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News brief: kids' COVID vaccines, billionaires income tax, Jan. 6 defense strategies

NOEL KING, HOST:

Kid-sized doses of the COVID vaccine are one step closer to getting an OK from regulators.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Advisers to the FDA voted in favor of authorizing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. A decision from the FDA either agreeing with or rejecting the recommendation could come at any time.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been following this one. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: OK, so what's the evidence that the vaccine will be effective for little kids 5 to 11?

AUBREY: Well, the advisers considered data from a Pfizer clinical trial that included more than 2,000 kids. It found the vaccine was about 91% effective against symptomatic infection. Now, throughout the pandemic, there have been more than 8,600 young children hospitalized with COVID, and nearly 100 kids aged 5 to 11 have died from COVID. So when it came time to vote, one committee member did abstain, but all the others voted that the benefits of vaccinating this age group outweighs the risks. Dr. Amanda Cohn explained her vote.

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AMANDA COHN: COVID-19 now is a vaccine preventable disease, from my perspective, and COVID is also the eighth highest killer of kids in this age group over the past year. And so use of this vaccine will prevent deaths, will prevent ICU admissions and will prevent significant long-term adverse outcomes in children.

AUBREY: Now, some committee members said they think, for now, it should be a parent's choice to vaccinate their kids, not a mandate.

KING: Based on your reporting, do you think the FDA is going to agree with those advisers and go ahead and authorize the vaccine?

AUBREY: You know, the FDA typically does follow the advice of its advisory committee, and the agency's own scientists have already weighed in, Noel. They concluded that the vaccine's benefit in preventing hospitalizations and deaths likely outweigh the risks of any potential rare serious side effects. So, yes, the agency's analysis does support authorization.

KING: One thing I bet parents will be very curious about - what are the side effects for kids who get the shot?

AUBREY: You know, the common side effects tend to be the same seen in adults - sore arm, headache, aches, chills. Now, when it comes to serious side effects, the main concern is myocarditis, which is inflammation in the heart. There have been rare instances following vaccination, mostly in young men. Now, no children in the Pfizer trial developed myocarditis, but some older kids have. Dr. Matthew Oster of the CDC outlined what is known from 10 cases among 12- to 17-year-olds who developed the condition after receiving the Pfizer vaccine.

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MATTHEW OSTER: About 30% of those 12 to 17 have been given a status of recovered, meaning no medications, no exercise restrictions, no ongoing symptoms.

AUBREY: This was one month after vaccination. Typically, he says, the long-term outlook of children who get myocarditis is good, but this is something CDC will track closely through surveillance if the vaccine is authorized.

KING: And let's say it is authorized. How likely is it that parents will be on board?

AUBREY: You know, about 44% of adolescents 12 to 17 years old have been fully vaccinated, so that's one data point. And a recent poll from the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Equity Project found about two-thirds of parents of 5- to 11-year-olds say they are likely to vaccinate their children. So typically, adults who have been vaccinated are more likely to say they'll get their young children vaccinated. Among those who say that they won't vaccinate their children right away, many say full approval from the FDA or a school mandate would prompt them to change their minds.

KING: OK. NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

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KING: Senate Democrats have a plan to pay for President Biden's agenda.

MARTIN: Democratic lawmakers have spent many weeks haggling over cutting down the spending plan by at least a trillion dollars. Just last night, two of the pivotal moderate Democratic senators - we're talking about Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, of course - they were back at the White House again. And now Senate Democrats say they plan to fund a portion of the spending bill with new taxes on big corporations and a small number of very rich people. Here's the Senate Finance Committee chair, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

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RON WYDEN: How can you say when something like 750 billionaires made close to $2 trillion in a pandemic, that they should be able to pay little or no taxes for years on end?

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following this story. Good morning, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: How would this, I guess you could call, a billionaire's tax work?

SNELL: Well, Democrats say these new rules would apply to about 700 people, and those are people who earn more than $100 million a year or have more than $1 billion in assets over three years - so a fairly small group of people. These billionaires would have to report how much their assets gained or lost each year. Then they'd be taxed on those gains or could write off the losses. It kind of becomes more complicated with some items like interest in a business or real estate. And when it comes to those things, they'd only pay when there's a sale, but there'd be an extra fee. That's kind of like paying an interest on something that was worth a ton of money.

KING: OK, fairly small might be understating it just a little bit. The 700 Americans out of 300 million or so, this would raise a lot of money.

SNELL: Democrats say it would raise hundreds of billions of dollars, but they don't have the exact figures yet. And, you know, those figures will be really important when it comes to selling the plan to skeptics within their own party.

KING: Yes, I can imagine. OK, so what about the corporate tax that Rachel mentioned?

