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News Brief: Moderna Vaccine, Russian Hack, Coronavirus Relief Bill

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So many people need protection so quickly from coronavirus that it's considered essential to have more than one vaccine. And now we're close.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine from Moderna. Now the FDA has to decide whether to grant emergency use authorization, which the Pfizer vaccine already has.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Palca was able to listen in on the panel's deliberations and joins us now. Hey there, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so you're on this call. The panel is there weighing the risks and benefits of this new vaccine. Was it close?

PALCA: No, it was a slam dunk. It was 20 to nothing in favor with one abstention. The panel deliberated for hours, picking apart all sorts of issues. But that's what panels are supposed to do. And as the meeting was drawing to a close, people were raising interesting and potentially important hypothetical questions about the Moderna vaccine but questions that don't yet have answers. And Paul Offit reminded his fellow committee members they should keep an eye on the big picture. Offit is a vaccine researcher at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

PAUL OFFIT: The question that's being asked is, do we have enough evidence in hand to say that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh what at the moment as far as severe safety issues are theoretical risks? I think the answer to that question is clearly yes. I mean, the question is never when do you know everything? It's, when do you know enough?

INSKEEP: OK. The question is, do the benefits outweigh the risks? He says, yes. So what are the benefits?

PALCA: Well, you know, so far, this vaccine has been studied in 30,000 people; half got the vaccine, half got a placebo. And the vaccine group was protected from disease or illness 94% of the time. And it appeared to be a fairly constant across ages and across racial groups and across ethnic groups. And it not only was good at preventing disease at all, it seemed to be very good at preventing severe disease. And it might prevent infection, which would reduce transmission risk.

INSKEEP: And let's be frank about the risks, because they're not nonexistent.

PALCA: No, they're not nonexistent. The most obvious ones are the unpleasantness of getting the shot. It causes pain. It can cause fever, headaches, things like that. But in the longer term, there were a few warning signs. There was something - a temporary facial paralysis called Bell's palsy. There were four cases of that in the 30,000 people; three in the vaccine group, one in the placebo group. Is it connected to the vaccine? Well, maybe. They don't know. So they want to monitor. There was also this issue that came up with the Pfizer vaccine, which is very similar, about a severe allergic reaction after the vaccination. That hasn't happened with Moderna, but maybe it could.

INSKEEP: Joe, it's interesting listening to you describe their concerns. They're saying there are things that might be a problem, might not. They want to monitor. They want to take more time. I presume that means continuing to study the people in this trial of a few months much more than a few months. Are they going to be able to do that?

PALCA: Well, that's the question. I mean, now that this one vaccine has been given authorization for emergency use and this other one may be as well, people might drop out of these randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials, which is what the FDA typically prefers. But Marion Gruber from the agency says that may not be possible going forward.

MARION GRUBER: At the same time, we do realize that it may at a certain point not be longer feasible.

INSKEEP: Oh, because keeping people in the trial would mean keeping people in the placebo group, meaning that they would have to be exposed to coronavirus for who knows how long. That's not going to happen.

PALCA: Well, that seems to be the problem.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, the FDA may make a decision today, and we'll find out. NPR's Joe Palca, thanks for the update.

PALCA: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The U.S. Cyber Security Agency now says a computer hack poses a grave risk.

MARTIN: This is a lot more than they were saying just a few days ago, which at that point was, yes, this is serious, but the harm isn't sweeping. It appeared to affect the federal Treasury and Commerce Departments. Now officials say the exposure from this hack extends through all levels of government, federal, state, local, as well as thousands of private companies and organizations. Not only that, the hackers still have a presence in these affected systems, and it may take months to kick them out.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Hi there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow. How has this story evolved?

MYRE: Well, the U.S. government was really blindsided when this story broke last weekend, and President Trump still hasn't said a word about it. But now we have an assessment from Homeland Security Cybersecurity Agency, and it's clear this was an enormous breach, perhaps unprecedented in scale, and it's still taking place. The Department of Energy's the latest government department to acknowledge it was breached, though it says the nuclear arsenal that it manages was not at risk. It's important to understand the sheer scale. The hackers have invaded computers at all levels of government and the private sector. Altogether, some 18,000 separate organizations have been infected. For a little perspective, I spoke to Steve Ryan. He worked for more than 30 years at the National Security Agency and was the deputy director of the Threat Operations Center.

STEVE RYAN: This is big. This is bigger than anything we've ever experienced in this country. I don't know what I would put second to this.

INSKEEP: Are the Russians still the main suspects, Greg?

