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News brief: Trump speech, COVID boosters, lockdowns hurt China's economy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The last time former President Trump was in Washington, D.C., was on the morning of January 20. He flew away on Marine One before the inauguration, refusing to admit he lost. And that inauguration went forward despite an attack on the Capitol days earlier that was aimed at stopping the peaceful transfer of power.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Today, Trump is back in D.C. after eight televised congressional hearings laid out a case to the nation that he was singularly responsible for that attack on January 6 and that he is unfit for office in the future.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Tam, what's the former president doing back in D.C.?

KEITH: He is the featured speaker at a conference of the America First Policy Institute. That's a group formed by former Trump administration officials to promote ideas that would have been on the agenda for a second Trump term or could be again. Trump's spokesman told me the former president's speech will focus on, quote, "a nation in decline that is driven in part by rising crime." And crime is an issue that Republicans plan to run on in the midterms, along with inflation and immigration. But if Trump were to give a totally focused, forward-looking policy speech, that would be a major departure for him.

FADEL: Right. And he's been giving a lot of speeches lately and continuing to push election lies.

KEITH: Yeah, he's never admitted he lost. Take this dose of alternate reality from a speech over the weekend to a group called Turning Point USA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I ran twice, I won twice and did much better the second time than I did the first.

KEITH: And to be very clear, he did not win the second time he ran.

FADEL: Right.

KEITH: But the crowd loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And now we may just have to do it again.

(CHEERING)

KEITH: Trump is still actively trying to get states to revisit the result from 2020. And this comes with the backdrop of the January 6 hearings. The committee played outtakes last week of a recorded speech he delivered on January 7, where he wouldn't say the election was over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But this election is now over. Congress has certified the results. I don't want to say the election's over. I just want to say Congress has certified the results. We're not saying the election's over, OK?

KEITH: Trump still hasn't admitted the 2020 election is over, even as he makes noise about running in 2024.

FADEL: The 2024 campaign appears to be beginning in earnest. Former Vice President Mike Pence is also speaking in Washington this morning. Are there any indications that he might run?

KEITH: Well, Pence is certainly behaving like a man who's running for president - giving speeches, endorsing candidates, often different ones than Trump, more establishment candidates. A recent PBS NewsHour/Marist poll - NPR poll shows Trump's favorability is higher among Republicans than Pence's. And part of Pence's challenge is that he wasn't willing to break the law on January 6 and do what Trump wanted. Pence doesn't talk about any of that, though, outside of the occasional veiled reference to needing to look ahead and not back.

FADEL: Now, Pence's former chief of staff testified last week to a grand jury in Washington, D.C. What do you read into that?

KEITH: Our colleague Ryan Lucas confirmed it with a source familiar with the matter. We don't know what former Chief of Staff Marc Short was asked about, but he would have insight into the pressure campaign on the vice president to block certification of the electoral results. This indicates the Justice Department investigation has moved beyond the hundreds of prosecutions of Trump supporters who busted into the Capitol and may be moving up the chain into the White House.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The next round of COVID vaccine boosters may be widely available earlier than expected.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, the new versions of the vaccine are being designed to protect against the latest, more transmissible variants of coronavirus. The Biden administration is trying to make them available as early as September.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so we were expecting the administration to announce people under age 50 could start getting that second booster, but now that's up in the air. Why?

STEIN: That's right. That's right. This is all about trying to balance protecting people this summer with keeping people safe next winter when the country will probably get hit by another surge. The problem we're having is the immunity that lots of people have gotten from getting vaccinated or infected has been wearing off. And the most contagious version of the virus to come along yet, the omicron subvariant called BA.5 is making people even more vulnerable. So COVID is starting to become more serious than something like the cold or the flu again for more people. And most people younger than 50 aren't eligible for fourth shots - second boosters to protect themselves.

But here's the rub. Letting more people get boosted with the original vaccine now may kind of mess up plans to boost people with updated, hopefully more protective vaccines in the fall to blunt the total of the winter...

FADEL: So what's the new strategy?

STEIN: Well, the administration is thinking of shifting the focus to the next generation of boosters. Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech were already scrambling to comply with the Food and Drug Administration's request to get new, hopefully more powerful boosters that target both the original strain of the virus and BA.5 ready by October or November. Now a federal official who's familiar with the matter but not authorized to talk about it publicly tells NPR that the FDA is trying to get the companies to make those shots available even sooner, possibly as soon as September. If that's possible, the FDA would skip opening up fourth shots of the original vaccines this summer and just wait for the new double-barreled omicron vaccines in the fall.

