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News brief: Kids' COVID vaccines, Russia-Ukraine war, Rep. Cawthorn cited

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia has had a whole lot of leverage over Europe in the form of energy. It is the biggest supplier of natural gas to the EU.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And now Russian President Vladimir Putin is using that leverage as payback for Europe's support of Ukraine in the war. Russia's national energy company released a statement saying they've cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues in the east and the south of Ukraine. After a meeting with Putin, the U.N. secretary general said he was hopeful civilians will be able to escape safely.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann is in the port city of Odesa on the Black Sea, and he joins us now. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What is this aggressive move by Russia when it comes to oil and gas shipments to Europe? Tell us about where the diplomacy is right now.

MANN: Yeah, look - I mean, Moscow is playing hardball here. They rejected a call for a cease-fire, and as you say, they're cutting these oil and gas supplies to punish European countries helping Ukraine. Natural gas futures shot up as a consequence. U.N. officials say they did get an agreement in principle to some kind of evacuation plan, but, Rachel, we've seen this kind of statement repeatedly, and it's never come to anything. Russian attacks on an industrial site in Mariupol, where Ukrainians are still fighting, those attacks have continued and been intense.

MARTIN: So as mentioned, you're in Odesa. There are a million people who live in that city. You've had missile attacks there. What's the situation at this point?

MANN: It's tense. The Russian army is about 3 hours away to the east. There was another cruise missile strike here over the weekend that killed a young mother and her 3-month-old child. Their funeral is being held today. And for the first time in weeks, we are seeing some people deciding to evacuate.

MARTIN: Odesa is a city that is largely Russian-speaking, right? And now there is a discussion over what that means and what to do about prominent Russian statues and monuments. Can you explain what's happening there?

MANN: Yeah, this is so complicated and fascinating. In addition to the language here, a lot of people have deep family and historical ties to Russia. There's this big statue here to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who is now viewed by many Ukrainians as an oppressor. I spoke about all this with Atem Dorokhov (ph). He's a young Russian speaker involved in this debate. He says with Russia's army on their doorstep, it's time to reevaluate these Russian monuments. He compares the debate here to the fight over Confederate monuments in the American South.

ATEM DOROKHOV: The U.S. example was very good - very good. The history is very complicated with a lot of oppression, a lot of mass killings - same here. Ukrainian culture has been oppressed by Russia over hundreds of years.

MANN: And what struck me as astonishing about this, Rachel, is that Ukrainians are managing to ask these questions and have this debate while they're in the middle of this war.

FADEL: Right.

MANN: I spoke about this with Volodymyr Yermolenko. He's one of Ukraine's leading journalists and philosophers. His first language is Russian. But he told me, yeah, it's time for cities like Odesa to begin shifting away from Russia's cultural influences.

VOLODYMYR YERMOLENKO: They should be in the Ukrainian cultural information space and not in the Russian cultural information space, you know? That means the music that you listen to, that means the movies that you watch, the books that you read.

MANN: And, you know, that may sound harsh, rejecting Russian culture in that way, but people tell me this is another unintended consequence of Vladimir Putin's invasion. A city like Odesa, with these deep, long ties to Russia, could well wind up far more deeply integrated into Ukrainian society.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thank you for all your reporting this morning. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK, new CDC data shows 3 out of every 4 children in this country have had COVID-19.

FADEL: The study comes as Pfizer and BioNTech request authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for the first booster for children ages 5 to 11. A two-dose Pfizer vaccine was authorized for kids in that age group back in October. And Moderna is also expected to seek authorization for the first vaccine for children younger than 5 any day now.

MARTIN: Any day now. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us to talk about all these things. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Before we get to the vaccine news, let's start with this new data from the CDC about how many people, including kids, have been infected with the virus at this point. What does it say?

STEIN: You know, Rachel, does it feel like almost everyone you know has gotten COVID-19 by now? Well, you know, this...

MARTIN: A lot (laughter).

STEIN: Yeah, totally. Well, this data is the reason - that says that there's a good reason for that. The CDC says that the omicron variant spread so fast this winter that almost 60% of everyone in the U.S. has antibodies to the virus in their blood. And that number is even higher for kids, almost 75% of kids ages 11 and younger. And that means a lot of people have at least some immunity at this point and helps explain why the U.S. hasn't experienced yet another big surge yet.

MARTIN: OK. So 75% of kids have antibodies. So what does that mean? Do these kids really need to get vaccinated or boosted?

STEIN: You know, the CDC says yes, absolutely. First of all, one-quarter of kids still don't have any immunity. And the CDC says vaccination provides even stronger, perhaps broader protection for those who have already gotten infected. So the CDC is frustrated that most parents still haven't got their kids vaccinated or boosted.

