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News brief: Sudan coup reports, COVID vaccines for kids, Charlottesville rally

NOEL KING, HOST:

Is what's happening in Sudan today a military coup?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Khartoum say soldiers have arrested the prime minister and other government leaders. And the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, says Washington is deeply alarmed by reports of a military takeover. Feltman says a change in the government by force would be, in his words, utterly unacceptable. And U.S. aid to Sudan would be at risk.

KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta is covering this story from Ethiopia. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So it's worth stressing that this is a developing story as we speak. I'm looking on...

PERALTA: It is.

KING: ...Twitter. I'm seeing protesters. What do we know happened?

PERALTA: So we know that the military has arrested high-ranking members of the civilian government, and the Ministry of Information said that the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, is now under house arrest. We also know that the internet and cell networks have been almost entirely cut off. But we know that activists have called on people to take to the streets to protest against what they are calling a coup. And they're sending us videos that show thousands of people on the streets of Khartoum. They are resorting to the chants that we heard when longtime autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir was toppled in 2019, and they're calling for revolution, calling for the fall of the regime. They are seeing that retreat is impossible, that the people are stronger.

But the facts on the ground are that the military appears to be making its move to consolidate power - they - you know, to push the civilian part of this transitional government aside and to return Sudan to a military dictatorship.

KING: How did that happen? Because one of the really disconcerting things here is that just two years ago, we were talking - as recently as a few months ago, we were talking about Sudan's transition to democracy, right? They finally get rid of this dictator after decades. It looks like things are moving forward, and then now this. What happened?

PERALTA: Yeah, it looked - so popular protests in 2019, as you noted, led to the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir. And the military sided with street protesters who demanded a democratic Sudan. And they agreed that after a certain period of time, they would cede power to civilians. And this was a fantastic time in Sudan. I was there. There was music. There was hope. It was a country that suddenly found itself liberated from an extremely conservative interpretation of Islamic law, and you could feel, like, an awakening in that country. The military was supposed to turn over power next month, but they're making it clear that they are staying. And I think if this coup sets in, it could mark the end of one of the most remarkable pro-democracy movements we've seen recently on the African continent.

And the activists that made this happen are heartbroken. I spoke to one in Khartoum not long ago who is afraid of getting arrested, so they asked that I not name them, but let me read you one of the messages that they sent me. They said, (reading) I had two panic attacks already. It's too familiar, and I just don't know how we can repeat this again. I just don't know how we can survive another nationwide trauma. We deserve so much better.

KING: Oh, my goodness. And then it's worth noting that Ethiopia, where you are, is in the middle of a civil war. These two countries are neighbors. The entire Horn of Africa seems really unstable at this minute.

PERALTA: It does. And you know, that's obviously a really problematic thing because there is an Islamist insurgency in nearby Somalia, and these were the buffer countries.

KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Ethiopia. Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Will kids between the ages of 5 and 11 be able to get the COVID vaccine?

MARTIN: Pfizer is presenting data on its vaccine to the FDA this week.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is covering this story as she often is with us on Monday mornings. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK. So what is going on throughout the course of this week?

AUBREY: Sure. So a committee of FDA advisers is scheduled to meet tomorrow. They will review data from Pfizer's clinical trial that included about 2,000 children aged 5 to 11. This study found the vaccine is about 91% effective against symptomatic infection, Noel. In the trial, there were no cases of serious illness among children, and the company says their data supports authorization of the vaccine in this age group. I spoke to Dr. David Kimberlin. He's a pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

DAVID KIMBERLIN: Having this vaccine available for 5- through 11-year-olds is not only going to protect the child, but also protect the child's loved ones. You know, we've already lost over 500 children to this virus. Now with this likely authorization, I really think we're going to have a tool to be able to prevent that.

AUBREY: The FDA will deliberate sometime after the advisory committee has its meeting, which, again, is scheduled for tomorrow.

KING: OK - so some, potentially, very good news for kids. Millions of older Americans can now get booster shots, and I wonder - I was just talking to my mom about this yesterday. Is there a decision on whether you need to get the same brand of vaccine you got the first time?

AUBREY: You can definitely mix and match now as...

KING: OK.

