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News brief: Biden on Taiwan, monkeypox cases, Ukraine-Polish border

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today, President Biden answered a question the U.S. normally avoids answering. The question is whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A reporter asked the president as he traveled if the U.S. would get involved militarily if mainland China invades Taiwan. Biden said, yes. That would be a big policy change. Though, Biden also said U.S. policy has not changed. He warned China against trying to take the self-governed area, which China claims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the maneuvers they're undertaking. But the United States is committed. We've made a commitment. We support the one-China policy. We support all that we've done in the past. But that does not mean - it does not mean that China has the ability, has the - excuse me, the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.

FADEL: With us now is NPR's Asma Khalid, who is traveling with the president on a trip that's very much all about countering China. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: So this seems like pretty forceful rhetoric from the president. Is this a change in U.S. policy?

KHALID: I will say that is a tricky question to answer. Officially, no. The president himself publicly said there is no change in U.S. policy. The thing is that for decades, U.S. policy has been one of strategic ambiguity. Presidents have been particularly careful to not explicitly say that the U.S. would militarily get involved in Taiwan out of concerns that that might escalate tensions with China. But, you know, as Steve said, at a news conference, Biden was explicitly asked that given he did not want to get involved in Ukraine militarily, would he get involved militarily in Taiwan? And the president unequivocally said, yes.

FADEL: Yeah.

KHALID: You know, the reaction from Beijing, as expected, was swift. China's foreign minister said that it deplored Biden's comments and said the U.S. should not defend Taiwan's independence. The White House tried to walk this back quickly. An official sent me a text message saying that nothing about U.S. foreign policy here has changed. Though, I will say, Leila, this all definitely took attention away from what the White House wanted to focus on today, which was this new trade pact.

FADEL: So let's talk about that trade pact. What's it all about?

KHALID: It's called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. And it's really about competition with China. You know, it's not a traditional free trade agreement with incentives to lower tariffs. Biden officials say that this is by design. They realized there was not political appetite in the country for something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which you probably recall was this cornerstone of the Obama economic strategy in the region. But environmental and labor groups opposed it. And President Obama could not get that deal through Congress.

FADEL: Right.

KHALID: So this new pact is about setting standards, common rules of the road, sort of, you know, around key issues that do include trade, but also things like infrastructure, supply chains, clean energy and taxes.

FADEL: So who's signed on to this deal? How will it work?

KHALID: There are 13 countries, including the U.S., that are signing up. You know, it includes a range of countries, from large economies like Japan and Australia to emerging markets like Thailand and Vietnam. I will say that what exactly all these countries are signing up for is unclear. There are no binding commitments yet. And, you know, essentially, this is a pact to cooperate. I will say, one major challenge for Biden is to prove that this deal is more than a framework. And some allies in the region certainly want more. In fact, earlier today, as President Biden stood next to Japan's prime minister, Japan's prime minister publicly said that he hopes the U.S. comes back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Though, that is not necessarily likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KHALID: Good talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Back in the U.S., federal epidemiologists are monitoring the potential outbreak of monkeypox.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The number of suspected cases in the United States remains in the single digits. But scientists are baffled about how this disease seems to be spreading to Europe and North America. The World Health Organization warns it could travel around the globe.

FADEL: Joining us now to explain is Washington Post health reporter Fenit Nirappil. Good morning.

FENIT NIRAPPIL: Good morning.

FADEL: So what is monkeypox? And how worried should we be?

NIRAPPIL: So the virus comes from animals. And it results in flu-like aches and fatigue, followed by a rash that develops pus-filled bumps. The somewhat good news is the detected strain is a known West African one associated with a milder illness that lasts about two to four weeks. It's spread by skin-to-skin contact or droplets when you have prolonged face-to-face contact. You can also catch it from bedding or clothing contaminated by monkeypox sores. So there's not reason to panic at this point.

FADEL: OK.

NIRAPPIL: But be on guard for symptoms. You should seek medical treatment if you develop rashes, especially if you've traveled to a country where monkeypox has been detected, or if you had recent contact with someone with rashes.

FADEL: OK. So what's unusual about this disease's recent emergence around the world?

NIRAPPIL: Yeah. So what's unusual is that outbreaks are usually confined to western and Central Africa. Now we're seeing infections in people who haven't traveled there. That indicates a potential sustained human-to-human transmission outside of Africa that we haven't seen before. Normally, it's transmitted by infected rodents or, occasionally, primates. As of now, health authorities have detected about 100 cases of monkeypox around the globe, largely in Europe. In the U.S., there's one confirmed case and several more suspected ones. What's also unusual is the new cases have been concentrated among men who have sex with men, although it's not a sexually transmitted disease or known as a sexually transmitted disease. Experts say this trend could be a coincidental result of the virus first circulating in tightknit gay communities.

FADEL: OK. So what do we know about treatment and prevention here?

