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News brief: antiviral pill for COVID, Jan. 6 probe, Putin's news conference

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm A Martinez in Culver City, Calif.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.

The FDA has given doctors a new tool to use in treating patients with COVID-19.

MARTINEZ: The regulatory agency granted emergency use authorizations to drugmaker Pfizer for the antiviral therapy the company has developed. Now, that would be good news all by itself. But even better, it appears the new drug will work to treat COVID cases caused by the omicron variant.

BLOCK: And joining us to talk about this new therapy and how it can be used is NPR's Joe Palca. Joe, tell us about it. What is it, and how does it work?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Well, it's called Paxlovid or Pax-lovid (ph), if you prefer. It works by messing with a key enzyme in the coronavirus called a protease. And if you inhibit the protease, the virus can't grow and spread. You take it with another drug called ritonavir twice a day for five days. The company conducted a study in some 2,200 volunteers that showed that it could reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by close to 90% in people at high risk for the disease. Susanna Naggie is an associate professor of infectious diseases at Duke University Medical Center.

SUSANNA NAGGIE: It does appear to be a highly efficacious oral pill, which we've been waiting on for quite some time.

BLOCK: That seems like great news for a lot of people. Who is it for specifically, Joe?

PALCA: Well, it's for people 12 and older who weigh more than 88 pounds and who have mild to moderate symptoms but are at high risk of developing severe disease. Now, the best results are if you take the drug within three days of the symptoms appearing. Kris White is an assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he's been working with Paxlovid. And he says what's really impressive is the drug appears to prevent hospitalizations, even if you wait five days after the symptoms first appear.

KRIS WHITE: And that is critical for these acute infections, to have as big a window as possible because, you know, you have people. They get sick. They start to feel bad. They say, let me wait. Let me not do anything. I don't want to go to the doctor - ba, ba, ba (ph). And before you know it, two, three days passes very quickly.

PALCA: So if the window is five days, that means people still get a chance to benefit from the drug.

BLOCK: Right. Now, we mention that the drug does appear to work against the omicron variant. But if vaccines are less effective against omicron, why isn't this drug facing the same problems?

PALCA: Well, good question. Vaccines are designed based on the spike protein, which is a different part of a different protein in the virus. The spike protein in omicron has a lot of mutations, but there don't seem to be many mutations in the genes for the protease. And remember, this is a protease inhibitor. So in theory, that shouldn't be a problem. And there are lab tests that suggest the drug will work. But of course, to be certain, it would be necessary to test the drug in patients infected with omicron, and those tests haven't been done yet.

BLOCK: Right. Now, there was another drug that a lot of people were expecting would get an emergency use authorization. That's one made by Merck. What happened to that one?

PALCA: Well, that drug is called molnupiravir, and it received an endorsement from an FDA advisory committee last month. And it's not entirely clear why it didn't get an EUA. Lot of people were expecting that it would. It's also an antiviral. It works by causing errors in the RNA when the virus tries to make copies of itself. And it was also tested in a large clinical trial. And the drug did reduce hospitalizations and deaths - not quite - not nearly as well as Paxlovid. There's also a question of whether the molnupiravir can cause DNA damage. So it's not the ideal drug. But Susanna Naggie says there's still reason to think it will be helpful in treating people with COVID, especially because, at least initially, that drug will be more available than Paxlovid.

NAGGIE: For the right person, where the risk-benefit favors taking it, I still think it's probably going to be a drug that we see used, at least for now, particularly given the numbers that we're seeing with omicron spreading in various parts of the country.

PALCA: So there's a chance that the FDA will still grant an EUA for molnupiravir, and it probably would be helpful to have as just an alternative to Paxlovid if doctors turned out to need it.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol wants to talk to Representative Jim Jordan. The Ohio Republican is a strong ally of former President Trump.

MARTINEZ: Jordan's also the second sitting member of Congress that the panel has asked to question. Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania declined the panel's request earlier this week.

BLOCK: NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress, joins us now to try to explain all of this for us. And Deirdre, first, why does the committee want to speak with Jim Jordan?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning. Well, Jordan has already publicly said that he spoke to President Trump on January 6. And in the letter that Select Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson sent to Jordan yesterday, he mentions that the two could have had multiple conversations. If that's the case, the committee wants to talk to him about each one in detail. They also want to talk to him about any meetings he was in in the days leading up to the insurrection with White House officials or outside activists who were planning efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. They also specifically asked if he was in any discussions about presidential pardons. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney - she's a member of the select committee - she's called him, quote, "a material witness."

BLOCK: OK. So that's the request. What has Jim Jordan said about it?

WALSH: Well, he said last night on Fox News that he just got the letter and he's reviewing it. But he also said he has concerns about the way the committee operates. But back in October, when he was asked about his own actions on January 6, he did indicate a possible willingness to cooperate. And Bennie Thompson actually noted that in his letter to Jordan. Here's an exchange that Jordan had in October with Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MCGOVERN: I guess, are you willing to tell the select committee what you know about events leading up to, during and after...

