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News Brief: Condo Collapse, Infrastructure Plan, Gene-Editing Breakthrough

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been over 100 hours and counting since a 12-story condominium collapsed in Surfside, Fla.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Nine people have been confirmed dead; 152 people are still missing. Rescue workers are searching for survivors, but no one has been pulled alive from the rubble since Thursday. Susana Alvarez, who lived in the Champlain South Tower, told our colleague Lulu Garcia-Navarro what she saw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSANA ALVAREZ: We climbed out of rubble, and there were two men and a young man with us. And they were helping us. And there was an older lady. And they were helping us out of the rubble. And when we got outside again, all I could hear were the people screaming. They were screaming, help, help; someone help us. They were screaming. There was people alive in there.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Brian Mann now with us on the line from South Florida, where he's been reporting. Brian, thanks for being here.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: How much progress did the search and rescue teams make over the weekend?

MANN: Well, it's been very slow and methodical and so far, sadly, unsuccessful. Crews have made progress. They say they do still have hope. You know, they were hobbled at first by this fire that kept burning underground. They say they have been able to extinguish that. And they've also dug a trench to this dense rubble pile, which has helped them to find more victims. Structural engineers are down there embedded with those teams, making sure nothing else collapses as those searchers work. In addition, authorities are now taking the debris to a warehouse to look for more human remains. And they've also begun this forensic review to try to understand why this building collapsed. Of course, there are a lot of questions around this 2018 engineering report that raised concerns about the building's structure and also errors with construction of the 40-year-old condo.

MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about that. You actually obtained a document that indicates that an inspector for the town assured residents that the condominium was, quote, "in very good shape," even though there was this warning that there was major structural damage. I mean, what are officials saying about that revelation?

MANN: Yeah. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett was asked about this at a news conference late yesterday, and here's how he answered.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CHARLES BURKETT: I wasn't there. You know? I was there before, and I came after, but I wasn't there for that. But I'll tell you what we are doing.

MANN: What Burkett means there is that he wasn't mayor in 2018. And Rachel, he went on to say that he's ordered Surfside officials to dig out every piece of correspondence that the town has related to that building and its inspections. They're going to make that public. He indicated that he wants answers about what happened with this review. It is important to say that it's not clear that that study found any of the issues that caused this collapse. We'll have to wait for other investigations to know for sure.

MARTIN: Let's take a few minutes and just talk about the people at the center of this. You spent time yesterday with members of the Jewish community who've been hit very hard. What did they share with you?

MANN: Yeah. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar invited me to visit the shul and synagogue that he leads in Surfside. He told me roughly 35 people from his community are among the missing.

SHOLOM LIPSKAR: This is an extraordinary traumatic circumstance where hope is still a glimmer. We're basically in a war zone waiting to hear the final verdict in alive or, God forbid, not.

MANN: Yeah. And Rabbi Lipskar went on to tell me that there's just a lot of pain and also a lot of frustration as this goes on. For many of the families, Rachel, it's just grown unbearable.

LIPSKAR: As you can imagine, there's a lot of pain, a lot of frustration. And as time goes on, you know, the hope starts to turn to, really, sometimes a deep inner turmoil that cannot be addressed logically because it's not logical. Nothing here is logical.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, we appreciate you bringing us those stories and perspective in reporting.

MANN: All right. Thanks for having me, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: A bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal is back on track after President Biden walked back an apparent veto threat. Did you get all that?

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Right. So remember, last week President Biden said he would not sign this infrastructure bill, which he supports, unless it was sent to his desk with a separate spending measure that would have money for child care, health care, climate change and a bunch of other things. And then over the weekend, the president issued a statement saying he hadn't meant to link the two bills. Here's Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman on ABC "This Week" responding.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

ROB PORTMAN: So it was a - it was a surprise, to say the least, that those two got linked. And I'm glad they've now been delinked. And it's very clear that we can move forward with a bipartisan bill that's broadly popular, not just among members of Congress, but the American people.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is with us. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So explain this backtrack by Biden.

DAVIS: Well, after Biden made his comments, Republicans in the Senate pushed back really hard at this apparent veto threat, suggesting he was pulling the rug out from them and that they could withdraw their support for the bipartisan deal. The thing here is Democrats, for literally months, have been talking about this two-track approach, doing the bipartisan infrastructure package and then moving along separately on their own on a reconciliation bill using budget rules that wouldn't require Republican support.

MARTIN: Right.

DAVIS: Republicans, including Portman, have acknowledged that Democrats could use that strategy, and that is still the plan. It's just the threat that if they were not sent to the White House simultaneously that's been walked back. But the angle hasn't really changed.

