Department Press Briefing – March 19, 2021

Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson

WASHINGTON, D.C.

2:01 p.m. EDT

MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s press briefing. I have two quick updates I’d like to share at the top, and then we will go into taking your questions.

Today, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale represented the United States at a meeting of the Coalition for the Sahel.

During his remarks, Under Secretary Hale announced then more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to the crisis in the Sahel region.

This lifesaving assistance is critical for the survival of nearly three million refugees and internally displaced people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It will provide them with vital protections, economic opportunity, shelter, essential health care, emergency food assistance, safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene services. It will also help host communities across the Sahel.

The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance both in the Sahel region and globally, and encourages other donors to contribute to these lifesaving efforts.

Next, we strongly condemn today’s drone attacks against Saudi Aramco facilities southeast of Riyadh.

We remain deeply concerned by the frequency of attacks on Saudi Arabia. We have seen that the Houthis claimed responsibility for these attacks and condemn the Houthis’ attempts to disrupt global energy supplies by targeting Saudi infrastructure. This behavior shows an utter lack of concern for safety of the civilian population either working or living nearby the sites.

International voices have called for an end to the attacks and an end to the conflict in Yemen. Last week, the United States joined the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy in condemning Houthi aggressive acts directed toward Saudi Arabia and within Yemen itself.

This week, the Gulf Cooperation Council called for an end to the attacks and a return to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict and bring a lasting peace the Yemeni people deserve. And yesterday, the Members of the UN Security Council also condemned the Houthi offensive on Marib and the cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia.

These attacks threaten peace efforts at a critical moment when the international community is showing an increasingly united front in resolving the conflict in Yemen.

We call on all parties to seriously commit to a ceasefire and engage in negotiations under UN auspices, in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.

With that, I will wait a few minutes while our queue populates and start taking your questions.

Let’s go to the line of Casey O’Neil, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks so much for doing this again. Happy Friday. So just two quick questions for you, the first on Burma: Can you provide any update on the Department’s review, the interagency review that they’re undertaking – that you’re undertaking, excuse me, with regard to the Rohingya?

And then second question on Senator Coons’ trip to Ethiopia. I know I asked about it yesterday, but just wanted to follow up: Can you provide any additional information on State Department involvement in the trip, if any State Department officials are accompanying him and the like? Thanks.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Casey, and a Happy Friday to you as well. To answer your first question, Secretary Blinken has committed to reviewing whether the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Burma constitute any specific atrocity crimes and has also expressed deep concern over the Burmese military’s longstanding impunity for past and ongoing abuses. And I’ll also say that the State Department continues to review information related to the military’s abuses against all Burmese people, which includes the Rohingya, to inform and develop policies that help address these abuses and also prevent their future occurrences.

To your next question about the – Senator Coons going to Ethiopia, again, there – we’ll just say that, again, he is there at the request of President Biden, and as you know, they have a close friendship and relationship. And he entrusts him to convey our concerns about the humanitarian crisis ongoing in the Tigray region in the Horn of Africa.

Let’s please go to the line of Simon Lewis.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Alaska, if you’re able to talk about that. Obviously, there’s been a lot of reporting since yesterday about how sort of tense the initial encounter was. And there’s been discussions of – I think both sides have accused the other of breaking protocol in those initial exchanges. But I wonder if – does the State Department – based on the tone of that first meeting, does that give you any concern for the future of the relationship with China and the possibility of reaching some agreements or getting some achievables out of these meetings? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question, Simon, and just as a response to that, of course, as you know, Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan had their first meetings with Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, and of course, are in sessions this morning. And these were serious discussions. Again, I’ll just reiterate something that NSA Sullivan said. And of course, to your point about it, the – being contentious or not, again, we – he said we don’t see conflict, but of course, welcome stiff competition.

Again, this was a single meeting, and again, we know that sometimes these diplomatic presentations can be exaggerated or maybe even aimed at a domestic audience, but we’re not letting the theatrics from the other side stop us from doing what we were intending to do in Alaska, which is lay out our principles as well as our expectations and have these tough conversations early that we need to have with the PRC.

Let’s go to the line of Edward Keenan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) of the Alaska meetings, the two Michaels, Kovrig and – the two Canadian Michaels who are being held as political prisoners in China, widely perceived as leverage against the United States, who are going to trial now as these meetings take place. Secretary Blinken and President Biden expressed their desire to see those two Michaels released when they met with the Canadian prime minister recently. I wonder to what extent those cases are up for discussion in Alaska right now, and if so, like, to what extent and how?

