News Brief: Georgia's Reopening, Missouri Sues China, Vaccine Planning

Apr 23, 2020
Originally published on April 23, 2020 9:24 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Some states are announcing their plans to gradually reopen.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Right, and Georgia is one of the first here. The governor there, Brian Kemp, will allow some businesses to reopen starting tomorrow. The White House has recommended that before states start to reopen, they demonstrate a downward trajectory of COVID cases over 14 days. And also, they should have the capacity to treat all patients and test health care workers. So is Georgia there yet?

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking into it. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So based on those White House guidelines, is Georgia ready?

AUBREY: Not yet. According to the infectious disease experts I've spoken to in Georgia, they do agree that the data show the state is moving in the right direction. But Georgia has not met the criteria outlined in the administration's guidance. And both Anthony Fauci and President Trump weighed in last night with their concerns. The president said he strongly disagrees with Governor Brian Kemp's decision to open businesses so soon. Now, Kemp has cited favorable data pointing to a decline in ER visits, a flattening of cases. But one trigger laid out in this phased approach to reopening is a sustained 14-day decline in new cases. And Georgia is not there.

KING: And the other aspect of this is testing, right? So can we say simply, does Georgia have enough tests?

AUBREY: No. Overall, there's not enough testing in Georgia that's been completed and in many other places, too. I mean, there's been such a debate about this. The Trump administration says there's plenty of capacity. Many experts and state officials say there's shortages. But one solid gauge of whether a state is doing enough testing is to look at the positive rate in tests. The more tests that come back positive, the less likely a state is doing enough testing.

The World Health Organization says a 10% positive rate is a good benchmark. And as a nation, we have a 20% rate. In Georgia, the positive rate is 23% - other states, even higher. Massachusetts and New York have been at about, say, 25, 30% in recent days. Now, the administration has acknowledged that this 10% threshold is a good metric. And last night, both Vice President Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams talked about the importance of expanding testing at nursing homes and in minority communities.

KING: In minority communities because we know at this point that the virus seems to be affecting black Americans more severely. Now, bigger-picture question - Georgia's population is about 32% black. You've been speaking to people there. Is Georgia...

AUBREY: Yes.

KING: ...Taking this threat seriously?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I spoke to Lorraine Cochran-Johnson. She is a commissioner in DeKalb County. That's the metro Atlanta area. She is all too aware of these disparities. Around the country, African Americans have disproportionately ended up in the hospital with serious illness from this virus.

LORRAINE COCHRAN-JOHNSON: In DeKalb County, Ga., the top five ZIP codes for COVID-19 known cases are amongst our areas with the highest concentration of African Americans. So when you look at the numbers, they're very revealing.

AUBREY: Now, around the country, about 1 in 3 cases is among African Americans. And there are, you know, several reasons for this. One is that African Americans make up a large share of the workforce service-sector jobs, jobs you can't do from home. So employees in these jobs are at higher risk of exposure. And Cochran-Johnson says, it's just premature to open businesses in Georgia.

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: I don't want people forced with a situation where once these businesses open, they are forced back into the workforce and not allowed to continue sheltering in place. Because, in all honesty, we still have a long way to go.

AUBREY: This sentiment is echoed by many public health officials. And last night, Anthony Fauci said if governors and mayors don't follow the formula laid out in the guidelines in terms of the timing of phase reopening, it's likely that we'll have a rebound in cases.

KING: All right. Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Is China's government legally responsible for the spread of the coronavirus? According to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, it is.

ERIC SCHMITT: Chinese authorities engaged in a campaign of deceit, inaction by these authorities that directly led to this vicious virus spreading around the globe. And Missouri has not been immune to that.

GREENE: So this attorney general, Schmitt, is suing China in Missouri. Mississippi's attorney general says her state is going to do the same thing. And here's the thing, though, U.S. states just don't typically sue other countries. So what power do they actually have here?

KING: Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., has been following this story. Hey, Frank.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So what is the basis of Missouri's lawsuit against China?

MORRIS: Well, the attorney general here, Eric Schmitt, is laying the entire blame for the pandemic - every bit of the death and financial destruction - squarely on China. He claims that from the onset of the virus in December, in January, China destroyed medical research and arrested whistleblowers and allowed thousands of people to leave Wuhan after it was clear that a highly infectious disease had broken out there.

KING: As David mentioned, this is extraordinarily rare for a U.S. state to just sue another country. Can it be done?

MORRIS: Well, it's certainly unusual. Tom Ginsburg, a law professor at the University of Chicago, says the case raises a huge jurisdictional issue.

TOM GINSBURG: Sovereign immunity. That's the word that we use for the principle that states can't be sued in each other's courts. Governments cannot be sued in courts of other governments.

