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Morning news brief

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Advisers for the Food and Drug Administration have given the nod to more COVID-19 boosters.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is less than a month after the FDA OK'd a third Pfizer shot. Now the advisers have voted unanimously to recommend the authorization of a second booster. This one would pump up protection from the Moderna vaccine.

MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is back with us. What is this committee saying about a third Moderna shot?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The committee endorsed a half dose of the Moderna vaccine as a booster for the same groups who are eligible for the Pfizer booster, those age 65 and older and those at risk because of other health problems or because of where they live or their jobs. They'd also beginning six months after their second shot. And, you know, it's interesting. Moderna had originally asked the FDA to authorize its booster for anyone age 18 and older but scaled back its ask when the same committee rejected making Pfizer's booster that widely available. Committee members made it clear yesterday they still feel boosters aren't needed that broadly, at least not yet.

MARTINEZ: Rob, was it surprising that this decision was unanimous?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, it really was. There's been a lot of debate about whether boosters are really needed yet since the vaccines are still protecting most people from getting really sick. The debate over whether to authorize the Pfizer booster was really intense. And while the protection from both the Moderna and Pfizer shots look like it's fading, especially against the delta variant, the Moderna vaccine seems to be holding up better. So the case for a Moderna booster was really the weakest. And that view certainly persists. Here's Dr. Paul Offit from the University of Pennsylvania during yesterday's hearing.

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PAUL OFFIT: We continue to have excellent protection against moderate to severe disease in this country through delta and for all age groups. And I just think that we continue to send wrong messages out there by using terms like breakthrough and by making people feel that they're not protected unless they've gotten a third dose.

STEIN: But, you know, in the end, even Dr. Offit voted for a Moderna booster.

MARTINEZ: So what changed?

STEIN: Well, it seems like two things changed the dynamic. One is that the evidence coming out of Israel just seems to keep getting stronger and stronger that the number of vaccinated people catching the virus and getting sick was rising in that country until they launched a very aggressive booster campaign. Now, several members of the committee questioned how relevant the Israeli experience is to the U.S., especially when it comes to the Moderna vaccine. Israel is mostly using the Pfizer vaccine. But others found it compelling. And another factor was a sense that the horse is kind of out of the barn when it comes to boosters in the U.S. If people who got the Pfizer vaccine are eligible for boosters, the committee seemed to get the message that the FDA wants a consistent strategy for boosters. Here's Dr. Stanley Perlman from the University of Iowa.

STANLEY PERLMAN: We've already approved it for Pfizer, and I don't see how we can possibly not approve it for Moderna and not have most U.S. folks be completely confused.

MARTINEZ: All right, Rob. So what happens now?

STEIN: The FDA will decide whether to accept the committee's recommendation, but that seems pretty likely, probably within days. And then next week, the CDC will weigh in. And today, these same FDA advisers are considering a Johnson & Johnson booster. They'll also hear the results of a provocative study that mixing up vaccines as boosters may be a good idea, especially for those who got the J&J vaccine.

MARTINEZ: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: You bet.

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MARTINEZ: One of the most high profile advisers of the early Trump White House could be fined or even go to jail for defying a congressional subpoena.

INSKEEP: A House select committee wants to know what Steve Bannon may have discussed with the ex-president before the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Bannon says he won't comply, and the committee is launching criminal contempt proceedings. California Democrat Pete Aguilar serves on that panel.

PETE AGUILAR: We just want to get to the truth. And that's been our focus and our mission in a nonpartisan way. And we're going to continue to do that. And we won't be stonewalled by Mr. Bannon or by any of former President Trump's underlings.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Claudia, other ex-Trump administration officials were also called to testify this week, but they did not. So why was Bannon chosen for their first criminal contempt proceedings?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Bannon was clear in letters to the panel that he was taking direction from former President Trump to not cooperate because of executive privilege, a legal shield that Trump claims still protects certain records and conversations. The committee chairman, Bennie Thompson, said Bannon was hiding behind Trump's, quote, "insufficient, blanket and vague" claims here. Aguilar - I spoke with him, and he also touched on this point.

AGUILAR: The current occupant of the White House holds the ability to exercise executive privilege, not former presidents.

GRISALES: So one legal expert told me Bannon was likely the panel's strongest case for a criminal referral now and perhaps part of an overall strategy to send a message to other witnesses of repercussions they could also face if they don't comply.

MARTINEZ: So what about the other Trump allies who were due to testify this week?

GRISALES: A committee aide told me three depositions will be postponed. This is for ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, former White House aide Dan Scavino and an ex-Defense Department official, Kash Patel. Both Meadows and Patel are in talks with the panel, while Scavino had a delay getting his subpoena. So we could hear more on this in the coming weeks.