MS PORTER: Well, let me start off by saying that the United States continues to publicly call on the PRC to end the arbitrary and unacceptable detentions of the Canadians citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. And again, the United States is deeply concerned by the PRC’s decision to hold a closed-court hearing with the Canadian citizens. Obviously, no one from – no diplomat from Canada or the U.S. were involved in that. And we’re also deeply alarmed by a report that the PRC will commence the trial of Canadian citizen Michael Kovrig on March 22nd and we renew our call for PRC authorities to attend this trial.

We’ll always just reiterate that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in calling for their immediate release, and we also continue to condemn their lack of minimum procedural protections during their two-year arbitrary detention.

Let’s go to the line of Rosalind Jordan.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about North Korea. Earlier today, the First Vice Foreign Minister of the DPRK, Choe Son-hui – and I may be saying his name incorrectly – issued a statement rebuffing the U.S.’s efforts to recommence contact. And I’m going to read a couple of quick quotes from his lengthy statement: “We make it clear…we won’t give it,” meaning the U.S., “such opportunities ,” again, my words, “as in Singapore and Hanoi again.” And the final statement: “e will counter the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.” All of that to say that the U.S. needs to stop its hostile actions. In the DPRK’s views, it needs to stop spying, military actions, sanctions, the whole list, before Kim Jong-un will decide to engage again with the Biden administration. Is there a response from the administration to this rebuffing? Does the U.S. believe that this is simply a way of the government trying to build domestic political support for its untenable position, as the global community has suggested?

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Rosiland. We’ll – I’ll reiterate what we’ve said a few times this week in that the United States is conducting a thorough interagency review of the U.S. policy towards North Korea, and we’re also evaluating all the options available to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea as well as to its neighbors and, quite frankly, our international community. And we’re going to continue to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has an – integrated a diverse set of voices from the government as well as outside of the government, which includes think tanks and outside experts.

Let’s go to the line of Jeongeun Ji.

QUESTION: Hello.

MS PORTER: Hi.

QUESTION: Hi. I also wanted to ask about North Korea’s statement yesterday about Malaysia and the U.S. So North Korea said it will cut off diplomatic relations with Malaysia and the U.S. will pay a price because of the extradition of a North Korean to the U.S. So I wanted to see if you have any comments on this North Korea statement and the ongoing extradition process. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. When it comes to the extradition and just all of that tied to your question, I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice.

Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and good morning to you, Jalina. My question is regarding the security trainings for forces in Uganda and Nigeria. Can you speak a little bit about the status of your relationship now? There was a report this week in a press conference accusing Uganda of more than 400 abductions, arrests, and so on. So I was wondering, do you feel that the trainings that were taking place in Uganda and Nigeria to take out the LRA and Boko Haram, respectively – do you think that that is working? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. I won’t comment specifically on trainings that are happening in country, but what we will say when it comes to just overall safety and security in the region, specifically to Nigeria and Uganda, that we will continue to support safety and security when it comes to – especially when it comes to children and people who have been targeted for kidnappings. And we remain concerned, especially in Nigeria, when it comes to an uptick in their kidnappings, especially for ransom.

We’ll also say that the United States remains engaged to respond to all the security challenges in Africa, specifically when it comes to Nigeria and Uganda as well, and the State Department currently funds the majority of U.S. Government peace and security assistance in Africa and remains committed to these efforts. Diplomatic and security engagement with U.S. partners in Africa, quite frankly, advances our interests and values. Enhancing our alliances and partnerships in Africa through diplomatic development and security initiatives only enables us to better protect and serve interests – U.S. interests in Africa.

Let’s go to the line of Beatriz Pascual.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to go back to China. The talks in Alaska are set to conclude today, so I wanted to see if you could please provide us some details about what specific issues are on the table today or some detail about the issues that were discussed yesterday. And also, what specific outcome does the U.S. hope to achieve out of these dialogues? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. Again, we’ll reiterate that Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan are in Anchorage having serious discussions. And the goal of the United States delegation coming to Anchorage was to lay out our principles, interests, and values, and that we animate our engagement with Beijing.

Knowing that the exaggerated diplomatic presentations in front of the media are aimed at a domestic audience, we will continue to map out our planned agenda. And again, as I said earlier, that’s to make sure that we will still come from a position of strength and, again, lay out our common interests and principles from the United States.

And again, as Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan have already emphasized, America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealings with Beijing, even as we have the humility to know that we are a country that’s eternally striving to become a more perfect union regardless of any of our shortcomings and challenges we’ve had. We’re always open to meeting these challenges, even in an open forum where everyone’s watching globally, and we know we’ll come out better because of that.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thank you. On your Human Rights Report on South Korea, not North Korea, there’s one part talking about South Korea’s law abandoning leaflet-sending activities. Some NGOs and North Korean defectors in South Korea argued that they were providing outside information to North Korean people by sending leaflets. What’s your view on this? Do you support these kinds of efforts – maybe not just the leaflets, but overall activities and efforts providing outside information to North Korea?

