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News Brief: Coronavirus Variants, Historic Storm, Student Loan Forgiveness

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here is a consequence of being the world leader in coronavirus - a virus that spreads a lot has a lot of chances to mutate, and COVID has.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Researchers here in the United States say they have found at least seven new variants in this country. Some other countries have reported variants, too, such as the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and they all raised the same big question - are these variants more dangerous?

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been following this one. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What have you learned about the U.S. variants

STEIN: So the first of these variants was spotted by researchers in Louisiana, but it turns out the same kind of mutation looks like it also emerged completely independently at least seven times in this country. That sets off alarms because it suggests that the virus is doing something called convergent evolution. That's when an organism evolves in a way that gives it some kind of, like, superpower, superior power of some kind. Here's what Jeremy Kamil of Louisiana State University says about what the virus is doing. He spotted the mutation.

JEREMY KAMIL: It's infected millions of humans around the world now, and it's probably just, you know, getting into a more intimate relationship with our species.

STEIN: So the question is, what does this more intimate relationship mean exactly? Does it make it spread more easily from one person to another, you know, make it more contagious?

KING: Yes, these are some really interesting words - convergent evolution, more intimate relationship with our species. I guess at the heart of what we need to know is, do they spread more easily?

STEIN: Well, so no one knows yet. It looks like it's spreading quickly in the places where it's been spotted, but it's not at all clear that's because of this mutation. Viruses mutate all the time. And, you know, sometimes they're a big problem but sometimes not so much. And there are other mutations that have been previously spotted in this country, like one that took over in Southern California. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether it's more contagious or, you know, maybe just kind of got lucky. Now, this newly identified mutation occurred in a key protein that sticks out from the surface of the virus called the spike protein. It's how the virus infects cells. It's also the target of drugs and vaccines. So any change could be really important. I talked about this with Andrew Pekosz, a professor of microbiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

ANDREW PEKOSZ: We should keep an eye on it. I myself have already passed this on to the people in my laboratory, and we're looking to see if we can find viruses with this mutation because if we can, we're going to bring it into the laboratory and try to study it to see what's actually happening here.

STEIN: Now, to be clear, Pekosz means he'd pass on the details about these new variants to his colleagues so they can try to figure out whether they're more contagious or not. Now, no one thinks there's any reason to panic - far from it. And we already have those other variants circulating in this country that we know we should be worried about.

KING: Will our vaccines, the ones we're currently using, the ones we currently have, will they be effective against these?

STEIN: Yeah, they will. You know, the vaccines may be somewhat less effective against some of these variants, but so far, they seem to work pretty well. But it's going to take months to vaccinate enough people. So we really need to slow the spread of the virus to keep, you know, more contagious variants from triggering another big wave of infections and to prevent other possibly even more dangerous variants from evolving. You know, the winter surge has peaked, but the virus is still spreading like crazy, which makes the U.S. essentially a giant petri dish that could easily produce even more new variants.

KING: Convergent evolution. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel.

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KING: At least 150 million Americans were under a winter storm alert last night.

INSKEEP: That's close to half the population of this country. The storm is dumping snow, sleet, ice and rain across much of the nation. And Texas is especially hit hard. The whole state is under a winter storm warning for the first time in its history. Temperatures are at record lows. Millions of people don't have power. And Governor Greg Abbott has issued a state of emergency.

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GREG ABBOTT: All of Texas is facing a extremely dangerous winter storm in the coming days. A disaster declaration has already been declared for all 254 counties in Texas.

KING: Bret Jaspers is a reporter with member station KERA in Dallas. Good morning, Bret.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: I looked this up a couple minutes ago because I was really curious. It is colder right now in Dallas at three degrees than it is in Anchorage, Alaska. What does it look like there?

JASPERS: Well, I don't know if it looks like Alaska because I've never been to Alaska...

KING: (Laughter) Fair enough.

JASPERS: ...But it's very white. And, you know, even though the snow has been on pause since yesterday morning, there aren't a lot of plows here, so it still kind of looks like a new storm. There's still, you know, snow on the roads and people are slushing around if they are trying to drive. Like you said, it is extremely cold. We do have another wintry mix coming later today. And it's also kind of dark and foreboding here, actually, because the power situation is pretty grim. There's at least 1.5 million people without power. The numbers are shifting around a little bit, but it's a little scary.

KING: When can people expect power to be restored?

