Start your day here: FDA panel backs a COVID-19 pill; Roe v. Wade at stake at the Supreme Court; CNN suspends Chris Cuomo

Published December 1, 2021 at 7:50 AM EST
A person walks by a sign for a vaccine site in Staten Island Tuesday in New York City. Across New York City and the nation, people are being encouraged to get either the booster shot or the Covid-19 vaccine, especially with the newly discovered omicron variant emerging in countries around the world.
Spencer Platt
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Getty Images North America
A person walks by a sign for a vaccine site in Staten Island Tuesday in New York City. Across New York City and the nation, people are being encouraged to get either the booster shot or the Covid-19 vaccine, especially with the newly discovered omicron variant emerging in countries around the world.

Good morning and welcome to December!

We're following these top stories today:

New COVID-19 developments: A panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers narrowly backs emergency use authorization of what would be the country's first at-home oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19, as Pfizer asks for its boosters to be expanded to 16- and 17-year-olds. Plus, investors and oil producers are grappling with the uncertainty of omicron.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court will hear arguments on a Mississippi abortion case that could reverse the nearly half-century-old Roe v. Wade decision. Unlike the last major case in which the court was asked to reverse Roe, today's supermajority of six justices all have records opposing abortion rights.

Chris Cuomo: CNN has suspended Cuomo — one of its top-rated anchors — indefinitely, after newly released documents revealed his efforts to help his brother out of a sexual harassment scandal. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in August and now faces criminal charges in New York.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, people are mourning after the latest school shooting, this time in Michigan.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Nicole Hernandez)

Sports

Major League Baseball faces a lockout as tonight's bargaining deadline looms

Posted December 1, 2021 at 11:20 AM EST
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 in baseball's World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves in October. A five-year contract between MLB and the players expires at midnight.
Ron Blum/AP
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AP
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 in baseball's World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves in October. A five-year contract between MLB and the players expires at midnight.

A lockout is looming as Major League Baseball players and owners negotiate over the future of the sport.

The league's current bargaining agreement expires tonight at midnight. A work stoppage would end the MLB's 27-year streak of peaceful labor deals since a players' strike ended the 1994 season ahead of schedule.

A lockout now, during the off-season, would not have as devastating an impact on the sport as the '94 strike did. Still, it would halt player trades and other crucial work, said Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated explained on Morning Edition.

At issue is the league's pay structure. Teams have historically held financial control over young players for their first six years, before they become "free agents" and can entertain offers from other teams.

That means they're "basically underpaid for that period," Abstein said. And when they sign as free agents, for more pay but after their prime years, players "essentially get paid for past performance."

Recently, however, owners have stopped offering those larger free-agent contracts.

"It means that guys who used to get underpaid when they were young and overpaid when they were old are now just getting underpaid when they're young, and that's it," she said.

The players would like to reform the system, but it's working fine for owners, Abstein said. Hence today's sticking point.

"In the past two collective bargaining agreements, the players gave up a lot and didn't get a lot in return," she said. "They're trying to claw back some of those losses but don't have a lot to give."

You can listen to Abstein's conversation with Morning Edition's A Martínez here.

Delivery debacle

Authorities say a FedEx driver dumped hundreds of packages into an Alabama ravine

Posted December 1, 2021 at 11:08 AM EST

Suppose there's a supply-chain blockage, so you order your personal essentials and holiday gifts ahead of time. And let's say those packages made it all the way to the very last link, only for a delivery driver to dump them into a local ravine.

That's unfortunately not a hypothetical scenario for some 450 people in Alabama, where authorities are investigating a FedEx driver for throwing out multiple truckloads of packages.

The Blount County Sheriff's Office said last Wednesday that between 300 and 400 boxes "of assorted sizes" had been discovered in a wooded area on private property. FedEx sent trucks and drivers from across the South later that day to begin the process of recovering the packages, it added.

By Monday, Sheriff Mark Moon said the driver — who has not been publicly named — had been identified and questioned. He urged the media and public to be patient as investigators worked the case, which he characterized as a "debacle."

The driver was found to have "dumped at least six times," which makes FedEx a victim of six different theft of property cases, Moon announced in a Tuesday update.

"As of right now we are looking at around 450 individual victims, some in Blount County some not, that investigators are attempting to work their cases," he added. "This will not be an easy or fast case to close."

FedEx said in an email to NPR that the company has reviewed the situation and is cooperating with law enforcement, and that the individual involved is no longer employed by FedEx Ground.

