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News Brief: Vaccine Rollout, State Of The Economy, Biden's Education Plan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What does it take to get much of this country vaccinated in 100 days?

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden promised 100 million shots in his first 100 days. That is an enormous logistical job that also involves supply. You need enough vaccines to distribute. Pfizer and Moderna each promise to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March. But we have learned that the companies might not be able to do that.

INSKEEP: NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin ran the numbers and found they're not on track. Good morning, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what does your calculation show?

LUPKIN: Basically, they appear to be behind. As you said, you know, both companies signed initial deals for 100 million doses in the first quarter of the year. So that's by the end of March; 100 million for Pfizer, 100 million for Moderna. And they're both delivering about 4.3 million doses a week right now. We know that because we can see how many doses the government is allocating to the states. But these companies need to be delivering about 7.5 million doses a week each to reach 100 million doses by the end of March.

INSKEEP: Wow. And just do the math, they would need to almost double their pace. Can they do it?

LUPKIN: Good question. I asked several people about this, including John Avellanet, who's been consulting for drug companies since the 1990s.

JOHN AVELLANET: I think it's going to be a real challenge for them to hit that contracted target. There's just no question about that.

LUPKIN: Basically, everything has to go right for these companies to pull it off, and a lot can go wrong. Equipment is expected to break and need repairs. The vaccines have to pass inspections before they can be shipped. And, of course, vaccine production also depends on an ample supply of chemical ingredients, vials and skilled workers. Basically, Avellanet it says it's a miracle these companies have been able to deliver the doses they have so far.

INSKEEP: Yeah. We should be clear. They have delivered millions of doses, just not quite on pace to do what they've said they would do. And it's an extraordinary task to do it at all, right?

LUPKIN: Absolutely. Remember, these are a new kind of vaccine. They're mRNA vaccines. So they've been studied for a decade. But this is the first time they're being made on a large scale. I spoke with David Gortler, who until this week was the senior adviser to the now former FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn. Gortler says that Pfizer and Moderna are working at top capacity already.

DAVID GORTLER: I'd rather hear the companies have fallen short of their production goal but managed to maintain their quality control.

LUPKIN: And we don't want to rush that process because then the vaccines might not work.

INSKEEP: What have the government and these companies said when you looked into the numbers and revealed they were off target?

LUPKIN: An Operation Warp Speed spokesman under the Trump administration told me last week that they're still expecting to hit 100 million doses for each company by the end of March. Pfizer didn't get back to me. Though, it slashed deliveries to some European countries this week. Moderna says it's still on track to meet the goal, but they don't disclose more production details than that.

INSKEEP: OK. When you say Operation Warp Speed Trump administration, that administration is out. What about the new administration?

LUPKIN: You know, they didn't get back to me, but I hope to hear more from them. That said, how this might change under the new administration did come up at a White House press conference yesterday. Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked if the Biden administration is trying to increase vaccine production.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah, as well as to utilize what we hope will be another player in the field, the J&J, Janssen, as well as other of the companies.

LUPKIN: He's referring to other vaccines that are next in line for the FDA's green light. The new administration has also committed to being more forthcoming with information. That's something that would please Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the FDA.

LUCIANA BORIO: You know, it'd be nice to be able to have a lot more transparency around the projections with the understanding that so many things can go wrong at any given time.

LUPKIN: And Biden may build on the Trump administration's use of the Defense Production Act.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much.

LUPKIN: You bet.

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INSKEEP: OK, 1.3 million people filed new claims for unemployment last week.

KING: We have been reporting these grim jobs numbers for months, but we have a new administration now with some new plans. And President Joe Biden vows it'll get better.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic. And to a nation waiting for action, let me be the clearest on this point. Help is on the way.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with an economic assessment. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we do have this situation still where people keep filing for unemployment, millions remain out of work, and the stock market just keeps doing great.

HORSLEY: Yeah. The market is betting in part on an end to the pandemic eventually, as well as a lot of federal spending in the meantime. But it's also true that this pandemic has had a really uneven effect on different parts of the economy. You know, homebuilders, manufacturers, they're doing just fine. People who can work from home, they're OK. The workers who've really been hurt by this recession are the people who depend on face-to-face contact with customers, you know, bartenders, restaurant servers, live entertainment. Those industries lost almost half a million jobs in December alone.

INSKEEP: Well, when the new president says help is on the way, what can he do?

