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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Top diplomats from the leading economies, known as the Group of Seven or G-7, are worried about how Ukrainians will get through this winter.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Germany's foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, says Russia will make the cold weather hard.

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ANNALENA BAERBOCK: President Putin is bombing not only villages and cities. He's now also bombing power plants that millions of citizens need so heavily in their homes. So those cities he cannot conquer by bombs or military means he obviously wants to starve and freeze to death.

INSKEEP: She spoke at the start of two days of talks between G-7 diplomats in the German city of Munster.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen traveled there with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and joins us now. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what can the G-7 countries do about Ukraine's energy crisis?

KELEMEN: Well, they heard directly from Ukraine's foreign minister, who spoke remotely to the meeting yesterday about his country's needs. The G-7 has been kind of coordinating some of the aid. Secretary Blinken sees it as a key forum for that kind of discussion. And, you know, he spends a lot of time talking to partners to make sure that they keep their commitments to provide aid to Ukraine - not just military aid but humanitarian aid. And at some point, it's going to need a lot of reconstruction funds. He's trying to make sure the West has a united front on this, even as Europeans fear a tough winter for themselves and worry about their own energy supplies. The Europeans are also talking about a price cap on Russian energy. They want to figure out a way to keep Russian energy flowing without Moscow getting big profits to put back into its war efforts. And none of this is really an easy task.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, this is also not the only topic being discussed. China also a big issue. And the meetings come as Germany's chancellor is on a high-profile visit to Beijing. What are you hearing about that, Beijing?

KELEMEN: Yeah, that was kind of striking to see these images of the German chancellor making this high-profile trip to Beijing, along with a whole host of German business executives. And it's at a time when the G-7 foreign ministers met here to talk about maintaining a tough line on China. The foreign ministers had a working dinner on China last night. U.S. officials say they think the G-7 is aligned. They talked about what they can expect from Xi Jinping, who has strengthened his control in China. They don't want China to gain access to sensitive Western technology or get control over strategic sectors. And that includes, by the way, a German port. U.S. officials say they strongly suggested to Germany that it not give a controlling stake in the port of Hamburg, and they seem satisfied with the results of that. But diplomats also want to leave the door open to cooperate with China on things like climate change and other global matters.

FADEL: What else is on the agenda as the world's major democracies meet?

KELEMEN: So today's schedule also included a meeting that focused on Iran. While the nuclear deal used to be the major focus of the Biden administration, it's now talking with partners about how to support protesters who are demanding basic human rights in Iran and facing a harsh crackdown. Africa is another big topic. That includes the competition with China on the continent. Several African foreign ministers are here for that meeting. So a lot on the table here, Leila.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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FADEL: Two new omicron subvariants are poised to become dominant in the U.S.

INSKEEP: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made that projection. And it matters because this latest evolution of the coronavirus has new ways around our immune systems.

FADEL: To talk about this, we have NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joining us. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so all I thought was, not more when I heard new omicron subvariant. So let's get to it, Rob. What's the virus got in store for us?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, scientists have been watching a swarm of even more transmissible subvariants that have been emerging as omicron has dominated the pandemic and evolved over the past year. And two of them have been gaining ground in the U.S. over the last few weeks called BQ.1 BQ.1.1. Here's Dr. Jeremy Luban at the University of Massachusetts.

JEREMY LUBAN: It's a little bit eerily familiar this time of year. Last year, we were similarly optimistic. We were coming out of the delta wave. And it was steadily decreasing, and we went into Thanksgiving to wake up to omicron. So there is this sort of deja vu feeling from last year.

STEIN: Because like the original omicron, these two new subvariants have found even more ways to sneak around our immune systems.

FADEL: So how much better are they at dodging immunity?

STEIN: You know, new mutations in the virus's spike protein appear to make them maybe 2 to 7 times more immune-evasive evasive than the BA.5 omicron subvariant that's been dominating the pandemic since the summer. I talked about this with Dr. Daniel Barouch, who's studying the new viruses in his lab at Harvard.

DANIEL BAROUCH: The bad news is that it's likely that people who've been vaccinated and/or infected will still get infected. But fortunately, vaccine immunity and natural immunity will likely still be effective at preventing severe disease. And that's the most important thing. It's a cause for concern but not a cause for alarm.

STEIN: Because even though these new subvariants could infect more people, they don't appear to make people sicker than the previous variants.

FADEL: OK. But these new strains are becoming dominant just around the holiday season, as winter is coming.

