News Brief: Tariffs On Mexico, Missouri Clinic, Rotavirus Vaccine

May 31, 2019
Originally published on May 31, 2019 9:19 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of the United States effectively gave Mexico an order last night.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He told Mexico to block migrants bound for the U.S. He says if they haven't done enough, quote, "in our sole discretion," the U.S. will steadily raise tariffs. That means Americans will face tax increases on anything bought from Mexico. The White House says the tariffs will start at 5% and then climb to 25% by this fall. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters this.

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MICK MULVANEY: Now we are asking Mexico to do what it can because Congress will not. This president will defend the nation. He will defend the southern border. If that means taking tariffs to 25%, that means taking tariffs to 25%. We hope - sincerely hope - it does not come to that.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is covering this story. She also hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, by the way. Tam, good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What kinds of products are we talking about here?

KEITH: Every product - you know, from food to dishwashers to cars. The U.S. economy and Mexican economy are very much intertwined at this point. And just to put a fine point on it, so far this year Mexico has been the largest U.S. trading partner, just ahead of Canada and China. Of course, China is another country that the president has launched a trade war with.

INSKEEP: Wow. And I'm even thinking there are products that go back and forth over the border multiple times - right? - like auto parts.

KEITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: Like, a car might cross the border again and again. So I'm just trying to figure out how this works. The White House says, at our sole discretion; we alone will decide if Mexico will do - has done enough. So Mexico must meet an undefined goal. And if Mexico fails to meet the undefined goal, Americans will pay higher and higher taxes. Is that correct?

KEITH: American products will get more expensive because no matter what the president says about tariffs, they ultimately become a tax on American consumers. They're paid by American businesses, which then pass it along. What the White House wants is - they laid out a list of things in this call last night with reporters.

They want Mexico to do a better job of securing its southern border with Guatemala. They want Mexico to target and attack transnational criminal organizations that they say are operating commercial bus lines to bring people to America through Mexico. And they also want to - want changes to the asylum process.

INSKEEP: Is it legal for the president to use tariffs in this way?

KEITH: It's an interesting question. He is using something called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has never been used to place tariffs on imported products from other countries. It has traditionally been used for things like freezing assets connected to Iran or international terrorism. But the Congressional Research Service, in its research paper published just about a month ago, says that they think it probably would be legal.

INSKEEP: Well, isn't the president, though, right in the middle of trying to get Congress to approve a new trade agreement with Mexico?

KEITH: That's absolutely right. In fact, just yesterday the trade agreement was sent to the Mexican Senate for ratification. And then - and then this news came down, and Mexican officials are very concerned about it. They're sending an envoy to come talk to the president. It's possible it won't ever be implemented, that - this doesn't start until June 10. Things could change. But Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, insisted that these things are not connected at all.

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MULVANEY: These are not tariffs as part of a trade dispute. These are tariffs as part of an immigration problem. The USMCA is a trade matter and completely separate.

KEITH: Don't tell that to Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is not happy about this at all and says this is a misuse of presidential tariff authority.

INSKEEP: And suggests that it might wreck the effort to get the trade agreement through the United States Congress, never mind the Mexican Congress. Tamara...

KEITH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith.

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INSKEEP: By tomorrow the state of Missouri may be without a clinic that provides abortions.

MARTIN: Yeah, state health officials and the group Planned Parenthood are in this standoff about renewing the license for its health center in St. Louis. For most women, this is the only place in Missouri, in the entire state, where abortions are available. Now, in order for the clinic to renew its license, staff have to be questioned by state health department officials. Those are the rules. But those clinicians have refused to sit for that questioning. Dr. Randall Williams is the department's director. And he told NPR this has never happened before.

RANDALL WILLIAMS: They've always cooperated in the past. We've interviewed their doctors for years. This year is the first time they've ever said that they wouldn't be interviewed.

MARTIN: The clinic's license is set to expire at midnight.

INSKEEP: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been covering this story. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is this day supposed to unfold?

MCCAMMON: Well, again, unless the state can reach an agreement with Planned Parenthood - which, by the way, has provided two of its senior doctors for questioning, but they have declined to provide trainees for questioning by the state of Missouri. Unless an agreement can be reached or a judge weighs in, the clinic's license expires at midnight Central Time tonight. Planned Parenthood has sued to try to prevent that from happening.

But so far, a judge has not made a decision. There was a hearing yesterday. We're still waiting to see what will happen. But if nothing happens, if nothing changes, the clinic will have to stop providing abortions effective tomorrow.

INSKEEP: And we should note, we've heard on other NPR coverage the Planned Parenthood people have said some people don't want to be questioned because they suspect the motives of the state in asking them questions and perhaps putting them in legal jeopardy.

MCCAMMON: Exactly. They've been told there could be criminal proceedings.

