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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hard to imagine in these last days of summer, but we are heading for a third COVID winter.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And the federal government is preparing. The Food and Drug Administration this week is expected to authorize the first updated COVID-19 vaccine since the pandemic began. These shots target the omicron variant.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How do the shots work?

STEIN: These are reformulated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. They're called bivalent vaccines because they contain genetic coding that stimulates the immune system to fight off both the original virus and the omicron variant, specifically the omicron subvariants known as BA.4 and BA. 5, the strains that are infecting most people right now. So the hope is they will bolster people's fading immunity, especially against omicron, and protect them better against catching the virus, spreading it and getting COVID and long COVID. And that's super important right now because, you know, as you said, another surge of infections could very well hit the country this fall and winter and set back the country's progress.

I spoke about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator.

ASHISH JHA: This is a really important moment in this pandemic. This is the first major upgrade of the vaccines, first major change in the vaccines in the last 2 1/2 years.

STEIN: These new shots could also give people immunity that lasts longer than the original shots and maybe even protects against new variants that emerge. But, you know, all that remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: You better explain a little more about the could and the maybe there.

STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, because these are just tweaks to the genetic programming in the vaccine, everyone agrees that they're, you know, probably very safe, but for the first time, the FDA isn't judging how well the vaccines work with tests directly in people. To save time, the FDA is initially evaluating the vaccines with tests in mice, along with tests that were done on people of earlier versions of the vaccines. I spoke about this with Dr. Peter Marks from the FDA.

PETER MARKS: That makes us feel confident that they will do what they are intended to do, which is to produce a good immune response against the BA.4, -.5 variant, as well as to refresh our overall response, given the original component of the vaccine as well.

STEIN: Marks told me that the mouse study suggests the new vaccines may be about 20 times more protective against omicron than the original shots and about five times more protective than the first attempt to create omicron-specific bivalent vaccines.

INSKEEP: OK, that sounds great. But what's the case against?

STEIN: Well, you know, some experts say the mouse studies - that mouse studies generally just aren't very good at predicting about how well vaccines work in people. And the data from the earlier omicron boosters indicate any potential improvement could be pretty modest at best. Here's Dr. Celine Gounder from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

CELINE GOUNDER: We want a silver bullet, and the boosters have become the silver bullet. And we're putting all our eggs in the vaccine basket. And I am very skeptical as to how much of an improvement these vaccines will yield in terms of population immunity and prevention of severe disease.

STEIN: And Gounder worries that the country's pretty much given up on doing anything else to protect people, like, you know, wearing masks and, you know, improving ventilation.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned that, Rob, because I think, really, a lot of people have sort of lost the thread in the pandemic.

STEIN: Right.

INSKEEP: Is most of the public still committed at least to vaccines, though?

STEIN: Yeah, well, that's a very good question because, you know, it's been a really tough sell to get people to take the first booster and the second booster. And, you know, there's a lot of - what people say - booster vaccine fatigue at this point. And everybody's kind of moved on. So, you know, it could be a pretty tough sell to convince most people to get yet another shot, you know, when the vaccines finally start to roll out after Labor Day.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A great Paul Simon song describes a woman with diamonds on the soles of her shoes, which very nearly describes Serena Williams as she played her first match at the U.S. Open.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Serena Williams plays on. These fans, all of them, were on their feet before that last point was even played.

FADEL: Williams wore diamond-encrusted shoes, but fans obviously were cheering more than her style. It was a special first-round match because they knew it could be Williams' last U.S. Open. She announced plans to evolve away from tennis.

INSKEEP: USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan has followed Williams' career and joins us once again. Welcome.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, we'd normally just barely pay attention to a first-round match, but this could have been Williams' last. What was it like?

BRENNAN: Well, it was really something. Neither performance by either player, Steve, was as elegant as Serena's diamond-encrusted figure skating-inspired tennis dress. I can't believe I'm even talking about the clothes, but it was so remarkable.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Go on. Go on.

BRENNAN: Tons of mistakes. Early on, Steve, tons of erratic - mistakes were plentiful. But Serena did what she often does. She fought through the nerves of the first set to win the final four games in that set and then really was in control from that point. And you know what it was? Her vaunted serve, the best in the game in her heyday, above a hundred miles per hour, got going. She gets going, and she began to dominate. That means she's never lost a first-round match at the U.S. Open - incredible record at the U.S. Open in opening matches at the national championship, 21-0 since 1998. And she really builds from one point to the next, you know, and that's what she does. She creates her own momentum, and that's what carried her to victory.

