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News Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine, Clashes In Jerusalem, Gene-Editing Experiment

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Several factors make it seem possible the United States could be heading for a more normal summer.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New coronavirus cases are falling, and the CDC says 43% of the adult population in this country is fully vaccinated. And this week, the FDA is expected to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12 to 15.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is on the line. Hey there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how is the testing of the vaccine going for 12 to 15-year-olds?

AUBREY: Well, scientists at the FDA have been reviewing the clinical trial data. It included more than 2,000 kids in this age group. And it appears it's all positive, Steve. Kids develop a lot of antibodies. They have very mild side effects. I spoke to Patricia Stinchfield. She's a nonvoting member of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Now, this is the group that makes recommendations. She says, from what's been released so far, the vaccine appears to be very effective.

PATRICIA STINCHFIELD: And this age group seems to be 100% effective. No child in the study on that 12 to 15-year-old adolescents got COVID.

AUBREY: As for side effects, there are some fevers, though not many. Some had arm pain, just like adults. And Stinchfield says the benefits far outweigh the risks, it seems.

INSKEEP: So that would explain why approval seems to be coming. But how many parents are willing to have their kids vaccinated?

AUBREY: You know, a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds only 3 in 10 parents of children in this age group say they will get their kid vaccinated as soon as it's available; many say they will wait. I spoke to Dr. Lee Beers. She's president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She says she's not surprised that there's some hesitancy and says pediatricians will be working hard in the coming weeks to reassure parents and answer their questions.

LEE BEERS: We as pediatricians feel incredibly confident in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. We feel confident in the process that led to its development and are really, really incredibly encouraged.

AUBREY: She is the mom of a 12-year-old also, and she has her child on a list to get vaccinated as soon as it's available.

INSKEEP: I have a question about another aspect of the vaccine story, Allison. If we go back in our memories to late last year, the Pfizer vaccine, of course, was approved in the last several months, but it was an emergency authorization. Now we're told Pfizer has applied for full FDA approval of the vaccine for adults. What difference would that make?

AUBREY: You know, full approval would give the vaccine makers the ability to market the vaccine directly to consumers. But also, Steve, full approval could pave the way for more mandatory requirements. For instance, many hospitals, health care institutions, they require their employees to get the flu shot every year. We could see that for COVID vaccines, perhaps in the military or more schools may require it.

INSKEEP: Wow. So the big picture then, we're looking at the summer, what's the outlook?

AUBREY: The most recent models are very encouraging. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said if vaccinations keep apace, there's reason to be quite hopeful that - for what this summer may bring. Now, over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked, is it time to relax or drop indoor mask mandates? His response...

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ANTHONY FAUCI: We do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated. As you get more people vaccinated, the number of cases per day will absolutely go down. We're averaging about 43,000 a day. We've got to get it much, much lower than that.

AUBREY: So he's saying, Steve, hang tight. You know, as cases go down, vaccinations increase, the guidelines will relax.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

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INSKEEP: What is driving violence between police and protesters in the Old City of Jerusalem?

MARTIN: Over the weekend, Israeli police fired rubber-coated bullets and water cannons. The conflict came as Muslims marked one of the holiest nights of the month of Ramadan.

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MARTIN: Police fired stun grenades during evening prayers near Al-Aqsa Mosque on Saturday. Palestinian medics say hundreds have been injured. More than a dozen Israeli police are also injured as Palestinians threw rocks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Daniel, welcome back.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, it's always hazardous to ask on your beat, how did this all begin? But what - if we look at recent events, what led up to the confrontations?

ESTRIN: Well, after more than a year of pandemic closures, this city opened up, and Palestinian crowds gathered outside the old city in a plaza like they do every year for Ramadan. I'm out here in the plaza now. Police say they were attempting crowd control, but Palestinians saw it as an affront to their religion and to their very existence in the cities. And so there's been nightly skirmishes here, young boys and teens throwing rocks and water bottles at police, police spraying this putrid water that still leaves a stench - I can smell it now - in this celebratory Ramadan plaza. And then on top of that, there have just been Israeli-Palestinian street fights that I almost drove into one the other night, ultranationalist Israelis coming out into the streets and then these big protests around some pending Palestinian home evictions.

INSKEEP: This is a series of things all happening at once. And aren't there also some matters of the calendar that make this even more complex?

ESTRIN: That's right. The last couple of days have been the climax of Ramadan. And today is Jerusalem Day when Israel celebrates capturing this historic Old City in the 1967 war. And Israeli religious Jews and ultranationalists are out in the streets already, and they're going to be marching through the Old City. It's an annual march with chants and flags. And police have asked Palestinian shopkeepers to close up their stores and be out of the street. So there is a lot of concern this march will inflame tensions that this morning were inflamed. There were hundreds of Palestinians on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound who were wounded in confrontations with police.

