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News brief: COVID vaccines for kids, Russia-Ukraine crisis, Canadian protests

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A lot of parents have been anxiously waiting for it - a vaccine for their young children.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, they will find out more about how well the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine works for kids 5 and under. NPR has learned that the company has gathered additional data to support their request to authorize the vaccine for those children. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to release that data today.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Leila.

FADEL: So Rob, would you start by reminding us where things stand with the vaccine for young kids?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, the vaccine has only been authorized for kids ages 5 and older so far. So a lot of parents of those younger kids have been, you know, kind of holding their breath, you know, waiting for word on when they might finally be able to vaccinate their children.

But Pfizer and BioNTech discovered that two shots of a low-dose version of their vaccine only seem to work in kids ages 6 months to 23 months old. It did not look like it would protect those ages 2, 3 and 4. So the company started giving kids a third shot to see if that did the trick. The results from that third shot aren't due until next month, so everyone thought we'd have to keep waiting.

Then last week, the FDA and the company surprised everyone. The FDA asked the companies to apply for authorization for the vaccine anyway. The idea is that parents could start vaccinating their kids so they'll be ready for that third shot when the data hopefully shows that it works. But this is a really unorthodox strategy, to say the least.

FADEL: Right. So they might get approval before we even know if it's effective for 3- and 4-year-olds. What's in this additional data?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, that's right. And the company started gathering data about the kids who just got two shots in the meantime anyway, including through the omicron surge, when lots of kids caught the virus. Now, you know, that's obviously bad for all those kids who got sick, but it gave the companies and the FDA a chance to get a glimpse of whether the low-dose pediatric vaccine might be protecting kids. And according to someone familiar with at least an early look at that data, it suggests the vaccine may cut the risk of getting sick from the virus by about half.

Now, you know, there are some big caveats about this. One is that it's based on kids who got infected at the end of the delta surge and the beginning of the omicron surge. So it's unclear how well it protects against omicron, which is really what matters at this point. And there just may not be enough evidence yet to really know how strong that protection really is.

FADEL: So how are parents reacting?

STEIN: You know, it's mixed. On the one hand, you know, parents and a lot of experts that I've been talking to are saying this strategy, you know, makes sense because, you know, the super contagious omicron variant is still spreading fast, and some kids are still getting really sick. And it looks like the vaccine is very safe. Others say, hold on a minute here. You really want parents to give their kids two shots of a vaccine that may or may not work when the omicron surge is fading fast?

And, you know, this could backfire by, you know, spooking parents, you know, by taking this unusual approach. It's already been hard to convince a lot of parents to vaccinate their kids.

FADEL: And what happens now?

STEIN: So the FDA is convening outside experts to review all of this next Tuesday. And to get ready for that meeting, the FDA today is expected to release the details of the company's data, along with the FDA's own analysis. So we should know a lot more about how strong the case is later today.

If the FDA advisers are satisfied and the agency authorizes the vaccine, an independent committee will then vote to recommend it or not for the CDC. In the meantime, federal health officials say they're already gearing up to start shipping out millions of doses of the vaccine as soon as the FDA and CDC sign off on it. And that could come, you know, by the end of the month.

FADEL: NPR's Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: The threat of a full-scale Russian invasion is looming large over Ukraine.

MARTIN: Right. By land and by sea, Russian troops and armaments are continuing to amass at Ukraine's borders. President Biden is calling on Americans who live in Ukraine to leave because the threat is so severe. Here's a clip of an interview he did on NBC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: American citizens should leave, should leave now. We're dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. This is a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly.

MARTIN: And he made it clear if Americans get stuck, the U.S. will not - will try to rescue them. But he said, in really stark terms, this could all spiral into a world war.

FADEL: For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's in Kyiv. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So how are Americans and other foreigners in Ukraine reacting to what Biden said?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it's calm for now. You know, this country has been under pressure for many years from Russia. You had invasions of Crimea and the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Today, this morning, I was talking to a guy named John Shmorhun. He's originally from Maryland, works in the agricultural industry here, has a charitable foundation. And he said most people are taking it in stride. This is what he had to say.

JOHN SHMORHUN: Many of us have our roots here in Ukraine for many years. And there's a number of expats that are here, and we've created a life here for ourselves. So I appreciate the warning from the State Department, but we're here. We're here to stay.

LANGFITT: And I got to add, Leila, European countries, so far as I can tell, have not yet followed suit in terms of telling their expatriates here to leave. And there has been some gallows humor. There was a Scottish man I saw on Facebook saying he was trying to get from Belarus, where there's been a huge, you know, Russian troop buildup down here to Kyiv. And he said he was looking at a map route and couldn't find a tank option. So for now, people seem to be remaining pretty calm.

