Executive Orders Threat, Vaccine Pricing And Anger In Beirut : Up First Lawmakers have failed again to agree on a coronavirus relief deal so President Trump threatens to sign a series of executive orders. If the government funded the research, how much should a vaccine cost? In Beirut, protests are breaking out against the country's leaders.
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Executive Orders Threat, Vaccine Pricing And Anger In Beirut

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Executive Orders Threat, Vaccine Pricing And Anger In Beirut

Executive Orders Threat, Vaccine Pricing And Anger In Beirut

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Negotiations over the coronavirus relief bill have stalled again.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Trump says he's now taking matters into his own hands as early as this weekend.

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

SIMON: The President promises he'll sign a series of executive orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If Democrats continue to hold this critical relief hostage, I will act under my authority as president to get Americans the relief they need.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the government's funded much of the research for a vaccine, but how much will it cost?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's that classic example of taxpayers paying twice for medicine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we'll have the latest from Beirut, a city destroyed by neglect. So stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your week.

SIMON: Congress has not been able to agree on the next round a coronavirus relief after weeks of talking and talking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, the parties remain largely in the corners where they started, each prodding the other to compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: So we're hopeful that they will think about it and come back and tell us they're willing to meet us halfway.

STEVEN MNUCHIN: To the extent that they are willing to make new proposals, the chief and I will be back here anytime to listen to new proposals.

SIMON: That was Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reporting little progress after meeting yesterday. President Trump says he'll be forced to act on his own if Congress doesn't pass the aid. Congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following all this. Claudia, thanks for being with us.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Republicans unveiled their proposal in late July. That was months after the Democrats had released theirs. That's weeks and weeks. Why so little progress?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's been some progress, but, still, really big differences are on the table. Now the parties are still far apart by trillions on the overall costs of the bill. Among those differences, Democrats want to reinstate the extra unemployment insurance weekly payments of $600 - those expired last week - while Republicans wanted that closer to $200 weekly. And another major gap comes down to aid to state and local governments, which are facing very tough financial pictures. Democrats want to divert nearly a trillion dollars there. Republicans have so far only focused on aid for schools at around $100 billion.

SIMON: President Trump says he's going to move forward on his own if Congress doesn't act. What do we know or infer about what he's considering?

GRISALES: So he did indeed say this last night. Without a deal, he's going to issue a series of executive orders to try and address economic relief. White House officials set Friday as a bit of a deadline to do this and move forward with this plan. He blamed Democrats for the lack of progress. Let's take a listen to what he told reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TRUMP: Tragically, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer continue to insist on radical left-wing policies that have nothing to do with the China virus, nothing to do with it at all.

GRISALES: So there you hear him blame Democrats, but they would counter that it was the Republicans who wouldn't negotiate. Democrats offered to shave a trillion dollars off their plan. It was at 3 trillion when they started. They approved this in the House a couple months ago. Republicans, they said, should come up a trillion. They started at the trillion-dollar mark, but they've said that's a nonstarter to get into the $2 trillion range because they're worried about the spending. So we're kind of in a wait-and-see mode on exactly how these executive orders could address these concerns, running from eviction moratoriums to jobless benefit payments that recently expired.

SIMON: Yeah. And a lot of Americans are waiting on the enhanced unemployment insurance. What happens next with that and negotiations more broadly?

GRISALES: So we're looking at a real impasse on Capitol Hill with two weeks of negotiations stalled out now, and that failure to act may have political ramifications for both sides. And as the economic costs build in the coming days and weeks, perhaps that fuels a new urgency for Congress. We shall see.

Meanwhile, we're very much in the dark how far these executive orders could go. Trump doesn't have the power of the purse - Congress does - and when asked, he wouldn't elaborate how he would find the money to fuel a program that's going to cost a lot of money.

SIMON: Congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks so much for being with us.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You may recall this - it's known as Operation Warp Speed. That's the government's push to get a coronavirus vaccine by January. The federal government is spending billions of dollars to make it happen.

SIMON: Multiple vaccines are still in the clinical trial phase, but what kind of prices can we expect to see once there is a working vaccine? NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin has been following the issue. Sydney, thanks for being with us.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Sure. Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Why are we talking about prices already? That usually happens after we know something's going to work.

LUPKIN: We usually don't get a price on a product until after it's been approved, but the pandemic changes things. These are unusual times. For example, drug companies are also already starting to manufacture their vaccines, even though they're still testing them to make sure they're safe and effective. They want to get those vaccines out the door as soon as they're approved so governments are already signing deals to purchase them.

SIMON: What kind of prices are people talking about now?

LUPKIN: So doing the math on vaccine procurement contracts in the United States so far, we can figure out that drugmakers are charging between four and $20 a dose. But the CEO of Moderna, which is one of the leading companies in the vaccine race, said that its coronavirus vaccine was priced at between 32 and $37 per dose in some agreements with countries outside the U.S. But that's much higher than the prices we've seen so far, and people will likely need two doses of the vaccine for protection against the virus. Countries purchasing larger volumes - presumably, the United States - would get a lower price. Still, that really ruffled some feathers among consumer advocates.

SIMON: At the same time, obviously, those numbers sound low compared to some of the truly staggering drug prices we've seen in the last few years.

