Sioux Falls Atheists
Sioux Falls Atheists and Atheism, Agnostics and Humanism

224 Atheism & Humanism News Articles
for January 2022
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1-31-22 Judge rejects plea agreement in Travis McMichael's hate crime case
A federal judge on Monday rejected a plea deal for Travis McMichael, one of the men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, on hate crime charges. McMichael reached an agreement to plead guilty to one hate crime charge, in exchange for prosecutors recommending he serve 30 years in federal prison. After U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood rejected the plea deal, attorneys for Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, asked the court for more time to decide whether they should change their pleas to guilty, CNN reports. A hearing is scheduled for Friday. Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and a third man, William "Roddie" Bryan, were convicted late last year on state murder charges in Arbery's 2020 death, and sentenced to life in prison. Arbery, a Black man, was shot and killed while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood; the McMichaels, who are white, claimed they thought Arbery was a burglary suspect. They chased Arbery in their pickup truck, and Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery as they struggled over McMichael's shotgun. The McMichaels were followed by Bryan, who recorded some of the altercation on his cellphone. The McMichaels and Bryan are all facing federal hate crime charges, and a prosecutor told Wood that by accepting the plea deal, Travis McMichael was admitting he killed Arbery and it was due to his "race or color." This did not sit well with the Arbery family. "Please listen to me," Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told Wood. "Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son."

1-31-22 Trump was reportedly personally involved in asking multiple agencies to seize voting machines after 2020 loss
President Trump rejected a proposal pushed by a motley crew of outside advisers to order the Pentagon to seize voting machines in a handful of swing states President Biden won, The New York Times and CNN report, but at the same time, in November and December 2020, he personally asked Attorney General William Barr if the Justice Department could seize the voting machines and directed his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to inquire at the Department of Homeland Security. These new accounts by people with first- or second-hand knowledge of the events show that "Trump was more directly involved than previously known in exploring proposals to use his national security agencies to seize voting machines as he grasped unsuccessfully for evidence of fraud that would help him reverse his defeat in the 2020 election," the Times reports. Giuliani did ask acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli if the department had the authority to seize voting machines, and was told no, the Times and CNN report. Trump's advisers — notably lawyer Sidney Powell, Michael Flynn, and Phil Waldron — codified the proposals for the military and DHS to take control of voting machines into draft executive orders for Trump to sign. The idea to seize voting machines reportedly originated with Waldron, a retired Army colonel who used to work with Flynn and now owns a distillery outside Austin. Trump asked Barr about using the Justice Department to take control of the state voting machines at a mid-November meeting, telling Barr his lawyers said the DOJ had that power to secure evidence of fraud, the Times reports. Barr said the Justice Department couldn't participate because there was no evidence a crime had been committed. Trump reportedly rejected the executive order for the Pentagon to seize voting machines after a dramatic Dec. 18, 2020, meeting in the Oval Office in which Powell, Flynn, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne made their case after being let in by a young aide to economic adviser Peter Navarro, the Times reports. Giuliani and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone joined the meeting and vehemently objected to involving the military. Read more about the aborted plans to seize voting machines, including Trump's unsuccessful attempts to get state lawmakers to have local law enforcement to impound them, at The New York Times and CNN.

1-31-22 Report: Pfizer coronavirus vaccine could be available for kids under 5 in February
The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine could become available for children younger than 5 by the end of February, people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post on Monday. This would be the first vaccine made available for the age group in the United States. The companies are expected to soon submit a request to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency-use authorization of the vaccine in kids 6 months to 5 years old, the Post reports. Once the FDA receives the application, regulators will begin reviewing the trial data on the two-shot regimen; data on a third shot won't be available until the end of March, at the earliest. The FDA's outside advisers will likely meet on the authorization request in mid-February, the Post reports. Pfizer and BioNTech shared in December that two doses of its vaccine in 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds didn't trigger the same type of immune response as seen in teens and adults, but did for children 6 months to 2 years old. During the trial, the kids received two doses of 3-microgram shots — a tenth of the dose given to adults — three weeks apart. Read more at The Washington Post.

1-31-22 70 percent of Americans say it's time to accept COVID and 'get on with our lives'
Seventy percent of Americans now agree with the statement "It's time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives," a new Monmouth University poll found. Of those who report having had COVID-19, 78 percent agreed with the statement, while 65 percent who say they never got the virus also agree. Among Republicans, 89 percent say it's time to move on, compared to 71 percent of independents and 47 percent of Democrats. Despite this readiness to move past COVID, however, people remain concerned about the virus. Sixty-two percent of Americans said they were concerned about someone in their family becoming seriously ill from COVID, and a slim majority supported "instituting, or reinstituting, face mask and social distancing guidelines in your state at the current time." According to Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth's Polling Institute, "Americans' worries about COVID haven't gone away. It seems more to be a realization that we are not going to get this virus under control in a way that we thought was possible just last year." Monmouth also suggested that "faith in the ability of President Joe Biden and the federal government to get a handle on the pandemic continues to fade." Only 43 percent of Americans said Biden has done a good job handling COVID, the first time his approval rating on this issue has dropped below 50 percent since he took office. Expectations for the future are also low. Those who expect COVID to continue disrupting life into 2023 or to continue to do so forever comprise 60 percent of respondents, while only 34 percent believe things will be back to normal by the end of 2022. The poll was conducted from Jan. 20 to 24, surveyed 794 adults, and has an error margin of 3.5 percent.

1-31-22 U.S. COVID hospitalizations would be halved with European vaccination rates, analysis finds
The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus pushed U.S. hospitalizations to a pandemic peak of about 161,000 cases a day in mid-January, but that number would be much lower if the U.S. had the same vaccination rate as many European countries — 91,000 hospitalizations with Denmark's numbers, 100,000 with Britain's, and 109,000 with Portugal's vaccination rates, according to a Financial Times analysis unveiled Monday. "Across the seven months since July, spanning the Delta and Omicron waves, U.S. daily patient numbers would have averaged 39,000 — rather than the 80,000 recorded — had its vaccination coverage tracked that of Portugal," Oliver Barnes, John Burn-Murdoch, and Jamie Smyth report in the Financial Times. The U.S. got off to a faster start with vaccinations than European nations, but then the U.S. rates stalled and Europe pulled ahead. The U.S. has fallen even farther behind when it comes to booster shots, a key tool against the Omicron variant. President Biden "is right when he says we're facing a pandemic of the unvaccinated — but it's also now becoming a pandemic of the unboosted," said Peter Hotez at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. He added that opposition to vaccination is the "leading killer" of middle-aged Americans and is "perpetuating the pandemic emergency state unnecessarily." The Financial Times graphed the case fatality rate (CFR) in the U.S. versus more widely vaccinated European nations. New data published Friday by France's directorate of research highlighted the importance of booster shots, finding that two doses of vaccine make an infected 70-year-old less likely to end up in the ICU than an unvaccinated 40-year-old, and that risk drops further after a booster shot. "The truth is that an 80-year-old that's vaccinated and boosted and gets COVID most of the time has nothing more than a cold," Phillip Coule, professor of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, tells the Financial Times, while "a healthy 50-year-old who's a little bit overweight, has problems with blood pressure or diabetes, and is not vaccinated at all ends up in the ICU." Read more, including the newspaper's methodology, at the Financial Times.

1-31-22 Covid-19 news: 119 people test positive at Beijing Winter Olympics
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Athletes and staff are testing positive for covid ahead of February’s games. About 119 people at the Winter Olympics – including both athletes and staff – have tested positive in Beijing, China, in the last four days. The games will run from 4 February to 20 February and about 3000 people, such as athletes and officials, are expected to take part. Unlike many countries, China is trying to eradicate covid-19 completely within its borders. It has cancelled nearly all international flights. Olympic staff and athletes cannot move freely in public during the games. Instead they are living in a “closed-loop” bubble set up by the government which will allow them to train, travel and work without interacting with anyone from outside the event. Spotify will add advisory labels to podcasts on its platform that discuss the coronavirus, its chief said yesterday in a statement. Daniel Ek said the new warnings would redirect listeners to a data hub of coronavirus facts. Thousands in the UK are set to gain access to Pfizer’s covid-19 antiviral pill from 10 February. The pill, Paxlovid, will be given to high-risk patients – such as those who have cancer or are immunocompromised – if they test positive for coronavirus. Trials suggest that the drug can cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by about 88 per cent in high-risk patients – if administered within five days of symptoms appearing.

1-31-22 Ahmaud Arbery's family lawyer vows opposition after two killers reach plea deal with federal prosecutors
The attorney for Ahmaud Arbery's family said early Monday morning that he plans to oppose a plea deal two of Arbery's killers reached with federal prosecutors, CNN reported. A Glynn County, Georgia, court found the three men charged with killing Arbery — William Bryan, Greg McMichael, and Greg's son Travis McMichael —guilty of felony murder in November. All three were sentenced to life in prison. In addition to the state murder conviction, the three men also face federal hate crime charges. Per CNN, documents filed Sunday in federal court show that the McMichaels have reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. Bryan is not mentioned in the filing. S. Lee Merritt — the attorney for Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and a Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general — wrote on Instagram at around 2:00 a.m. Monday that "[t]his back room deal represents a betrayal to the Arbery family." Merritt alleged that the plea bargain would "transfer" the McMichaels to "preferred Federal Custody" and that he planned to oppose the plea deal at a scheduled hearing at 10:00 a.m. Monday. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was murdered in 2020 when Bryan and the McMichaels chased and confronted Arbery with guns while he was out jogging. The three men, who believed Arbery was connected to a series of burglaries in the neighborhood, pursued him in a truck. Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery during a struggle over Travis' shotgun.

