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News Brief: Biden's European Trip, Variant Study, Global Sting

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden has some diplomatic work to do.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the countries in NATO has never been as tense as it was over the past four years. Former President Trump questioned whether the alliance should even exist. Joe Biden is heading to Europe this morning. He'll go to London to meet with Queen Elizabeth and Brussels to meet with NATO leaders. He will do a different kind of diplomatic work in a meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin, all while keeping tabs on major congressional action here at home, including his massive infrastructure bill. Bipartisan talks on that have stalled.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is with us to talk about all the things. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

MARTIN: So Biden's first trip abroad since taking office - makes sense that he'd go to Europe to shore up America's most important relationships, right?

KHALID: That's right. I mean, this White House feels that former President Donald Trump's isolationist, America-first view of the world really rattled allies and, frankly, in their view, undervalued the importance of these countries actually coming together to work on some big issues. So from the White House's point of view, this first overseas trip is about repairing that damage and convincing the world that the United States is back.

We've been told that Biden is slated to meet with about 35 world leaders in total during this eight-day trip. That includes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the G-7, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be at the NATO summit. You know, Biden is expected to provide reassurance that the U.S. is committed to the NATO alliance. And as you mentioned, this comes after tension during the Trump years. There are a number, I will say, of heavy topics on the agenda there at that NATO meeting, including the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as well as Russia's actions in the region.

MARTIN: Right. So Russia - President Biden will be meeting with Vladimir Putin. I mean, there's - there are a lot of things for those two men to be discussing. What are the expectations for this?

KHALID: Well, I will say, Rachel, there are obviously also a lot of questions about engaging with Russia at this particular moment given these recent ransomware attacks and election interference that we know of coming out of Russia. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that this meeting is critical.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: We do not regard a meeting with the Russian president as a reward. We regard it as a vital part of defending America's interests and America's values. Joe Biden is not meeting with Vladimir Putin despite our countries' differences. He's meeting with him because of our countries' differences.

KHALID: You know, the White House says that Biden will raise a number of contentious issues during this meeting with Putin, including incursions into Ukraine and human rights abuses. But critics still warn that it is actually sort of unclear what tangible benefit the United States gets out of a conversation with Putin. At this moment, I will say that, you know, we just don't know. And meeting with Putin is, frankly, the most unpredictable part of Biden's whole trip.

MARTIN: So he's going to be doing all this diplomacy abroad, and at the same time, he's got a lot of work to do here at home. The infrastructure bill that he has staked so much on personally, the bipartisan talks on that have stalled. Get us up to speed.

KHALID: Yes. You know, they stalled. Long story short, the president cut these talks off. The White House says that it was disappointed that the president had been willing to reduce his amount by about a trillion dollars. They felt like Republicans were not willing to meet them in the middle there. Regardless, the White House is now looking to salvage the plan by working through a group of bipartisan lawmakers. At the same time, Democrats in the Senate are separately working to try to get this bill passed through a process that would only need Democratic votes. Of course, they would still need 50 votes in the Senate, and it is unclear whether they've got all Democrats on board.

MARTIN: NPR's Asma Khalid, thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. Being fully vaccinated does give you a sense of liberation, but there's also this nagging question for a lot of people. Will the vaccine that's in my body protect me from the variants of COVID-19?

FADEL: That's been a big question a lot of scientists have been working to answer. And while the evidence isn't absolute, the findings from a new study out today suggest they may be able to stop them.

MARTIN: Joining us now, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what did researchers find that makes them so optimistic that vaccines will work against variants?

PALCA: Yeah, well, they took blood from volunteers who had been given the COVID-19 vaccine and looked to see if it contained neutralizing antibodies to the viral variants, the kind of antibodies that prevent a virus from entering cells.

Dan Barouch at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center showed, as others have, that the level of neutralizing antibodies went down for some of the variants.

DAN BAROUCH: But what we also showed is that there's many other types of immune responses other than neutralizing antibodies, including binding antibodies, Fc functional antibodies and T cell responses.

PALCA: And it's that last immune response, the T cell response, he thinks is the most important.

MARTIN: Explain. How are T cells helpful here?

PALCA: Well, there's one particular type of T cell called a CD8 T cell, and Barouch says it plays a critical role in preventing disease.

BAROUCH: Those are the killer T cells. Those are the types of T cells that can basically seek out and destroy cells that are infected and help clear infection.

PALCA: Now, they don't prevent infection, but they help keep an infection from spreading. And what Barouch and his colleagues found and reported in the journal Nature is that the activity of these CD8 T cells wasn't diminished in the face of the variants in people who were vaccinated.

