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Morning news brief


A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has officials around the globe rushing to learn more.


The World Health Organization is concerned enough to convene an emergency session, and that is just one of the pandemic news items around the world. We keep wanting the pandemic to be over, but cases involving the delta variant have surged in parts of Europe and Asia.

MARTÍNEZ: Now let's get a picture of one country that did as well as anywhere in containing the pandemic's early stages. That's South Korea. How are they going there now? NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. Are South Koreans, Anthony, ready for another variant?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, they're concerned about this new South African variant. They've actually been looking for new variants in cases coming out of Africa since January. And they say that there are no cases confirmed yet in South Korea. But as we say, they have their hands full with the delta strain right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Did South Korea's early successes in containing the virus make them more complacent?

KUHN: Yes, you could say that. You could argue that because they were successful early on due to their aggressive contact tracing and testing that they were slower to start with vaccinating their population. But now they've gone ahead of the U.S. and other developed economies. But they've been slower to administer third shots, or booster shots. And in the past week, for example, more than a third of new cases were over age 60. And those people were the first to be vaccinated, and only around 10% of them have received their third shots. Another 17% were below age 18, and less than 20% of Koreans who are aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated. So that accounts for more than half the cases right there. And even though South Korea is now up to 80% full vaccination of its population, there's uncertainty how much higher that they can go.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, by international standards, South Korea's situation doesn't look so bad. But are people there worried?

KUHN: Yeah, they're definitely worried. They're definitely in uncharted territory. Basically, in September people sort of threw in the towel, gave up on social distancing just as they were hitting 70% vaccination rates. So the government started to lift restrictions in stages. As with other countries around Asia that are lifting restrictions and easing border controls, South Korea's government started to promote a so-called return to normal life. And what that means is they're paying less attention to daily case numbers and more to fatalities and severe cases and trying to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. But ICU beds in the capital area, around Seoul, are now 84% full, and the government is saying it may have to suspend further loosening of restrictions.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thank you very much.

KUHN: Thank you.


MARTÍNEZ: Next week, the United States returns to the bargaining table with Iran,

INSKEEP: To be exact, they're at separate tables but at least in the same city. Iran has refused to meet face-to-face with Americans about rejoining a nuclear agreement, but Iran is talking through intermediaries in Vienna, Austria, next week. President Biden's administration wants back into a deal that the Trump administration abandoned. Iran slowly went out of compliance with the deal in protest against new U.S. sanctions. U.S. envoy Rob Malley spoke with NPR.

ROBERT MALLEY: Russia, China, the U.S., obviously the - E3 - Germany, France and the U.K. - all are in agreement. Let's get back into the deal. Let's do it by closing the remaining issues that were left open in June after six rounds of talks, but let's hurry up because time is not on our side. And I have to emphasize this. Given the pace of Iran's nuclear advances, we don't have much time before we have to conclude that Iran has chosen a different path.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul has been covering the nuclear deal since it was reached in 2015. Peter, Malley refers to Iran choosing a different path. Where does Iran's nuclear program stand now, and can any of its advances be turned back somehow?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, one of the major steps Iran took was to boost its enrichment of uranium, the nuclear fuel. It's now stockpiling uranium enriched to 60%. That's a lot closer than it's ever been to having weapons grade, or 90% enriched, fuel. Then in addition, U.N. inspectors aren't getting access to key sites. So far, everything Iran is doing could be undone. The fuel could be down-blended to a lower enrichment level, for instance. But Malley and others also worry about the nuclear knowledge Tehran is gaining all the time.

MARTÍNEZ: What are Iranians saying that has Malley worried?

KENYON: Well, the new chief Iranian negotiator is saying these talks aren't about Iran's nuclear program; they're about getting sanctions lifted. Tehran also wants a guarantee - a guarantee the Americans won't walk out on any new deal the way they did with the 2015 agreement. The U.S. says it's not really possible to bind the hands of a future president. Tehran also wants time - time to verify that all sanctions have been lifted before it returns to compliance with the deal. And that's raising concerns.

MARTÍNEZ: Let's listen to a little more of what Robert Malley told us about the options on the table.

MALLEY: If Iran chooses - and it really is at this point, I think, an Iranian choice - if they choose not to go back into the deal, then, obviously, we're going to have to see other efforts, diplomatic and otherwise, to try to address Iran's nuclear ambitions.

MARTÍNEZ: Peter, other efforts - what kind of other efforts is he talking about there?

