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News Brief: COVID Origin Probe, The Future Of Oil, Calif. Mass Shooting

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where exactly did COVID-19 come from? President Biden wants the intelligence community to find the answer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The most common answer for any virus would be that it developed in animals and spread to humans. But the presence of a high-tech lab in Wuhan, China, has triggered questions for more than a year. Wuhan, of course, is where the virus was first detected. The discovery of additional evidence about the lab led the president to ask for answers within three months. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing yesterday.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: No one knows, including me, 100% what the origin is, is the reason why we're in favor of further investigation.

MARTIN: We've got White House correspondent Tamara Keith with us this morning. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: Why is President Biden only now asking for this investigation?

KEITH: Well, interestingly, we're only just now hearing about it. The White House is only just now telling us about it. But in a statement yesterday, President Biden said that back in March, he had asked his advisers and the intelligence community to dig in to what happened. They then, quote, "coalesced" behind two likely scenarios - transmission from animals to humans or a leak or accident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Karine Jean-Pierre, who led the White House press briefing yesterday, said Biden is asking the intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to get closer to a definitive conclusion, and he's given them a 90-day deadline.

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KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: It was inconclusive, so we need to get to the bottom of this. As we all know, we've lost almost 600,000 Americans to COVID-19. And we have to get a better sense of the origin of COVID-19 and also how do we prevent the next pandemic?

MARTIN: So what are they looking into? Because this time last year, scientists were really dismissive of the idea of a lab leak. What changed?

KEITH: Well, back then, former President Donald Trump and his supporters were deflecting and blaming and accusing China of releasing COVID as a weapon. And as with so many things connected to the former president, it generated backlash. I spoke to Stephen Morrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who says the lab leak theory was initially associated with China bashing.

STEPHEN MORRISON: It got jumbled up together with some of the more crazy aspects of Trump, and scientists recoiled against that and went in favor of the theory that COVID-19 had emerged out of a natural process versus a lab escape.

KEITH: And other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, both came from that animal-to-human pathway, so there was a reason for scientists to be leaning that way. But then late last year, some credible scientists started saying a lab escape theory deserved another look. Then the WHO went to Wuhan, China, earlier this year and tried to investigate but didn't get real cooperation or transparency. And Morrison told me that fueled this push for more study.

MARTIN: So make the connection, Tam. What are the implications? If it is found to have been leaked from a lab, what does that mean?

KEITH: Well, that would lead potentially to efforts to make sure that labs doing this sort of research on dangerous pathogens are more secure. Or it might lead to some of this research being scaled back. But if it moved from animals to humans, then there would be a different response to try to cut off those pathways of transmission.

MARTIN: What's China saying to all of this, President Biden's push for answers?

KEITH: They are digging in. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman in a press conference responded to the Biden statement by accusing the U.S. of being the source of COVID and demanding international investigators be led into American research labs. So it's not really clear how the international community is going to get conclusive answers about what happened given the politics of this.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: Big oil companies are being forced to face climate change.

INSKEEP: Three of the world's largest oil companies face pressure - ExxonMobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell. Shareholders forced Exxon to install two new members on its board. These are members who favor a shift toward renewable energy. Investors also backed a proposal for Chevron to cut its carbon emissions. And a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade.

MARTIN: NPR's Camila Domonoske is watching all this and is here to talk about it. Hi, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with Exxon. This is a crazy story. This tiny new hedge fund took on Exxon and won. Tell us what's going on.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, so this new group, Engine No. 1, argued that Exxon first had made bad investments in the past but also that they don't have a good plan on climate. And I'll emphasize here, these were investors with profit-based logic. They weren't saying, Exxon, stop burning oil because it's bad for the planet. They were saying, Exxon, the world might stop buying oil, so you better have something else to sell. It's just bad business not to. And they're a tiny group, but they persuaded a lot of other shareholders to vote with them and actually got what they wanted.

MARTIN: Which is seats on Exxon's board so they could push policy. What does Exxon say about this?

DOMONOSKE: Well, Exxon has maintained that the world is going to want what it's selling. Fundamentally, there's a dispute here over what the future looks like. Right now, fossil fuels are driving climate change, and the world is not on track to stop burning oil and gas. There's lots of rhetoric about climate change, but laws need to happen. There would need to be a ton more renewable energy. People would need to fly and drive less, switch to electric vehicles. Exxon looks at that and says it's not going to happen any time soon. Investors are clearly starting to say, wait, it might, though. It might actually happen. You need to be ready.

