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News Brief: AstraZeneca Vaccine, Purdue Pharma Plan, Capitol Riot

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

About a dozen European countries have temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, that's right. Portugal, France, Spain and Germany all did so just yesterday. Health officials in these countries are worried about reports that some people who took that vaccine developed blood clots afterward, and they want authorities to review it for safety. Now, this shot isn't approved for use in the U.S. just yet.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us to make sense of this. Jason, why are countries pausing the shots with the AstraZeneca vaccine?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: So this started in Europe, but it spread to countries beyond that. Now there's more than a dozen countries that have suspended use of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. The concern is that there have been some 30 cases of people getting blood clots in the days after getting the immunization. And some of them, we should say, have been fatal. European regulators are trying to determine right now whether the timing of these health problems is purely coincidental or whether there's a link between the vaccine and these particular blood clots.

MARTINEZ: So is there strong evidence one way or another on whether there is a link?

BEAUBIEN: You know, so the World Health Organization, they're also weighing in on this. They've weighed in on it repeatedly. And their take is - and they're saying this more diplomatically than me - that this is all an overreaction by these countries. They point out that the blood clots didn't come up as a concern during the extensive clinical trials of AstraZeneca's product. Soumya Swaminathan - she's the WHO's chief scientist - yesterday, she was answering questions from the press about this, and she pointed out that 30 blood clots among 5 million people who recently got vaccinated with AstraZeneca in Europe is actually fewer than you'd expect in the general population. And also, of all the doses of all the different COVID vaccines administered so far, there hasn't been a single documented death, she says, been shown to be a direct result of the vaccine.

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SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: While we need to continue to be very closely monitoring this, we do not want people to panic. And we would, for the time being, recommend that countries continue vaccinating with AstraZeneca.

BEAUBIEN: So that's the WHO's position, that vaccinations with AstraZeneca should continue, even though many countries are currently ignoring that advice.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, there are a few vaccines in circulation right now. So how important is AstraZeneca in the global fight against COVID?

BEAUBIEN: It's really huge. You know, this is the most important vaccine globally if you look at the numbers of vaccines we expect to see distributed this year. It's one of the least expensive. It's relatively easy to ship and store. The vaccine's also being produced in multiple sites around the world. It's being made in Argentina, India, South Korea. And it's important to point out that the blood clot issue is only linked to two batches being produced and distributed in Europe. The AstraZeneca shot, it's the bulk of the vaccine that's being made available right now through the WHO-led COVAX program. That's the program that's attempting to get shipments out to low and middle-income countries so that they can get their health care workers at least some access to vaccine. But yet some of those countries, places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, you've also had Thailand, they're also announcing that they're suspending the use of AstraZeneca. So based on what one researcher referred to me as very flimsy evidence, a lot of vaccination campaigns are getting thrown into limbo by this.

MARTINEZ: Wow. So what happens now? I mean, how does this get resolved?

BEAUBIEN: So both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency - committees from both of those organizations, they're meeting today. They're going to investigate these adverse effects, these blood clots, and look for what evidence they can one way or another. And we definitely expect to hear from the European Medicines Agency soon because this is having such a major impact on vaccinations on the continent.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien.

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MARTINEZ: Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, filed its long-awaited bankruptcy plan just before midnight last night in a federal court.

KING: Right. So here's the plan - the company itself will be dissolved, a new organization will be created that would direct profits to help people who were hurt by the opioid epidemic. But two dozen states came right out and they rejected that plan. They say it doesn't hold the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, accountable.

MARTINEZ: Let's bring in NPR's addiction correspondent, Brian Mann. Brian, what does Purdue Pharma say this plan will do?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, the company's president, A, he's a guy named Steve Miller, and he says this new company that will be created from the ashes of Purdue Pharma will essentially exist to benefit the public. The Sacklers will have no role or ownership going forward. And over time, this new firm will generate hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it from selling OxyContin, which they say they can do ethically and safely. They'll also produce other medicines that will help people with opioid addiction. According to Purdue Pharma, the total value over time to thousands of creditors will be billions of dollars. And members of the Sackler family also issued a statement last night. They said that this plan offers - and I'm quoting here - "an important step forward helping those who suffer from addiction."

MARTINEZ: OK, but why are so many states unhappy about this?