JASPERS: So the nonprofit that runs the grid, or manages the grid, I should say, is saying that they brought on 500,000 new people back on to power yesterday, but they were saying that there could be power outages all day today. If more generation comes back online - there were some, you know, generation sources that broke down in the cold. If some of that comes back online, maybe they'll be able to do more of this rotating that that was the original plan. But right now, there's - you know, predicting is a kind of treacherous thing to do. I talked to two residents of Dallas yesterday, and their power company had emailed them a couple of times with a couple of different estimates. Their names are Vince Guzman and Sonia Isaguirre.

VINCE GUZMAN: And they said it was going to come back on in about maybe 15 or 45 minutes. But now they've said - they sent another email, so now it's going to be about four to six hours. So...

SONIA ISAGUIRRE: It's been out since 4:30 this morning.

GUZMAN: Yeah. So we're outside just trying to stay warmer than inside (laughter), so might as well get used to the cold and go indoors and, you know, snuggle up.

JASPERS: So these guys are in pretty good spirits and then that's good. But, you know, it's a pretty serious situation here.

KING: How is the state responding so far to all of this? I mean, it is a massive, massive state, and the entire thing is being hit. So what's the response like at the state level?

JASPERS: So there's been a federal declaration of emergency. There are warming centers that have been set up. I think a lot of regular people are going to find hotels. I think at least in Dallas, the hotels were close to full last night. The skyline was dark. Professional sports have been canceled. They're bringing in the National Guard to help. So some cities are sending robocalls to their residents saying, you know, this is how you can conserve energy or this is how you can stay warm if you don't have energy. I think a lot of public officials, though, I've seen on social media saying really angry things at the grid manager because they're saying we knew about this storm about a week ago and, you know, why wasn't more done to prepare for this? I think there's going be a lot of fallout that we'll have to watch in the coming weeks.

KING: Just real quick, do you have power yourself there?

JASPERS: I do, luckily, although we have a friend in Fort Worth about 30 miles away that we're pretty concerned about, so we're going to maybe go get her today.

KING: OK. Fingers crossed. Bret Jaspers from member station KERA in Dallas. Thanks, Bret.

JASPERS: Thank you.

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KING: Forty-five million Americans have student debt, and President Biden has promised to do something about it.

INSKEEP: While campaigning, the number that he suggested was $10,000 per person forgiving that much debt. But some Democrats in Congress want him to use executive action to cancel up to $50,000 per person. So what's their argument?

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers education. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What has President Biden done so far for people who have student debt?

NADWORNY: Well, one of the first things Biden did when he became president was to extend pandemic relief for federal student loan borrowers through September 30. So that means borrowers don't have to make monthly payments. Interest is set to 0%, so it's not accruing interest. And they've stopped collections on defaulted federal student loans. There are a lot of folks who see this extension as opening the door to more debt relief. And Biden has said he would support legislation cancelling up to $10,000 in student debt for more pandemic relief. He also supports more income-based repayment options and stronger public service loan forgiveness. But that $10,000 in debt relief, it would help a lot of people. Borrowers with low debt balances often only went to college for a semester or a year or two and never got that credential. And they find themselves unable to pay on that loan without the degree. Roughly 8 million borrowers are in default, and most of them have less than $10,000 in debt. When you're in default, the government can garnish your wages, take some money from Social Security when you get older. It's not good.

KING: OK. So Joe Biden is like, let's focus on the people who have a relatively small amount of debt. Democrats say let's focus on people also who have big amounts of debt, and they want to go up to $50,000 per person. What is their argument for that?

NADWORNY: So Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren are among those behind this idea. Elizabeth Warren put it pretty simply.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: Canceling student loan debt is the single most effective executive action that President Biden can take to kick-start this economy.

NADWORNY: So proponents of this plan say a more forgiving cancellation policy is also about racial justice and would target gaps in wealth among Black families especially. That's because Black households have more student debt and are more likely to have student debt than white or Latino families. According to a forthcoming research report from the Center for Responsible Lending, Black borrowers who would have their debt fully erased if $50,000 was forgiven have median assets worth just $76,000. So, you know, in most cities, that's not even a house. So loan forgiveness has the potential to help borrowers begin to build wealth - buying a home, saving for emergency, saving for retirement. Though there are critics of the higher debt forgiveness. One economist I talked to argues that anything higher than $10,000 runs the risk of rewarding borrowers who don't need the help.

KING: Has Joe Biden responded to the Democrats' proposal?

NADWORNY: So the White House just this month signaled it was willing to consider using executive action instead of going through Congress. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that the Biden team was looking into the legality of whether or not they could cancel loans through executive action.

KING: I imagine a lot of people will be waiting to see what happens there. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers education. Thanks, Elissa.

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