetts. And Purdue says Massachusetts is just trying to vilify them, even though they had a small piece of the market and that the complaint is riddled with inaccurate allegations.
MARTIN: Wow - important story. WBUR's Martha Bebinger for us this morning about it. Thanks so much, Martha. We appreciate it.
BEBINGER: Thank you.
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MARTIN: NPR has learned about a new experiment that's being conducted here in the U.S., aimed at creating gene-edited human embryos.
INSKEEP: Now, let's be clear. This experiment is not trying to make gene-edited babies. The world condemned a scientist for saying he'd done that in China. The goal of this new experiment is to see if it may someday be possible to safely make more gene-edited babies to prevent genetic diseases - seeing if it is someday possible. But this is still a controversial idea.
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is breaking this exclusive news today. And he joins us this morning. Rob, who is conducting this experiment?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So, Rachel, the scientist's name is Dieter Egli. And he's a developmental biologist at Columbia University in New York. And he says he's just trying to do the basic research to find out if a powerful new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR can repair genetic mutations in human embryos in the hopes of possibly - someday - allowing parents carrying genetic mutations that cause terrible diseases to have healthy babies. In this case, he's trying to fix a mutation that causes blindness.
MARTIN: So can you remind us how this is different than what happened in China?
STEIN: Yeah, so that scientist announced that two twin girls had been born using embryos that he had edited with CRISPR in his lab. And he said he did it to try to make them immune to the AIDS virus. But that was universally kind of condemned for being irresponsible and unethical because he rushed ahead before anyone knows if this kind of thing really works and, more importantly, would be safe.
MARTIN: So this New York scientist, he's trying to do the basic research to answer these important questions. Why is what he is doing controversial?
STEIN: Right. So many scientists think this is exactly the kind of basic research that needs to be done if anyone's ever going to know whether, you know, it might be possible to repair a genetic defect in human embryos, you know, and safely prevent genetic diseases. But others say, look. Even just doing the basic research might encourage other scientists to go rogue. And you're just kind of creating the recipe for how this could be abused to, for example, you know, try to make designer babies. And that raises all kinds of really profound moral and ethical questions.
MARTIN: Right. What is his response to that critique?
STEIN: So he says, look. I'm not trying to make gene-edited babies yet. I'm nowhere near that. And I have no intention of making, you know, designer babies. I'm doing the opposite of what happened in China. I'm trying to be very careful and methodical. Let's listen to a little bit of what he had to say.
DIETER EGLI: We can't just do the editing and then hope everything goes right and implant that into a womb. That's not responsible. We have to first do the basic research to see what happens. That's what we are doing here.
STEIN: Right. And he's also trying to be really, you know, transparent and not be secretive. Like, some people say the Chinese scientist says, he's even let me, you know, come to his lab recently and literally stand over his shoulder as he pierced human eggs with a tiny needle to fertilize them with sperm carrying this blindness mutation and then did his experiment to see if this CRISPR gene-editing tool could fix the mutation. And here's a key moment during that experiment. Let's listen to a little bit of that.
EGLI: The membrane is broken, breached. There we go - sperm and CRISPR tool in the egg.
STEIN: Oh, you did it. Yeah.
EGLI: Yeah, got it.
STEIN: Nerve wracking.
MARTIN: I can't believe you were allowed to watch that.
STEIN: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. And it was, you know, went on for hours. He edited one egg after another, fertilizing it and then injecting this CRISPR tool to try to, you know, fix this genetic mutation. It's pretty amazing to watch - stand there and watch this happening in real time.
MARTIN: Wow. Well, we'll see about the implications of all this - pretty amazing. Rob Stein, NPR health correspondent - Rob, thanks so much for bringing us this news. We appreciate it.
STEIN: Oh, sure. My pleasure, Rachel.
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