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News brief: Mariupol evacuees, COVID booster, J&J vs cancer patients

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A haunting image of Ukraine's war is an overhead view of Mariupol.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The video shows entire neighborhoods of big apartment buildings apparently in ruins. That's the vision from above. Now, suppose you were one of the people living in that image. Many residents have taken shelter in basements for weeks. And while Russia claims to be backing off the capital city, Kyiv, supposedly as part of peace talks, they have said no such thing about that coastal city besieged by Russian troops.

MARTINEZ: Those who make it out of Mariupol head west for safety. They cross a bridge over the Dnieper River at a city called Zaporizhzhia. And NPR's Jason Beaubien is there. Jason, who are the people you're seeing there?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: I mean, we are just seeing people packed into cars who are coming out. They're - you know, it's all kinds of people. It's old people. It's young people. I was in this parking lot, and I met Angelina Voychenko and Yuliya Bortnik. They just arrived, along with five other people, in this tiny, little compact sedan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: So they're describing here just their joy of finally getting through the Russian-controlled portions of Ukraine and finally seeing a Ukrainian flag and Ukrainian soldiers again at another checkpoint. They're just overjoyed. They'd been on the road for a week. They'd been sheltering in a basement in Mariupol. And they said they were just praying that they'd make it out alive.

MARTINEZ: What happens when they try to make it out?

BEAUBIEN: You know, you have to remember that most of the people who are in those basements, in those bunkers, they have no electricity, no cellphone service, no internet. They have no way to know whether it's safe to leave or not to leave. They don't have GPS. You know, every person that I was talking to had been down in a basement or a bomb shelter. Most of the cars that are out on the streets, they had their windows blown out because of all the bomb blasts in Mariupol. So these people are getting together, packing as many people as they can into these beat-up cars, and then they're telling me that once they start driving, it turns out the main bridge out of Mariupol has been destroyed. Still, around them there's this constant threat of shelling and snipers. Several people told me that it took multiple tries to get out before they actually were able to make it.

Then on the road, they're saying that they're being stopped by Russian soldiers. We're getting these harrowing stories of people being strip-searched for weapons out in the cold. Russian soldiers are obsessed with people's phones, and they want to see what information might be on there. I met this young man, Illya. He didn't want to give his full name. He said he'd deleted all the social media apps off his phone, yet the soldiers found in his Google search history a mention of Russian warships, and they had him lying face down on the floor with a gun to his head and said they were going to make him confess to being a spy.

ILLYA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They took him to the basement, and he thought he would never see his family again. He asked if he could see his family for the last time, but they told him, you would never see them.

BEAUBIEN: And after holding him down there for several hours, Illya says a Russian soldier offered to let him go if his family would pay 200 euros to release him.

MARTINEZ: Jason, let's talk about when this might end because negotiators held peace talks yesterday. Ukrainians offered some possible future terms for peace.

BEAUBIEN: Right.

MARTINEZ: Russia claimed that it'll reduce its attacks near Kyiv and another city where they've been stalled anyway. So what do Ukrainians think about all this?

BEAUBIEN: People here are incredibly skeptical. Obviously, you know, Russia has invaded when they said that they weren't. People are not taking this as the end of the war. But people are happy that, you know, talks are going on. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction. But it's sort of a strange thing to say, we'll stop attacking Kyiv, and yet these attacks continue on places like Mariupol and other cities.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: The Biden administration has given the go-ahead for another COVID vaccine booster shot for people aged 50 and older and those who are immunocompromised, which, Steve, since you and I are both at least halfway to 100 years old, means that we are eligible.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) At least, you say. But just because you can get another booster shot, does that mean you need to?

MARTINEZ: Here to help us answer that question is NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Maria, why are federal health officials recommending second booster shots for certain groups?

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Well, the COVID vaccine booster shots have proven highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, but immunity does wane over time. And federal health officials are concerned about the people considered to be at highest risk of getting severe COVID. That includes people 12 and up with weakened immune systems. It also includes people starting at age 50. Officials are recommending a second booster for both these groups if they had their first booster at least four months ago.

MARTINEZ: All right, so I'm on the young side of 50.

GODOY: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: Why are they starting so young, if I may say so, Maria?

GODOY: Well, here's Dr. Peter Marks of the FDA.

PETER MARKS: We know that people in the age range from about 50 to 65, about a third of them have significant medical comorbidities.

GODOY: And by comorbidities, he means conditions like obesity, lung disease, diabetes, which is fairly common in this age group. These can significantly raise the risk of getting seriously ill from COVID or even dying.

MARTINEZ: Then what about people who are over 50 and do not have underlying health conditions?