MARTIN: So this change on Exxon's board, as we noted in the intro, is really part of a broader shift, right? Tell us what else is going on.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, so shareholders also voted for climate proposals at Chevron and ConocoPhillips. Basically, these are investors asking oil companies to fundamentally change their business models in order to cut their contribution to climate change. Those votes were not as dramatic or as confrontational as what happened at Exxon with actually changing who's on the board. But it is pressure from shareholders. And one thing that's really striking throughout all of this is that you have very mainstream investors and investment groups saying things that it used to be just a small minority of activists say.

MARTIN: Right. This is not people outside the boardroom with signs and picket lines. These are the people inside the boardroom trying to push for change, which is really interesting.

DOMONOSKE: Exactly.

MARTIN: And then there's this thing with Shell Oil Company in Europe and this court ruling. Before we go, can you tell me about that?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. That's super interesting because Shell already has a plan to cut its emissions all the way to net zero by 2050, which is way more ambitious than anything that Exxon or Chevron has on its plate. And in Europe, this court said that's not good enough. So it really shows you how quickly things are changing and how the bar keeps being raised here.

MARTIN: NPR's Camila Domonoske, thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks.

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MARTIN: The community of San Jose, Calif., will hold vigils tonight for the victims of yet another mass shooting in this country.

INSKEEP: Nine victims, along with the gunman, are dead after the incident yesterday at a rail yard in Santa Clara County right next door to the sheriff's department. Governor Gavin Newsom spoke at a press conference yesterday.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: Looking at the scene, listening to governors, mayors, chiefs, speaking similar tone and terms, expression of condolences, all the right emotions and perhaps the right words, but it begs the damn question, what the hell is going on in the United States of America?

INSKEEP: President Biden has once again directed flags to be flown at half-staff.

MARTIN: Adhiti Bandlamudi from member station KQED is in San Jose and joins us now. Thanks for being here.

ADHITI BANDLAMUDI, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What can you tell us, first off, just about where the investigation stands?

BANDLAMUDI: Well, what we know is around 6:30 a.m. that morning, the county received 911 calls from the Transit Valley Authority Center of an active shooter on the site. And around the same time, the fire department was tending to two other incidents, a fire in a commercial industrial area and a residential fire. We know that this happened around a shift change when overnight and daytime workers were present at the site. And we know that the shooting happened in the light rail yard. It's this area where the light rails are dispatched on their morning routes. County Sheriff Laurie Smith says when deputies entered the scene and the gunman caught sight of them, he took his own life. A bomb sniffing dog was on the scene and detected some explosive material. So they sent in a bomb squad, and they're still assessing the scene.

MARTIN: What do we know of the victims at this point?

BANDLAMUDI: The office of the medical examiner has released the names of the victims. They range in age from 29 years old to 63. We're also learning this morning that another victim who was transported to the hospital in critical condition has succumbed to his wounds. And one of them was an overhead line worker, another a light rail operator, one was a light rail foreman, and another was a substation manager. A local nonprofit has set up a victims fund to support those who were severely injured and the families of the people who were killed. And the county is offering grief and trauma counseling to transit employees and anyone affected by the shooting, like family members.

MARTIN: And what about the gunman himself?

BANDLAMUDI: We know that he was a transit employee, but we don't know his direct relationship to the victims who were also transit workers. Authorities haven't said anything about a motive at this time, but that is certainly part of the ongoing investigation. Apart from local law enforcement, including sheriff's deputies and San Jose police officers working the case, there are also federal agencies involved, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as the Department of Homeland Security. They're all working on the investigation together and sorting through the evidence.

MARTIN: And can you just describe the facility where this happened and its effect on the timeline for this investigation?

BANDLAMUDI: Well, the timeline is looking pretty long because the facility is quite a large one. It's a train yard where light rail cars are stored and maintenance is done. In fact, the transit authority has suspended light rail service for a few days while they just comb through the crime scene. They're also trying to piece together what happened earlier that day. There was a residential fire and another fire, which firefighters had to attend to around the time of the shooting. And authorities are trying to see if they were related. The FBI says they're flying in help from Quantico and getting forensics teams to help out with the investigation and just to process the massive amount of evidence.

MARTIN: Adhiti Bandlamudi, reporter with KQED, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

BANDLAMUDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.