MORRIS: The statute here is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. But it does have narrow exceptions. And that's why Schmitt isn't just suing China. He's suing three Chinese government agencies, a province, the city of Wuhan, a lab, a science agency...

KING: Wow.

MORRIS: ...And the Communist Party. That's where some of the exemptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act come in. There's one exemption for commercial activity. And Schmitt says labs are engaged in some kind of commerce. There's another exemption for non-state actors, like the Communist Party.

But even if the lawsuit clears the sovereign immunity hurdle, Missouri would still have to prove that what it says happened in China at the dawn of the pandemic actually happened, and that it directly caused pain and suffering in Missouri. And even if the case gets past all of that and wins, there's no clear way for Missouri to collect any money from a lab in China or the Communist Party.

KING: Right. Because they're unlikely to say, yeah, sure. We're guilty. Here's our money. So if none of this is likely to lead to anything, why is Missouri's attorney general even bothering?

MORRIS: Well, Noel, critics say it smacks of politics. It lets Schmitt, an elected official, do something about the pandemic. It fits neatly with Republican efforts in the Senate to strip some of China's sovereign immunity protection from this type of litigation. And it keeps the focus on China and its culpability in the pandemic while diverting attention from what critics would cite as Trump administration missteps, like downplaying the virus early on, the sluggish rollout of testing and the splotchy allocation of medical equipment. As of yesterday afternoon, we're up to 6,137 COVID-19 cases in Missouri and 208 deaths.

KING: Has China's government said anything about this lawsuit?

MORRIS: Yeah, just a little. A foreign ministry spokesman called the lawsuit absurd and said that the action had, quote, "no factual or legal basis at all." He repeated China's defense of its response to the outbreak. But it's not clear whether or not China will contest the lawsuit in U.S. district court in Missouri. Legal experts I've spoken with say that lawyers representing China will likely try to have it thrown out over the sovereign immunity issue

KING: Oh, OK. Frank Morris in Kansas City, Mo., with member station KCUR. Thanks for the reporting, Frank.

MORRIS: You bet, Noel King. You take care of yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. A big question here - when will a vaccine be ready? Scientists around the world are working as quickly as they can.

GREENE: Yeah. And some vaccine developers are already testing on humans. But even if these initial tests go smoothly, we probably won't have a vaccine for widespread distribution for many months. So experts are saying that it is important to start planning right now for the day when a vaccine does become available because not everyone is going to have access to it right away.

KING: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has been covering this. Joe, let's jump right in. Vaccine developers are getting ready for the day we have a vaccine. What are they getting ready for, exactly?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Well, they're going to have to think about how you're going to make it. I mean, let's say a vaccine sails through the testing. OK. Great. But suddenly, we need a billion doses. Well, you can't just press a button overnight. You have to start building manufacturing capacity now. And the interesting thing is that companies are doing that. But some of them know that the vaccine that they're going to be making will never make it to market. But they're still going to build these facilities. So you have to build capacity and take risk.

KING: And then when we do have a vaccine, is it as easy as just giving it to everyone?

PALCA: Yeah, it's not, obviously. I talked to Bruce Gellin about that. He's head of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute. And he says that when the vaccine is first available, supplies will be limited. But demand, obviously, will be high. So how do you manage that? Well, Gellin used to work in government and said that, when there was a threat of a major flu pandemic, they discussed how to prioritize who goes first.

BRUCE GELLIN: Clearly, among the top were health care workers and people who provide community services, the things that keep society going. There's the security sector, whether that's, you know, national security or the military.

PALCA: And then there's the people who are part of society's critical infrastructure. And as we're learning, they might not be people who necessarily spring to mind as critical. I mean, I'm talking about grocery store employees, delivery truck drivers, people who stock shelves. So then when you think about in health terms, you have to think about who's most vulnerable to infection. Maybe the elderly should get the vaccine first. Or maybe it's something to decide on who's the sickest. So there's a lot of questions to answer.

KING: Including how you pay for this - right? - because it sounds like it's going to be expensive.

PALCA: Yes. It's going to be very expensive, I mean, billions and billions. And that may not be such a huge problem for developed countries. But what about low-resource countries? I mean, there are questions of equity. There are questions of self-interest, too. I mean, the virus doesn't know anything about borders.

And once global travel starts again, people can go anywhere in a matter of hours. So you could possibly have it reintroduced into this country. So there's going to have to be discussions about how you do it, how it's paid for, who's going to pay for it and how to make sure that everybody in the world gets a chance to get their hands on it and receive it when and if it starts to work.

KING: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca. Joe, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.