NIRAPPIL: So because monkeypox and smallpox are closely related, the vaccines and the antivirals that are stockpiled for the potential return of smallpox are also licensed for use against monkeypox. The vaccine can be administered soon after someone has been exposed to boost immunity and prevent serious illness. That's not like the way it is with coronavirus vaccines. And that's because this disease has a long incubation period, usually one to two weeks. The other piece of good news is monkeypox is easy to spot and avoid because those rashes are so highly visible.

FADEL: So is there a pandemic threat here, anything close to what we're still going through with COVID?

NIRAPPIL: We're not at that point yet. Public health officials emphasize that the rising monkeypox cases should not be cause for panic because the effective tools that we have to contain and treat the virus. We're not at the point where we're worried about a global pandemic. And what we're seeing right now is the normal, aggressive public health response to emerging virus threats. So let me stress, this isn't winter 2020 and COVID-19. Monkeypox is known, it's harder to transmit and it's easier to contain. We have the tools to help infected people, too. The CDC and other public health authorities are issuing these alerts because they want doctors who haven't ever encountered monkeypox to be on the lookout for rashes and other telltale symptoms so they can track the spread of the virus and contain it.

FADEL: Washington Post health reporter Fenit Nirappil. Thank you so much.

NIRAPPIL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Shortly after Russia's invasion into Ukraine, people spent hours, days waiting to get out of the country. Now the long lines are to get back into Ukraine. Our All Things Considered colleague Ari Shapiro spent some time at the Medyka border then and now. And here now to tell us what he saw is Ari. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hey, Leila. How are you?

FADEL: So paint us a picture. What does it look like these days?

SHAPIRO: You can picture a line that is almost 10 miles long of vehicles. And, actually, it's a few lines. Like, there's one for commercial trucks, one for passenger cars and one for buses full of refugees returning home. It's these double-decker buses, nose to tail, with signs in the dashboard saying that they started their journey in Poland, Germany, Italy, even farther west than that. And the destination cities are all in Ukraine. So I met one passenger on one of these buses, this woman named Victoria Olanych, who was coming from Brussels to see her mother in the hospital in Ukraine. And she told me that she passed the time on this long journey talking to other passengers.

VICTORIA OLANYCH: I ask them, they say, I don't find myself in Germany. I don't find myself in Belgium. But they - mostly people want go back. They love Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Are you proud to be going back to Ukraine at this moment?

OLANYCH: I'm proud about - that we have such soldiers. But Ukraine never was so much together.

FADEL: Wow. It sounds so different from when I was reporting on the border and then when you were reporting on the border a couple of months ago. Tell us the difference.

SHAPIRO: To me, apart from the lines, the biggest difference I felt was that back then, crossing this border felt like a permanent, fork in the road life choice. I mean, people didn't know when they would ever return home or even if they would have a country to return to.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And today, Medyka almost feels like a commuter hub. People go back and forth. Like, I met this woman named Anastasia Boryko. And she was almost giddy to tell me that she's gone back to her regular office job as a marketing manager in the city of Rivne.

ANASTASIA BORYKO: I'm going to office every day, yes.

SHAPIRO: In Rivne?

BORYKO: Yes.

SHAPIRO: How does that feel?

BORYKO: That's amazing. That's amazing.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever think you would say going to work every day feels amazing?

BORYKO: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BORYKO: No.

SHAPIRO: When you started to talk about that, your whole face lit up. You completely changed.

BORYKO: (Laughter) Yeah, because it's really true. I like it.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Leila, that joy is tempered by the knowledge that the war is not over.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: People are still under Russian attack in the east and the south. But that fear people felt a couple of months ago that they would never go home again, possibly, never see their family members again, that seems to have gone away at the border.

FADEL: I mean, it's really beautiful to hear the joy of her getting to go home and love something as mundane as her daily job.

SHAPIRO: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: This is also a major crossing, though, for commercial goods going into Ukraine. Has that changed?

SHAPIRO: Oh, totally. I talked to this trucker who's been making the journey since 2000. And he's never seen it like this. He said, sometimes, he waits 48 hours because the airport in Kyiv is closed. The shipping port in Mariupol is closed. So this border crossing is now, like, one of the few ways goods can get into the country at all.

FADEL: OK. You spent the entire day at the border. Leave us with somebody that you just cannot forget.

SHAPIRO: Leila, you and I have both reported a lot on how men of military age are not allowed to leave Ukraine.

FADEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And so families have been separated. The refugees are overwhelmingly women and children. And so I met this woman named Violetta Naboka, who spent two months in Poland with her 14-year-old daughter living with Polish strangers who she said treated them like family.

When you get home, what will be the first thing you do?

VIOLETTA NABOKA: (Speaking Ukrainian) I love you, my husband.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Leila, I think that Ukrainian needs no translation.

FADEL: I think we get it. That's All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro reporting from Poland. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Oh, it's a pleasure, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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