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News Brief: Coronavirus Roundup, Iran Election, NYC's Mayoral Race

NOEL KING, HOST:

The CDC says about 65% of American adults have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is actually not far off President Biden's goal. He says he wants 70% of American adults to have at least one shot by the Fourth of July. But the U.S. started administering shots back in December. And we have now less than two weeks to hit that benchmark.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us, as she often is on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So you've been looking at the numbers. How likely is it that 70% of American adults will have gotten at least one shot in the next two weeks, by the Fourth of July?

AUBREY: At this point, I'd say not quite likely, at least not nationwide. About 16 states, including all of the New England states, have surpassed the goal nationwide. As you say, we're at about 65% who've received at least one dose. But there are spots around the country, such as Branson, Mo., that area, where cases and hospitalizations have actually been on the rise and vaccination rates remain much lower in that county in Missouri, under 30%. I spoke to the director of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, about these areas where vaccinations lag behind.

FRANCIS COLLINS: I'm intensely concerned that here we are at a point where we have new variants arriving like this Delta variant, which is much more contagious and probably also more dangerous. Some of those communities are really at risk.

AUBREY: At risk of future outbreaks, he says. But this is entirely preventable, given just how safe and effective the vaccines are. So there are ongoing efforts to reach people who have been holding out or haven't had easy access to a vaccine.

KING: And for people who have been vaccinated, I know that millions of us have been wondering if we're going to need to get booster shots in the fall the way we do with the flu. Who will end up deciding that?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, what's happening right now is that public health officials and vaccine makers are all tracking how well immunity holds up, including in the people in the clinical trials who were among the first to receive the vaccines. Here's Dr. Collins again.

COLLINS: We are following those people, and we can start to see if somebody has a breakthrough infection, well, what was their antibody level? And that's probably something you want to try to avoid dropping down to. Pretty soon, I think we'll have a better handle on that because that data is being collected right now.

AUBREY: Now, so far, Dr. Collins says it looks pretty good. Immunity seems to be holding up, but both policymakers and the vaccine companies are preparing for the possibility that boosters may be needed.

KING: Have the big companies like Pfizer and Moderna started making boosters that target the variants that we're all worried about?

AUBREY: Yes. Moderna has produced a vaccine specific to the Beta variant, and they were able to do this fairly quickly, really design and get the vaccine into a clinical trial within one month. And that's thanks to the mRNA or the messenger RNA technology they're using, which makes it much easier to retool the vaccine. Here's Dr. Collins again.

COLLINS: And this is one of the amazing things about the messenger RNA strategy is it's very readily adaptable to putting together a booster that goes after a different virus variant because basically you just change the code to match the new threatening virus. You're just tweaking this. And otherwise, it's all the same process that's been intensely studied and seems to have worked really well.

AUBREY: Now, in the future, the companies behind this technology, including Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, aim to use this same mRNA technology to create new vaccines for everything from flu to HIV to cancer vaccines. And some clinical trials are actually already underway. So as we come out of this pandemic, there's a real renaissance in vaccine research.

KING: Wave of the future. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Iranians have chosen a judge as their next president.

MARTIN: Ebrahim Raisi won in a landslide with more than 60% of the vote, but millions of voters stayed home. When he takes office in August, he'll be under pressure to fix an economy that's been heavily damaged by sanctions while at the same time renegotiating a nuclear deal with the West.

KING: With us now, Sune Rasmussen, who covers Iran for The Wall Street Journal and is in London this morning. Hi, Sune.

SUNE RASMUSSEN: Yeah, good morning.

KING: Tell me about Raisi. He was a judge in his past life or in his past career. What's his political experience, though?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Raisi is actually still a judge. He's the highest ranking judge in the country. He's the head of Iran's judiciary. And he's been part of the judiciary and the legal system since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, so since the early '80s when he was only 20 years old. That means he doesn't have any political experience, actually, but he does have very close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state, national security, things like that. And Khamenei has sort of handpicked Raisi for a lot of high-ranking positions, including his role now as judiciary chief. And I think from that, we can sort of - even though he doesn't have foreign policy experience, I think it's fair to assume that he'll be rather hardline and rather confrontational against the West.

KING: Yeah, let's talk about what this means because the Western media have repeatedly described him as hard line. We've done that on NPR. What does that mean specifically? What are you expecting?