MARTIN: All right, let's talk about boosters. Kids ages 12 and older are already eligible. But now Pfizer and BioNTech want the FDA to OK a booster for younger kids, too, right?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The companies say a third shot six months after the second shot looks safe for kids ages 5 to 11 and can pump up antibodies sharply, especially antibodies that can fight off the omicron variant. Now, there's a bit of mixed opinion among independent experts about whether kids ages 5 to 11 need a booster yet. Some say, look - protection from two shots clearly weakens as the months go by, especially against omicron. And while kids don't tend to get as sick as adults, COVID can still pose a danger to kids. So we should do everything possible to protect them, especially now that no one's wearing masks, and the numbers are creeping up again. But others argue two shots are still keeping kids from getting seriously ill. And the evidence boosters are definitely needed now just isn't there yet. So the FDA will have to decide who's right.

MARTIN: So I made a quip at the top because parents of really young kids have just been waiting for so long.

STEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the news headlines for months have been like, it's almost going to happen; it's almost going to happen.

STEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So now the latest incremental move here - Moderna is expected to ask the FDA to authorize a vaccine for kids younger than 5. Is this really going to happen, Rob?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, the low-dose pediatric vaccine looks safe and can boost antibodies to levels equivalent to the adult vaccine for kids as young as 6 months old. That said, the evidence Moderna has released so far indicates that the protection is still not that great against omicron. So that's raised questions about whether three doses are really needed. Like, you know, that's what happened with the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine. So while officials had been hoping to get a vaccine for these youngest kids by this month, it now looks like the FDA isn't going to take this up until June. So, you know, we're going to have to wait and see now, still.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn was stopped at the airport in Charlotte yesterday after authorities found a loaded handgun in his bag.

FADEL: Cawthorn got a citation for possession of a dangerous weapon on city property and then released. And it's not the first time Cawthorn has been stopped by the TSA for bringing a gun to an airport. The freshman Republican has been involved in several public safety violations since taking office.

MARTIN: Jeanne Davis of member station WFAE in Charlotte joins us this morning. Hey, Jeanne.

JEANNE DAVIS, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: Just tell us what went down.

DAVIS: Yeah, so he was going through security at the Charlotte airport on Tuesday, you know, dropped his bag onto the X-ray conveyor belt. And, you know, that's when a TSA officer spied a loaded 9 mm handgun. And so typically when this happens, you know, a TSA agent will summon a police officer at the, you know, security checkpoint to inspect the bag. And in this case, the officer found the gun, and Representative Cawthorn was - he was given a citation, like you said, but was not arrested, though police did confiscate the gun, and he was allowed to continue on his way. Yeah, in a news release, the police department said anyone who brings a weapon to the airport is just cited for a misdemeanor rather than being arrested. And that's unless, you know, there's outstanding warrants or other extenuating circumstances. And so far, we haven't heard from the congressman directly about what happened, and his spokesman has not replied with a comment.

MARTIN: Huh. I mean, yeah, we know - I mean, I guess I'm struggling with the fact that we all know the rules, right?

DAVIS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, I can't even take peanut butter through the TSA screening machines, let alone a weapon. This is not the first time Cawthorn has tried to take a gun through airport security, and there have been other incidents involving public safety, as Leila noted. Can you tell us about those?

DAVIS: Yeah. So in Asheville last year at the airport there in western North Carolina, where his district is, we don't know if it's the same gun in this case, but, you know, unlike in Charlotte, he wasn't cited, and it's not really clear why. Also, last fall, he brought knives to two different school board meetings, a North Carolina college and a private K-12 school, all in the span of under a month. And since he's, you know, taken office last year, he's gotten three speeding tickets.

MARTIN: I mean, maybe speeding tickets aside, but these other instances of bringing weapons - I mean, is he trying to make a point? I mean, how much of this is political? He's got a primary next month, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. North Carolina's 11th District - that's the one he represents - they have a primary in three weeks. And, you know, this is a rural district. There's not a lot of polling. So it's hard to tell how this has impacted it. And - but it's been one event after another producing these sort of, like, negative headlines. He is running against seven other people in the GOP primary. He's, you know, an outspoken supporter of President Trump and has been endorsed by him for reelection. The goal for his opponents, though, will be to keep him under that 30% to put him in a runoff and beat him later this summer. You know, Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis is backing one of his competitors in this race. But I will say Congressman Cawthorn has done something, you know, few Republican House members are able to do, and that's get name recognition and a lot of media attention, though not always for the best reasons.

MARTIN: Jeanne Davis, a reporter with member station WFAE in Charlotte. Thanks. We appreciate your reporting on this.

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