LUPKIN: Right - but because - in the pandemic, we're spending differently on biopharmaceutical development than we normally do. Usually, the government will fund basic research, and the drugmaker will foot the big bill on late-phase clinical trials and getting the drug over the FDA's finish line. Now the U.S. government, taxpayers, are spending a whole lot more on research, development and manufacturing, and consumer advocates want to make sure the country gets a fair price, considering that large upfront investment. They're really worried about the Moderna price, considering the company's president said it planned to make a profit on the vaccine during a congressional hearing a few weeks ago. Here's Zain Rizvi at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

ZAIN RIZVI: Moderna is literally reaping the benefits of nearly a billion dollars in federal funding with significant taxpayer risk, and now it wants to reap the reward for its shareholders.

SIMON: Sydney, how much is the U.S. paying Moderna for its work on the vaccine?

LUPKIN: Moderna got its first contract from the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, back in mid-April for $483 million. Now, that doesn't include a purchase for any vaccine doses. It's aid to fund R&D and scale up manufacturing, and that amount could actually get bumped up to almost a billion dollars if the company meets all its goals under the contract.

But government spending on Moderna's vaccine doesn't end there. Moderna has been developing its coronavirus vaccine with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH. It says it's spending an additional $410 million on the Moderna studies, from preclinical work all the way to the phase three clinical trial that started on July 27 and is expected to include 30,000 people.

SIMON: So all totaled, the government could wind up spending well over a billion taxpayer dollars on just this vaccine, and that doesn't include the cost of buying it.

LUPKIN: That's right.

SIMON: What's next?

LUPKIN: Well, we're waiting to find out how much the U.S. will spend on the Moderna vaccine when it's ready, and we have to see which of the vaccines will pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration.

SIMON: NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much for being with us.

LUPKIN: You bet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Beirut, they are still looking for survivors, recovering bodies and trying to clear the rubble from the massive explosion of a warehouse Tuesday at the port. That warehouse held thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer and explosives ingredient, that had been left at the port for years.

SIMON: Some 150 people are dead, thousands more wounded. Now the people of Lebanon are venting their anger. Protests have broken out amid the cleanup, and more protest is planned.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're joined now by journalist Nada Homsi, who's been covering the devastation and its aftermath for NPR in Beirut. Good morning.

NADA HOMSI, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nada, this blast caused damage for miles. Almost no one in the city of Beirut was unaffected. What is the scene like there right now?

HOMSI: Yeah. People have really come together in a show of solidarity to help clear the rubble from the city. They pitched tents downtown, which they turned into donation points where food, water and essentials are being distributed, and even free housing for those made homeless in the blast is being coordinated by various groups. And that's because officials say that some 300,000 people have been made homeless by the explosion in a city of around 2 million people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Three hundred thousand? I mean, that is a huge number. I have seen a lot of anger on social media. What are people feeling there?

HOMSI: Slowly, over the days after the initial shock of the blast wore off, that thank God we're safe feeling has turned into massive anger at a political class that they say has failed them. And that's a failure that culminated in the explosion of almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that was neglected so near a highly populated area. Sporadic protests have taken place amid the cleanup operations, and a massive one is planned for today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are so many wounded. How are the hospitals coping?

HOMSI: Some of the hospitals were damaged or destroyed in the explosion, essentially taking them out of commission. Remember, this was a country that was already near the breaking point when it came to treating its COVID-19 patients, and now hospitals are struggling to treat the wounded even as coronavirus is on a worrying rise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What more do we know about how this warehouse full of ammonium nitrate came to be left at the port for so long?

HOMSI: Well, we know the ammonium nitrate came from a ship that was initially bound from Mozambique and was stopped in Beirut's port in 2013, and a dispute over port fees or safety - it's unclear - led to it being impounded and offloaded. But there's a lot of finger-pointing. The customs director says he sounded warnings about the unsafely stored material. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said Hezbollah doesn't control the port and denied any interference and so on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what has the president said?

HOMSI: The president on Friday said he gave orders to have it removed just a few weeks before the explosion. And, in fact, we know that in the past six years, authorities from Lebanon's customs, military, security agencies and judiciary were informed at least 10 times that the massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate was being kept in Beirut's port so close to the city center so I can't overstate how outraged people are at the negligence of politicians.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me ask you this - there were these antigovernment demonstrations and protest camps there through much of 2019 over the situation in Lebanon, which has been bad for a while. We've seen economic collapse, mismanagement - are those protests now coming back?

HOMSI: Yes. Protests have been breaking out spontaneously since the explosion, even while people were cleaning up the rubble, and now a big one is set for this afternoon. People are mad. They were already struggling through Lebanon's worst economic crisis. The Lebanese currency was devalued by 80%. Over 50% of Lebanon lives under the poverty line, and there are regular electricity cuts. There is a big fuel shortage, and now food shortages will likely get worse with the port devastated and grain silos there destroyed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nada Homsi in Beirut. Thank you very much.

HOMSI: Thank you.

SIMON: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, August 8, 2020. I'm Scott Simon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. UP FIRST is back Monday with news to start your week. Follow us on social media. We're @upfirst on Twitter. And keep an eye on this feed for the occasional special episode.

SIMON: And for more news, interviews and fun, even, you can find us on the radio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday mornings - find your NPR station at stations.npr.org.

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