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News brief: omicron variant, landmark abortion case, high school shooting

NOEL KING, HOST:

Public health officials have confirmed cases of the omicron variant in at least 20 countries.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. Those same officials are working to determine how effective coronavirus vaccines are against the variant. Here's Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, on CNBC.

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STEPHANE BANCEL: Given the large number of mutation, it is highly possible that the efficacy of the vaccine - all of them - is going down. But we need to wait for the data to know if this is true and how much is it going down. I believe it's going to take two to six weeks to really know.

MARTINEZ: Meanwhile, the delta variant is still circulating widely in the U.S.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is following this story. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we have the CEO of Moderna saying, essentially, we need to wait and see, possibly for between two and six weeks. What else did he say, and how did people react to that?

AUBREY: Well, Moderna's Stephane Bancel pointed out what many scientists have already noted, that there are lots of mutations on the spike protein of the new variant. And given the quick spread, he said the vaccines could be much less effective and may need to be modified. Now, Moderna has already begun work on an omicron-specific booster, but this will likely take several months. And I think his comments were interpreted as bad news.

KING: OK, so he's the CEO of a company. Do scientists, do public health officials, share his concern about vaccines not working?

AUBREY: You know, many people say it is just too soon to tell, and that's just kind of the moment we're in right now, Noel. But I'll point out that not everyone completely agrees with Moderna's CEO. The physician-scientist who co-founded BioNTech and, together with Pfizer, developed the other mRNA COVID vaccine sounded a kind of different note. He told The Wall Street Journal that while omicron may lead to more infections in vaccinated people, he predicted that they will be protected against serious illness. And Dr. Anthony Fauci made the same point at a White House briefing yesterday.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Although partial immune escape may occur, vaccines and particularly boosters give you a degree of cross protection. So there's every reason to believe as we talk about boosters, when you get a level high enough, that you are going to get at least some degree of cross protection, particularly against severe disease.

AUBREY: Now, to help figure this out, scientists are doing a bunch of things. They're testing the plasma of vaccinated people to see if antibodies in the blood can neutralize or fend off omicron. That work is ongoing, so we're still a few weeks away from some more firm answers.

KING: Now, in the meantime, omicron hasn't been found in the U.S. yet. Is there a system in place to look for it?

AUBREY: Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expanding its surveillance program. The agency has stepped up testing at four of the busiest international airports - JFK, Newark, also San Francisco, Atlanta - in an effort to detect the omicron variant. And CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says the agency is actively working with airlines to collect information that can be used to do contact tracing if an arriving passenger tests positive.

KING: OK. There is also, we should note, a bigger push now on booster shots, isn't there?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, the belief is that boosters will really help shore up protection. And just yesterday, Pfizer said it will ask the FDA to make 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for the booster. Right now, it's just 18 and up. And another potential tool to fight COVID - FDA advisers have voted in favor of authorizing the new antiviral pill from Merck. It would be taken within five days of first symptoms to reduce the risk of serious illness.

KING: NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

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KING: All right. Today, the Supreme Court considers the future of access to abortion in this country.

MARTINEZ: Almost 50 years ago, the Roe v. Wade decision determined that anyone has the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. So subsequent decisions reinforce that right. A Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks directly contravenes Roe. So should it be allowed to stand?

KING: Sarah McCammon has been following the story closely for NPR. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: The Supreme Court has heard other abortion rights cases in the past couple of years, but this one today is seen as especially significant. Why is that?

MCCAMMON: Right, Noel, this is arguably the case that the anti-abortion rights movement has been working toward and waiting for for decades. And one big reason is that there is a much more conservative court in place now after the Trump administration. President Trump chose three nominees during his presidency, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was just confirmed on his way out the door. All three of those justices he chose have records hostile to abortion rights, and they make up a third of the court. And it's true this court has been asked to look at other abortion restrictions. The court struck down a Louisiana abortion restriction last year, but that was a victory for abortion rights supporters but a narrow victory, a 5-4 victory. And it was simply an affirmation of very recent precedent from 2016 when the court struck down a very similar law from Texas.

So this Mississippi case could go a lot farther. The law in question is more expansive. It goes to the heart of abortion rights. And the court's decision to hear the case at all may signal a willingness to rethink Roe v. Wade. By the way, that is what the state of Mississippi has explicitly asked the court to do. The state solicitor general is asking the justices to overturn Roe and send the issue of abortion back to the states.

KING: What are the parameters of the Mississippi law exactly?

