SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey there. Before we start the show, I need your help with something, especially if you’re new to the show or haven’t shared your thoughts with us before. We’re trying to figure out what people like about the show and what they don’t. So if you don’t mind, go ahead and pause the show, and head to npr.org/podcastsurvey. It’s short, it’s anonymous, and it would really help us a lot. Thanks.
MELINDA: Hi. This is Melinda (ph) in Salem, Ore., where I am listening to my 4-year-old in her bedroom singing very loudly to “Frozen” when she’s supposed to be getting ready for bed. This podcast was recorded at…
DAVIS: 1:04 p.m. on Monday, July 12.
MELINDA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be enjoying this concert from outside her room.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing, unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
DAVIS: I know that song well.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In my house, it’s “Hamilton.” And the 9-year-old says all the bad words, too, but very quickly. And I don’t think he knows when he’s saying bad words.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Tam. Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And the great Pien Huang is here from NPR’s Science Desk to join us once again. Hey, Pien.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Sue. Hi, Tam.
KEITH: Hello, hello.
DAVIS: So Americans are traveling again. But there’s still a big piece of business missing here because restrictions on international travel still remain in place. So, Tam, let’s start with you. This is something that the White House has been working on a lot.
KEITH: They certainly have. And they’ve been getting a lot of questions on it, including from me. So Americans now can travel overseas to a lot of countries, including in Europe. Yes, there are requirements, but vaccinated Americans can travel. It is not working the other way around. And so vaccinated travelers from the EU or the U.K. or Brazil – there’s – any number of countries where President Trump did it first – China put in a travel ban or restrictions on travel for people who are noncitizens. When President Biden came into office, he kept those travel restrictions in place.
And it turns out that international travel is really important for U.S. businesses, both tourism as well as other types of businesses. And so there’s a big chunk of money that the U.S. is losing because people aren’t coming here, aren’t able to come here. In addition to that, there are a lot of families or people who’ve been dating someone in another country, and they haven’t been able to see each other in 18 months. Grandparents haven’t been able to see grandkids. Fiances who don’t have fiance visas haven’t been able to see their beloved.
DAVIS: You know, I just went to a wedding this past weekend, and the bride’s family has a lot of family overseas. And only one member of her family was able to travel here for the wedding because of COVID restrictions and other things ’cause it was one relative with a U.S. green card. So…
DAVIS: I feel like people are experiencing this in a lot of different facets of their life. Do you have a sense of how big a deal it is for the tourism industry in particular? – because I just think, especially this time of year, like, summer travel is peak time for tourism.
KEITH: Absolutely. And the travel industry, including the U.S. Travel Association, who I talked to – they are putting a lot of pressure on the administration. They are trying to get them to move on this to free up travel because it could end up being a second lost summer for this industry. According to the travel lobby, $1.5 billion a week is lost without this foreign travel happening. Now, I will say that domestic travel is off-the-charts great. Everybody – there’s a lot of pent-up demand for travel.
DAVIS: So given the vaccination rates and the availability of the vaccine right now, what are the public health concerns remaining about sort of loosening restrictions for tourists?
HUANG: Well, you know, I would say, you know, looking at the domestic travel scene ’cause that’s probably going to be where most of the tourism comes this summer, you know, one of the things that’s going to be really important for people is looking at the vaccination rates and also the community spread where they are going and traveling to and from because, as we’ve talked about, as we know, the vaccination rates vary wildly in the U.S. And, you know, that – those considerations change for people depending on where they’re going and whether they themselves are vaccinated.
So there are community considerations. You know, for places with low vaccination rates, there’s concern that people coming in could cause a flare-up in cases. And there’s also, I would say, age group considerations. You know, we’ve talked about how just, you know, the rate of young people are getting vaccinated is lower than the rate of other adults. Just 45% of 18- to 24-year-olds have gotten a vaccine. So there’s concerns of flare-ups in groups of young people, especially as they travel and congregate, go to concerts and festivals and nightclubs. So, you know, for better or worse, the primary U.S. strategy right now for getting rid of the pandemic is vaccination. But people who are not vaccinated will be traveling this summer. So I think we’ll be on the lookout for flare-ups in tourism spots.
KEITH: Yeah. And in terms of international travel, one of the challenges for the U.S. is, you know – the travel industry will say, like, well, why don’t we just reopen travel to countries with similar levels of vaccination to the U.S.? The challenge is partially that the U.S. – the federal government does not actually want to be in the vaccine verification business. You know, the term vaccine passport really became toxic…
KEITH: …Here in the U.S. And so the federal government doesn’t want to verify whether people are vaccinated or not for them to be allowed to travel. So sort of working out the logistics of figuring out whether a traveler coming from overseas could bring with them some new variant and seed, you know, a new outbreak – just look at what happened with the delta variant.
DAVIS: Tam, you mentioned the delta variant. Pien, I think we talked about this a couple weeks ago on the podcast. But do we know more now than we did a couple weeks ago about how this strain might be sort of affecting cases and how the vaccines are performing against it?
HUANG: Yeah. Well, as an update and a refresher, the delta variant is, as Tam mentioned, the one that was first detected in India. And, I mean, you know, health officials everywhere – in the U.S., abroad – are really concerned about this one because it does – you know, it is transmitting much more quickly, much more rapidly when it is in a community. And so here in the U.S., I mean, you know, a month ago, it accounted for 30% of all the cases that we were finding. And now it’s up to over 50%. So, you know, it’s quickly taking over in terms of the proportion of cases that it’s representing. In some areas with low vaccination rates and high case rates right now, it’s actually accounting for up to 80%. So it’s spreading very rapidly. And, you know, so far, it’s sort of taking over everywhere that it goes.
