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News brief: vaccinations, Iraq election, China-Taiwan tensions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is expected to be a big week for COVID vaccines and boosters.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, that's because FDA advisers have been reviewing new data about safety and immunity, and they're scheduled to meet to discuss booster shots for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. And with new cases dropping, Americans are also trying to figure out what's safe to do for the coming holidays and also what isn't.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here with details. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So seems like we are headed in the right direction when it comes to COVID numbers. What's the big picture here?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, new cases are down to about 93,000 per day. That is more than a 40% drop since September 1. Deaths are averaging about 1,400 a day - so still a lot of deaths, but they are declining, too. And given the current trends, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN many people should be able to enjoy the holidays coming up, starting with Halloween and kids trick or treating.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: You're outdoors for the most part. I mean, this is a time that children love. So I mean, particularly if you're vaccinated - if you're not vaccinated, think about it that you'll add an extra degree of protection to yourself and your children and your family. But go out there, and enjoy Halloween as well as the other holidays that will be coming up.

AUBREY: But he did add, people should not prematurely declare victory over COVID, he says. With more than 60 million people who are eligible but have not yet gotten vaccinated, cases could bounce back - so important to remain cautious.

MARTIN: Yes, important to remain cautious. But man, my kids are going to be very happy with that news.

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: So meanwhile, there's still this big federal push to get people vaccinated. Millions of folks are eligible for a booster shot, so explain what's expected on boosters this week.

AUBREY: Well, remember the only people that are eligible for a booster now are those who got the Pfizer vaccine. But this week, a panel of advisers to the FDA is scheduled to meet on Thursday and Friday. They will deliberate on booster shots of the Moderna vaccine, also Johnson & Johnson. As of now, a booster is recommended for people 65 and up and those at higher risk due to underlying conditions or exposure to the virus. Currently, there's no recommendation for a booster for healthy younger people. And former CDC Director Tom Frieden told me, you know, ultimately this could change. He says, remember; it's only been 10 months since the first COVID vaccine was authorized.

TOM FRIEDEN: Usually it takes a few years to figure out what the right dosage schedule is for a vaccine - how many doses, how large the doses, what interval between them. It may turn out that the vaccines require three doses for everyone. But we don't know that yet.

AUBREY: So far, it appears the waning of immunity and the risk of getting a breakthrough infection that leads to, say, hospitalization is higher in people 65 and up. But remember; they were also the first to be vaccinated, so it's definitely a wait-and-see situation.

MARTIN: What about people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine - because it was particular, right? It was only one shot.

AUBREY: That's right. Well, from the start, it's been known that the J&J shot is somewhat less effective against serious illness compared to the Moderna and Pfizer shots. The effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against hospitalizations has dropped down to about 70% or so. And some doctors say they've seen this in all age groups, not just older people. So it is possible that this week the advisers would recommend another dose of J&J to a broader group. Here's Dr. Frieden again.

FRIEDEN: The data that came out recently from Johnson & Johnson was quite encouraging about a second dose. That bumped what was already a good vaccine to become really an excellent protective vaccine. So I anticipate that a second dose of the J&J vaccine will be approved.

AUBREY: And this could happen fairly quickly after the advisers meet. And the CDC is expected to weigh in with a recommendation next week, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. So the good news from Iraq's parliamentary election is that voting ended with no major violence. The bad news - a whole lot of people just didn't vote.

MARTINEZ: The Iraqis are tired of elections that fail to address corruption, poor public services and the growth of powerful militias. And young activists who organized mass demonstrations in 2019 even urged people to boycott the election. Now, against that backdrop, it looks like the usual parties will hold on to power. But the vote offers a window into the health of Iraq's democracy.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Baghdad. Hey, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: How was election day itself?

SHERLOCK: Well, we visited polling stations around Baghdad. And whilst there was a heavy security presence, the atmosphere was calm. Many voters had dressed in their best, and some brought families with them, like Hashem Muthawi. He was there with his little granddaughter. She was far too young to vote, but the polling station staff had let her stick her finger in the ink just to - just like the adults so that she felt included. Muthawi told me he's voted in all the elections so far in Iraq, even in the earlier days when it was dangerous and voters were sometimes threatened.

HASHEM MUTHAWI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So he says, "The right to elections is a victory for Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's regime, it was impossible for Iraqis to vote, so now it's important to exercise that right."

But, Rachel, a lot of Iraqis don't see it this way and, instead, decided to stay home.

MARTIN: So A alluded to the reasons why earlier, but just say more about why turnout was so low.