INSKEEP: Daniel, can you just describe the landscape, the geography for people who haven't been there? When you start talking about confrontations and protests in the Old City of Jerusalem, aren't we talking about a really crowded area with incredibly narrow streets? I mean, it's just naturally tense if you have a big crowd there, I would think.

ESTRIN: That's right. And then there's the epicenter, which is the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. I mean, if you imagine it, it's this big open plaza with a lot of trees, the iconic Golden Dome of the Rock. And then we've just been seeing all this smoke and rocks strewn everywhere on that plaza. Then inside the Old City, the small, narrow cobblestone alleyways and then around the Old City, it's just been sort of concentric circles. And there are concerns that today everything can come to a head when Israeli religious youth walk through the Old City.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, is the United States involved here?

ESTRIN: Well, it's interesting, Steve. I mean, surprisingly, perhaps we've heard many statements from the U.S. I mean, the Biden administration had put this issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, very low on its priority list. It had been saying the two sides are just not ready for peace talks. But the White House has spoken to Israeli officials about trying to ensure calm as Ramadan is about to end and also expressing concern about possible Palestinian evictions from neighborhoods that Jewish settlers want to take over. There's still a feeling of a city on edge.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks as always, for the clarity, really appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now. Doctors are using a revolutionary gene-editing technique to try and cure some diseases.

MARTIN: An experiment using the technique called CRISPR could restore vision for some patients with genetic disorders. It will edit people's genes while their DNA is still inside their bodies. NPR has the first interviews with patients who had it done.

INSKEEP: And NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with the story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Wow, editing genes while inside people's bodies - why do it that way?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, this is the best way they think to try to treat some diseases. And in this case, the disease is known as Leber congenital amaurosis. It's a rare genetic disease that destroys people's vision. And I was able to talk to two people who were born with this disorder and volunteered to have their genes edited this way. One of them is Carlene Knight. She's 54 and lives outside Portland, Ore. She has no peripheral vision at all - none.

CARLENE KNIGHT: Just picture looking through a window and trying to see a spider on the floor through a hole about the size of a pencil lead. That kind of gives you an idea of what I can see.

STEIN: And her eyes, you know, they kind of jump around a lot, and that often blurs even that tiny little window in the world that she has. And I also talked with Michael Kalberer. He's 43 and lives on Long Island. The same sort of thing happens to him, too, blurring his small little porthole.

MICHAEL KALBERER: I do not have visual independence. I do not have visual autonomy. The diagnosis could have broken me, and for a while, it did.

STEIN: Both Kalberer and Knight are legally blind.

INSKEEP: So what's the plan to help them?

STEIN: So scientists are using this gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which is already showing promise for blood disorders like sickle cell disease, and it's being tested for cancer. But in those experiments, doctors are taking cells out of the body, editing them in the lab and then infusing the edited cells back into patients. The experiment Knight and Kalberer volunteered for, it's the first time scientists are modifying DNA inside patients' bodies with CRISPR. And here's how they did it - doctors infused the CRISPR directly into Knight's left eye and into Kalberer's right eye so the gene editer could, you know, kind of like a microscopic surgeon, literally slicing out the genetic mutation in cells in their retinas and hopefully restoring at least some of their vision. Here's Carlene Knight again.

KNIGHT: It's not an everyday subject where people can say, oh, I had my genes altered (laughter).

INSKEEP: Rob, this is a little excruciating even to listen to. I mean, this is kind of terrifying, in a way, but also amazing. Is it working?

STEIN: Well, you know, yeah, it is all kind of incredible. But, you know, it's a little too soon to say the researchers are telling me in terms of whether it's working or not. You know, the doctors, they started by treating only one eye in each patient with the lowest dose, you know, just in case something went wrong. And so far, it does look safe. And, you know, Kalberer and Knight are hoping it will end up helping them.

KNIGHT: I would like to be able to - I don't know - read signs as I go down the street and know where I'm at and watching movies and facial expressions and to be able to see my granddaughter's face. it would be huge.

STEIN: You know, and Kalberer, he yearns to watch his nieces and nephews play soccer instead of just being able to listen to the games and read a computer and watch sunsets and see people smile.

KALBERER: It's hard to put into words. You hope for it. You do the best you can. But to even have the possibility, it's a gift.

STEIN: And, you know, researchers think the same approach could help patients with other diseases where you can't take cells out, edit them and put them back in, you know, brain diseases like Huntington's and muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy. And they expect to report the first clues about whether it's helping blind people like Kalberer and Knight see by the end of the year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.