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News Brief: Booster Shots, U.S. Capitol Security, Facebook Files

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today might be the day that determines the future of COVID-19 booster shots in this country.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration is meeting to consider Pfizer's application to offer a third shot to all Americans older than 16. President Biden has already said he wants boosters. But some scientists aren't so sure that everyone needs one.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is following this one. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: What are the arguments in favor of boosters for all?

PALCA: So it's primarily evidence from Israel that over time, the vaccine's ability to prevent any disease begins to decrease. So the longer it's been since you got vaccinated, the more likely you'll get a breakthrough infection. And it's any kind of infection, even mild disease. But there's also some evidence that the vaccine's ability to prevent severe disease is declining, at least for people older than 65. Then there's a paper from Israel out this week that says that boosters reduce the likelihood of any disease, including severe disease, in that group and others. And then there's laboratory data where they look at people's blood. They take blood samples over time, and they see how their antibody level's doing when they challenge them with a virus in the laboratory. And they're showing that the antibody levels are declining over time. But if you add in a booster, they start behaving or looking like they did right after you got your first round of vaccination. So you're highly protected.

KING: And despite all of that, some scientists are still saying, not so fast.

PALCA: Right. So the laboratory data of declining antibodies may not translate to actual decline and protection. And remember - the vaccine was created to keep people from getting really sick and in the hospital and dying. And immunologists like Marion Pepper at the University of Washington say we shouldn't be talking about boosters until we see more breakthrough infections that are sending people to the hospital.

MARION PEPPER: I don't think we are yet. I need to see data right now that says a booster is essential 'cause so far, I haven't seen it.

KING: OK. There are also ethical arguments against Americans getting a third shot.

PALCA: Well, that's right. I mean, many people around the world have no coverage at all. Buddy Creech is the director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program.

BUDDY CREECH: There are still billions around the globe that have no access to vaccine. I think that has to go into our decision-making process.

PALCA: And there's some serious outrage that wealthy countries are giving out boosters, and poorer countries can't get hold of vaccines for love or money.

KING: So this FDA advisory committee meets today. What do you think is going to happen?

PALCA: Well, it should be a lively discussion. There are scientific issues, and there is this ethical component. If I had to guess - and I'm prepared to be wrong - I would say that the advisory committee will say that some kind of booster for some people may be advisable, could be older people with health conditions. Buddy Creech suggests another group that may be appropriate for boosters.

CREECH: Those who are front-line health care workers, those that are in long-term care facilities. They might require boosting if for no other reason than to keep people who are serving and who are at highest risk out of harm's way from even minor colds that could keep them out of work.

PALCA: Because Creech says the health care system is already showing signs of strain, and losing staff to illness would be bad. Now, you have to keep in mind, Noel, that this meeting today of the advisory committee - they're just making recommendations. It'll still be up to the FDA to make a decision.

KING: NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The fencing is back up around the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol.

MARTINEZ: That's because a far-right rally is planned for tomorrow in Washington, D.C., to support people who were charged for their roles in the January 6 insurrection. It's the first large-scale security test for Capitol Police since the January attack by supporters of former President Trump. The deadly siege was a security failure on a number of levels, but much has changed since then.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is with us. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What are you hearing from the Capitol Police? Do they feel ready?

GRISALES: They sound ready, we're hearing newfound confidence. This includes Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger, who took over earlier this summer. He briefed congressional leaders this week and promised more transparency and intelligence sharing, which was a failure on January 6. Several members of Congress have also expressed confidence in the agency's new levels of communication and security efforts. West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capital sits on the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees Capitol Police.

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Well, I think, you know, the sergeant-at-arms, the Capitol Police are in charge of security. I think they've learned a lot of lessons. We've heard a lot of testimony. And I'm sure they have everything under control. I have full faith in them.

GRISALES: California Democrat Pete Aguilar sits on the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack and says lawmakers and others will be watching tomorrow closely.

PETE AGUILAR: We trust that they are very mindful that the public is going to be paying attention and ensure that we protect the Capitol.

GRISALES: And while a top FBI official has said there's no evidence that violence is expected tomorrow and Congress is not in session, Capitol Police now have fencing in place, and they say the National Guard will be on standby. It's those kind of details that have members at ease.

KING: If we look back over the past couple of months, Republicans are very divided over what happened on January 6th. Are they divided over what's happening this weekend?

