Studying Post-Vaccine Transmission, Biden And Migrants, E.U.-China Sanctions : Up First Scientists are studying how transmissible the coronavirus may be from vaccinated people. Why there is another surge in migrants at the southern border. Tensions between the European Union and China are escalating after tit-for-tat sanctions.
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Studying Post-Vaccine Transmission, Biden And Migrants, E.U.-China Sanctions

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Studying Post-Vaccine Transmission, Biden And Migrants, E.U.-China Sanctions

Studying Post-Vaccine Transmission, Biden And Migrants, E.U.-China Sanctions

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Why are 18 senators here? Because it's the biggest issue facing the country in many ways right now.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Republican politicians swarmed the southern border...

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

...Which thousands of migrants are approaching every day.

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

MCCAMMON: I'm Sarah McCammon. And this is UP FIRST from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Typically, about half those migrants are allowed to ask for asylum in the U.S. The other half are turned away.

MCCAMMON: Managing that has been a problem for president after president. We've got to look at how Joe Biden is doing as numbers surge again.

SIMON: And shots are going into arms. What does that mean for the unvaccinated person next year? A new study looks for answers.

MCCAMMON: And the EU and China are trading sanctions. We'll tell you why. So stay with us. We've got the news you need to start your weekend.

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SIMON: As vaccines roll out, science rolls on, adding to our knowledge of the coronavirus as we continue to try to halt the pandemic it started.

MCCAMMON: Researchers are now recruiting college students on more than 20 campuses for a study meant to answer a critical question about COVID-19 vaccines. That is, do the shots just protect the people who get them, or do they also protect the people around them by blocking the spread of the virus?

SIMON: To talk about this new study now, we're joined by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Before we launch into the study, let's try and step back to understand a basic concept. If a vaccine prevents you from getting sick, how could you still be at risk for spreading the disease after you've been vaccinated?

HARRIS: Right. Well, remember, a vaccine prompts your body to make antibodies that protect you from a virus. But, you know, this disease is so new, we don't know exactly how this all unfolds. If you come in contact with a virus, you may get a small infection before the antibodies kick in to protect you, and during that time, you might even produce enough virus to spread it to other people. The first round of vaccine studies establish that vaccines protect you, but they didn't address the rest of that equation. Dr. Myron Cohen at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that's what the study of college students is designed to do.

MYRON COHEN: So now this is kind of like really important cleanup hitting. You know, it's like, OK, now we're going back and trying to do what we couldn't do the first round because this is a heavy lift.

SIMON: Richard, how will this study get at those questions?

HARRIS: Researchers on more than 20 college campuses will recruit students for this study. Half will get the COVID vaccine immediately, and the other half will get the shots four months later. Everyone will swab their noses every day, and those samples will be sent to a lab to look for signs of active virus. And Scott, anybody who's actually shedding the virus will then be asked to go and ask their close contacts to volunteer for nose swabs, too. And all this will help researchers figure out to what extent vaccinated people can still get infected and shed the virus.

SIMON: Richard, if people can still get infected and shed the virus, why are we all still being asked to wear masks even after we've been vaccinated?

HARRIS: Well, we don't know the answer to that question, right? But that's what this study might provide an answer to. Cohen helped oversee the design of the study, and this is how he put it.

COHEN: At one point, we talked about this as the maskless study, in some ways. If vaccines work unbelievably terrifically, and so many people are vaccinated, maybe eventually we can reduce our dependence on masks. But we're a ways away from that.

HARRIS: Of course, this one study won't provide all the answers about masks and vaccines, but Cohen says it should be a really important line of evidence.

SIMON: And what else can we learn from the study?

HARRIS: Well, really, when you think of it, we still have a fair amount to learn about how this virus does its damage. I talked about the new study with Josh Schiffer, who's an infectious disease physician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

JOSH SCHIFFER: This has been portrayed as something that's going to help people make individual decisions, and that's true, but the greater implications are actually at the public health level.