"We regret the inconvenience this situation has caused and appreciate our customers’ understanding throughout the package recovery process," the statement added. "Where possible, recovered packages are being delivered to the intended recipients. In the event of a damaged shipment, we will make every effort to work with the affected shippers to reach a resolution."

The company directed customers with any questions to track their shipments online.

Inside NPR

'Morning Edition' co-host Noel King is leaving NPR

Posted December 1, 2021 at 10:35 AM EST

NPR shared some bittersweet news yesterday: after almost four years co-hosting Morning Edition, Noel King is moving on to new opportunities and a healthier sleep schedule (we hope!).

The news is bitter of course because NPR and our listeners will miss the sharp insight and wonderful personality Noel distills into Morning Edition and Up First each time we turn on her mic.

One of the best things about Noel's work is that she navigates every story she touches with an abundance of heart. You can hear that as she bounces around her own kitchen, making a mess "test run" and taking listeners along as she learns how to make a perfect omelet.

Or here, in conversation with a mother and son, as they dig into the freedom and deep fear that results from being 17 and Black in America today.

Click here for a few of Noel's favorite audio moments from her time hosting the show.

This is also sweet news, though, because Noel has great things ahead that we're excited to listen to: She'll be the new co-host and editorial director ofthe Vox podcast"Today, Explained."

In her note to staff announcing the move, Noel said this:

"Journalists are wanderers by nature, (or at least this one is,) so I don't believe in long goodbyes. I'm certain I'll see most of you again soon..."

If co-host Steve Inskeep has anything to say about it, she may be hearing from us at NPR for a long time.

Her last day co-hosting Morning Edition will be Dec. 10.

World AIDS Day

What the AIDS crisis can teach us about the COVID pandemic response

Posted December 1, 2021 at 10:26 AM EST
People stand on a road where candles are lit in the shape of a red ribbon, near a banner that says "World AIDS Day."
Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
Volunteers stand after lighting candles forming the shape of a red ribbon during an awareness event organized on the eve of the World AIDS Day in Kathmandu on Tuesday.

Today is World AIDS Day, an annual opportunity to show support for people living with HIV and honor those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

It became the world's first-ever international day for global health when it was founded in 1988. And global health is a topic on the minds of many people today, as the coronavirus pandemic rages, a rapidly spreading new variant emerges and countries scramble to vaccinate their populations in the face of an inequitable vaccine rollout.

Plus, AIDS is by no means a pandemic of the past.

In fact, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warned in a new report this week that if leaders don't do more to address inequalities, the world could see some 7.7 million AIDS-related deaths over the next decade — and could remain trapped in the COVID-19 crisis.

“Progress against the AIDS pandemic, which was already off track, is now under even greater strain as the COVID-19 crisis continues to rage, disrupting HIV prevention and treatment services, schooling, violence-prevention programmes and more," UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said in a statement. "We cannot be forced to choose between ending the AIDS pandemic today and preparing for the pandemics of tomorrow. The only successful approach will achieve both. As of now, we are not on track to achieve either.”

The report notes that while some countries have made progress, new HIV infections are not falling fast enough globally to stop the pandemic.

The new infections (some 1.5 million in 2020) are also "following lines of inequality," UNAIDS says, pointing to the fact that gay men, sex workers and people who use drugs face a 25 to35-times greater risk of acquiring HIV worldwide.

It adds that COVID-19 is "undercutting" the AIDS response in many places, with the pace of HIV testing declining and HIV prevention services — like harm reduction services for people who use drugs — facing disruption in many countries in 2020.

The Biden administration acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted "every aspect of the HIV/AIDS response, from prevention to treatment to research," and is marking this World AIDS Day by announcing several steps it will take to redouble the fight against HIV/AIDS at home and abroad.

Those steps include pledging to host the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Replenishment Conference next year and releasing a new national strategy for research, policy and planning through 2025. It aims to “aggressively reduce new HIV cases while increasing access to treatment and eliminating inequitable access to medical and support services" to end the U.S. HIV epidemic by 2030.

Public health experts say that by addressing root inequities, world leaders can not only end AIDS, but also overcome the COVID-19 crisis and be better prepared for any future pandemics.

So what lessons can we apply from AIDS to COVID?

Steven Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill Journalism School, says the two diseases exploit similar societal weaknesses, like divides along the lines of race, class and power.

He spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro last World AIDS Day about what that might mean for efforts to get vaccines and treatments to those who are the most vulnerable.

Thrasher found in his research that the majority of the roughly 33 million people who have died from AIDS over the last four decades actually died after 1996, when effective medication hit the market.

He expressed the same concern as many officials and public health experts: That the people who are most at risk of COVID-19 also have the least connection to institutions and financial resources to get the vaccines and treatments they need. The virus could take hold in these populations and worsen existing disparities, he added.

"Looking back at AIDS, it took seven years from the time antiretroviral therapy came to market before it started getting to every country in the world. And during that time, HIV continued to circulate and, thus, continued to climb," Thrasher said. "And so if we want to tamp down this virus, we need to have a transnational, international approach that's going to help the most vulnerable all over the Earth unless we all want to be just in our houses and not traveling for the next few decades."

For more on the similarities between the two pandemics, check out some of NPR's previous coverage:

Law

Ghislaine Maxwell accuser describes how she was recruited and abused when she was 14

Posted December 1, 2021 at 9:51 AM EST
In this courtroom sketch, Ghislaine Maxwell's defense attorney, Laura Menninger, cross-examines a witness using the pseudonym "Jane" on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Williams/AP
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FR142054 AP
In this courtroom sketch, Ghislaine Maxwell's defense attorney, Laura Menninger, cross-examines a witness using the pseudonym "Jane" on Tuesday.

The jury in the federal sex-trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell heard its first testimony Tuesday, including from a woman who says Maxwell helped Jeffrey Epstein recruit her for sexual abuse when she was a minor.

A pilot who flew Jeffrey Epstein’s private jets also took the stand, saying that over the years, his passengers included Maxwell’s accuser as well as rich and powerful guests such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as Britain’s Prince Andrew and the late Sen. John Glenn.

Larry Visoski piloted the plane that was later nicknamed the Lolita Express after allegations emerged about Epstein and the young women with whom he often traveled. Visoski told the court he never saw signs of sex on the plane, and he said the young women he saw seemed to be of age. But he also affirmed prosecutors’ view of the overall power dynamic, calling Maxwell “the No. 2” to Epstein’s “big No. 1.”

After Visoski left the witness stand, Jane — a pseudonym — testified, the first of four women who are expected to speak in court about their allegations of sexual abuse. Jane told jurors she was just 14 years old when Maxwell and Epstein introduced themselves to her at an arts and music camp in Michigan. She later visited Epstein’s home in Palm Beach, Fla. — one of several locations where she says both Epstein and Maxwell repeatedly sexually abused her.

Jane said the abuse took place over several years: “It ruined my self-esteem, my self-worth,” she said, according to reporter Adam Klasfeld of the Law & Crime website.

In questioning Jane, prosecutors depicted Maxwell as insinuating herself into the young woman’s life, grooming her for Epstein’s abuse. But Maxwell’s defense team pressed the accuser on why it took years before she accused Maxwell of abusing her. And they noted that through a civil lawsuit, she was awarded $5 million from a fund that compensates Epstein’s victims.

The defense team’s cross-examination of Jane will continue Wednesday.

COVID-19

WHO member states vow to draft a global agreement to deal with future pandemics

Posted December 1, 2021 at 9:25 AM EST
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on October 18, 2021.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the WHO headquarters in Geneva in October.

Member states of the World Health Organization are banding together to make a plan to deal with future pandemics like the COVID-19 outbreak.

The World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body, votedWednesday to draft a “convention, agreement or other international instrument” on preventing, preparing for and responding to future pandemics.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said the coronavirus outbreak exposed flaws in the global health system but also showed a willingness among countries to work together to combat the crisis.

“The adoption of this decision is cause for celebration, and cause for hope, which we will need,” Ghebreyesus said at the Special Session of the World Health Assembly.

“There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain. But you have proven to each other and the world that differences can be overcome, and common ground can be found,” he added.

The agreement to work on a plan to deal with future global pandemics comes as countries across the world continue to grapple with the current outbreak. The new highly transmissible omicron strain, recently dubbed a “variant of concern” by the WHO, has led to renewed public health restrictions and travel bans as governments scramble to contain its spread.

Ghebreyesus said the intergovernmental negotiating body drafting the new accord is scheduled to hold its first meeting by March 1 and submit its conclusions sometime in 2024.

