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News Brief: Coronavirus Testing, Russian Bounties, China Enacts Security Law

NOEL KING, HOST:

How much testing is available to track and contain the coronavirus?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a vital question this summer. In the absence of a vaccine, experts tell us testing and tracing can help to manage outbreaks. Now states across the South and Southwest are reporting surges in COVID-19 patients. Their efforts to reopen hang in the balance. So NPR and researchers from Harvard have been asking how the available testing matches the need.

KING: And NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the latest findings from their collaboration. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we have been hearing about problems with testing since March. Have things gotten better?

STEIN: So, you know, the U.S. is now doing more than 500,000 tests a day. And according to our new analysis, the number of states now doing enough testing to keep the virus in check has increased from nine to 18, plus Washington, D.C., in about the last two months. So that's progress. But it means 32 states still aren't doing nearly enough testing to keep big, new outbreaks from erupting, you know, by spotting new infections quickly enough to track down, quarantine and test everyone else who may have caught the virus. And that's probably one big reason why we're seeing these big, new surges in hotspot states across the South and the West. None of the hotspot states are - do testing nearly enough, according to this analysis. Here's Ashish Jha from Harvard's Global Health Institute.

ASHISH JHA: The surges we're seeing in large parts of the country are due in part because those states opened up too quickly, and they relaxed way too much, given how much virus they had in their community. And they lacked testing infrastructure. These two things really go hand in hand.

KING: OK, so there's a combination of factors here. That's interesting. Also interesting - 32 states not doing enough. How much more testing do those 32 states need to be doing?

STEIN: You know, so at a bare minimum, the Harvard researchers estimate that the U.S. overall should double testing to about 1 million tests a day just to keep the virus at bay and get off, you know, this roller coaster of the virus seeming to be under control and then erupting again. But even with that much testing, thousands of people would still be getting infected, and hundreds would still be dying every day. So this new analysis adds a new dimension to answer this question - how much testing would be enough to really let the country reopen and start to safely get our lives back again? Here's Ashish Jha again from Harvard.

JHA: What we all really want is to suppress the virus, to get the virus levels so low that we don't have large numbers of people getting sick and dying and that we can open up our economy and have kids come back to school and have businesses reopen, even if it's not 100% of what it looked like before the pandemic. That's what we want.

KING: That is what we want. How much testing would we need for that? And are we close to getting there?

STEIN: Well, according to this analysis, that would require way more testing - 3.7 million tests a day, more than seven times what the U.S. is doing now. And that would allow the U.S. to cast a much wider net to catch many more infections faster, you know, by doing more aggressive and strategic testing, target places where outbreaks often start - nursing homes, meatpacking factories, prisons - catch people who don't have any symptoms but still could be spreading the virus, like teachers, students, waiters. And according to this analysis, the overwhelming majority of states aren't doing nearly close to that. But that doesn't mean it's hopeless. In fact, four states are already there - Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii and Montana. West Virginia and even one big state that had a big outbreak, New Jersey, looks like they're very close.

KING: So some good news. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. So what did President Trump know, and what should he have known about allegations that Russia offered bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

INSKEEP: House Democrats are going to the White House to ask today. The New York Times first reported on the bounties. The Times said intelligence about the Russian offers of payment made it into President Trump's daily brief months ago. Now, the presidential daily brief is almost like a classified newspaper for one very important reader. NPR and others have reported over the years that this president does not usually read it. Despite various news reports about when the president was told, the White House said the information did not reach him.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following this one. Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: What's going to happen at today's meeting at the White House?

GRISALES: This will be led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The White House says they requested this meeting with Democrats. And Democrats in turn say they have a lot of questions related to these intelligence reports. The group joining Hoyer at this meeting includes the chairs and members of several congressional committees with jurisdiction over this matter. That includes House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. He's raised a series of concerns, including, if the president wasn't briefed, was it a result of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin? I spoke to him yesterday about this. Let's take a listen.

ADAM SCHIFF: Well, I'm certainly concerned that there's a unwillingness to confront the president with evidence of Russia's malign activity because he doesn't want to hear it.

GRISALES: And this was a running theme when it came to most Democrats I spoke to yesterday who were headed to the White House today.

KING: The White House briefed some congressional Republicans yesterday. Why was their meeting, the Republican meeting, a day earlier? And what happened in that meeting?

