Pfizer Releases Promising Vaccine News; Biden Announces COVID Taskforce : The NPR Politics Podcast As coronavirus cases again surge in the United States, Joe Biden has announced his own response taskforce. And Pfizer announced promising news about its vaccine, which testing shows is highly effective at preventing the virus.

This episode: correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and science correspondent Joe Palca.

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Pfizer Releases Promising Vaccine News; Biden Announces COVID Taskforce

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Pfizer Releases Promising Vaccine News; Biden Announces COVID Taskforce

Pfizer Releases Promising Vaccine News; Biden Announces COVID Taskforce

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/933191415/933210597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

IZZY: Hi. This is Izzy (ph) from Texas. Me and my friend Gracie (ph) were just voted president and vice president for our third grade class. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's 2:08 Eastern on Monday, November 9.

IZZY: Things might have changed since that time. OK, enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Congratulations, little one.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: That's awesome.

DETROW: I trust your opponents conceded.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: But as we know, a concession is not necessary to move on with the transition.

DETROW: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering Joe Biden.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: And there's actually a lot of stuff to talk about already. We're only halfway through the day, but President-elect Joe Biden named 13 health experts to his transition's COVID-19 advisory board. President Trump said on Twitter he had fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and, of course, still has not conceded that he lost the presidential election. And both of these things happened on a morning where we got some big preliminary news about a possible coronavirus vaccine, and we will talk about that in the second half of the pod. Tam, let's start with Mark Esper. What do we know? And why do we think it happened?

KEITH: Well, as with almost every personnel decision of the Trump administration, this one was announced via tweet, as you say. The president says that, Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service. He is naming Christopher C. Miller of the National Counterterrorism Center as the acting secretary of defense. Now, why did it happen? There has been a fair bit of disagreement between - not exactly open disagreement but obvious disagreement between the president and his defense secretary. Esper expressed great discomfort and tried to distance himself from the whole Lafayette Park, St. John's Church, holding-up-a-Bible incident. What's fascinating here, though, is President Trump is leaving office January 20. What's the rush? (Laughter) Like, you don't have much time left, so is this just settling scores? Or is there something that President Trump wants to do that the defense secretary was preventing him from doing?

DETROW: And President Trump has not conceded the reality that he lost the election. He is continuing to claim without any credible evidence that there was widespread voter fraud, which is not true. At the moment, Joe Biden has 290 electoral votes, according to the Associated Press. Georgia - he still has a lead, but it's too close to call. We'll come back to the Trump side of this in a moment. But, Franco, you're up in Delaware for a couple of days covering the transition. Joe Biden is not hitting pause or otherwise seeming fazed at all by the fact that President Trump is not actually admitting that he's lost.

ORDOÑEZ: No, not at all. I mean, he is moving forward, as you noted at the top. You know, he is already, you know, starting to put things in place, announcing his coronavirus task force.

DETROW: And what is the goal of this task force? He's talked a lot about the things he wants to do. What is this task force going to be working on?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the goal is to hit the ground running, to show and demonstrate that this is a top priority for him, to say he's serious about it. I mean, he's putting together - he's - the leaders are Vivek Murthy, who was surgeon general under Obama. Also David Kessler, who served in the Food and Drug Administration under George Bush, a Republican. You know, Biden has already laid out a more aggressive federal approach, urging state and local leaders to implement mask mandates. The truth, though, is he has limited powers. He's not the president yet, but he's making a big push. And, you know, today that's what was the focus of his speech - to implore Americans to wear a mask. I mean, unfortunately, mask-wearing was a political issue in the election this year, and he's trying to break through it. And it's going to take some work.

DETROW: Yeah. It was interesting to me the way that he spent several minutes framing this argument to wear masks to somebody who might be skeptical of that idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible, and masks are critical in doing that. It won't be forever, but that's how we'll get our nation back up to speed economically so we can go back to celebrating birthdays and holidays again.

DETROW: And masks are, you know, the most straightforward but also maybe the most effective part of this proposal. And, Franco, like you said, it's the one thing that he can do now before he's president. There's no two-presidents-at-once problem or a question of whether or not he has the authority to just stand in front of a microphone and say, hey, please wear a mask.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, I found that clip - that very interesting. You know, he's talking, as he has repeatedly, about, you know, being president for all Americans, for Democrats as well as Republicans. And in that clip, you know, it started off saying, we want to get back to normal. You know, that's language that Trump used over and over again, that we want to get back to normal. Our goal is to get back to normal. Biden is kind of using that in a different way and saying that the path to normal, that path to normalcy is to use a mask. We need to take steps before we get to a vaccine because a vaccine may take a while.

DETROW: Tam, meanwhile, going back to President Trump not conceding, what is the latest on the legal front there? What is the latest on the conversation about Republicans on how to handle this?

KEITH: Yeah, so the Trump campaign has been sending out a lot of fundraising emails about this, pushing to get people to help fund their efforts. They are sending teams into key swing states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, states where they - and Arizona - states where they think that they have a chance of changing things and certainly states where they would have to change things if they were to change the outcome. But the numbers are just not in their favor. The cases that they've been bringing are not the kind of cases that would be able to overturn a result, certainly not overturn a result that has Biden in a lead of tens of thousands in these states. So, you know, it is unclear what the real purpose of this is. But the message from Republicans on Capitol Hill at this point and other Republicans - sort of establishment folks - is, well, let's just let them see this through. Let's let them try all of their options. And then when that fails or, you know, some say if that fails, then the president needs to find a gracious way to get out of this.

