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News brief: Biden-Xi talks, missiles strike within Lviv city limits, Moderna booster

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Leaders of two nations that have critiqued each other in public hold a call today in private.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden plans a talk with China's Xi Jinping. The U.S. wants China to help isolate its strategic partner, Russia, over the invasion of Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on this program Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTONY BLINKEN: China is already on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine and the aggression being committed by Russia. The fact that it has not stood strongly against it, that it has not pronounced itself against this aggression, flies in the face of China's commitments as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council responsible for maintaining peace and security.

INSKEEP: In Beijing, China's foreign ministry spokesman brought up Blinken's wrong side of history remark on NPR. The spokesman called it a smear. He went on to claim that when it comes to Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are the culprits of the crisis.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. She joins us now. Emily, all right, start off with the basics. What makes China important in this crisis?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, it's important because it's got leverage over Russia. It has strong ties, you mentioned. In fact, last month, they signed this long joint statement pledging their partnership had, quote, "no limits." And we've seen Russia become more excluded from the global society of nations because of this war. So it will increasingly rely on China. So far, here in China, they've projected a very pro-Russia message. They've blamed NATO expansionism for the war, and the U.S., even though globally they say they're neutral. And I think China's actions speak louder than words. In the last month, China's abstained on a U.N. resolution vote deploring the war. And this week, they were the only country alongside Russia to vote against a resolution in the International Court of Justice calling for the end of the war.

MARTINEZ: Then can this call prompt China maybe to take a stronger position on the Russian invasion? I mean, what might change China's calculus for its support of Russia?

FENG: In short, no, this call probably won't change that much. But the call is a signal that the U.S. has not believed China's line about staying neutral on the Russian war. And on the call, Biden is expected to warn Xi Jinping about the ongoing political costs of China staying silent on the sidelines. And here in Beijing, the costs are already starting to show a little bit. For example, the U.S. has mobilized this coalition of allies in Europe and NATO, as well as Japan here in the Asia Pacific, to sanction Russia. The stock market in China briefly tanked by 40% this week because of anxieties about the Russian war. And people are paying extra at the pump here in China, too. So Biden's call is not going to be the final straw that pushes China to change its position on the war. For that to happen, there's got to be more consistent and prolonged pressure on China and Russia. But China does have limits in its partnership with Russia, despite what China says. And China and its economy benefit from global stability.

MARTINEZ: Emily, what does China want out of all this?

FENG: Ultimately, long term, it wants to diminish the U.S.-led world order. And so that's why it's partnering up with Russia because Russia is useful for that goal of distracting and weakening the U.S. and its allies. What China is now counting on is if it waits long enough, this coalition I mentioned of NATO countries, European countries, the U.S., Japan, that might fracture and lose shape over time as economic sanctions against Russia start costing the U.S. and its allies. And China is even willing to wait until Ukraine is fully destroyed. And then it will be in a really good position to position itself as potentially a cease-fire broker between Russia and Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks a lot.

FENG: Thanks, A.

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MARTINEZ: Russian troops in Ukraine are literally bogged down. Video on social media shows a whole line of tanks apparently abandoned, stuck in thick Ukrainian mud.

INSKEEP: Russian forces instead are striking cities with artillery and missiles from a distance. Yesterday, Ukrainian officials said artillery destroyed a school and a community center near Kharkiv; the attack killed 21 people. Today, missiles have again reached the western part of Ukraine, striking a building next to the airport in Lviv.

MARTINEZ: And that is where we find our colleague, Leila Fadel. Leila, what was the attack like?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So there were three loud blasts about 6:30 this morning. I woke up to air raid sirens. There were plumes of smoke that could be seen on the skyline. And local officials say cruise missiles were fired from the Black Sea. Several hit an aviation repair plant right next to the city's airport. And it's a facility that repairs MiG-29 fighter jets, as stated on the facility's website back in February. A local news site reported earlier this year that it's the only place in Ukraine that restores and modernizes the jets for the Ukrainian air force. And, A, this is the first time the city of Lviv has been struck since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine. And it's significant because Lviv is Ukraine's city of refuge for the displaced, where international aid is coming through to supply parts of the country with no access to food, to water, to supplies. And Lviv, in the country's west, is about an hour's drive from the Polish border. That border is where weapons and other aid flow in to bolster Ukrainian forces fighting back the Russians in the center, east and south of the country.

MARTINEZ: So strikes like this are rare in Lviv and that's why so many Ukraines displaced and sick end up in hospitals there. But medical services and supplies are also becoming more scarce. Leila, you visited a regional cancer hospital in Lviv yesterday. What did you learn?

