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News Brief: Pfizer Vaccine Vote, COVID-19 Relief Package, Georgia Election Lawsuits

NOEL KING, HOST:

A COVID-19 vaccine could be available soon to millions of Americans who have been designated as most in need of one.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. An advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration voted in favor of granting emergency use authorization for a vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is with us. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: So we were joking yesterday about who was going to watch hours and hours of FDA deliberations, but you are Joe Palca. And so, of course, you did.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: What went on in this meeting yesterday? What was it about?

PALCA: Well, what happens is the FDA frequently asks for advice from outside expert panels when they have to make a big decision. And the agency had a pretty straightforward yes-or-no question. Do the benefits of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outweigh its risks for use in people 16 years of age and older? And in the end, the committee voted 17 to 4 in favor with one abstention.

KING: So the yeses won with 17. But I am curious about the four because it indicates that some people had concerns. What were the concerns?

PALCA: The concerns were mostly focused on the question of what was the minimum age that the vaccine could be recommended for. The language I just read to you said 16. Some people felt that the evidence for 16 and 17-year-olds wasn't very strong and that they felt that 18 was the minimum age. And there was like, if you change the question to 18, I'm going to vote for it. But that wasn't used as an option. There were other concerns that came up during the meeting. I mean, the committee wanted to know more about this anaphylaxis reaction, this strong immune reaction that two people in the U.K. had after they got the vaccine. And there's also questions about what to say to other groups of people. I mean, for example, pregnant women - there wasn't a lot of data. What do you tell people? You know, talk to your doctor - that's usually a bit of a cop-out. But that's what they seem to be saying is all we can say at this point. But overall, yes, it was very positive. The vaccine was studied in 44,000 people, and the data presented suggests that it was more than 90% effective in preventing disease.

KING: Basic science question - what exactly will this vaccine do? Is it like a shield that would prevent me from getting COVID?

PALCA: Well, that's - yes, that's the - in simple terms, that's what it's supposed to do. So what a vaccine does is it is essentially tricks someone's immune system into thinking it's been infected. And that's why for a short time, you get some symptoms like you were getting sick. You might have a fever. You might have chills. You might get achy. You might get a headache. And the immune system is responding as if it's been infected. But then it realizes after about a day, oh, no, I wasn't really infected. This was just something that looked like a virus, but it wasn't really a virus. So all those symptoms go away. But you're left with a memory of what the virus looks like. And if the real virus comes along, then your body is ready and will fight it off lickety-split. That's the idea anyway.

KING: OK, so the panel has met. The yesses have won. What happens next?

PALCA: Well, now the ball's in the FDA court. The agency has to decide whether to grant this thing called an emergency use authorization. Here's what Marion Gruber had to say after the committee voted. Gruber is the director of FDA's Office of Vaccine Research and Review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARION GRUBER: We will take what we've heard today into consideration when deciding on not only the EUA issuance here, but also, you know, how to move on.

PALCA: OK. So moving on, they'll try to make a decision. And the FDA has been pretty clear it wants to make a decision as soon as possible.

KING: OK. NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Jobless claims in the U.S. rose again this week to their highest number since September.

GREENE: Yeah. As you can imagine, so many people are struggling around the country, and yet Congress is still unable to come to agreement on a new COVID-19 aid package. And we should say much of the earlier round of financial relief is set to expire soon.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following this one. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: We have had this conversation at this point about 95,000 times. And every time we come back to it, the situation in the country is more dire and Congress is still at an impasse. Where do things stand right now?

SNELL: You know, it started this week where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and this bipartisan negotiating group seemed to be gaining some steam with a $900 billion plan. You know, this is a situation where a lot is on the line. We're talking about unemployment, evictions, student loans, and people are starting to worry. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, you know, proposed removing major sticking points from the negotiations. He wanted to take out money for state and local governments, which is a request from Democrats, and take out negotiating over liability protections for businesses and schools. That's something that Republicans favor. But, you know, Democrats say state and local government funding is just not negotiable. And the White House made it even more complicated and confusing by adding their own offer that included $600 in relief checks but no money for unemployment. You know, instead of stepping in to push negotiators along the path that they'd already forged, the White House kind of created a new element of chaos. And that leaves us where we are right now with no deal in hand.

KING: And then, as I understand it, lawmakers have essentially given themselves one more week to cut a deal. If they have not been able to do that after all of these weeks, why are they dragging this out?

