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News brief: Record COVID cases, Ghislaine Maxwell verdict, Biden-Putin call

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Omicron is causing record-breaking infection numbers around the world, and that certainly includes the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, this country hit an all-time high yesterday - in a single day, almost 500,000 cases, which is more than double what it was the other day. There's no reason to think this will be the final record, either. If you're like us, constant text messages and conversations and emails are telling of infections all around if, in fact, there's not one in your own home. But some public health officials say this might not be as bad as we thought.

MCCAMMON: NPR's global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff joins us now to explain all of this. Good morning, Michaeleen.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: So with cases in the U.S. clearly skyrocketing, why are public health experts suggesting that this omicron variant isn't as bad, for example, as the delta variant?

DOUCLEFF: Well, that's because even though cases are going up dramatically, hospitalizations haven't. So while cases have increased about 75% in the past week, hospitalizations have gone up only 12%. At the White House press briefing yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned data from other countries, including the U.K., showing that the risk of hospitalization looks lower with omicron.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The risk of hospitalization admission alone with omicron was 40% of that for delta.

MCCAMMON: OK. That lower number, that 40% drop, sounds good. What explains it? And does that mean that the omicron variant has changed in some way that makes it more mild?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So that's the growing narrative that the public seems to be picking up on from the media and public health officials. And it's what Fauci also stated in that press briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

FAUCI: All indications point to a lesser severity of omicron vs. delta.

DOUCLEFF: But then, right after he said that, he said something else, something that I think has been glossed over, but that's super key. He said that this lesser severity that we're seeing might not be because omicron itself is much less severe, but rather because it's infecting a large number of vaccinated people. And the vaccine, even just two shots of it, protects people from getting sick enough to be hospitalized by 70%.

MCCAMMON: OK. But explain that. Why are a large number of people who, as you say, are vaccinated still getting infected?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So this is a huge difference between omicron and delta. With delta, breakthrough infections weren't super common. But with omicron, they are very common. And that's because omicron has a bunch of mutations that help it get around the vaccine's protection against infection. Recent studies in the U.K. have found that with omicron, there will be five times as many breakthrough infections as with delta. And right now, omicron is spreading mostly in big cities and in the Northeast, where there are very high levels of vaccination. So many of these infections happening right now are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. And breakthrough infections, even with omicron, are not likely to be severe.

MCCAMMON: Right, which is the good news. So right now the data showing relatively low hospitalization rates sort of suggest that we're seeing this milder version of the virus, as you've said. But you're telling us that in reality, it could have more to do with our growing immunity thanks to vaccination protecting us from more severe disease. Is that right?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, that's right. That's what scientists are telling me. In fact, if you look at how omicron behaves in a person without immunity - no vaccine, no recent infection - its severity looks close to that of previous variants before delta came along. I talked to Dr. Roby Bhattacharyya about this. He's an infectious disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. He says preliminary data suggest that omicron may be slightly less virulent than delta in unprotected people. Like, it may reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 25%.

ROBY BHATTACHARYYA: And that's good news, but it's also a pretty small effect size, right? It's not a game changer in my mind by any means.

DOUCLEFF: So, you know, he says that reduction means omicron is likely just as severe as other variants before delta, but it spreads much faster than those variants. And so the U.S. could actually end up with way more hospitalizations than the early data suggest right now.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff, thank you.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: Ghislaine Maxwell could be spending the rest of her life in prison after being found guilty on five of the six charges of abuse of underage girls.

INSKEEP: Took the jury about five days to deliver the verdicts against Maxwell, and they include sex trafficking a minor to the financier Jeffrey Epstein. Damian Williams is U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMIAN WILLIAMS: I want to commend the bravery of the girls, now grown women, who stepped out of the shadows and into the courtroom. Their courage and willingness to face their abuser made today's result and this case possible.

INSKEEP: The case drew worldwide attention, in part because Maxwell and Epstein's circle of friends and acquaintances included the rich and powerful and famous. Epstein died while in custody in 2019 before he could be tried.

MCCAMMON: And we are joined now by NPR's Jasmine Garsd, who's been covering the trial. Welcome.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hello.

MCCAMMON: What exactly, first of all, was Maxwell found guilty of?

GARSD: Well, Maxwell was found guilty on five of the six counts she was charged with. That includes charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to entice a minor into interstate travel for sex. She could face up to 65 years in prison.

MCCAMMON: Now, the jury was deliberating for quite a while. What was that moment like when the verdict was read?