HORSLEY: Well, job one, as Sydney was saying, is to just boost the production of the vaccine. But beyond that, Biden wants to open more vaccination locations. He wants to hire more people to administer shots. And in the meantime, he's urging Americans to mask up for the next 100 days. And he is getting some support in that from the business community. Neil Bradley, who's with the Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber has been pushing to mask up America for months now.

NEIL BRADLEY: Why? Because we know that masks, along with social distancing, helps reduce the spread. And if we can help reduce the spread, we can have more of the economy open and more businesses open in a safe way.

HORSLEY: Biden is also asking Congress for money to help more schools reopen safely. That, in turn, would help parents, many of whom have had to give up jobs in order to take care of kids who are home during the school day. And of course, the incoming administration is calling for lots of additional aid to struggling families and businesses.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned schools. We're going to talk more about that in a moment. But first, when might we see an economic turnaround?

HORSLEY: Not right away. You know, nearly 16 million people are collecting unemployment right now. They're not all going to be back at work in the next couple of months. The good news is if we are successful in beating the virus, there could be a pretty strong economic rebound. You know, people who have continued to work have actually socked away a lot of money. Economist Ian Shepherdson, who's with Pantheon Macroeconomics, says right now there's an extra $1.3 trillion sitting in Americans' bank accounts. That could give a powerful boost to the economy once people feel safe going out to restaurants and concerts and getting on airplanes again.

IAN SHEPHERDSON: I'm pretty confident that the pent-up demand is very strong. And I think that the desire for people to return to some sort of normal pre-COVID existence is going to be extremely powerful as a force driving spending.

HORSLEY: And of course, consumer spending is a huge engine for the U.S. economy. A jump in spending like that, combined with control of the pandemic, could put a lot of people back to work.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: The president is calling the problem of school closures a national emergency.

KING: The new administration wants to get most K-12 schools in this country open in the next 100 days. And Biden has signed executive actions aimed at doing that.

INSKEEP: Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team is here once again. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Before we talk about what the administration wants local schools to do, let's talk about what they're doing now.

KAMENETZ: So it's been changing week by week. According to the organization Burbio, about half of the country's students right now are enrolled in all-virtual districts. They have no option for in-person school.

INSKEEP: But in any case, a lot, a lot of schools are closed or rather in remote learning right now. And, of course, the pandemic is still pretty near its peak.

KAMENETZ: Oh, absolutely. And that's making it really hard to open up. So some of the large districts that didn't open to many students in the fall are really struggling to do it now. There is big debate in D.C., in Fairfax County, and actually there's a strike vote happening - a vote towards a strike in Chicago because teachers just don't feel safe. And then other places where districts had opened, they're having to close back down because of quarantine rules, because they have staffing shortages. And, of course, there's worries about the new variants of the virus as well.

INSKEEP: So the previous president approached this problem essentially by saying everyone should just open, get back to work, go back to school, go do your stuff, be brave, be strong, be a warrior. Just go. If you get sick, you get sick. This was essentially the old president's approach. What about the new president?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) So, you know, the federal role in education is a little bit limited, but the orders signed yesterday are really doing all the levers that can be pulled, I think. Getting schools more PPE - they can be fully reimbursed through FEMA for PPE. There's this new pandemic testing...

INSKEEP: Personal protective equipment, I guess, we should define.

KAMENETZ: Masks and gown and gloves. There's a new pandemic testing board that will use the Defense Production Act and - to produce tests, including for schools. So there's private schools that have had the money to do rapid testing to stay open safely. But public schools haven't been able to do that. And then, as we've heard, there's going to be an expansion in vaccine manufacturing, distribution. And the orders specifically mentioned teachers as a group that should be getting equitable access to vaccination.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should stress it's a decentralized system. The president can't order schools to go back. He can't set conditions for that, but he can offer help. Are there other things the president can do?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, definitely money is on the table - that has to pass through Congress - any significant pandemic-based relief - to make these changes. But with the orders that were signed yesterday, Biden is asking the Department of Education and Health and Human Services to do what they do really well, which is collect and aggregate and analyze and report data and best practices to help schools and businesses reopen safely. And this is a really big deal, Steve, because up until now, there has been no centralized national data collection of coronavirus cases or outbreaks or safety mitigation practices in schools. And that makes it so hard to even know what's safe or what isn't.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, can the federal government help students catch up who've been out of school so long?

KAMENETZ: So that's another focus of this new data collection because many fear that the impact is being felt disproportionately by students who, you know, aren't getting enough to eat, struggling to learn to read, to learn English. And we have to catch them up and federal data will help that.

INSKEEP: Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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