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News brief: COVID boosters, Jan. 6 probe, shipping backlog

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Should you mix and match your extra vaccine shot?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A new study designed by the National Institutes of Health suggests some people should. People can switch brands for a booster, and those who got the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine may have better results if they switch.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What'd the study find?

STEIN: Well, the bottom line is, if you've got either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, it looks like getting either of those vaccines for your booster will pump up your immune system back up about equally. So it doesn't really matter if you got the Moderna or Pfizer for your first shots, go with either of those for your booster. But it's a different story if you're one of the 15 million people in this country who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to start. It looks like it could be much better to get either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine for your booster, not just another J&J shot. Here's Dr. Monica Gandhi at the University of California, San Francisco.

MONICA GANDHI: Getting a Moderna or Pfizer first, really doesn't matter what mRNA vaccine you get next. But if you have had a Johnson & Johnson, this really shows us that the best vaccine to get next is an mRNA vaccine, either Moderna or Pfizer.

STEIN: This comes from this eagerly awaited study from the NIH. Researchers gave 458 volunteers getting boosters every possible combination of vaccine and found that crucial antibodies known as neutralizing antibodies shot up 10 to 20 times higher when Johnson & Johnson people got a Moderna or Pfizer booster compared to when they got another J&J shot.

INSKEEP: OK, 10 to 20 times higher - that sounds pretty impressive.

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Why would that be?

STEIN: Well, there could be a couple things going on here. First of all, the one-shot J&J vaccine has never generated as strong protection as the other vaccines. Another possibility is an entirely different kind of vaccine may rev up the immune system a lot more than just giving the same one again. Here's Monica Gandhi again.

GANDHI: And you raise a more diverse and active immune response by getting this mixture of vaccine.

STEIN: Now, I should say that some of the researchers involved in this study are stressing that it wasn't designed to compare different boosters. And while doctors think higher antibody levels probably translate into less illness, this study didn't actually show that. Also, you know, other parts of the immune system stimulated by the J&J vaccine may also be important. So they say the study provides evidence that all three vaccines could be helpful boosters. For their part, Johnson & Johnson is standing by using its vaccine as a booster and is asking the FDA to authorize that.

INSKEEP: OK. The timing here is particularly interesting because the study arrives just as advisers for the Food and Drug Administration start a meeting to consider requests to authorize boosters with Moderna and J&J. How's this going to affect that process?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, it certainly could complicate things. You know, the FDA's already OK'd Pfizer boosters for millions of people. And Moderna and J&J are arguing that their booster should get authorized for similar reasons. You know, more breakthrough infections are occurring in the face of the delta variant, and they say boosters of their shots will help make sure more vaccinated people don't get sick or die. But there's lots of skepticism about whether lots of people really need extra shots when the vaccines are still working really well and most of the world hasn't gotten vaccinated at all. So it's unclear how the FDA will square these new results, especially with J&J's request. So it could be another pretty intense debate.

INSKEEP: Which I imagine NPR health correspondent Rob Stein will be covering - Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. Today and tomorrow are deadlines for former Trump administration officials.

MARTINEZ: They're supposed to answer House investigators who want information on the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The panel is threatening criminal referrals to the Justice Department for those who don't cooperate. The committee has also issued a new subpoena. It's for Jeffrey Clark, a former Trump Justice Department official who offered to help promote false claims about the election.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is covering this. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are - besides Jeffrey Clark, who are the officials here?

GRISALES: So today the committee was expecting to hear from strategist Steve Bannon and an ex-Defense Department official Kash Patel. This was to be followed by testimony tomorrow by ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and former White House aide Dan Scavino. And we should note, this is the first task for this panel that's investigating the attack on the Capitol. And so this wave of subpoenas is seeking depositions starting with these four.

INSKEEP: And of these four, are any of them on their way to cooperating?

GRISALES: So that remains to be seen. The panel says they're engaged in talks with at least Meadows and Patel so far. Through a spokeswoman, Patel said he's keeping matters confidential after saying he received death threats after he was served, so his spokesperson could not confirm if he'll ultimately testify. Now, on Scavino, the committee faced a delay look locating him, but he was finally served last week. He said any reports he was trying to evade the subpoena are false. Bannon has responded through his attorney to the committee, saying he is shielded by executive privilege and will not be cooperating. So it seems they're all in a holding pattern as they sort out this argument of executive privilege. But if ultimately that argument does not win out, the committee has threatened to move forward with these criminal referrals to the Justice Department that could lead to fines, jail time or other options. So we'll see if these avenues can be pursued quickly under a new Biden administration, or they'll face these same protracted legal battles we've seen in the past.