INSKEEP: So if nothing changes today and the license expires at midnight, what happens to women who say they want or need abortions in Missouri?

MCCAMMON: They'll have to go out of state, in most cases. A couple of hospitals would still offer the procedure in rare circumstances, like a medical emergency. But most women would have to go somewhere like across the river to Illinois. I spoke with Dr. Erin King, who is an abortion provider at the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City. Here's what she said.

ERIN KING: No one knows what's going to happen in the next day or two. But we have to be ready for this clinic to be closed and for patients who have nowhere else to go.

MCCAMMON: And King says her clinic in Illinois has been preparing for months for the possibility that Missouri might restrict abortion through the legislative process. That, of course, happened last week. As you recall, a new law was just passed and signed by Governor Mike Parson, banning abortions at eight weeks. But that law hasn't gone into effect yet. This is because of a regulatory dispute.

So meanwhile, Illinois is one of the states that's looking at expanding abortion rights potentially. So King says her clinic has been hiring more doctors and other staff. This is just happening a little bit faster than they expected.

INSKEEP: So when you hear from groups who are opposed to abortion rights, what are they saying if they learn that this would be the way that abortion might be effectively banned in Missouri?

MCCAMMON: Well, certainly no one who opposes abortion rights or sees it as a moral evil, as many of these advocates do - none of them are mourning the potential end of abortion services in Missouri. And they realize that many women will go to other states, to Kansas, to Illinois, for example. But they're certainly not sad to see it go. The president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List issued a statement in recent days saying that closing this clinic would be good news for women's health and safety in Missouri.

That echoes the state's claim that this is about health violations, which, of course, Planned Parenthood denies. They say that they hold to the highest standards and that they're being - health regulations are being arbitrarily enforced against them. Republican Governor Mike Parson has said that it's not political, though. He says it's, quote, "not an issue about the pro-life issue at all." So that is the message from Parson and from many anti-abortion rights groups. That said, they make no secret of the fact that they oppose abortion rights.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon.

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INSKEEP: Let's go next to West Africa, where four countries almost lost access to a vital vaccine that protects children from a deadly disease.

MARTIN: Yeah, almost - but the news here is that their access has been restored. Rotavirus is an extremely common gastrointestinal disease among kids under the age of 5. It causes extreme diarrhea, puts vulnerable kids that age at risk of getting severely dehydrated. Without easy access to hospitals and clinics, the disease can turn fatal fast.

There is a lifesaving vaccine to treat the rotavirus in kids. But last fall, NPR broke news that the pharmaceutical company Merck would stop distributing it to four countries in West Africa, citing supply problems.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has been covering this story and is on the line. Good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us why it would have been that Merck would have said in the first place that they were pulling out of this part of West Africa?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So as you mentioned, in an email to NPR they cited supply problems. They said they just didn't have enough of the vaccine to ship it to West Africa. But the story is a little bit more complicated than that, especially when you look at what happened to Merck last year. Right around the time they pulled out, they actually launched in a whole new market, China.

Merck started selling the rotavirus vaccine in China for a much higher price than they were selling in West Africa - about 10 times the price. So NPR asked Merck, you know, is there a connection between the pullout in West Africa and the launch in China? And the company never actually answered the question.

INSKEEP: Although, it's tempting to think that the supply problem was that Merck found somewhere to sell the vaccine for more.

DOUCLEFF: You know, it is - it is tempting. And it seems to be possibly a rising question in the global health world, is, as China starts to kind of loosen its requirements on vaccines and medications from foreign pharmaceutical companies, there's a big question of, you know, how is that going to affect the supply and availability of these vaccines in poorer countries?

INSKEEP: But Rachel noted that the news here is that some other source of vaccine has been found for these four countries. What has happened since your original reporting?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so after we aired this story, health officials tell me that the global health community, like, scrambled and really came together and tried to figure out a way to get this vaccine to these families in West Africa. They were worried that about 2 1/2 million babies were going to miss out on this vaccine.

INSKEEP: Wow.

DOUCLEFF: But earlier this year, GlaxoSmithKline, which has another rotavirus vaccine, started shipping its vaccine to the Ivory Coast, which has about a million babies born each year. So that filled in about half of the gap. And then the other half is going to be filled in by two Indian companies that have new vaccines onto the market. And they'll start shipping to West Africa in - next year.

INSKEEP: Could this pattern repeat itself? As more and more countries have enough money to buy vaccines at full price, you might have a shortage in places that don't.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so this is a really big question - especially with China. So for a long time, the Chinese market has been pretty much closed off to foreign pharmaceutical companies. They've had really stringent requirements. But they're starting to loosen up, and the market is starting to open. And it is a big market with more than a billion people. And so a big question is, is how is this going to affect availability in poor countries that really need these vaccines?

INSKEEP: Michaeleen, thanks for your reporting and for sticking with the story.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.