News Brief: ISIS Detainees, Trade Talks, Sickle Cell Treatment
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
They're known as the Beatles because of their British accents - ISIS fighters accused of brutally executing U.S. hostages and other foreigners. Two of these fighters had been captured and detained in northern Syria and were being guarded by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
But those Kurdish forces are now busy because they're under attack by another U.S. ally - Turkey. So the U.S. has taken custody of the ISIS prisoners. Turkish airstrikes and shelling began yesterday. President Trump helped clear the way for this attack by moving some U.S. troops out of the way. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the move on the "PBS NewsHour" last night.
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MIKE POMPEO: The Turks have a legitimate security concern. They have a terrorist threat to their south.
INSKEEP: The, quote, "terrorist threat" to which Pompeo refers are Kurdish militant groups that have been key to the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the ground reporting from just over the border from Syria in Iraq. Daniel, just explain exactly where you're situated right now and what you can tell us about what you're learning about the Turkish assault.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I'm in the town of Dohuk. It's about a 40-minute drive from the Syrian border crossing. And Turkey has announced its ground incursion into Syria. Kurdish activists say the Turkish army and its allied forces have crossed the border, have entered Syrian villages and have clashed with Kurdish-led forces. There are airstrikes on a border town. Earlier, Turkey said its warplanes struck at Kurdish forces targets, several villages as well. And Kurdish activists are reporting at least seven civilians killed, including two children and more than a dozen people reportedly wounded, and reports of more than a dozen Kurdish fighters killed.
And all this is happening in an area on the border where Turkey wants to create a buffer zone to clear the area of Kurdish forces. Turkey sees those forces as enemies as connected to Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
MARTIN: The same people who the U.S. has viewed as allies in the fight against ISIS.
MARTIN: So you've been talking to people who actually live in this area that's under attack. What have they been telling you?
ESTRIN: Well, we spoke to some Kurdish activists who are describing, really, total panic that began yesterday afternoon when Turkey declared the beginning of its operation. One Kurdish activist we spoke with, Safinaz Avdikay (ph) - she's 27 years old. She said she'd come home from demonstrating against Turkey on the border. She was ready to make food, and then the house shook. And they went up to the roof, and they could make out in the distance where Turkey had apparently bombed near the border. And then she said a school was struck near her house, and the streets were flooded with people trying to flee. Take a listen to her.
SAFINAZ AVDIKAY: Imagine a whole city that's trying in one moment to go out of the city and just have want to go out (ph) and trying to go. And then every time it bombs, they terrify and they start to run all over.
ESTRIN: And she says she's frustrated with President Trump. She says, he's tweeting from thousands of kilometers away and shaping our fate.
MARTIN: So I want to ask you about those ISIS prisoners that we mentioned. This has been a big concern - these high-profile ISIS fighters who have now been moved into U.S. custody. What more can you tell us?
ESTRIN: Yeah. Trump called them the worst of the worst group - part of a group known as the Beatles. They're accused of being responsible for beheading two American freelance journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, an American aid worker, Peter Kassig, and other foreign hostages. And Trump tweeted that in the case of the Kurds, in case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, these high-profile detainees are in U.S. custody.
MARTIN: Any sign how far Turkey is going to go with this?
ESTRIN: Turkey isn't saying how much land they're trying to seize, how long they intend this operation to last, not giving many details on its ground troops. Trump says, we'll see how Erdogan does it. If he does it unfairly, he'll pay a big economic price.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin for us on the Syrian border. Thanks so much, Daniel.
ESTRIN: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: Negotiators for the U.S. and China meet in Washington today. Taken together, they represent something like 40% of the entire world's economy.
INSKEEP: And they remain in a trade war that is seen as posing a danger to that economy. The meeting comes days before the U.S. plans to further increase tariffs, this time targeting some $250 billion worth of Chinese goods. So how close can the talks this week get to a cease-fire?
MARTIN: To get a better idea of what to expect, we are joined by NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So President Trump told reporters this week he wants a, quote, "big deal" with China. He's said this before. This has been the challenge all along. There are, perhaps, more incremental steps that could be taken, but the president - President Trump wants China to make huge changes.
HORSLEY: Right. Rachel, remember; when the president launched this trade war a year ago, he wanted China to halt the forced transfer of American technological know-how. He wanted to stop subsidizing their government-controlled businesses. He wanted China to open its markets to more American exports - really change the way China does business.
MARTIN: So how likely is that? I mean, especially this week, is that likely to come out of these talks?
HORSLEY: That's a pretty tall order. Matthew Goodman, who's with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it's probably too tall to actually deliver at this point.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: I think a big deal is very unlikely. The differences between the two sides are too great, and the sort of underlying competitive forces are too strong right now to really suggest the possibility of a big deal.
