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News Brief: Moderna Vaccine, Pandemic Economy, Google Monopoly Suit

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A second COVID-19 vaccine may soon get cleared for use.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The maker, Moderna, asked the FDA for an emergency use authorization. That is the same status that the FDA granted last week to a vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.

MARTIN: But before that can happen, an independent advisory panel is going to meet today to give its opinion on Moderna's application.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is with us. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Who's on this advisory panel, and what exactly are they being asked to do?

PALCA: Well, these are scientists with a variety of expertises. They are people who know vaccines and made vaccines. They understand viruses. They understand how the immune system behaves. And they're statisticians who can vet the statistical analyses that the company has provided to the FDA about the studies it's conducted. And while they are discussing a lot of issues, at the end of the day, they'll be asked one straightforward question. Do the known benefits of allowing the vaccine to be distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic outweigh the known risks?

MARTIN: So how do they make that case? I mean, what data can they point to?

PALCA: The company has sponsored large studies of the vaccine. Thirty thousand volunteers - half got two shots of a placebo; half got two shots of the vaccine. And they compared the two groups to see which ones got more cases of COVID. And people who got the vaccine were protected 94% of the time or more. And the company also told the FDA about what are known as adverse side effects, illnesses that might be caused by the vaccine itself. Stacey Schultz-Cherry is a vaccine researcher at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

STACEY SCHULTZ-CHERRY: I went through some of the adverse events that were reported. Nothing jumped out at me.

MARTIN: So we've been hearing that some folks don't feel so great after they get the Pfizer vaccine. Was that not true for the Moderna vaccine?

PALCA: No, it was definitely true. But these are - people reported things like sore arms where the injection took place and fatigue and fever and swollen lymph nodes. And these are not trivial, but they're also not long-lasting. And Schultz-Cherry says these reactions actually prove the vaccine is working.

SCHULTZ-CHERRY: It doesn't mean that you're getting COVID. It doesn't mean that there's, you know, something wrong. It's just the nature of this vaccine.

PALCA: The vaccine is revving up the immune system, getting it ready so if the real virus ever does come along, it'll be ready to knock it out.

And there have been some issues related to this. There have been some unexpected severe immune reactions, but that was in the Pfizer vaccine. It hasn't happened with the Moderna vaccine, but they'll be watching for that. And there have been cases of something called Bell's palsy. It's a facial paralysis that's temporary that might be connected to the vaccine. But the thing is that people get Bell's palsy who never get the vaccine, so you don't know if they're connected or not.

MARTIN: So back to the process here - what happens after the committee votes?

PALCA: Well, the FDA makes a decision about granting this EUA, the emergency use authorization. And the expectation, at least, is the vote will be positive because last week authorization came about 16 hours after the committee voted. And the reason is that they've been doing a lot of preparation for this day. The FDA has been working with the company for weeks on the possibility that this authorization will be granted, so a lot of the necessary materials have already been prepared.

MARTIN: Joe, I have to ask you. We're also learning that some vials of the Pfizer vaccine actually contain extra doses. What more can you tell us about that?

PALCA: Yeah, this is very strange. The FDA said the people giving the vaccines are finding that many vials contain six or seven doses instead of the five that are supposed to be there. And the FDA now has said it's OK to go ahead and use those extra shots, and that could stretch the vaccine supply. FDA is also working with Pfizer to figure out how this might have happened.

MARTIN: All right. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: (Shushing) Listen closely. Is that the faint sound of optimism coming from Fed Chair Jerome Powell?

INSKEEP: It is. Powell is the guy, of course, who's been saying since the spring that the economy is fundamentally all right if we just get the pandemic behind us. Now that vaccines are in use, the Federal Reserve is upgrading its projections for economic growth in 2021. Of course, the improvement will take some time, just as distributing the vaccines takes time. And Powell spoke up again for families and businesses that need federal help now.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Scott Horsley with us. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: The medium term looks brighter, but we've got to start with the short term because Jerome Powell was pretty grim about the current moment, right?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the short-term outlook is pretty ominous. You know, thousands of people are dying from COVID every day. Hospital ICUs are filling up. Businesses in many areas are facing new restrictions. And even where they're open, customers are just nervous about going out and spending money in this situation, so Powell says the pandemic anxiety is likely to keep weighing on the economy all through the holiday and into the first part of next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME POWELL: This will have an effect on suppressing activity, particularly activity that involves people getting together in bars and restaurants, on airplanes, in hotels and things like that.

HORSLEY: We saw that, for example, in the retail sales figures that came out just yesterday and were weaker than expected.

MARTIN: All right. So let's get to the optimistic part. Tell us about next year.

