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News Brief: Syrian Airstrikes, Johnson & Johnson Vaccine,


President Biden has launched the first military operation of his tenure.


Pentagon officials say the U.S. conducted airstrikes in Syria late Thursday. Defense Department officials say the targets were buildings used by Iranian-backed militias. Those same militias launched a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq last week.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is covering this story. Good morning, Tom.


KING: What details do we know about the airstrikes?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. airstrikes centered on the border crossing Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Pentagon says there were a series of buildings there used by the Iranian-backed militias Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada to move fighters and equipment back and forth across the border. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, quote, "we're confident" that the target was being used by the same Shia militants that targeted the U.S. base in Iraq."

Now, the Pentagon is still reviewing the airstrikes for damage, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says as many as 17 were killed in this U.S. attack.

KING: Seventeen killed - the Pentagon calls this a proportional response to the attack last week. What happened there?

BOWMAN: Well, again, a little over a week ago, 14 missiles were fired into the Iraqi city of Erbil near the airport and an adjacent U.S. base. One non-U.S. civilian contractor was killed, and nine others were wounded, including an American service member. Now, the Pentagon said in a statement shortly after the U.S. air strikes that the operation sends an unambiguous message that the U.S. will act to protect American and coalition personnel. But the statement said, at the same time, the U.S. wants to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.

KING: OK. So what does that tell us? Those two statements almost seem as if they may conflict. What does this tell us about how the Biden administration will conduct the wars in Iraq and Syria?

BOWMAN: No, you're right. They clearly conflict. And we don't have a full sense yet of where the Biden administration wants to go. They're still working that out as far as policy for both Iraq and Syria. Now, in Iraq, the U.S. has some 2,500 troops and is training Iraqi forces, also working with those forces to target the remnants of the Islamic State. In Syria, there are some 900 U.S. troops who are supporting local Kurdish forces, again, to target the remaining ISIS forces. So Syria is clearly more complicated, Noel. Syrian leader Bashar Assad is holding on to power, defeating rebels there in some of the last enclaves. And he's getting assistance from both Russia and Iran. The U.S. has those troops in the northeast part of the country. It would like to see some type of diplomatic solution. But so far, that's been elusive.

I was in Syria last year with U.S. forces and visited with some West Virginia National Guard troops guarding an oil facility. The night before, they were attacked by drones either from ISIS or maybe even Syrian government-backed rebels. There was some damage to their vehicles, and they were really lucky no one was killed. So that gives you a picture of how complex even odd things are in that area.

KING: They certainly are. Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.


KING: All right, the FDA is getting ready to authorize a third COVID vaccine for emergency use in this country.

MARTIN: This one - this vaccine is from pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. And if it's authorized, it would join vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna in the U.S. vaccination campaign. But here's the thing. Those other vaccines require two doses. This vaccine from Johnson & Johnson needs only one single dose to be effective.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is here to tell us how effective. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: One dose - that's exciting. How good is this new vaccine?

PALCA: Oh, it's good. It was 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe disease and 85% protective against more severe diseases. Now, for people with good memories, they'll say, wait a minute - I heard that Moderna and Pfizer, wasn't that closer to 95% effective? And the answer is yes. They were higher, but those vaccines were tested before some of the new variants began circulating. And preventing 85% of severe to critical disease is really good since the goal of the vaccines is to keep people out of the hospital and keep them from dying.

And the other thing about this vaccine, as was mentioned in the intro, is that it's one dose, which makes the logistics of getting it to people a lot easier. They don't have to remember to come back. So public health officials are looking forward to being able to distribute the J&J vaccine. This is how Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, put it on NBC's "Today Show."


ANTHONY FAUCI: To have them come in and be in the mix with the other two is nothing but good news.

KING: Nothing but good news, says Fauci.

Now, the process usually is, before a vaccine gets authorized, an advisory board has to approve it. Right?

PALCA: Well, yes - well, though has-to is probably an exaggeration. It doesn't absolutely has to. The FDA can approve things on its own lookout. But like the other two vaccines, the FDA wanted to be extremely transparent. There were some questions about whether they were rushing the vaccine to the market before they knew it was safe, and they wanted to assure the public that this was being looked at carefully. So that committee's been around for a while. It's known in the trade as VRBPAC, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. I love that name - VRBPAC.

