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News Brief: Impeachment Case, AstraZeneca Vaccine, U.S. COVID-19 Cases

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's happening again - another Senate trial to impeach Donald Trump, but this time, he's not president anymore.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Which makes it historic on several counts. It's been nearly a month since the House voted to impeach him. Democratic impeachment managers allege Trump is responsible for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Republicans and Trump's lawyers argue that the impeachment itself is unconstitutional, and we expect to hear more from them today.

MARTIN: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us this morning. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So House impeachment managers - all of them Democrats - filed this 80-page brief last week. What's their case?

MONTANARO: Well, they argue Trump is, quote, "singularly responsible" for a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol. They say not just because of his rhetoric at that rally outside the White House but because of his two months of false claims about the election that embedded this false sense of grievance among people who were there at those riots, that the election was stolen from the former president. The House impeachment managers this week are expected to make an emotional case, going to be driven by video. They want to bring the events of January 6 back to Congress to remind senators of what it was like and, most importantly, why the mob was there. You can expect to see and hear Trump supporters there that day saying they were there for Trump and that their feeling was that they were sent by him. The impeachment managers have also been studying their last impeachment trial of Trump just a year ago. And, remember, this is a different team of prosecutors led by Jamie Raskin, congressman from Maryland. He's said to be focusing on trying to make the case clearly, succinctly and without antagonizing Republicans.

MARTIN: Today, we're expecting a detailed brief from Trump's lawyers, but a filing last week gave us a glimpse into their defense. What did we learn?

MONTANARO: You know, they say that if Democrats want to use video, be careful what you wish for because they might use video of protests over the summer over racial equality and some statements from Democrats. You know, that's something of a false equivalence and some whataboutism but something they're prepared to do.

MARTIN: Right. I don't really get how that plays into this.

MONTANARO: Well, that's - you know, they're going to take some statements from - potentially they're threatening to take some statements that they felt were antagonizing those rallies. But it has nothing to do, obviously, with what happened on January 6. So the senators are going to have to judge that on the merits. But mostly, they're going to be making this constitutional argument that the Senate lacks jurisdiction in trying a former president for impeachment. They're going to focus on the language in the Constitution that spells out the two penalties for an impeachment conviction, that someone convicted through impeachment could be removed from office and potentially disqualified from holding future office. Now, that is not the view held by most constitutional scholars. And even a prominent Republican lawyer this weekend wrote in The Wall Street Journal - Charles J. Cooper - he's got ties to Senate Republicans and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy - that this actually cuts against the Trump lawyer's interpretation, and it only sets a mandatory minimum and urged Republicans to judge Trump on the merits.

MARTIN: A conviction is going to require at least 17 Republican senators to join all the Democrats. That seems unlikely.

MONTANARO: It does because already 45 Republicans have voted to say that they think that this is unconstitutional. So that's what they're going to rest on.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico, appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And we should note, we're going to have live coverage of the Senate trial on NPR once it starts tomorrow.

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MARTIN: All right, to South Africa now, where the government has stopped rolling out the coronavirus vaccine by AstraZeneca. The country's health minister made the announcement Sunday.

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ZWELI MKHIZE: We have to hold onto AstraZeneca. It is temporary until we figure out these issues. What are the next steps supposed to be? When we know those steps, then, of course, we bring it back.

PFEIFFER: The pause comes after a study found the vaccine may not be as effective against a COVID-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa. The country has a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and had planned to deploy them very soon. The setback is a blow to South Africa's pandemic response. So far, the country has recorded more than 1.4 million cases and at least 46,000 deaths.

MARTIN: We've got NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman with us this morning. Good morning, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

AIZENMAN: All right. So ever since these major variants emerged in the U.K., in Brazil and South Africa, there has been this worry that vaccines might not work against them. Is that what we're seeing now in South Africa?

AIZENMAN: We really don't know yet. But here's why officials there are alarmed. Starting late November, early December, South Africa saw this massive second wave of coronavirus infections fuelled by the variant first detected there. It's distinct from the variants first found in U.K. and Brazil. It's now the dominant strain in South Africa, and it's popping up in many other countries as well, including the U.S. This variant appears to be more transmissible, and it's got some mutations that suggest that existing vaccines could be less effective against it. So South African scientists who were doing a long-running trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine there decided to check, how is it performing against the variant? Sunday night, the lead researcher, Shabir Madhi, announced in a televised national briefing that the results of this preliminary analysis were troubling. In the trial they conducted with about 2,000 South Africans, the AstraZeneca vaccine was only about 10% effective at preventing mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 from this new strain.