HARRIS: He says if people can still spread the virus, even if they're vaccinated, we will actually need to vaccinate more people to bring the epidemic under control through what's called herd immunity. On the other hand, if the vaccinated people rarely spread the virus, fewer people will need to be vaccinated to snuff out the epidemic.

SIMON: When will results be available?

HARRIS: Study organizers hope that they'll have answers in about five months. Of course, there are a lot of unknowns. For example, if vaccines become widely available to college students while the study is still underway, it's possible some participants will bail out, and that could hamper the research.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks so much.

HARRIS: Anytime, Scott.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It happens every single solitary year.

SIMON: President Biden at his press conference Thursday claimed, quote, "Nothing has changed at the border compared to previous surges of migrants there." It's a little more complicated than that.

MCCAMMON: In fact, the United States is on pace to reach levels of migration over the next few months that it hasn't seen in years. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering the story and joins us now. Franco, thanks for being with us.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Keeping in mind what we just heard from the president, if you would, please, put the current situation at the border in perspective, compared to the typical situation there in recent years.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it is true, as Biden says, that numbers often rise during the early months of the year when temperatures begin to warm. The Migration Policy Institute actually shared with us some pretty striking graphs comparing the last few years of migration involving unaccompanied children, and what you see is that the spikes and dips of the numbers are very similar from year to year. They're almost parallel. But the numbers of children arriving today are considerably higher than they were at the same time in 2013 and 2014, when the U.S. government declared a humanitarian crisis on the border. This year, border agents encountered more than 9,000 children traveling without a parent in February, which was a 30% increase from February of 2019. And while we have not reached the peak of that year, when more than 11,000 children were apprehended, we are quickly heading in that direction.

MCCAMMON: Right. And Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said that he expects more migrants on the southwest border in 2021 than we've seen in the last two decades. Why these record numbers and why now?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, what's driving these recent numbers is a mix of long-standing factors and some new ones. We have poverty, insecurity and corruption, of course. The new factors include two recent hurricanes that left thousands of families displaced and crops damaged. There's also the pandemic that led to widespread unemployment and a new administration promising a more humane policy.

MCCAMMON: The numbers are higher this year, but President Biden points out that a spike right now is cyclical. Both of these things can be true, but if the president expected an increase, why wasn't the administration better prepared for it? Right. This is basically a continuation of nearly a decade of migration patterns, when Central American children and families actually started arriving in larger numbers than single men from Mexico. Jessica Bolter is an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. She calls it the same flow, but points out that there have not been enough infrastructure changes in the U.S. government within Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to adapt to what the data shows is coming.

JESSICA BOLTER: There really hasn't been an adjustment to how ORR prepares to adequately deal with these surges. There really should be more flexibility in ORR's ability to stand up extra capacity quickly.

ORDOÑEZ: But there's not, and hence the scramble to find more bed space, using places like the San Diego Convention Center to hold unaccompanied minors so that children are not sleeping in cells on the border.

MCCAMMON: As we know, people leave their countries for a lot of different, complex reasons. And former President Trump's rhetoric and his policies were not friendly to immigrants from south of the border. Franco, is there any indication that migrants' feelings about President Biden are playing a role here?

ORDOÑEZ: It's tough. Biden officials acknowledge some of the increase is due to misinformation from smugglers and pent-up demand for a more humane policy after Trump. But there is a distinction between the reasons why someone decides they must leave their home versus when they leave once a decision is made. And we did see an increase once Biden took office.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Sarah.

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SIMON: Relations between the European Union and China are usually pretty quiet. Not this week.

MCCAMMON: After the EU imposed sanctions on a few low-level officials in one of China's western provinces, China roared back. And that bellow from Beijing is resounding globally.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. Eleanor, thanks for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

SIMON: The western province, of course, is Xinjiang. And what is the European Union trying to accomplish with these sanctions?

BEARDSLEY: Well, for the first time since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the EU announced sanctions - they're mostly symbolic - against four officials and one organization related to human rights abuses of the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. The sanctions were coordinated with the U.S., Canada and Britain.

