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News Brief: Vaccine Boosters, Emissions Standards, Iran's Ebrahim Raisi

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The drive to vaccinate the world against coronavirus looks very different depending on which country you're in.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States has now given at least one shot to most of the adult population. Some rich countries are beginning booster shots. That would be a third shot for some people. Many poorer countries have barely started vaccinations at all. And the discrepancy explains why the World Health Organization opposes booster shots for now.

MARTINEZ: NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us now. Jason, why is the WHO saying this now?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: You know, I think the WHO is actually getting quite frustrated with the global inequity in access to vaccines. You got more than 80% of the doses that have been administered so far in this pandemic have been in high-income and upper middle-income countries, while poor countries continue to struggle just to get their hands on access to vaccines. You know, and this is despite the WHO highlighting this problem for months now. If you look at it, you've now got roughly half the entire U.S. population fully vaccinated. Yet if you look in the Philippines, it's less than 7%. In Guatemala, it's 2%. In Nigeria, it's just 1%. The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, basically says wealthy nations have been hogging most of the available vaccines. And he says they shouldn't now start handing out booster shots while these low-income countries can't even get their most vulnerable people vaccinated.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We need an urgent reversal from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries to the majority going to low-income countries.

BEAUBIEN: You know, and this isn't just a global solidarity argument. It's also that from a public health perspective, you have to drive down the levels of virus everywhere if the world is ever finally going to get this pandemic under control.

MARTINEZ: What you just said there, getting the pandemic under control - how's that going?

BEAUBIEN: You know, unfortunately, the global trends are not good. Worldwide, the number of reported cases just passed 200 million. Everyone agrees that that's an undercount of the true number. But even more significantly, the number of cases continue to go up. For the last six weeks, numbers globally have been steadily climbing. Some places around the world are worse than others. Cuba, for instance, is seeing a big spike right now from having almost no cases at the beginning of the year. They're now reporting eight, sometimes 9,000 new cases per day. They've even turned some hotels out in the middle of the country into COVID treatment wards. And then, you know, elsewhere - you look at Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand - they're all dealing with significant surges. Iran, Turkey, Iraq - in that area, you're also seeing some sharp upticks. So this pandemic continues to ebb and flow. But countries that have - a few months ago looked like they had this licked, you know, now they're really getting slammed.

MARTINEZ: So, Jason - OK, what does this mean, then, for the big question that I'm sure everyone has, which is when is this pandemic finally going to be over?

BEAUBIEN: Right. I mean, from a global perspective, that's what we all want to know. But unfortunately, it's nowhere in sight. You know, we've got about 15% of the world fully vaccinated right now. But most of those fully vaccinated people, they're clustered in North America and Europe. And the WHO has this goal of getting 10% of the population in every country immunized by the end of September. But they're not really on target even for that relatively modest goal, which means that you've got large parts of the world where the virus can continue to spread and where new variants can emerge. And I was talking with Ruth Karron. She's a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins about this.

RUTH KARRON: We know that the delta variant will spread most quickly and new variants are most likely to arise in unvaccinated populations. So the more of the world that's unvaccinated, the more we are all at risk.

BEAUBIEN: You know - and of course, that's true in the U.S., too. In parts of the country here, we also have very low vaccination rates, and that's also a problem.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: President Biden wants a lot more Americans behind the wheel of an electric car.

INSKEEP: Today the president proposes rules intended to nudge the auto industry to accelerate its transition to electric vehicles. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions here in the United States. Back in May, the president also said he wanted U.S. electric car production to compete against similar manufacturing in China.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The American auto industry is at a crossroads. The real question is whether we'll lead or we'll fall behind in the race to the future - or whether we'll build these vehicles and the batteries that go in them here in the United States or rely on other countries.

INSKEEP: The transition worldwide is underway. Europe is working on its own plan to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is here to tell us what's on the agenda.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey there. Well - so I will say there are two initiatives. The first one is an executive order that sets a goal that by the end of the decade, half of all new cars sold will be zero emission vehicles. This is a target, I should point out. I mean, there's really no enforcement there. But basically what it means is that there will be a huge focus on electric vehicles. And executives from carmakers such as Ford and GM are going to be at the White House today to show support for this big shift to electric vehicles. Separately, the administration also plans to announce new rules on fuel mileage and emissions standards.

MARTINEZ: What are the rules now?

