House Passes COVID Relief Bill, New Vaccine Endorsed, Report On Khashoggi Murder : Up First By a slim majority, the House approved Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus package, but its passage in the Senate is questionable. A panel of experts endorsed the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine by a 22-to-0 vote. The U.S. released its findings that blame Saudi's Crown Prince for journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder.
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House Passes COVID Relief Bill, New Vaccine Endorsed, Report On Khashoggi Murder

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House Passes COVID Relief Bill, New Vaccine Endorsed, Report On Khashoggi Murder

House Passes COVID Relief Bill, New Vaccine Endorsed, Report On Khashoggi Murder

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Earlier this morning, the House approved a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.


Lawmakers worked on the bill while President Biden visited the storm-struck state of Texas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Biden's COVID relief bill passed by a slim margin. Here's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the vote last night.


NANCY PELOSI: The sooner we pass the bill, the sooner we can make the progress that this legislation is all about - saving the lives of the American people.

SIMON: Now it goes to the Senate, and it will face hurdles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Also, we will soon have a third COVID vaccine, and it could be a game-changer.

SIMON: Also, a U.S. report on who killed Jamal Khashoggi points to Saudi Arabia's crown prince. Will this change U.S.-Saudi relations?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Biden flew to Houston Friday to talk about recovery from the deadly winter storm that left people without heat and water.

SIMON: He also spoke about the nation's ongoing recovery from the pandemic and highlighted his administration's work on both issues with Republican Governor Greg Abbott and senior Republican Senator John Cornyn.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When a crisis hits our states like the one that hit Texas, it's not a Republican or Democrat that's hurting, it's our fellow Americans who are hurting. And it's our job to help everyone in need. Look out for one another. Leave nobody behind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a theme he has made central to his presidency. Joining us now to talk about this is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, just back from traveling with the president in Texas. Hi, Tam.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. Let's start with the aftermath of the storm. We've talked before, you know, about how presidents play this role of consoler and chief visiting with people after these kinds of disasters. What was it like with President Biden?

KEITH: This is one of those most traditional kind of trips that presidents can do. And President Biden did it in a traditional way. He got a briefing from state and local officials and FEMA about how things are going now. He heard about some areas where more help is needed, including thousands of schools in Texas with burst pipes. He went to a food bank and talked to some kids who were volunteering. And he went to a mass vaccination site at a stadium.


BIDEN: We're working with governors across the country to stand up and lend federal support to hundreds of vaccination centers from stadiums like here to community centers to houses of worship, large parking lots, delivery places, doses that hope we can get in people's arms as quickly as possible.

KEITH: Biden said he expects that by late April, early May, things may be at a point where they're down to finding the hard to reach people, the more hesitant people - having to convince folks, instead of the case now, which is where vaccines are still hard to find - frustratingly hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So forgive me, Tam, but you just talked there and did not say anything about politics. Did I miss something?

KEITH: I actually was thinking to myself, did I miss something? But no, this trip was remarkably and I think pointedly non-political. He went to a state and spent time with a Republican governor he no doubt disagrees with on any number of policy areas. But you never would have known it. He didn't talk about climate change or litigate whether the problem with the power outages was wind energy or natural gas. He, at the food bank, didn't make a pitch for his $1.9 trillion American rescue plan that includes money for food aid. Instead, the message he kept hitting is, the federal government is here for you to help you recover from this disaster, to distribute vaccines and to aid in the recovery from the economic hardship from the pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're not long into this administration, so I am going to bring up the former president. You traveled a lot with former President Donald Trump as he went to disaster sites. How would you contrast the approaches between these two leaders?

KEITH: You know, in a way, this trip was a bookend for me. Almost exactly a year ago, I traveled with former President Trump as the pandemic was just taking hold. He went to a disaster site in Tennessee where a tornado had killed eight people. And he did his thing, which was that he cheerleaded. He was very positive, accentuating the positive in a way that was just a little too upbeat for the tragedy of the moment. And then he went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And there, too, he was positive, way too positive.