SHERLOCK: Well, first, just to tell you a bit about it, the turnout was 41% yesterday. That's the lowest ever. It was about 44% in 2018. And this year, Iraq had made some changes to the election law that were meant to inspire voters to come out to the polls. But clearly, it hasn't worked. Even at the bigger polling stations I went to, you know, there were lots of empty voting rooms with staff sitting around. Some voters did show up, but they'd come to spoil their ballots in protest. And the reason for all this is because there's massive disappointment in the political system. Iraq is this oil-rich country, and yet its public services, like hospitals, are failing. There's poor governance, and political parties siphon off state funds for their own political projects.

MARTIN: So what does that mean for the results in this election?

SHERLOCK: Well, look. It's too early to know the results, but there are two major groups to watch out for. One is the movement of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who's running on a nationalist agenda. And then there's the bloc of Shia political parties who are allied with Iran. The U.S. will be watching these especially closely, as they've been calling for all U.S. troops to leave. These parties are the political representations for militias who fought ISIS, or Daesh, as people here call the group, when the Iraqi army collapsed. One supporter didn't want to give his name because he fears dangerous repercussions if his neighbors know how he voted. He tells us this when he refers to the political militia called Hashd al-Shaabi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When the Daesh come to the - our country, only the Hashd al-Shaabi has come and stopped them. If Daesh enter to Baghdad and other place, they kill everybody (ph).

SHERLOCK: You know, he's afraid that ISIS might come back. And like most Iraqis we spoke with in this election, he really just wants a country that's safe where he can live a good life.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Baghdad. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Taiwan's president is defiant. Tsai Ing-wen says Taipei will not bow to pressure from Beijing to reunify with China.

MARTINEZ: China's government was quick to denounce Tsai's speech, which came during a Taiwanese celebration of its national birthday, saying it incites confrontation and distorts facts. The exchange followed a week in which Beijing flew dozens of fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes near the southern end of Taiwan. And Taiwan's defense minister declared that tensions between Taipei and Beijing are the worst they've been in more than 40 years.

MARTIN: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, and he joins us now from Beijing. David, thanks for being here.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

MARTIN: Explain the timing of all this if you could. Why's this happening now?

RENNIE: So both sides were using history to send messages. So it's the 110th anniversary of a revolution that overthrew China's last emperor. And despite their very different political systems, the government in Beijing and the government on Taiwan both claim to be the inheritors of that long-ago revolution. So we saw the Chinese supreme leader, Xi Jinping, give a speech marking that anniversary saying, this is our shared history. The two sides must be reunified; Taiwan is part of China, and history will not forgive any Chinese citizen who splits these two. Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, she wanted to talk about the present and the future. And it was very much a message aimed at her allies, above all America. She was saying, what matters is not our history but that we're a democracy, we're a friend to the West and we are on democracy's front line in a kind of global contest with autocracy.

MARTIN: So is this reflective though, David, of the usual kind of ebb and flow of this precarious relationship between China and Taiwan, or does it signify something different?

RENNIE: It is different. Here in Beijing, talking to Chinese but also foreigners, there's a real sense of anxiety because the thing that we all try and guess is, what is inside Xi Jinping's head? Does he feel that he can successfully invade and take Taiwan? And does he feel that he must because it's somehow drifting away and this is his historical mission? And so you know, you had in the news report they've been flying a lot of warplanes around Taiwan - not over Taiwan. And that is China showing that it feels very strong but also intensely suspicious of America's intentions. It looks at America's signing new alliances with people like the Australians and the British; it sees the Japanese getting more interested in Taiwan's defense. And all of those planes are a signal to Taiwan, to its people - if you elect a government we don't like, there'll be trouble for you. But it's also a message to Japan, to America, to those other allies saying, this is the sort of war that you would be joining if you did come to Taiwan's defense.

MARTIN: But I guess I don't get what the point is from China's perspective. Besides sending a message, does China actually expect Taiwan to say, hey, you flew these military aircraft next to us, and now we hand our country to you?

RENNIE: It's a very depressing point. So they're doing two things. They're trying to normalize the idea of Chinese military planes flying all around Taiwan all of the time to just nibble away at the idea that Taiwan is capable of being a kind of separate place that isn't under China's control. And they're also sending a signal that they've given up on Taiwanese hearts and minds wanting to do this the nice way, wanting to be part of China. This is about saying, we're willing to just frighten you into behaving how we want.

MARTIN: What's the next step in this, David?

RENNIE: It's America's got to decide whether it's going to keep signaling that it's there for Taiwan's defense. And this is why China is ratcheting up the pressure, is to put pressure on the Americans to say, are you going to come? And look at the costs if you did.

MARTIN: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. He joined us on Skype. David, we always appreciate your reporting and perspective. Thank you.

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