GODOY: Yeah. So several experts NPR spoke with say if you're in your 50s and healthy, there's no need to run out and get a second booster. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong is an infectious disease specialist at UCSF. He points to a study from Israel that found people 60 and up who got a second booster had a lower risk of severe outcomes and dying than those who only got one booster, but he says the bottom line is having any booster was really protective.

PETER CHIN-HONG: Whether or not you got three shots or four shots, the survival rate was really high. So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a situation where you probably should walk to go to get the second booster if you're eligible, probably walk a little faster the older you are.

GODOY: So the older you are, the bigger the benefit of a second booster. But he says getting that first booster shot is most important.

MARTINEZ: OK, another scenario - what if you've recently had COVID? Does that change things?

GODOY: I asked that of Dr. Preeti Malani. She's an infectious disease doctor and geriatrician at the University of Michigan. And she notes that a lot of Americans got infected during the omicron surge.

PREETI MALANI: There's a thought that especially individuals who had COVID and are also vaccinated and boosted - that they probably get a free pass for at least a few months. And in those cases, you may want to wait.

GODOY: There's good evidence that a recent infection essentially acts like another shot to rev up your immune system. So you have a few months before you need to think about getting another booster.

MARTINEZ: So wondering then if - is there, like, a perfect or optimal time to get a second booster?

GODOY: Well, ideally, you'd want to pump up your immune system right before another surge, but it's unclear when that will happen. And if you do it too soon, that extra protection will eventually wear off. As one expert said, it's a little bit like trying to time the stock market.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Maria Godoy. Thanks a lot.

GODOY: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Tens of thousands of cancer patients are suing Johnson & Johnson.

INSKEEP: Most are women who say asbestos in J&J baby powder made them sick. The company denies that and is using a bankruptcy filing to delay the lawsuits or even block them.

MARTINEZ: Let's bring in NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, you reported on how J&J's bankruptcy maneuver affected one woman, Hanna Wilt. Remind us of her story.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, A. Hanna Wilt sued J&J, claiming asbestos in Johnson's baby powder gave her a terrible form of cancer called mesothelioma. J&J denies wrongdoing and says their product was safe. And normally, this is the kind of disagreement a lawsuit like this would settle. Did J&J do anything wrong? Instead, J&J has used this bankruptcy maneuver to free all of these lawsuits, including Wilt's. And when I spoke to her, she was outraged.

HANNA WILT: What I see is who can play the game best? Big corporations trying to work the system in a way that they don't have to take full responsibility is not something new.

MANN: And, A, Hanna Wilt died in February at age 27, while her case was still tangled up in this legal maneuver. I should say, we asked J&J repeatedly for an interview about this, and they declined.

MARTINEZ: OK, so how is this possible? I mean, how can companies use bankruptcy court if they're not bankrupt?

MANN: Yeah, it's complicated, but it goes something like this. Let's say your valuable, profitable company has been accused of doing something really bad. You're facing lawsuits. And so what you might do is spin off a subsidiary and push all the lawsuits, all that risk, onto the balance sheet of the new, separate firm. Then you shove that firm into bankruptcy. Then maybe you offer to pay some money to help kind of work out a bankruptcy settlement. And so these maneuvers are happening more often, and they're very controversial. And one thing critics point to is that these kinds of deals are only available to those who are rich enough to pay for these kinds of big settlements.

MARTINEZ: And Johnson & Johnson has used this maneuver before. What are some other examples?

MANN: Yeah, we were finding with NPR's reporting that these bankruptcy maneuvers have shaped some of the biggest court fights over the last few years. Members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma aren't themselves bankrupt, but they've offered to pay $6 billion as part of a bankruptcy deal. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the Boy Scouts, also not bankrupt - they have lots of assets - but they, too, have used bankruptcy strategies recently to block lawsuits linked to child sexual assaults.

MARTINEZ: Why are bankruptcy judges allowing this?

MANN: Yeah, it's interesting. In some parts of the U.S., these bankruptcy maneuvers aren't even legal. But some judges believe that these are ways to bring complicated litigation to a close. It's a way to effectively cut deals. Judge Michael Kaplan, who's overseeing the J&J bankruptcy, laid out the argument in a recent ruling that sometimes bankruptcy courts are the best place to resolve cases, even when they don't involve bankrupt companies.

MARTINEZ: Is anyone trying to rein this in?

MANN: There are appeals right now before appeals courts. Also, Congress is considering some kind of legislation that might rein in this practice. But for now, the gates are wide open. And what we found is more and more companies are looking to do this when accused of wrongdoing - turning to bankruptcy courts to build firewalls around their assets.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks a lot.

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