SNELL: The simple answer is they have to get spending bills done. They need to fund the government and keep it open. And oftentimes in Congress, they just work well under deadlines. And sometimes, it's just easier to get things passed when you package things all together. Plus, the holidays are approaching. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn't rule out working between Christmas and New Year's either, so they may actually give themselves even more time than that. You know, this has been a widespread political failing, and people are getting desperate. And that alone may be a reason for them to cut a deal. Progressive members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are also getting frustrated that these aid packages under discussion don't include stimulus payments to help people who might need to be protected by these eviction bans that are expiring, you know, people who are behind on rent and bills. And there's an effort to get something done now to clear the way for things like that, other priorities that people want to get done next year when President-elect Biden takes office.

KING: And what happens if they don't make a deal?

SNELL: Now, there's a long list of programs that expire. I started to mention some of them, but unemployment insurance for gig workers and people who exhausted traditional benefits are on the line, the federal eviction ban is on the line, a pause on federal student loan payments and business deductions that kind of help businesses keep people on payroll despite the pandemic.

KING: OK, so potentially a lot of suffering ahead. Democrats have said something interesting. They've said they'll support a bill with less aid now because they'll pass more relief when Joe Biden is sworn in. But the thing is, it's not like it's suddenly going to be easier in Congress to get a bipartisan agreement just because we have Joe Biden as president. So is this still going to be messy?

SNELL: You know, it looks like it will be. I'm not sure the full answer to that, but they really are in a staring contest that started back in July. Each side has fundamentally dug in and believes the other is wrong about what the country needs. And some of that would have to shift for deals to get easier with a different president.

KING: OK, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. A lawsuit filed in Texas asks the Supreme Court to invalidate Joe Biden's win in four states in this election - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

GREENE: Right. And the attorneys general from those four states say basically this is ridiculous. And it is likely the Supreme Court will also find it to be ridiculous. Lawsuits from the Trump team keep being thrown out of court. And yet the Trump team keeps suing, especially in the state of Georgia.

KING: Georgia Public Broadcasting Stephen Fowler is following all of this. Hi, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Where do things stand in Georgia right now?

FOWLER: So Georgia has re-certified its results for Joe Biden. This is the second time they've done that. And it appears a Democratic slate will vote in the Electoral College on Monday. Now, we've had some lawsuits filed in federal court. Lin Wood, a conservative attorney, filed one to try to block certification. That was dismissed because Georgia certified and the infamous kraken lawsuit filed in federal court was dismissed for a whole litany of reasons. And then we've got some filed in state court that are seeking to be election challenges that have been dismissed. And the one thing we still have pending is the Trump campaign's lawsuit seeking to overturn the election. That's also been signed on by the chair of the Georgia Republican Party.

KING: You mentioned all these lawsuits that have been dismissed, and there's kind of a quirk here, which is that they're being dismissed without judges even touching on the evidence presented. Why is that happening?

FOWLER: That's right. So we've seen things mentioned like the doctrine of latches, basically saying you waited too long to file the suit. We've seen ones in federal court saying you're suing the wrong court because Georgia has a specific way to contest an election. And it's important to note, Noel, that all of these cases have been brought by lawyers that don't have a background in election law. Georgia actually is quite familiar with election lawsuits. And there are a lot of both Republican and Democratic election lawyers that they're not getting involved with these. And it's those kind of basic errors that help contribute to these cases failing.

KING: OK. So it sounds like these legal teams or the Trump legal teams don't maybe entirely know what they're doing, I mean, just on the face of it. I'm curious, though, about this Texas lawsuit. It goes after four states - Georgia is one of them - four battleground states. How are officials in Georgia reacting to that particular lawsuit?

FOWLER: Well, as soon as that lawsuit was filed, Georgia's Republican attorney general, Chris Carr, put out a statement saying that it was, quote, "constitutionally, legally and factually wrong." The secretary of state, who's also Republican, agrees with that, but they're in the minority. We've had both of our U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are running in a runoff in a couple weeks, they say they support the lawsuit. We've had several state lawmakers file an amicus brief in the Supreme Court last night saying they support it. And several Republican U.S. House members also say that they agree with having another state messing with Georgia's business and how we conduct our elections. And so it's a strange sight to see Republicans in Georgia defend an attack on the election from other states.

KING: Yeah. Early voting for these Senate runoffs that you mentioned start next Monday. What are the stakes here? What are you going to be watching for?

FOWLER: Whoever wins this race, if both Republicans win or both Democrats win, are going to control the U.S. Senate. So the stakes are high. Millions and millions, hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into this race. We've got campaign mailers filling up people's mailboxes, door knocking. And we've seen over a million people request an absentee ballot, which shows that this is not going to be a typical low turnout race.

KING: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, thank you.

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