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Nation & World

News Brief: Vaccine Supply, Tanden Nomination, Texas Lifts Restrictions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden moved up the timeline for having enough vaccine on hand for every adult in this country.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. He says the U.S. will have the full supply by the end of May, not July, which was the previous forecast. Now, to be clear, that doesn't mean everybody can get a shot by May because administering the vaccine takes time. And then there's the question of whether every adult will get equal protection. The timeline sped up in part because this new vaccine was approved, but it performed differently in tests than the older vaccines did.

INSKEEP: So much to talk about here. And NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to discuss it. Good morning.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So the vaccine that we're talking about that's new is Johnson & Johnson. What does the president say about how the timeline changed?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He said when he came into office, he learned Johnson & Johnson was behind on manufacturing. So his administration has been working to help, including enlisting Merck, Johnson & Johnson's rival, to manufacture its vaccine. He said he was invoking the Defense Production Act to equip Merck facilities to be able to do that, and that Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufacturing facilities will now be operating 24/7. So put all together, this boost to the vaccine supply meant they can move up that target date to the end of May - quite a bit earlier.

INSKEEP: But there is this question of whether everybody's getting the same protection from a vaccine because they were different in tests, right? How does Johnson & Johnson's compare to others?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that is a key question. These vaccines are different. And you may have heard those top-line efficacy numbers. The mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna have vaccine effectiveness of around 95%. And Johnson & Johnson's came in at 66% overall. So obviously you might hear that and be like, whoa, that's a big difference. Maybe the mRNAs ones are better. But it's just not that simple. Dr. Robert Drummond has looked closely at the data. He's an urgent care physician in Los Angeles, and he says Johnson & Johnson's clinical trial was impressive.

ROBERT DRUMMOND: I've looked at it, looked at the positives, negatives, whole picture. And I'm going to tell you, it's not inferior.

INSKEEP: Not inferior, but it's got that lower top-line number. So how does he explain that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, first of all, he says you have to remember the Pfizer and Moderna trials were done months ago before all these concerning variants had cropped up before the huge winter surge. And when you look at Johnson & Johnson's data on preventing severe COVID, it's much closer to the Pfizer and Moderna numbers. He is adamant that this vaccine is just as good. Also for people who are afraid of needles or who have trouble getting around to appointments, there's a convenience advantage as well since this is just one shot. Both Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines are two.

INSKEEP: Although that convenience makes some people worry that may be the one-shot vaccine that seems less effective will end up being in more marginalized communities that are harder to reach.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So if it's given mostly to homeless populations or incarcerated people, there could be stigma. I think there is a danger of that, but I think it's too soon to say that that's what's happening. And also the convenience isn't just relevant for marginalized groups. There are also, you know, college campus drives or doctors' offices that want to have vaccine, too. Dr. Drummond mentioned church vaccine drives and barbershops, but he did say that he's getting this question from people.

DRUMMOND: Are they just going to give the worst vaccine to the Black people? Like, that is what I have heard from Black people.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Drummond says he explains it's not an inferior vaccine. And I also talked to Dr. Leana Wen. She's an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She made the point that the first COVID vaccine you receive is probably not going to be the only one. There may be boosters for new variants. It could be we all get annual COVID shots along with flu shots. And that's why everyone I talked to said, with conviction, these are all highly effective, safe vaccines. They said as soon as you get the chance to get vaccinated with any of them, you should take it.

INSKEEP: Selena, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. The president is not going to be getting the budget director he wanted.

KING: That's right. Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination. Her path to confirmation looked difficult because of her social media activity. She'd publicly criticized Republicans and Democrats on Twitter in the past. Democrats hold a very slim majority in the Senate, but Biden wasn't able to keep his caucus together for Tanden's confirmation.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is covering this story. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did this news unfold?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, last night, Neera Tanden wrote a letter to President Biden saying it was clear that she didn't have a path forward and didn't want the process to distract from Biden's priorities. The president accepted. In his own statement, he said he looks forward, though, to having her serve in some capacity, but it's not clear yet what that may be. The Biden team had been trying to sell a couple of Republican senators on Tanden's nomination, but that was always going to be a tall order.

