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News Brief: Booster Shots, Trump Loyalists Subpoenaed, White House Quad Summit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Late last night, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention broke a split decision between her own agency's advisory panel and the Food and Drug Administration.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This involves a plan for COVID vaccine booster shots for some people. The two agencies agreed on boosters for older adults, residents of long-term care facilities and some people with underlying health conditions. They diverged on the question of workers in high-risk environments. The FDA endorsed boosters for those workers. The CDC's panel of advisers did not. Walensky decided to side with the FDA.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about Rochelle Walensky's decision with NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How normal is it for the agency's director, the CDC director, to overturn her own advisers?

STEIN: It's pretty unusual. The CDC director usually accepts recommendations from the CDC's advisers. And, you know, Steve, it's the latest whiplash that kind of encapsulates all the mixed signals and intense debate that's been swirling around boosters in the U.S. The committee voted unanimously to endorse boosters for anyone aged 65 and older, beginning six months after they were fully vaccinated. And they also supported a third dose for adults who have health problems that put them at risk. But that's where they drew the line.

INSKEEP: OK, so I want to make sure I'm clear on what's going on here. People who've been following the news know that the FDA endorsed boosters for high-risk workers the other day. I thought it was settled. Then we find out that some people at the CDC object to this. In the end, it means nothing. Rochelle Walensky went along with the FDA. But why was it that some experts thought it was a bad idea to give boosters to high-risk workers?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. The advisors really struggled with that one. And at the end of a really long day, the panel narrowly rejected endorsing boosters for people in jobs that might put them at risk, like doctors nurses and teachers. A slight majority said there just wasn't enough evidence to support that. That put that my odds with the FDA, which just hours earlier, had authorized boosters for workers like that.

INSKEEP: Well, so we have a situation there where you're saying that what - this was a close decision for some people, then, in a close vote.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The panel was split almost evenly on this question. Six members voted to open up boosters for those folks, but nine voted against it. The opponents basically argued that there simply wasn't enough evidence to support giving boosters to otherwise healthy people no matter what jobs they do. Sure, immunity seems to be waning for older people. And maybe people with health problems are more vulnerable. But so far, all the vaccines are still doing a great job of keeping relatively young, healthy people out of the hospital and keeping them alive. And there may be risks for a third dose, like an inflammation of the heart known as myocarditis, which is rare but has shown up frequently - most frequently among younger men. Here's Dr. Lynn Bahta from the Minnesota Department of Health.

LYNN BAHTA: I feel like we're being pulled into an emotional decision. And this is an emotional decision. But we really do have to stay with the science. And I don't think we have the data in younger age groups to make a decision for a booster dose.

STEIN: But on the flip side, others argued quite passionately at times that many workers in risky jobs deserve whatever protection they can get, you know, especially health care workers who've been putting their lives on the line every day.

INSKEEP: It's really interesting to listen to that argument from what you're saying there, Rob, because you have one person saying, I feel we're being pulled into an emotional decision. And there is, in some ways, an emotional response.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, in a statement released early this morning, CDC Director Walensky - she sided with the argument that workers needed protection, too, in the face of the delta surge. In a pandemic, she said, the CDC, quote, "is tasked with analyzing complex, often imperfect data and take action that we anticipate will do the greatest good, even when there is uncertainty."

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some other news now - the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol issued subpoenas to four former Trump administration officials.

MARTIN: They are former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, onetime White House strategist Steve Bannon, former deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino and Kash Patel, who was chief of staff to the acting Defense secretary the day protesters breached the Capitol building. The subpoenas, which seek documents and depositions, are the first from the Democratic-led panel. More could be on the way.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following this story. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is it the committee is trying to learn here?

GRISALES: The panel says these four former Trump officials - Meadows, Bannon, Scavino and Patel - possess important details related to the siege. And this comes after the committee recently issued its first wave of document requests from federal agencies and social media companies and asked 35 tech and telecom firms to preserve phone records, such as text messages and other communications for these former Trump officials. But this is part of what we've been hearing from this panel for weeks now, that they're serious about getting to the bottom of what happened on January 6. And subpoenas marked the next stage of this investigation.

INSKEEP: Is it clear that the committee knows what important details, as they put it, that these folks may have?