DETROW: All right. We will obviously be following that storyline all week. We're going to take a quick break. Tam, we're going to let you get back to work. Talk to you soon.

KEITH: All right. Thanks, guys.

DETROW: When we get back, we are going to talk about this big news from Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine studies and what it means within the political realm.

We are back, and we're joined by Joe Palca from NPR's science team. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello.

DETROW: So you are here because there was big news in the world of vaccines. And when we, in the POLITICS PODCAST world, read this news or try to make sense of this news, there's a lot of stuff we get confused on very quickly. So we phoned an expert, and that expert is you.

PALCA: Oh, I thought you couldn't reach the experts, so you got me.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: So, Joe, Pfizer made a really big announcement on some preliminary data from a vaccine that it's developing. What happened? What does it mean?

PALCA: Well, they released, as you say, preliminary data, although it's a good ways down the road. They've been testing their vaccine for COVID-19 in close to 44,000 people. Half got placebo, you know, just a saline injection. Half got the vaccine, and they compared the number of people who got sick with COVID. Now, we don't know how sick but all - you had to be - you had to have at least one symptom and a confirmed infection to be counted as a case of COVID. And they found that the preponderance of the cases were in the people who got the placebo, so the vaccine seemed to be stopping people from getting infected. It's somewhere above 90% efficacy, which is really good. I mean, scientists were hoping something better than 50, 60 maybe, but 90 is, like, off the charts from what they were expecting.

DETROW: Wow, so what happens next? Obviously, this entire process has been happening way faster than previous vaccines have been developed. But this doesn't mean, great, we're done; vaccine - the end, right?

PALCA: No, no. It's insanely fast, and there's a bunch of steps. I'll outline them. Assuming that the data hold up that say it's effective, which one expects they will, the next step is to make sure that it's safe. And the Food and Drug Administration, which has to give permission to give this vaccine to people, says, we want to see at least two months of follow-up data from 50% of the participants, which means that after you get your second shot, they want to wait two months to see if the vaccine caused any unusual side effects. The company says, we'll have that data by the end of November - third week of November.

Then they put a package together, and they take it to the FDA. And in all likelihood, they'll say, we want an emergency use authorization. You've probably heard that. That's this - it's not really approved but because we're in a pandemic, we'll give you permission to promulgate it. So that's going to take a few weeks, the FDA said, for that to happen, and then it has to be distributed. And distribution is also a little bit up in the air because they're still working on the priorities. But it's - in all likelihood, it'll be people in high-risk groups and medical - health care workers and other front-line people who are most likely to be exposed to the virus will get the vaccine first.

DETROW: OK. So, Franco, how have the incoming and outgoing administrations reacted to this big news?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the president welcomed it. He retweeted reports of the news. He said it was great. But, you know, people close to him, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., are not so happy. They're questioning the timing of the release, questioning whether there's some nefarious stuff going on because, you know, this kind of news would have likely helped Trump politically if it had come out before the election. You know, Biden, on the other hand, welcomed the news as well. But he, you know, expressed some caution and said that it could still be months before people actually get, you know, vaccinations.

DETROW: Joe, can you address that timing question? I know Pfizer and a lot of the other developers had been very wary of entangling their timeline with any political timelines all along.

PALCA: Yeah, they've tried as hard as they can to say, look; we're waiting for X number of cases. And they've spelled out what X number of cases is. And when we get to that milestone in our trial, whether it's the third week of October or the first week of November or now, we'll release the data. Had it not been successful, they wouldn't have said anything, I'm figuring. But since it was, they're happy to announce it. But there's nothing that you can point to that would say, oh, they've tried to manipulate the timing.

DETROW: So, Joe, whether it's the Pfizer vaccine or the other vaccines out there, what's the next big milestone to look for? And how soon can we be optimistic? - because that's really what everybody wants to know, right?

PALCA: Well, this vaccine, since it did look so promising, is very encouraging for other vaccines. There's another one being tested right now by a company called Moderna, which is based on the same principle. And if this worked really well, presumably, that one would work very well. Johnson & Johnson is in the midst of a big test of a vaccine. There's another one coming on that's completely different called Novavax that some people think will be even better, so it's encouraging to think that there are ways to vaccinate people against this illness. Now, how fast? - I mean, approvals are one thing, but then there's still the question of manufacturing this and getting it out to people - manufacturing, distribution. And there's the whole world to think about. I mean, this is a global problem, and it's not going to be enough to just vaccinate everybody in the United States. We're going to have to, essentially, if it works this way, to vaccinate everybody in the world.

DETROW: All right. Well, Joe, it was really exciting to have somebody from the science desk on to talk about positive news because that has never been the case. Thanks for coming on.

PALCA: Well, we found water on the moon, didn't we? (Laughter).

DETROW: We did. That didn't...

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter) Thanks, Joe.

DETROW: That didn't quite make it to the POLITICS PODCAST, but that was pretty interesting, too. Thanks. We'll talk soon.

PALCA: OK.

DETROW: All right. That's a wrap for today. We will be back in your feeds all week, covering this unprecedented transition.

I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering Joe Biden.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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