1-31-22 Maus: Graphic novel tops Amazon best-sellers after school ban
A Pulitzer prize-winning novel about the Holocaust has topped Amazon's best-seller's list after a school board in Tennessee banned it.The graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale depicts how the author's parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Board members voted in favour of banning the novel because it contained swear words and a naked illustration. But now The Complete Maus, which includes all volumes, is a best-seller. Other editions are topping Amazon sub-categories, including Comics & Graphic Novels. Six million Jewish people died in the Holocaust - Nazi Germany's campaign to eradicate Europe's Jewish population. Author Art Spiegelman's parents were Polish Jews who were sent to Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His novel, which features hand-drawn illustrations of mice as Jews and cats as Nazis, won a number of literary awards in 1992. The book's renewed popularity came earlier this month after the McMinn County Board of Education removed it from the curriculum. Board members said that they felt the inclusion of swear words in the graphic novel were inappropriate for the eighth grade curriculum. In the meeting's minutes, the director of schools, Lee Parkinson, was quoted as having said: "There is some rough, objectionable language in this book." Members also objected to a cartoon that featured "nakedness" in a drawing of a mouse. Initially, Mr Parkinson argued that redacting the swear words was the best course of action. But citing copyright concerns, the board eventually decided to ban the teaching of the novel altogether. Some board members did back the novel's inclusion in the curriculum. In an interview with CNBC the author of the novel, Mr Spiegelman, said he was "baffled" by the decision and called it an "Orwellian" course of action. He told The New York Times that he agreed that some of the imagery was disturbing. "But you know what? It's disturbing history," he said. The move to ban the novel comes amid a national debate over the curriculum in US public schools. Parents, teachers and school administrators have been grappling with how to teach race, discrimination and inequality in the classroom.

1-31-22 Freedom Convoy: Truckers' protest enters third day
Protests in Canada's capital city against a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the US-Canada border have entered their third consecutive day. Citing "traffic, noise and safety issues" from the so-called Freedom Convoy, Ottawa police asked the public to avoid the downtown area on Monday. Some downtown stores, including a shopping mall, will also be closed. Demonstrators have been mostly peaceful but behaviour by some members of the crowd has been strongly criticised. A GoFundMe page to support the convoy has now raised over C$9m ($7m; £5.2m). At an invite-only news conference on Sunday, Benjamin Dichter and Tamara Lich - the two organisers behind the page - said they aimed to create a "logistics nightmare" to put pressure on the Canadian government. The convoy began as a call to end a vaccine mandate imposed by the Liberal government on 15 January that would require unvaccinated Canadian truckers returning from across the US border to quarantine once they return home. But it has since grown into a push to end all vaccine mandates nationwide and what they see as government overreach of Covid-19 restrictions. The crowd of demonstrators - the truckers and their supporters - were estimated to be in the thousands on Saturday as the gathered on and around parliament hill. The crowd has since thinned but many protestors have indicated they plan to stay on until their demands are met. Around 90% of Canada's 120,000 cross-border truckers are vaccinated, in line with the country's adult population, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the protestors "a fringe minority". Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said residents "feel they're prisoners in their own homes". "You have the right to protest, you've had your protest, please move on. Our city has to get back in normal stead," he told CBC News on Sunday. Also over the weekend, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies slammed the use of Nazi symbols by some protestors as "a heinous form of Holocaust distortion". Reports on social media indicate that truckers in the US may be planning a similar demonstration that would see them drive from California in the West to the country's capital in Washington DC.

1-31-22 Portugal's Socialist Party unexpectedly wins majority in parliament
Portugal's ruling Socialist Party won an outright majority in parliament in a snap election Sunday, handing Prime Minister António Costa an opportunity to pass his budget and guide the country out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Socialists won 117 seats in the 230-seat parliament, up from 108, giving the party its second majority in Portugal's history, BBC News reports. Costa called the election after two smaller parties bolted his coalition. Polls had suggested the Socialists would lose seats. he main opposition Social Democrats, a center-right party, won 71 seats, while the far-right Chega party won 12 seats, making it the third-largest bloc in parliament. Costa promised to govern for all Portuguese. "An absolute majority doesn't mean absolute power," he said. "It doesn't mean governing alone. It's an increased responsibility." He also said he would work to govern with any party except Chega.

1-31-22 Jon Stewart and the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse try to explain QAnon's irrational allure
The BBC has produced a podcast on QAnon called "The Coming Storm" in which journalist Gabriel Gatehouse attempts to understand why so many people bought into the conspiracy theory. "Where other series have tended to present QAnon followers as crackpots with a tenuous grip on reality, Gatehouse is respectful and maintains a curious rather than condescending tone," Fiona Sturges writes in the Financial Times. Gatehouse and Jon Stewart dug into the topic on The Problem With Jon Stewart podcast, and they ended up in some unexpected places. If you take the main conspiracy theory points literally — Hillary Clinton and other global elites are in a cabal of blood-drinking pedophiles — "then obviously it's nonsense," Gatehouse said. "But if you take QAnon as a sort of parable," where a group of powerful actors are effectively running things behind the scenes, it makes more sense. Stewart asked why QAnon followers would glom onto outrageous tales instead of that simpler populist argument. Gatehouse agreed that the "specificity" of Q's outlandish conspiracies helped it succeed where other LARP (live-action role play) "anon" accounts failed, but he also pointed to the "emotive" draw of child trafficking and QAnon's "participatory element." "People are deputized," Stewart said, and Gatehouse agreed, saying QAnon adherents "do their own research" and end up in bizarre places in their search for explanations on how they ended up "at the bottom of the pile." Stewart suggested this search for "nefarious" scapegoats is in the same "universe" as the "the misinformation that the fascists used in the '30s" or even "the Salem witch trials," and Gatehouse said the big difference is that "the Nazis were in control of the message, but now we've got the internet, like, no one's in control of it." Right, "it's a crowdsourced misinformation campaign," Stewart said. He also suggested "the mainstream American media sowed the seeds for Q's virality by creating that adrenaline and cortisol in people's bodies of fear and always on the verge of disaster and catastrophe." Gatehouse agreed, they ended up talking about the apocryphal Donald Trump "pee tape." Gatehouse also hinted at why the BBC might be interested in QAnon: "Well, you guys are always first, so wherever you go, we follow. So obviously the wheels are about to come off our democracy as well." BBC correspondent Stephanie Hegarty also took a look at QAnon, and why it's so hard to quit.

1-31-22 New Zealand responds to pregnant reporter helped by Taliban
New Zealand has defended its border controls after a pregnant journalist said she had to turn to the Taliban for help after not being able to fly home. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said there was a place for "people with special circumstances" like Charlotte Bellis. Her story has cast a renewed spotlight on Wellington's tough border measures designed to keep out the coronavirus. Others took issue with her privileged relationship with the Taliban. The Taliban has been regularly criticised for brutally clamping down on women's rights by arresting, torturing and even killing activists and campaigners. In a column written for the New Zealand Herald newspaper, Ms Bellis said the New Zealand government had last week rejected her application to return home to give birth. Currently, Wellington allows citizens and permanent residents to enter, but only if they spend 10 days isolating in quarantine hotels. As there is high demand for such facilities and a limited number of spots, many New Zealanders wishing to return have effectively been shut out of their country. She compared that experience to the way she was treated by the Taliban, whom she had contacted to ask if she would be welcome in Afghanistan as an unmarried pregnant woman. Ms Bellis and her partner, a Belgian photojournalist, had been in Afghanistan last year covering the withdrawal of US troops, and it was the only place she and her partner had visas for. "You can come and you won't have a problem. Just tell people you're married and if it escalates, call us," Ms Bellis quoted the unnamed officials as saying in response to her request. "When the Taliban offers you - a pregnant, unmarried woman - safe haven, you know your situation is messed up," she wrote. Single Afghan mothers have reported being frequently harassed by Taliban officials, pressured to give up their children, and having their custodial rights threatened.

1-30-22 Allison Fluke-Ekren: US woman held for leading female IS group
An American woman has been arrested and charged with organising and leading an all-female battalion of the Islamic State group. Allison Fluke-Ekren, a mother who once lived in Kansas, allegedly trained women and children to use AK-47 assault rifles and suicide vests in Syria. She is also suspected of recruiting operatives for a potential future attack on a US college campus. Ms Fluke-Ekren could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Details of the complaint were given in an FBI affidavit from 2019, which was released on Saturday after she was returned to the US to face charges. It alleges that in 2016 an all-female IS battalion, known as Khatiba Nusaybah, was set up in Raqqa, Syria. At the time, the city was the de facto capital of the Islamic State group. The battalion was said to be comprised solely of female IS members who were married to male IS fighters. Ms Fluke-Ekren is suspected of becoming the leader and organiser of the group soon after she joined it. It is alleged that her main role was to teach women how to defend themselves against the enemies of IS. She is said to have succeeded in getting several IS women trained up in the use of AK-47 rifles, grenades and suicide belts. She is also accused of teaching children to use assault weapons, and in the FBI affidavit a witness is quoted as saying that one of Ms Fluke-Ekren's sons was seen holding a machine gun. He was 5 or 6 years old at the time. As well as her suspected role in Syria, Ms Fluke-Ekren is also accused of planning and recruiting operatives for an attack on a college campus in the US. She also allegedly told a witness of her desire to carry out an attack on a shopping mall using explosives, and reportedly said that it would be a waste of resources if it did not kill a lot of people. Ms Fluke-Ekren is charged with providing and conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

1-30-22 In eastern Ukraine, war-weary soldiers and civilians await Russia's next move
The frontlines of Eastern Ukraine are snow-laden and the big guns are largely silent. But snipers are bedded into this winter white wasteland. Ukrainian troops who forget to stay low in their World War One-style trenches risk a bullet to the head. The conflict here has been frozen in place since 2014, when separatists, backed by Moscow, seized parts of the Donbas region. At least 13,000 people have been killed, both combatants and civilians. Now Western leaders are warning of something much worse - a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. If it comes, the eastern front would be an easy place to start, with the pro-Russian rebels here paving the way. Maria was trying not to stress about all that. The 26-year-old Ukrainian soldier, talkative and slight, was in her trench, armed with a Kalashnikov and a perfect manicure. She's part of Ukraine's 56th infantry brigade. (The army asked us to stick to her first name, to prevent trolling on social media.) "I try to avoid politics and not to watch TV, I try not to get too worried," Maria said. "But we are ready. We have had a lot of training. I understand that it won't be like a training exercise, it will be hard for everyone. But our morale is high and we are standing our ground." Maria has a band of brothers. Two served in Ukraine's national guard. Her youngest brother will soon be heading to the frontline, as a tank gunner. Back home her retired parents are caring for her four-year-old son. "It was very hard to leave him," she said. "But since I was six years old my dream was to join the army. I didn't think that I would end up on the frontline, but I don't regret that I am here." Nearby, one of her brothers in arms chopped wood with an axe. The cold is a constant threat, like the separatists about a kilometre away.

