PBS NewsHour for December 25, 2015 - Part 1



Michael Gerson, Gwen Ifill>

hidden gift for the nation`s bridges and roads is buried in this year`s

massive congressional package. A journalist walks around the world to

uncover man`s prehistoric journey. A hit musical focuses on the founding

father you forgot about. Mark Shields and Michael Gerson analyze the

week`s news.>

Medicine; Congress; Transportation; Budget; Media>

GWEN IFILL: Good evening. I`m Gwen Ifill. Judy Woodruff is away.

On the "NewsHour" tonight: old drugs with new prices. What`s behind sudden price hikes on prescription drugs?

Also ahead: a hidden gift for the nation`s bridges and roads buried in this year`s massive congressional package -- how lawmakers got to yes after years of no.

Plus, in the footsteps of our ancestors: an encore look at one journalist`s walk around the world to uncover man`s prehistoric journey.

PAUL SALOPEK, Fellow, National Geographic: Walking has shown me that the boundaries between stories are permeable, in that one story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other because human life bleeds into each other.

GWEN IFILL: And it`s Friday. Mark Shields and Michael Gerson analyze the week`s news.

All that and more on this Christmas edition of the "PBS NewsHour."


GWEN IFILL: Christmas Day 2015 brought fresh appeals for an end to terror and a new focus on peace. The theme dominated annual messages from various world leaders, starting at the Vatican.

Cheers erupted from the thousands in sunny St. Peter`s Square, as the pope emerged to deliver his Christmas message. In it, he spoke out against atrocities by radical Islamists.

POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through translator): My thoughts also turn to those affected by brutal acts of terrorism, particularly the recent massacres which took place in Egyptian airspace, in Beirut, Paris, Bamako, and Tunis.

GWEN IFILL: Francis didn`t directly name the Islamic State group, but he did urge world leaders to focus on Syria, Libya and elsewhere. He also praised countries who`ve taken in refugees fleeing the violence. Some of those refugees spent their Christmas in a camp in Calais, France, where they have waited for months, hoping to get to Britain.

Across the channel, Queen Elizabeth took note of the hardships suffered by many in her annual holiday message.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II, United Kingdom: There`s an old saying that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. There are millions of people lighting candles of hope in our world today.

GWEN IFILL: Again this year, American troops spent Christmas in Afghanistan and other far-flung outposts, including Kuwait.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM HICKMAN, U.S. Army: Many of these soldiers have had to deploy multiple times during the Christmas holidays and other holidays, so, again, we just want to thank them for their service, and really tell them we appreciate what they do for our Army and really for our nation.

GWEN IFILL: President and Mrs. Obama also paid tribute to the troops in their pre-taped holiday message, and they urged Americans to come together as one family.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: Caring for those on society`s margins, the sick and the hungry, the poor and the persecuted, the stranger in need of shelter, or simply an act of kindness, that`s the spirit that binds us together, not just as Christians, but as Americans of all faiths.

GWEN IFILL: The Obamas are spending their holidays in Hawaii again this year, hiking, golfing and seeing friends.

It was a far more somber day for tornado victims across the South. At least 14 are now confirmed dead in Wednesday`s storms. The same weather system also brought flood warnings in several states today, and much of the East Coast saw record warmth again with readings 20 degrees above normal.

In Britain, the government called a rare holiday cabinet meeting to deal with record flooding in Northern England. The British army has been deployed to build barricades in Cumbria. That area has already seen the wettest December since records began in 1910.

A world away, the problem is fire. Raging bushfires in Australia destroyed more than 50 homes southwest of Melbourne and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. The fires were burning near a popular tourist attraction, the Great Ocean Road. Witnesses said some people had to flee Christmas celebrations on a moment`s notice.

PATRICK CAREY, Australia: They were all prepared, putting their barbecues on. They were cooking away. And, all of a sudden, they could see the smoke coming over the hill. They thought it was still four hours away, according to what they`d heard. And then, all of a sudden, it was an hour away, and, all of a sudden, it was half-an-hour away. So, they just dropped everything, stopped cooking and hopped in their car and headed here.

GWEN IFILL: Crews are using water-bombing aircraft and 60 fire engines to battle the flames. But officials say it could take some time to make progress.