MCCAMMON: Well, it bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, as we said. It targets abortion providers with fines and potential loss of their licenses. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. And this law, passed in 2018, was blocked in federal court because of the precedent set under Roe v. Wade. So this is really a test case. There's only one clinic in Mississippi right now. Doctors there only go up to 16 weeks in providing abortions. So this is primarily about testing the viability standard created under ROE and reaffirmed in later cases. It says that states have a very limited ability to restrict abortion before a fetus is viable outside a woman's body. Fifteen weeks is well before that by any measure.

KING: OK. So right now, this is just a law in Mississippi. You said the state solicitor general wants the courts to essentially kick the decision back to the states. Will that happen? Is this likely to become an issue in other states?

MCCAMMON: Well, if this law is upheld, we will very likely see other conservative states pass similar laws and try to restrict abortion even further beyond 15 weeks. Abortion rights opponents would like to see nationwide bans on abortion, and so this could potentially down the road open the door to federal legislation if Republicans could get enough power in Congress and the presidency. They don't have the votes for that, of course, right now, but that is a long-term goal of the anti-abortion rights movement, and this case could open that door.

KING: You've been covering this one for a long time. What did you see when you went to Mississippi recently?

MCCAMMON: Well, as I mentioned, there is only one clinic left in the state of Mississippi. We're seeing a trend towards that across especially the Midwest and South, fewer and fewer clinics. I visited that clinic in Jackson over the summer, and I should mention it's the clinic that's suing the state of Mississippi to try to strike down this ban. I talked to abortion rights opponents who hope this is just the beginning of more restrictive abortion laws, whereas abortion rights supporters are predicting a scenario in which we could see more and more patients having to travel long distances to get abortions.

KING: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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KING: Here's what we know at this moment about a school shooting in Oxford, Mich., yesterday afternoon.

MARTINEZ: A 15-year-old sophomore allegedly walked into the school and shot and killed three students. He allegedly wounded eight others, including a teacher.

KING: Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit is covering this developing story. Hi, Quinn.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: Tell us what you've learned so far.

KLINEFELTER: It was just before 1 o'clock in the afternoon at Oxford High School, about 40 miles north of Detroit, when the gunfire first rang out. It ended just a few minutes later, with multiple enforcement vehicles from law enforcement, ambulances in the parking lot, students being airlifted by helicopter to hospitals fighting for their lives. Students and staff from the school evacuated to a nearby department store. Oxford High School has 1,800 students and has a deputy based in the building. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard says deputies rushed into the school and they found a student coming towards them with a gun.

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MICHAEL BOUCHARD: It was loaded at the time and still contained seven rounds of ammunition that, again, I believe, interrupted what potentially could have been seven more victims.

KLINEFELTER: Sheriff Bouchard says they had no prior contact with him, and there was nothing to suggest that there were any problems with him at the school.

KING: So you have a 15-year-old in custody. Is there any idea of what a motive might have been? Is any of that becoming clearer?

KLINEFELTER: Now, law enforcement officials say they're still investigating. They believe he acted alone, and they're not getting much help from the alleged gunman, who they say is not cooperating. He did not resist arrest, but officials say his parents visited him after he was taken into custody, and the boy invoked his right not to speak without an attorney. The sheriff said the gun, which was a 9mm pistol, had been purchased legally by the student's father four days before the shooting. He also confirmed that the suspect posted a picture of that gun on social media. Also we have learned that there were some reports that warned about online threats about possible violence at the school. Now, the sheriff said that they were unaware of those, calls them just rumors for now. But some of the parents and students took it very seriously. Parent Robin Redding, for one, says her kid and a few others stayed home because they were worried.

ROBIN REDDING: They're just mad at each other within this school. And the staffing at the school is trying to do their best they can to be able to keep these kids together, to stop it, to keep them focused. And it's just not working. It just - it got out of hand. This has to stop this, this senseless killing, kids killing kids - senseless.

KING: That is a worrying reaction from a parent who sensed that something was wrong. What else are people in that community telling you?

KLINEFELTER: Shock, you know, sadness, all the emotions that seem to occur when yet another of these terrible events occur at a place of learning. President Biden, for one, sent his condolences. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin called it a deeply dark day in Michigan's history. And Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer went to the site. She's pushed for gun control measures at the state Capitol, where some protesters had brandished rifles during legislative sessions. But the governor, who is a parent herself, got emotional, saying that this is a time to support those who have lost their children, not debate new policy.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: This is a uniquely American problem that we need to address, but at this juncture, I think we need to focus on the community, the families. I think this is every parent's worst nightmare.

KLINEFELTER: She also ordered flags flown at half-staff at all the state buildings to honor the victims.

KING: Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit. Quinn, thanks for your time this morning.

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

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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.