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News Brief: Surfside Condo Collapse, Facebook's Reprieve, Delta Variant

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Surfside, Fla., rescue crews are going into day six of their efforts.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The results of the search thus far have been grim. Searchers found another body yesterday, bringing the confirmed death toll to 11. There are still 150 people missing.

KING: NPR's Jasmine Garsd is in Miami Beach. Good morning, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: On day six, what is the mood like there?

GARSD: Well, there is a mix of optimism and hope. You hear it all day long from local officials and search crews. But at the same time, you also sense that reality is setting in for some people. As you say, there are about 150 people that are, quote, "unaccounted for." Complicating the search efforts are thunderstorms and stifling heat. At a press conference last night, Chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission Jose "Pepe" Diaz thanked all of the rescue teams from around the state, as well as crews from Israel and Mexico that have come to assist.

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JOSE PEPE DIAZ: These people that are coming to help our people out here have the hope to find people alive. And that's something we cannot stop. We have to continue with that hope.

GARSD: You know, we should point out in the past earthquakes around the world, search crews have pulled people out alive from buildings seven or eight days after the fact.

KING: And that may be what these rescue workers are counting on. You spent time yesterday with some of them. What was that like?

GARSD: Well, it was raining heavily when I met Jonathan Blinkey (ph). He's a supervisor with the Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force. He's working nights here. He still had grime under his nails. He looked tired, with glassy eyes. It was his fifth day of work, and he'd been out and about for around 18 hours. Like most of his team, he is more used to hurricane recovery. This has been different.

JONATHAN BLINKEY: One of the main things that stood out to me in the file was - and is once - if we found the victim ruins, pretty much the whole site shuts down, and we'll line our entire crew from all the different task forces - there's, like, eight - and pay their respects. The whole pile will shut down all the equipment. And it was pretty - I guess you could say emotional.

GARSD: It's also physically grueling work. Most of the teams work 12 hours on, 12 hours off. I also sat with Captain Adam Brown from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and Jonathan Hamilton from Tampa Fire Rescue. These crews specialize in removing the large concrete sections. They use heavy lift equipment at disaster sites like this one. Hamilton says this is a bigger and more complex collapse than they typically get called in to handle.

KING: And is that why it's moving so slowly or appears to be moving so slowly?

GARSD: It's the magnitude of the disaster. A collapsed building the size of this 12-story condominium is a race against time as they search for the missing. Captain Brown says it's also a really delicate balancing act.

ADAM BROWN: Every time we move something - a rock, a boulder, a piece of metal - it changes the whole dynamic of the entire pile of rubble. But it is a very unsafe thing to do. You're talking about thousands of tons of material. So we do have to take our time.

GARSD: The process isn't just physically slow, but they're trying to be respectful, Blinkey says they're just not digging through rubble. They're sifting through thousands of fragmented and shattered pieces of people's lives.

KING: And, Jasmine, at the same time, there is this big investigation into what exactly happened here. The Wall Street Journal is reporting new information from April of this year about the need for repairs to the Champlain South Tower. What is that Wall Street Journal reporting about?

GARSD: The president of the Champlain South Tower's condo association told residents in April their building was in desperate disrepair and urged them to pay the $15 million in assessment needed to fix structural problems. Florida buildings are required to be recertified for electrical and structural safety after 40 years. That condo building had already begun the process.

KING: NPR's Jasmine Garsd in Miami Beach. Thank you, Jasmine, for your reporting. We appreciate it.

GARSD: Thank you.

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KING: A federal judge dismissed two significant antitrust complaints against Facebook.

MARTIN: Yeah, these suits were filed in December, one by the federal government and one by around 40 of the country's attorneys general. But this does not mean the complaints against Facebook are now over.

KING: Facebook, we should note, is one of NPR's financial sponsors. But we cover them like any other company. And NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has been following this story. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: What was Facebook sued over?

BOND: Well, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys general had accused Facebook of crushing its competition by buying up rivals like Instagram and WhatsApp and also suffocating other companies. Now, Facebook disputed these claims. It said the government hadn't really shown any illegal behavior in its case. So it asked the court to throw these suits out. And yesterday, the judge largely agreed with the company and tossed these complaints.

KING: Why did the judge agree?

BOND: Well, you know, Facebook, of course, boasts more than 2 billion users around the world. It's the world's largest social network. But Judge James Boasberg - he says the FTC needs to show more evidence to back up its claim that Facebook has a monopoly under the law. So he's given the FTC 30 days to file a new complaint addressing these concerns. Now, when it came to the states' case, the judge said their accusations about Instagram and WhatsApp just came too late. These deals were made years ago. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, WhatsApp in 2014. Now, people I talked to said that's actually kind of surprising because back at the time the deals were made, the states did not take a look at whether they were good or bad. And yet here is the judge saying it's now just too late to object.