MARTINEZ: What are the next steps there?

GRISALES: The House Select Committee meets Tuesday to vote on this contempt report, which would then head to the full House for a vote. This could be very contentious, with most Republicans boycotting this panel. But with a Democratic-controlled House, this is likely to be adopted and sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

MARTINEZ: And what's the Justice Department's role in all this?

GRISALES: I talked to one legal expert, Daniel Goldman, a former House impeachment lawyer, who said it's, quote, "exceedingly rare" for DOJ to take a case like this all the way to contempt of Congress charges. And this could involve the highest levels of the department.

DANIEL GOLDMAN: Ultimately, this is going to rest on the Department of Justice and whether they're willing to use their authority to enforce these subpoenas.

GRISALES: So it's possible we could see Attorney General Merrick Garland play a role here, and the department will have to decide whether to initiate an investigation and ultimately whether to charge Bannon with a crime of contempt of Congress, which would be punishable by fines or jail time.

MARTINEZ: OK. Is it possible this is going to get dragged out, as we saw during the Trump era?

GRISALES: It is. But experts like Goldman doubted and say this is likely why the panel took this criminal contempt route because it's faster. And they say that it's faster than perhaps civil litigation, which was another option here. And we saw that in the case of former White House counsel Don McGahn. Goldman says that was a scenario where you, quote, "win for lose" because it's dragged out for years. And a criminal referral like this could be resolved in a matter of months and may be in time for this committee to complete their investigation next year.

MARTINEZ: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thanks much.

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MARTINEZ: One of the killings that inspired racial justice protests last year is expected to come to trial next week in Brunswick, Ga.

INSKEEP: Three white men are accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. He was 25 years old and running while Black. Video shows that men chased him in a truck and also shows a struggle, followed by the sound of gunshots.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott will be covering the trial. Debbie, good morning. Remind us what happened here.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It was February 2020 in a coastal neighborhood in Glynn County, Ga. Ahmaud Arbery, a former high school athlete, was out running. The three defendants chased him down with pickup trucks. They had suspected him of recent break-ins, although police had not linked him to any. Arbery was unarmed, but one of the men had a shotgun and confronted Arbery. Arbery fought back and was killed.

MARTINEZ: You've been spending some time in Brunswick, Ga. How do the people there talk about what's at stake here?

ELLIOTT: You know, local activists, as well as members of Arbery's family, say this is yet another test in the nation's struggle for racial justice, in part because of how local officials initially handled this case, seemingly protecting the accused. No arrests were made until cell phone video of the killing recorded by one of the defendants was released, and this happened months later. It sparked sort of a local political awakening in the region around Brunswick. Bobby Henderson is co-founder of a group called A Better Glynn. It's a grassroots organization that has been pushing for accountability after this. He says Arbery was targeted solely because of his race.

BOBBY HENDERSON: A kid that ran every day met up against people who did not recognize his autonomy as an American citizen to be - to exist without shackles. And they wanted to subjugate him for the simple fact that he was in a place that they felt like he shouldn't be. He shouldn't be in their neighborhood.

MARTINEZ: The defendants, Debbie - who are the defendants, and how do they explain what they're being accused of?

ELLIOTT: Well, there are three defendants - a father and a son, Gregory and Travis McMichael. Travis was the gunman. His father had been an investigator in the district attorney's office and was a former police officer. The third defendant is one of their neighbors, William "Roddie" Bryan. He was the one who recorded everything on his cell phone. They're charged with murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault in this state case. Now, separately, they're going to face federal hate crime charges in a trial early next year. Their lawyers are going to argue in this state case starting in Brunswick next week that they were not suspicious of Arbery because he was Black but because they had seen him trespassing on a new home construction site. Attorney Robert Rubin represents Travis McMichael. He says this was an attempt at a legal citizen's arrest that went tragically awry.

ROBERT RUBIN: If Mr. Arbery played out the way Travis and Greg hoped it would - Mr. Arbery had just stopped and said, OK, call the police. I'm not doing anything. I'll wait until the police come, and I'll explain exactly what I'm doing. He'd be alive today.

ELLIOTT: So the question is whether jurors will buy that - that this is somehow Arbery's fault. Now, we should note that the judge has prohibited people involved in the case from speaking to the media. He issued that order this week. Mr. Rubin spoke with me prior to that gag order.

MARTINEZ: And jury selection is set to start Monday. NPR's Debbie Elliott will be in Brunswick, Ga., covering all of it. Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.