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News Brief: War In Yemen, COVID-19 Numbers, Fox News Lawsuit

NOEL KING, HOST:

One of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world is happening right now in Yemen. The U.S. is implicated because it is allied with some of the countries fighting a war there.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, President Biden says U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations will now end. Saudi Arabia is one of the most involved countries. Biden is hoping for more effective U.S. diplomacy.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I've asked my Middle East team to ensure our support for the United Nations-led initiative to impose a cease-fire, open humanitarian challenge and restore long dormant peace talks.

INSKEEP: Here's a little bit of background. Yemen's civil war intensified in 2014. Neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened in favor of one side after accusing Iran of supporting the other side. President Obama's administration supported the Saudis and their allies, support the Trump administration continued. The United Nations estimates 230,000 people have died, many of them civilians who starved to death.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam has been covering this story. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning. Hi.

KING: What support has the U.S. been providing?

NORTHAM: It's provided over the years logistical support, intelligence, some targeting, as well as training to avoid civilian casualties. But that hasn't worked so well. As you mentioned, thousands of civilians have been killed in this conflict. Despite that, the Trump administration continued to sell billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis. And, you know, that created a bipartisan pushback in Congress. And Biden has drawn a close to that now. Last week, his administration said it was freezing weapons sales worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And that was signed in the final days of the Trump administration. So there is a distinct departure from how the Trump administration was handling the U.S. involvement in Yemen.

KING: Instead of weapons, the U.S. will now do diplomacy. And to that end, President Biden said he's naming a new envoy to Yemen. Who is that?

NORTHAM: His name is Timothy Lenderking. He's a veteran career diplomat. You know, he's got a lot of experience dealing with Yemen and the Gulf region. His mandate as a new envoy is to try and move all sides in this really complicated, six-year-old conflict towards a cease-fire, you know, to both revive and get the U.S. involved in peace talks that really have been stuck for years - and also open up desperately needed humanitarian aid to Yemen. So yes, naming an envoy to Yemen is a way for the U.S. to stay involved, but to use diplomacy, as you say, rather than make it a military effort.

KING: During his campaign, Biden said he was going to start getting tough with Saudi Arabia, which is very broad language. Is this an example of that?

NORTHAM: Oh, yes. Definitely. You know, the Trump administration was seen as just really turning a blind eye to the bloodshed in Yemen, but also, you know, human rights abuses in the kingdom and regional bullying by Saudi Arabia. And, of course, it was the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This has created a lot of outrage, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. So freezing weapon sales and removing the U.S. from the Yemen conflict are certainly signs that the Biden - is trying to fulfill his campaign pledge. But, Noel, Saudi Arabia is still an ally. And so Biden doesn't want to sever ties completely. You know, they told the Saudi leadership this was going to be happening. And the U.S. will still sell defensive weapons to Saudi to help protect them from attacks from Iran.

KING: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

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KING: Since the pandemic started, U.S. health officials have gauged how serious it is with a simple metric, how many people test positive for the virus every day?

INSKEEP: That simple number only tells us about new cases. It does not tell us how many people are still currently infected and capable of spreading the disease. Now, a research team at Columbia has built a model that will answer that question.

KING: NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman has seen their research. Good morning, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So these researchers seized on what, when you think about it, is a pretty obvious problem. And they wanted to give us more accurate numbers. What did they find?

AIZENMAN: The quick version - the true number of active cases, people who are still infectious, is likely 10 times the number that health officials give us every day.

KING: Oh, dear.

AIZENMAN: This really matters, of course, because if you think about the decisions people make - how safe is it to move around in their area? Should there be lockdowns? What's the best vaccine strategy? All of that depends on knowing to what degree the virus is actually spreading in the population. Now, to back up a bit, this finding comes from a team at Columbia University. They built a mathematical model that is not out publicly yet but which they've shared with NPR. And it starts out by estimating, OK, for each day of the outbreak so far, how many people actually became infectious that day? Then they compare that to the number who got tested and counted as a confirmed case. And what they find is that over the entirety of the pandemic, nationwide, only one in five cases have been reported. And currently, it's about one in four.

KING: Let me ask you about the math here. So you take the daily case number, you multiply it by four and we get a more accurate number of cases. But you said the real number is actually 10 times higher.