MANN: Well, a lot of reasons, but a big complaint is from state attorneys general, most of them Democrats, who say that Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sacklers, are only offering up about $500 million right up front. The rest of the cash payments, including $4.2 billion promised by the Sacklers themselves, all that money would be spread out in installments paid over most of the next decade. And that really angers critics like Maura Healey. She's attorney general in Massachusetts.

MAURA HEALEY: What the Sacklers are offering essentially is a way for the payments to be structured that makes it convenient for them. They get to keep their billions in bank accounts and make money and use the interest to pay, you know, the states out over time while their OxyContin fortune keeps growing.

MANN: And there's another rub, A, for critics, and it's the fact that a lot of the $10 billion in value promised by Purdue Pharma in this deal doesn't actually come in the form of cash that communities desperately need to pay for things like addiction programs and public health. Instead, this plan would provide low-cost addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine and naloxone, which the new spinoff company would make and sell at a discount.

MARTINEZ: Then what happens to the Sacklers here? Because if the federal bankruptcy court approves this plan, I mean, will they feel any personal sting at all?

MANN: Yeah, this is a really big question. You know, after launching OxyContin and claiming it was safer than opioids, other opioids, the Sacklers and their company hauled in more than $30 billion in revenue. Purdue Pharma has since pleaded guilty twice to federal criminal charges for their marketing of opioids. Researchers say OxyContin contributed to this explosion of opioid addiction and death. Now, the Sacklers have agreed to give up control of their company, but some critics point out that Purdue Pharma was already sinking under the crush of all these lawsuits. So it's not clear how big a financial sacrifice that really is. Members of the Sackler family also added about a billion dollars to the earlier settlement offer they made. But in this deal, they will keep most of their personal fortunes and they'll admit no wrongdoing. I asked Nan Goldin about this. She's an artist who became an opioid activist after losing years to addiction because of OxyContin.

NAN GOLDIN: To me, I guess that's the most disturbing, is the idea that they'll walk away with impunity. I mean, this is the case of the 1% twisting justice.

MANN: So there's a lot of anger out there as this bankruptcy court begins to review this plan, but Purdue Pharma sounds confident that they'll get this deal approved.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's addiction correspondent, Brian Mann. Brian, thanks a lot.

MANN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Two men have been arrested for assaulting Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick during the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol.

KING: Officer Sicknick died a day later of his injuries. Now, the Justice Department says at this point, more than 300 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the insurrection on the 6.

MARTINEZ: Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, what do we know about the men arrested?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, these two men apparently knew each other. They're seen talking to each other on video of that January 6 riot. One of them, Julian Khater, 32, was arrested at the Newark Liberty International Airport. And the other, George Tanios, 39, was picked up in Morgantown, W.Va. The Justice Department says they were both arrested Sunday and charged with assaulting federal officers and other crimes. The FBI's been conducting an intensive search for those involved in Officer Sicknick's death. And they had posted photos, which led to tips from the public. Now, court documents say there's a video of the accused with a canister of chemical spray that was used on Officer Sicknick and two other officers. And this forced the officers to retreat and temporarily blinded them.

MARTINEZ: You said they were charged with assaulting federal officers. Were either of them charged in the death of Officer Sicknick?

MYRE: No, they have not been. The Justice Department has opened a federal murder investigation, but no one has been charged so far. You may recall the initial report said he was hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, but it turns out that is not correct. We're still awaiting an official word on the cause of death. And at this point, it's not clear whether the chemical spray somehow contributed to his death.

MARTINEZ: OK. The January 6 riot is really driving a debate on whether the U.S. should have a domestic terrorism law. How would a law like that change charges in a case like this?

MYRE: Well, we're a long way from a law like that right now. The debate is still very much in the early stages, and it's something that recurs periodically. Now, law enforcement traditionally says that it has enough tools to prosecute crimes and it doesn't need to decide who is and isn't a terrorist. And also, civil rights groups warn against constitutional issues that could come up like First Amendment free speech questions and Second Amendment weapons questions. In the U.S., you are allowed to own guns and be a fierce critic of the government. But Bruce Hoffman at the Council on Foreign Relations has studied terrorism for decades, and he believes it is now time for such a law.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: But that much is after 9/11. We recognize that we were in a new world, in a new era and had to make signal adjustments. I think we're in the same position now.

MYRE: Hoffman believes such a law would help define the threat that we're facing and provide a way to prosecute that's distinct from ordinary crime. Now, candidate Joe Biden said he favored a domestic terrorism law. As president, he has not yet announced any decision. His administration says it's still reviewing the matter.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.