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News Brief: Kids' Pfizer Shots, Gaza Tensions, Hacked Pipeline Status

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've got good news for anyone between 12 and 15 years old. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids in that age range.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maybe somebody in your household is affected. This matters to kids who've missed birthday parties and school events and spent much of the past year distance learning. There are a couple more steps before they can get their shots, but many do have a chance to be vaccinated in time to bring this summer and the next school year nearer normal.

MARTIN: NPR health reporter Pien Huang is with us this morning. Hi, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Is this the same shot that adults have been getting?

HUANG: Yes, it's the same exact Pfizer vaccine adults have been getting. It's the same two doses given three weeks apart. And to give you background on how this happened, the FDA has spent the past month reviewing data that Pfizer submitted about the effects of their vaccine on 12 to 15-year-olds. Here's Dr. Peter Marks, a top FDA official.

PETER MARKS: No cases of COVID-19 occurred among the 1,005 adolescents who received the vaccine, compared to 16 cases in 978 placebo recipients, thus indicating the vaccine was 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 in this trial.

HUANG: And the side effects were very similar to what other young adults have had - painful arms, fevers, muscle aches. So the FDA determined that the benefits of getting the shot for kids definitely outweighs the risks. And tomorrow, the CDC's Vaccine Advisory Committee meets to review the data also and to make recommendations for use. They're expected to agree with the FDA. So it's likely that many kids in this age group could start getting vaccinated later this week. And the Biden administration is also making a big push to get the vaccine out to kids in retail pharmacies and pediatricians offices.

MARTIN: That's great. So, Pien, we know that even when kids in this age range have contracted COVID-19, in most cases, they haven't gotten terribly ill. So explain why they should still get vaccinated.

HUANG: Most kids who catch the coronavirus get a very mild case of it. But Dr. Megan Freeman, a researcher at University of Pittsburgh, says that's not always true.

MEGAN FREEMAN: In general, we know that kids are less likely to die from COVID than, say, their 80-year-old grandparents. But that doesn't mean that there's zero risk. So we know that teenagers can get things like long COVID. Student athletes can have long-lasting effects on their heart and have to have monitoring by a cardiologist. So that would be something that we would want to avoid.

HUANG: And those are some of the things that getting vaccinated can help prevent. And it can also help reduce the chances of adolescents passing the virus on to others. And by opening it up to this age group, the U.S. is making the vaccine available to 17 million more people. And that means a total of 87% of the total U.S. population is now eligible to get a vaccine. And the more people who get vaccinated, the more routes of transmission get cut off for the virus.

MARTIN: Right. Do we know how big the demand is right now? Are parents are going to encourage their kids to get it?

HUANG: Well, some surely will. Patricia Stinchfield, a nurse practitioner at Children's Minnesota, says one of the big appeals for this age group is liberation.

PATRICIA STINCHFIELD: What this vaccine is going to do is allow them to get freedom to go back and sing in that choir without a mask on, and they can go to their sleepover camp with all their other vaccinated friends and not worry about getting sick or play in their sports team.

HUANG: But there is some hesitation among parents. A Survey Monkey poll found that just 43% of parents are ready to get their kids in this age group vaccinated. So the hope is that as teens and preteens start getting vaccinated, more parents will come around to it.

MARTIN: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you so much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is intensifying.

INSKEEP: There's a lot going on all at once. Among other things, Israeli airstrikes targeted Gaza on Monday. Palestinian officials say those strikes killed at least 24 people, including nine children. Israel says it conducted the strikes because militant groups in the Gaza Strip fired more than 200 rockets at Israel with slight injuries reported. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, asked for calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: All sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down.

INSKEEP: Now, this fighting in the air comes amid ongoing unrest on the ground in Jerusalem, where Israeli police have forcefully confronted crowds of Palestinians with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. And some Palestinians are gathering for the last days of Ramadan, while others throw rocks at police.

MARTIN: Yeah, NPR's Daniel Estrin was bringing us that reporting about those clashes yesterday. And today he is outside of a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem. Daniel, what's the situation there?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, I'm at a hospital that has been handling the majority of serious Palestinian injuries over the last few days in the city. They've handled about 350 cases. And I came here because I wanted to meet those who were wounded because what has been happening in Jerusalem is what sparked this latest serious round of fighting between Gaza and Israel. The hospital director here says he does not remember seeing this many serious injuries in such a short span of time. I spoke to a surgeon, Firas Abu Akar (ph), who says the injuries he saw indicate that police fired at close range. Let's have a listen.

