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News Brief: Relief Measure, COVID-19 Mutations, Computer Hack

NOEL KING, HOST:

Federal assistance was about to run out for millions of Americans, but now Congress has approved new aid.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. This took lawmakers weeks of bitter negotiations to get this $900 billion package passed. But now that it's done, let's talk about this new stimulus, what it will actually do to help American families and help American businesses.

KING: NPR's Jim Zarroli has been looking into it. Good morning, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Because so many people are struggling, let's start with what's in the bill that will support individuals and families.

ZARROLI: Yeah, individuals who make less than $75,000 a year will be getting a $600 check - $600 for you, for your spouse, for any kids you have, which means a family of four will get $2,400 And the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said yesterday that the checks are going to go - start going out next week. Also, there's been an extension of federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week. So these are all things to design (ph) people who have lost their jobs or are otherwise struggling because of the pandemic.

KING: That will come as a relief to a lot of people, I imagine. There also, though, is a lot more in the $900 billion. What else are we looking at? What are the headlines?

ZARROLI: Well, yeah. I mean, there's money for businesses. The bill will extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which gives loans to smaller businesses. They don't have to pay them off if they use the money for certain purposes like retaining employees. And the goal is to prop up the economy when we're struggling from massive unemployment and a lot of businesses have folded. But there are other provisions, too. I mean, any time you have a big spending bill like this, a lot of things get attached that are maybe not at first glance germane to the point of the bill - you know, tax breaks for NASCAR auto racing, an anti-doping program for horse racing. The bill funds two new Smithsonian museums, one for women, one for Latinos. People who are incarcerated will be able to get Pell Grants for the first time in more than a quarter-century. So, you know, lots of things that lawmakers have been trying to do for a long time have finally been attached to what gets passed into law.

KING: You make the point about the fact that this bill is intended to prop up the U.S. economy, which is not doing great. Now, $900 billion is big money, but the U.S. economy is massive. How much of a difference does this kind of money actually make?

ZARROLI: Oh, you know, it is a huge amount of money, but the country faces huge challenges right now. We lost 22 million jobs when the pandemic hit. So far, only about 56% of them have come back. We are seeing signs that the economy now may be backsliding a bit. Unemployment claims were falling for a long time, but lately, they've ticked up again. Lots of cities and states are reimposing lockdowns. You know, you're seeing lots and lots of restaurants closing. In fact, a lot of economists think this bill doesn't actually go far enough. It's not enough money given the size of the problems that we face.

KING: And then the big one. So one of the sticking points in the negotiation was financial aid to state and local governments, which are really struggling because tax revenue is down. Did that aid make it into this bill?

ZARROLI: It did not. The Democrats wanted aid to local governments. In the end, that wasn't included. And this is really a huge disappointment to local governments, which have been hard hit. They've seen their income and sales tax revenues plummet. I spoke last week with Quinton Lucas, who's the mayor of Kansas City, Mo. He says lots of cities face enormous challenges.

QUITON LUCAS: The answer right now is we don't know where that's coming from. We will continue to address our public safety, our public health issues. But we've got to find money somewhere. And it ain't easy.

ZARROLI: And this is happening when cities face big challenges for things like contact tracing, expenses tied to the pandemic.

KING: Ain't easy, to quote the mayor. NPR's Jim Zarroli, thank you.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. For lack of a better word, what's going on in England right now has people pretty spooked.

GREENE: Pretty spooked because there's this new variant of coronavirus spreading there. Now, scientists say viruses mutate. This is totally normal, but the U.K. government imposed new lockdowns. Some countries have now banned British travelers. So are we worried or are we not worried?

KING: NPR global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff has some answers. Good morning, Michaeleen.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Can we start with the mutations of a virus are totally normal thing that we keep hearing?

DOUCLEFF: Yes, definitely. This is totally expected. Throughout this pandemic SARS-CoV-2 - that's the virus that causes COVID-19 - has been mutating the whole time, about one or two mutations each month. But this new variant in the U.K. doesn't just have one or even two mutations; it has 17. And many of these mutations are in what's called the spike protein. That's the part of the virus that reaches out and binds to human cells, which leads to infection. So here's where scientists are concerned. Researchers have already studied one of these mutations, and they know it makes the virus bind more tightly to human cells. So that, combined with the fact that so many mutations happen simultaneously, suggests these mutations are changing the virus' behavior and helping it to adapt to humans.