INSKEEP: So this could be the end for her, the final U.S. Open, unless it's not. Evolving away - not quite sure what that means. Could she be like Tom Brady and step away and step back in?

BRENNAN: She certainly could. Interestingly, after the match, she was talking with the various people at the mic and quite a celebration, like a retirement party, even though she's playing Wednesday night. She said, I don't see myself not a part of tennis. I don't know how I'm going to be a part of tennis, she said, but we've come too far together to not have anything to do with it. So there you go. She's evolving, but then she doesn't want to leave the game. You know, she's going to be a part of our lives forever. Whatever she wants to do as a spokesperson for working women, obviously in some form of tennis and, of course, selling products and being a voice for so many causes - of course, Black women, women in sports, et cetera, et cetera. So, yes, we're not going to be done with her, even whenever she's done with tennis.

INSKEEP: Well, let's take this opportunity - and we may have multiple opportunities. We don't know how many matches she'll get through at the U.S. Open. But let's take this opportunity to talk about what she will be remembered for.

BRENNAN: Power - first and foremost, Steve, that power. You know, you think about it - she's sports, but she's more than that. She transcended her sport. But going back to the athletic side, she brought a kind of power game that we have never really seen the women play before until she came along. Her strength and her size, you know, weren't what some valued in women's sports all those years, for decades and decades. But she not only made that acceptable; she made it preferable to be strong and have muscles and be powerful. She made it preferable, Steve, and utterly cool. And among many legacies, that certainly could be at the top of the list.

INSKEEP: Christine, it's always a pleasure hearing from you. Thanks.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Ukraine is asking the European Union to stop allowing Russian citizens to travel there as tourists.

FADEL: The issue has divided Europeans. Countries bordering Russia are in favor and want the rest of the EU to join.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: If we find a solution, in effect, Russian tourism in Europe would be stopped.

FADEL: That's Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. He wants EU governments to stop issuing visas to Russians other than for humanitarian reasons, as his country has done since Russia's invasion. But other countries warn such restrictions could harm Russian dissidents still in the country.

INSKEEP: Let's talk this through with Brussels-based reporter Teri Schultz. Welcome.

TERI SCHULTZ: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you just describe what the debate is, what the different sides are?

SCHULTZ: Yeah. EU foreign ministers are meeting in Prague today, and they're going to be talking about whether this sort of soft sanction should be put in place that would make Russian citizens pay more of a price for what their government is doing to Ukraine - so not letting them visit Europe as long as life is so brutal for the average Ukrainian. And because most EU governments belong to this agreement called the Schengen zone, which is great for tourists - it means a visa issued by one country allows you to travel throughout most of the rest of the bloc - that's why those countries who really want this ban or restriction are pushing to get all 27 on board, so that the visas would be stopped across the bloc. But I've got to be honest - it's highly unlikely this is going to happen.

INSKEEP: Why is that?

SCHULTZ: Well, the governments that share a border with Russia or Belarus are the ones that are really in favor of this - the Baltic states, Finland and Poland. And they have all already either stopped issuing tourist visas - issuing visas for anything but humanitarian reasons or severely restricted them. And that's because - I mean, think about history. The Baltic states have a very neuralgic history with Russia. So Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, says it's morally wrong for these Russians to come and go shopping for luxury goods when Ukrainians basically can't even leave their homes.

But there's also a practical issue, Steve, and that's because now that most flights have been blocked due to sanctions out of Russia, the Baltic states, Finland and Poland are dealing with all of these people, all of these Russian tourists, who are coming into the EU across the land border. And they say this is also a practical problem for them and puts too much pressure on them. But there are also countries who are against the idea of collectively punishing Russians. And big countries, Germany and France, are of this view, along with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. He's been very vocal about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEP BORRELL: (Through interpreter) Are we going to close the door to those Russians who don't want war and don't want to live under Putin's regime? It's not a good idea.

SCHULTZ: So there are also those countries who say they don't want to lose the economic benefit of tourists, even though that's greatly reduced after COVID. And the nays are likely to dominate in the EU at the moment. The only agreement that I would expect coming out of this foreign minister meeting is that perhaps Russia will lose its preferential treatment for citizens' visas. That means that they were processed quickly and that they may cost more. So I wouldn't expect more than that, honestly.

INSKEEP: Well, if the visa ban doesn't seem likely, are Europeans looking at other steps they can take to help Ukraine?

SCHULTZ: They are. Defense ministers are meeting today, ahead of the foreign ministers, and they're likely to agree on setting up a military training mission for Ukraine. Interestingly, this is much less controversial than cutting off Russian tourists.

INSKEEP: Teri, thanks so much.

SCHULTZ: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Reporter Teri Schultz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.