STEIN: Yeah.

FADEL: Will this fuel a new surge?

STEIN: Well, you know, they certainly won't help. I talked about this with Samuel Scarpino from The Rockefeller Foundation.

SAMUEL SCARPINO: I think it's quite concerning. Both of these variants are associated with an increase in cases in the U.S. So the question is whether this increase is going to be nationwide and whether the size of the increase and the surge will be something like what we experienced with delta and omicron or much smaller.

STEIN: And possibly much shorter. I asked White House science adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci about this. He doubts any new surge will get anywhere near as bad as last winter's.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We are hoping that the amount of immunity that has been induced either by prior infection or by vaccination - and hopefully, more people will go and get their updated vaccine, the bivalent vaccine - that that would mitigate a real surge and at worst will get a blip versus a major surge.

STEIN: While some preliminary studies have questioned whether the new boosters are any better than the original vaccine in protecting against omicron, Fauci says the jury's still out about that. But another worry is that these new subvariants are likely to render the last monoclonal antibody drug useless. And even just a blip of a COVID surge could strain hospitals that are also struggling with the flu and RSV.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you so much.

STEIN: You're welcome.

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FADEL: It's getting much more expensive to buy a house, a car or really anything on credit these days because interest rates are through the roof.

INSKEEP: And the Federal Reserve this week raised interest rates yet again by three-quarters of a percentage point.

FADEL: NPR's Chris Arnold joins us now to talk about what this means for all of us. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So the Fed just raised rates again. What's the real-world impact going to be for most people?

ARNOLD: Well, like you said, I mean, when the Fed raises rates, that affects many kinds of borrowing. And we should say not all. You know, if you got a car loan that's on a fixed rate two years ago, that doesn't change. But other forms of debt with adjustable rates like a home equity line of credit or credit card debt - that's been getting more expensive. It just went a notch higher again. And taking out new debt, of course, like a new mortgage - mortgages have seen their biggest jump in 40 years over the course of this year. So that's gotten much more expensive.

FADEL: OK. So what's the best way for people to handle all this? What should they do when they're facing this big increase in the cost of borrowing?

ARNOLD: I talked to a personal finance expert at Nerdwallet about this, and her name's Sara Rathner. And here's what she recommends.

SARA RATHNER: What's really important for each individual is assessing the debt you have and how much that debt is costing you and making a plan to get out of that debt as quickly as you can, especially if it's high-interest debt.

ARNOLD: So again, if you already have a fixed-rate rate mortgage. Say you got it a couple of years ago. It's at 3%. You're fine. Don't worry. But if you have a bunch of money on credit cards, that is always a bad idea, by the way.

FADEL: Yeah.

ARNOLD: You might have been paying 16 or 20% even before all this happened. You know, but now it's even higher. Now it's even more bad. But you can kind of turn lemons into lemonade if you use this as motivation to pay off that debt. Here's Rathner again.

RATHNER: If you have existing credit card debt, make a plan to pay it down as aggressively as your budget allows. And some months, you might have more money to throw at it than others. I would also say if you have credit card debt, stop using your credit cards.

ARNOLD: And that's because if you pay for everything in cash, it's a lot harder to spend more money than you actually have.

FADEL: Good advice always. So I guess a bad time to take on new debt.

ARNOLD: Absolutely - especially large amounts of money. You do not want to be borrowing large amounts of money, like buying a house. Also a terrible time to buy a car. Used cars, even, are really expensive. Car loans are expensive. I talked to T.R. Brooks (ph), who lives near Boise, Idaho. And he and his wife really want a newer car. They've got this 20-year-old Honda Civic that's got a few problems.

T R BROOKS: How much time do you have? There's a spot on the engine block that's been welded so that it doesn't explode. There's rust in about five or six different spots. The paint's coming off. Maybe the most annoying thing is the sun visor just doesn't stay up anymore. So it's always, like, hovering threateningly right at eye level.

ARNOLD: He's got to duct tape that visor. But even with it, they're going to hold off, not sell the car and just drive it further into the ground because it's just too expensive to buy a newer one right now.

FADEL: OK, Chris, I can't let you go until you give us something, some kind of silver lining to hold on to.

ARNOLD: Sure. I mean, just quickly, if you're able to save and invest for the long haul, now is actually a good time. Stocks are down 20%. They're cheaper than a year ago. Bonds are giving really better returns than they have in years if you buy them now. So start a retirement account if you don't have one.

FADEL: NPR's Chris Arnold, thank you.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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