News brief: COVID kids' vaccine, Russian natural gas supply, Boris Johnson
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
We start this morning with some news that many parents have been waiting to hear.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The first COVID-19 vaccine for children under the age of 6 could become available sooner than had been expected, perhaps by the end of February, according to a new plan that NPR has confirmed.
FADEL: Joining us is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So, Rob, children 5 and older are already eligible for vaccines, but this plan is for the younger kids. What can you tell us?
STEIN: Pfizer and BioNTech are expected to submit a request to the Food and Drug Administration as soon as today for emergency authorization for their vaccine for children as young as 6 months. You might remember, Leila, that the companies' plan for a vaccine for these kids suffered a big setback recently. They discovered that two low doses of the vaccine appear to protect children 6 months to 2 years but did not appear to protect those ages 2 to 5. So the company started testing a third dose on those kids. The hope is an FDA authorization would allow children to start receiving the first two doses so the older kids will be ready for the third dose once that data indicates that works.
FADEL: That sounds pretty unusual. Is it unusual?
STEIN: Yeah, it definitely is not the way this would usually be done. But this is the only age group that doesn't have a vaccine yet, and many parents are really anxious to get their kids protected. So the idea is to try to make that happen as quickly as possible. There's no indication that the vaccine would raise any new safety problems for young kids, and the potential benefit would be huge.
FADEL: Now, this news comes as there's a debate over what fully vaccinated should mean for adults. So, Rob, is that two shots? Is it three shots?
STEIN: Yeah. Right. You know, right now the CDC defines fully vaccinated as two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or one Johnson & Johnson shot. But the CDC now also says that people should get one more shot, a booster, to be up to date on their vaccinations. But some people think that's confusing an already confusing situation. They say fully vaccinated should simply include a booster. I talked about this with Saad Omer at Yale.
SAAD OMER: It's fairly unreasonable to expect the general public to understand the nuance of what is meant by up-to-date vaccine. They are spending too much time on wordsmithing and writing recommendations by committee. It's public health communication 101.
STEIN: The hope is that by changing the definition of fully vaccinated to include a booster would include - would encourage more people to get boosted. And there's another change some people would like to see now that the omicron surge is infecting so many more people - change the definition of fully vaccinated to also include all those people who get immunity from catching the virus. But there are some concerns about doing this.
FADEL: What kind of concerns?
STEIN: Well, you know, one problem is proving someone's been infected, especially now that so many people are testing themselves at home. It's also hard to know exactly how much protection someone got from an infection. Then there's the concern about whether this would fuel dangerous misinformation. You know, would it be used to tell people things like, they should get infected instead of getting vaccinated? If they've had COVID, they don't need to get vaccinated? Here's Dr. Celine Gounder at New York University.
CELINE GOUNDER: I think that's the big concern. And I think the clear message needs to be that prior infection does not replace vaccination. Prior infection can be thought of as equivalent to one dose of vaccine but does not replace an entire course of vaccination.
STEIN: It's the combination of a prior infection and vaccination that seems to provide the strongest protection of all.
FADEL: NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you so much.
STEIN: Sure thing.
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FADEL: What if Russia turns off its gas?
INSKEEP: Yeah, there's a concern about that in Europe and in Washington - a concern that Moscow could weaponize its natural gas exports to Europe in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are expected to speak by phone today, as efforts to find a diplomatic solution for the crisis continues. This follows a heated exchange between the two sides at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday.
FADEL: With us on the line is NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam to explain more. Hi, Jackie.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning.
FADEL: So Russia, during yesterday's U.N. Security Council meeting, accused the U.S. of hysterical fearmongering, accusing them of wanting conflict. The U.S. accused Russia of provocative actions toward Ukraine. Did anything productive come from this meeting?
NORTHAM: No. No, it was a very contentious meeting with a lot of accusations and recriminations. The U.S. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Russia's buildup along Ukraine's border was, quote, "as clear and consequential a threat to peace and security as anyone can imagine." The Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, who had tried to block the meeting, denied that there - you know, an attack on Ukraine was imminent and said Western accusations are actually making the problem worse. So no movement at the U.N. to try and resolve the crisis. As you say, you know, Secretary of State Blinken is expected to speak by phone today with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, so there might be another push on the diplomatic front. But meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies are drawing up lists of possible sanctions, which they said could devastate Russia's economy. And the concern is that Russian President Vladimir Putin could retaliate by cutting off the flow of gas to Europe.
FADEL: So how likely is that?