KING: (Laughter).

PALCA: It's made of scientists and doctors with a variety of specializations relating to vaccines. Before the meeting, FDA provides the committee with its analysis, and they also make that analysis of the public (ph). So I asked Bruce Gellin, president of the Global Immunization at Sabin Vaccine Institute, what he made of the analysis of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

BRUCE GELLIN: I didn't see anything in it that I would think is going to be a showstopper for VRBPAC to want to recommend that FDA act on for an EUA.

PALCA: So Gellin is predicting the VRBPAC will give the vaccine a thumbs-up.

KING: How many doses does Johnson & Johnson have ready to ship out?

PALCA: Well, not as many as people had hoped. A year ago when companies started trying to make these vaccines, they all said, oh, we're going to do this at-risk manufacturing, which means we're going to start making the vaccine before they even knew it was going to be authorized and even if it worked. And then they'd throw away if it didn't work. And the government gave them money to do this. But even with that, companies still don't have the kind of inventory the country needs. In the case of Johnson & Johnson, they have about 4 million doses ready to go out the door and expect to have 20 million by the end of March and 100 million by the end of June. And remember, this is a one-dose vaccine. So 100 million doses is 100 million people vaccinated.

KING: Which is a very big deal. Lastly and briefly, what is the timeline here? When might the FDA issue the emergency use authorization?

PALCA: It could be any minute. I mean, they could do it right after the meeting. They could do it tomorrow. They could do it in a few days. It'll be soon, I think, if the committee gives a thumbs-up.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're very welcome.


KING: A former U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few hours after Michigan's attorney general charged him with multiple felonies.

MARTIN: John Geddert was charged with sexual assault, abuse of minors and human trafficking. Geddert was a decorated coach who led the 2012 Olympic team, known as the Fierce Five, to a gold medal in London. The case against Geddert emerged after the investigation and conviction of Larry Nassar, the former U.S. national team doctor who abused hundreds of girls and women. Police discovered Geddert's body at a rest stop yesterday afternoon.

KING: USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan has long covered this story. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Who was John Geddert in the world of USA Gymnastics?

BRENNAN: Well, as you described him, he was linked with Larry Nassar, of course, who is in federal prison for his sexual abuse of hundreds of women, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics. And Geddert gave Nassar an office in Lansing, Mich. Geddert himself was 63 years old, this all-powerful coach of young gymnasts who came to see him in Lansing, Mich., to follow their dreams, be they state or regional competition or making it to the Olympics. And as you said, he reached the pinnacle as the head coach of that gold medal-winning women's gymnastics team in London at the 2012 Olympics. I remember interviewing him, and he was a man of power who obviously allegedly abused that power greatly.

KING: The charges are horrifying. One of them, for nonexperts like myself, is a little confusing. How did human trafficking end up in there?

BRENNAN: I had to do a little research on this myself.


BRENNAN: And this is a new legal strategy, Noel, from the Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel in charging Geddert with human trafficking. The term refers not only to sexual exploitation, but also to coerced labor of any kind. And Nessel charged Geddert - that he had subjected his athletes to forced labor or services under extreme conditions that contributed to them suffering injuries and harm. In other words, the excessive training that he put them under was the equivalent of forced labor. And that resulted in injury to 19 athletes, all of whom were minors. And basically, you have Nessel, the attorney general in Michigan, wanted to throw the book at Geddert and make a statement for all those young women who couldn't speak for themselves for all these years.

KING: And now he won't face justice in court. Where does that leave his victims?

BRENNAN: Certainly retraumatized all over again. When you consider this - they were very young. Obviously, some now have grown into women who have spoken out. They gave those very important victim impact statements that many watched back in January of 2018 - national television. And they were moving on with their lives. And one of the great things about this was they were so happy to hear that Geddert had been charged with 24 felonies. This was a great moment for them yesterday. To hear, then, that he had died by suicide brings it right back to so many of these women, the emotional toll and the pain that they felt. So you really feel for them on a day like this.

KING: USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan.

Christine, thanks for your reporting. We appreciate it.

BRENNAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.