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News Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine Hacks, School Reopening Decisions, Opioid Prescriptions

NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 75,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the U.S. yesterday - another record. Over the past month, we've said this a lot - another day, another record.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many countries are rushing to develop a vaccine - in fact, competing to develop it first. Intelligence agencies from the United States, the U.K. and Canada say Russia is trying to cheat. Hackers from a group known as Cozy Bear are trying to steal company secrets. Cozy Bear is the same group that broke into Democratic Party servers in 2016, creating chaos in the election.

KING: NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre has been following this one. And Greg, let me start by asking you, how did the hack work?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, according to the National Security Agency and their British and Canadian counterparts, Russia used the tried-and-true method of spear phishing, just sending fraudulent emails, trying to get employees to click on them then stealing their passwords. And Russians apparently were also trying to insert malware. We don't know how successful it's been in this case. It's certainly worked for Russia in the past.

KING: Yes, it has, and it remains low tech and easy to pull off. What do intelligence experts think Russia was trying to do by hacking into vaccine developers?

MYRE: Well, they want a vaccine, like every other country in the world. That would certainly be very valuable financially to get the vaccine and would bring tremendous prestige to Russia if they were able to get it first. And we should also note Russia's really had a very rough pandemic. President Vladimir Putin seemed to take it all pretty casually at first, and there were not a lot of cases reported. But they have soared. Russia now has 750,000 cases - that's fourth worldwide - and around 12,000 deaths. There's a lot of skepticism that that death toll may be a little low. The economy has also taken a huge hit because of the very low oil prices.

KING: Do we know which companies were targeted and whether any valuable information was actually stolen?

MYRE: No, we don't. The intel agencies haven't named the health care organizations that were being targeted, and we don't know if any real harm was caused. And we should remember there is no vaccine yet, so there is no magic formula to steal at the moment. But that said, it's not hard to guess who the Russians would have been going after. The companies themselves have announced that they're doing research. They've provided some preliminary results, so they've advertised their own work.

KING: Russia has to be working on its own vaccine program, right?

MYRE: Oh, yes, absolutely. The Russian government has dedicated some real resources at home. In fact, the Russian Defense Ministry provided the volunteers to be tested for one potential vaccine this week, and the country said it had successfully completed the first human trial. Russia is now looking to start a larger trial at home and abroad. They're still talking hopefully that they could have the world's first vaccine and develop tens of millions of doses domestically this year.

KING: Just real quick - is Russia the first country that's accused of trying to steal vaccine information?

MYRE: No. A couple months ago, the U.S. and British intelligence agencies started raising the alarm about China. And China, as you know, has a very long track record of stealing or attempting to steal U.S. intellectual property on many fronts, including pharmaceuticals.

KING: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. So how do schools know when it's safe to reopen? A lot of districts want to hear more from the CDC.

INSKEEP: Which was supposed to release new guidance this week - now the CDC says it's going to hold off until later in the month, which is not a small matter because it is mid-July and many schools typically open in August. The president wants kids in classrooms. Many parents and teachers don't know. Big districts like Los Angeles and Houston say they will do remote learning only in the fall. New York City is proposing a hybrid with all of the kids in some of the schools some of the time.

KING: NPR's Cory Turner has been calling school districts all over the country. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Where do things stand right now? I know that is a big question, but try to give us a national picture.

TURNER: Yeah, sure. So first of all, many district leaders I spoke to just don't believe the administration when it says the science supports fully reopening right now. The science suggests kids do not get very sick generally from COVID-19, but it is less clear how easily they spread it. And remember many states are right now seeing substantial community spread of the disease, and that's what sets us apart from many of the other countries that have already reopened their schools.

As for that CDC guidance, our colleague Franco Ordoñez reported just last night, again, the agency is delaying some new school reopening documents, although it is our understanding that these are not a revision of the old guidelines that President Trump suggested, last week, should be softened.

KING: So you're talking to school superintendents. What do they make of the president coming out and saying, you guys should reopen?

TURNER: Yeah. I think it's important to remember that Trump even threatened to cut off federal funding for really vulnerable kids, something experts say he can't even do. So when I asked superintendents, you know, I heard a lot of frustration. Here's Ann Levett, who heads the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools in Georgia.

