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News Brief: Israel Pummels Gaza, Insurrection Probe, New Coronavirus Detected

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's it like to live in a war zone?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bilal Shbair knows. He's living with his wife and a toddler in Gaza. He's not living in the area where Israeli strikes have collapsed buildings and killed many civilians. But in an interview, he talked about finding bomb shrapnel in his garden.

BILAL SHBAIR: We are experiencing more danger day after day or even hour after hour. We just don't want to die under the rubble of our houses.

MARTIN: As we near the end of a second week of fighting, President Biden increased pressure on his ally, Israel, to wind down its operations. He said on Wednesday he expected a de-escalation, quote, "today." Israeli strikes have continued.

INSKEEP: One of many vantage points we have on this conflict is an Israeli town just outside Gaza. NPR's Jackie Northam is in Sderot in southern Israel. Jackie, welcome.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sounds almost peaceful where you are, although I know that's deceptive. What has happened overnight?

NORTHAM: Well, Israeli warplanes pummeled Gaza again last night, and the military says it struck dozens of targets. You know, we're into the 11th day of this conflict, and now there are serious shortages of clean water and electricity in Gaza. And thousands of people are now homeless. And meanwhile, Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said about 70 were launched last night, which is fewer than other nights. But so far, Hamas has launched more than 4,000 over the course of this conflict. And that's more than ever before. And the thing is, those rockets are going much further than ever. I was in the south of Israel seven years ago covering the same sort of conflict. And at that time, the rockets were hitting small communities. Now they're landing in more populated regions, which, of course, has created real security concerns.

INSKEEP: What are Israelis telling you about that?

NORTHAM: Well, Steve, I'm talking to you from a, like you said, a place called Sderot, which is the closest Israeli town to the Gaza Strip. And it's pretty tense here. You can hear the sound of Israel shelling Gaza. And as soon as we got here, we were shown a shelter where we have to run to if a siren goes off. You only have about 15 seconds to do that. I spoke earlier with Ayel Hajbi (ph), who is a senior security officer with the regional council, and he said that about 900 rockets were fired at this region over the course of this conflict. But, you know, he and many people in this area want Israel to keep going after Hamas. Let's have a listen to him.

AYEL HAJBI: (Through interpreter) I can tell you that even though we're not people who are warmongers, we are definitely in favor of the ongoing campaign. And we need this campaign so as to give for the long run safety and security for the children who live here.

NORTHAM: You know, Steve, though, continued Israeli airstrikes can be nothing short of worrying for civilians in Gaza because they've been sustained over the course of this conflict.

INSKEEP: President Biden, as we mentioned, has been indicating ever more strongly he'd like this to end. How's that exchange with Benjamin Netanyahu gone?

NORTHAM: Well, yeah, Biden yesterday pressed Benjamin Netanyahu to de-escalate the military action, like you said. But, you know, Netanyahu indicated afterwards that he was not ready to stop, especially as there were still rockets being fired into Israel. Here he is here.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: There are only two ways that you can deal with them. You can either conquer them, and that's always an open possibility, or you can deter them. And we are engaged right now in forceful deterrence. But I have to say, we don't rule out anything.

NORTHAM: You know, Steve, it may be that Netanyahu wants to project that whatever he does, it is on his time schedule rather than on Hamas' time schedule.

INSKEEP: Doesn't want to appear to be ordered around by the United States either, I would imagine. Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jackie Northam in southern Israel.

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INSKEEP: In this country, House Democrats, with the help of 35 Republicans, passed legislation last night to create a bipartisan commission that would investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

MARTIN: The GOP co-sponsor of the plan, New York Congressman John Katko, pleaded with his own party to join him.

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JOHN KATKO: I urge all of you in the body, all of you on both sides, not just my side and not just your side, all of us to set aside politics just this once - just this once.

MARTIN: But top House and Senate Republican leaders came out against the plan just hours before the House vote, drawing ire from even some members of the Capitol Police.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales joins us now. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out the Republicans. They're not unanimous in opposition as they so often are here. And in fact, they went along with early steps toward this commission. Why'd they turn against it?

GRISALES: Well, this marks another loyalty test to former President Trump, who put pressure on top House Republican Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to reject it. And they followed suit. They said it's duplicative of other investigations and has too narrow a scope. Soon after, a group of Capitol Police officers anonymously sent a letter to lawmakers expressing, quote, "profound disappointment" for their opposition and that it was inconceivable to see some downplaying the events of January 6.