MARTIN: OK. So it's more about timing than anything else. Democrats, what are they saying at this point? I mean, do they have the kind of unity that they need to get this bill through Congress, just the infrastructure bill?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last week, they can't pass one without the other. I think that's still true.

MARTIN: OK.

DAVIS: Progressive Democrats are only going to support the bipartisan deal if they believe they have the votes to pass the separate reconciliation bill full of their priorities. This is why the speaker, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has indicated she could wait on the Senate to prove they can pass a budget resolution before the House moves forward on any of this legislation. So the fate of the two bills really remains connected. It's going to dominate the month of July in both the House and Senate and likely well into the fall. And that's a big point of caution here. This is not going to happen fast. Democrats are going to have to try to pass a budget resolution in July that it's going to outline what they want to do with this separate legislation. But it's a two-step process, and they're not going to write the actual bill likely until the fall.

MARTIN: So, Sue, you've reported on this before, but remind us what is in the second bill, the Democrats' separate stimulus package.

DAVIS: Well, I mean, Democrats have outlined a wish list of what they'd like to see in it. I mean, they're looking at trillions of dollars in spending that would expand the social safety net for programs like Medicare. They also want money for child care programs, community college, elder care, climate change. Even some Democrats have talked about wanting to put immigration reform legislation in there. The two big questions, Rachel, we don't know the answers to yet - how much is it going to cost, and how are they going to pay for it? Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders has said that they could go as high as $6 trillion for this package. Moderate Democrats like West Virginia's Joe Manchin are unlikely (laughter) to go for that level of spending. They're also going to have to figure out what they want to do with the Trump tax cuts and whether they're going to roll back portions of it on the wealthy and big corporations to pay for it. This is about as complicated as it gets.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DAVIS: It's going to take months for Democrats to be able to figure out if they can get this through Congress.

MARTIN: All right. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Appreciate you. Thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Scientists are reporting another big advancement using the revolutionary gene-editing technique called CRISPR to treat diseases.

KING: Yep. For the first time, doctors have infused CRISPR into the bloodstream of patients to try to help them. And it appears to be working.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this is good news. You have been reporting for a while now that CRISPR is letting scientists rewrite the genetic code much more easily than ever before and is already being tested to try to treat diseases. So explain the newness of this moment.

STEIN: Yeah - so yeah. Doctors are already helping patients with blood disorders like sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia and have started trying to help patients with a variety of forms of cancer and even restore vision to people blinded by a rare genetic disorder. But in those experiments, scientists are taking cells out of the body, editing them in the lab and infusing them back into patients or injecting them directly into cells that need fixing. This is the first time they've just infused the CRISPR into patients' bloodstreams and let it travel through the body, just find the right gene in the right place. So...

MARTIN: Wow.

STEIN: ...You know, it's a big advance. Yeah.

MARTIN: That is amazing. So which disease did they try this for?

STEIN: It's called amyloidosis. It's a rare but devastating disease passed down in families. A deformed protein damages vital tissues and organs like nerves and the heart. I talked about this with Patrick Doherty. He's 65 and lives in County Donegal in Ireland. He suddenly developed pins and needles and numbness in his hands and feet, and then he started getting short of breath just trying to walk his dog.

PATRICK DOHERTY: I'm kind of getting a bit breathless going up a small hillside here in Donegal, which there are many (laughter). So I realized something was wrong. Something was wrong.

STEIN: So, you know, he volunteered for a study testing CRISPR trying to use it this new way.

MARTIN: OK. So you said that this is about putting it directly into the patient's body. Give us more details on how this works.

STEIN: Yeah, it's really cool. Doctors infused billions of microscopic structures known as nanoparticles into Doherty and five other volunteers. Each nanoparticle carries the genetic code for the CRISPR gene editor. The nanoparticles, they made their way to the liver and unleashed an army of these CRISPR gene editors, which honed in on the target gene to turn it off. And within weeks, Doherty says he started feeling better as the levels of the bad protein causing the disease just plummeted.

MARTIN: Wow. So could this work for other diseases, Rob?

STEIN: Yeah, this provides the first good evidence that CRISPR could be used like this to treat many other much more common diseases for which taking cells out of the body or directly injecting them into patients isn't realistic, like heart disease, muscular dystrophy, maybe even brain disorders like Alzheimer's. And for his part, Doherty is thrilled. He's back at work and looking forward to the future.

DOHERTY: I definitely noticed an improvement in terms of my mobility, my heart, my moving about and walking again. I do 15,000, 20,000 steps a day. And weekend, I go up again hill walking with the dog.

MARTIN: That's such good news for him. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.