MARTIN: So is this the case for all the coronavirus vaccines?

PALCA: Well, Barouch was studying people vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And his results help explain why the vaccine was successful in studies conducted in South Africa and Brazil at preventing people from getting seriously ill because those are two of the countries where some of the most concerning variants are spreading. But to answer your question, yes, others have shown similar results for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine.

Marcela Maus did one of those studies. She's at Massachusetts General Hospital. She says it'll take studies in people to be certain that the vaccines work against the new variants, but...

MARCELA MAUS: Anything that generates a T cell immune response to the SARS-CoV-2, I would say, has promise as being potentially protective.

PALCA: And SARS-CoV-2 is, of course, the virus that causes COVID-19.

MARTIN: Right. So all this sounds (laughter) good. I mean, it's...

PALCA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Good news, right?

PALCA: Yes.

MARTIN: Even though there is still talk about needing boosters to these vaccines - why is that?

PALCA: Well, what these studies don't answer is how long this protection will last. And Barouch and others are working to answer that question. The other thing that would be useful is if the vaccines - I mean, I said at the beginning of our chat that the neutralizing antibodies went down in some of these cases, these variants. It would be nice if you could have a booster that would boost those back up so you'd have all the kinds of protection you could possibly want.

MARTIN: It would be nice, indeed. NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're so welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. Want to dupe some suspects into unveiling their criminal plans? Apparently, you just need to offer them a messaging device that comes with a subscription service.

FADEL: At least that's how the FBI conducted a global sting under the name Operation Trojan Shield. Agents tricked suspected criminals around the world into giving up key details of their plans. And some 800 people have been arrested.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here to talk about this. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I mean, this is just a crazy story. This all ties into how criminal groups were communicating, right? Let's start there. Tell us how that worked.

LUCAS: Right. This all revolves around something called hardened encrypted devices. And these things look like a cellphone, but you can't make calls on them. You can't get on the internet. You can only send and receive messages. Officials say they cost about $1,700 for a six-month subscription in the U.S. But you and I couldn't walk down to our local cellphone store and buy them. You have to know kind of a phantom seller. The upside for these, though, is that they are encrypted and a closed loop, which makes them secure from surveillance by law enforcement. And that, of course, makes them appealing to criminals and, in particular, drug traffickers.

MARTIN: So how did the FBI start using them?

BAROUCH: Well, the FBI started working a couple of years ago with a confidential source who was developing a new encrypted platform like this. That source agreed to work with the FBI and get these new devices, called ANOM, out to distributors who then quietly sold them to criminal organizations. Officials say that more than 12,000 of these devices were sold to some 300 criminal organizations around the world. And of course, what the distributors and criminals didn't know was that the encrypted system was, in fact, run by the FBI and that every message they sent was being read almost in real time by investigators.

Here is the acting U.S. attorney in the southern district of California, Randy Grossman.

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RANDY GROSSMAN: The criminals using these devices believe they were secretly planning crimes far beneath the radar of law enforcement. But in reality, the criminals were not underneath the radar; they were on it.

MARTIN: That's a good line. So the FBI is able to read these messages almost as soon as they're sent. What sort of window did that give investigators into these criminal groups?

LUCAS: Well, this put investigators smack in the middle of planning discussions about all sorts of illegal activity. For example, an FBI affidavit says one criminal group was organizing a cocaine shipment from Costa Rica to Spain and talking about hiding the drugs in hollowed-out pineapples. The FBI and Spanish police reviewed those message, and Spanish authorities intercepted this very shipment and seized 1,500 kilos of cocaine. In another instance, there was talk about concealing drugs in cans of tuna or in boxes of bananas. So there were criminals providing, you know, shipping container information, GPS location data of shipments, just really a granular level of detail in all this.

MARTIN: Wow. And now hundreds of these criminals have been arrested worldwide in various criminal networks, right?

LUCAS: That's right. About 800 people have been arrested over the course of this investigation. Around 30 tons of drugs were seized. That includes cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine. And, yes, this was truly global. The top five countries where these ANOM devices were used are Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia. There were also indictments here in the U.S. against 17 people for their alleged roles in distributing these encrypted devices. Eight of those people are in custody; the rest are fugitives.

MARTIN: So now, can I just ask one more quick question? Does this mean this technology, they can't use it anymore because it's been exposed to these networks?

LUCAS: You start moving on to the next sort of encrypted platform like this.

MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you for bringing your reporting to this. We appreciate it.

LUCAS: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.