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News Brief: McConnell Congratulates Biden, Coronavirus Test, Afghanistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Normally, this is not the place for old news, but we start with some. Joe Biden won the presidential election just under six weeks ago.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we mention that because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally acknowledged that news yesterday.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The Electoral College has spoken. So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He's devoted himself to public service for many years.

MARTIN: McConnell also congratulated his Senate colleague Kamala Harris who will soon be the first woman to become vice president. It was a relatively warm statement, but McConnell waited until after President Trump failed to overturn the results with dozens of baseless lawsuits. Not all his colleagues went as far as McConnell did. So how do they plan to approach the new administration?

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales joins us now. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how widespread is the Republican acknowledgement of reality?

GRISALES: Well, it's been building up for weeks, as most Republicans had been refusing to acknowledge the results, pointing to President Trump's legal challenges as a reason why. And not all of McConnell's colleagues went as far as he did in terms of the congratulations, for example, but others have acknowledged this. For example, Todd Young of Indiana said it's very important to work with the Biden and Harris administration. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that the Constitution has answered the question on who is the next president. So this is all despite the fact that it's remained virtually impossible for Trump's legal challenges to overturn the election.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens when the election results are presented to Congress on January 6, which is part of the process that is normally a formality?

GRISALES: Well, that's going to be tricky. We've already heard from a small group of House Republicans planning to raise these objections. This includes Alabama's Mo Brooks during this joint session. And they'll need a senator to move forward with these objections in terms of having them heard. So it could be a long, extended day, though there's virtually no way to change the result. Senate Republicans held a call yesterday and leadership on down urged members not to delay this process, not to take part in this. And it seems to be largely the consensus for them. I talked to one of these members on the call, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito. Let's take a listen.

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: I think that there was encouragement on the phone for us to accept the result as much as it's not what we, you know, would have envisioned for the next four years and to try to do what's best for American people, which is to look forward.

GRISALES: She also told me there were no objections on the call to this plan, but it remains to be seen if any break because, again, those objections won't go forward in terms of being heard if a senator doesn't sign on. And in the midst of all this, it takes place the day after Georgia holds its runoff elections to decide which party controls the Senate, where turnout will be key, despite all these claims by Trump and others rejecting the election's results.

INSKEEP: Claudia, I have to ask, now that they are acknowledging the results, are there any Republicans who also acknowledge the idea that it was a significant thing to stand by while the president tried to use nonexistent evidence to overturn democracy?

GRISALES: They don't. They've been asked about this repeatedly and have dodged the question or reject that claim.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, Congress is trying to get a relief bill, a coronavirus relief bill done. Any chance of that soon?

GRISALES: There's a chance. They appear to be close. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left the Capitol just before midnight negotiating, so we could hear a lot more today.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales, thanks.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

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INSKEEP: OK. Americans will soon have a simple way to check if they are infected with coronavirus.

MARTIN: Yeah, this is good news. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the first COVID-19 test that people can do completely at home. You don't even need a prescription.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is this test?

STEIN: So it's called the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, and it's designed to be really simple, easy and fast. Starting in January, you'll be able to buy a kit, you know, at your local drugstore or big discount store or order it online. It comes with a special swab that lets you collect a sample just inside your nose. You add a few drops of liquid and you put it in a little plastic gizmo that looks sort of like one of those home pregnancy tests. And within 15 minutes, it transmits the results via Bluetooth to an app on your phone that says either bad news, you caught the virus or nope, you're OK, you're negative. And the app is designed to report the results in real time directly to public health authorities, which is important for, you know, tracking and trying to control the spread of the virus.

INSKEEP: Yeah, wow. That's a little more high tech, actually, than your home pregnancy test, I guess. But are there already tests like this?

STEIN: So there's nothing exactly like this that's so easy. There are other tests that let you collect your own nose swab or spit sample, but you have to send it off to a lab and wait a day or two for the results. The FDA also recently authorized a test that lets you analyze your sample yourself at home. But you need to get a doctor to write a prescription for it first to get it. For this one, you don't need to get a doctor involved or send a sample off and wait for the lab to send back the results. And it's the first one specifically authorized to test people even if they don't have any symptoms.

INSKEEP: Rob, I feel that I've read a lot in the past few months about fast tests with false positives, false negatives. Any concerns about the accuracy of this test?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, the company that makes it and the FDA say it's very accurate, you know, like, something like 96% accurate overall, but it is what's known as an antigen test, and those tend to be less accurate than the PCR tests that people are used to getting. So we could miss more infected people. And that's obviously dangerous because they could end up spreading the virus even more. And this test can also produce so-called false positives, you know, telling someone they're infected when they're really not. And that can cause lots of problems, too. You know, you don't want people like, you know, doctors and nurses skipping work because they think they're infected when they're really not, you know, especially now at a time when hospitals are already getting overwhelmed by sick people and they're running short of staff.

