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News brief: Haiti kidnappings, China's economy slows, COVID boosters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Within a few months, Haiti endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, a crumbling economy and the spread of street gangs.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Authorities suspect one of those gangs in a mass kidnapping. Someone abducted 17 people. Sixteen are U.S. citizens; one is Canadian. And all are part of the U.S.-based missionary group. The group includes children, and one of the children is 2 years old.

INSKEEP: Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald and is covering this story from Miami. She joins us via Skype. Good morning.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is this missionary group, and what were the members doing in Haiti?

CHARLES: Well, it's the Christian Aid Ministry (ph). And the members, they're part of the Mennonite community. And these individuals actually live in Haiti. They provide assistance, education, other kinds of services. There are a number of missionary groups that are there and that do assist the Haitian population.

INSKEEP: And as best you can determine, what were they doing when they were captured? And how were they captured?

CHARLES: They had been visiting an orphanage, and they were on their way back. And they were traveling in a van, as we understand, and this is when they were captured by this gang. This gang is known to attack vehicles and to basically kidnap the entire vehicle, whether it's a bus, it's a car or it's a van.

INSKEEP: Now, do I understand this correctly? This is on a highway leading out of Port-au-Prince and heading toward the border of the country, heading toward the Dominican Republic. That's the highway in question here?

CHARLES: It's actually a road. It's a national road. But, yes, it connects Haiti to the Dominican Republic, so it's very well-traveled. And this has become an issue in recent years, not just, you know, in the last several days.

INSKEEP: And is it clear what it is the kidnappers want?

CHARLES: Well, usually when these situations happen, you will eventually hear from the kidnappers - well, not us, but, you know, the individuals or their family members where there's a request for a ransom. We do not yet have any information as to whether one has been issued and, if so, how much. These are usually large amounts. And the individuals or their family members or, in this case, the organization will have to negotiate. Contrary to what a lot of Americans believe, the FBI doesn't go in and just release you. They will assist you with negotiating the ransom release.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises the next question. We're told the United States has become involved in the investigation here. What is the U.S. doing?

CHARLES: Yes, because these are American citizens. Ironically enough, yesterday, the Haitian National Police had no confirmation whatsoever of this kidnapping while, you know, there were all of these reports, you know, and we had confirmations from others. But because we're talking about Americans, they would contact the embassy, which would then alert the FBI. The FBI arrived in-country yesterday. And so they - their job now is to get in touch with either family members (inaudible) and help.

INSKEEP: We are hearing about this because there are U.S. citizens involved, because it is a U.S.-based missionary group. But I'd like to ask more broadly about the law-and-order situation in Haiti, which may pass by without our notice or without as much notice. How secure, how safe are Haitians feeling these days?

CHARLES: Haitians are not feeling safe these days. I have to tell you, between July and September, the number of kidnappings in Haiti has increased by 300%, according to a local human rights organization. There are kidnappings that happened that we don't know about because people do not go to the police. And so Haitians, whether they're doctors, whether they are merchants on the streets, whether they are in church - we had an incident just a week ago - people are potentially the next victim for a gang.

INSKEEP: People don't go to the police. They're probably told not to go to the police. Is that right?

CHARLES: They're afraid to go to the police because it can alert, you know, the gang members. And the gang members do not want them, yeah, alerting authorities or even talking about their abductions.

INSKEEP: Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. Thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. This week, we may learn just how much stress China's economy can take.

DETROW: Yeah. One of China's biggest companies, the real estate firm Evergrande, could default on its debt. A deadline to pay up comes Saturday. And Evergrande's trouble comes amid news about just how much China's economy has recently slowed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng is covering this story from Beijing. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How much trouble is Evergrande really in?

FENG: A lot. And this is a long time coming. This company has been causing heart attacks since about 2017 because of just how many debts it's taken on since then. But every time it's miraculously paid off interest on those debts - until now. And the difference is government regulators are finally forcing developers like Evergrande to pay back that money. And Evergrande just doesn't have enough money at hand. It managed to delay this problem because for so long, it was a crucial player in a critical sector. China was urbanizing over the last two decades, and Evergrande generated huge wealth by building apartments for people that were moving into cities. But now China wants to move away from this infrastructure-driven, debt-reliant model, and Evergrande is in trouble.

It's also not the only one that's in trouble. About three other developers have also said they're struggling to make bond payments this month. But Evergrande is the one with the biggest debts. It has about $300 billion that it hasn't paid off, and that's because it pioneered this highly risky model where it took out huge loans, which it then used to buy land, build apartments, which it sold before it even built the apartments. And then it used that money to buy even more land and start the cycle all over again.

