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News Brief: Pandemic Relief, COVID-19 Mutation, 2nd Vaccine

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, we've been waiting for this moment for quite some time. Congress has reached a deal on a new coronavirus relief package.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, made the announcement last night.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: As our citizens continue battling this coronavirus this holiday season, they will not be fighting alone.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Make no mistake about it, this agreement is far from perfect, but it will deliver emergency relief to a nation in the throes of a genuine emergency.

KING: We're talking around $900 billion in this package. So after all these months of fighting in Congress, what's in it?

GREENE: All right. We have NPR's Claudia Grisales with us reporting on this this morning. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK, so this agreement that came together last night after a whole lot of waiting, what should we know about it?

GRISALES: So congressional leaders announced this deal last night. They noted that there were still some last-minute details to sort through, and they need to drop legislative text for this plan. And we should note, while they were celebrating this breakthrough, they were also blaming each other for the delays in reaching this point. And with everything expected at this point, they could vote on the package in both chambers today. And this also includes a must-pass government funding bill. The coronavirus deal wasn't reached in time for the start of the new fiscal year, so there had been a series of short-term stopgap measures to get us here. Last night, lawmakers passed another one to get us to this expected finish line today.

GREENE: Well, what can we tell Americans who have been, I mean, in real desperate need of help about what kind of help is actually in this and what they could expect?

GRISALES: Yes, right. Well, we're expecting an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits. We are also expecting up to $600 in relief checks for Americans - this includes adults and children - about $300 billion for small business aid. There's also money for hospitals and vaccine distribution and food security programs. All told, we're looking at $900 billion as the economy has slowed and a number of provisions that were set to expire at the end of this month tied to a package passed earlier this year.

GREENE: Well, Claudia, the logjam on this relief bill that was holding it up seemed to break on Saturday when senators reached, like, a compromise on some real specifics. I mean, what was holding things up, and what did they agree to here?

GRISALES: That's right. Yes. Late Saturday night, there was a breakthrough on a provision being pushed by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. He wanted to limit lending programs for the Federal Reserve triggered by an earlier stimulus bill known as the CARES Act that was approved in March. Democrats said this language he was proposing was overly broad, and they wanted to make sure that President-elect Joe Biden could launch similar lending programs with the Fed, so they were able to reach an agreement to narrow the impact of that new language in the deal. And both sides were pleased with the outcome. Democrats say it doesn't hurt a future ability to restart lending facilities to respond to a crisis. While Toomey told reporters on a call Sunday that his initial language was too broad and he was pleased with this final agreement.

GREENE: And where's President Trump on this?

GRISALES: He's been quite absent. His Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was involved in the initial conversations. But this has really been from congressional leadership, and Trump has called for bigger checks. He's echoing progressives and conservatives and calling on Congress to get it done. And we're told he'll sign it. For his part, Biden has also called on Congress to pass a bill quickly, and he's made sure to call it a down payment.

GREENE: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Claudia, thank you so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

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GREENE: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called an emergency meeting this morning.

KING: That's right. A mutation of the coronavirus is spreading very quickly in the U.K. And so other European countries like France, Ireland and Italy, among others, are banning travel to and from the U.K. Now, we know that viruses do mutate. In fact, they mutate often. So how are public health officials there assessing this? Here's Matt Hancock, Britain's health secretary, talking to the BBC yesterday.

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MATT HANCOCK: The new variant is out of control, and we need to bring it under control. And this news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to, frankly, an awful year.

GREENE: Yeah, what a turn here. Well, for the latest, we have NPR's Frank Langfitt with us from London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, David.

GREENE: I mean, after all we've been through this year, it sounds like Britain, I mean, an island, is now going to go back to being, you know, even more isolated than just a few days ago.

LANGFITT: Indeed, not just air travel. France is actually not allowing trucks here in Britain to cross the English Channel on ferries. The Eurotunnel, which runs under the channel, is also closed. This is sort of - seems to be precautionary measure maybe for the next 48 hours. But there's already been a lot of concern during the Christmas season about the ability to trade across the channel. We've seen backups as much as 20 miles at the Port of Dover, and people are rushing to get freight across because we have this deadline at the end of the month for the Brexit transition period that ends on New Year's Eve. We now have - truckers are stranded on both sides of the channel. They say, well, we can stay in the cabs. We're not that much of a risk. The solution - one solution would be mandatory testing. The good news is that shipping containers, which is the majority of trade, you know, across the channel, they're still moving.