Law

A case before the mostly-conservative Supreme Court could decide the fate of Roe v. Wade

Posted December 1, 2021 at 9:10 AM EST
Protestors gather in front of the Supreme Court holding signs reading pro-choice statements including "Abortion is Healthcare" and "Liberate Abortion".
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices prepare to hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health.

Historic arguments begin today at the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices will consider a case that could dramatically impact access to safe abortions across the country.

The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, concerns the last remaining abortion facility in the state of Mississippi. NPR's Sarah McCammon visited the clinic, which is challenging a state law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy — well before a fetus is viable.

"This is the way that they chip away at abortion until it goes away," said Shannon Brewer, the director of Jackson Women's Health. "It's 15 weeks, and then it's gonna be 14 weeks, and then it's gonna be 10. This is the way that they do it."

Here's what McCammonlearnedwhen she visited and she spoke with providers inside the clinic and protestors outside.

The court's decision could reverse the nearly half-century-old Roe v. Wade case and subsequent decisions that declared pregnant people have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, reports NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Totenberg has thisin-depth explainer on the issues this case will touch and how it arrived at the Supreme Court's doorstep.

More broadly, many states, including Mississippi and Texas, have passed laws recently meant to limit legal abortions. An October NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollfound that a clear majority of Americans, including most Republicans, opposes key provisions of Texas' controversial near-total abortion-ban.

NPR will air today's arguments live beginning at9:30a.m. ET and lasting for up to two hours. All Things Considered's Audie Cornish will host special coverage, with additional analysis from McCammon and Totenberg.

You can also join in on the discussion during a Twitter Spaces conversation between McCammon and historian Mary Ziegler at 4 p.m. ET. Find the details here.


More from NPR:

Science

Scientists say lab-made organic robots have found a new way to copy themselves

Posted December 1, 2021 at 8:56 AM EST
A dozen AI-designed organisms (C-shaped; beige) beside loose stem cells (white).
Douglas Blackiston & Sam Kriegman
A dozen AI-designed organisms (C-shaped; beige) beside loose stem cells (white).

Researchers have discovered that organic robots — dubbed xenobots — are able to sweep up loose stem cells into piles that then become new xenobots.

It’s a process called kinematic self-replication, the researchers say in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

While it happens at the molecular level, "We are not aware of any organism that reproduces or replicates in this way," says Michael Levin, a professor of biology at Tufts University and associate faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Xenobots are collections of living cells and have no brain or digestive system. But in a real sense, they can be programmed — to corral other cells, as in this study, or eventually to do other things. That's why the researchers think of them as tiny organic robots.

The xenobots, which propel themselves by using tiny hair-like structures, have a tendency to spin in a corkscrew fashion, something that "turns out to be pretty good for collecting piles of things," such as other cells, says co-author Douglas Blackiston, a senior scientist at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts and the Wyss Institute.

Using an artificial intelligence-driven computer simulation, the researchers predicted how best to manipulate the xenobots’ shape to be more efficient at sweeping. They found that a shape similar to a Pac-Man was best.

But it wasn’t the only thing they discovered. As they observed the xenobots piling up stem cells, they noticed the kinematic self-replication.

Some scientists have expressed ethical concerns. However, the authors of the paper note that since the xenobots don’t actually pass any DNA to their “offspring,” but instead simply assemble them out of what’s found in their Petri dish, by removing the loose stem cells, they can easily shut down the self-replicating process.

"What's interesting here is that this form of replication happens spontaneously — under, of course, very specific conditions, but it didn't need to be evolved over billions of years," Samuel Kriegman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute and the paper’s lead author, tells NPR.

"You know, we think about how long it took for life to evolve on Earth. It's a very long story, but here in a dish under the right conditions, we found a completely new form of replication in organisms,” he says.

Kriegman says it shows that “maybe life is more expected than unexpected.”

Coronavirus

CDC set to tighten COVID testing rules for international travelers

Posted December 1, 2021 at 8:45 AM EST
People walk inside of an airport, where TV screens show a list of departure destinations and information about COVID-19 testing locations in various terminals.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
A COVID-19 testing facility is advertised at Newark Liberty International Airport on Tuesday in Newark, N.J.

As more is learned about the omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in the process of strengthening its protocols for international travel.

Already in place is a requirement that international travelers coming to the U.S. get a COVID-19 test before flying, and show a negative result to the airline.

Currently the viral test can be done up to three days before departure for fully vaccinated passengers. But that's set to change to one day before departure, to increase the likelihood of identifying a positive case.