1-30-22 Ukraine-Russia tensions: British troops 'unlikely' to fight - Truss
There is a "real threat" of Russia invading Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned, but it is "very unlikely" British soldiers would be deployed to fight in any conflict. Instead, she said the UK was sending weapons to Ukraine and "strengthening" its sanction system so oligarchs close to the Kremlin had "nowhere to hide". She said the UK was also offering extra support to nearby Nato allies. Any invasion would be "terrible for Europe", Ms Truss told the BBC. Russia has placed about 100,000 troops, tanks, artillery and missiles near Ukraine's border, but denies it plans to invade the former Soviet republic, which borders both Russia and the EU. But Ms Truss said it was "highly likely" that President Vladimir Putin was looking to invade. "We're doing all we can through deterrence and diplomacy to urge him to desist," she told BBC One's Sunday Morning programme. Economic sanctions - punishments put on a state, individuals or organisations by another country - could target Russian financial institutions, energy companies, and those who are "key to... the continuation of the Russian regime". Under new legislation, sanctions could potentially target "any interest that has an impact on the Russian government", she said. The Foreign Office is expected announce tougher sanctions in Parliament on Monday. Earlier this week, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the West not to create panic, saying warnings of an imminent invasion were putting Ukraine's economy at risk. Ms Truss, who will visit Ukraine and Moscow in the next two weeks, said the UK had already trained 20,000 troops in Ukraine, supplied anti-tank missiles, and given support to its navy and energy sector. The UK is also considering offering to double the number of its troops deployed in Eastern Europe, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying it would send a "clear message to the Kremlin".

1-30-22 Winter Olympics 2022: Beijing reports spike in new virus cases
Beijing has reported its highest number of Covid-19 cases in 18 months, five days ahead of the start of the Winter Olympics in the Chinese capital. After 20 more cases were reported in the capital, officials announced that some local areas had been locked down with residents being tested. Separately, organisers of the Olympics reported 34 new infections within the event's "closed-loop" bubble. Officials said it included 13 athletes or officials arriving at the airport. Anyone testing positive is being put into isolation and only allowed to compete after getting two negative test results in 24 hours. The Winter Olympics are going ahead despite travel in and out of China being severely restricted since the pandemic began in December 2019, after the first cases found in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Those travelling to Beijing for the games must come on charter flights and stay in their bubble until they leave. People have to clear Covid-19 tests before and after arriving in China, with tens of thousands inside the bubble also undergoing daily testing as well as being expected to wear masks. China has maintained a zero-Covid policy since the start of the pandemic, with local outbreaks met with harsh restrictions and widespread testing to stop transmission routes. The country's National Health Commission (NHC) reported 20 new cases in Beijing on Sunday - the highest number since June 2020. Local officials have locked down housing compounds in the Fengtai district - where many of the cases were recorded. Some 2 million people will be tested for the virus in response, AFP news agency reports. The NHC reported 54 new cases in total nationwide on Sunday, including cases in the eastern city of Hangzhou and Suifenhe in Heilongjiang province.

1-30-22 The prison beyond the law
The U.S. has been holding terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay for 20 years. Will the camp ever close? The military detention facility first called Camp X-Ray was built in three days in early January 2002, to receive al Qaida and Taliban prisoners captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly after Jan. 11, when the first 20 detainees arrived, the Pentagon released a startling photo of the men in orange jumpsuits, hooded and shackled, kneeling on the ground by a barbed-wire fence. The image sparked a national debate over human rights and national security that continues to this day. Over the next 20 years, the U.S. spent $11 billion on the camp as it expanded into a large compound called Camp Delta. Some 780 Muslim men and boys, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, cycled through its prison cells, almost all without charges or trials. In the first three years, many were subjected to "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, beatings, and being forced to stay awake or exposed to blaring music for days. Only two were ever convicted of war crimes. After years of gradual releases and repatriations under four presidents, 39 remain in custody. It's in limbo. While trying to extract information from the prisoners, the Bush administration didn't want them to be subject to the Geneva Conventions, so it classified them as "illegal enemy combatants," a term not defined in international law. Trying these suspected terrorists in court, the administration said, was too big a risk: Those acquitted for lack of evidence could go free on U.S. soil and plot new attacks on Americans. So it sent the prisoners to the U.S. military base in Cuba, beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. But a series of Supreme Court cases determined that the detainees could challenge their detention in federal court, and most obtained lawyers. At the outset, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the camp was housing only highly trained, hardened terrorists— the "worst of the worst." A few detainees were, in fact, top al Qaida members, such as the suspected 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But many were low-level Taliban or jihadist fighters with no involvement in terrorist plots against the U.S., and dozens of others were later found to be innocent people swept up by Afghan or Pakistani forces chasing the U.S. bounty of $5,000 per capture. Hundreds of inmates were later transferred to other countries, but some were held for years. Seven have died by suicide, and dozens of others have attempted it. When President Obama took office in 2009, he ended the use of torture, and ordered that the Guantánamo Bay camp be closed within a year, with prisoners deemed dangerous given trials and sent to U.S. maximum-security prisons. But with both Republicans and Democrats insisting, rather improbably, that terrorists might escape the supermaxes (which house mass murderers and other terrorists), Congress passed a law barring the transfer of detainees to U.S. territory. In 2018, President Trump reversed Obama's closure order, and detainees who were slated for release had their transfers delayed. Of the 39 prisoners who remain, 10 are awaiting trial, two were convicted, and the other 27 were never charged. The trials have moved at an agonizingly slow pace. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants in the 9/11 attack have been in pretrial hearings for years, with their lawyers arguing that the evidence against them is inadmissible because it was obtained by torture.

1-30-22 Freedom Convoy: Why Canadian truckers are protesting in Ottawa
After a week-long drive across Canada, a convoy of big rigs has arrived in the national capital to protest vaccine mandates and Covid-19 measures. Organisers insist it will be peaceful, but police say they're prepared for trouble. It's been dubbed the Freedom Convoy, and it's got the country talking. The movement was sparked by a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the US-Canada border, implemented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government earlier this month. Upset with the new measure that would require unvaccinated Canadian truckers crossing the two nations' boundary to quarantine once they've returned home, a loose coalition of truckers and conservative groups began to organise the cross-country drive that began in western Canada. It picked up steam and gathered support as it drove east. Many supporters, already opposed to Mr Trudeau and his politics, have grown frustrated with pandemic measures they see as political overreach. Social media and news footage showed trucks and companion vehicles snaking along highways, cheered on by people gathered on roadsides and overpasses, often waving Canadian flags and signs disparaging Mr Trudeau. A GoFundMe campaign has raised, to date, over a whopping C$7m ($5.4m; £4m) from over 99,000 donors. The unusual protest even caught the attention of people outside Canada's borders, with podcaster Joe Rogan, Donald Trump Jr - the son of the former US president - and British comedian Russell Brand showing support. The protesters plan to stay in downtown Ottawa near Parliament Hill for at least the weekend, and their demands have grown from reversing the border vaccine mandate to ending all such mandates nationwide. "We want to be free, we want to have our choice again, and we want hope - and the government has taken that away," Harold Jonker, a truck driver and trucking company owner, told the BBC as he drove through the town of Brockville, about 115km (72 miles) from Ottawa on Friday. The convoy has been peaceful as it passed through Canadian towns and cities, and Ottawa police have said they're in touch with organisers, who've been cooperative.

1-29-22 Trudeau flees as trucker convoy enters Ottawa
As thousands of protesters entered Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family were moved from their home to an undisclosed location somewhere in the city on Saturday afternoon due to security concerns, CBC reports. A "Freedom Convoy" of some 2,700 trucks entered the Canadian capital city of Ottawa Saturday to protest Trudeau's COVID-19 policies, Reuters reported. According to the Independent, around 100 big rigs blockaded a main street running past the Canadian parliament building. The convoy, which approached the capital from all sides, began as a protest against a vaccine mandate for Canadian truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border but grew into a wider expression of discontent with the government's COVID-19 policies. "These demonstrations are national in scope, they're massive in scale," Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly said Friday, expressing concern about the possibility of violent "lone wolf" individuals carrying out violent acts. The protest has drawn criticism from many sides. The Canadian Trucking Alliance condemned the convoy. Nova Scotia banned people from congregating along the highways to support the protesting truckers. A Washington Post cartoonist drew a convoy of tractor-trailers with "Fascism" written on the side of each one. Trudeau said Friday that the convoy members and their supporters hold "unacceptable views," The Guardian reported. B.J. Dicher, an organizer of the convoy, urged the demonstrators to remain peaceful. "We cannot achieve our goals if there are threats or acts of violence," he said.