Well, China immediately responded with its own sanctions against Europe, strong measures against prominent British and EU officials, including parliamentarians and their families, and four core EU institutions. I spoke with Theresa Fallon, who's with the CREAS think tank in Brussels. She says Europe was stunned by the severity of China's response, which seemed totally disproportionate. Here she is.

THERESA FALLON: It just seems calculated to keep people silent, to teach them a lesson that you cannot say anything negative about China. There can be no open debate, no academic inquiry. It's really a bit of a shock to everyone here. Beijing has pretty much showed them what the world order might look like if Beijing is at the top of it.

SIMON: Certainly sounds, Eleanor, as if there's alarm in Brussels, where, of course, the EU is headquartered. What about Washington, D.C.?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this all comes just as the EU was set to ratify a comprehensive agreement on investment with China that the two sides had been working on for the last seven years. This is a treaty the Biden administration did not want. Biden wants the U.S. and Europe to work together on China. But in December, when they signed it, Trump was still in office.

Still, the Biden transition team made it clear they wanted Europe to wait. But Europeans had just spent four years of basically humiliating treatment at the hands of the Trump administration. They wanted to chart their own course. They want to trade with China on their own terms and have better access to Chinese markets. But the paradox here, says Fallon, is that the strong Chinese reaction might actually push Europe and the U.S. into each other's arms.

FALLON: This is something that just played right into the U.S. hands. It was better that this happened this way because there's only so much you can do through diplomatic persuasion.

SIMON: Why then would China do something that, as Fallon told you, plays into U.S. hands?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the Europeans are trying to figure this out. Some analysts say it was a total miscalculation on China's part. But others say China really feels powerful right now, and it doesn't need any lessons on how to manage its country, particularly from Europe, which it sees as weak and still struggling with the coronavirus. But Europeans are angry about this. They don't like being threatened, and they're particularly sensitive to what they see as Chinese attempts to silence debate and free speech. So now the fate of that investment treaty hangs in the balance.

SIMON: And I understand you've seen a good example of some of that friction in France.

BEARDSLEY: Oh, absolutely, Scott. Also this week, the Chinese ambassador to France, who's particularly outspoken and abrasive, he's one of Xi Jinping's top wolf warrior diplomats, as they're called. These are young diplomats who hit back aggressively on social media, especially to defend China against attacks since the pandemic. Well, this week, Lu Shaye called a prominent French researcher a hoodlum and a mad hyena online.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was furious. He summoned the ambassador, and he said insults and intimidation have no place in diplomacy. He called the ambassador a threat to good Franco-Chinese relations. Now, I called up that researcher. His name is Antoine Bondaz. And here's what he told me.

ANTOINE BONDAZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He said, "Beijing wants to politically neutralize Europe, which it has long considered the soft underbelly of the West." So the treaty was about that. But Bondaz says through its current behavior, China is actually jeopardizing the treaty and bringing the U.S. and Europe closer on China, something it doesn't want. So he says the aggressive behavior is counterproductive for Beijing, but good for Biden.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: And that's UP FIRST for Saturday, March 28 (ph), 2021. I'm Sarah McCammon.

SIMON: And I'm Scott Simon. This weekend edition of UP FIRST is produced by Danny Hensel, Hiba Ahmad, Samantha Balaban and Andrew Craig.

MCCAMMON: It's edited by Melissa Gray, Peter Breslow, Barrie Hardymon and Ed McNulty.

SIMON: Our director is Ned Wharton. Our technical director is Stu Rushfield, with audio engineers Dennis Neilson and the legend that is Leo Del Aguila.

MCCAMMON: Evie Stone is the supervising editor. Sarah Oliver is the executive producer, and Jim Kane is the deputy managing editor.

SIMON: UP FIRST - back Monday with news to start your week.

MCCAMMON: But for right now, there's more smart reporting and compelling guests on the radio.

SIMON: The radio, yes. Weekend Edition, Saturday and Sunday mornings. Find your NPR station at stations.npr.org.

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