KING: Does that - does what you're saying, does that mean it's more transmissible?

DOUCLEFF: So no one knows for sure yet. I talked to Jeremy Luban. He's a biochemist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says there are signs pointing in that direction that it might be more transmissible.

JEREMY LUBAN: There's no hard evidence, but it seems most likely if people sneeze on a bus, it's more likely to infect other people than the previous form of the virus.

DOUCLEFF: He says this new variant took over England very quickly. It was first detected back in late September, and by December, more than 60% of cases in London were this variant.

KING: OK, that's really interesting. Is there anyone saying this new variant is basically going to change the course of the pandemic?

DOUCLEFF: So not necessarily, Noel. I mean, this virus is already really good at spreading quickly, and a little bump might not make a big difference. In fact, several scientists I talked to said how quickly the virus spreads in a community will likely depend more on people's behavior, how much they wear masks, social distance and avoid big gatherings than whether this new variant comes there or not.

KING: OK, so basically do the stuff that public health experts have been saying to do the whole time.

DOUCLEFF: Yes, definitely.

KING: Does this mutation make people sicker than the one we're familiar with?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so there's great news here. Luban says people don't seem to be getting sicker.

LUBAN: There is absolutely no evidence that this virus is more deadly, OK? There's nothing at all to suggest that. And I don't think anyone that I know is worried about that possibility.

DOUCLEFF: Again, they don't know for sure. And scientists need to follow this variant very closely.

KING: And the big question that we keep asking and we'll ask every day - will the vaccines we have still work on this one?

DOUCLEFF: Yes. So every scientist I talked to seemed very optimistic about this. And that's because we get a vaccine - when we get a vaccine, our immune systems make many antibodies against a whole chunk of the virus, not just one small piece that could change when the virus mutates.

KING: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff, thanks so much.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. So Attorney General Bill Barr is the latest Trump administration official to say Russia is responsible for that cyberattack on U.S. government agencies and businesses.

GREENE: We should say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and many others have already said this. This is not the first time the U.S. has been hit with a cyberattack. So what is the strategy the government uses to deal with this?

KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: OK. So by this point in late 2020, you would think the U.S. government would have a playbook for dealing with this kind of thing. Does it?

MYRE: No, it does not. There are really no rules of engagement or clear consequences for adversaries who get caught. So what we get is lots of hand-wringing and ultimately limited responses. Right now, we're even wrestling over definitions. Some in Congress call this an act of war. Now, the intel community sees it as a big deal but more along the lines of traditional espionage, albeit on a very large scale. I spoke with P.W. Singer, a cyber expert at the New America think tank.

P W SINGER: This was not an act of war. This is more Cold War-style back-and-forth espionage stealing of secrets.

KING: So if there is no one way that the government responds, what are the government's options?

MYRE: So traditional spying produces public criticism, perhaps kicking out suspected spies, maybe some sanctions. But none of these things have produced a change in the behavior of Russia or other adversaries. They still see hacking is clearly a low-cost, high-return endeavor. Singer says the U.S. can and needs to do more, and he says it just hasn't been a priority for the Trump administration. He said the U.S. should try to create deterrence in two ways. He gave a boxing analogy, saying the U.S. needs to punch back harder and to develop more resiliency to absorb the growing number of cyber blows we're getting.

SINGER: I make the parallel to Mike Tyson, you don't hit him because he'll punch you back in the face, versus Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope, right? Through resilience where you don't hit me because it just won't work out for you.

KING: So where does that leave the U.S., which has all of this cybersecurity might but does not appear to be using it very effectively?

MYRE: Well, it's still very much a work in progress. Homeland Security's cyber agency was just launched in 2018, and it focused on the elections this year, which actually went well in terms of foreign cyberattacks. Right now, the military authorization bill has money for cybersecurity upgrades. That's on the president's desk waiting to be signed. And by all accounts, the government and private tech companies are cooperating at a much, much higher level than ever before. But this latest attack shows the gaps. And a couple years ago, when the National Security Agency director, Paul Nakasone, was being confirmed, he was asked if adversaries fear the U.S. in cyberspace. And he was very clear. No, they don't. And this latest episode shows the rivals still believe they can attack without paying much of a price.

KING: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE FEAT. FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "VIBIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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