KENYON: Well, some say there could be a kind of a smaller deal. Maybe Iran starts complying with some of the restrictions in the agreement and gets partial sanctions relief in return. The Biden administration, of course, wants much more than that. Ideally, they'd like to get to new negotiations over Iran's ballistic missile program, what's seen as another major threat to regional peace. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Israel say only increased pressure will work. Iran, of course, has accused Israel of sabotaging nuclear sites and killing an Iranian nuclear scientist. The U.S., meanwhile, is demanding that Iran increase its cooperation with the U.N. inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. And if they don't, they say they will get tough with them at the next IAEA board meeting. But one big question is going to be whether these talks Monday make enough progress to show skeptics that there's still room for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear issue.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, A.


MARTÍNEZ: The day after Thanksgiving usually means leftovers and Black Friday deals - if you can get your hands on either of them.

INSKEEP: This year retailers face shortages of both supplies and workers. Yet Americans are buying more than ever, and holiday shopping is expected to set a new record.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's business correspondent Alina Selyukh is here to tell us more. Alina, I'm the new guy here at NPR, and I've heard that's an annual tradition of asking you, is the Black Friday rush still a thing? So is the Black Friday rush still a thing?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Uh-huh, yes. Oh, love that tradition, and I'm here for it. And the answer to that is, depends on what you mean by that because traditionally it's meant, you know, people lining up in - I don't know - tents outside of Best Buy at dawn. That's not happening that much. And it hasn't been for many years, not just because of the pandemic. People shopping like crazy on Black Friday, that's definitely still a thing. The National Retail Federation says Black Friday is still the day when the most number of people shop, even more than on Cyber Monday, setting aside sort of the amounts that are spent.

But let's be real. This year, Black Friday sales have been going on for months. I talked to Katerina Grant (ph) from Maryland who says she bought her gifts on summer sales - Legos for her 7-year-old son and Barbie toys for her 4-year-old daughter.

KATERINA GRANT: We bought the huge Barbie DreamHouse. The price is more expensive now than when I got it at Costco randomly in, I think, maybe August. So I don't know. The price is more expensive or the same by, like, 20 bucks.

SELYUKH: So she has no regrets. And overall, this year's holiday discounts actually indeed are not expected to be as good as maybe what we've seen in years past. They are still there. Adobe tracks online spending and says so far it's been roughly 20% off toys, 15% off clothes, 13% off computers. But you mentioned the shipping mess, the hiring issues. Both of those are costing retailers a pretty penny - in the billions of dollars. So this year, they're not being super generous with, you know, blowout sales.

MARTÍNEZ: I got to admit. I'll be checking out some sneaker sales as soon as this show's over. Why not? Might as well see if there's a deal there somewhere. Now...

SELYUKH: It's Black Friday.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Inflation is the highest level since 1990. So why aren't higher prices deterring holiday shoppers?

SELYUKH: This is a peculiar thing. In surveys, people say they are really worried about inflation. So-called consumer sentiment is actually at a decade low. But then people also keep buying stuff. Spending and sentiment normally go in sync, sort of how we feel and what we do - but not this year. Adobe says on Thanksgiving Day, just online, shoppers were spending $3.5 million a minute.


SELYUKH: So as far as inflation worries go, maybe people are more worried about the future rather than the now. But also worth pointing out - so far, some of the biggest price jumps have been for food and gas, which are not really the kind of thing that you buy as a holiday gift.

MARTÍNEZ: No, no one wants that in their stocking. Now, when we talk about record shopping, I mean, are we spending more simply because things are just more expensive?

SELYUKH: No. I mean, it's part of it. But I believe that it would be a record even adjusted for inflation. It's really hard to overstate just how much shopping people have been doing all year long. And that's a key reason why we saw logjams in ports, overwhelmed warehouses, overrun trucks. As early as the spring, we were buying so much that it was like holiday shopping levels of stuff. And that's because all that sitting at home last year plus federal aid gave people lots of extra cash. Here's economist Tim Quinlan from Wells Fargo.

TIM QUINLAN: Think of the vacations that have been canceled, the weddings that have been put off, the kids that didn't go to camp. And that leads to this excess savings that's kind of found its way into mostly goods spending.

SELYUKH: Goods spending - stuff - and that is how we're looking at holiday gift-buying of $850 billion. That's according to the National Retail Federation. That could be as much as 10% more than last year, which already was the biggest year of all. So at this point, even the Grinch couldn't stop 2021 from becoming a massive, record-breaking shopping year.

MARTÍNEZ: Makes sense that for this story. Your name has sell in it. Alina Selyukh...

SELYUKH: (Laughter) Oh, God.

MARTÍNEZ: ...NPR business correspondent, thank you very much.

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