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News brief: Blinken on Ukraine, Additional COVID Booster, gas tax holidays

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The top U.S. diplomat does not yet see a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken instead warned that Russia's likely to continue lobbing missiles and artillery fire into Ukrainian cities.

ANTONY BLINKEN: We've seen the brutality that Vladimir Putin has brought to this. We know his track record in Chechnya. We know the track record of what he's aided and abetted in Syria. I think we have to expect the same.

MARTIN: Blinken talked to our co-host Steve Inskeep. U.S. defense officials say Russian ground forces have been making little to no progress in Ukraine, so they are firing from a distance on cities, including the capital, Kyiv. And according to the U.K.'s Defense Ministry, Russia is calling in additional troops. So today there's a lot more talk happening. NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels. G-7 countries are meeting virtually to talk about Ukraine. And Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address the U.S. Congress.

MARTINEZ: OK, so how could this war end? Steve spoke with Secretary Blinken by way of Skype in Washington late yesterday. Steve, is the U.S. even talking with Russia at this point?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, if they are, A, they're not disclosing it. I asked Blinken if he had a line to Putin, if the U.S. specifically has a line to Putin, and he said it's up to Putin to engage. But we did get an idea of what the United States wants. My question was, if Russia stops the shooting, could it even get out of the sanctions at this point? Blinken said yes, although the sanctions are having long-term effects as companies steer away from Russia.

BLINKEN: All of these things are going to have profound effects - and again, not just the immediate effects we're seeing but increasing and growing over time.

INSKEEP: Some of these changes would seem almost irreversible at this point, Mr. Secretary. Are you still prepared to tell Russia that if the shooting stops, the sanctions can all stop, that everything can go back the way that it was?

BLINKEN: If the war ends, Ukraine's independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty are restored, then many of the tools that we're using to get to that result - of course, that's the purpose of them. They're not designed to be permanent.

INSKEEP: But here's where Blinken used the word irreversible in his own way. He set a standard for what Russia would have to do to get back to normal. Russia has to somehow change the situation, he says, in a way that the invasion could never happen again.

BLINKEN: We will want to make sure, they will want to make sure that anything that's done is, in effect, irreversible, that this can't happen again, that Russia won't pick up and do exactly what it's doing in a year or two years or three years.

INSKEEP: So there's a statement of a goal, A - what the United States would want to lift its pressure.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, but, Steve, that sounds very different from what Russia wants.

INSKEEP: Oh, yes. Russia has made a variety of demands in its direct negotiations with Ukrainians. Russia's foreign minister, by the way, said today that they are close to some kind of neutral status for Ukraine, but we don't know how that would fit in with any larger agreement.

MARTINEZ: Now, we've seen some news reports that have suggested that Russia is asking China for help with this war. And the U.S. national security advisor met this week with a Chinese official. Did he get China to back off?

INSKEEP: Tony Blinken was not clear about that one way or the other, but he was clear about what he thinks of China's course.

BLINKEN: China's already on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine and the aggression being committed by Russia, the fact that it has not stood strongly against it. Second, of course, if China actually provides material support in one way or another to Russia in this effort, that would be even worse and something we're looking very carefully at. But I think this is doing real damage to China reputationally in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in other parts of the world, something it has to pay a lot of attention to.

INSKEEP: It does seem the world order is shifting. Russia is off on its island at this point. The question is where China stands. And as the U.S. sees it, anyway, China faces some decisions about which side it's going to be on.

MARTINEZ: Steve Inskeep. Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: More booster shots could be in America's future.

MARTIN: Yeah, Pfizer and BioNTech are asking the Food and Drug Administration to authorize yet another COVID-19 vaccine shot, but for now, this would only be for people 65 years of age or older.

MARTINEZ: Let's hear from NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, why seek authorization for another booster for older people now?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It's become clear that the protection people get from three shots fades over time, especially against catching the virus. And that's especially true with omicron, which is better at evading the immune system than earlier versions of the virus. Now, you know, three shots still do a very good job of keeping most people from getting so sick they end up in a hospital or die, but there has been rising concern about those who are the most vulnerable, like the elderly. They tend to have weaker immune systems to start with. So some other countries have started giving older people yet another booster.

MARTINEZ: So what do you think? I mean, is the FDA likely to authorize another booster?

STEIN: You know, it really depends on how strong a case the agency thinks the companies are making. It's based on two studies from Israel that have produced some evidence that a fourth shot could help pump the immune system back up and restore some protection against getting seriously ill. I talked about this with Dr. Eric Topol at Scripps Research. He's convinced there's enough evidence to warrant another round of boosters.

ERIC TOPOL: We need to move on this because there are a large number of people who have lost their protection against severe illness from omicron and future variants.

STEIN: So Topol thinks it's urgent to start making another booster available to the elderly, especially in case omicron starts to surge again or another dangerous variant emerges.

MARTINEZ: But not everyone is as convinced as Dr. Topol.