GRISALES: Well, we're not hearing a lot from Republican members in the House especially that they have interest in attending tomorrow's rally. So there is a difference there. That said, the House committee that is investigating January 6 is paying very close attention to this. This includes the two Republicans on that panel, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Their caucus is - most of the Republican caucus is boycotting these efforts of this panel. But Kinzinger says Saturday's demonstration is a reminder of the important mission this committee has ahead of its work. So let's take a listen to what he said.

ADAM KINZINGER: They have a right to be out there so long as it stays peaceful. But we really need to begin to push back against this kind of - I call it fetishizing of overthrowing the government.

GRISALES: Kinzinger over the last eight months has said there's been a concerted effort to downplay January 6. And this is among, again, some of his own colleagues in his party. So he says this just reenergizes the mission to share the truth of what led up to that day. But we should note House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently told Politico that no GOP members are expected to attend.

KING: Do you think what happens tomorrow is going to affect the congressional investigation into the insurrection?

GRISALES: I hear from members, yes. It raises the importance of what they are doing, and they need to get it right. For example, Kinzinger says no matter how many people show up tomorrow, it represents a fraction of the people who think that January 6 was justified. And Aguilar emphasized that their work will show that January 6 is not a day to be celebrated but rather to draw lessons from, so it never happens again.

KING: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thank you.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Facebook reportedly knows that it exposes its users to misinformation, violent imagery, job postings that are designed to trick people into servitude and sex work, calls to violence against specific ethnic groups and much more.

MARTINEZ: It has tools to stop doing that. An internal document suggests that it's just not using them. The Wall Street Journal got access to those internal documents and has published a four-part investigative series. The series highlights promises that Facebook executives made, including to Congress, to fix these problems, then just didn't. We should note Facebook is an NPR sponsor.

KING: With us now, Jeff Horwitz, who is one of the Wall Street Journal reporters who conducted the investigation, which we will only be able to scratch the surface of in this interview and which I'd urge you all to read. Jeff, start by telling me about cross-check.

JEFF HORWITZ: So cross-check was the system Facebook created to try to make sure it didn't mess up on really high-profile user complaints. And it had to do this because its normal process for adjudicating content issues isn't reliable enough for what it considered to be VIP users. And so what it ended up doing was putting 5.8 million or so users of its nearly 3 billion around the globe into this program that gave them special privileges and, in fact, a better chance - better treatment during enforcement. And in fact, for some users, it completely exempted them from all rules at all, which meant that users could basically just do whatever they wanted on the platform. This resulted in billions of views of violating content on the platform that Facebook knew it could've stopped and also allowed powerful, popular accounts such as that of Neymar, the Brazilian soccer player, to show what Facebook deemed to be revenge porn to more than 50 million people.

KING: Oh, OK. Well, that's a lot. That's a lot. But that's just one part of it. I mean, you also wrote about how Facebook rewards outrage content, the stuff that makes people really mad and then makes them engage. And Mark Zuckerberg, you write, had a chance to fix it. And what happened?

HORWITZ: So the company realized that promoting engagement and creating sort of algorithms that promote engagement ended up promoting really angry content and that you could see internally that Facebook researchers were worried that they were making politics and political discourse around the world much, much more contentious and vitriolic. And they realized this but then didn't want to roll back the changes that they'd made to their algorithm because that would hit their growth metrics.

KING: The fourth part of your series details horrific things that can be found on Facebook, including job postings that lure women into situations akin to slavery. Tell me about what you found and why that has been allowed to go on.

HORWITZ: So this is sort of a crisis of, I suppose, a lack of concern in some respects. Facebook was very much aware that it had a problem with human trafficking on its platform large scale. And, in fact, in some instances, it even allowed people to sell maids so long as they were doing it through, quote-unquote, "brick-and-mortar" establishments in the Persian Gulf and Gulf states. And they simply tolerated this until Apple, the, you know, maker of my iPhone, decided that it needed to tell them that it was going to either kick them off the App Store - so remove Facebook and Instagram from its App Store - unless they took care of it immediately. They did it then, but then they let the problem get back out of hand. And there's no question that they knew that there were massive amounts of this stuff on their platform.

KING: What has Facebook's response been to your reporting?

HORWITZ: Facebook has said that they're working to get better. They're not denying any of this stuff. This is drawn directly from their documents. And they, you know, basically sort of are arguing that perhaps we're being a little bit negative and that they are good.

KING: Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Horwitz. Again, the series is really great. Thanks, Jeff.

HORWITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.