HORSLEY: Yeah, Powell raised the possibility of a real turnaround as the vaccine becomes widely available and people start to feel more comfortable shopping and traveling and doing all the things that have been off limits. Now, it's unclear how long that's going to take. You know, we don't have any experience with a massive public health campaign like this, but the economic outlook that the Fed issued this week is rosier than what it was forecasting just three months ago. The central bank now predicts the economy will grow more than 4% next year and that unemployment will drop to around 5%.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: The second half of next year, the economy should be performing strongly. We should be - businesses should be reopening and that kind of thing. The issue is more getting through the next four, five, six months. Clearly, there's going to be need for help there, and my sense and hope is that we'll be getting that.

HORSLEY: And by help, Powell here means another relief package from Congress, which, of course, is something he's been lobbying for for a long time now.

MARTIN: Right. And we know they're getting closer. But just from Powell's perspective, how confident is he that Congress is going to pass this additional relief?

HORSLEY: You know, it has taken a long time. But Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said last night that he thinks they're going to get there. And Powell says there does seem to be bipartisan agreement that some kind of help is necessary. The Fed chairman pointed to the millions of people who are still out of work, the long lines we've seen at food pantries and the many small businesses that are just hanging on by a thread.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: Now that we can - we can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel, it would be - it would be bad to see people losing their business, their life's work in many cases or even generations' worth of work, because they couldn't last another few months.

HORSLEY: You know, the Fed is doing what it can, Rachel, by keeping interest rates low. And they're going to stay low for years. But if you're unemployed and facing eviction, if you're a small business owner who doesn't have any customers, low-cost credit isn't a lot of help. What you need is a lifeline of cash. And Powell says that's something only Congress can do. And the quicker they do it, the less long-term damage the economy will suffer and the stronger the recovery will be when those vaccines are widely available.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley. We appreciate you, Scott. Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Google is facing antitrust charges yet again.

INSKEEP: Yeah, this time it's a lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general from 10 states, led by Texas. The suit alleges that the tech giant abuses its long reach in digital advertising.

MARTIN: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond is with us. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Before we go any further in the conversation, I just need to note that Google is among NPR's financial supporters. So Shannon, this is the second major antitrust lawsuit against Google in just the last couple months. What are these AGs saying?

BOND: This lawsuit focuses in on online advertising, which is a huge business for Google. You know, it made $135 billion from ads just last year. And behind every ad you see on your phone or computer, there's this complicated chain of technology that makes it happen. And the AGs say Google is the biggest player in every link in that chain. Here's how Texas AG Ken Paxton put it.

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KEN PAXTON: If the free market were a baseball game, Google positioned itself as the pitcher, the batter and the umpire.

BOND: So in the game of advertising, he's saying Google calls the shots. It acts as the umpire, and it's also playing on both sides. It helps publishers sell their ad space, and it helps advertisers buy that space.

MARTIN: All the positions - just playing all of them. So how do they say Google illegally abused that power?

BOND: Right. So the AGs are accusing Google of a couple of things - overcharging advertisers and boxing out competitors. But also, interestingly, Rachel, there's one competitor they say it treated differently. That's Facebook, which I'll say is also an NPR sponsor. The lawsuit accuses Google of essentially colluding with Facebook. It claims that the companies cut what they say is an illegal deal to manipulate the online ad market, which is a pretty explosive charge. So the states are asking for a jury trial. They want Google to pay damages and to be forced to change its ways, including possibly making structural changes. So that would mean maybe selling off parts of its business. They didn't get into specifics.

MARTIN: It's potentially going to be a very expensive lawsuit.

What do Google and Facebook have to say at this point?

BOND: Google says the claims are meritless. It says ad prices and ad tech prices have fallen, and that's evidence of a competitive market. Facebook declined to comment on the lawsuit. But look, Rachel, both of these companies are under a lot of pressure and scrutiny right now. You know, just back in October, the Justice Department sued Google over its search business. Last week, the FTC and more than 40 states accused Facebook of crushing rivals in social media. I mean, antitrust is absolutely on the agenda right now.

MARTIN: I mean, there does seem to be this growing, you know, snowball of suits. These companies, though, have been around for a long time, Shannon. Why is this happening now?

BOND: That's right. I mean, if you think just a few years ago, you know, these companies really still had this golden aura around them, and they had grown in really unchallenged ways for a long time - unchallenged by regulators, unchallenged by politicians. You know, and we're at the point today where more than 2 billion people are using Facebook's apps every day. Billions of people use Google to search for all kinds of information.

We were especially reliant on these companies during the pandemic. They've become so enormously powerful in so many aspects of our lives. Regulators and politicians are finally waking up to this power and challenging it. And this is not the last shoe to drop for Google. We're expecting another lawsuit from other states soon focused on whether it favors its own products in search.

MARTIN: All right. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond for us this morning.

Shannon, thank you.

BOND: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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