Also, could you tell us about the new Human Rights Report on North Korea? What’s the State Department’s position when it comes to improving the situation in North Korea? Thank you.

MS PORTER: I thank you for your questions. So we actually have not yet rolled out our Human Rights Report. We’ll actually – hopefully that happens soon. And we won’t, again, get ahead of that, and you’ll have an update when that does come out. But we’ll say more broadly speaking, as a global policy, we advocate for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. When it comes to – with regards to the DPRK, we continue to campaign for the free flow of information into the DPRK.

We’ll take one final question from Hiba Nasr.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this, Jalina. I want to go back to Yemen. I heard your statement, your opening statement, and we had several statements calling for the Houthis to stop attacks against Saudi Arabia. What is the next move? What’s your next move? Are you considering designating the Houthis again? Are you waiting until you sit with the Iranians?

And I have one other question on Lebanon, if you don’t mind, please. People are expecting a total collapse, maybe within weeks, maybe within months. Is the U.S. prepared for such a scenario?

MS PORTER: Thank you for your questions. Again, we will always condemn the Houthis for their attacks on Saudi Arabia. And again, we will always call on them and all parties to commit to a serious ceasefire and engage in negotiations that are specifically UN auspices and also in conjunction with U.S. Special Envoy Tim Lenderking.

I’ll just reiterate that President Biden made it one of his first foreign policy priorities to end the terrible war in Yemen, and in doing so, of course, appointing Special Envoy Lenderking. And he has been engaged with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in Saudi Arabia and regional states to put together elements to put together a nationwide ceasefire.

And when it comes to Lebanon, again, we remain deeply concerned about the developments in Lebanon and, of course, the apparent inaction of the country’s leadership that face multiple ongoing crises. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinkmanship and form a government that will quickly implement critical and long-needed reform, restore investor confidence, and as well rescue the country’s economy.

That concludes today’s briefing. Thank you again for joining me this Friday. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you next week.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:25 p.m.)