And the contrast then with Biden is he gave a hopeful message yesterday about vaccines, but he acknowledged all the hard work to come. And he also warned that this isn't a time to relax. His health officials are concerned about variants and in a slowing of the decline of new cases.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there is politics in this moment. And very early this morning, the House passed a $1.9 trillion COVID aid package, something that the president has championed. What movement can we expect on that this coming week?

KEITH: Right. And with this vote, every House Republican voted against it, and all but two House Democrats voted for it. Now it heads to the Senate, where the parliamentarian has determined that the minimum wage provision in the House bill does not meet the rules of procedure. So it's going to mean some legislative ping pong before something is ready for President Biden to sign it. This is a first step but a big one, and he plans to celebrate it with remarks later today. Passing this $1.9 trillion relief legislation is his first legislative priority and could, well, define his presidency, along with the coronavirus response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Millions of Americans are desperate to get vaccinated. And right now, there simply aren't enough vaccines to go around, but - and we all need it, right? Here's some good news.

SIMON: On Friday, an independent advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration endorsed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.


KATHLEEN HAYES: Dr. Perlman, yes. Dr. Monto, yes. Dr. Chatterjee, yes. Dr. Fuller, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It wasn't even close. The committee voted 22-0 in favor, paving the way for the FDA to authorize its use. NPR's Joe Palca was listening to the committee deliberations and joins us now. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What did the committee base its decision on?

PALCA: Well, the committee heard presentations from the company and from FDA scientists, and both were analyzing the same sets of data. These were several studies of the vaccine that were done in the last year. The largest was a 40,000-person efficacy study that was conducted in the United States, South Africa and six Latin American countries. The good news is that, by and large, the analyses agreed with each other. And the key findings were that this vaccine appears to be 66% - efficacy against moderate to severe disease overall, 72% if you just look at the United States and 85% efficacy against more serious disease. And that number held up across all countries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that sounds great, but it also is less than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reported when they were reviewed.

PALCA: Yes, that's true. Those numbers were closer to 95% efficacy. But there's a couple of reasons to put that into context here. One is that those studies were done before these variants started circulating. And so it's possible - and there's some lab evidence of this - that they don't work as well against some of the variants. The other piece of good news here is that the test was done - this vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, was studied in South Africa. And it did seem to work in South Africa, where this dangerous variant seems to be circulating. So that's a good piece of news.

And the other really important piece of news here is that this is a vaccine that requires only one dose - one and done. And so you don't have to worry about getting people back to the clinic or whatever. And the other piece of good news is that it can be kept at normal refrigeration temperatures for as long as - well, for months, anyway, before you have to throw it out. So a lot of time to get it into somebody's arm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And, you know, a lot less finicky, really, because that's been one of the big issues with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines - trying to get people back to get that second shot. What happens next?

PALCA: Well, there's this procedure called the Emergency Use Authorization, and the FDA usually takes the advice it gets from its advisory committees like this. And in the last two instances of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, which the committee also endorsed, it was the next day that the FDA announced that they were granting the Emergency Use Authorization. So it could be today or any time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. We have been hearing that some of the vaccines out there now, like Pfizer and Moderna, might have to be modified to fight the new coronavirus variants that are spreading. I mean, you mentioned that, perhaps, they're not as effective. Will companies have to do another study of 40,000 people, et cetera, if they modify the vaccines?

PALCA: No. The FDA released guidance earlier this week. And the idea is that they will be able to do much smaller studies to make sure that the vaccines are safe. And then they'll be looking at laboratory evidence and other factors that can help them make a decision without, you know, taking 40,000 volunteers and months and months to reach a conclusion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: More good news. All right, that's NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was just about two pages long, but those pages carry the weight of the U.S. government.

SIMON: While not proven, a summary of findings issued by U.S. intelligence agencies state that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's been long suspected that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudis' de facto leader, ordered the murder.