FADEL: And what about Ukrainians? What are you hearing from them this morning?

LANGFITT: Much the same, I'd say, as you hear from longtime Americans. I was talking to a woman that I met last night at a panel discussion. Her name is Olga Tokariuk. She's a journalist. She's 36, and here's what she told me.

OLGA TOKARIUK: As a Ukrainian, it will not impact, like, my plans. I plan to, you know, keep calm and carry on, stay in Kyiv. I do not plan to leave at this time. I do not believe in a full-scale invasion in an overt invasion because I think Russia really can't afford it.

LANGFITT: And what she said and others here say is that if there were a massive invasion, it'd be very costly to the Russians, particularly in terms of loss of troops and the political damage overseas. Many people are here training with weapons or facsimile of weapons in recent weeks. And they say they're ready to fight if it actually comes to a siege.

FADEL: OK, so why such a different tone from Ukrainians you're speaking to, Americans you're speaking to in Ukraine than what we're hearing from the White House?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think this is a fascinating question, Leila, and this - I was at this panel discussion last night, and there was a big debate about this. The concern of many people here in Ukraine is that the language out of the White House and from London could actually help Putin's strategy to put maximum psychological pressure on the Ukrainian people and destabilize the country.

That said, the American military is saying we've never seen troop buildups like this, and the troops are continuing to come. And the conversations that I've had with American officials are serious and sober. And I think I said last night, it's possible that the U.S. and the U.K. have intelligence that is not available to the public, maybe not, but that's how things stand right now.

FADEL: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv, thank you so much.

LANGFITT: Good to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Big rig trucks and other vehicles shut down at least three border crossings between Canada and the U.S. in protest of pandemic health measures.

MARTIN: Truckers and like-minded demonstrators arrived in a convoy at Ottawa's Parliament Hill two weeks ago. They have been there ever since. Scott Bazinet drove 2,000 miles from his home in Edmonton to join the protest.

SCOTT BAZINET: In my 52 years of being on this planet, I don't think I've ever been as proud to be a Canadian as I am down here with these people.

MARTIN: Similar anti-government demonstrations are now being organized in other countries.

FADEL: Reporter Emma Jacobs is covering this and joins us now from Montreal. Hi, Emma.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what's the latest on these protests?

JACOBS: So in addition to Ottawa and a border crossing between Alberta and Montana that's been obstructed for the past two weeks, there are now two more border blockades. One is in Manitoba, and one is on the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario.

This is the busiest border crossing in North America. It carries more than a quarter of U.S.-Canada trade and is a key corridor for the auto industry. So plants on both sides of the border have had stoppages because they can't get parts.

So even though the number of people involved in these demonstrations is relatively small, they're able to have an outsized impact that is now growing beyond Canada.

FADEL: Right.

JACOBS: So a convoy left from Nice in the south of France this week. Others could take place in Europe. And in the U.S., online discussions are growing about how a convoy could be timed to disrupt the Super Bowl.

FADEL: Now, only about 10% of eligible Canadians are unvaccinated. So where are these protesters getting their support from?

JACOBS: Well, again, they've figured out how to cause a lot of mayhem with small numbers. But beyond that, it seems like some Canadian activists who really come from the far-right in some cases, and some have some pretty extreme anti-government views, they've managed to tap into frustration of those who aren't vaccinated, some people really entrenched in conspiracy theories and maybe a little of the general fatigue with restrictions in Canada. Generally, measures have been much stricter than in the U.S. throughout the pandemic.

But there's also clearly support coming from abroad. The convoy has raised a lot of money, more than it likely could from Canadians alone. In the U.S., there's been a lot of coverage on right-wing media and support from high-profile Republicans like former President Donald Trump. And this has probably helped drive donations and attention.

Now, two of the convoy's biggest fundraising campaigns have been halted. First, GoFundMe found the convoy was violating its terms of service and refunded all donations. The convoy then moved to another Christian fundraising site and raised millions more dollars.

FADEL: Wow.

JACOBS: But yesterday, Ontario - a court froze those funds. Still, as one person said to me, these crowdfunding campaigns have almost become more about the crowds than the funding. They're symbols of support.

FADEL: So how does this end?

JACOBS: Unclear. Ottawa residents are upset about the lack of leadership. At the Ambassador Bridge, there's probably greater urgency because it is such a key link, and there's pressure on both the governments of Ontario and the federal government to step in.

FADEL: That's reporter Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Thank you so much for your reporting.

JACOBS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "THE ERASER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.