SNELL: So that's a little bit simpler. It's a 15% minimum tax on really large corporations - think companies that consistently earn more than a billion dollars each year. You know, this doesn't do anything to the top corporate rate, which was another plan that Biden and a lot of Democrats had suggested. Instead, it goes after companies that have avoided paying taxes altogether. You know, it is a pretty small group, even smaller than the group of billionaires. We're talking about maybe around 200 companies. But the idea has the support of key Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and that is very important.

KING: Are the Democrats then in complete agreement on these two proposals?

SNELL: Well, they are not quite there yet. There have been some Democrats who have been skeptical of the billionaire tax, and they say it's hard to administer or it could just, you know, be a flop. You know, the details came out really late last night, and this is just a portion of what's left to be decided. As of last night, Democrats were still negotiating over paid leave, dental and vision benefits and Medicare, details on climate change, Medicaid and a few other tax provisions.

KING: They've been negotiating for months now. How are they going to get all this done in the next couple days?

SNELL: Well, they say a lot of things have changed. President Biden has gotten intensely involved and, you know, there is his trip to the Global Climate Summit when he wanted to get a deal before that. I talked to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren yesterday. And she said people should actually worry when the negotiations are broad, not when they're getting down to the really nitty-gritty policy details.

ELIZABETH WARREN: We're finally talking among ourselves down at the can I really live with this level?

SNELL: So basically what she's saying is they're really having these deep conversations about the final policies, and that should give other Democrats hope that they're going to get to a deal. Plus, there's a political reality that they have to get this done or risk alienating voters.

KING: NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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KING: OK. So some of the people who've been charged in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol planned to not hire lawyers and instead act as their own attorneys.

MARTIN: More than 100 people who've been charged so far have pleaded guilty, but other defendants are vowing to go to trial where, as you just noted, Noel, they plan to defend themselves. NPR's investigation's team has been tracking every prosecution related to that attack.

KING: NPR's Tom Dreisbach is part of that team. Good morning, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Noel.

KING: Who are these people who say I'm willing to be tried without getting a lawyer?

DREISBACH: Well, it's a fairly small group. It's at least five people, however, that have decided to represent themselves. They've all pleaded not guilty, which means they're going to trial. And the charges they are facing really vary. You know, one is accused of simply breaching the building during the riot, another is accused of assaulting police. Probably the most serious charges are against a man named Alan Hostetter. He's from California. He's a former police chief turned yoga instructor turned pro-Trump protester, and he was indicted on a charge of conspiracy for allegedly planning with others to bring chaos to the Capitol on January 6.

KING: That seems like a fairly serious charge. So why would a guy like that, Hostetter, go without a lawyer?

DREISBACH: Yes, absolutely serious charge. And in his case, Hostetter, he recorded a video, and in that video, he's wearing a hat with the logo COVID is a scam. He said partly in the video he wanted to save on legal bills, but partly he said he wants to argue that the prosecution itself is corrupt and convince a jury that the real conspiracy is against him.

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ALAN HOSTETTER: They're going to have to say to themselves, yeah, the election was stolen. The government was overthrown, and Alan was right about COVID, the lockdowns, masking, the vaccine. So case closed. Sorry, folks.

DREISBACH: As you can hear, you know, he has views that might be described as conspiratorial. And in some ways, he wants to use this trial to make a political argument. Attorneys who study this told me it's a common reason people decide to act as their own attorney. And other defendants from the right are using arguments from the extremist sovereign citizen movement, basically arguing that the entire U.S. government is illegitimate and does not apply to them.

KING: Are they allowed to use that defense in court?

DREISBACH: Well, these arguments may sound farfetched. There is a very ironclad constitutional right to represent yourself in court as long as someone is mentally competent to stand trial in the legal sense. They can waive the right to a lawyer. The fundamental reason for that is that it is their freedom on the line. But the courtroom rules still apply. Judges do give defendants who represent themselves a little more leeway in general, but they don't allow just any argument. They won't - they really want to keep a trial from turning into a spectacle, so they won't allow just anything.

KING: How risky is this for people who say they'll defend themselves?

DREISBACH: I mean, attorneys and legal experts say it's massively risky. You know, one legal writer has described it as the right to shoot yourself in the foot. You know, people without legal training may not know how to make objections, challenge the government's evidence. There's a tendency to annoy the judge - never a good idea. And it's tough for anyone to really look at their own case objectively. A judge in one of these cases actually told a story about how one defendant had to cross-examine her own best friend, and that best friend was testifying for the prosecution. And it's not like prosecutors like it when they're facing off someone with zero legal training. It can really lead down all sorts of rabbit holes and create complications.

KING: Tom, before we let you go, how many people have been arrested at this point?

DREISBACH: More than 650 arrests so far, but the FBI estimates that around 2,000 people may have been involved in the attack on the Capitol. So we've got a long road ahead of us.

KING: NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks, Tom.

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