Tragedy struck in Nigeria last night. An explosion at a gas plant killed dozens of people as they lined up to buy butane gas. One reporter said he saw about a hundred bodies. Officials say a truck was discharging gas at the facility when it exploded. The blast touched off a fire that raged for hours before it was finally doused.

There`s another sign of potential warming between India and Pakistan, after decades of war and tension. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan today. He met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and aides said they discussed the disputed Kashmir region. The two also met at the climate change talks in Paris this month.

And an apology today from a British astronaut for an errant phone call. Tim Peake misdialed on a Christmas greeting from the International Space Station. Later, he tweeted: "I would like to apologize to the lady I just called, saying, hello, is this planet Earth? Not a prank call, just a wrong number."

Still to come on the "NewsHour": why some drug prices suddenly spike; the man who`s walking around the world; what the highway bill means for the nation`s roads and bridges; Mark Shields and Michael Gerson on this week`s news; and the hit musical about the founding father you forgot about.

GWEN IFILL: We now turn to a story that continues to worry and to anger consumers, soaring drug prices, even sometimes for new versions of old drugs.

The latest case involves a drug that helps treat a rare autoimmune disorder. Until recently, its manufacturer often offered it at minimal or no cost at all. But now another pharmaceutical company, Catalyst, says it wants the FDA to approve a modified, and likely more expensive, version of the drug.

I recorded this conversation yesterday with reporter Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

Sabrina, I`m going to start out by asking you to define something that most people have never heard of. That is orphan drugs. What are those?

SABRINA TAVERNISE, The New York Times: The orphan drugs, this is a law that was passed in the early 1980s to try to stimulate development of drugs for rare diseases.

So, it was specifically meant to get drug companies to come up with new ideas and new inventions for small populations of patients that wouldn`t otherwise have been profitable, so it gave some advantages to companies that wanted to -- that agreed to develop these drugs.

GWEN IFILL: And so now what you see is that some of these companies, some companies are repurposing some of these old drugs that were created under this -- with this protection under this umbrella for profit?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, essentially, what`s happened, Gwen, is that the -- that companies are sort of scouting around in the landscape looking for older drugs to get approved under this law, so, essentially, not really doing any development work, not really doing any of the hard, you know, invention required to come up with something new, taking something that was old that was already on the market and getting it approved, getting it special status under this law.

And so that gets them seven years of market monopoly, which is actually a very, very long period of time for the drug industry.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote in The New York Times about a particular drug that was designed to help patients suffering from Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome.

Tell us about that drug and about how that fits into what we`re talking about here.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, the drug -- so it`s for a neuromuscular disorder. People who have the disease have trouble walking. Many are confined to beds or wheelchairs. The drug is (AUDIO GAP) quite old.

The original work that was put into developing it happened in the U.K. And the earliest traces I could find of it were in France and Scotland in the 1970s.

And, essentially, what`s happened is, the drug has been effectively given away for free to patients since the early 1990s by sort of an unusual drug company, a little family-owned drug company in New Jersey called Jacobus. That was the situation for many years.

And what has happened is that a publicly traded company, you know, a Wall Street-traded company, has sort of swept in and seen that the drug didn`t have FDA approval and decided to get it approved under this special law, so basically kind of racing to approval and essentially taking the drug off the market for patients that currently are getting it for free, and starting to charge what most market analysts think will probably be about $100,000 a year.

GWEN IFILL: Exorbitant costs.

Now, who controls this? I know this is the FDA, but maybe it is also the market. Maybe these drug companies have the right to charge what the market will bear?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, Gwen, this is a really good question. And this sort of gets to the crux of it.

I mean, effectively, they do. It`s not illegal. The FDA, when it decides how -- when it decides what drugs to approve, doesn`t look at price. That`s not something that it considers. It`s not -- it never has.

So, effectively, the United States is really the only rich country in the developed world that doesn`t have any -- where the government has no control over drug pricing, none.

And this is a vulnerability in our system that, effectively, companies that are really, really out to get very, very high profits for their stockholders have taken advantage of.

GWEN IFILL: So, it becomes out of the good of the company`s heart if they want to guarantee access for people who need this medication.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So, essentially, what the companies have done is that they agree that, when a person is uninsured or if the person`s insurance company won`t cover the drug, the company has what they call a financial assistance plan that will help essentially apply for various subsidies, rebates. And often the company often kind of chips in some money to help patients pay for these things.