JIM JORDAN: I've been clear all along. I've got nothing to hide. I've been straightforward all along.

WALSH: You know, it's worth noting that Jordan was one of the five House Republicans that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy picked to serve on the select committee. But when Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected his participation, McCarthy decided not to appoint any Republicans. Pelosi did end up appointing two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

BLOCK: Now, if Jim Jordan does not cooperate, what options does the committee have? Could they subpoena him?

WALSH: They could. It would be unusual for a committee to subpoena a fellow lawmaker. But the spokesman for the committee has been saying all along that if they don't get cooperation, they will consider using, quote, "other tools." You know, Bennie Thompson himself has not ruled out sending subpoenas to fellow members of Congress, and he's been telling reporters for months that they're going to do what they need to do to complete their investigation about the events that led up to the attack on the Capitol. You know, if they do subpoena Jordan or Perry, it could end up in court.

BLOCK: Deirdre, this investigation has been going on for months. We heard the first witnesses in a public hearing in July. What do we know so far about what the committee has uncovered?

WALSH: You know, they have a lot of information, a lot of details about the discussions with senior members of the White House and people talking to the president. Liz Cheney has already said they talked to 300 witnesses. You know, there are some who are blocking or trying to block subpoenas. But there are a lot of others who are sitting for hours of closed-door depositions and investigations. They have thousands of pages of emails and text messages about, you know, messages with current lawmakers. They could decide to reach out to other members, including McCarthy himself, who, like Jordan, did talk to Trump on January 6.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Deirdre, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: In Moscow today, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual year-end press conference.

MARTINEZ: It's a marathon affair that typically lasts more than four hours. With more than 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, the world may be watching this year's press conference more closely than usual.

BLOCK: NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes is in the Russian capital, and he joins us now. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Thank you.

BLOCK: We really don't have anything comparable in this country to this annual appearance by Vladimir Putin. Describe the scene for us there.

MAYNES: Well, you know, it's called the big press conference here - and for a reason. It's promoted on all the channels for weeks. You have hundreds of journalists clamoring to get their chance to ask the president a question. Media run countdown clocks, only to cut live at the stroke of noon. Nevermind if Putin is running late. Once it starts, it goes for hours. And Putin, you know, he usually makes a point of taking a few more challenging questions from foreign correspondents, which he usually bats away. But most queries come from Russian journalists, many of them from smaller regional outlets. So the questions tend to be a bit soft or bring Putin's attention to local problems and certainly give him a chance to play the benevolent czar by solving them. Now, I should add that COVID has switched things up a bit. If - last year's event was online because of the pandemic. This time it's a smaller format, just 500 journalists. Worth adding that all of them had to pass three negative PCR tests just to get anywhere near the Russian leader.

BLOCK: So COVID, one issue. But obviously, the other big topic, at least from our perspective in the Western Hemisphere, would have to be Ukraine.

MAYNES: Yeah, absolutely. It's certainly what the international press is looking for and hints of what Putin has in mind next for this crisis. This comes, of course, as Russia's demanding from the U.S. and NATO security guarantees, beginning with an end to NATO's expansion to Russia's borders and ending, really, with a redo of the post-Cold War world order. And there's been a lot of noise out of Russia recently in terms of just how far it's willing to go to prevent what it claims is an existential threat to its security. You know, is Russia really willing to go to war over this? And today, Putin insisted Russia wasn't threatening anyone. As before - he's made this case before. He said that it was NATO coming towards Russia's borders, not the other way around. But he added Russia had laid out its demands as plainly as it could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin's saying the ball's in their court, in the U.S.'s court, and we're waiting for their answer. And he added it was - he was on the whole pleased, though, to see that the U.S. and Russia would meet in Geneva after the new year to discuss these security concerns. So perhaps a positive sign for diplomacy, even if, of course, the fundamental differences remain.

BLOCK: Charles, what does Vladimir Putin get out of this event that goes on for so long?

MAYNES: Yeah, it's - you know, it's part of his kind of carefully staged managed image as father of the nation. You know, he's in control of everything. We mentioned the length of the event will showcase his - Putin's stamina. You know, here he is batting questions away for three, four hours. They've even created a kind of meta media event where one of the big intrigues here is how long he'll talk. You know, will he break his record of 4 hours and 40 minutes? And, you know, at least in past years, you also see the media falling over themselves to ask the Russian leader a question, which kind of lends a certain rock star persona. But most importantly, the press conference allows Putin to show Russians not only is he this global figure who can kind of hit back at the West on the global stage, he's also in command of things much closer to home, like, you know, wheat harvests and milk production levels, trucking tariffs, you know, you name it. In other words, it's kind of designed to show Putin unmatched command of the issues. And in that sense, it's, of course, theater, but it's instructive theater and - even if this year everyone is looking at it for a hint at how he plans to stage manage the crisis in Ukraine.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow telling us all about Vladimir Putin's year-end address. Thanks so much.

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