INSKEEP: Of course, Republicans present themselves as the party that favors police. How did they respond in this circumstance where they're arguing against a closer look at events that harmed a lot of police?

GRISALES: Well, we did see a small but sizable share of 35 Republicans break from their party to vote for this commission, especially when we compare it to the 10 who voted for Trump's second impeachment for his role in the attack. Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan was especially heated in his remarks.

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TIM RYAN: This is a slap in the face to every rank-and-file cop in the United States. If we're going to take on China, if we're going to rebuild the country, if we're going to reverse climate change, we need two political parties in this country that are both living in reality. And you ain't one of them.

GRISALES: But that said, we saw some surprise GOP members break away, such as Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, to vote with Democrats. He's a key critic of them, but he's also the top Republican on a committee that oversees them.

INSKEEP: OK, so if this commission were to come into being, which is by no means sure, how would it work?

GRISALES: It's very similar in to the 9/11 panel. It establishes a 10-member commission or panel that are half picked by Democrats, the other half by Republicans, so it has bipartisan subpoena power. And the report is due by December 31. This came together four months after the attack, with House leaders designating their top members on the House Homeland Security Committee to reach a deal before issuing that opposition in recent days.

INSKEEP: Could this pass the Senate?

GRISALES: There is some doubt right now. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he's bringing it up regardless of GOP opposition. But the House is considering that. And a $1.9 supplemental security funding plan - billion dollar - $1.9 billion plan. And so that and this commission are in danger in the Senate right now.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales.

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INSKEEP: Just what we needed to hear - scientists report the discovery of a troubling new coronavirus.

MARTIN: Yeah, this was detected in Malaysia on the island of Borneo, and it triggered pneumonia in some kids. This new virus showed signs of mutation which may have allowed it to jump from dogs to humans.

INSKEEP: NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff is covering this story. Good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on this. Is this a variant of the coronavirus that we've all been obsessed with by necessity for more than a year?

DOUCLEFF: No, this is an entirely new coronavirus, one that we've never seen before. So it's very different from SARS-CoV-2. It looks like it jumped from dogs to human. And before everyone starts to panic, there's no evidence so far that it can spread from person to person. It has only been found in a small part of Malaysia.

INSKEEP: But it did jump from a dog to a human. How did scientists find it?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so there are actually probably thousands of coronaviruses out there living in almost every animal. And usually scientists have been looking for new viruses in wild animals like bats and mice. But a researcher at Duke University, Dr. Gregory Gray, decided to take a different approach and look for coronaviruses in sick people, people already with respiratory illnesses. To do this, he and his team created a tool which looks like a COVID test, except it can detect almost every coronavirus out there, even ones we don't know about yet. They tried it out on 300 samples from patients with pneumonia in a hospital in Sarawak, Malaysia. And right away, they got a hit.

GREGORY GRAY: We discovered evidence that there was a canine coronavirus in specimens from Sarawak.

DOUCLEFF: So did you catch that? They found signs of a canine or a dog coronavirus inside patients' respiratory tracts. And it wasn't just one patient. It was eight of them.

GRAY: That is a pretty high prevalence of viruses - you know, I think 2.7% or something - that were, you know, positive. That is remarkable.

DOUCLEFF: And most of those patients actually were children, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so I'm thinking about the word causal, whether there is a cause and effect here. Is this coronavirus causing the pneumonia?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So they don't know yet. They are currently trying to figure that out. But if it is the case, it really is a remarkable discovery because scientists didn't think coronaviruses could jump from dogs to people. And it would be just the eighth coronavirus pathogen known to make people sick.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger then of another pandemic?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So one of Gray's collaborators, Anastasia Vlasova, she's a world expert on dog coronaviruses. She's decoded the genome of this new virus. And the genes suggest right now that the virus is not well adapted to humans. So it hasn't figured out how to spread easily between us.

INSKEEP: But of course, we're talking about evolution here. Viruses do change and adapt over time. Is it possible this virus could become more effective?

DOUCLEFF: Yes, absolutely. Just like what we've seen what has happened with SARS-CoV-2. And, you know, in the past few decades, new coronaviruses have emerged from animals almost every 10 years. So scientists think that another coronavirus outbreak is actually inevitable. It's not a question of if, but when. So the scientists I spoke with say to prevent another pandemic, it's important to find these coronaviruses that are already infecting people and then stop them early before they become contagious.

INSKEEP: Michaeleen, thanks.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Better to be informed, I guess. NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.