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    The Department of Energy (DOE) has retrieved nuclear waste from all the tanks at C-farm—the first of 18 tank farms (i.e., groupings of tanks) at DOE's Hanford site in southeastern Washington State. The waste is a byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production and research. DOE is obligated under agreements with the state's Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move waste from older, single-shell tanks to newer, more durable, double-shell tanks and ultimately to dispose of it. Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford DOE intends to “close” the C-farm by leaving the nearly empty tanks in place and filling them with grout. However, DOE faces challenges, in part because this approach depends on: (1) DOE's determination under its directives that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste (HLW) and (2) Ecology's approval. DOE has started the determination process, but as GAO has previously found, DOE is likely to face a lawsuit because of questions about its legal authority. Ecology has raised concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not independently reviewed DOE's analysis for this determination. By Congress clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW, DOE would be in a better position to move forward. Another challenge DOE faces in closing C-farm is how to address contaminated soil caused by leaks or discharges of waste from the tanks. DOE and Ecology officials do not agree on a process for evaluating contaminated soil at C-farm or on what role NRC should play in this process. They interpret their agreement differently, particularly regarding whether NRC must review DOE's analysis of contaminated soil. If the two parties cannot resolve this issue, Ecology may deny DOE a permit for C-farm closure. By using an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on how to assess soil contamination, including NRC's role, DOE would be better positioned to avoid future cleanup delays. DOE has not developed a long-term plan for tank-farm closure, in part, because a plan is not required. However, leading practices in program management call for long-term planning. In addition, DOE faces technical challenges that may take years to address as noted by representatives from various entities or tribal governments. For example, an internal DOE document states there is a 95 percent probability DOE will run out of space in its double shell tanks—space needed to continue retrieval operations. Planning for and building new tanks requires years of work. By developing a long-term plan, DOE could better prepare to address technical challenges. The Hanford site in Washington State contains about 54 million gallons of nuclear waste, which is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. In fiscal years 1997 through 2019, DOE spent over $10 billion to maintain Hanford's tanks and retrieve waste from them. DOE expects to spend at least $69 billion more on activities to retrieve tank waste and close tanks, according to a January 2019 DOE report. Senate Report 116-48, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review the status of tank closures at Hanford. GAO's report examines the status of DOE's efforts to retrieve tank waste, challenges DOE faces in its effort to close the C-farm, as well as DOE's approach for closing the remaining tank farms. GAO toured the site; reviewed DOE documents, laws, and regulations; and interviewed officials and representatives from local, regional, and national entities and tribal governments. Congress should consider clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOE (1) use an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on a process for assessing soil contamination, including NRC's role and (2) develop a long-term plan for its tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford. DOE concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.
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Vaccine Platform Technologies Supported by Operation Warp Speed, as of January 2021 As of January 30, 2021, five of the six OWS vaccine candidates have entered phase 3 clinical trials, two of which—Moderna's and Pfizer/BioNTech's vaccines—have received an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For vaccines that received EUA, additional data on vaccine effectiveness will be generated from further follow-up of participants in clinical trials already underway before the EUA was issued. Technology readiness. GAO's analysis of the OWS vaccine candidates' technology readiness levels (TRL)—an indicator of technology maturity— showed that COVID-19 vaccine development under OWS generally followed traditional practices, with some adaptations. FDA issued specific guidance that identified ways that vaccine development may be accelerated during the pandemic. Vaccine companies told GAO that the primary difference from a non-pandemic environment was the compressed timelines. To meet OWS timelines, some vaccine companies relied on data from other vaccines using the same platforms, where available, or conducted certain animal studies at the same time as clinical trials. However, as is done in a non-pandemic environment, all vaccine companies gathered initial safety and antibody response data with a small number of participants before proceeding into large-scale human studies (e.g., phase 3 clinical trials). The two EUAs issued in December 2020 were based on analyses of clinical trial participants and showed about 95 percent efficacy for each vaccine. These analyses included assessments of efficacy after individuals were given two doses of vaccine and after they were monitored for about 2 months for adverse events. Manufacturing. As of January 2021, five of the six OWS vaccine companies had started commercial scale manufacturing. OWS officials reported that as of January 31, 2021, companies had released 63.7 million doses—about 32 percent of the 200 million doses that, according to OWS, companies with EUAs have been contracted to provide by March 31, 2021. Vaccine companies face a number of challenges in scaling up manufacturing to produce hundreds of millions of doses under OWS's accelerated timelines. DOD and HHS are working with vaccine companies to help mitigate manufacturing challenges, including: Limited manufacturing capacity: A shortage of facilities with capacity to handle the vaccine manufacturing needs can lead to production bottlenecks. Vaccine companies are working in partnership with OWS to expand production capacity. For example, one vaccine company told GAO that HHS's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority helped them identify an additional manufacturing partner to increase production. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing construction projects to expand capacity at vaccine manufacturing facilities. Disruptions to manufacturing supply chains: Vaccine manufacturing supply chains have been strained by the global demand for certain goods and workforce disruptions caused by the global pandemic. For example, representatives from one facility manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines stated that they experienced challenges obtaining materials, including reagents and certain chemicals. They also said that due to global demand, they waited 4 to 12 weeks for items that before the pandemic were typically available for shipment within one week. Vaccine companies and DOD and HHS officials told GAO they have undertaken several efforts to address possible manufacturing disruptions and mitigate supply chain challenges. These efforts include federal assistance to (1) expedite procurement and delivery of critical manufacturing equipment, (2) develop a list of critical supplies that are common across the six OWS vaccine candidates, and (3) expedite the delivery of necessary equipment and goods coming into the United States. Additionally, DOD and HHS officials said that as of December 2020 they had placed prioritized ratings on 18 supply contracts for vaccine companies under the Defense Production Act, which allows federal agencies with delegated authority to require contractors to prioritize those contracts for supplies needed for vaccine production. Gaps in the available workforce: Hiring and training personnel with the specialized skills needed to run vaccine manufacturing processes can be challenging. OWS officials stated that they have worked with the Department of State to expedite visa approval for key technical personnel, including technicians and engineers to assist with installing, testing, and certifying critical equipment manufactured overseas. OWS officials also stated that they requested that 16 DOD personnel be detailed to serve as quality control staff at two vaccine manufacturing sites until the organizations can hire the required personnel. As of February 5, 2021, the U.S. had over 26 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 449,020 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions, with the unemployment rate and number of unemployed in January 2021 at nearly twice their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020. In May 2020, OWS was launched and included a goal of producing 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines with initial doses available by January 2021. Although FDA has authorized two vaccines for emergency use, OWS has not yet met its production goal. Such vaccines are crucial to mitigate the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. GAO was asked to review OWS vaccine development efforts. This report examines: (1) the characteristics and status of the OWS vaccines, (2) how developmental processes have been adapted to meet OWS timelines, and (3) the challenges that companies have faced with scaling up manufacturing and the steps they are taking to address those challenges. GAO administered a questionnaire based on HHS's medical countermeasures TRL criteria to the six OWS vaccine companies to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccine development processes. GAO also collected and reviewed supporting documentation on vaccine development and conducted interviews with representatives from each of the companies on vaccine development and manufacturing. For more information, contact Karen L. Howard and Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or howardk@gao.gov or wrightc@gao.gov.
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