1-29-22 Jan. 6 committee subpoenas 14 'alternate' Trump electors
The Jan. 6 Select Committee issued subpoenas Friday for 14 Republicans who had been chosen to serve as alternate electors from seven states President Biden won, The Washington Post reported. The 14 people subpoenaed attempted to cast electoral votes for then-President Donald Trump in a move that, if then-Vice President Mike Pence had refused to certify the election results, could have propelled Trump to claiming victory in the 2020 election. "The Select Committee is seeking information about attempts in multiple states to overturn the results of the 2020 election, including the planning and coordination of efforts to send false slates of electors," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chairs the committee. According to CNN, the 14 people subpoenaed — all of whom were listed as "chair" or "secretary" on slates of alternative, pro-Trump electors — hail from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Trump lost all seven states. Per the Post, Thompson encouraged the 14 individuals to cooperate with the committee's investigation to "help ensure nothing like that day ever happens again."

1-29-22 Ukraine crisis: Russian attack would be 'horrific', US warns
Top US General Mark Milley has said that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be "horrific" and would lead to a significant number of casualties. Gen Milley described the build-up of 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine's border as the largest since the Cold War. But US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said conflict could still be avoided through the use of diplomacy. Russia denies plans to invade and says US support for Ukraine is a threat. At a news conference at the Pentagon on Friday, Gen Milley - US President Joe Biden's most senior military officer - warned that the scale of Russia's forces near its border with Ukraine meant an attack would have severe consequences. "If that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties," said the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Fighting in dense urban areas would be "horrific, it would be terrible", Gen Milley added. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US was committed to helping Ukraine defend itself, including by providing more weaponry. "Conflict is not inevitable. There is still time and space for diplomacy," Mr Austin said, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to de-escalate the situation. "There is no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict... He can order his troops away," he added. Also on Friday, President Biden said he would send a small number of troops to Eastern Europe in the "near term", to strengthen the Nato presence in the region. He did not specify where they would be stationed or when they would arrive. Earlier this week, the Pentagon said there were 8,500 combat-ready troops on alert, ready to be deployed at short notice. The US has rejected a key Moscow demand that Nato rule out Ukraine joining the defence alliance - but insisted it was offering Russia a "serious diplomatic path". Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of ignoring Russia's security concerns.

1-28-22 Why the Pentagon can't put an end to civilian deaths
Following the botched U.S. drone strike that killed 10 members of an Afghan family last year, the Pentagon has announced a new plan to reduce civilian deaths in America's wars abroad. The Defense Department will set up a "civilian protection center of excellence" to develop policies and rules, institute new reporting requirements, and make the issue a priority in battle planning. Preventing the deaths of innocents "is a strategic and moral imperative," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memorandum to senior defense officials. This is commendable. I'm just not sure if the new rules will work. The New York Times has recently produced a series of investigative reports focusing on the U.S. war against ISIS in Syria, documenting a number of incidents in which civilians were killed or threatened. There was a 2017 strike on a dam that risked the lives of tens of thousands of people living downstream, and a 2019 bombardment that killed dozens of Syrian civilians. Both events were part of a broader pattern of U.S. forces unleashing deadly force with only the barest discrimination between terrorist fighters and the civilians who deserved protection. The problem in each of those cases was not an absence of regulations. Indeed, the Syrian dam was very explicitly on a "no-strike" list kept by American forces and their allies. Instead, the Times revealed in December, U.S. operators often made flimsy invocations of self-defense "which enabled them to move quickly with little second-guessing or oversight, even if their targets were miles from any fighting." paper. "It's easier to get approved." Such rule-bending is routine in war. The U.S. has laws and treaties against torture; smart lawyers found a way to ignore them after 9/11 and indeed, they found it imperative to do so. American soldiers suspected or convicted of committing war crimes are celebrated on Fox News and sometimes even pardoned by presidents. American forces go abroad to battle the country's enemies on our behalf — for our freedom and safety, we're told — so we're naturally inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt or even encourage them to play fast and loose with the rules. Civilian deaths and injuries are the natural results. Maybe Austin's efforts will bear fruit. As my colleague Ryan Cooper has pointed out, the Biden Administration has massively pared back America's drone wars. But history suggests that wherever war is happening, civilians suffer and die. A bit of bureaucratic shuffling probably won't change that. (Webmasters Comment: The US armed forces will still practice "Kill Anything That Moves!" as they have done for over 100 years.)

1-28-22 The Supreme Court is a bastion of unearned privilege
The elite school pipeline is affirmative action, too. The Supreme Court is set to hear a pair of cases about racial preference in college admissions, or "affirmative action." As Nicholas Lemann writes at The New Yorker, it's highly likely that the court will ban the practice as part of their general assault on civil rights. One case, in classic right-wing troll fashion, is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian-Americans' applications. Now, as Jay Kaspian Kang points out at The New York Times, there actually is quite strong evidence this has happened. That's indefensible and should be rectified immediately. But it is ludicrously unfair to use that alleged fact to abolish affirmative action entirely. Elites enjoy their own system of affirmative action that is a hundred times more powerful than the halting and halfhearted efforts at prestigious universities to make their student bodies somewhat more diverse. Wealthy conservatives want to make the system even more unfair than it already is through judicial rule-by-decree. Just look at the Supreme Court itself. For most of the court's recent history, almost every justice has gone to Harvard or Yale for law school — the sole exception today is Amy Coney Barrett, who went to Notre Dame. Indeed, there are two justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, who went to the same prep school. There are about 27,000 high schools in this country; it simply beggars belief to argue that of the nine "best" legal minds in the country, 22 percent of them just happened to come from the same one. Come on. (Also, if Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing was any guide, Georgetown Prep would seem to be a place where our future judicial overlords learn about utter moral debauchery and early-onset cirrhosis instead of Aristotle or whatever.) Let's not be children about this. The pipeline from Georgetown Prep to Yale or Harvard Law to the federal bench is a system of privilege. High-status people use their money (Georgetown Prep's tuition is $60,000 a year, though there is some financial aid) and influence to place their family and friends into exclusive institutions where they more or less succeed automatically, even if you're — to pick a completely random example — a handsy beer-swilling moron. See also Jared Kushner, a titanic dullard who got to go to Harvard despite atrocious grades and test scores because his father made a strategic $2.5 million "donation." Kavanaugh even had legacy preference at Yale because his grandfather went there (which he lied about under oath), and that was even more important in the 1980s than it is today. They don't make hypocrisy more egregious than this guy almost certainly ruling against race-based affirmative action. It is obviously the case that without consistent pressure against it, the power of the rich will undermine the integrity of any supposedly "neutral" process. Base admission simply on test scores, and you run into the fact well-to-do parents can afford testing prep services, re-tests, tutors, and so forth (not to mention actual bribes to admission officers). Base it on more nebulous criteria like essays, letters of recommendation, sports, or community service (as is now standard in most college admissions), and it's even easier for the rich to squirm in with expensive consultants and careful preparation. Indeed, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out some years back, this style of application originated in a literal anti-Semitic conspiracy. Too many high-achieving Jews from working-class families were getting into the Ivy League in the early 20th century, so the WASP elite at the time had to invent some way to discriminate in a plausibly-deniable fashion.

1-28-22 Global vaccine administration total surpasses 10 billion doses
Over ten billion vaccine doses have now been administered globally, representing a new milestone in the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reports. That said, however, the achievement does not arrive without its shortcomings; though "10 billion doses could theoretically have meant at least one shot for all of the world's 7.9 billion people," distribution has, in reality, meant anything but, notes the Times. In wealthy countries, 77 percent of people have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, versus less than 10 percent in low-income countries. Even as the U.S. and parts of Europe build out their booster campaigns to fight the Omicron variant, "more than one-third of the world's people, many of them in Africa and poor pockets of Asia, are still waiting for a first dose." "Ten billion doses is a triumph of science but a complete failure of global solidarity," Madhukar Pai, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University, told the Times. For example, the U.S. has administered "five times as many extra shots — about 85 million — as the total number of doses administered in all of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation." Despite the World Health Organization's global sharing initiative, Covax, disparities remain — perhaps at least in part because rich countries have not agreed to waive IP restrictions, or pressured drug companies to "share their technology so that poorer nations can manufacture doses locally," per the Times. We have learned through this pandemic that charity does not work in global health, and charity is not the same as justice," Pai added. "And that is what countries are looking for — a just approach to be able to save themselves."

1-28-22 Ukraine wants the U.S. to tone down the invasion rhetoric: 'Don't shout so much'
Yes, Ukraine would like foreign assistance from the United States and its allies in its standoff with Russia; but outside of providing defense weaponry, the country would prefer the U.S. just stay quiet, The New York Times reports Friday, per the head of Ukraine's security council. "When they start saying that tomorrow, you're going to have war, just take into consideration that the first thing we do not need in our country is panic," Oleksii Danilov, leader of the security council, told the Times. "Why? Because panic is the sister of failure." "That's why we are saying to our partners, 'Don't shout so much,'" he added. "Do you see a threat? Give us 10 jets every day. Not one, 10. And the threat will disappear." Danilov agreed, of course, that "the threat from Russia was real," the Times notes, and he thanked the U.S. and other global powers for offering aid. But he also "seemed to question the accuracy of the American intelligence assessment of the origins of Russia's military buildup," the Times adds; in the fall, when the White House initially flagged Russia's military buildup near Ukraine's border, Ukrainian intelligence showed nothing out of the ordinary, he said. "We understand what is happening and where it is happening," he said. "Don't try to make us out to be unexperienced." When also asked if he thought U.S. pressure was making matters worse, he declined to answer, but noted that "I really like the movie Wag the Dog." Russia and Ukraine have been at odds for weeks now, as Russia maintains its position on Ukraine's border while simultaneously insisting it has no plans to invade. Though the U.S. is incredibly concerned, Ukrainian officials have expressed "a diametrically opposite assessment," per the Times.