GARSD: There was a lot of relief. As you know, New York City is experiencing a historic peak in COVID-19 infections. And there was a lot of concern over jury members getting sick and the possibility of a mistrial. In fact, Judge Alison Nathan asked the jury to deliberate over the weekend if need be in order to avoid that scenario. As for Maxwell herself, she seemed calm. Her lawyers simply requested that she get a booster shot.

MCCAMMON: And Jasmine, you've been in the courthouse since the trial began. What was the argument from the prosecution?

GARSD: The prosecution painted a picture of Maxwell as essential in enabling Jeffrey Epstein's sexual abuse of minors. Throughout the trial, they put four abuse survivors on the stand who recounted how Maxwell befriended them when they were underage and presented herself as this kind of cool older sister. In time, the prosecution argued, she normalized the sexual abuse and even participated in it. And all of the women, who are now adults, said she and Epstein promised to help them with their educations and with their careers.

MCCAMMON: And how did Maxwell's defense team try to counter that?

GARSD: Well, the defense portrayed Ghislaine Maxwell as a woman who was taking the fall for a man. They even began their statements by telling the biblical story of Eve taking the blame for Adam. And Maxwell, they argued, was on trial in Epstein's place. But their core argument was about the unreliability of human memory. In cross-examination, they questioned every accuser on how clear their memories could possibly be 20 years after the abuse happened.

MCCAMMON: And what are the survivors who testified saying in response to this verdict?

GARSD: Several survivors have spoken up, including Virginia Giuffre, one of the most high-profile survivors, who said that she was finally given justice, but others must be held accountable.

MCCAMMON: Any reaction from Maxwell's team?

GARSD: They simply stated that they are already working on an appeal, and they're confident that she will be vindicated.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Jasmine Garsd, thank you.

GARSD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: President Biden is scheduled to speak by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin later today.

INSKEEP: The talks come as tensions remain high over a buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine. Since the two leaders spoke earlier this month, there have been no signs of de-escalation.

MCCAMMON: From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes joins us with the latest. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: What do we know about the expected focus of this particular call?

MAYNES: You know, this came as a surprise to us in Moscow. The White House announced the call only yesterday, saying Putin had requested to speak with Biden. The Kremlin spokesman confirmed the conversation will take place quite late. It's at 3:30 in the afternoon in Washington, but that's 11:30 p.m. here. The White House says the two leaders will plan to discuss a range of issues, including upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia. And that's another way of saying that they'll talk about efforts to diffuse the situation around Ukraine and this buildup of Russian forces there that has the U.S. fearing of an invasion - and also, I should add, warning Moscow of massive sanctions should Russia take military action. Now, if you're looking for hints as to how it'll go, Putin just posted a New Year's message to the Kremlin website, saying he was convinced that effective dialogue with Biden was possible.

MCCAMMON: As you mentioned, this comes during a period of high tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine. What are some of the broader issues in play here?

MAYNES: Yeah, fundamentally, this is about Ukraine's desire to turn away from Russia and towards the West. To thwart that, Russia launched a proxy war in east Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have this simmering war with the government in Kyiv. But this latest Russian buildup has really been a way for Moscow to force a conversation about something else, namely NATO's presence along its borders. And Putin aired these concerns, what he called his red lines, in a video conference call with Biden earlier this month, and he spelled it out again in his annual press conference last week. Let's listen in just a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin's saying that any further movement by NATO towards the East is unacceptable, and he argues the U.S. wouldn't tolerate it if the Kremlin was placing military hardware near America's borders. Now, the Kremlin says it wants security guarantees, and it's spelled out conditions of these. So they want no NATO membership for Ukraine or another former Soviet republic, Georgia, says no NATO military presence or weapons systems along countries bordering Russia. And it wants NATO to pull back military deployments from central Eastern Europe, places like Poland and the Baltic states. So, you know, at its core, what Putin wants is to turn the clock back on NATO's expansion after the end of the Cold War, and he's using the threat of an invasion of Ukraine to try and get it.

MCCAMMON: So there's this call coming up today between Biden and Putin. In addition to that, there are also talks coming soon between Russia and the U.S. and European security bodies. What do we know about those?

MAYNES: Well, you know, these Russian demands have left a lot of people wondering if it's a bargaining stance or an excuse to justify Kremlin military actions when and if diplomatic - diplomacy fails. And so the U.S. and its allies say, OK, there's some ideas here that are non-starters, but let's talk. January is looking quite busy now. The U.S. and Russia meet in Geneva on January 10. That's followed by a session between U.S. - Russia and NATO and then another gathering at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. So a lot of conversations will had over the next few weeks. But Putin's real bet here is that Europe's security matters more to the U.S. and its allies than Ukraine's does.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

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