NORTHAM: Well, historically, Russia has always kept the gas flowing to Western Europe, no matter what political or military crisis was going on between the two sides. But it's hard to say if that will be the case this time. You know, Russia supplies about one-third of Europe's natural gas to run its factories and heat its homes during the winter, and Europe's economy could get walloped if Putin turns off the faucet. If he were to do it, now would be the time. Russia's got a lot of money - $630 billion - in reserves, and gas and oil prices are high. But, you know, Russia is also dependent on the European market and sells nearly three-quarters of its gas there. I spoke with Henning Gloystein, director of energy at the Eurasia Group, and he said there could be long-term implications for Russia if it does cut off the flow of natural gas to Europe. Here he is.
HENNING GLOYSTEIN: There would be an immediate, concerted effort by the European Union to permanently reduce gas reliance on Russia, which obviously won't solve problems this winter, but over the next two years, that would have pretty strong consequences.
NORTHAM: And Goldstein says the opening of Nord Stream 2, that multibillion-dollar pipeline from Russia to Germany, would be canceled immediately as well.
FADEL: What other options are there in case this actually happens?
NORTHAM: You know, at sea, there is this armada carrying liquefied natural gas that's heading to Europe from Asia, North Africa and elsewhere. And, you know, there are just a couple of months left this year of winter, where homes need to be heated in Europe, and after that, Putin loses a lot of leverage...
NORTHAM: ...If he wants to weaponize natural gas during this crisis.
FADEL: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thank you.
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FADEL: And Blinken and Lavrov aren't the only two government officials speaking today. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine on Tuesday.
INSKEEP: At the same time, the British government is preparing legislation that targets Russian oligarchs in London to put pressure on those who may be close to President Vladimir Putin.
FADEL: For more, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: So what exactly is Johnson hoping to achieve with this visit to Kyiv?
LANGFITT: Well, I think partly, first, it's symbolic. It's a show of support for Ukraine from a key NATO member. And last night, Johnson said this - he said, quote, "the U.K. will continue to uphold Ukraine's sovereignty in the face of those who seek to destroy it." And he's urging Russia to step back from mass troop deployments on Ukraine's borders we've been discussing. Russia says it has no plans to invade. The U.K. government has also trained about 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers since 2015, and it says it's going to spend 120 million to fight corruption, which is a huge problem in Ukraine, and strengthen the rule of law there.
FADEL: London is a haven for Russian oligarchs and Russian money.
LANGFITT: Yes, it is.
FADEL: How does the British government plan to apply pressure here?
LANGFITT: I think what you may see - the government is talking about the possibility of travel bans and asset seizures. I mean, a lot of Russian oligarchs, as well as other wealthy people around the world, they stash their money in expensive residences here - neighborhoods like Belgravia, Chelsea, Kensington. The residences often actually sit dark and empty. And it's given the British capital the nickname Londongrad. Now, Liz Truss - she's the foreign secretary - she says the new legislation will allow the government to target anybody who's providing strategic support to Putin. And this is what she said yesterday in Britain's House of Commons.
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LIZ TRUSS: Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide.
TRUSS: We will make sure that those who share responsibility for the Kremlin's aggressive and destabilizing action will share in bearing a heavy cost. Their assets in the U.K. will be frozen.
FADEL: Wait a second. We just heard parliamentarians laughing there.
LANGFITT: You did. Exactly.
FADEL: Yeah. Explain.
LANGFITT: Because there's so much skepticism about it.
LANGFITT: I mean, Russian money has been washing around here really since the fall of the Soviet Union. And there are already laws on the books, but enforcement, Leila, has been a really big problem, and that's because London is so reliant on gray money. It helps drive the real estate market here - the high-end real estate market - provides a lot of works for banks in the city of London. It even helps fund soccer clubs. Chatham House - that's the well-known London think tank here - had a report out last month, and the quote was - at the top was "little has been done in practice to prevent kleptocratic wealth and political agendas from entering Britain."
FADEL: Now, we can't talk about Johnson without talking about...
LANGFITT: No (laughter).
FADEL: ...How just yesterday, he survived another round of calls for his resignation following a report on parties his government threw when events like that were banned because of COVID-19. What did the report say?
LANGFITT: Well, the report actually was incredibly thin on details, and that's because the police are investigating 12 of these gatherings, and they're saying, oh, we don't want you to prejudice our investigation, which frankly doesn't make sense to many lawyers here in London. Among these gatherings the prime minister attended - reportedly attended three of them. And the report would only say - really, it cited what it called failures of leadership. We will - I think there'll be more details to come. Opposition lawmakers again demanding Johnson's resignation. The prime minister remained defiant yesterday, refusing to step down. And I think - honestly, having watched this very closely, I think he can hang on for a time - for the time being. And he said yesterday the country needs to focus on the really big issues like Ukraine, which is, of course, Leila, exactly what he's doing today.
FADEL: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Leila.
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