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News Brief: AstraZeneca Vaccine Is Safe, Atlanta Shooting Update, FBI Director Speaks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After a few days of concern, AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine appears to be back in the game.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. More than a dozen countries paused their use of the shot over worries about a possible link to blood clots. But now the European Medicines Agency has determined the vaccine is still safe and the United States is making use of it. You see, while the vaccine is still not yet approved here in the U.S., the Biden administration is going to send stockpiles to Mexico and Canada, which have approved it. Here's White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

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JEN PSAKI: The pandemic knows no borders. And ensuring our neighbors can contain the virus is a mission critical step to ending the pandemic.

INSKEEP: Which we'll talk about with NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien, whose job title seems perfect for this story. Jason, good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is the administration changing its plans here for AstraZeneca?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, there are a couple of reasons. First, these doses can't be used in the U.S., as we just said, because AstraZeneca hasn't yet won FDA authorization. Also, the U.S. might not need them in the short term, given production that we're getting from other manufacturers. And finally, it looks good. The U.S. is way out ahead of a lot of other countries in terms of how many people it's gotten vaccinated. There's been some criticism that Washington is hoarding doses. So it looks good to be sharing, particularly with your neighbors.

INSKEEP: Good diplomacy and good supply for the United States for the moment. Wow. Now, let's talk about this AstraZeneca vaccine, though, because there was this concern. What did the European Medicines Agency investigation find?

BEAUBIEN: So the head of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, she was very definitive about this investigation into safety concerns and said the review committee came to a clear conclusion.

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EMER COOKE: This vaccine is a safe and effective option to protect citizens against COVID-19.

BEAUBIEN: The EMA is saying that there's no evidence that these blood clots, which have been found in a few cases in Europe, are linked to the vaccine. That link may be proved later, but right now, there isn't the evidence to support that. Sabine Straus, who led that safety committee at the EMA, points out that blood clots are a fairly common condition.

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SABINE STRAUS: Approximately 100,000 people develop blood clots every month in the European Union.

BEAUBIEN: So seeing 25 blood clots, which is what the concern was, among nearly 20 million people in Europe who've been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine is actually less, she says, than what you would have expected to see in the general population. The EMA is adding some additional warnings to these vaccines. They let people and health care workers be on the lookout for severe headaches, unusual bruising, some other symptoms that may indicate that one of these rare blood clots has occurred and are telling them that they should seek help immediately.

INSKEEP: Are the findings from the European regulators going to calm the world about this vaccine?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it may not be enough. This vaccine is expected to be the most used immunization globally this year. Some 2 billion doses of AstraZeneca, more than any other manufacturer, are expected to be administered in 2021. I was talking with Jennifer Nuzzo, who studies vaccines in global health at Johns Hopkins at their Center for Health Security.

JENNIFER NUZZO: These national decisions to stop using the vaccine, even temporarily, casts a shadow over the vaccine itself.

BEAUBIEN: And she says at the moment in this pandemic, when the goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, these sort of questions and concerns about safety, even if they're resolved, they can affect vaccination efforts.

NUZZO: It doesn't have to be that people are just full out opposed to getting vaccinated. It could also be deadly if people just decide to wait too long to get it.

BEAUBIEN: And, you know, just looking at Europe, where 20,000 people are dying on the continent every week from COVID, she's saying the focus needs to be on getting people vaccinated and stopping COVID.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thanks for the update.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK, President Biden and Vice President Harris head to Georgia today after shootings in metro Atlanta that killed eight people.

MARTINEZ: Most of the victims were women of Asian descent. The alleged gunman is white. He's in custody, charged with murder. And in the context of rising attacks on Asian Americans, many are seeking answers and justice under a new state hate crimes law.

INSKEEP: Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler is on the line this morning. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the president and vice president supposed to do today?

FOWLER: So President Biden and Vice President Harris were set to visit the Peach State to talk about the $1.9 trillion stimulus made possible by the election of two Democratic senators in Georgia's January runoff. But now plans have changed. It'll be a much more muted appearance. They're going to be meeting with advocates, organizers and state lawmakers like State Senator Michel Au, who said Thursday that violence against the Asian American community has been going on for a long time.

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MICHELLE AU: Misogyny and violence against women is not new. The epidemic of gun violence and gun injury is not new. What can be new is how we deal with it in this moment. And I want to implore our community and our fellow legislators to not let this moment go by.

FOWLER: Before he meets with the Asian American community, the president and vice president will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well to check in on the coronavirus response.

INSKEEP: Yeah, which was going to be part of their original focus. Would this classify, this mass shooting, classify as a hate crime under Georgia's law?