The one-day requirement is already in place for unvaccinated travelers.

The CDC continues to recommend travelers get a COVID test 3-5 days after arrival.

Media

CNN suspends Chris Cuomo, one of its biggest stars, after standing by him for months

Posted December 1, 2021 at 8:22 AM EST
Chris Cuomo, wearing a black suit and tie, poses against a gray background.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for THR
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Getty Images North America
Chris Cuomo attends the The Hollywood Reporter's 9th Annual Most Powerful People In Media at The Pool on April 11, 2019 in New York City.

CNN has suspended Chris Cuomo — the host of Cuomo Prime Time and one of its top-rated anchors — after newly-released documents revealed the extent of his involvement in the defense of his brother, scandal-plagued former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James released thousands of documents on Monday showing that Cuomo used contacts to dig into the former governor's accusers and consulted with gubernatorial sources in an effort to help his brother manage an ongoing sexual misconduct scandal. (The former governor resigned in August and now faces criminal charges in New York, as well as potential civil suits.)

Read more here from NPR's Vanessa Romo.

Cuomo previously said on-air that he had offered advice to the governor, but CNN said in a statement that the new documents "point to a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew." The network had declined to discipline Cuomo when his involvement first came to light in May but is now suspending him indefinitely pending further evaluation.

This reversal shows the power of documentary evidence, The Washington Post's Sarah Ellison told Morning Edition: Cuomo had insisted to investigators that he wasn't a part of his brother's defense team, but these new documents and text messages show he actively sought to join it. In doing so, he breached journalism norms of conduct. As Ellison put it, you can be a journalist or a political advisor, but not both.

So could Cuomo eventually make a comeback? Ellison notes that CNN has brought back other suspended contributors, like legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. But she says she thinks the way the network announced the news — people who work on the show were reportedly preparing for last night's program when they found out — and indefinite timeline is "very intentional."

Hear the full interview here.

Coronavirus

Checking in on pharmaceuticals and financial markets as concerns about omicron spread

Posted December 1, 2021 at 7:48 AM EST
People wearing jackets, masks and hats wait outside in a long line, by a sign that says "Get your FREE COVID-19 vaccine Here!"
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
People wait in line at a walk-up vaccination site in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Every day brings more questions and developments about COVID-19, from the impact of the continuing delta surge to the threat of the new omicron variant. Here are some of the updates we're following this morning.

Pharmaceuticals:

There may soon be a new COVID-19 treatment available, as well as the possibility of Pfizer booster shots for some teenagers.

A panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers voted narrowly (13-10) yesterday in favor of emergency use authorization of molnupiravir, an antiviral pill from Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics that could be taken at home and has shown a 30% reduction in the risk of hospitalization or death. These are some of the pros and cons the experts discussed. The FDA doesn't necessarily have to follow the panel's recommendation, but typically does.

Also yesterday, Pfizer CEO and Chairman Albert Bourla said the company had submitted a request to the FDA to expand emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech booster vaccine to 16- and 17-year-olds. The move comes as top health officials are urging all eligible Americans to get boosted — and that means people 18 and up, at least for now. Read more here.

Economics:

Meanwhile, all of the uncertainty surrounding omicron appears to be impacting the markets, with U.S. stocks tumbling Tuesday and oil-producing countries delaying a committee meeting with an eye to the variant.

The questions surrounding the severity of the variant and efficacy of vaccines could make for a bumpy few days on the stock market, NPR's Scott Horsley tells Morning Edition. Stocks fell sharply yesterday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing down 652 points.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said that if people are nervous about returning to in-person work, it could take longer to unclog the supply-chain bottlenecks that have pushed inflation to recent highs. According to Horsley, Powell acknowledged that price hikes are likely to continue into next year, but he insisted the Fed won't let prices spiral out of control. Listen here.

Oil prices fell even faster than stocks did when the new variant was announced last week, NPR's Camila Domonoske reports. OPEC+, the powerful group of oil producers, delayed some of this week's planned meetings by a few days to wait for more information about omicron — even though getting answers to these questions may take a couple of weeks. They essentially have to guess whether the variant will shut things down and slash demand for gas and jet fuel — and decide whether to hit pause on production increases or keep boosting their output. More from Domonoske.

Meanwhile, a new report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization predicts that revenues in 2021 will only slightly improve on last year's historic losses. The factors it cites? Among others, the continuing pandemic and the emergence of omicron. But the report isn't all bad news, as you can read here.