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News Brief: WHO Report, Chauvin Trial, Amazon Union Vote

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where did COVID-19 come from? That's been the question behind plenty of conspiracy theories and a whole lot of study by scientists trying to figure out the truth.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The World Health Organization has been investigating and will release its findings today. NPR got an early look at their report, and there's a lot we don't know. But it essentially says the coronavirus most likely originated in wildlife farms in southern China. And some of those farms supply vendors at seafood markets in Wuhan.

MARTIN: For more details, we've got NPR science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff with us. Hi, Michaeleen.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So explain where this investigation began.

DOUCLEFF: So for the investigation, scientists traveled from around the world to Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 were detected. And there with Chinese scientists they looked into the early days of the outbreak. They talked to the first-known patients, interviewed scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they study coronaviruses. And they analyzed data acquired by Chinese scientists from the Huanan Seafood Market, where an early outbreak occurred back in December 2019.

MARTIN: And what did they find through that?

DOUCLEFF: Well, according to the reports, the scientists unanimously agree that the virus came from a bat. But before it went into people, the virus most likely jumped into another animal first and then to people. But they don't think that spillover likely happened in Wuhan. I talked to Peter Daszak. He's a disease ecologist with the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance and a member of the investigation team. He said the evidence from the trip points to farms in southern China that breed exotic wildlife as the source of the initial spillover into this intermediate animal.

PETER DASZAK: You know, my gut feeling is this is real. I mean, look, this is not like a farm in rural Ohio or Idaho. This is 14 million people employed farming animals that we know many of which can carry coronaviruses, which are wild animals. People live in those farms. They sleep next to the animals in many places. And I've experienced that firsthand.

DOUCLEFF: So these wildlife farms are part of a project that the Chinese government has promoted as a way to alleviate rural populations out of poverty. They breed civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs and bamboo rats. Daszak says these farms were quickly shut down when the pandemic began last year.

MARTIN: So if the virus jumped from a bat to another animal first, do we know which animal?

DOUCLEFF: Not yet. You know, the report found evidence for a big outbreak at that seafood market, and vendors at that market sold frozen rabbits, ferrets and badgers, which are all candidates. The report also presents some new evidence that the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the outbreak at the Huanan Seafood Market.

MARTIN: So this is different than this other theory that had been out there, that the coronavirus came from a leak from a laboratory. This is something that former CDC director Robert Redfield has actually floated. Was this addressed in that report at all?

DOUCLEFF: Yes, this was one of the major pathways the team investigated. Daszak says the team interviewed the lab director and the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They also analyzed what the lab studied and their safety protocols. And I should note here that Daszak has collaborated with this institute.

DASZAK: There's no evidence that they had SARS-CoV-2 or any lab in the world had it prior to the outbreak. There's no evidence that this lab was an unsafe lab.

DOUCLEFF: He said the staff was tested and the team found no evidence of a safety breach. And so the investigators unanimously concluded that a lab leak is extremely unlikely, not impossible. Now, there has been some criticism of this investigation. In particular, the Chinese government had a heavy hand in choosing what the team has been allowed to see. Most of the research has been done by Chinese scientists and some members of the investigation team say the government has withheld important data about early days of the outbreak.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff giving us a preview of this WHO report on the origins of the novel coronavirus. Thank you so much.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Today, prosecutors continue to build their case against Derek Chauvin. He's the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.

KING: On the first day of the trial yesterday, lawyers for each side delivered their opening statements, and the prosecution called its first witnesses to the stand.

MARTIN: NPR's Adrian Florido is covering the trial in Minneapolis and joins us now. Adrian, thanks for being here.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Sure, Rachel. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. Let's start with the opening statements. What did they tell us about what the prosecution and the defense hope to prove in this trial?

FLORIDO: Well, they made very clear that both sides agree there are going to be two central questions in this case, one being what killed George Floyd and another being did Officer Chauvin use excessive force during Floyd's arrest? Jerry Blackwell, an attorney for the prosecution, said prosecutors are going to present evidence to prove that Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by Chauvin kneeling into his neck. And he said they'll also bring in experts to testify that Chauvin violated department use of force protocol, including the Minneapolis police chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BLACKWELL: He will not mince any words. He's very clear. He'll be very decisive that this was excessive force.

FLORIDO: The defense attorney, Eric Nelson, told the jury that he is going to prove that what killed Floyd were a heart condition and a drug overdose, essentially, and that Chauvin handled the arrest just as he'd been trained to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: The use of force is not attractive, but it is a necessary component of policing.

FLORIDO: Both sides are going to be calling in a long list of witnesses over the next month to prove their cases.

MARTIN: The jury heard from three witnesses for the prosecution yesterday. Who were they?