GREENE: Well, I mean, the idea of a mutation sounds really scary, but there are a lot of mutations. Not all of them are reason to fear. I mean, what are government scientists concerned about exactly here?

LANGFITT: No, you're exactly right. The vast majority have not proved to have any special properties, really. What they're concerned about is that this variant became the dominant version of the virus in London and also in the east and southeast of England. And we saw this earlier with tourists bringing it back from Spain. But this was a different variant, but it didn't really, you know, create problems. The problem here is that not only is it dominant, but there's been exponential growth of the virus in these areas. And if you look at the graphs, David, it looks like a rocket ship. In my time here covering this in the U.K., I've never seen this kind of growth. The scientists here think it could be up to 70% more infectious. And that's why you're seeing the kind of reaction you are from European neighbors right now.

GREENE: Well, I mean, what a moment in the U.K., not just this variant or mutation and more lockdowns, but, I mean, as you say, time is running out to strike a post-Brexit free trade deal. And these are stories that are not all unrelated.

LANGFITT: No, completely related in the sense - I mean, completely unexpected but absolutely related. It was already going to be very hard - it still is - to try to get this deal done. They've already blown through many deadlines. And the big concern is that you're going to have customs and tariffs kicking in at Dover, creating all kinds of economic problems. Right now, the trucks aren't even moving because of this variant. And so how this country gets through the rest of this year without seeing a lot of economic disruption - and, of course, we already have a lot of health care disruption - is going to be really tough to see.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, David.

GREENE: And let's dig a little more into the science of this new strain of the coronavirus with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So as you've been talking to scientists in the United States, I mean, what are they saying about this variant or mutation and what is the likelihood that we could be experiencing it in the U.S. at some point soon?

AUBREY: Well, they're concerned about reports that the strain is more contagious. I spoke to Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at Georgetown. She says it is possible that this strain could make it to the U.S. It's just really not known at this time. So it's another reason to stay vigilant.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: If it is more transmissible, that means that it could result in more COVID cases. Right now, our health care system is strained to its limits, and an additional surge in cases could really put us over the top.

AUBREY: And, you know, as to whether this new strain of the virus could interfere with a vaccine, well, Admiral Brett Giroir, who's the administration's top official in charge of testing, said yesterday they have not seen any virus mutation yet that would evade the vaccine.

GREENE: Yeah, and let's turn to the latest vaccine news from the United States. I mean, we have the second coronavirus vaccine that's being rolled out today. This is the one made by Moderna as opposed to Pfizer, the first one. I mean, health care workers, people in long-term care centers are getting vaccinated first, as we've been reporting. Who is next? I mean, is there a plan now being laid out?

AUBREY: Sure. The next group will include people aged 75 and older and front-line essential workers. So this includes police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards, postal workers, bus drivers and grocery store workers.

GREENE: OK. I mean, it seems encouraging that we have two vaccines out there now. What does the supply look like? What does the distribution look like looking at this broadly?

AUBREY: Well, with the second vaccine now authorized for emergency use, a combined 7.9 million doses of the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine are ready to be distributed this week. And this is very welcome news, David. Everyone knew the vaccine supplies would be very tight to begin, but many sites did not receive as many doses of the Pfizer vaccine as they had been told to expect. Over the weekend, Operation Warp Speed officials acknowledged that fewer doses had been released. Mike Brownlee, I spoke to him, he heads the vaccine distribution efforts at the University of Iowa health care. He says they're on track to get about half of what they'd been told to expect.

MICHAEL BROWNLEE: We were hoping to get by the end of the year 10,000 doses so that we can keep moving through our staff. But we understand the challenges. We're trying to be patient with the process. The Moderna approval will help. We're just ready. Whenever we get doses, we are ready every single day to give vaccine.

AUBREY: So a bit slower than expected. But, you know, it's not a surprise that the first couple of weeks would be a little bumpy.

GREENE: It's just like all a race with so much at stake. I mean, we're talking about new mutations. We're talking about vaccines getting out there as quickly as possible. All of this is, of course, while we're seeing just a surge in cases.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, the U.S. is averaging about 215,000 new cases a day. Deaths have risen by about 20% over the last couple weeks. Cases continue to increase in many parts of the country - California, Arizona, many southern states. But there are states where new cases have begun to decline in the Midwest - Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and in Kentucky, too.

GREENE: Some glimmers of hope. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you so much, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.