1-28-22 Ukraine crisis: US ignored Russia's security concerns, Putin says
Russian President Vladimir Putin has told his French counterpart that the West has ignored Russia's security concerns, amid fears Russia could invade Ukraine. The US rejected a key Moscow demand that Nato rule out Ukraine joining the defence alliance - but insisted it was offering Russia a "diplomatic path". President Joe Biden has warned there is a "distinct possibility" Russia might invade Ukraine next month. Russia denies it is planning an attack. But on Friday Mr Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron the stand-off had not been resolved. "US and Nato responses did not take account of such key Russian concerns as preventing Nato expansion, non-deployment of strike weapons systems near Russian borders, or returning the alliance's military potential and infrastructure in Europe to positions existing in 1997," a Kremlin readout of the call said. It is Mr Putin's first comment on the crisis after the US rejected Russia's main demand. He told Mr Macron he would study the US counter-proposals closely before deciding on any further action. France said the two leaders had agreed on the need to de-escalate the situation. Mr Macron told Mr Putin that Russia must respect the sovereignty of its neighbouring states. Also on Friday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to downplay Mr Biden's warning of a February invasion. He told reporters that tensions were not currently escalating, although he could not rule out that they might in the future. "We don't need panic," he said. Shortly after Mr Putin's comments to Mr Macron, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was ready to increase its presence in eastern Europe to demonstrate its resolve. Mr Stoltenberg said Russia was deploying thousands of combat-ready troops and missile systems into Belarus, which also borders Ukraine. Russia last month made wide-ranging security demands from the West.

1-28-22 US Supreme Court: The women in the running to replace Stephen Breyer
US President Joe Biden has affirmed that he will appoint a black woman to the top US court for the first time in history. The eventual nominee will take up a seat to be vacated by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who will retire in June. Appearing with Mr Breyer on Thursday, Mr Biden promised a replacement with the "experience and integrity" needed for the role. He said he'll announce his pick by the end of February. Three judges are considered top contenders. Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, is widely believed to be the top contender to replace Justice Breyer. Born in Washington DC and raised in Miami, Ms Jackson currently serves on the influential US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. Three current justices previously served on the court. "Presidents are not kings," she wrote in a 2019 ruling compelling a former aide to President Trump to testify in the Russia meddling probe. "They do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control." The jurist has two degrees from Harvard University, which she attended as an undergraduate and as a law student, once serving as editor of the Harvard Law Review. During her time at Harvard, she led protests against a student who draped a Confederate flag from his dorm window. Her parents are both graduates of historically black colleges who began their careers are teachers. Ms Jackson has also clerked for three federal judges in the past, most notably Justice Breyer himself from 1999-2000. In January 2021, she was among President Biden's very first judicial picks, to fill the court seat vacated by his current Attorney General Merrick Garland. At that confirmation hearing, former House Speaker and ex-Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan introduced her; Mr Ryan is a relative by marriage. "Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal," he said. Ms Jackson's husband is a surgeon and she has two children.

1-28-22 Ten people injured in Pittsburgh bridge collapse
A bridge in the US city of Pittsburgh has collapsed with four vehicles, including a bus, on it at the time. No deaths have been reported. Officials said 10 people sustained minor injuries, three of whom were taken to hospital. The snow-covered Fern Hollow Bridge gave way on Friday morning, sometime after 06:00 local time (11:00 GMT). The collapse happened just hours before President Joe Biden was set to arrive in the city to talk infrastructure. A nearby resident told the KDKA-TV local news channel that the incident "sounded like a huge snow plow... pushing along the surface with no snow". Residents have been asked to avoid the area after public safety officials confirmed a cut in a nearby gas line had been caused by the collapse. A strong smell of natural gas is being reported in the area. It remains unclear what caused the bridge to collapse. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said it had been inspected as recently as September. The White House has said it is in touch with state and local officials, and Mr Biden intends to continue his visit as planned. He is set to speak in West Mifflin, about 10 miles (16km) outside of Pittsburgh, later on Friday about the benefits of the infrastructure spending bill he recently signed into law. The legislation includes $110bn (£82bn) to repair and rebuild roads and bridges. Federal transportation officials say about 45,000 US bridges - including more than 3,000 in Pennsylvania - are in poor condition and may be eligible for the funding. "This bipartisan infrastructure law is critical," said Mayor Gainey at a Friday morning news conference. "At the end of the day, it's critical that we get this funding. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which regularly scores US infrastructure on an A to F report card, currently gives the country a C- grade.

1-28-22 What you need to know about the fast-spreading BA.2 omicron variant
Another year, another variant. Even before the omicron wave is over, the rising number of cases caused by a variant of omicron known as BA.2 is causing concern. Here’s what we know about BA.2. It’s basically another flavour of omicron that has been around right from the start. The term omicron is used to describe a whole family of variants that appeared suddenly in November 2021. Most omicron cases have been caused by one of these variants known to scientists as BA.1. BA.2 has 32 of the same mutations as BA.1, but it also has 28 that are different. The first BA.2 sample was collected in South Africa on 17 November 2021. In several countries including the UK, Germany, India and Denmark, the proportion of cases caused by BA.2 is increasing rapidly. In other words, BA.2 is replacing BA.1, which suggests it is even more transmissible. If you’re unvaccinated and have not been infected by omicron, then yes. If you get infected, even if you do not become severely ill, you could start a chain of infections that does result in deaths. If you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, or have had omicron already, these risks are much lower. We don’t yet know but many researchers expect that if people have recently been infected by BA.1, they are unlikely to get BA.2, especially if they have also been vaccinated. That’s not to say this will not happen, but the numbers are expected to be low. “Antibodies elicited by BA.1 will still probably react reasonably well against BA.2, certainly much better than delta antibodies,” says Jesse Bloom at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. The existing vaccines are actually even better at protecting against BA.2 than BA.1. According the UK’s Health Security Agency, three vaccine doses are 70 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections by BA.2 two weeks after the booster, and 63 per effective against BA.1. For people with two vaccines doses, after 25 weeks the efficacy is 13 per cent against BA.2 and 9 per cent against BA.1. These are the combined numbers for all vaccines used in the UK.

1-27-22 UK's rapid covid-19 drug delivery is helping protect vulnerable people
A network of clinics has been set up to give treatments to people who are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus soon after they have a positive test. As the UK phases out covid-19 restrictions – with England dropping nearly all such measures – people who are extremely vulnerable have a new weapon against the virus: antiviral drugs and antibodies designed to lower the risk of people getting severely ill. The medicines should be taken within five days of a positive PCR test and symptoms beginning, and ideally as soon as possible. Getting the drugs to people who are at home, not in hospital, has meant setting up a new system of rapid testing and access to medicines through special clinics. People who are eligible include those with cancer, genetic immune deficiencies and some autoimmune conditions. They should by now have received letters and a prioritised PCR test to keep at home in case they start having coronavirus symptoms. The antibody treatment, called sotrovimab, which seems to be most effective, is given as one infusion that takes up to an hour to deliver. If people with covid-19 were to mix with others in hospitals, it would risk spreading the virus, so some new clinics have been set up away from other wards. “We kicked some finance people out of their offices, and that’s a separate building with its own parking, so that works quite well,” says Jeremy Lewis, who heads the covid-19 medicines delivery unit at Nottingham University Hospitals. People who aren’t suitable for the antibody infusion can take an oral antiviral treatment called molnupiravir at home. They get a phone call from the clinic, then a packet of tablets is couriered to them the same or the next day, as well as a pregnancy test if applicable, because the drug could cause birth defects.

1-27-22 California firearms: City rules gun owners must have liability coverage
Gun owners in the California city of San Jose will soon be required to take out liability insurance against gun injuries or accidents, if landmark legislation is given final approval. It will be the first time anywhere in the US that people will be compelled to purchase coverage for their weapons. The city council approved the measure on Tuesday, and the decision is expected to be ratified next month. Some gun owners argue it would violate their Second Amendment rights. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership of any country, as well as a higher incidence of gun violence than any other wealthy nation. California became the first state to ban assault weapons in 1989 after a mass shooting at an elementary school in which five children were killed. Six other states and the District of Columbia have an assault weapons ban in place, according to the gun safety group Giffords. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said that as well as the insurance, gun owners would be required to pay an annual fee. Funds raised from both would go towards initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and harm, he said. He told the BBC the US had got itself into a "horrific situation" with gun violence and Congress had "basically been paralysed for decades over gun legislation". His council's move was an attempt to find a different solution, he said. "Mass shootings tend to grab the headlines, but this is about the much wider issue of gun harm in our communities," Mr Liccardo said. He added that since his council had been looking into longer term solutions and programmes to deter gun harm, several mayors from across the US had contacted him for advice on similar moves in their own cities. Liability insurance generally only covers accidental shootings and in some cases, acts of self-defence. Most US insurers offer it from $15-30 a month. A policy can include help with legal fees in either civil or criminal defence cases. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said following "unthinkable tragedies from gun violence" the council's action "will save lives". The National Foundation For Gun Rights has threatened to sue San Jose, describing legislators as "gun-grabbers" who want to "tax law-abiding gun owners simply for exercising their Second Amendment rights". A statement from the group added: "This is just as unthinkable as imposing a 'free speech tax' or a 'church attendance tax'." The Second Amendment enshrines the right to keep and bear arms under the US constitution.

