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News brief: COVID boosters, voting rights failure, Russia hosts Afghan talks

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Everyone who got a Johnson & Johnson shot and many people who received Moderna's vaccine may soon be heading off to get one more dose

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If they choose, if they agree. The Food and Drug Administration authorized boosters for many of the 85 million people who got those vaccines. Here's FDA official Peter Marks.

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PETER MARKS: Allowing for booster doses in the populations that need them most at this time marks another important step in our collective effort to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to a close.

INSKEEP: You heard him say an important step. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still needs to approve, so that's one more step. CDC advisers meet today.

DETROW: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So what exactly has the FDA authorized here?

STEIN: Yeah. The FDA expanded the pool of people eligible for boosters big time, and it's giving a lot of flexibility in picking which vaccine to use as a booster. Anyone 65 and older who got the Moderna vaccine at least six months ago can get a half dose as a booster; same goes for younger adults who got Moderna who have health problems or a risky job, you know, like nurses and teachers, or risky living situations, like homeless shelters or prisons, just like the Pfizer booster. It's even more open for people who got the J&J vaccine. The FDA gave the green light to a full J&J dose to anyone who got what was supposed to be a one-shot vaccine at least two months ago. That's because the J&J has never been as protective as the other vaccines.

DETROW: I'm trying hard not to say mix and match like so much coverage has said. Like, it sounds like you're filling up a six-pack.

STEIN: Yeah, mix or match.

DETROW: But this is an important step here. The FDA is saying that you don't necessarily have to stay in that same vaccine lane going forward.

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. Research indicates that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are essentially interchangeable as boosters, and this gives people, you know, a lot of that flexibility if one vaccine is not available or if they want to try a different one because, say, they had a bad reaction the first time around. It also simplifies boosting people in nursing homes where residents may have gotten different vaccines. And it's especially important for those who got the J&J vaccine. Boosting J&J recipients with a Pfizer or Moderna shot seems much better for, you know, turbocharging the immune system than just getting another J&J shot. You know, some people may still go with J&J again, you know, maybe because it's easier to get, or maybe because they're more comfortable getting what they got the first time. The J&J shot does a decent job as a booster and may even give longer lasting immunity.

DETROW: Yeah. Steve made a good point at the beginning of the segment that going forward, this is something that's optional if people want to do this. And there has been some scientific pushback that if people aren't older, if they're not immunocompromized, then maybe boosters aren't needed. What are officials saying?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, for now, the agency is following the advice from its advisers that there just isn't enough evidence to justify expanding the pool eligible for boosters even more. The vaccines seem to be still pretty good at keeping - you know, very good actually at keeping most younger, otherwise healthy people from getting really sick. But there is growing evidence that protection may be waning for those people, too, maybe starting with, you know, 40-somethings. So officials say they'll loosen up, you know, the eligibility when that's necessary. So stay tuned on that score.

DETROW: So many people are still waiting for that next authorization for a vaccine for younger kids. Where does that stand?

STEIN: Yes. So next Tuesday, FDA advisers will review Pfizer's request to authorize that vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11. Older kids are already getting Pfizer shots. Pfizer has submitted data that using one-third of the dose grown-ups got is safe and effective for kids ages 5 to 11. If Pfizer gets the OK, which is expected, the CDC will weigh in on this question the first week of November. Kids will need two doses three weeks apart, just like their parents. But this means lots of kids could well be on their way to being fully vaccinated by around Thanksgiving, which would help keep them safe and in school and help keep the virus from surging again.

DETROW: And definitely take some of the stress off of Thanksgiving gatherings.

STEIN: Yeah, that's for sure.

DETROW: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Scott.

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DETROW: So Senate Democrats have yet again tried and yet again failed to pass a voting rights bill.

INSKEEP: Republicans, you'll recall, have been changing voting rules at the state level this year. Many new laws are scaling back voter access or making it easier to challenge an election or changing who calls the winner. Republicans are acting on false claims about the election that Donald Trump lost in 2020. Democrats offered their own proposal in Congress that would set federal standards for elections that states run. Yesterday, not a single Republican senator approved of that, so the latest version of the bill failed to clear a filibuster. Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the vote.

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KAMALA HARRIS: We're not going to give up. We're not deterred. But there's still a lot of work to do, and I think it's really a sad day.

INSKEEP: OK, so what now?

DETROW: NPR political correspondent Juana Summers has been covering this all year. Good morning, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's add a bit more context here. This is a huge priority for Democrats. Many would view it as an increasingly existential priority for them.

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. So this bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, was a compromise, but it would do things like setting standards for early voting and vote by mail, making Election Day a national holiday. And it would also put in place some rules in states where voter ID is required. President Biden has called the fight against these laws to restrict voting access the most significant test of American democracy since the Civil War. Take a listen to what he said earlier this year in a speech in Philadelphia.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Legislation is one tool but not the only tool. And it's not the only measure of our obligation to defend democracy today.

