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Regional Interests

News Brief: Variant Warning, Biden-Al-Kadhimi Meeting, Climate Meeting

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The delta variant continues to fuel a sharp rise in U.S. coronavirus cases,

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, and so we will need to adapt. Public health officials say vulnerable people might need booster shots. The CDC is reconsidering whether vaccinated people should wear masks. And some cities aren't even waiting on the CDC. LA revived its mask mandate a week ago, and St. Louis is doing the same today.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about the latest. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So case counts are going up in many places, as we've heard. How bad is it, and how does that compare to where we've been over the past year and a half or so?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, there were more than 64,000 cases reported on Friday. New cases have more than doubled over the last two weeks. And again, surges are really concentrated in areas where vaccination rates remain low. Just looking at data from Florida, some counties are reporting positivity rates in the 25% range, which means 1 in 4 tests are coming back positive. In Texas, there's also been a rise. I spoke to Marc Boom. He's the CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, where the number of hospitalized COVID patients has climbed quickly. He says the tragedy is this was preventable.

MARC BOOM: Nine in 10 people in our hospital right now are unvaccinated. So if they had been vaccinated, the vast, vast majority, if not all of them, wouldn't be sick. But furthermore, the other 10% who are here who are vaccinated probably wouldn't be sick either because we wouldn't have this rate of virus spreading throughout the community. So we owe it to them to help them.

AUBREY: He says the best way is for everyone to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, models point to a continued increase in hospitalizations and deaths through the fall.

MCCAMMON: And, Allison, we have in recent days been hearing a growing number of calls from Republican leaders in areas with low vaccination rates for people to get the vaccine, especially as this delta variant spreads. Are we seeing any signs that this is motivating unvaccinated people to do that?

AUBREY: You know, it's really slow going, Sarah. About 30% of adults in the U.S. remain unvaccinated. But as you say, more leaders in states with low vaccination rates are speaking up. And they're speaking up more forcefully. This includes Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, telling Floridians that vaccines are saving lives; GOP Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, who said it's time to blame unvaccinated people as cases rise; and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican, told people in his state that they're losing ground to the delta variant. They're all trying to nudge people to get vaccinated. But a new AP poll found that 80% of people who have yet to be vaccinated say they probably won't get the shots. Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated again yesterday on CNN, vaccination is the best defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: If you are vaccinated, the vaccine is highly protective against the delta variant, particularly against severe disease leading to hospitalization.

AUBREY: In fact, recent evidence from the UK found an mRNA vaccine to be 96% effective against hospitalization and death.

MCCAMMON: It's important to stress that it's a small number here, but some vaccinated people are still getting the coronavirus. What do we know about what's happening there?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, most of them are over the age of 65 and have some serious health complications. Dr. Fauci spoke about this yesterday, saying vulnerable people may benefit from a COVID vaccine booster shot. He pointed to data from Israel that suggests immunity can begin to wane by six months after vaccination.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

FAUCI: The data that's evolving from Israel and from Pfizer indicates that it looks like there might be some diminution in protection. And when you have that, the most vulnerable people who have suppressed immune system, those who are transplant patients, cancer chemotherapy, autoimmune diseases - those are the kind of individuals that if there's going to be a third boost, which might likely happen, will be among first the vulnerable.

AUBREY: He says more should be known about a booster strategy and all this data soon.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: Iraq's prime minister says his country no longer requires American combat troops to fight ISIS.

KING: Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said that in an interview with the AP. He was referring to the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops that are in Iraq right now. He is meeting with President Biden today. And the big question is whether he'll say the same thing at the White House.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut to talk about it. Hello, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

MCCAMMON: What do we know about the discussions that are set to take place in the White House today?

SHERLOCK: Well, ahead of this meeting, Iraq's prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, had been briefing that Iraq no longer requires the presence of U.S. combat troops in the country. He told The Associated Press that he plans to discuss a timeframe for their redeployment during this visit. You know, this is part of an ongoing conversation about the status of American troops in Iraq. U.S. forces were sent there by President Obama to fight ISIS in 2014. And in recent months, President Biden and the Iraqi prime minister have talked about a shift to U.S. forces being present for a train and equip mission, but no timeline has been set for that. Today's meeting is a continuation of that conversation.