1-27-22 U.S. sends Russia letter on security demands: 'The ball is in their court'
The United States sent a letter to Russia addressing the country's security demands, but did not make any concessions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. The missive is "a serious diplomatic path forward," Blinken said, and is the latest attempt to cool tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The letter's contents won't be made public, Blinken added, but he did say it mentions Russia's demand that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO. "NATO's door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment," Blinken said. President Biden was "intimately involved" in writing the letter, Blinken said, and it made clear that the Biden administration is dedicated to helping Ukraine keep its sovereignty and "the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances." The letter does not contain "explicit proposals" and isn't "a formal negotiations document," Blinken said. "The ball is in their court," he added. "It remains up to Russia how to decide to respond. We're ready either way." In addition to permanently banning Ukraine from NATO, Russia wants a rollback of NATO military deployments in Eastern Europe. Earlier Wednesday, Moscow said if its security demands are not met, it would take "retaliatory measures."

1-27-22 Biden tells Zelensky there's a 'distinct possibility' Russia could invade Ukraine in February
President Biden reiterated to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday that there is a "distinct possibility" Russia could invade Ukraine in February. White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told reporters that Biden has "said this publicly and we have been warning about this for months." An estimated 100,000 Russian troops are stationed along the border with Ukraine, and Biden believes when the ground freezes, they could attack from the north of Kyiv, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. There is heavy equipment alongside the troops, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will want optimal ground conditions to move into Ukraine, the sources said. Russia invaded and later annexed the Crimean Peninsula in late February 2014. Moscow has made several security demands, including that NATO roll back military deployments in Eastern Europe and prohibit Ukraine from ever joining the organization. The United States responded with a letter on Wednesday, rejecting those requests while also addressing some concerns that have the potential of being worked out. Having received this message, Russia believes there is "little ground for optimism," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, but "there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it's in the interests of both us and the Americans." The United Nations Security Council will hold a meeting on Monday to discuss Russia's "threatening actions," U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, as the country's amassment of troops poses "a clear threat to international peace and security and the U.N. charter." The U.S. has also warned of sanctions, should Russia invade Ukraine, that would target high-ranking officials and industries. Senior U.S. officials told AP if Moscow doesn't cooperate, Germany would likely not allow Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia, to start operations.

1-27-22 Why resurgent antisemitism in America is a problem for us all
Antisemitism is a bellwether of a nation going wrong. Any time there's an outburst of violence against Jewish people, my Twitter timeline erupts in surprise that Jews continue to be endangered. It happened after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, and the shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City the following year, and again in mid-January, when members of a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas were taken hostage by a gunman. Many weren't previously aware, for example, that a growing number of synagogues are guarded by police or private security, or that some Jewish congregations engage in self-defense training in preparation for events like the one in Colleyville. (The rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel credited this training with saving his life and the lives of two other people.) But the threat to the Jewish community deserves our attention because it concerns everyone. And those security precautions are warranted, for in the past decade, acts of bigotry and violence against Jewish people have rebounded with a fervor unparalleled in the post-war era. In Europe especially, hostility towards Jews seems to be increasing as the cultural memory of the Holocaust recedes. Cemeteries are desecrated; synagogues firebombed. A French student is beaten on the subway for speaking Hebrew; a London rabbi is hospitalized after being assaulted by two young men yelling "Kill the Jews!" A mob of more than three hundred protesters encircles a Parisian synagogue chanting, "Jews, get out of France!" In America, things are hardly better, as Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, and now Colleyville can attest. Despite comprising only 2 percent of the American population, Jews in the past year were the target of 57 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes. Amid the wave of pro-Palestinian protests that broke out in early 2021, there were numerous reports of street attacks on Jews assumed to be Zionists. Just last week, children standing outside a synagogue in Brooklyn were accosted by a woman who reportedly said, "Hitler should have killed you all," then threatened to kill them herself. This resurgence of antisemitism, the world's "oldest hatred," hasn't gone unnoticed in the Jewish community. The Nazi Holocaust, memorialized by the United Nations on Thursday, was only the most horrific in a long line of attempted exterminations of the Jewish people going back three thousand years. In the words of the Haggadah, recited each year at Passover, "Not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us." America was supposed to be a reprieve from that, a place where Jews could flourish without fear of being persecuted or murdered. But recent events suggest the U.S. is tragically unexceptional, that we're not immune to the anti-Jewish hysteria that has seized seemingly every region of the world at one time or another. The climate of fear in which American Jews are now living receives little attention online or in the media, in part because of stereotypes of Jews as being privileged and therefore free from oppression. As Jewish comedian Daniel Baddiel notes in his new book, Jews Don't Count, Jews are unique in the West in being a minority associated in the public mind with wealth and power, which under present norms renders Jewish concerns of lesser importance.

1-27-22 Tennessee school board bans teaching of Holocaust graphic novel Maus
A school board in Tennessee has banned a Pulitzer prize-winning novel about the Holocaust from being taught in its classrooms. Board members voted in favour of banning the novel because it contained swear words and a naked illustration. The graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale depicts how the author's parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Author Art Spiegelman said he was "baffled" by the decision. Six million Jewish people died in the Holocaust - Nazi Germany's campaign to eradicate Europe's Jewish population. Mr Spiegelman's parents were Polish Jews who were sent to Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His novel Maus, which features hand-drawn illustrations of mice as Jews and cats as Nazis, won a number of literary awards in 1992. In a McMinn County Schools board meeting in January, members said that they felt that the inclusion of swear words in the graphic novel were inappropriate for the eighth grade curriculum. In the meeting's minutes, the director of schools, Lee Parkinson, was quoted as having said, "there is some rough, objectionable language in this book." Members also objected to a cartoon that featured "nakedness" in a drawing of a mouse. Initially, Mr Parkinson argued that redacting the swear words was the best course of action. But citing copyright concerns, the board eventually decided to ban the teaching of the novel altogether. Some board members did back the novel's inclusion in the curriculum. In an interview with CNBC the author of the novel, Mr Spiegelman, said he was "baffled" by the decision and called it an "Orwellian" course of action. Speaking on Wednesday about the ban a day before Holocaust Memorial Day, he said: "I've met so many young people who... have learned things from my book." The move to ban the novel comes amid a national debate over the curriculum in US public schools. Parents, teachers and school administrators have been grappling with how to teach race, discrimination and inequality in the classroom.

1-27-22 The anti-identity politics of gay conservatives
Brandon Straka and the curious case of the LGBTQ right. On Monday, a U.S. District Judge sentenced Brandon Straka, a conservative influencer and #MAGA social media star, for participating in and encouraging the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. His punishment includes three-year probation, three months of house arrest, and a $5,000 fine. Straka is one of the hundreds of people who have faced charges in recent months for their involvement in the Capitol riot. As many other insurrectionists have done, Straka cooperated with prosecutors and admitted to his role in the Jan. 6 event in order to strike a plea deal that resulted in a reduced charge of disorderly conduct. A gay hairstylist from New York City, Straka doesn't fit the profile most people probably think of when it comes to the rioters who stormed the Capitol. Yet Straka wasn't the only LGBTQ person who participated in the insurrection, a day that saw a handful of Pride flags curiously marching alongside the throng of Confederate flags and "Don't Tread on Me" banners. Beyond the events of that day, Straka represents a far larger movement of LGBTQ conservatives whose visibility has grown in the last several years. Distinct from the long history of gay Republicans who worked to make the GOP more inclusive and tried to push it in a moderate direction, the contemporary LGBTQ right has instead helped sharpen the Republican Party's extreme edge and perhaps even embolden its anti-LGBTQ agenda. Straka's rise to fame — or infamy — says a lot about what gets traction in conservative circles these days and how that's shaping the GOP. In 2018, Straka found notoriety when his six-minute video, "Why I Left Liberalism & the Democratic Party," went viral. "Once upon a time, I was a liberal," Straka began before urging other Democrats to #WalkAway, a hashtag that grew popular on Twitter where Straka now has a half-million followers. The video was, as BuzzFeed's Will Sommer rightly described it at the time, "exactly the kind of conversion narrative primed to go viral on the right," a string of rants against "tyrannical groupthink," "social justice warriors," "the liberal media," and other conservative bugaboos. The "extremist left," Straka argued, had become consumed with a "cult ideology" that sees racism, sexism, and homophobia everywhere. Meanwhile, the "self-proclaimed victims of intolerance" had become the new agents of bigotry — and it was white, heterosexual men who were paying the price for all of it. Conservative media lapped it up. Thanks to favorable coverage in outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and The Gateway Pundit, plus a boost from, according to CNN, thousands of Kremlin-connected Russian bots on Twitter, Straka's video and his #WalkAway hashtag exploded. Once President Trump tweeted his approval, Straka's star rose even more, yet another publicity stunt hack made into a conservative celebrity by virtue of Trump's endorsement. And the stunts continued. Just months into the pandemic, American Airlines removed Straka from a flight for refusing to wear a mask, an altercation Straka promptly publicized on his Twitter account. Other moves seemed designed purposefully to provoke, like releasing his version of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" — an anthem often associated with supporting LGBTQ rights — as a tribute to Trump and his supporters. After Manhattan's LGBT Center decided to cancel an event by Straka at its facilities, he fired back with a $20 million discrimination lawsuit. Around the same time, he declared that he wouldn't be celebrating Pride Month that year, because it had become a "sham" and an "anti-Trump rally."