SUMMERS: The White House says the president has taken every step at his disposal to protect voting rights, including an executive order earlier this year. Administration officials also point to the fact that Vice President Harris is leading the administration's charge on this issue and the Justice Department's announcement that it doubled its voting rights enforcement staff.

DETROW: So how does this approach go over with people on the front lines fighting for voting rights?

SUMMERS: Well, frankly, it's not great. There is a ton of anger and frustration among activists and organizers. They say they don't feel like elected officials in Washington have their backs. A group of activists has been rallying outside the White House for weeks now, and they're hoping to put this issue front and center for the president. I talked to Virginia Kase Solomon at a protest this week. She's the CEO of the League of Women Voters.

VIRGINIA KASE SOLOMON: He put an emphasis on the infrastructure bill. He has prioritized that. He has called people into the White House. He has made sure that he has everybody that he needs on board. And so we're saying you need to do the same thing for voting rights.

DETROW: OK, Juana, we have now arrived at the inevitable question about the filibuster. Democrats could pass a voting bill entirely on their own if they eliminate it, but they still have not tried to.

SUMMERS: That's right, and that's because some Democrats don't agree with that strategy, at least not yet. Some say they hope that this incident will persuade West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and other Democrats who have been opposed to changing Senate rules to be more open to that idea because voting rights around the country are on the line. Right now, they need 60 votes to pass a bill like this, but there are only 50 senators in the Democratic caucus. This compromise was a chance to let Manchin try and find Republican votes, but he couldn't get any. They say this is an attempted federal takeover of state-run elections. Just a quick point - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that failure is not an option, and he may bring a different voting rights bill focused on the Voting Rights Act up for a vote as soon as next week, Scott.

DETROW: All right. NPR's Juana Summers, thank you so much.

SUMMERS: You're welcome.

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DETROW: Taliban leaders are hitting the road.

INSKEEP: A delegation from Afghanistan's new Taliban leaders is visiting Russia. They would like to receive formal recognition as the government of Afghanistan. Delegates from several other countries took part in meetings hosted by Russia's government.

DETROW: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow and joins us now. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

DETROW: So what was the idea behind these talks? And did any of these countries formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government?

MAYNES: Not recognition. The Russians said they're not quite ready for that, but it's definitely a step forward in the Taliban's quest for legitimacy. You had 10 nations - Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Central Asian countries - all meeting solely with the Taliban. And that's significant because these so-called Moscow format meetings have happened before, but it always involved the American-backed government in Kabul, the Taliban and other factions. That's all done. These countries now say they recognize the, quote, "new reality" of the Taliban's ascent to power while stopping just short of offering official recognition. But with that acknowledgement comes calls for U.N. humanitarian assistance, calls for the U.S. in particular to chip in and unfreezing Afghan state assets to stave off humanitarian disaster. Let's listen to the Kremlin's point man on the talks. This is Zamir Kabulov.

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ZAMIR KABULOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So Kabulov here is saying that he understands that not everyone likes who's come to power in Afghanistan, but in trying to punish the new authorities, in other words, the Taliban, they're in fact punishing the entire Afghan people, something they don't deserve.

DETROW: What's Russia's goal here?

MAYNES: Well, essentially, it's a balancing act. On the one hand, they're embracing closer contacts with the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal, developing influence over what happens inside. They're calling for an inclusive ethnic government, seeing that as key to a more stable Afghanistan. On the other, Russia is even more concerned about what happens beyond Afghanistan, making sure nothing happens that could destabilize Central Asian allies with whom Moscow shares a joint security pact. So, you know, the Kremlin doesn't want to see refugees fleeing across the border into these neighboring states. It also certainly doesn't want to see problems with terrorism. They don't want to see ISIS fighters making their way to Central Asia and possibly up to Russia. And fundamentally, Moscow wants to avoid anything that could pull the Russian military into the region in a sustained way. They've been down that path before with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This was a decade-long war in the 1980s, and they're certainly not looking for a repeat.

DETROW: That makes sense. It sounds like Russia is deliberately walking a fine line here. Is this, in the end, all about leverage?

MAYNES: Well, exactly. I think - in fact, it's interesting. Russia is among countries that officially designates the Taliban a terrorist organization, which makes for some odd scenes, all the more so because Russian media law requires that journalists here labeled the Taliban as such at every turn. So...

DETROW: Even as they meet with them.

MAYNES: Exactly. So it's quite something to see. State media covers, say, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcoming the Taliban in one breath and then adding, oh, by the way, they're an illegal terrorist group in the next.

DETROW: One more question - the U.S. was not on the list of countries you named. Do we know why the U.S. did not attend this meeting?

MAYNES: Well, the State Department said it was due to logistical problems. The assumption here was that the resignation of the U.S.' Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, just before the talks was the real reason. Russia's foreign minister said he regretted the U.S. absence, but it certainly underscored another new reality, that it's Russia, not the U.S., now playing the lead role in shaping what happens next in Afghanistan.

DETROW: Yeah. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

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