KHALID: So a bit of background context here - these standards have been yo-yoing the past few years. Former President Obama had set rules for mileage and emissions standards to improve every year by 5%. But then former President Trump came into office, and he rolled those targets back to 1.5%. The thing is, the state of California had set its own standards, and that was between those two numbers. It was a number of 3.7%.

MARTINEZ: So what do we know about the new standards that the president will unveil today?

KHALID: Well, the White House did not reveal specific numbers last night on a call with reporters, but we were told the Biden plan will build off of this California framework for the next few years. And then they also plan to set a schedule for years after that. These (unintelligible) are being described as the most robust such standards ever introduced. And there's been some reporting about these forthcoming standards that's been out there. What I will say is that, also, some environmental groups feel like they don't necessarily go far enough. Of course, you know, with any such standards like this, an administration coming in, it's not entirely clear how permanent all of this will be because, you know, as history has shown us, they can easily change when a president of the opposite party comes into office.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Now, how do these plans fit into the president's broader agenda?

KHALID: Well, there seems to be this assumption baked into here that the electrical vehicle market is going to grow because investments that Democrats intend to make. These are things like the electric vehicle charging stations that are all part of these big infrastructure and jobs plans. You know, but as you mentioned, transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the president has this target to cut emissions in half by 2030. I will say, this focus is not really just about climate; it's also about China. You know, this administration really has competition with China at the center of a lot of its policies. This is no different. They're worried that China is cornering the global electric vehicle market, and they need to act quickly and aggressively to prevent that.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, thanks a lot.

KHALID: My pleasure, as always.

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MARTINEZ: There's a public inauguration ceremony today for Iran's new president.

INSKEEP: Ebrahim Raisi succeeds Hassan Rouhani. The old president was considered pragmatic and oversaw a slight opening of his country, as well as the negotiation of a nuclear agreement with the United States and other world powers. The new president is very different, and it's feared he could cast a further chill over relations with the United States.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the transition and joins us now from Istanbul. Tell us about Iran's new president, Peter. What do we know about him?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Ebrahim Raisi is a hard-line cleric, judge, former head of the judiciary. He's actually under U.S. sanctions for his role in the mass execution of dissident prisoners back in the 1980s. But he's also close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They share similar hard-line views when it comes to defending the Islamic Revolution and confronting the West. Now, we should remind everyone that the Iranian president is not an especially strong chief executive. Many of the most important decisions have to have the supreme leader's approval. In recent days, Supreme Leader Khamenei has offered some quite harsh criticism of the outgoing President Rouhani and his government, mainly for their dealings with the U.S. and other Western powers. But he does seem to be looking forward to working with his fellow hard-liner, Ebrahim Raisi.

MARTINEZ: What is Raisi's biggest thing on his agenda?

KENYON: Well, he says strengthening ties with the neighbors is quite important, but really his top goal is getting American sanctions on Iran lifted. Iran desperately needs to sell more of its oil, among other things, to get the economy back on its feet. And people really are suffering. On my last trip to Iran in late June, nearly every Iranian I met said rising prices, soaring inflation - sometimes over 40% - those were their biggest problems. So improving living standards for ordinary Iranians should be high on Raisi's agenda.

MARTINEZ: So, Peter, does this mean whether he wants to or not, he has to work with the U.S.?

KENYON: Well, yes and no. I mean, most Iran watchers say they're not looking for any big thaw in Iran-U.S. relations - could be quite the reverse, in fact. Raisi's own comments to date suggest he's got no appetite for doing diplomatic deals with the West - with one big exception. He is willing to see the U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. That's the deal that offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for sharp cuts to its nuclear program. Raisi seems to support getting Iran back in compliance with that agreement.

MARTINEZ: All right. So where do things stand on those talks?

KENYON: They've been stalled. Iran has been the one insisting that talks not resume until the Raisi government is in place and ready to continue. But this is one area where Raisi is willing to engage with the U.S. because, as I said, he's got to get these sanctions lifted if he's going to have any chance of reviving the Iranian economy.

Now, once you get beyond that, things become less clear quite quickly. The U.S. wants to talk about Iran's missile program, for instance, or its support for proxy militias in the region. Tehran says no, the U.S. is the one who walked away from the nuclear deal. First, get back into that; lift all the sanctions. And Raisi's already on record as saying Iran's missiles and regional activities are, quote, "non-negotiable." So I think it's fair to say diplomatic prospects are not rosy.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIFE DAWG'S "THOUGHT U WUZ NICE (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.