AUBREY: ...They're saying. Effective Friday, people do have this choice. It is possible for people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be boosted with one of the two mRNA vaccines. And there is some data to suggest that this mix and match approach with J&J can boost antibodies to a greater extent. But the message coming from lots of experts that I talked to following this very closely is that all the vaccines and boosters are effective. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that the agency will not weigh in with specific advice about which booster to pick.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We will not articulate a preference. My understanding is that most people will - have done largely well with the initial vaccine that they got. There may be some people who might prefer another vaccine over the one that they received, and the current CDC recommendations now make that possible.

AUBREY: To the extent that there are some differences of opinion among doctors and experts, it's because the science doesn't clearly point to one optimal choice for every group. But Walensky stressed that all the vaccines are effective.

KING: And what about expanding the eligibility for booster shots - because right now, it's still just older people and people with certain conditions, right?

AUBREY: Right. Dr. Walensky said they're actively looking at whether immunity is trailing off in other age groups. It's been reported that the FDA is considering whether people 40 and up should be eligible for a booster. She spoke at a White House briefing on Friday.

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WALENSKY: We are following the data in real time, and we are looking at its ongoing efficacy, as well as its potential for waning in our other age groups. And we will update our recommendations as soon as we have more data.

AUBREY: Could be that after the agency gets through the process of determining authorization and recommendations for younger children, they will consider boosters for other age groups.

KING: All right. And lastly, Halloween is on Sunday, and then we're pretty much fully into holiday season, right?

AUBREY: That's right.

KING: Has the CDC given any advice about that?

AUBREY: Well, it is not lost on Dr. Walensky that kids love Halloween. So...

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WALENSKY: I would say put on those costumes, stay outside and enjoy your trick-or-treating.

AUBREY: Good for kids to mask up if they're indoors with a crowd. They already know that, most kids. As for Thanksgiving and beyond, with so many people eager to gather with family and friends, she says, the more people who are vaccinated, the safer the gathering will be.

KING: OK. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Four years after a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., some of the organizers are going on trial.

MARTIN: You might remember white nationalists from around the country showed up at the Unite the Right rally in 2017. One neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd. He killed one woman and injured 30 others.

KING: Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism for NPR. Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What is this trial going to be like?

YOUSEF: Noel, this is a civil case that'll be taking place in the Western U.S. District of Virginia. It involves nine plaintiffs, all of whom were residents of Charlottesville when these events took place. There are 24 defendants. That's a mix of individuals and groups or organizations. The trial is going to be really sweeping. You know, it's expected to last four weeks, up to 150 witnesses. There are some security concerns around this trial, which is why the jury that they're going to begin selecting today will be partially anonymous, which means that the parties to this lawsuit will know their names, but the public will not.

And of course, the - this is a trial in the age of COVID, so there are some pretty tight rules around masking, and courtroom attendance will be limited.

KING: All right. You said something interesting there. So James Alex Fields Jr. is the man who drove his car into the crowd. He killed a woman named Heather Heyer. He's serving two life sentences. But you said this is not a criminal trial. This is a civil trial. Why is that? What's at stake?

YOUSEF: Well, this is interesting because the use of civil litigation to hold people to account for hate-fueled violence is a strategy that we saw a lot of particularly in the 1980s and the 1990s with cases that the Southern Poverty Law Center brought against individuals and groups. I spoke with Amy Spitalnick. She's the executive director of Integrity United for America (ph). That's a civil rights nonprofit that's been backing this lawsuit. And she said their intentions here are pretty stark. She said the idea is to bankrupt and dismantle the groups that were behind - that they allege were behind the events in Charlottesville. Here's what she said.

AMY SPITALNICK: It's going after them financially, going after them operationally, making sure that the tools that we have in our justice system are being used as intended, which is to hold these extremists accountable. And that involves real financial and operational consequences.

KING: If a jury finds against these groups, how much money are we talking about?

YOUSEF: Well, you can look to another civil case that actually took place in Ohio. There's a man named Bill Burke there who attended the events in Charlottesville to protest against the groups that were gathering there. He won a $2.4 million judgment against the National Policy Institute. That's an organization that was founded and run by Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist who coined the term alt-right. I spoke with Michael Fradin, the lawyer in that case, who said they don't expect they're going to recover $2.4 million, but he still sees it as an important win.

MICHAEL FRADIN: Did we disrupt the National Policy Institute from ever being able to raise money again? Likely - because if they were to raise money and we were able to attach it, that money would go to Bill.

YOUSEF: That's exactly the kind of disruption in extremist activity that is a goal for plaintiffs in this case in Virginia, and that might give some indication of how much money they could face.

KING: Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism for NPR. Thank you, Odette.

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