But, for the most part, insurance companies do pay for the drugs, particularly under the Orphan Drug Act. The populations are fairly small. The prices are exorbitant but the insurance companies say, OK, well, there are not that many people, so we will cover this.

But what economists say is that this comes out in everybody`s premiums and in everybody`s health care costs. The price of having insurance has gone up and up and up. And why is that? This is part of what`s going on. It`s part of the dynamic of rising costs in health care in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way of knowing how widespread this is? I know it shows up in our premiums, but is it also that if you put together all these different orphan drugs, you actually end up with quite a population of affected people?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: Well, some of the kind of gaming of the system that drug companies have been doing under this act is, they will take a broader disease, say, breast cancer, and slice it into narrow definitions of smaller, smaller kind of subsets of that disease.

Then they can qualify for orphan drug status, when, in fact, the population is much larger. Another example has been a drug that`s been approved for some other treatment that they want to just sort of extend their monopoly on. And they under the act get it approved for some -- for a new treatment, but, effectively, it`s the same drug. There`s no new research that has gone into it, no new work, no new invention. It`s just sort of a repackaging.

So, these are some of the ways that the law has been abused.

GWEN IFILL: Many, many ways to get to the same end, which is a profit.

Sabrina Tavernise, thank you very much.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: It is a journey of a lifetime.

Journalist Paul Salopek spent his career covering the news overseas and jetting around the globe, until he realized that walking around the world might provide deeper insight.

Earlier this year, Hari Sreenivasan traveled to the Republic of Georgia to take a stroll with Salopek.

It was such a memorable walk that we decided it was worth showing it to you again tonight.

PAUL SALOPEK, Fellow, National Geographic: There is something not in your brain, but almost in your backbone, about the rhythm of walking, this A/B, A/B. It`s the pace of a heartbeat.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On a high country cool morning, Paul Salopek is out for a walk. But his walk is unlike any you or I might take. On this morning, he is nearing mile 4,000 of a trek that began in January 2013 in Ethiopia`s Great Rift Valley, the wellspring of ancient humankind.

PAUL SALOPEK: This whole project is about two things. It`s about the past and the future. And the past element is following our first ancestors who spread out of Africa during the Stone Age, so, following the footsteps of some very old and intrepid pioneers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He calls this project the Out of Eden Walk, and he will end it some time in six or seven years at the very southern tip of South America, after logging 21,000 miles. That`s about 30 million footsteps, for those of you counting yours every day.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent was used to dropping into war zones and driving his way out as fast as possible. But so far on this trip, he`s walked through some of the conflict zones of the Middle East, now on an assignment that is his lifetime.

With support from the National Geographic Society, the Nieman and Knight Foundations and others, he has walked across deserts and mountains.

So, why do this?

PAUL SALOPEK: There has got to be a space to slow down, analyze and absorb more meaningful information. I don`t think we need more information. I think we need more meaning.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What kind of context are you able to get when you are walking vs. when we get there in cars and planes and trains?

PAUL SALOPEK: Walking has shown me that the boundaries between stories are permeable, in that one story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other. And so walking between stories shows me connections that didn`t -- I didn`t used to see when I would parachute in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are we saying? What is humanity telling you?

PAUL SALOPEK: The same stories over and over again. It`s the same classic stories of complaint, of joy, of aspiration, of hope, of hopes dashed. And I never get tired of them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We caught up with him in Southern Georgia`s Caucasus Mountains, near Armenia, where the walk was stopped late last fall at this destroyed Soviet-era building.

PAUL SALOPEK: Last November, we had just crossed the Turkish border, and it was very bad weather. It was snowing, it was sleeting, very cold both during the day and at night. We came down, and with frozen feet had to break through a frozen river, plunging in up to our thighs. And we were very afraid of hypothermia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Salopek and three walking partners found this "Spotlight". One man set his gloves alight to start a fire and stay warm.

PAUL SALOPEK: On a November night a year ago, this was heaven. This was better than a five-star hotel.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Then he waited here in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, for a lot longer than he planned. He was stuck in what he calls a geopolitically-induced storm, waiting for visas that would determine the rest of his route.

A hundred thousand years ago, the problems were different here, in this land littered with volcanic boulders from ancient eruptions.