There is one other issue. That's the price. It's $30. And that's nowhere cheap enough that people could afford to do it over and over and over again, like, you know, every morning before they go to work or school. A test that would be practical for something like that would have to cost only a few dollars each time. And even if people could afford it, there won't be enough of these tests available to test millions of people every day. But the FDA and others say those shortcomings are outweighed by the benefits of making it easier for people to get tested quickly.

INSKEEP: Are the constant shortages of tests over then?

STEIN: Short answer to that is probably not because, you know, the company says they can only produce about 100,000 of these a day initially and maybe up to a million by June. But that's nowhere near the tens of millions of tests that this country really needs to be doing to be able to test people like over and over again every day to control the spread of this virus.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

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INSKEEP: All right. The deputy governor of Kabul, Afghanistan, climbed into a car this week.

MARTIN: And something happened that has become frequent in Kabul - a bomb under the car exploded. The deputy governor was killed. The attack comes as the U.S. is reducing troops there by about a third.

INSKEEP: So we have a picture of life in Afghanistan as 2020 ends. NPR's Diaa Hadid is just back from Afghanistan, joins us now from Pakistan, where she's based. Welcome back.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What is it like, Diaa, when you move around Kabul these days?

HADID: I mean, on the face of it, Kabul is, as it's always been, which is a war-torn city with blast walls flung up everywhere. But, you know, there's massive traffic jams. They're really unruly. The bazaars are full. But what's changed now is that the streets just empty out after dark. Residents are afraid of criminal gangs that have sort of muscled into the area. They're worried about Taliban in some areas. There's been a spate of assassinations, most recently of the deputy governor of Kabul, but they've also targeted journalists, police and the judiciary. And there's also been rocket attacks, which didn't really happen before in Kabul, not at least since the '90s. There was one that slammed - like about eight rockets that slammed into the city the day after I left. And here's the key bit - the Taliban appear to be thickening their presence, at least in one Kabul area called Kampani. They've taken over a mosque there, and they've been leaving threatening notes against their rivals. Those notes are called night letters. And just a few short miles away, just across the Kabul River, there's an area called Dasht-e-Barchi. And there, men from the Shiite Hazara minority say they're arming themselves because they feel like the government can't protect them.

INSKEEP: Diaa, as you're talking, I'm thinking about the way that people used to describe Afghanistan. They would say the U.S.-supported government only controlled Kabul. They'd even joke that the president of Afghanistan was really the mayor of Kabul. You're telling me that the government's grip even on Kabul is a little bit loose at the moment?

HADID: Yeah. I mean, these are all indications that their grip on the capital is loosening. But, you know, to be fair, the government also controls the provincial capitals. It's really the countryside where the Taliban can test (ph) power.

INSKEEP: How do people feel about the state of their country as more U.S. troops withdraw?

HADID: They're frightened. They're worried that the United States will forget them. That's been the country that has really guaranteed their security for the past nearly 20 years since the United States led a multinational effort to topple the Taliban. And they're worried that as the Americans leave, peace talks will collapse and and the country will just escalate into a full-blown civil war again.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about the way that when you go into a hazardous place, it's like your shoulders come up a little bit. You just feel this constant tension. You maybe don't even realize how tense you are until you leave. Is that the feeling as you move around the capital of Afghanistan these days?

HADID: Yeah, it's a big concern, especially because, you see, these assassinations that have been taking place, these assailants have been using this thing called magnetic bombs, sticky bombs, that are slapped onto cars. And so you just don't know anymore. It's - you know, Afghans constantly live in fear of, like, these mass casualty attacks by ISIS in crowded areas like at Kabul University recently or at big Shiite gatherings. But now it's even terrifying to be in that traffic because you don't know which car is going to blow up next to you.

INSKEEP: How confident are people in their own security forces?

HADID: It's a mixed bag. I mean, you know, in areas that have been really targeted, like Dasht-e-Barchi, men say that they are arming themselves and other people just don't know whether to stay or go. And you hear that a lot.

INSKEEP: Diaa, thanks for the update, really appreciate your reporting.

HADID: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is now back in Islamabad, Pakistan, after a reporting trip to Afghanistan, which she has covered for years. U.S. troops, some of them, have been withdrawing from Afghanistan in recent days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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