KING: Yeah, that's interesting. So is Facebook celebrating?

BOND: Well, it's definitely a temporary win. A spokesman says the company is pleased that the court recognized the, quote, "defects in the government's cases," that says Facebook competes fairly. Investors are also quite happy. The stock rose after the news. Facebook's market cap passed $1 trillion for the first time. Very few companies can claim that kind of size.

KING: Sure. And so is the Federal Trade Commission going to try again, do you think?

BOND: The FTC and state AGs - they say they're reviewing the judge's opinions. They're weighing their options. I think we can expect the FTC to refile. We could also see appeals of this dismissal. And the FTC is not going to back down. It just got a new chairwoman, Lina Khan. She's an outspoken critic of Big Tech. I spoke to Bill Kovacic. He's a former chair of the FTC, and he told me he sees two paths forward for the agency.

BILL KOVACIC: One is we're going to keep our foot on the accelerator when it comes to bringing tough cases. But the second path is to go to the Congress and say, see? This is why you have to do your job to give us better tools.

BOND: And indeed, right now, the House Judiciary Committee did this big investigation into big tech and antitrust. It's now advancing a bipartisan package of bills that seeks to really rein in the power of Big Tech, you know, curb what some of these companies can do and also beef up anti-monopoly enforcement at agencies, including the FTC. And then, you know, just yesterday, we heard from Democrats, as well as Republicans on the committee making this case. They are putting out statements saying, you know, what happened here, this dismissal, this difficulty in proving the case shows exactly why we need these kind of reforms.

KING: NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thank you.

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KING: All right, so COVID cases keep dropping here in the U.S., but in parts of the world with low vaccination rates, there are now surges.

MARTIN: Right. So South America is now a hotspot. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is setting records for daily cases. Same thing in Bangladesh, where the government is planning a national lockdown later this week. Parts of Australia and Africa are facing lockdowns, too. Many of these spikes are linked to the highly contagious delta variant.

KING: NPR's Jason Beaubien is on the line with us from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

KING: So during much of the pandemic, there was kind of a mystery. It looked like the continent of Africa was not getting hit as hard as other parts of the world. Is that now changing?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Africa is solidly into a third wave of infections. Overall cases have surpassed the first wave that hit in the summer of 2020. And there was a second wave around the Christmas, New Year's holiday of 2021. And this third wave now looks to be the worst yet. And partly why this is so concerning is that compared to other regions, very few people in Africa are vaccinated. It's roughly 1% fully immunized. And you've even got some countries that haven't started vaccinations at all.

KING: OK, so grim numbers on vaccinations. Is this wave, this surge happening all across the continent?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's kind of interesting. It's not every country on the continent that's reporting these surges. Some places still are recording very low numbers. But you're seeing record-breaking numbers of infections coming from every part of the continent. You know, where I am here in West Africa, Sierra Leone is at an all-time high in terms of infections. Then you go all the way across the continent. Rwanda is also setting numbers that are off the charts for them. You go down to southern Africa, Zambia, Namibia - they're being very hard hit, and they're at all time highs. And hospital beds are at 100% capacity. South Africa this week went into a very strict level four lockdown. So the impact is being felt all across the continent.

KING: And is this being driven by the very contagious delta variant?

BEAUBIEN: The delta variant is definitely part of what's driving the surges in African countries. WHO says that testing done in Uganda finds that 97% of the current cases there are the delta variant. Also, samples out of the Democratic Republic of Congo found that the majority are linked to the delta variant. But testing for variants is really complicated. And where I am here in Sierra Leone, they don't even have the lab capacity to do this type of genome sequencing. You know, and it's similar in other countries on the continent. So it's unknown whether it is this more transmissible delta variant that's driving these surges here.

KING: OK, so if some of it is unknown and some of it is just lacking vaccinations and lab capacity, we have the eternal question, which is, how much of a threat do these surges pose?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, this absolutely poses a threat to the overall efforts to contain this pandemic. You know, Africa is a big continent. You've got more than a billion people here highly vulnerable to COVID because of these low levels of vaccination. And the more transmission that occurs here or anywhere else in the world, the more variants that potentially can emerge, variants that could even potentially evade some of the vaccines. So long as you have these high levels of transmission occurring anywhere in the globe, it continues to pose a threat to the rest of the world.

KING: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Thank you, Jason, for your reporting. We appreciate it.

BOND: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.