MYRE: Cyber experts are quite confident it is Russia. This was an extremely sophisticated, stealthy attack, techniques that have never been seen before. The skill level and the target's point to Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, whereas hackers are known as Cozy Bear. One of those experts, Dmitri Alperovitch, says the U.S. needs to move quickly on two separate fronts.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: The first phase is to put out the fire, contain the incidents and kick the Russians out as quickly as possible. And then the second phase is really looking broader of how the Russians have had this level of access into our most sensitive networks really over the last at least nine months.

MYRE: Now, the Trump administration hasn't attributed blame to the Russians or anyone else, but the Republican chairman and top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee did issue a joint statement saying this intrusion appears to be ongoing and has the hallmarks of a Russian intelligence operation.

INSKEEP: What makes the Russians so hard to stop?

MYRE: Well, they're very good. I got a glimpse last year of the U.S. efforts to ward off these cyber intruders. The National Security Agency invited me to its sprawling campus out in Fort Meade, Md., to see its new integrated cyber center. This includes a cavernous hall, which is, in effect, the war room with cyber warriors looking at all these movie screens featuring constantly updated information. This may well be the greatest concentration of cyber power anywhere in the world. And just months after I visited, the hackers broke into computer systems all across the U.S.

INSKEEP: And as you mentioned, this is an extremely sophisticated attack that got around all sorts of security measures. And yet on a basic level, you can understand how it happened. They effectively got computers to agree to be invaded, right?

MYRE: Right, Steve. It was just a software update, those little notices we all see on our computer screens and pay no attention to them. But the hackers definitely loaded this malware onto a software update provided by SolarWinds, a company in Austin, Texas. Now, it has 18,000 customers that got these updates in March through June. So the hackers have been embedded for months and undetected. They broke into email systems. The big question's now, did they get into classified government systems?

INSKEEP: We'll keep listening for more updates as this story continues evolving. Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Congress is signaling they really, really, truly are close to delivering pandemic relief.

MARTIN: For millions of people in this country, that help can't come soon enough. Not since last spring has Congress committed extra money to fight the pandemic. The House passed additional money in May but has debated with the Senate ever since about allocating any more.

INSKEEP: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is covering the story. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Now that a bill is taking shape, what does it include?

HORSLEY: We expect it to include direct payments of about $600 to many Americans, similar to the payments that went out in the spring. There are more forgivable loans for struggling businesses, more money for food stamps and a temporary $300 a week increase in unemployment benefits. Now, that's only half what the federal government was paying in the spring and early summer. But I talked to Stephen Pingle (ph), who lost his job installing Internet cable in Nashville. He says the extra money would be welcome.

STEPHEN PINGLE: Any little bit helps. It might not be enough to live a normal life, but it would be better than nothing.

HORSLEY: The bill would also provide a short-term extension in emergency unemployment benefits, which otherwise are set to run out in just over a week.

INSKEEP: Well, this is interesting. The bill might also include money to help distribute vaccines.

HORSLEY: Yeah, and that's really important because the pandemic is just spreading out of control right now. Pingle's dad runs a window washing business in Tennessee, and he's been really careful. But with so many people getting sick, Pingle says his dad is thinking of shutting the business down temporarily.

PINGLE: Now, it just feels like it's spreading so much that it's a little bit reckless to be going into people's houses, especially because you can't guarantee what kind of precautions they're taking. And we really don't want to be part of the spread.

INSKEEP: Are we hearing an illustration there, Scott, of what Jerome Powell, the Fed chairman, keeps saying - the way to deal with the economy is to fix the pandemic, and until you do that, you do need this aid from Congress?

HORSLEY: Yeah, that's right. I mean, as hospitals fill up, restaurants and stores empty out, and that just puts more people on the unemployment line. Yesterday, we learned that new applications for jobless benefits jumped again last week to about 1.3 million. Tara Burton (ph) is seeing this in Denver, where she worked as a waitress. In a lot of Colorado, there's no indoor dining allowed right now.

TARA BURTON: I'm seeing a lot more friends unemployed. You know, my neighbor, she's in the same industry, and she went back to work for about a month, and now she's back on unemployment.

HORSLEY: You know, Burton says it's going to be a slim Christmas, and she would welcome even a small bump in her unemployment benefits as part of this relief package. The trouble is that unemployment assistance might last as little as 10 weeks. And even with the encouraging vaccine news, Burton is doubtful that she's going to be back at work that quickly.

BURTON: We are ready to get back at it, but hunker down for just a little bit longer, and we'll get there. I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is close enough to, like, know it's not a train.

HORSLEY: The thing is that lawmakers have tried to keep the overall size of the package down to around $900 billion. And as a result, they might end up shortchanging the people who need the money the most and, in fact, the money that is probably going to give the biggest lift to the U.S. economy. What's more, we could find ourselves staring at another economic cliff in just a couple of months, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's 10 weeks that would get us into the new administration, the Biden administration, but they'd be under pressure to get something out of Congress right away. Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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