FADEL: So as we've seen in this war, hospitals have not been spared Russian bombardment. And so at the hospital I visited here in Lviv, patients with cancer from cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv are showing up here for treatment in the relative safety of this city. The halls are filled with patients. Each hospital room has four or five people, but no one stays overnight because the hospital can't get hundreds of people to the bomb shelter in time if an air raid siren sounds. Clinical oncologist Anna Honcharova (ph), somebody we spoke to, told us these patients are dealing with a double trauma.

ANNA HONCHAROVA: Emotionally, it is harder than during COVID period. And patient also tell us stories about the bombings. They lost their homes. It's horrible.

MARTINEZ: Leila, as we said earlier, the west part of Ukraine has been spared most of the Russian attacks that are terrorizing so many other Ukrainian cities. But what's it like where you are?

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, many of the patients at this hospital here fled cities that were being bombarded. And, you know, Lviv is not just a worry-free city. When the war first started, Dr. Orest Trill (ph), the deputy director of the hospital, told me they made a tough decision.

OREST TRILL: (Through interpreter) You cannot just stop in the middle of an operation when the air raid siren goes off. So we decided to continue operating despite the war.

FADEL: So medical staff don't take shelter in the middle of surgery. They don't abandon their patients.

MARTINEZ: Wow. Do they have or will they have the chemotherapy treatment that patients desperate to get?

FADEL: I mean, it's a good question because the hospital I visited has become a refuge for the nation's sick. They're treating about 120 patients with chemotherapy every day, and that's double the usual load. And they're getting as many as 30 additional calls for help from different regions each day. Trill says they ran through their supplies on site in about three weeks. And their stockpiles are near Kyiv and inaccessible. So sometimes, he has to tell patients he can't help them. And he says that's really hard morally.

MARTINEZ: That's Leila Fadel in Lviv, Ukraine. Leila, thank you very much.

FADEL: You're welcome, A.

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MARTINEZ: The drug company Moderna is asking the Food and Drug Administration to authorize a fourth shot of its COVID-19 vaccine.

INSKEEP: That would be for all adults in the United States. The request is prompting debate, though, with some public health experts saying it's premature.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're going to go to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, more boosters, more boosters for everyone. Tell us what Moderna's asking for and why.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Last night, Moderna sent out a brief press release announcing that the company is asking the FDA to greenlight a second booster of its vaccine for anyone age 18 or older. This goes far beyond the request made earlier this week by Pfizer and BioNTech, which are only asking for another booster for anyone age 65 and older. So this comes as a kind of a big surprise and will almost surely trigger yet another big debate about boosters in this country.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what's that argument for a second booster, a fourth shot?

STEIN: Well, you know, it's clear that the protection the vaccines provide has been fading with time, especially against the omicron variant, which is especially good at sneaking around the immune system. That's why there have been so many breakthrough infections during the omicron wave, even among people who got their boosters. Moderna's booster is half dose the original shot, and Pfizer's is a full dose. And the fear is that as time goes on, some people are becoming especially vulnerable, like the elderly. Some other countries have already started giving older people fourth shots. In making their request, Pfizer and BioNTech say evidence from Israel shows a fourth shot does boost back up the immune system and may reduce the risk of serious illness. Moderna says it's basing its request on recently published data from the U.S. and Israel following the emergence of omicron but so far hasn't released any details. The company says it's asking for a fourth shot for all adults to, quote, "provide flexibility" for the CDC and health care providers to determine who should get it. In addition to the elderly, the company says that could include people with other health problems.

MARTINEZ: So when you say this would trigger a big debate, I'm assuming that you're meaning that not everyone agrees it's a good idea to give everyone a fourth shot.

STEIN: Right. Some independent experts agree the immunity from the vaccines has gotten weak enough to warrant boosters for all and that there is at least some evidence that a fourth shot can help. And they say even though the omicron surge is fading, lots of people are still catching the virus and dying every day and an even more contagious omicron subvariant has already triggered new surges in Europe and is on the rise in this country. But many others say, you know, for most people, we're just not there yet. The vaccines are clearly still doing their main job, you know, which is preventing most people from getting seriously ill or dying. And we just don't have good evidence that yet another shot of the same vaccine is really needed for most people and would actually help. If we do need another booster, maybe it's a different vaccine this time. We need to see more data first before taking this step. And they say the main priority is getting the millions of people who aren't vaccinated at all to get their shots and the millions of vaccinated people who haven't gotten their first booster to get that.

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

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

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