FADEL: And what's the reaction been?

STEIN: You know, it's mixed. Some think this is the smartest strategy. They say three shots are still protecting most younger, otherwise healthy people against serious illness. Boosting them again now and then again so soon in the fall could just confuse people and potentially erode people's willingness to get any boosters. And giving two shots too close together could actually backfire.

Here's Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

CELINE GOUNDER: I think this was the right call. If you get a booster now with the original formulation of the vaccine, this may, in fact, be counterproductive. It may prevent the second booster dose given this fall from taking and from you developing an immune response to that booster.

STEIN: Because it just wouldn't be enough time between the shots for them to work well. But, you know, others aren't so sure. They say the new vaccines may not be all that much better or end up being available by September. And who knows if BA.5 will even be the main virus by the fall and winter. So people younger than 50 should at least have the option to protect themselves now, especially with BA.5 already surging.

Here's Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.

ROBERT WACHTER: You're talking about, you know, literally hundreds of millions of people who are at a higher risk than they need to be for months. And that will mean potentially millions of preventable infections, certainly thousands of preventable hospitalizations and probably hundreds of preventable deaths.

STEIN: The FDA could decide what to do by the end of this week.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: For most of the pandemic, China's economy has been a star performer.

MARTINEZ: In fact, it's been a star performer for most of the past 40 years. But earlier this month, the government reported that the economy is weaker than many had expected.

FADEL: To help us understand what's going on with China's economy, we're joined by NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So in a nutshell, how bad are things right now with China's economy?

RUWITCH: Well, in the three months through June - the second quarter - the economy grew. It grew at 0.4%, though. And if you compare second quarter to first quarter, it shrunk, which is bad for China, right? This is an economy that's used to six, seven, 8% growth, right? So the big picture is that growth has been slowing in recent years, and that's partly intentional, a result of policies to try to balance out the economy. But this year, the country's economic and business challenges, which are real, have been exacerbated by sort of a single overriding political goal.

FADEL: OK, so lots to unpack there. Let's start with this political goal you're talking about.

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's the dynamic zero-COVID policy, right? The authorities in China have basically decided that they're not going to live with COVID, as most of the world has. The problem is that omicron has been really hard to contain here, as it has been everywhere else. And this has led to painful lockdowns, like what happened in Shanghai in April and May and in many other cities. China's been keeping its borders extremely tight, so it's hard to go in and out of China. It casts uncertainty over everything, and that's suppressing economic activity. And it's also compounding the effects of other challenges in the economy.

FADEL: What are those challenges?

RUWITCH: Well, one area where things have been bubbling up is real estate. By some estimates, real estate accounts for a quarter of the entire economy. So it's important. Before omicron, the government started to crack down on excessive debt in the property sector. And this was seen as sort of bitter medicine, right? Economists were in favor of it, but it was a tough medicine to swallow. Zero-COVID has just made it more complicated because the economy is slowing, confidence in the economy is falling with that. As confidence falls, people are buying less property. That means less income for developers that are already feeling a squeeze. It's exacerbated this downward spiral.

And in recent weeks, what we've seen is this snowballing threat by nervous homebuyers around the country to boycott mortgage payments on construction projects. So in China, you can pay a mortgage on an apartment that's still being built, and they're basically pulling the plug.

FADEL: OK, so slowing down the real-estate sector. What about other sectors of the economy?

RUWITCH: Well, firms in areas that had been locked down, like in Shanghai, are suffering. Anecdotally, restaurants, barbershops, small businesses - a lot have gone under. For multinational corporations, the American Chamber of Commerce has done some polls that suggest there's no exodus, but people are holding off on new investments. You know, on top of that all, there are these dicey sort of global conditions - right? - the inflation in the U.S. and Europe, the Ukraine war, shipping challenges still. Chinese exports seem to be holding up, but these things are causing problems for companies in China.

FADEL: OK, so let's look at this bigger picture here. Where do all these challenges leave China and the global economy?

RUWITCH: Well, the big question mark sort of hanging out over sort of everything is how long zero-COVID is going to last. It's the top priority. So for average Chinese, as long as this is still in place, it means disruptions to their lives. Like, is my apartment going to be locked down or my neighborhood or my city? Can I travel where I want to go? For the global economy, it just means more tepid growth for China, which is the world's No. 2 economy, which is bad as we're heading towards a possible recession. And China's key to world manufacturing, so lockdowns may exacerbate inflation.

FADEL: NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing, thank you so much.

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

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.