GRISALES: It is somewhat. Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson gets pretty specific in letters to these officials about their roles in the weeks before January 6 and where they need more information. For example, Thompson tells Meadows that Justice Department records show Meadows was in direct communications with top officials at the Department to probe election fraud in several states, as well as officials in various states to request the same many weeks after the election. In Bannon's case, Thompson raises conversations he had in the weeks leading up to January 6 with Trump in a meeting that was held the night before at a hotel just a block from the White House. This is the Willard, where he and Trump allies plotted, essentially, how to stop President Biden from taking office. Thompson says in additional letters that they want to know more about Scavino's attempts to amplify the January 6 rally and for Patel, the former DOD official, how he was intimately involved in the security plans that ultimately failed that day.

INSKEEP: So I guess this ultimately gets down to the question of who was engineering this, who was planning this, who was coordinating, if anyone...

GRISALES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...This riot that we saw, this attack on the Capitol. Where's the probe go next?

GRISALES: So now we see how these folks respond. Although congressional subpoenas are not something that can be ignored, it's also what could be the beginning of a legal fight if any of these individuals do not want to comply.

INSKEEP: Any of the former officials responding yet?

GRISALES: Not yet. Former President Trump himself said in a statement that they would fight the subpoena on executive privilege. That said, all four have been given deadlines to turn over relevant documents by October 7, so about two weeks from today. And they'll need to appear before the committee around October 14 or 15. So this is going to be a big legal test for the committee in what appears to be the beginning of these kind of requests.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Today, President Biden is hosting the leaders of three nations that have something in common.

MARTIN: The nations are Japan, Australia and India. And they are all relatively near neighbors of China, and they've joined the United States in what's called a strategic dialogue. It's called the Quad, for quadrilateral - four countries, you see. And it matters because if you put those four countries together, you have immense economic, as well as military power, even when compared with China's growing strength.

INSKEEP: NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer covers India and is with us. Lauren, good morning.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to note this is a diplomatic meeting which points to possibly a new orientation of the world. Several U.S. administrations in a row have wanted to more effectively counter China. They are aware they would like some friends in the region to help do that. So how is this going?

FRAYER: Well, there have been some stumbles. I mean, this week started off with this diplomatic fallout over Australia buying submarine technology that could be used to patrol waters around China from the U.S. rather than France. France saw that as a snub, recalled its ambassador. Steve, I think you spoke with the ambassador, who talked about a lack of honesty. So from the get-go this week, the U.S. was sort of on the back foot, trying to reassure France, its oldest ally. That came after what many saw as a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a lack of consultation with U.S. allies on that.

So there are challenges going into this big week of diplomacy. And in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, President Biden said the U.S. is shifting from relentless war to relentless diplomacy. Now, what he didn't mention is actually what is thought to be his No. 1 priority, and that's China. The Biden administration wants to stand up to what it perceives as China's authoritarianism. It wants to counter China's growing influence, wants to ensure free trade in the Indo-Pacific. And so that is basically what today's Quad summit is focused on.

INSKEEP: Indo-Pacific is a term that I think most Americans had not heard until recent years when the U.S. began talking of that region or those two regions as one big region kind of aimed at China. But what interests do these four nations really share here?

FRAYER: Well, China has had just this incredible economic growth. And that means the balance of power is shifting pretty dramatically. There is a perception that China has become more belligerent. China has built military installations in the South China Sea. The Quad countries see that as a threat to free trade and possibly travel. But there are lots of other tensions. You know, India shares a long border with China. Troops have fought there. Australia has had trade disputes with China. There are islands in the East China Sea that Japan and China both lay claim to. And, of course, as you recall, the U.S. had this trade war with China under President Trump. Now, the thing is you probably will not hear President Biden name China very much today. And that's because all of these countries still trade with China. This is sensitive. China doesn't love the idea of these countries all ganging up and talking about it.

INSKEEP: Somewhat like you said with Biden's speech, where he didn't mention China, which was sort of the implied biggest priority.

FRAYER: Exactly.

INSKEEP: With that said, is this union of four countries actually a defense pact?

FRAYER: No. And that's an important distinction. The Quad countries do hold joint naval exercises, but there's no formal defence pact. Actually, India, for example, isn't even technically a U.S. treaty ally. India has been historically resistant to joining alliances. So this is more of a loose strategic grouping.

INSKEEP: Are they actually going to announce anything today?

FRAYER: We hope so. I mean, they have pledged to produce a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022. We may hear more promises about that. We may hear fresh promises about climate change, reducing coal use, moving towards renewable energy. And also, we may hear about supply chains for critical technology like semiconductors. These are supply chains the U.S. does not want China to be a part of.

INSKEEP: NPR's international correspondent Lauren Frayer, thanks.

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