RASMUSSEN: So hard line in an Iranian context means, domestically, you are a supporter of the original ideological principles behind the Islamic Revolution. So you're against reform and you're rather, you almost say, a fundamentalist believer in the revolution. Internationally, that will often mean that you believe Iran has a right to have a certain amount of influence and power in the Middle East and you're rather confrontational, more skeptical of diplomacy with the West than, say, the outgoing President Rouhani is - he's often described as a moderate - and also more skeptical of diplomacy than like a reformist president would be.

KING: OK, so then what does that mean for any potential U.S., Iran, Europe nuclear agreement? Is it not going to happen?

RASMUSSEN: We know that Raisi supports the nuclear agreement because the supreme leader supports it. So the ongoing negotiations now to get the U.S. back into the agreement that President Trump left in 2018 and to get Iran to comply again with the agreement, I think he will commit to that. What comes after is more uncertain. And the Biden administration wants to use the nuclear agreement as a sort of platform for follow on discussions that will commit Iran to roll back some of its military activities in the Middle East. In that regard, I think he'll be harder to work with than the current president.

KING: And Rachel pointed out that millions of people stayed home. In fact, the turnout was less than 50% percent, which is historically low. Why did people not vote? Why did people not care?

RASMUSSEN: The Iranian Guardian Council, that's the watchdog in Iran, they disqualified nearly all moderates and reformists before the election. And that kind of paved the way for Raisi's win simply because people were disillusioned with the political system. I think that's the shortest way of explaining that.

KING: Yeah, that makes sense. Sune Rasmussen of The Wall Street Journal, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

RASMUSSEN: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The mayor's race in New York City is unusually crowded this time around.

MARTIN: Indeed, it is. Thirteen Democrats are looking to replace Bill de Blasio. The primary is tomorrow, and it will be a major test for so-called ranked choice voting. Basically, voters pick their top five candidates in order of preference. This is the first citywide election using this method. Whoever wins will have a long to-do list in New York as they lead 8 million New Yorkers through the post-pandemic reality.

KING: Politics reporter Brigid Bergin from member station WNYC is on the line. Good morning, Brigid.

BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So there have already been nine days of early voting. Are there any clear front-runners in this huge pack?

BERGIN: Yeah, but it's complicated. First, as you mentioned, I should note, since registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly 7 to 1, the main focus and most crowded race has really been the Democratic primary. As you said, there are 13 candidates on the ballot, but it does really seem to be boiling down to a race among the top four. And that's former New York City police captain Eric Adams, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a long-serving city bureaucrat who most recently served as the city's sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, and Maya Wiley. She's a civil rights attorney and former lawyer to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

KING: And this race has gotten a lot of attention because of some of the personalities. But I do want to ask you about the issues. More than 30,000 New Yorkers died during the COVID-19 pandemic, but, like a lot of other cities, people will also, I'm sure, be voting on the economy and on rising crime. Is there a defining issue in this race?

BERGIN: Well, certainly COVID was the defining issue at the start of the race. You know, candidates met for hours at a time in these community forums via Zoom. But as the city begins to reopen, there is a growing concern about public safety and particularly an increase in shootings. There was an incident Thursday in the Bronx where a surveillance camera caught two children who just happened to come between a shooter and his target. Fortunately, neither of the children were injured physically, but Adams has been the one outspoken about cracking down on guns.

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ERIC ADAMS: We can't just discount what happened that day. If that didn't horrify all of us, then we have become callous to the violence in this city.

BERGIN: Now, three of the leading candidates are really considered more moderate. Maya Wiley has support from the progressive left. She wants to take a different approach to combating crime and would actually move about a billion dollars from the police department's $6 billion budget to do that. And really, there are national implications here, Noel. Many experts see the New York City mayoral primary as a litmus test for really Democratic Party views nationally about policing and how voters will react to rising crime rates.

KING: Sure. And the big change this year is ranked choice voting where people pick their top five, which sounds confusing, but it's going to get done. How is that changing things?

BERGIN: So voters can pick their top five candidates. When they tally those votes under the system, the person who finishes last is eliminated and voters who chose that person will have their second choice counted. That process repeats. Really, what it means is those second-choice votes are really important.

KING: And when will we know who won the primary?

BERGIN: Unofficially, we'll know first-place results Tuesday. But because of all of the changes to our election laws, it could take until mid-July to know who won this race.

KING: Wow. WNYC's Brigid Bergin. Thanks, Brigid.

BERGIN: Thank you.

KING: Also this morning, we have some news out of Tokyo. Olympic organizers have changed their minds about spectators at the Tokyo Games. They will permit some Japanese spectators as long as no state of emergency is in effect. They're going to cap each event at 10,000 fans or 50% of any given venue's capacity, whichever is less. The Olympics start on July 23. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.