GRISALES: You know, it's unclear why it was organized this way in terms of just Republicans going in yesterday. However, they quickly followed up that meeting saying Democrats are invited, too. They're just coming tomorrow. Of the Republicans who did go, they echoed the White House's narrative that the intelligence community is conflicted on what actually happened. And they didn't think necessarily that Trump should've been briefed. But they also expressed concerns if the reports turn out to be true. I spoke to Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He's a combat veteran. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM KINZINGER: I think as we get more answers, then we'll know what the response needs to be. But I don't think this is built up to be any kind of internal scandal, but it is definitely a concern by way of, you know, what role is Russia playing in Afghanistan?

GRISALES: NPR also spoke with Michael McCaul, another House Republican who attended yesterday's meeting. He's the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And he said these allegations are very serious. And if true, he thinks the U.S. needs to take swift and severe action against Putin and his mercenaries. Another Senate member, Senator Ben Sasse, said he's been hearing from military families this weekend. They're livid. And they're right to be livid. They're looking for people in this city to be looking out for their kids' safety because, quote, "they're on the frontlines of freedom, fighting for us."

KING: Are there people who have been left out of today's briefing that surprise you, that you would expect to have been invited?

GRISALES: Most definitely. This includes members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This includes congressional leaders, among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She's called for the full House to be briefed. And she and Hoyer say these briefings at the White House fall short of what's demanded here. They want the director of national intelligence and the CIA to personally brief all House members at the Capitol. And that story continues to evolve. For example, last night, the DNI and CIA director said they'll continue to investigate. And they'll brief the president and congressional members at the appropriate time.

KING: OK, fast-moving story here. Claudia Grisales. Thanks, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: China has passed a new national security law.

INSKEEP: Which is aimed at Hong Kong, where protests have continued for months. People in Hong Kong are pressing the mainland to honor its guarantees of certain rights for Hong Kong, including an independent court system. The central government has now responded by taking much of that independence away. The people affected include activist Emily Lau.

EMILY LAU: Many Hong Kong people are very, very scared and very frightened but also very angry.

KING: All right. NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing this morning. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So you heard activist Emily Lau say scared and angry. What is in this law, exactly?

FENG: The broad contours are that Beijing, not Hong Kong, will in the future judge cases relating to national security. And the judges for these cases will be picked by Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader. Beijing will set up its own security body on Hong Kong soil to investigate these cases. But that's basically all we know because the crazy part is we do not have the actual details of the law, despite it being passed. Hong Kong's own leader has not been given a public draft of the law even before it was passed. So we're in this situation right now where Hong Kong residents are expected to follow this new law, even though no one has read it.

KING: And the frustration, I would imagine, the anger part of what Emily Lau said is that Hong Kong is governed by China, yes, but it is supposed to have some autonomy.

FENG: Right, until 2047 - so for the first 50 years of Chinese rule. But the law that was passed today effectively says that Beijing's legal dictates now supersede Hong Kong's own institutions on any issue that Beijing considers national security. I talked to Alan Leong. He's the former chair of Hong Kong's legal bar association - so the industry's top body in Hong Kong. And he says that this law creates as parallel legal system in Hong Kong that's under Beijing's control.

ALAN LEONG: Once you are labeled a national security suspect, then you will be put into that system, which will be manned by a special branch within the Hong Kong Police. Your case will be prosecuted by a special department within the Department of Justice. And you will be tried by some hand-picked judges.

FENG: This law is expected to take effect by tomorrow. Tomorrow is also the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China. That is not a coincidence. Beijing picked this day to pass this law. And I'm waiting to see if people turn up in protest, given that they now face even heavier illegal penalties for doing so.

KING: I know you said there's a lot we don't know yet, but do you have any idea how widely this law is going to be enforced or how strictly it's going to be enforced?

FENG: From what we've seen, this law would apply to people in the media, academics, politicians, students. So it could apply to many aspects of Hong Kong civil society. And within hours of the law being passed, we have seen this chilling effect. I have noticed hundreds of Hongkongers on Twitter today who have deactivated their accounts because they're worried their past tweets might be used against them.

KING: Wow.

FENG: And at least two opposition political parties have already said, we are voluntarily dissolving ourselves in Hong Kong - one of them - of these parties is chaired by activist Joshua Wong - because they just think that organizing as a political party is too dangerous now.

KING: So interesting. So I guess what we're looking at going forward is, will people go out in the streets again? NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks for your reporting.

FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.