HORSLEY: Goodman, who worked in both the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses, says the best the U.S. might hope for right now is a more limited agreement that would, perhaps, suspend the Trump tariffs in exchange for some modest commitments on the part of China to buy more American farm goods.
MARTIN: So is that even likely?
HORSLEY: You know, some observers...
MARTIN: I mean, are they close to that?
HORSLEY: Yeah. Some observers I spoke with say even a skinny deal like that might be out of reach at this point. Certainly, China would go along, and Beijing has already been upping its purchases of soybeans. But the administration doesn't exactly seem to be rolling out the welcome mat this week. The Commerce Department just added more than two dozen Chinese entities to a export blacklist to protest the treatment of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China.
HORSLEY: The administration's also been denying visas to Chinese officials associated with that treatment. Some observers would cheer the White House for taking this stand on human rights. But others are asking, you know, what took so long? And why do it now, just as the trade talks are about to get underway? Finally, you got an administration that's distracted by the impeachment process, and who knows how that affects the trade talks.
MARTIN: So, I mean, we've sort of been here before, right? I mean, we've seen these negotiations come and go. What happens if all these negotiators are here, they get in a room and they emerge and there is still no deal, big or skinny?
HORSLEY: In that case, the trade war grinds on. And, in fact, it's set to escalate. We've got new, higher tariffs already in the pipeline. If there's no agreement this week, tariffs are set to jump from 25% to 30% next week on a quarter-trillion dollars' worth of Chinese imports.
And then don't forget there's still another round of tariffs set to kick in in December. And unlike most of the tariffs we've seen up to this point, those December tariffs would fall pretty heavily on consumer goods, like laptop computers and cellphones. The White House put those off until December to avoid hurting the holiday shopping season. But if we get through the holidays with no agreement, Rachel, consumers could be looking at a very costly new year.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. Over the summer, we introduced you to a woman named Victoria Gray. She has sickle cell disease.
INSKEEP: A genetic blood disorder that causes excruciating pain.
VICTORIA GRAY: It's like being in a car accident and having lightning in your chest. It's pain that makes a grown woman like me scream.
INSKEEP: But back in July, Victoria became the first patient with a genetic disorder to get treated in the United States with the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR.
MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has had exclusive reporting on this story. He recently caught up with Victoria, and he is with us now to share the latest about her journey. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So we heard a little bit there, but just remind us about Victoria's story - why she volunteered for this medical experiment. I guess she just felt desperate.
STEIN: Yeah. Well, Victoria, she has sickle cell disease. And it - as you said, it's a terrible genetic disorder that causes deformed sickle-shaped red blood cells, and they kind of clog up the bloodstream and cause these - all kinds of awful health problems, including those, you know, agonizing bouts of pain that you just heard her describe.
MARTIN: So she volunteers. She raises her hands. She says, sure, I'll try this experimental treatment. Remind us what that is exactly and how it is supposed to work.
STEIN: Yeah. So what doctors did is they removed cells from her bone marrow - from Victoria's bone marrow. And then they sent them off to a lab where scientists edited a gene in the cells using this gene-editing technique CRISPR, which makes it really easy to rewrite DNA. And then they infuse billions of these modified cells back into her body. This was back in July. The hope is that'll hopefully give her healthy red blood cells.
And as you mentioned, I visited her again recently in Nashville, where she got this experimental treatment. And Victoria calls her edited cells - she calls them her supercells.
GRAY: Supercells, yes. Yes, they got to be super to do great things in my body, you know, and to help me be better, you know, and help me have more time with my kids and my family.
STEIN: You know, Rachel, I asked her, what's it like to have these edited cells living inside your body? Is it weird to have genetically modified cells in your body?
GRAY: No, I'm just genetically modified now (laughter). I'm a GMO. Isn't that what they call it?
MARTIN: At least she can laugh about all this. So...
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. She's got a great personality.
MARTIN: What's happening with her now?
STEIN: So the day I saw her, she was packing up to go home to Mississippi to see her four kids for the first time in months and to find out whether, you know, her supercells are working. And the hope is, you know, that if therapy is working and it's safe then it could help her and many, many other sickle cell patients live normal lives.
MARTIN: Right. So what happens next?
STEIN: So, you know, Victoria's going to go back to Nashville once a month for four months for checkups and blood tests and other follow-up tests to see if these supercells are working. And doctors will follow her for years to make sure the cells are safe and to see if they're helping her to live a healthier, longer life. And I asked her what it's like to be waiting at this period.
GRAY: Well, I'm spiritual, Rob. And it's something I prayed about. And just the way everything happened for me, I just feel like it was fate for me to be here. So I just believe that, you know, God is doing this for me. So yeah, that's all I can say. So (laughter), yes, pray.
STEIN: Yeah. So, Rachel, we're going to continue to follow her through this journey, and we're going to bring, you know, updates every once in a while.
MARTIN: We're going to be thinking about her. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.
STEIN: You bet, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.