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News Brief: COVID-19 Variant, Abortion Vote, Pandemic Relief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new, highly contagious coronavirus strain has made its way to the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Health officials say they isolated one case in Colorado. The person has the variant that was first identified in the U.K., which has now turned up in numerous countries, including Canada.

FADEL: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us.

Good morning, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So this highly contagious COVID-19 variant is in the U.S. What do we know about the Colorado case?

HARRIS: Well, the Colorado governor's office identifies the person as a man in his 20s. He's currently in isolation in a largely rural county near Denver. Health authorities say they're working quickly to identify his contacts. But here's the thing. State officials say the man had no history of travel. That means he certainly isn't the first person in the U.S. to have this new variant, just the first one we know about. Federal officials had hoped that they could keep this variant out of the U.S. by cracking down on travel from the United Kingdom, but that clearly didn't work.

FADEL: OK. So there may be other cases out there. How dangerous is this new strain?

HARRIS: British officials have studied more than 2,000 cases and found that the virus spreads even more easily than the one that has been sweeping the globe. But the good news is it's no more likely to cause serious disease. Of course, it's a good news/bad news story because the bad news is that if you have a virus that's spreading far faster, that means more people will get sick. And when more people get sick, more people will get serious cases, and more people will die.

FADEL: So how quickly could this variant of the virus spread throughout the United States?

HARRIS: This virus can move really fast. It started out fairly localized in Britain. But over just a matter of weeks, it spread quite extensively and is now responsible for most of the new cases there. And that speedy transmission is bad news in the U.S. because, as you know, many hospitals are near the breaking point, and...

FADEL: Right.

HARRIS: ...Public health officials were already bracing for more extensive spread of the virus as a result of all of this holiday travel we've been hearing about. So a bad situation here looks like it will be even worse. And vaccines won't be widespread here soon enough to help.

FADEL: But will the vaccines being administered in the U.S. work against this variant?

HARRIS: Health officials don't have a definitive answer. But at this point, they aren't too concerned. Our colleague Joe Palca spoke yesterday with Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health, and he said it would be quite unusual for a small change in a virus to render a vaccine useless.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, you want to keep an eye on it. You can't be too confident. But I would be surprised if it really obviated the effect of a vaccine.

HARRIS: If need be, the vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech can quickly be tweaked in response to a new virus. But, you know, if it comes to that, it would really set back vaccination by quite a bit.

FADEL: So tell us about the new vaccine the U.K. has just authorized.

HARRIS: Right. That one got the nod overnight. It was developed by Oxford University in cooperation with the drug company AstraZeneca. It's inexpensive to produce, and it's easy to handle. You don't need all those expensive and difficult refrigeration and freezing and so on. And that makes it really useful for use all around the world, where vaccines are desperately needed.

But U.S. regulators are unlikely to accept this one quickly for use here. You know, the initial study on that vaccine had some really significant quirks, and that raised some concerns about really how effective it was, at least in the eyes of the U.S. regulators. So the vaccine is being tested here in the U.S. right now. And the FDA has signaled that it better wait for the results of that study before deciding whether to authorize it for use here in the United States.

FADEL: OK. NPR's Richard Harris.

Thank you.

HARRIS: Pleased to be with you.

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FADEL: This just happened in Argentina.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

INSKEEP: People celebrated outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires. Lawmakers there voted early this morning to legalize abortion. Argentina becomes the first big nation in Latin America to do this. Some Latin American countries ban abortion entirely, while others only allow it in a few specific cases.

FADEL: NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves has been following the events. He joins us now.

Good morning.

PHIL REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So take us through what this means for Argentina.

REEVES: Well, it legalizes abortions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Supporters of the bill say tens of thousands of Argentine women and girls are hospitalized each year because of unsafe underground abortions and that more than 3,000 women have died over the last few decades because of this. So they hope this law means that's now over. Argentina's president, Alberto Fernandez, who's a key supporter of this law, says abortions will now be safe, legal and free.

But this obviously means much more than that. I mean, the Catholic Church still wields huge influence in Latin America. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis. The church fought hard against this right up to the vote. And the pope made his opposition clear, emphasizing this with a last-minute tweet. The church has lost this fight, and women's groups who've spent decades campaigning for this change in Argentina are now celebrating a huge victory.

FADEL: So the vote was expected to be very close. Was it?