AIZENMAN: Right. Multiplying by four is useful but won't give you a true sense of how bad things are. It just tells you how many people became infectious that day. But people stay contagious for about three or four days. So if I'm counted as a new case on Monday, on Tuesday and Wednesday, I would still be shedding virus. But I wouldn't be counted in the new case tally for those days. So to appreciate the threat level on any given day, you'd want to count not just the people who became infectious that day, but the people whose infection started earlier and are still shedding virus. The researchers estimated that total. And that's where they find that the number of people actively shedding virus on any given day is roughly 10 times the number of daily new reported cases we hear about every day. Here's the lead researcher, Jeffrey Shaman.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: So the numbers amplify greatly. When we look at confirmed cases, we're really only seeing the tip of the iceberg as to how many people are currently walking around and, unfortunately, putting other people at risk with their infections.

KING: How many people on any given day are walking around with COVID?

AIZENMAN: Shaman estimates that on the worst day so far, December 30, 1% of the U.S. population was actively shedding virus. That's 3.36 million people. Transmission has slowed down since, but it's still above the summer surge. Shaman estimates, as of last Saturday, 1.25 million people were shedding virus. What this suggests is that, by now, quite a lot of Americans have already had COVID. We've got the estimates for each state on NPR.org. But for North Dakota, Shaman estimates more than 50% of the population has now been infected. Nationwide, it's about 120 million people infected, which is just over a third of the U.S. population. Bottom line, says Shaman, don't expect any kind of return to normal until this summer.

KING: NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Thanks for bringing us this.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.

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KING: The voting technology company Smartmatic opens its lawsuit against Fox News by stating some facts.

INSKEEP: Yeah. This is a quote from the suit. The Earth is round. Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election. The company says it was not stolen, rigged or fixed, but some of Fox News' biggest stars pretended that it was, so did two of Donald Trump's legal advisers. Smartmatic says their disinformation campaign devastated the company. And it is suing for $2.7 billion in damages.

KING: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been following this one. Good morning, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: And good morning, Noel.

KING: What is Smartmatic?

FOLKENFLIK: Smartmatic is a voting, elections tech and software company started by a young Venezuelan about two decades ago.

KING: And what are the details of the lawsuit?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, these details are pungent. Smartmatic is alleging that Fox News and three of its key hosts - Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro - as well as two of the president's legal advisers who appeared frequently on Fox after the election, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, created and amplified and rooted a broad-ranging allegation that there was an effort to steal this election from then-President Donald Trump through switching votes or through suppressing votes or through, essentially, a broad conspiracy, particularly in key states - think Arizona and Georgia and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan - in a way that would favor Joe Biden.

It's not an accident that Dobbs and Pirro and Bartiromo are among the president's strongest advocates on the air and closest advisers off the air. And they've been part of this - essentially, the Trump camp on this. There's been no evidence that have stood up about these allegations. And what's really astonishing is Smartmatic was really involved in, essentially, one jurisdiction in the nation for the 2020 elections. And that was in Los Angeles County. So essentially, Smartmatic was involved in the voting in one jurisdiction in the nation in a state that was going to go for Joe Biden no matter what happened. The idea that they were at the core of some conspiracy to steal votes, none of which has been proven, seems, on its face, absurd.

KING: Let me ask you something. The Fox News anchors that you mentioned, these are, like, household names - Rudy Giuliani, a household name. Have any of these people responded yet?

FOLKENFLIK: Giuliani says he welcomes discovery. That's the process by which you get information from the other side in the litigation. Fox News says it's meritless. It's also saying it's proud of its coverage, that they've offered full context with in-depth reporting and clear opinion. That's their official statement. I think that that word opinion is important here. I think they're intending to lean on that, to say, look; we've got clear delineation from the reporting on election results and from people who are offering just their own points of view.

KING: Two-point-seven-billion dollars is no small amount of money. Although, I don't really know much about Fox's bottom line. Could this have a real impact on Fox News?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they make a ton of money. That's more than any year's profits they've ever made, to my understanding. But, you know, the implications here are, are there any consequences for the kinds of misinformation, disinformation that they either propagate or amplify? Are there consequences for incendiary rhetoric that helped to influence people who appeared on the 6th of January as part of the protests that became deadly at Capitol Hill? That's the kind of question here that I think people are facing at Fox News.

KING: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.