INSKEEP: Sounds almost like a Ponzi scheme - and of course, we've heard the reports over the past several years about ghost apartments, ghost buildings, ghost cities in China. So perhaps this is some of that coming back to roost.

FENG: Definitely.

INSKEEP: And isn't this happening at a time when China's economy is more fragile than you would normally expect?

FENG: Right. They're starting at a disadvantage because we just got in China's third quarter economic figures. The economy grew 4.9% based - compared to the same three months from last year. And that looks good on paper, but it masks how China's economic growth has actually slowed to basically zero. It's effectively plateaued from quarter to quarter. And that slowing economy reflects two very big challenges. One is electricity shortages because right now entire regions in China are rationing power. Plants here just can't meet this surge in power demand. And that's a problem because so many companies are reliant on Chinese factories.

The second problem is this shift away from debt, especially in the property sector. For decades, property generated double-digit GDP growth in China. And it also propped up a lot of other sectors like steel and construction. But this summer, Beijing has said it wants to move away from that model, so it's limiting how much loans people can take out, and that's really hit Evergrande.

INSKEEP: So what happens if Evergrande defaults on Saturday?

FENG: Well, that's the $300 billion question. The fear is that an Evergrande default could be contagious, as in its financial instability would spread to other companies and banks that it owes money to. China's financial system is highly controlled, meaning Beijing can most likely contain a default because all its banks are nearly state owned. So there are ways to vacuum up bad debts and restructure firms. But these concerns about Evergrande are enough to already put a drag on the Chinese economy. There are fewer people buying houses. And all those other sectors I talked about, like steel and construction, they're also going to be hit, too.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. We'll be listening for your reporting this week, as we always do. Thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We also hear more about COVID vaccine boosters this week.

DETROW: The federal government may drastically expand the availability of booster shots. And even though not everyone will qualify at first, tens of millions more people are expected to soon be eligible for another shot.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is on this story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What announcement specifically can we expect?

STEIN: Any day now, the FDA is expected to authorize the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters. This is following recommendations by the agency's advisory committee last week and comes months after intense debate and lots of, you know, confusing zigzags. This means many of the 69 million people who got Moderna shots in this country and all 15 million who got the J&J are about to become eligible officially for boosters. And that's on top of millions who've been eligible for the Pfizer boosters for several weeks now.

INSKEEP: OK. I'm listening closely to exactly how you're phrasing this, as I'm sure many people who received shots out in America are. You said all 15 million people who got the J&J boosters, but you said many of those who got Moderna shots...

STEIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...In this country. Who gets them? Who doesn't?

STEIN: Yeah. So the Moderna boosters are being recommended for the same folks who are getting Pfizer boosters. Anyone 65 and older and younger adults who are at high risk because they have other health problems or risky jobs or living situations who got their second shots at least eight months ago. The J&J boosters would be for anyone age 18 or older who got their shot at least two months ago.

INSKEEP: OK.

STEIN: And on Thursday, CDC advisers will refine exactly how to use these boosters. And you know, Steve, one key question is whether people should get the same vaccine as a booster or a different one this time. New research suggests that people who got Pfizer or Moderna benefit about equally from getting either of those as a booster. But those who got the J&J look like they might do much better if they get one of the other vaccines this time. Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci told Fox News about this yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I believe there's going to be a degree of flexibility of what a person who got the J&J originally can do, either with J&J or with the mix and match from other products.

STEIN: And Dr. Fauci also says that federal health officials are keeping a close eye on the situation to see if they should eventually expand the pool of people eligible for Pfizer or Moderna boosters to younger adults if more evidence accumulates that their protection is fading, too.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I'm clear on this. Say hypothetically I got the J&J shot, which is actually not hypothetical. It sounds like they would approve me getting either a J&J shot again or one of the others, depending on what I want. Is that right?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So that's the key question. And Dr. Fauci's suggesting that it may basically be, you know, a flexible situation where you can decide based on your own personal situation. And you know, Steve, if you can wait till the end of the week, a lot of this should be official, and some of the guidance will be a lot clearer. But many of the experts I've been talking to are telling me that, you know, people who got the J&J should really just go and get a Pfizer or Moderna this time because it looks like that would really rev up their immune systems better. Here's Dr. Carlos del Rio at Emory, for example.

CARLOS DEL RIO: If I had gotten the J&J vaccine, I would probably want to be boosted with one of the mRNA vaccines, either Pfizer or Moderna. I feel that that's probably a good strategy.

STEIN: But he says anyone who got the Pfizer or Moderna should just go get another one of those shots. It really doesn't matter which one 'cause they both seem to work about equally well.

INSKEEP: And I guess we'll keep listening to your reporting for the other news about when kids under 12 can get vaccinated. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.