FLORIDO: They were the 911 dispatcher who sent officers to the scene, a clerk at the gas station across from where Floyd was arrested and a bystander to the arrest. The testimony of this 911 dispatcher, Jena Scurry, was interesting because she described watching George Floyd's arrest live from a police surveillance camera that was installed at the intersection. And she said she was concerned enough about what she saw that she called Chauvin's boss, a sergeant, something she'd never done before. Listen to part of that call that was played in court yesterday

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENA SCURRY: You can call me a snitch if you want to, but we have the cameras up for 320's call - oh, did they already put him in the - they must have already started moving him...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

SCURRY: Three hundred twenty over at Cup Foods.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

SCURRY: I don't know if they have use force or not. They got something out of the back of the squad and all of them sat on this man.

FLORIDO: You can hear her acknowledge in the call that the sergeant might think she's a snitch, but she said in court that her gut had just told her something was wrong, that she had to call him.

MARTIN: And, Adrian, what do prosecutors seem to be trying to get out with this kind of testimony?

FLORIDO: Well, they seem to be trying to establish that there were a range of people who were concerned enough about what they saw during Floyd's arrest so as to cast doubt on this idea that Chauvin just handled everything right. And these are witnesses who had some level of expertise. Another witness yesterday was a bystander who in the viral video of Floyd's arrest can be heard pleading with Chauvin to get off of Floyd's neck. This witness, Donald Williams, was a trained martial artist familiar with chokeholds. And he said he could tell that Chauvin was trying to tighten the pressure on Floyd's neck by doing what's called a shimmy, a blood choke. He testified that the only time Chauvin looked over at him as he was pleading with the officer to get off of Floyd was when he shouted at Chauvin about his knowledge of these chokeholds. He said, Chauvin looked me straight in the eyes. His testimony is going to continue today.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Adrian Florido reporting on the trial from Minneapolis. Thank you so much.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. The move to form an Amazon union has been labeled by supporters as the most important labor struggle in more than half a century.

KING: Right. So here's where things stand. In Bessemer, Ala., around 5,800 employees at a warehouse voted. If they voted yes, that would mean Amazon's first unionized warehouse in this country. Amazon fought this effort. The company said it created thousands of jobs in Bessemer and the average pay of those jobs is more than $15 an hour. Some employees, though, say they work in harsh conditions. Amazon, I should note, is a financial supporter of NPR, but we cover them like we cover any other company.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's business correspondent Alina Selyukh with us. Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: When are we going to know the outcome of this vote?

SELYUKH: Well, what's happening today is the tally begins. It's honestly given me a little bit of a throwback to the time a few months ago when the whole country watched a live feed of the Pennsylvania vote count on the presidential election. Well, now we're expecting to have this Web stream where federal Labor officials will be counting by hand the ballots that Bessemer workers have been mailing in. First, they'll have to sort out whether the union or the company want to challenge each voter's eligibility. So the count could take a few days.

MARTIN: I mean, there's a Web stream. There's all this media attention because the stakes are so high, right?

SELYUKH: It's a really big moment both for Amazon and for the American labor movement. Union membership has been declining for a while now. And this is Amazon. It's the big one, you know, the second-largest private employer in the U.S. with a ballooning warehouse workforce. For years, Amazon has fought off labor organizing in the U.S. Unionizing nearly 6,000 employees in this warehouse could be a catalyst. This has pro union workers at Bessemer really feeling the pressure. Here's Darryl Richardson, who helped organize the vote.

DARRYL RICHARDSON: Very, very nervous and I think if - I ain't going to say if. When we win, I believe I'll just drop down to my knees and cry.

SELYUKH: Some experts think that even if the union loses by a small margin, it would send a similar message. Union leaders say already the vote by itself has prompted hundreds of new inquiries from elsewhere. Of course, the sweeping loss would only solidify Amazon's success in evading union efforts.

MARTIN: Any idea what the outcome is going to be?

SELYUKH: Not really. The union, of course, points out that more than half of the warehouse workers in Bessemer had signed cards saying they wanted a union shop, you know, petitioning for this union election in the first place. But historically, unions have been a tough sell in the southern states. And Amazon staged a big campaign touting the pay and benefits that it offers, arguing that the union just wanted workers' dues money. I talked to Bessemer worker LaVonette Stokes, who voted against unionizing.

LAVONETTE STOKES: Most of the people who are complaining about it are people who are not compliant. It's an unskilled job, easy to attain. There are a gallimaufry of people who never have issues.

SELYUKH: She says she just doesn't think the union would give workers anything Amazon doesn't already offer.

MARTIN: And quick, what happens once the vote's announced?

SELYUKH: Not the end of the story in Bessemer. Whatever the outcome, either Amazon or the union would probably pursue a legal challenge to the vote. And if the vote succeeds, workers likely face a difficult negotiation over their first collective bargaining contract with Amazon.

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you for that.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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