PAUL SALOPEK: When our ancestors, the first people who walked out of Africa, passed through this region, their big obstacles were glaciers and big animals that would eat them or droughts or famines. Today, mine is these ethnic fault lines and these imaginary walls, these imaginary glaciers called borders. And they have knocked me sideways, way off my intended track.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Months of back-and-forth talks with regional governments made it clear that his original plan to walk across Iran and points east wouldn`t work.

Finally, he set a route from Georgia that will pass through Azerbaijan, on to Kazakstan and beyond.

PAUL SALOPEK: This doesn`t look like much, but this ruin on the high plateau of Southern Georgia is the beginning of phase two of the Out of Eden Walk. So, this is the gateway to the Orient for me. From here, I`m leaving the Caucasus, going on the old silk roads to China.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So at mid-morning on October 20, Salopek set out, with the world revealed before him one step after the other, on this day up to a mountain pass at more than 9,000 feet.

Down the other side, Salopek and his walking partner spent the night in the small village of Mamishlari, a village of ethnic Azeris from Azerbaijan. They were taken in by the Nasibov family; 72-year-old Ziaudoin and his 70-year-old wife, Azmat (ph), married as teenagers. It is a tough farm life, on the edge, really, of civilization.

PAUL SALOPEK: We came around the corner of this mountain river and here was this village that we didn`t even know existed.

The first reaction was curiosity. When I finally told him, well, actually, I have hiked all the way from Africa, that was the surprise moment, and there was laughter around that table. And there was a lively exchange about, oh, you have got to be crazy.

ZIAUDOIN NASIBOV, Farmer (through translator): I don`t think he is crazy. I actually thought he was quite enlightened, because they actually want to walk across the world and see what`s out there. You might not notice a place, but when you walk by on foot, you see it, and appreciate it for what it actually is.

PAUL SALOPEK: Ziaud also has basically joined the walk because he showed us the way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All along his route, Salopek has been joined by walking partners, who function as guides, translators and companions. In Georgia, that partner was Dima Bit-Suleiman.

What is the reaction of most of the people you bump into when you tell them what he`s doing?

DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN, Guide: They go like, yes, yes, yes, coming from Africa. On walk? What do you mean?


DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: That`s like, usually, they kind of don`t believe and they say, why is he doing it? What is he trying to find out?

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about when they figure out that he is trying to go to the end of the world?

DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: And then it`s even worse. And then they really ask, like, what is he searching for?



DIMA BIT-SULEIMAN: Like, why is he doing that? I don`t think there is an easy answer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After passing through boggy lowlands, where horsemen emerged from fairy tale fogs, Salopek arrived at a village, Ipnari.

Largely abandoned, it revealed a much deeper history, nearby, a Bronze Age wine store, 5,000-year-old fermentation vats sunken in the ground.

PAUL SALOPEK: You`re talking about the beginning of civilization. Georgians were already drinking.


PAUL SALOPEK: The walk has opened up the vista to me in both space and time, where I can see the connections between all of these stories and I see how history informs everything that`s happening today.

Time pools in certain valleys, and it runs like a river through certain canyon systems, certain plains. And every step you take could be in a different era. And so here we are coming up to another one, and I think that the task now is to kind of go slowly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, for now, his steps were taking him toward the village of Boslebi, Georgia. And as the evening gathered, Salopek explained one mind-boggling facet of this grand experiment.

More often than not, when he sets out each morning, he has little idea where he will sleep that night.

PAUL SALOPEK: We`re going to draw attention, obviously, and just start greeting people and start striking up conversations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And it is this exact moment, first contact in a village, that Salopek was hesitant to have us film up close. It`s hard making a first impression with a camera crew in tow.

This day, five minutes after this scene and after meeting two other people in town, they both had a place to stay for the night.

You don`t plan out every step of the way, so to speak.

PAUL SALOPEK: Yes, it`s hard to explain to readers who think that I have got a team back in the States with a big map with blinking lights and computers plotting out my route.

They would laugh if they saw how seat-of-the-pants this is. This is truly sort of strolling across the world, and seeing how far I get before nightfall and then looking for shelter. The world is, by and large, a hospitable place.

Merab, this is my friend Hari from the United States.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Hari. Pleased to meet you.

Paul introduced me to his host for the night before I arrived, Merab Saaladze, a retired deputy governor of the local municipality.