MCCAMMON: And, Ruth, what can you tell us about what an end to the role of combat troops in Iraq would mean in terms of an overall U.S. military presence in Iraq?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, that is the question. Analysts say this is actually more about politics and diplomacy than any real change on the ground for now. They see this as almost a sort of window dressing to help the Iraqi prime minister with domestic politics back in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias and politicians are very strong in Iraq. And since the U.S. assassinated Iran's top security and intelligence commander, Qassem Soleimani, last year, those aligned with Iran have been calling for action against the U.S. So Iraq's parliament at one point even demanded that the government expel U.S. forces. So Iraq's Prime Minister Kadhimi is under a lot of pressure, especially as he has an election coming up. Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at Chatham House think tank in the U.K., says that in calling for an end to U.S. combat troops in Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister is trying to appease the Iranian-backed factions.

RENAD MANSOUR: Really, he's sending a message from Iran to the U.S. to say, remove your combat troops. And the Americans are replying saying, OK, we'll remove our combat troops, but we're going to have our advisers there. They might just look the same.

SHERLOCK: And, you know, this is really the point. In actual fact, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is expected to remain similar. Instead, their role will be redefined to provide training and intelligence to Iraqi forces. U.S. military officials say this is more or less what's already happening on the ground in Iraq anyway.

MCCAMMON: For the U.S., what are the interests there now?

SHERLOCK: Well, the U.S. wants to keep a presence in Iraq to help fight against ISIS. Troops in Iraq also support operations of U.S. troops in Syria. The U.S. also wants to counter Iran. Iranian-backed militias have escalated drone and rocket attacks against U.S. bases in Syria. And the U.S. has responded with air strikes. And many Iraqis, including the prime minister, say, you know, the U.S. needs to continue to support Iraqi forces. The U.S. also is important for many other European states in Iraq who operate in Iraq.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thanks so much, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: Massive wildfires, extreme heat across North America and Africa, deadly flash floods in Europe and Asia.

KING: Those are all signs of climate change, of course. But there's been no comprehensive report on the state of global warming for eight years. The last one came out in 2013. But today, more than 200 of the world's leading climate scientists will finalize an updated report on how the climate has changed and what the future might look like.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Rebecca Hersher is with us now to talk about that. Good morning, Rebecca.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: So this meeting is set to last for about two weeks. There are many of the world's top climate scientists there. What are they hoping to achieve?

HERSHER: So these scientists - they're serving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That's part of the U.N. And they're finalizing this really important report. They've been poring over all the climate research published through January of this year. So that's thousands of studies about the Earth's atmosphere, about oceans, forests, weather patterns. And their goal is to summarize all of that research in one report that governments can then use to understand two things - first, the scientific consensus about how the climate has already changed and second, how the rest of the century will look, right? How quickly will the Earth heat up? What does that mean for hurricanes, for fires, for sea level rise?

MCCAMMON: And this group of scientists has been convening for many years. But it's been a while since they've met, hasn't it?

HERSHER: Yeah. So this is actually the sixth edition of this report. And the last version came out in 2013, which might not seem like that long, but it's an eternity in the world of climate science because global warming is accelerating. And advances in climate modeling and other climate research are also accelerating, you know, trying to keep up with the urgency of the moment, make sure humans have the knowledge they need to tackle this problem. So this report, the sixth edition - it's going to be a crucial document. And the authors hope it will inform basically the next decade of climate policy, for example, how quickly humans will actually cut greenhouse gases.

MCCAMMON: How does a scientific report like this one that will come from the IPCC help governments make big decisions about policy question, things like, you know, how to generate electricity? Will these scientists explicitly tell world leaders what they should do to try to slow down climate change?

HERSHER: So that's the tricky part. No, the scientists will not be making recommendations about specific policies. Like you won't see a bullet point in this report that says, stop burning coal right now, even though that would obviously reduce greenhouse gases. And that's because the role of scientists is to make sure that governments understand how policies like burning coal are affecting the Earth, and then it's up to governments to lead humanity through this energy transition.

MCCAMMON: So, Rebecca, how do scientists help governments do that, exactly?

HERSHER: So they're using five scenarios. And you can imagine these like imaginary policy worlds, kind of. So, for example, there's a scenario where countries work together to develop cheap, low-carbon technologies and then make them available to everyone. But then there's another scenario where nationalism surges, and governments kind of turn inward and focus on local energy options. Under most of the scenarios, it's important to say, it is still possible to keep global warming below that 2 degrees Celsius threshold. That's what the Paris Agreement aims for. It's just a matter of how. And at the end of these two weeks, on August 9, they'll release this report. So stay tuned.

MCCAMMON: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team, thanks so much.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.