News Brief: Biden News Conference, AstraZeneca Vaccine, Gun Debate
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Biden holds his first solo press conference today after 64 days in office.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah. He's taken quick questions from reporters on his way in or out of the White House. That happens all the time. But he's been criticized by some in the White House press corps for not doing more. And this is the first formal extended opportunity for journalists to press the president on a range of issues.
MARTIN: We have got one of our members of the White House press corps with us this morning, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Is it really unusual for a president to wait this long to take questions in this particular setting?
KEITH: You know, I went back to Truman and every president going back that far held their first solo press conference earlier than this. You know, Biden has taken an approach to the presidency of, you know, trying to be boring compared to President Trump, making it so that he isn't a president that the American people have to think about every hour of every day. But, you know, he also promised transparency, and holding a formal press conference has traditionally been part of that. Traditional press conferences, though, are also high risk, not necessarily high reward situation for the president.
MARTIN: For the president - from the president's point of view, yeah.
KEITH: For the president. For the press corps, a different story. And, you know, he came in wanting to pass this big $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. And there was not a lot of leeway to get that through. Now that it's passed, he wants to promote it and also wants to sell the next thing, the so-called build back better plan. So that explains the timing. But this isn't to say that President Biden has been available. He's just been a lot more disciplined and controlled than President Trump does...
MARTIN: Right. Not to say that he's been unavailable. Like, he has, as Steve noted, answered questions from time to time.
KEITH: Right. He has done scripted speeches on most workdays, but coming off of Trump, who in his final years was especially verbose, it just feels like a lot less. I checked in with the folks at Factbase who track words spoken by the president of the United States. And compared to this period in Trump's presidency, Biden has only spoken or been on camera about 30% less than Trump was.
MARTIN: So let's talk about one of the issues likely to come up today. Yesterday, Biden administration officials visited a shelter housing unaccompanied minors at the southern border. They finally let a press camera in, just one. Was the White House trying to get ahead of this press conference and the questions they know are coming?
KEITH: Yeah, I mean, they didn't explicitly say that, but it does seem convenient that this happened just the day before. Biden also announced yesterday that he's putting Vice President Harris in charge of working with Mexico and some Central American countries to stem the tide of migrants. And someone at this press conference is going to ask him if this is a crisis, a word that the White House has been loath to use. You know, the White House and this administration has had difficulty settling on a clear and concise message. And this press conference is going to be yet another opportunity for Biden to try to settle on a message. They've been saying the borders are closed, but they also readily acknowledge that they are still accepting unaccompanied minors and some families and just that this is a situation that they're not happy with but that there isn't a quick fix.
MARTIN: Right. And we should just tick off other issues. Clearly, he's going to have to take questions about the pandemic.
KEITH: Absolutely and the delivery of vaccines and his July Fourth goal and whether that is under promising and over delivering, also about masks and vaccines and foreign policy. There was a North Korean missile test, the war of words with Russia and China. Heck, he may even get asked about his dogs, who had to leave the White House and are back after some training in Delaware.
MARTIN: So many issues. NPR's Tamara Keith, we appreciate you. Thanks.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: All right. Astrazeneca has again released new data about the efficacy of its COVID vaccine.
INSKEEP: The company is hoping this is going to put this week's embarrassment to rest. You may recall AstraZeneca released really promising sounding results about its vaccine back on Monday. Then an independent committee in the United States published a late-night letter questioning that data. AstraZeneca had not included the very latest findings from its vaccine trial. Now the company has the update. The numbers for the vaccine show a high level of efficacy, about the same, just a little bit lower than we heard at the start of the week.
MARTIN: We've got NPR science correspondent Richard Harris with us. Richard, thanks for being here. Can you just remind us what kicked off this whole episode?
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Absolutely. First of all, let's remember this vaccine is not yet available in the United States, but the company does plan to ask the Food and Drug Administration to authorize it. It's been a really rough road, though. The company's initial studies done outside the United States were so irregular that the FDA said it wanted fresh data actually before evaluating this product. So the company announced that fresh data in a press release on Monday, and it looked quite good. The company reported that the vaccine was 79% effective in preventing disease and even better at preventing hospitalizations and death.
MARTIN: But that good news didn't last long, did it?
HARRIS: Right. A review panel at the NIH had seen the data before it had been released, and it was actually very concerned that AstraZeneca was cherry-picking its results to make the vaccine look better than it was, even though it pretty good. And it did advise the company to give a more complete report. But, you know, the company ignored that advice. And then I don't think this has ever happened before - the NIH announced that this review panel had issues with the data. They put out a public release and said they were displeased that AstraZeneca went ahead and did what they did.