MARTIN: Wow, 10% is not good. There are, though, I understand, some caveats around the study, right?

AIZENMAN: Yeah, really big caveats. The sample size was tiny, less than 40 COVID cases from the new variant. Also, this finding is just speaking to the vaccine's ability to prevent mild cases. At the briefing, Madhi, the lead scientist, noted that what really matters is whether a vaccine can prevent serious cases, the ones that overwhelm hospitals, cause people to die. And this trial does not shed light on severe cases because only people who were young and quite healthy were studied. Madhi noted that trials of other vaccines indicate that they are often far more effective at preventing severe cases than mild ones. So he's actually optimistic that the AstraZeneca vaccine will prove useful against severe disease. Company officials have also said they think that's the case, and they're also already working to adapt the vaccine against this particular variant. And South Africa's health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said they may still end up deciding to use the AstraZeneca vaccine but, say, for certain lower risk populations, like young people.

MARTIN: So what about some of the other major vaccine strains? Do we know if they will work against this variant?

AIZENMAN: This is a hot question because, of course, this is not an issue just for South Africa. This variant could become common all over the world. Now, it does appear that another vaccine that's key to many countries' strategy, the Johnson & Johnson one, is at least more effective at preventing mild disease and severe disease from the strain prevalent in South Africa. But bottom line, it's going to be a vital area of research moving forward.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you, Nurith.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

MARTIN: So what does the situation in South Africa mean for us here in the U.S.? There is concern here about these more contagious variants of the virus.

PFEIFFER: We know the South Africa strain has already popped up here. And now a new CDC study says a variant first detected in the U.K. could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March. There is good news, though. As the pace of vaccinations accelerates, the number of new infections per day is declining. So far, more than 41 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the U.S.

MARTIN: NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey is here. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So scientists have been concerned about how effective the vaccines are going to be against these variants. What is the response to this South Africa news?

AUBREY: Well, the AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorized in the U.S., you know, so it's not being used here. But if the South African strain were to spread here - and it has been identified in at least two states - this could influence the effectiveness of all of the vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna, the ones being used here now. Now, the vaccine manufacturers are on this. They do have the ability to kind of retool the vaccine. Here's former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He spoke about this on CBS yesterday.

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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I do think that the existing vaccines are going to offer reasonable protection against these new variants, and we also may be able to develop in a timely fashion, maybe in four or six months, a consensus strain that bakes in a lot of the different variation that we're seeing to have boosters available for the fall. So I think that there is a reasonable chance that we're going to be able to stay ahead of this virus as it mutates.

AUBREY: So there's some optimism there.

MARTIN: Yeah, but getting as much vaccine into the population was already urgent. I have to imagine trying to stay ahead of these emerging strains, it obviously adds another layer of urgency to the vaccine rollout.

AUBREY: That's right. And the pace of vaccinations is picking up. I mean, more vaccination sites are up and running. About 32 million people have received at least one dose so far. Now, you know, Rachel, there had been talk of changing the strategy, to give the shot to more people faster by holding off on the second dose. That would stretch out supplies. But over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci really, you know, threw cold water on this idea. He says there is just not enough data to support this strategy.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: From a theoretical standpoint, it would be nice to know if you just give one dose, how long the durability lasts and what is the level of effect. But what we have right now and what we must go with is the scientific data that we've accumulated. And it's really very solid.

AUBREY: Which is for two doses spaced three to four weeks apart.

MARTIN: Two doses - that means we need more supply, right? What do we know about vaccine supply at this point? Is there enough to maintain or even increase the pace of vaccinations?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, so far, 60 million doses have been delivered, and vaccine makers are expected to produce millions more, obviously, and they say they can and will. There are many channels of distribution, everything from mega sites at stadiums, hospitals. This week, about a million doses will go out to more than 6,000 retail pharmacies. I spoke to Allison Hess at Geisinger Health. They're a provider based in Pennsylvania. They're administering more than 2,000 shots a day at their four sites.

ALLISON HESS: We have a lot of people that are vaccine shopping, so they're putting their name on a couple of different lists. And that means that they're no-showing at locations where they had appointments. So it requires a lot of shuffling and kind of an end-of-day scramble to make sure that we're not wasting any doses.

AUBREY: And there are also instances where people make appointments at a site that has temporarily run out of their supply for a week. So there are snags. But overall, Rachel, I'd say the picture is improving.

MARTIN: And we will hold on to that good news wherever we get it. NPR's health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thanks as always, Allison. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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