You just invited him into your home. He`s a total stranger.

MERAB SAALADZE, Georgia (through translator): I asked him who he was, and he said he was from the U.S., so I immediately invited them in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is it common to be this hospitable, to take in a stranger?

MERAB SAALADZE: To me, it was the first time.


HARI SREENIVASAN: After tea and a bit more conversation, we set out for the next waypoint, the ancient village of Dmanisi about six miles away, which we will tell you more about in our next story.

MAN: So, basically, there is no shortcut. Merab said, well, yes, you have to cross the river.



HARI SREENIVASAN: But, as we soon found out, even the most precise directions need updating, which we were given by a man with hands stained from a lifetime of gathering walnuts.

And that, says Salopek, is just part of the plan.

You have got GPS, you have got maps, you have got guides. You are still going the wrong way sometimes.


Being found is overrated. Being a little lost is good, because it keeps you alert, keeps you looking around. It keeps you scanning the horizons about to find your bearings, and you are not sleepwalking through the world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how many pairs of shoes do you think you have gone through?

PAUL SALOPEK: This is the fourth. Somebody brought me these from the States, so they`re kind of special.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do you get tired by the end of an average day, or has your body gotten used to this hiking pace?


It depends on my physical condition. You know, look, the walk has kind of turned into my life, so it`s a complicated question to answer. It`s like you -- you have good weeks and bad weeks.


PAUL SALOPEK: I think I`m in pretty good condition.


PAUL SALOPEK: But I get tired, and "my job" -- in quotes -- is to write, not just really to walk. So, at the end of the day, it takes a special effort to sit down and write a story.

My project, to walk across the world for seven years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Those stories, dispatches from this ambling Eden, are being followed online by a growing group of digital companions.

Young people in particular, students, catch up with Salopek along the way. The tools of the trade are the heaviest thing he carries in his backpack: a laptop, cameras, notebooks and not more than a single change of clothes. He stops every 100 miles to record a milestone, a panoramic photo in this case that includes an exhausted "NewsHour" crew and a wayward pig, then some video, and a brief interview with the nearest person.

This one, number 29, after 2,800 air miles traveled, came outside a truck driver`s house near a Georgian mining town. And after a few questions and a handshake, Salopek is again on his way, the rhythm restored.

What makes a human want to go over the next ridge?

PAUL SALOPEK: Ah, the eternal question, the one that probably doesn`t have a rational answer through science.

The walk is part of that exploration, the impulse, not even rational to know what`s over the mountain. Why -- why paddle into the sea? We have set out again and again, and nobody came back, and yet we still set out. And one scientist, geneticist said, we`re just crazy.

And I think that magical, wonderful craziness is part of the joy of this project. It`s something that also binds us together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the "PBS NewsHour," I`m Hari Sreenivasan in Southern Georgia.

GWEN IFILL: After leaving Georgia, Paul Salopek traveled through Azerbaijan, the 10th country he`s crossed, and will soon continue his walk across Central Asia on that silk road to China.

That trip over the river and through the woods might go a little more smoothly in future years, thanks to the big highway bill that became law this month. It is the largest deal of its kind in a decade.

And, as political director Lisa Desjardins reports, it`s attracting both cheers and concern.

LISA DESJARDINS: The scope of this highway bill is vast, over $300 billion that will touch roads and bridges in every state and most counties for half-a-decade, a dramatic law that hits very familiar places to Americans.

HANS RIEMER, Montgomery County, Maryland, Councilman: Behind me is one of the most congested intersections in the state of Maryland. And we have had the designs completed for this upgrade of this intersection for maybe 10 years. It`s shovel-ready.

LISA DESJARDINS: Meet Hans Riemer, a man who thinks about transportation a lot. He has to, as a councilman for traffic-heavy Montgomery County, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C.

Riemer showed us this intersection that is a major bottleneck each morning. The county has had a fix ready for years, but it has been in limbo waiting for stable federal funding to help, because -- listen to this fact -- since 2009, Congress has limped through 34 short-term highway bills, and no stable funding to back big projects like this, until now.

HANS RIEMER: If the concern is, well, the federal government is not going to be there on the other end, don`t -- then there is a lot of pressure not to spend the money locally. And that is, you know, a -- that is just a downward spiral really for everybody. So the fact that bill is done at least for a temporary funding fix is a great step forward.