REEVES: Well, that's right. No one wanted to call this. It looked just too close. There were a couple of wavering senators. Even after the debate began, no one really knew which way it would go. In the event, though, the vote was 38-29 with one abstention - so a wider margin than many expected. I think one reason people were reluctant to call this is because we've been around this block before. In 2018, pro-abortion campaigners were really hopeful a similar bill would be approved by Congress only to see it fail in the Senate by a small margin. The difference now is that there's a new government and this legislation was one of President Fernandez's campaign promises.

FADEL: Now, you spoke about the reaction a little bit. But what else can you tell us about reaction to this decision?

REEVES: Well, you heard the shrieks of joy on the streets from that big crowd...

FADEL: Yeah.

REEVES: ...Of supporters outside Congress. I mean, they were there all night, many of them young women. The scenes were very emotional - tears of joy, songs, celebration, people letting off firecrackers. And from the footage that I've seen, there was often not a lot of social distancing. But this was a hard-fought issue that divided Argentine society. And there was another crowd, too, against this legislation. They also gathered outside Congress for this marathon debate. Some prayed at an altar that had been set up outside. They sang. And they were - obviously now they're very sad and in some cases angry, seeing this law legalizing abortion as a violation of a child's right to life.

FADEL: Like we mentioned earlier, Argentina becomes the first Latin American country to legalize abortion beyond very specific circumstances. Do you see this impacting what happens in other Latin American countries?

REEVES: Well, that's certainly what supporters of this new law hope. They hope it'll inspire other countries - Chile perhaps, Colombia perhaps. But in the region's largest nation, Brazil, the odds that this will make much difference aren't great. Abortion's banned in most circumstances. Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has said that while he's in power, it'll stay that way.

FADEL: NPR's Phil Reeves.

Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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FADEL: With two days left in 2020, the Senate is rushing to finish their year-end to-do list.

INSKEEP: One item on that list is bigger COVID relief checks for millions of Americans. This is a little confusing. But to review, Congress already passed a relief bill with smaller checks. President Trump, at the last minute, demanded $2,000 checks that his party previously resisted. Democrats said fine and voted yes in the House. Now Republicans who control the Senate may vote, but they will tie the money to an unrelated bill the president also demanded. The president wants to strip social media companies of their protections from being sued for what people post online.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is here to explain.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set the wheels in motion for a vote on the stimulus check and this liability shield for tech companies that Democrats call a poison pill. How do you expect it to play out today?

SNELL: All right. So Steve said it was complicated, so bear with me.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: McConnell set up the process for a vote to combine the two issues. Basically, he said the president wants both of these things done, so we'll just combine them and do them together. The plan is to call every senator to the floor tonight for what's called a live quorum call. It's not something they normally do. But everyone will be called to the chamber to vote, and McConnell will try to skip ahead to a final vote on the veto override and then move on to the stimulus payments and the social media liability issue.

FADEL: Now, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says he'll filibuster a separate vote to override a veto of the annual defense bill until there's a vote on the checks. Will McConnell's plan resolve his concerns?

SNELL: No, it doesn't really sound like it. Democrats say McConnell is setting up both the checks and the liability changes to fail. Basically, they think there are probably enough votes to pass the stimulus checks alone. There aren't enough votes to pass the liability changes, and combining the two is toxic. Democrats would provide the vast majority of the votes for the checks. And they don't support Trump's fixation on the - Section 230, which is those liability protections. Schumer accused McConnell of deliberately setting this up for failure.

FADEL: Is that what McConnell's doing? I mean, why is he setting things up this way?

SNELL: Well, you know, President Trump put his Republican allies in a really terrible bind over these checks. You know, most importantly, the two Republican senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, say that, you know, they want to vote for it. And their races, which are happening in Georgia - the runoff race is next week - would determine the balance of power in the Senate. And they've been contorting their message around these checks to try to, you know, meet the president's demands.

McConnell and a lot of other Republicans oppose the higher direct payments in part because they could cost over $460 billion on top of the 900 billion Congress already approved in this last package. In some ways, McConnell could be giving himself an out. Loeffler and Perdue get to say they supported the checks, and McConnell gets to say he tried and blame Democrats if it fails.

FADEL: Now, before I let you go, we've learned that a Louisiana congressman-elect has died of COVID-19. What can you tell us about that?

SNELL: Yeah, Luke Letlow was 41 years old and set to be sworn into Congress on Sunday. His spokesman confirmed his death in a statement, saying Letlow died of complications from COVID-19 after being admitted to an ICU on December 22. He was a father of two young children, and he had just won a runoff election for the seat earlier this month. He is the first elected member to die from the disease caused by the coronavirus, though nearly 50 sitting members have reported testing positive.

FADEL: NPR's Kelsey Snell, thanks.

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