DAVIS: But the vaccines are performing pretty well against it.
HUANG: They are, yeah. So recently, you know – and we’ll get into this a little bit later, too, but there was a study that came out of Israel recently that sounded a bit of an alarm about the performance of the Pfizer vaccine against the delta variant. They said that the vaccine’s ability to prevent mild to moderate sickness had dropped down to 64% concurrent with the rise of the delta variant. But, you know, that vaccine and the other ones that we have right now in the U.S. are still performing really well at preventing serious illness from the delta variant. So health officials in the U.S. right now are saying, like, we’re – the vaccines that we have right now still appear to be working very well against all the COVID strains, including the delta variant.
DAVIS: All right. Well, let’s take a quick break. And when we get back, we’ll talk about the need for possible booster shots for the vaccines.
And we’re back. And the drugmaker Pfizer has said that they’re going to pursue regulatory approval for a booster shot for their vaccine. But I think there’s also been some early reporting and indications that this two-shot system – well, many of them are two shots; some are single shots like Johnson and Johnson – might provide a longer runway of immunity. So, Pien, can you explain what’s going on here and how likely it is that people are going to need booster shots?
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. So last week, Pfizer announced that they’re going to be seeking authorization for giving out a third shot of their vaccine six to 12 months later in the U.S. and in Europe. And, I mean, Pfizer has been talking about this for a long time now, for a couple of months now. But that announcement last Thursday really surprised federal health officials. And the CDC and the FDA responded that day by essentially saying, you’re jumping the gun. You know, the U.S. doesn’t need boosters right now yet. Health officials are saying right now it looks like the people who are fully vaccinated are protected just fine against the virus with the shots that they’ve received.
And, you know, Fauci – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical advisor, this weekend was out there saying, that doesn’t mean that we’re not monitoring this really closely. It doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at this very closely and studying to make sure that this is still the case in the future.
DAVIS: Tam, I mean, you were just talking about how the administration is struggling to get the first and second shots into people’s arms. Like, deciding…
DAVIS: Telling people they have to get boosters is a whole other level of message difficulty right now.
KEITH: Yeah. In the anti-vaccine or the vaccine-hesitant world, there’s a lot of misinformation around the idea of a booster. So let’s just say that this announcement from Pfizer was not particularly well-received in the White House, where they are struggling with shots one and two, as you say.
And the other thing is it’s not a great look for a company in the U.S. to be talking about third shots when, according to global health advocates, just 1% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose so far. I got this quote in my inbox from global health advocate Tom Hart at the ONE Campaign. And he says, a discussion of boosters at this point in the global pandemic is morally repugnant and scientifically misguided. The idea that a healthy, vaccinated person can get a booster shot before a nurse or grandmother in South Africa can get a single jab is outrageous.
DAVIS: I didn’t think about that.
DAVIS: The sort of global implications of it. Well, this is something I think about, though. I mean, look. The Pfizer vaccine is a good vaccine. It works. Scientifically, so far, all the data is that this is a very good and tested vaccine. But look. Pfizer’s also a drug company, right? Like, they have a vested interest in making and selling as much of this vaccine as possible. So I imagine, like, they’re going to be studying the booster shot. But, Pien, there’s also got to be, like, independent verification of boosters, too. I mean, it’s possible Pfizer could be saying, hey; y’all need a booster shot.
DAVIS: And maybe we need some independent verification…
DAVIS: …That we actually do need these booster shots.
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what’s happening right now. You know, obviously, the drug companies are doing their own studies, seeing whether or not there is an opportunity for their companies to provide additional booster shots. But the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, are also looking into separate studies doing mix-and-match booster shots to see whether or not it makes sense for certain – you know, to use a different booster after someone’s gotten one particular vaccine, to use a different one. That’s something that they’re looking into. And they’re also doing independent studies to see what boosters might be needed and when.
I should also mention that different countries are doing different things with this, you know, so the U.S. is definitely not the only country considering boosters right now. The UAE and Bahrain are actually offering Pfizer boosters to people who got a different vaccine, the Sinopharm vaccine from China. The U.K. has already said that they do plan to give out boosters to the elderly and immunocompromised people starting in September. And so there’s – different countries are sort of looking at the same data and approaching it differently depending on their initial strategies.
DAVIS: There’s also some new CDC guidance out for schools – right? – that’s going to affect how schools are reopening this fall.
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. So the CDC, at the end of last week, put out some new updated guidance on schools. They’re really, really encouraging back-to-school, in-person learning in the fall. The – you know, it wasn’t really blockbuster stuff. But they did sort of bring their guidance into alignment with what’s been happening with the rest of society. So one thing that they are really doing is encouraging anyone 12 and up to get vaccinated. And they did say that anyone who is fully vaccinated at school may not have to wear a mask, may not have to submit to regular testing for COVID, may not have to quarantine if they get exposed to it.
The one exception that I found a little bit strange was that – was the bus. And so everyone who is going on a school bus is still required to wear a mask. And that is because school buses fall under the public transportation requirements for mask-wearing that the CDC still has out there. So there’s not a particular scientific difference, I don’t think, between being on a bus and being in a classroom. But because of the way that the regulations are coming through, that’s what’s required.
DAVIS: You might say school buses are infrastructure.
KEITH: I see what you’re doing there.
DAVIS: Everything is infrastructure. All right. I think that is it for us today. Pien, thank you so much for your time.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
DAVIS: And a quick reminder. Whether this is your first episode of the show or your 500th – and thank you if it is – please go right now and take our short survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey before you move on with your day. I can’t tell you how much it helps the show. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KEITH: And I’m Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
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