1-27-22 Biden expected to nominate first black woman to Supreme Court
President Joe Biden will honour his commitment to make an African-American woman his first nomination to the Supreme Court, the White House says. She would replace the liberal justice, Stephen Breyer, who is expected to retire at the end of the current Supreme Court term in June. His retirement plans are yet to be officially confirmed. Justice Breyer's replacement would not shift the court's current 6-3 conservative majority. The Supreme Court plays a key role in American life and is often the final word on highly contentious laws, disputes between states and the federal government, and final appeals to stay executions. Each of the nine judges - known as justices - serves a lifetime appointment after being nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. "The president has stated and reiterated his commitment to nominating a black woman to the Supreme Court and certainly stands by that," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a news conference. Only two African Americans - both men - have ever served on the court: Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1967 to 1991 and his successor Justice Clarence Thomas, who is set to become the oldest member on the bench at age 73. Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, a former law clerk to Mr Breyer, is believed to be the top contender for the job. Ms Jackson was confirmed last June to a seat on the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in which she succeeded current Attorney General Merrick Garland. Leondra Kruger, 45, who serves on the California Supreme Court, is another possibility. Another tipped contender is J Michelle Childs, a judge on South Carolina's federal court. Democrats have been pressuring Justice Breyer - who, at 83, is the oldest member of the bench - to retire so they can fill the seat with someone younger while they control the White House and Senate. The last Supreme Court vacancy came in 2020, when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87. Former President Donald Trump was able to appoint her successor, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, less than two months before the US presidential election.

1-27-22 Ukraine crisis: Nord Stream 2 pipeline could be axed
Germany and the US have warned they could target a key Russian gas pipeline if the country invades Ukraine. A US state department spokesman said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline "will not move forward" if Russia were to attack. The controversial energy project is designed to double gas flow and runs from Russia direct to Germany under the Baltic Sea. It circumvents Ukraine, which relies on existing pipelines for income and is under threat from Russian forces. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed on Ukraine's borders in recent weeks, prompting fears of an invasion - despite repeated Russian denials of any plan to attack. On Wednesday the US rejected Russia's key demand to bar Ukraine from joining the Nato military alliance, while offering Moscow a "serious diplomatic path forward". President Vladimir Putin is currently assessing the proposals, his spokesman said on Thursday. The 1,225km (760-mile) pipeline took five years to build and cost some $11bn (£8bn). But as yet it has not started operating, as regulators said in November it does not comply with German law and suspended its approval. Speaking to broadcaster NPR, US state department spokesman Ned Price said his country would work with Germany to ensure the project did not go ahead if Russia invaded. "I want to be very clear: if Russia invades Ukraine one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward," he said, but added that he was "not going to get into the specifics" of how it would be stopped. Germany's foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, later told the German parliament that Western allies are "working on a strong package of sanctions" covering aspects "including Nord Stream 2", promising serious consequences for Russia if it were to attack. It came after the German ambassador to the US Emily Haber tweeted that "nothing will be off the table, including Nord Stream 2" if Russia violated "Ukraine's sovereignty".

1-27-22 Covid-19 news: Third wave sees continued ethnic disparities in deaths
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. People in England from some ethnic backgrounds were more likely to die from covid-19 during the nation’s third wave. Women of Bangladeshi heritage were 5.2 times more likely to die from covid-19 than white British women during the third wave of the pandemic in England, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Men from Bangladeshi backgrounds were 4.4 times more likely to die from the virus than white British men in the third wave – considered by the ONS to be between 13 June and 1 December 2021. Pakistani men were also 3.5 more likely to die from the virus than British white men in England during this time period. Men and women from Caribbean backgrounds were 2.3 and 3 times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts during the third wave. The ONS said mortality disparities seen between Black Caribbean and white British groups can be largely explained by differences in vaccination coverage. The higher mortality rates seen in Bangladeshi groups and Pakistani men are also partly explained by lower vaccine take up but the ONS said this did not explain the disparities completely. “Remaining unexplained risk may be attributable to factors that we have not been able to account for in the analysis,” the report said. Moderna has set up a clinical trial for a coronavirus booster jab which specifically targets the omicron variant. It also announced that the first participant in its trial had received a dose of the booster. The firm said it expects to enrol 600 adults into the trial. Half the subjects will be those who have received all three original doses of Moderna (including the booster), while the other half will have previously received only the company’s first two jabs. Both groups will then receive a dose of the new booster. It follows the announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this week that they are also trialling an omicron-specific vaccine. Face masks are no longer legally required in England after all Plan B rules were relaxed today. Plan B rules, which included compulsory face masks and covid passes, were put in place in early December as cases of the omicron variant began to soar. The relaxation of the rules also means that visitors to venues such as nightclubs will no longer be required to show a covid pass, however business owners can still ask guests to show a covid pass at their discretion. London mayor Sadiq Khan has said masks will continue to be mandatory on all public transport in the capital.

1-26-22 San Jose approves 1st U.S. law requiring liability insurance for gun owners
With a vote of 8-3, the city council in San Jose, California, passed a city ordinance Tuesday night that requires gun owners to carry liability insurance and pay an annual fee. This is the first measure of its kind passed in the United States, according to Brady United. The council will do a final "reading" of the bill in February, with it expected to become law in August. Already, several gun rights organizations have said they will sue to stop the measure from taking effect. There are 55,000 homes in San Jose that have at least one registered gun, CBS News reports. The liability insurance would cover losses or damages stemming from the accidental use of a gun, including death or injury. The annual fee, which would likely be $25, would go to "harm-reduction" programs for domestic violence, mental health, and suicide prevention services, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement. During Tuesday's city council meeting, Councilmember Raul Peralez said one of his childhood friends was shot and killed last year, and Councilmember Sergio Jimenez called gun violence "a scourge on our society." Critics of the law told the council that the measure "does nothing to reduce crime" and taxes "a constitutional right," KPIX reports. Liccardo said he knows the law "won't stop mass shootings and keep bad people from committing violent crime," but most of the nation's gun deaths are from other causes, including suicide and accidental shootings. He said he believes the measure puts the city on "a constitutionally compliant path to mitigate the unnecessary suffering from gun harm in our community."

1-26-22 Germany is a major wild card in the West's efforts to deter Russia in Ukraine
The U.S. and its European allies are readying troops and sending armaments to Ukraine or NATO's eastern flank to deter, or respond to, Russia's possible invasion of Ukraine. At least most of them are. "In recent days Germany — Europe's largest and richest democracy, strategically situated at the crossroads between East and West — has stood out more for what it will not do than for what it is doing," The New York Times reports. Germany has a long, complicated relationship Russia, and the party of new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats, have traditionally favored working with the Russians rather than confronting them. "Germany's evident hesitation to take forceful measures has fueled doubts about its reliability as an ally," the Times reports, "and added to concerns that Moscow could use German wavering as a wedge to divide a united European response to any Russian aggression." The Biden administration has gone out of its way to show confidence in Berlin, but even that is being viewed by some as a sign of concern. "It is telling that the U.S. has to publicly reaffirm its trust in Germany," Jana Puglierin of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations told the Times. "That used to be a given." Prominent leaders in Germany have warned against bargaining with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring natural gas to Germany from Russia, and others argue that proposals to freeze Russian banks from the Swift payment transaction network would harm Germany's economy. "Germany's muddled stance has been especially unsettling to Ukraine and some of Germany's eastern neighbors," the Times says, and they have not been shy about criticizing Germany's waffling. The doubts about Germany's willingness to confront Moscow is one potential obstacle to a united Western response to a Russian invasion, but it's not the only one. "The EU, U.S., and other Western allies are adamant that Russia will face heavy sanctions if it attacks Ukraine — but there is widespread uncertainty over what would constitute an attack short of a full-scale invasion," Politico reports. Russian President Vladimir Putin "well recognizes that Europe's main power base is France, Germany, and Britain," British lawmaker Tobias Ellwood told The Washington Post. "If these three countries are united, the rest of Europe follows. If you can sow divisions among these three, then there's no leadership, there's no coordination, and there's no unity."

1-26-22 The threat of Ukrainian resistance is the likeliest spur to Russian compromise
Invading Ukraine would be more trouble than it's worth for Russia. But Putin has to reach that conclusion alone. In President Biden's widely-panned press conference last week, one of his most criticized moments was when he spoke candidly about the situation in Ukraine. He declared that he expected Putin would "move in," suggested that a "minor incursion" wouldn't be as serious as a full-scale invasion, and admitted that because of "overwhelming [military] superiority," Russia would clearly be able to win a war with its neighbor. While Biden cautioned that there would be "severe costs" imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies in the event Putin did invade, the most serious consequences he mentioned were merely the direct costs to Russia of occupying another country. To many critics, that sounded at best like weakness, and at worst like a green light for a Russian invasion. They wanted the president to show "leadership" by threatening to halt or reverse a Russian invasion by force. The extreme foolishness of this approach is thankfully apparent to both the Biden administration and to our NATO allies, who have no stomach for a war against a neighbor that threatens them far more than it does ourselves. But even to many who understand the reality of the situation, Biden's acknowledgement felt like a diplomatic faux pas. Perhaps we weren't prepared to go to war, but shouldn't the president have emphasized that aggression will not stand? Such thinking, though, is entirely backward. As the president correctly stated, big nations can't bluff. Claiming that the United States is prepared to take action that it is not in fact considering would be exactly that, and would put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to call our bluff with action. The point of deterrence at this point is not to get Putin to back down entirely, but to convince him that a compromise is a better bet than a strategy of compellence. For that reason, the most important thing for Putin to believe is that an invasion might fail of its own accord — and not because the NATO cavalry came to the rescue. What are Putin's aims in threatening, and potentially launching, war with Ukraine? If his goal was to shatter the NATO alliance, the effort has already proved counterproductive. Ukraine is not a NATO ally, is unlikely to ever become one, and has no claim on NATO for its defense. But currently neutral nations like Finland and Sweden, which have a profound interest in the independence of the Baltic states, are now seriously contemplating joining the alliance in response to Russian moves. If Putin aims to seize and annex the eastern, more pro-Russian portion of the country, the result would be a rump Ukraine with an overwhelmingly pro-Western orientation, eager to cooperate with NATO and press irredentist claims against Russia for its lost territory. Russia would be slightly larger, but ringed by even more uniformly hostile neighbors, and the newly acquired territory would be an expensive dependency rather than an asset. Because of the obvious downsides of these objectives, Putin's most likely goal is to reduce Ukraine to the status of a vassal state, a Moscow-allied buffer between Russia and the West, comparable to its neighbor, Belarus. This would be ideologically satisfying to many Russians, who have never really accepted Ukrainian independence, and a clear enhancement to Moscow's power and prestige. On that assumption, the purpose of war would be to compel the government in Kyiv (or a successor government installed by Moscow) to agree to constitutional changes that would tie Ukraine permanently to Russia.