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Many experts I've been talking with basically say it may still be just too premature to start another round of boosters. They say the Israeli data is far from a slam dunk that another shot is necessarily needed and would necessarily help. Here's Dr. Jesse Goodman. He's a former FDA chief scientist who's now at Georgetown University.

JESSE GOODMAN: I think you'd want to have really convincing evidence that a second booster was needed and beneficial. And we just don't have that yet. I don't think we know that a booster will not ultimately be required, generally, but I think we're just not there yet.

STEIN: And some experts I talked to say the country should focus instead on getting the millions of people who are still not vaccinated at all to get their shots and get boosters into the arms of the millions of vaccinated people who still haven't gotten their third shots. You know, only about two-thirds of those aged 65 and older have gotten their third shots, their boosters.

MARTINEZ: All right, Rob, so what happens now?

STEIN: The FDA will consider the request and make a decision. You know, the agency could ask a committee of outside advisers to give advice, but it doesn't necessarily have to. And one possibility is that the FDA authorizes the fourth shot and then leaves it up to the CDC about whether to recommend it or, you know, just have it ready for whenever the evidence becomes clear it's really needed. The FDA is, however, planning to convene outside advisers next month to consider where we go from here with the vaccines more generally, including whether we need a broader booster campaign, perhaps in the fall, that would include younger people, too. They may also discuss whether those shots should be annual or, you know, the same vaccine or something else, like a vaccine targeted specifically at variants or maybe at, you know, protecting people against all coronaviruses.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks a lot.

STEIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: All right, since the start of the war in Ukraine, gas prices have been skyrocketing.

MARTIN: And some politicians in both parties see a potential winning issue - cutting or suspending gas taxes to give consumers a break. Others, however, are concerned that these so-called gas tax holidays could cut the funding available to fix and replace crumbling roads and bridges.

MARTINEZ: NPR's David Schaper has been looking into this. He joins us now from Chicago. David, what are you hearing about how these high gas prices are affecting drivers?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, A, prices are still at near-record highs. According to AAA and gasbuddy.com, the price of a gallon of gas nationally has been averaging over $4.30 the last couple of days and weeks. And it can vary a lot from state to state. Here in my neighborhood in Chicago, for example, prices are about $4.69 to $4.89 a gallon. But I was texting my son last night in California. He's paying $6.29 to $6.49 a gallon.

MARTINEZ: Yep (laughter).

SCHAPER: And for - you know, for many, the pain at the pump is palpable.

MERIS GONZALEZ: Gas prices are way too much, you know? People can't afford it. This is ridiculous, you know?

SCHAPER: That's Meris Gonzalez. He was wincing as he filled his tank here. Just over 10 gallons cost him over $50. Well, at these prices, 26-year-old Miriam Khoshaba could only afford to put about $20 worth in her tank.

MIRIAM KHOSHABA: It's a lot of money (laughter). I've been finding myself getting really empty quickly because I'm not filling my tank as I usually would because of the gas prices.

SCHAPER: You know, with these gas prices so high, it disproportionately affects lower-income workers who live paycheck to paycheck. They also tend to be the ones who can't telecommute and have to drive to work.

MARTINEZ: All right, so many state lawmakers, governors, mayors and members of Congress, they're calling for gas tax holidays. So would they actually give consumers a break?

SCHAPER: Yeah, you know, this temporary suspension or reduction of the gas tax is happening in more than 20 states that I can count. Lawmakers in Georgia passed a bill to suspend the gas tax for two months, until the end of May. Minnesota might suspend their gas tax just over the summer. And other states are looking at suspending it for as many as six months or through the end of the year. In Florida, they would take that gas tax holiday in October, just before the election. But how much it saves varies. In Georgia, it would be 29 cents a gallon, Michigan 27 cents a gallon. If they would suspend the federal gas tax, that's 18.4 cents a gallon.

Take Illinois' combined tax of about 40 cents a gallon, for an example. If you fill up your car with a 15-gallon tank twice a week, the gas tax holiday would save you about $6 each fill-up and $12 a week. For many people, it does help because with prices for everything else going up, too, their pocketbooks are really pinched. But the - you know, the federal gas tax is charged at refineries; some states charge it at the wholesale level. So there's no guarantee that gas tax will actually be passed on to consumers at the pump.

MARTINEZ: But if that gas tax money doesn't come in, couldn't it blow a hole in some states' budgets?

SCHAPER: Yeah, in most states, the gas tax revenue is a primary way of funding highway and bridge repairs and other transportation needs. You know, in Washington state, for example, gas tax revenue is designated to pay off bonds for highway and bridge construction projects, so losing that money could mean defaulting on the bonds or put construction projects in jeopardy. It's one reason there are some governors threatening to veto any suspension or reduction of the gas tax. But some states do have significant budget surpluses right now, excess federal COVID relief funds. They're talking about moving that money to plug the holes in the budget that a gas tax holiday would create.

MARTINEZ: NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. David, thanks.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.