MARTIN: So what is AstraZeneca now saying about the efficacy of the COVID vaccine?
HARRIS: Well, so last night, AstraZeneca finally rolled out the data that that advisory board had requested all along. And as expected, it showed that the vaccine is still quite effective but not quite as good as the initial press release had said. The company says it was 76% effective in the latest study, not 79%. And it added that it is still processing some data that could change that number a bit still. But, you know, perhaps more important in this study, nobody who got the shot ended up in the hospital or died from COVID-19. So by that measure, it's right up there with the three vaccines that are already in use in the United States.
HARRIS: You know, but there's one huge question - oh, sorry. There's one huge question, which is, you know, how much damage this has done to AstraZeneca's reputation, this and these other missteps. And, you know, people may lose some enthusiasm for this vaccine.
MARTIN: Right. Well, that was sort of what I was going to ask. I mean, what's the damage to its rep? AstraZeneca's vaccine is already widely used in Europe, used around the world, really. Specifically, what's this going to mean for Americans and Americans' faith in this particular vaccine?
HARRIS: Well, that remains to be seen. AstraZeneca says it still intends to ask the FDA for authorization for emergency use, and that's likely to take at least a month and presuming that the FDA actually doesn't find more issues with the company's data. And remember, we already have three vaccines in use here and another one that could soon be on its way. So, you know, it remains to be seen just how much Americans will actually see of this vaccine. AstraZeneca has said it will have 30 million doses available immediately and another 20 million in a month after approval. But, you know, that's still a pretty small percentage of the doses needed. So this vaccine may not end up being a major player here, in any event, despite all the drama we've heard.
MARTIN: NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for that update.
HARRIS: My pleasure.
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MARTIN: We're going to turn now to Colorado, where the mass shooting this week is now prompting state lawmakers there to call for tighter gun laws.
INSKEEP: Yeah, Democrats in Colorado are pushing for a statewide ban on assault-style weapons. Weapons such as AR-15s have been the gun of choice in many mass shootings. The question here is how much a state ban can do when you can just drive guns over the border from a neighboring state where the weapons may be legal.
MARTIN: Bente Birkeland from Colorado Public Radio is with us this morning. Bente, thanks for being here.
BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Thanks.
MARTIN: Where does the conversation around gun laws stand in Colorado right now?
BIRKELAND: Colorado has passed some pretty restrictive gun laws in the last decade, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. And late yesterday, I learned that preliminary discussions are underway for a ban on assault-style weapons across the state. So there has been a lot of talk about how just a couple of weeks ago, a state judge actually struck down an assault weapons ban that the city of Boulder had passed in 2018. And that was because in Colorado, like in some other states, cities are not allowed to pass stricter gun rules than the state. The Democratic Senate majority leader represents the district in Boulder where the shooting occurred. And he says he strongly backs a statewide assault weapons ban, even though it would have shortcomings. Here's Steve Fenberg.
STEVE FENBERG: There's no question that the real solution has to come from the federal government. A patchwork of laws is better than nothing. But clearly, if someone is intent on causing harm and we have strict regulations in Colorado, somebody can drive an hour and a half to Wyoming.
MARTIN: Someone can drive an hour and a half to Wyoming, so state boundaries, you know, don't contain this problem. What kind of chance would a statewide assault-style weapons ban have of even becoming law in Colorado?
BIRKELAND: It's interesting because before yesterday, there was not really any public talk of a ban across the state. But Democrats do have a majority vote in both chambers of the legislature. And Colorado's governor, Jared Polis, is also a Democrat. So it's a real possibility that something could happen in Colorado, especially with so much grief and calls for action after Monday's shooting. But there will be strong opposition, too. Many on the right say tougher laws don't stop mass shootings. They infringe on the Second Amendment and hurt law-abiding citizens.
MARTIN: I want to shift the conversation, if we could, over to the investigation. Of course, the shooting in the grocery store left 10 people dead. Where does the investigation stand right now, Bente?
BIRKELAND: The suspected shooter will be in court later this morning for an arraignment, and it's looking like he will be charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. And then we are expected to learn about his next court date as well.
MARTIN: How does it feel around Colorado right now?
BIRKELAND: I think as a lot of people are aware, we are a state that's had a history of mass shootings. And so I think there's grief and resignation and also deep divisions about the path forward. I talked to one of our legislative leaders, and he remembers exactly where he was when he first heard about the Columbine High School massacre, and that was back in 1999. So as one person said it, there's shock and people are stunned, but at the same time, they're not surprised. I mean, this is the second mass shooting in one week that we've had in this country.
MARTIN: Bente Birkeland reporting for Colorado Public Radio for us this morning. Thank you so much.
BIRKELAND: Thank you.
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