FOWLER: Well, last year, Steve, Georgia passed a hate crimes law that would add enhanced penalties if someone's found guilty of committing a crime against someone because of things like their race, gender or sexual orientation. As of now, it's early in the investigation and the only charges have been murder and aggravated assault, but it's quite possible. Law enforcement officials have suggested the man confessed to the shootings and said it wasn't racially motivated. But members of the Asian American community, like State Representative Bee Nguyen of Atlanta, say they don't believe it.

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BEE NGUYEN: And so when we think about taking the word of the perpetrator themselves, how many of them are going to admit that it was a racially motivated killing? That is why the hate crimes law did pass last session. It was a top priority because in Georgia, we have seen brutality and violence against Black people, against Asian people, and it's not a new thing.

FOWLER: Nguyen said it's impossible to ignore the facts. Three Asian spas were targeted. Six of the eight victims were of Asian descent. But even if prosecutors don't agree the 21-year-old committed a crime because of their race, other claims he allegedly made could trigger the law under gender-based violence.

INSKEEP: Who are the police officials who have been so criticized for passing on the words of the suspect?

FOWLER: Well, two jurisdictions are involved here, the Atlanta Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office. Many people took offense to the way Cherokee County officials talked about the alleged gunman. Deputies suggested that he lashed out, was fed up, at the end of his rope and blamed sex addiction for his actions. And these organizations and groups believe that plays into negative stereotypes about Asian Americans and victim blaming the women who worked at these spas.

INSKEEP: So much more to learn. Stephen, thanks so much.

FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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INSKEEP: The FBI is facing challenges on many fronts, including the threat from domestic terrorism.

MARTINEZ: Director Chris Wray says the problem of right-wing extremism is, quote, "metastasizing" across the country. He's also coordinating a sprawling investigation in the riot on the Capitol on January 6.

INSKEEP: The FBI director rarely sits down for an interview but met with NPR's Carrie Johnson, who is on the line. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So you were speaking with him in the wake of this attack in Georgia. What did he have to say about it?

JOHNSON: The FBI director said this whole incident was heartbreaking and that it hit close to home since he spent so much of his life in Atlanta. But for now in the investigation, the FBI has a limited role, Chris Wray says.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: So we're actively involved but in a support role. And while the motive remains still under investigation, at the moment it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated. But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.

JOHNSON: And as we heard, Atlanta police say nothing is off the table when it comes to hate crimes charges yet. The director also told me the FBI has been warning about the threat of domestic terrorism for years now. Since he took office, the number of investigations into violent domestic extremists have more than doubled to more than 2,000 right now.

INSKEEP: Which I guess would include this massive investigation into the attack at the Capitol on January 6. Where does the investigation stand there?

JOHNSON: There have been hundreds of arrests so far, and they're on top of the 2,000 investigations the FBI already had. Chris Wray says nearly every one of the bureau's 56 field offices has an open investigation related to January 6 to give you a sense of the national sprawl. Some new people are likely to be charged. And the FBI director says they're working with state and local partners, so people could face new state charges as well. And also the federal government may add more serious charges against some defendants. As for the people who did planning and funding, Chris Wray says this.

WRAY: And in some of those instances, there have already been conspiracy charges, small, I would call them sort of small cells of individuals working together, coordinating their travel, et cetera. I don't think we've seen some national conspiracy, but we're going to keep digging.

INSKEEP: I feel obliged, Carrie Johnson, to just remind people of some of the basics here. A president can fire the FBI director. President Trump famously did fire an FBI director, but normally, the director is there for a decade, goes on through presidents. So this is a guy who was appointed by President Trump, still there under President Biden. What's he saying about his life under the previous president?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, you know, I tried to ask him about that. President Trump announced Chris Wray's nomination via Twitter, which was highly unorthodox. But Trump soured on Wray shortly after he was confirmed. Chris Wray said he didn't really engage with former President Trump's mean tweets. But when I asked him whether he had a resignation letter hidden somewhere during the Trump era, this is what he had to say.

WRAY: I guess all I would say is I'm a low-key guy. But nobody should mistake my demeanor for what my spine is made out of. And I made a commitment when I was nominated that I was going to do this job one way, by the book, and that's the way I've tried to approach it since day one. And that's the way I'm going to continue to approach it.

JOHNSON: And as you point out, Steve, Chris Wray has a new boss now, Attorney General Merrick Garland. They worked together before Oklahoma City bombing-related matters. Wray says he's really looking forward to working closely with Garland moving forward. And he told me so far, things are going, quote, "terrific" in that relationship.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for that interview and for all your coverage, really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

And let's take note of one other story we're watching today. Diplomats from the United States and China are meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. We presume the main business is being done in private, but a brief photo opportunity at the start became a very public debate. In remarks there, Secretary of State Tony Blinken took the opportunity to express U.S. concerns with China's treatment of Uighurs out of Hong Kong, among other things. A leading Chinese diplomat said the U.S. should, quote, "change its image" and stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. We'll have more on this story today on NPR and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.