FIRAS ABU AKAR: More than 90% of the injuries are focused on the chest and face, which is strange. I can't (ph) show you my patients. All of them have the bullet at the same place - left chest in the same exact same place. I don't know why.

ESTRIN: There have been some Israeli civilians and police also injured, too, around the city. But the big confrontations were around the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. It's sacred to Islam, also to Judaism. And yesterday, Jewish religious nationalists were planning a big march in the city. So Palestinians went to the mosque to defend it. That's what they told me at the hospital. One man I met who was wounded said he was throwing rocks, chairs, objects at police. He was hit in the face with a rubber-coated bullet. His jaw was shattered. We've seen videos of police entering a carpeted mosque building, throwing stun grenades into the crowd, ordering people out. The hospital says eight young men have lost eyes. I met one of them. It's just - it's an incredible scene to see so many people wounded.

MARTIN: What is happening right now? I mean, is the fighting ongoing right now?

ESTRIN: Cross-border fighting is ongoing. Israel is attacking in Gaza, striking more than 100 militant sites, targeting about 15 operatives with the Islamist group Hamas; Gaza militants continuing to fire rockets. Hamas said it was defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. And Israeli military spokesman says Hamas rocket fire is a grave escalation.

MARTIN: This also had something to do with evictions that Israel was doing to make room for settlers, right?

ESTRIN: That's right. That's one of the several events have been going on in Jerusalem that has been inflaming tensions, possible evictions of Palestinians in a neighborhood to make way for Jewish settlers. That case has been delayed now, but violence continues.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from just outside a hospital in East Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you for your reporting.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK, a small part of a major U.S. fuel pipeline is back online. It's running under manual control after this major cyberattack exposed weaknesses in American infrastructure.

INSKEEP: The hack of the Colonial Pipeline late last week forced the shutdown of almost half this country's East Coast fuel supply. President Biden says Russian cybercriminals are likely to blame.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So far, there is no evidence based on from our intelligence people that Russia is involved, although there is evidence that the actor's ransomware is in Russia. They have some responsibility to deal with this.

INSKEEP: Remember, the U.S. blamed Russian government hackers for targeting U.S. government computers last year.

MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to explain. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So President Biden kind of threading this delicately. What do we know? What do you know about who's behind this attack?

MYRE: Well, the FBI says this ransomware attack was carried out by a criminal group known as DarkSide. And Biden says it looks like they do operate from Russia, though he's not linking the group to the government. Now, DarkSide has been very active in recent months, and they tend to target big U.S. companies that can pay big ransoms. I spoke about them with Wendi Whitmore at Palo Alto Networks. She says her cybersecurity firm is currently dealing with more than 10 separate attacks attributed to DarkSide. And she says they have a very distinct style in their attacks.

WENDI WHITMORE: Once the malware is deployed and systems begin shutting down and the screen comes up that, you know, demonstrates who you're working with, they give you a very nice, clear instructions on where you can go find information to communicate with them.

MYRE: And so many companies at this point will pay the ransom to get their frozen data back. But some others refuse because they've backed up their data. However, in that case, DarkSide will then make a second threat. They'll threaten to release the information publicly to embarrass a company or harm its reputation or perhaps even tank its stock price.

MARTIN: OK, so how do these criminal attacks differ from the one that the U.S. did blame explicitly on the Russian government, the SolarWinds attack, as it's known?

MYRE: Right. That was another major breach but with a very different goal. The U.S. intelligence community says that the Russian intelligence community broke into U.S. government computer networks in March of last year, and then they operated stealthily for months and months before they were finally discovered in December. The prevailing view is that this was a Russian intelligence operation to vacuum up U.S. government secrets and remain undetected for as long as possible. And we should certainly remember our Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is a former spy. He appreciates all kind of cyber mischief directed at the U.S. He's invested heavily in the Russian intelligence service to mess with U.S. elections. And he's certainly tolerant, if not actually supportive, of Russian cybercriminals who inflict pain on the U.S.

MARTIN: What does a federal government do about this? I mean, we're talking about U.S. companies, private companies. How do they get help from the Biden administration right now?

MYRE: Right. So Biden has been teasing his new cybersecurity plans for some time now. We're expecting them at any time they could come out. And analysts say he'll need a really robust response on both fronts. The government, for example, doesn't tell private companies whether they should pay this ransomware, but the government is now working on a set of guidelines for companies. So these are the kinds of things we should look for when President Biden releases his cybersecurity plan.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you for this, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.