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Tensions are rising in Eastern Europe, on the border between Belarus and Poland. Yesterday, Polish police began using water cannons and tear gas against people trying to cross into the country. For weeks now, thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been waiting at the border in an attempt to enter the European Union, in what EU leaders are calling a manufactured crisis.

  • Plus, the latest on treating COVID with a pill.
  • And, the International Olympic Committee takes on gender identity.

Guests: Axios' Zach Basu, Tina Reed, and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, David Toledo and Jayk Cherry. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at podcasts@axios.com. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:

Transcript

NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s November 17th - we made it to Wednesday! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the latest on treating COVID with a pill. Plus, new guidance around transgender and intersex Olympic athletes.

But first, migrants trapped at the Poland-Belarus border is today’s One Big Thing.

Tensions are rising in Eastern Europe on the border between Belarus and Poland. Yesterday, Polish police began using water cannons and tear gas against people trying to cross into the country.

For weeks now, thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been waiting at the border in an attempt to enter the European Union...in what EU leaders are calling a manufactured crisis.

Axios national security reporter Zach Basu joins us now with the big picture. Zach, what’s happening at the border right now?

ZACH BASU: So as you mentioned, there are currently thousands of migrants actually camped out on the border between Belarus and Poland and in effect the border between Belarus and the European Union. Temperatures are below freezing and many of these desperate migrants, including women and children, don't have access to food and water.

And then from a security standpoint, Polish authorities have accused Belarusian forces of ordering groups of migrants to storm the barbed wire fence and attack Polish police officers with stones and bottles, and even some reports of stun grenades.

NIALA: European leaders have also alleged that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has manufactured this crisis, that he's using these migrants to create these images of chaos. Why are they saying that?

ZACH: So there are credible reports of Belarus granting visas to migrants coming from places like Iraq, flying them to the capital of Minsk and then transporting them to the border and either leaving them to be stranded or actively encouraging them to rush the fences to cross into Europe and claim asylum.

So UN and NATO officials and a number of U.S. senators that I've talked to have described this as hybrid warfare, and they've dismissed claims that this is some kind of migrant crisis like what Europe faced in 2015. They say this is a manufactured crisis by a desperate and erratic dictator who's trying to cling on to power by de-stabilizing the west.

NIALA: And so it's hard to talk about Belarus without mentioning Russia, their close ally, where is Vladimir Putin in all of this?

ZACH: Officials say that Lukashenko would not be engaging in something so reckless and provocative without at least the tacit approval of Putin. Putin's denied any role in the crisis but you know, it's clear that he's happy to exploit it for his own interests. Russia has been engaged in a huge military buildup on the border with Ukraine where it's been fighting a war since 2014. So you've got this humanitarian crisis on the border of Belarus, a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, cyber attacks, disinformation. It all makes for, you know, a very scary picture of 21st century warfare.

NIALA: Zach, manufactured or not, these are real people. These are real migrants who are waiting at the border, living through terrible conditions, especially as we think about things getting colder. Has there been any talk of getting these migrants any type of aid?

ZACH: That's been part of the response to this, you know, in addition to ratcheting up sanctions on Lukashenko and condemning his behavior, they also do want to take care of these migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a phone call with Lukashenko this week for the first time since his rigged election in 2020, that caused much of the west to stop recognizing him as the legitimate ruler or legitimate president of Belarus. The two leaders discussed getting humanitarian aid to these migrants, but ultimately the Europeans say it's up to Belarus authorities to ease this crisis.

NIALA: Axios national security reporter Zach Basu. Thanks, Zach.

ZACH: Thank you.

NIALA: In 15 seconds, how antiviral pills could help curb the pandemic.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. The Biden administration could soon be announcing the purchase of 10 million courses of Pfizer’s covid pill -- an antiviral that seems to dramatically reduce hospitalization and death in people with covid. As we head into the busy holiday season, how big of a role will antiviral pills like this play in controlling cases? Axios’ health care editor Tina Reed is here with that. Tina, so when we say dramatically, reduce hospitalization and death, do we know exactly how much.