INSKEEP: I'm just still trying to get my brain around the idea that someone in the Trump era has finally been held accountable for saying something mean on Twitter, and it would be Neera Tanden, of all the people in the Trump era, who would be held to account by the United States Senate. What did she say?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Well, as - you know, the center - at the Center of American Progress, where she was, you know, the head, she sent these tweets that some lawmakers say was very polarizing. She called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Voldemort, you know, the "Harry Potter" villain. She described Senator Collins as the worst and said that vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas. You know, and it wasn't just Republicans. She also criticized Senator Bernie Sanders. During her confirmation hearing, Tanden said she regretted the language, but Biden faced a lot of pressure here. He had a different barometer kind of - as you're kind of noting. He promised a new tone in Washington, a more civil tone.

INSKEEP: Well, what does it mean for his efforts to work with Congress that on this occasion, any way, he couldn't get all 50 Democrats on board?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. You know, the Senate is split, and this is the first sign of how difficult it may be for him to push his legislative priorities. It's a very slim majority that Democrats have in Congress. But I spoke with Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and he doesn't think this will have a lasting impact.

JIM MANLEY: There's a part of me that thinks that this is merely part of the usual give and take where someone somewhere has to be sacrificed to the political gods for the greater good. Unfortunately, that person was Neera.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, big picture, he said, is this is not going to stall Biden's most significant priorities, like passing COVID relief.

INSKEEP: Who else might he name as budget director?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, a congressional source and a source familiar with the deliberations tell me there are several candidates being considered. There has been a lot of attention recently on Shalanda Young, for example. She is Biden's nominee for deputy OMB director. She had her first Senate confirmation hearing for the job on Tuesday. Another name being talked about is John Jones, a veteran Democratic aide with deep ties to the Congressional Black Caucus; also Jared Bernstein, a longtime adviser to Biden, who is currently on his Council of Economic Advisers. And there are others. This is an important position. And I expect we'll hear more in the coming days about how quickly the president is going to move.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Texas Governor Greg Abbott says he is ending his state's coronavirus restrictions.

KING: Yeah. He made this announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock where he also said businesses should reopen a week from today, quote, "100%." Now, this is exactly what the CDC has said not to do, end public health measures early.

INSKEEP: Texas Public Media senior reporter Sarah Self-Walbrick covered that announcement. Good morning.

SARAH SELF-WALBRICK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly did the governor say about why he's making these changes?

SELF-WALBRICK: So Governor Abbott said that starting next week, businesses will be open at full capacity and masks won't be required anymore. He says he wants businesses and other entities to make those decisions. So, for example, supermarket chain HEB has already announced they won't require customers, at least, to wear mask in their stores. Abbott says people should still do what protects them, though. Here's what he had to say yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Personal vigilance to follow the same standards is still needed to contain COVID. It's just that now state mandates are no longer needed.

SELF-WALBRICK: Locally, it was a pretty supportive scene at the small Mexican food restaurant where Abbott made this announcement. The dining room was packed, and when the governor was done with his announcement, not everyone put their masks back on to leave. It was pretty - it was an interesting scene.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And I guess we should note, I mean, if you're in a public setting, the speaker may need to remove their mask; other people don't have to. But most of the people you could see on video were not masked during the announcement. So the governor is saying state mandates are no longer needed. But what makes him make that statement now?

SELF-WALBRICK: So the data suggests that things are looking up across Texas, at least when it comes to COVID. Hospitalizations are down even in regions like Laredo and El Paso that have seen the worst of it. But less than 7% of the population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest percentages in the country.

INSKEEP: How are Texans responding to all this?

SELF-WALBRICK: Based on what I've seen on social media, I think a lot of people see this as a political move, especially after the fallout of the winter storm that thousands of Texans are still dealing with. I talked with a few Lubbockites after the announcement yesterday. Because the mask mandate wasn't well enforced anyway, Dr. Craig Rhyne with Covenant Health says rescinding the mask order may not do a whole lot. He hopes common sense prevails.

CRAIG RHYNE: I think that the people that have grown accustomed to wearing a mask and have gotten a sense of safety and security from wearing a mask will probably continue to do exactly that.

INSKEEP: OK, so Texans were already doing what they wanted, it sounds like. But do some people there think that Abbott should have just stuck with the health advice?

SELF-WALBRICK: Definitely. I've heard from a lot of people who think it's too soon for this drastic of a move. One of those people was Kristi Giemza, a nurse practitioner who's been volunteering at Lubbock's COVID vaccination hub.

KRISTI GIEMZA: I have a hard time believing the governor is taking advice from medical experts. He's putting lives and our economy at risk yet again.

SELF-WALBRICK: It's unclear if people will wait until next week to change how they're living through the pandemic, so I guess we'll just wait and see.

INSKEEP: Reporter Sarah Self-Walbrick, thanks so much.

SELF-WALBRICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.