SIMON: But the release of the summary finding sends a clear signal that President Biden is taking a tougher stand against the kingdom than his predecessor. NPR's Jackie Northam has been following developments and joins us. Jackie, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Please give us an overview of the main findings.

NORTHAM: Right. Well, just to be clear, there's no smoking gun. But, you know, there's a lot of circumstantial evidence in this two-page report. And let me just read you a line from it. If I could quote, "the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince's authorization," unquote. And, Scott, it goes on to say that members of his close inner circle were involved in the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi and that the crown prince has supported the use of violent methods to silence dissidents abroad.

And, you know, you compare what's in this report to what President Trump said when asked about whether the crown prince had any knowledge of the killing. And he downplayed it, saying maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. And one other thing to keep in mind. You know, this report is a summary and there's a lot more evidence that the CIA has about Khashoggi's death that remains classified.

SIMON: This report is a summary, as you note. But it does seem to say pretty bluntly that the Saudi crown prince has blood on his hands. What kind of potential impact could this have on relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which, after all, has been a very close ally for decades?

NORTHAM: That's right. Yeah. Well, it's definitely bound to have an impact. You know, the crown prince is likely to become king of Saudi Arabia and will be around for a very long time. And it'll be interesting to see how the U.S. will deal with him both in the short term after this report and certainly in the long term once he becomes king. We don't know how that's going to shake out yet. But as you say, Saudi Arabia is a longtime ally and a really strategically important area of the world.

You know, in an interview with NPR yesterday, Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, said it was just too soon to tell if the relationship has been damaged by this. Let's have a listen.


AVRIL HAINES: It is not surprising, I suppose, to see a shift in the relationship in some ways with the new administration and a new position and a number of challenging issues that we face together. But I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us.

NORTHAM: And Scott, one other thing. The Saudi foreign ministry said on Friday that the kingdom has already jailed those responsible for Khashoggi's killing and that, while it completely rejects the report's findings, it called U.S.-Saudi relationships robust and enduring.

SIMON: Jackie, there are calls from many quarters, including members of Congress, human rights organizations, calling on President Biden to to punish or sanction the crown prince for his role in Khashoggi's death. How likely does that seem to be?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. Biden stopped short of severely punishing the crown prince. But he said, on Friday evening, that, from now on, the kingdom is going to be held responsible for human rights abuses. And he said that there would be more significant changes announced on Monday. He didn't indicate what those might be.

But, you know, the administration did take some other steps yesterday. It announced something called the Khashoggi ban, which allows the State Department to impose visa restrictions on anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government who is threatening dissidents overseas. And it's already imposed this Khashoggi ban on 76 Saudis and their families. And, you know, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken talked about these moves by the U.S. yesterday. Here he is.


ANTHONY BLINKEN: So what we've done by the actions that we've taken is really not to rupture the relationship but to recalibrate, to be more in line with our interests and our values.

NORTHAM: But apparently, this travel ban doesn't include the crown prince himself. And an administration official said on background yesterday that, as a matter of practice, the U.S. doesn't apply sanctions on the highest leadership of countries with which it has diplomatic relations. And, you know, already there are increasing calls for tougher action against the Saudi crown prince.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

SIMON: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, February 27, 2021. This podcast is made, assembled and artisanally polished by Hiba Ahmad, Andrew Craig, Ian Stewart and Danny Hensel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our editors are Martha Ann Overland, Ed McNulty and D. Parvaz.

SIMON: Our director - Sophia Boyd.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stu Rushfield, our technical director. Dennis Nielsen provides engineering support.

SIMON: Evie Stone is our supervising editor. Sarah Lucy Oliver is our executive producer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our deputy managing editor is Jim Kane. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. UP FIRST back Monday with news to start your week. You can follow us on social media. We're @upfirst on Twitter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And for more news, interviews, books and music, you can find us on the radio.

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