TINA REED: Yes, this is a five-day antiviral pill regimen that the company says will reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 89%.

NIALA: How will this work? Who would be eligible to get this pill?

TINA: So, Pfizer’s requesting authorization for people who are at increased risk of hospitalization due to their age or underlying medical conditions.

NIALA: 89% sounds really effective. Are there other treatments doctors have for covid patients in the U.S. right now that are as effective as that?

TINA: So there's a number of different treatments that doctors have been using that they have been finding have differing success. One of the most successful treatments that we currently have are like monoclonal antibodies, but those require infusion and those are not as easy to administer as these drugs that promise to be an oral pill. There's actually another pill that is also being considered for emergency use authorization from Merck. And that is also an antiviral that claims to reduce hospitalization and death risk by up to half.

NIALA: Is this more important for places outside the US that haven't had as fast access to vaccines as we've had?

TINA: Yes, this could be a really big deal overseas, particularly in low and middle income countries, because it is available in the form of a pill. It's easy to manufacture. It's easy to distribute, compared to some of the other drugs and vaccines that have currently been on the market.

NIALA: And so how important are pills like Pfizers or Mercks in this next phase of the pandemic versus say vaccines?

TINA: So, this is a really important tool in the toolbox. A lot of experts are saying that this could be really, really valuable as we head into this winter season, but it doesn't replace the value of vaccines, and that’s the bottom line.

NIALA: Axios’ Tina Reed. Thank you, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: We heard a lot from Axios’ Ina Fried over the Tokyo Summer Olympics about criticism for how transgender and intersex athletes were treated. The first openly transgender athletes competed this past summer. Well yesterday the IOC announced a new framework for policies around gender identity and Ina Fried is back to tell us if this will mute some of the criticism. Hey, Ina!

INA FRIED: Hey, Niala.

NIALA: What's in this framework and what would change?

INA: So in the past, the IOC, since 2003 has had policies allowing transgender athletes to compete. Initially it required athletes to have gender reassignment surgery. Then in 2015, that was updated so it no longer required people to have surgery but it did set hormonal limits, particularly for testosterone that kind of governed across different sports. With this new framework they're saying there really isn't a one size fits all approach. But ultimately they also push the decision to the governing body of each individual sport. And really the key for different sports is to look, what does unfair advantage look like? That's still going to be highly controversial.

NIALA: What has been the response to this framework and will this end any of the criticism?

INA: It won't at all. I've already seen comments from people with widely different viewpoints. There are people who still believe that any policy that allows transgender women to compete will be the end of women's sports. There are transgender supporters who note that these guidelines aren't binding. So even though there's a lot of positive messages around inclusion, some frameworks that could lead to more trans and intersex athletes being allowed to participate fairly in their sport, it doesn't require any sport to pursue an inclusive policy.

NIALA: Axios’ Ina Fried. Thanks Ina.

INA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: This week, Sesame Street announced its newest character - 7-year-old Korean American Ji-Young - the first Asian American muppet on the show.

JI-YOUNG: There’s so many different types of people and monsters here. It feels like no matter who you are or where you come from you belong.

NIALA: We’re working right now on our latest episode of Hard Truths which is about the push at PBS and other networks to diversify childrens’ programming. And we want your perspective: Is there a show that you grew up watching that represented other cultures or people? How are you navigating this with your kids? You can text me a voice memo at (202) 918-4893 or email it to podcasts@axios.com - and tune in this Saturday.

That’s it for us today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper

Nov 26, 2021 - Health

Updated data shows Merck antiviral COVID pill less effective

Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Merck said Friday updated data from a study on its experimental COVID-19 pill showed the drug is less effective than initially reported.

Driving the news: The drugmaker said molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death for patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 by about 30%, based on a study of more than 1,400 adults. Last month, the company said the study showed about 50% efficacy, based on data from 775 patients.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.

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