ANN LEVETT: Here's the deal - I'm responsible for the safety of other people's children. We cannot have the confidence that parents have in us eroded because we're trying to hurry up and get things done.

TURNER: Levett and other school leaders are still very much listening to local, state and federal public health officials.

KING: These superintendents are now being put in the position of having to be educators and also like, as a side hustle, epidemiologists. What are they telling you about what that experience is like?

TURNER: I mean, I think it's really tiring. You know, for many of them, even in places with low infection rates, reopening safely can be a logistical nightmare. You know, spreading desks 6 feet apart, for example, like the CDC recommends - that bumps five to 10 kids out of every classroom. You know, where do those kids go, and who teaches them?

I spoke with one superintendent, Chad Gestson, the head of the Phoenix Union High School District. And he recently said, enough. He said with infection rates spiking in Arizona, all students in his district are just going to keep learning remotely right now.

CHAD GESTSON: We were spending so much time studying respiratory droplets and measuring classrooms and how to transition thousands of kids between periods that we lost track of the core of our work.

TURNER: So Noel, I think there's just too much uncertainty to see a lot of fully reopening right now. You know, one superintendent told me, it boils down to a vaccine.

KING: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner, that makes sense. Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: A new NPR investigation shows that doctors are still overprescribing opioids.

INSKEEP: Emphasis on still - it's been years since we have been referring to opioids as an epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead of overdoses; families are destroyed; children have been removed from their homes; addicts are struggling to recover - and still. Why would doctors be doing this?

KING: Our addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been looking at publicly available data. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: You've been on this story for years. And at a certain point, it just looks reckless. How could doctors still be overprescribing opioids?

MANN: Yeah, it seems remarkable. What a lot of experts tell NPR is that for all their dangers, opioids are still kind of hard-wired into the American health care system. A lot of people, for example, have insurance that will pay for opioids but not alternative pain treatments. Also, a lot of doctors were trained during the opioid boom, and they still see these medications as a quick, convenient solution to patient pain. Here's Dr. Jonathan Chen. He's a physician in California who studies prescribing patterns.

JONATHAN CHEN: If you look worldwide, we're like 5% of the population, but we consume 80% of the world's prescription opioids. It's not just a handful of doctors doing it. We kind of all are. It's become part (ph) of our culture that this is normal.

MANN: Yeah. So normal and deadly - in 2018, the latest year we have good records, Noel, 40 people were still dying every day from prescription opioid overdoses. Millions more saw their lives shattered by addiction.

KING: There are now tighter regulations in a lot of states. The health care industry got in a ton of trouble. There were lawsuits. Billions of dollars were paid out or will be paid out. Are you saying that none of that worked?

MANN: Well, what NPR found is that prescribing has come down from the really crazy high levels we saw during the peak of the opioid boom. But critics and people who study this say progress has been slow and also really uneven. Here's Gery Guy. He tracks prescribing patterns for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GERY GUY: There's still three times the amount of opioids being prescribed as there was in 1999. And there's also substantial variation across the country.

MANN: Now, experts we talked to, Noel, said that last part is really troubling. It turns out, opioid prescriptions have come down a lot in some parts of the country. That's a big success story. But we found other areas of the U.S., especially rural areas and parts of the South, where the prescribing boom is still going full tilt - Enough prescriptions being written in those communities every year for every man, woman and child to get a bottle of pills.

KING: Are there differences within the health care industry? Like, are certain types of doctors overprescribing while others are not?

MANN: Yeah, this is really interesting. So what the CDC found is a lot of health care workers ignore federal safety guidelines - that's across the industry - often giving these medications for things like twisted ankles and lower back pain that could be treated with Tylenol or an ice pack. But studies also show, yes, that there are sort of opioid hotspots within health care. Surgeons, for example, are giving out millions of excess pills every year. A new study from the University of Pittsburgh found dentists have actually increased the number of powerful opioids they give out. What that means is a lot of these pills going out into communities that can be diverted and misused. Here's Keith Humphreys. He studies opioid prescribing at Stanford University.

KEITH HUMPHREYS: You have this incredible reservoir of pills that doesn't exist in other countries, so it's remarkable this continues and that we, you know, put this much potentially deadly drug out on the street every year. But that's the situation we're in.

MANN: And that's obviously super dangerous for those communities.

KING: Brian Mann, NPR's addiction correspondent.

Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.