INSKEEP: I just want to follow up on the matter of Steve Bannon saying that he's shielded by executive privilege. We should be clear, I suppose, that at the time of the January 6 attack, Bannon was not working for the White House and hadn't been for years.

GRISALES: Exactly. He was not with the Trump administration, and Trump is no longer president. So the committee's arguing that this does not apply right now.

INSKEEP: Is that, in fact, what the current White House is saying here?

GRISALES: So when it comes to documents, they are not. The White House says executive privilege has not shielded these Trump-era records from being handed over to the committee so far from the National Archives. And they reiterated that with a letter that was released last night.

INSKEEP: Where does Jeffrey Clark, the former Justice Department official, fit into all of this?

GRISALES: Clark was a key figure in a recent Senate report detailing Trump's attempts to enlist the department in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election of President Biden. A Senate Judiciary Committee report said Clark had proposed delivery of a letter to Georgia state lawmakers and others to push for a delay certifying the election results there. Also, Clark recommended holding a press conference announcing the Justice Department was investigating these allegations of voter fraud, despite any evidence that such fraud was present. And of course, those plans were rejected by top leaders at the agency. Now, Chairman Bennie Thompson has said that they need to understand Clark's role in these efforts at the department. And so now they're directing him to produce records and testify by the end of the month.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks.

GRISALES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. It's mid-October, couple months before the holidays and possibly too late to order some gifts.

MARTINEZ: Not too late to order mine.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: Container ships are lined up outside U.S. ports, one sign of the tangled global supply chain. Now the Biden administration is trying to break up the traffic jam.

INSKEEP: And NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is here. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, there.

INSKEEP: This is a matter of private enterprise. What can a president do?

KHALID: So the White House announced a deal to get the Port of Los Angeles to operate 24/7. The nearby Port of Long Beach is already doing that. And the president is pitching these extended hours as a big step in unclogging the supply chain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: By increasing the number of late-night hours of operation and opening up for less crowded hours when the goods can move faster, today's announcement has the potential to be a game changer.

KHALID: You heard the president say potential there 'cause it also depends on what private companies do. The White House did say it also does have commitments from some major retailers - think companies like Walmart - to move more goods during off-peak hours.

INSKEEP: Is this a matter where the president has a lot of clout, he can ask for things, and it's almost like an order, but he can't really order companies to do what he wants?

KHALID: I think that's a really tricky question to answer, Steve. I mean, one expert I spoke with pointed out that even if the bottleneck is solved at the Port of Los Angeles, which, you know, potentially will happen here, that there could be other bottlenecks down the pipeline. You know, the next problem could be at a rail yard or at a warehouse. It could be a truck driver shortage. And the government, in his view, cannot solve all of these problems along the entire supply chain because much of the supply chain is actually in the hands of private companies. I spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for the NPR Politics Podcast about the port announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So the best way to think about it is that it's necessary but not sufficient to help reduce some of these bottlenecks. These ports, LA and Long Beach - just the two of them represent about 40% of containers coming into this country. So them going to 24/7 is a big deal.

KHALID: He said the White House is also trying to get all of the players in the supply chain world - retailer, shipper, labor unions - to come together and talk to one another. And that's where he feels the government or the president and the president's team can play a role. The White House also says beyond the short-term problems, there's the bigger issue that, you know, you have huge amounts of goods trying to squeeze through ports that are decades old. And they say this is proof of why Congress needs to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that would allocate $17 billion in port improvements.

INSKEEP: Although that would be surely for future years or even future decades.

KHALID: Sure, yep.

INSKEEP: Is the White House making short-term predictions here?

KHALID: No, they're not, Steve. And they're being careful not to over promise that this is all going to be fixed by Christmas. They've spoken about a 90-day sprint to ease the clogs in the supply chain, but experts say that this is going to take a while, probably until the Lunar New Year, when factories in China slow down. That's in February of next year. Or it might not be until American buying habits stabilize from the pandemic - that Americans are just buying a lot more than they usually do. And we don't really know when that might change. I spoke to Willie Xi about this. He's a professor at Harvard Business School. He told me businesses need inventory ahead of the holidays because, you know, frankly, it doesn't do them any good if items show up in January and then they got to put them on sale.

WILLY SHIH: If you ship things from China today, there's a good chance you're not going to make the Christmas selling season, and that's why there's so much concern right now.

KHALID: This is a really complicated problem for the White House because supply shortages do affect how people feel about the overall health of the economy because, you know, they're contributing to higher prices. And as we said, much of the supply chain is in the hands of the private sector. So you know, one big question for me is, does the Biden team end up owning a problem that it can't actually entirely fix on its own by trying to fix this? And I guess we just don't know.

INSKEEP: Asma, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.