1-26-22 Germany is a major wild card in the West's efforts to deter Russia in Ukraine
The U.S. and its European allies are readying troops and sending armaments to Ukraine or NATO's eastern flank to deter, or respond to, Russia's possible invasion of Ukraine. At least most of them are. "In recent days Germany — Europe's largest and richest democracy, strategically situated at the crossroads between East and West — has stood out more for what it will not do than for what it is doing," The New York Times reports. Germany has a long, complicated relationship Russia, and the party of new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats, have traditionally favored working with the Russians rather than confronting them. "Germany's evident hesitation to take forceful measures has fueled doubts about its reliability as an ally," the Times reports, "and added to concerns that Moscow could use German wavering as a wedge to divide a united European response to any Russian aggression." The Biden administration has gone out of its way to show confidence in Berlin, but even that is being viewed by some as a sign of concern. "It is telling that the U.S. has to publicly reaffirm its trust in Germany," Jana Puglierin of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations told the Times. "That used to be a given." Prominent leaders in Germany have warned against bargaining with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring natural gas to Germany from Russia, and others argue that proposals to freeze Russian banks from the Swift payment transaction network would harm Germany's economy. "Germany's muddled stance has been especially unsettling to Ukraine and some of Germany's eastern neighbors," the Times says, and they have not been shy about criticizing Germany's waffling. The doubts about Germany's willingness to confront Moscow is one potential obstacle to a united Western response to a Russian invasion, but it's not the only one. "The EU, U.S., and other Western allies are adamant that Russia will face heavy sanctions if it attacks Ukraine — but there is widespread uncertainty over what would constitute an attack short of a full-scale invasion," Politico reports. Russian President Vladimir Putin "well recognizes that Europe's main power base is France, Germany, and Britain," British lawmaker Tobias Ellwood told The Washington Post. "If these three countries are united, the rest of Europe follows. If you can sow divisions among these three, then there's no leadership, there's no coordination, and there's no unity."

1-26-22 Ukraine: US could sanction Putin personally if Russia invades, Biden says
US President Joe Biden says he would consider personal sanctions on Vladimir Putin if Russia invades Ukraine. Mr Biden said there would be "enormous consequences" for the world if Russia made a move on the nation, which sits on its south-western border. His comments came as other Western leaders repeated warnings that Russia would pay a heavy price for invasion. Russia has accused the US and others of "escalating tensions" over the issue and denies planning to enter Ukraine. However, Moscow has deployed an estimated 100,000 soldiers near the border. The Kremlin has said it sees the Western military alliance Nato as a security threat, and is demanding legal guarantees that it will not add new members further east, including neighbouring Ukraine. But the US has said the issue at stake is Russian aggression, not Nato expansion. Fears of invasion have prompted Western embassies in Kyiv to withdraw some personnel. Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba however told reporters on Wednesday that while the troop build up "poses a threat to Ukraine", he believes it is "insufficient for a full-scale offensive". Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France gathered in Paris on Wednesday for talks about the ongoing tensions. Taking questions from reporters on Tuesday, Mr Biden replied "yes" when asked whether he could see himself imposing sanctions on the Russian president personally in the event of an invasion. Such a move across Ukraine's border would mean "enormous consequences worldwide" and could amount to "the largest invasion since World War Two", he said. On Wednesday UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss echoed Mr Biden's words, telling the BBC's Today programme that the government has "ruled nothing out" - including sanctions against the Russian leader - and said the UK is looking to "toughen up" its sanctions on people, banks and businesses. "What is important is that all of our allies do the same. It is by collective action. By showing Putin we're united, we will help deter a Russian incursion," she said. Western powers agreed to "unprecedented" sanctions against Russia if it were to invade during crisis talks earlier this week.

1-26-22 Daily US death toll from Covid now matches Delta
The number of Americans dying each day from Covid-19 now stands as high as it did during the Delta variant's peak, a grim figure that experts believe will rise. Statistics show that an average of over 2,000 people are dying from the virus in the US every day, roughly on par with the deaths seen in late September. A large portion of the dead are older than 65 years old or unvaccinated. To date, more than 866,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US. According to statistics from Johns Hopkins University, the daily average of confirmed Covid-19 deaths surpassed 2,000 on 21 January and stood at 2,033 on 23 January. That's just short of where it was at the peak of the surge in Delta variant cases in September. But there are many more people in hospital now due to the virus than there were back then, due to much higher case loads. The average daily number of new confirmed cases in the US far surpasses previous waves. Dr Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University, told the BBC that the high death toll is largely a factor of the high hospitalisation rate, even if the symptoms of the Omicron variant are generally less severe than those of Delta. "When you have a more transmissible virus, it would exponentialise the number of severe cases and deaths. Even if you have a low percentage of severe cases, the absolute number can still be quite high. A small percentage of a very large number is still a large number." Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that a vast majority - as much as 75% - of those dying are older than 65. Additionally, statistics suggest that the unvaccinated are approximately 100 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than those who have been vaccinated and boosted. "The common thread throughout the Omicron wave is that it is largely impacting the unvaccinated, in terms of severity of illness, hospitalisation rates and indeed, risk of dying from the infection," said Dr Mark Cameron, an associate professor in the department of population and quantitative health sciences at Case Western University in Ohio. "It's crystal clear".

1-26-22 Florida's Ron DeSantis is very upset the FDA canceled 2 antibody cocktails that don't work against Omicron
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday withdrew its emergency use authorization for two monoclonal antibody treatments shown to be ineffective against COVID-19's Omicron variant. With Omicron now making up more than 99 percent of U.S. coronavirus infections, the FDA said, the Regeneron and Eli Lilly antibody cocktails are "highly unlikely" to help COVID patients. "The FDA announcement was expected, as both drugmakers have said for weeks that the treatments are less able to target Omicron because of its mutations," The Associated Press reports. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has made costly, federally supplied monoclonal antibody treatments a central part of his state's COVID response, complained about the FDA's "reckless" decision. "People have a right to access these treatments, and to revoke it on this basis is just fundamentally wrong and we're going to fight back," DeSantis said in a press conference Tuesday. He did not specify how he plans to fight the decision. The FDA has the sole authority to regulate drugs in the U.S. The DeSantis administration said Monday night it will close five new state-run monoclonal antibody treatment centers it had announced last week. DeSantis blamed "Biden's medical authoritarianism," and in a tweet Tuesday morning he claimed there isn't a "shred of clinical data" to support the FDA's decision. It wasn't just DeSantis critics who found this response puzzling. "I think blue-staters can go overboard on the DeSantis critiques, and I'm a longstanding FDA critic, but this is ludicrous," said libertarian commentator Megan McArdle. "You don't pump non-working drugs into human bodies, at great expense, in order to own the libs." "Let's just take a step back here just to realize how crazy this is," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday afternoon. "What the FDA is making clear is that these treatments, the ones they are fighting over, the ones the governor is fighting over, do not work against Omicron and they have side effects." Psaki said the Biden administration has provided Florida with 71,000 courses of antiretrovirals, not to mention ample preventative vaccines. Health and Human Services Department spokesman Ian Sams tweeted Monday night that "this week, we're providing Florida more than 34,000 additional doses of COVID treatments that actually do work — the most doses of any state besides California and Texas." That includes 3,200 courses of sotrovimab, a GlaxoSmithKline monoclonal antibody treatment that does work against Omicron.

1-26-22 Covid-19 news: Infections in England remain at ‘extremely high’ level
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Around 1 in 23 people in England were infected with the omicron variant in January, suggesting cases of infection remain very high across the country. Infections of the omicron coronavirus variant remain at very high levels in England. While cases are falling in adults generally, they are rising in school-aged children and older individuals, according to latest results from the ongoing Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT) study. Researchers assessed 100,607 PCR test results taken from people in England aged five and older between 5 and 20 January 2022. Of these, 4.4 per cent gave positive results – a three-fold increase in the positivity rate compared to December. The figures suggest that, during this period, around 1 in 23 people in England were infected with the coronavirus. Among a group of 3582 people who tested positive, 2315 had a confirmed positive test result in the past. This suggests that around two thirds of people infected in this current wave had previously had covid-19. Around 98 per cent of adults in the UK have antibodies for the virus that causes covid-19, according to estimates from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). This means that 98 per cent of adults are thought to have either recovered from an infection with the virus, or received a vaccination against it. For the first time, the ONS has also estimated the proportion of children expected to test positive for antibodies to the virus. Around 60 per cent of 8 to 11 year olds and 91 per cent of 12 to 15 year olds in England are estimated to have antibodies to the virus. The figures are similar for Scotland, and slightly lower in Wales and Northern Ireland. Two studies have identified factors that might one day help predict whether people will develop long covid. Carlo Cervia at the University of Zurich and his colleagues found lower levels of specific antibodies in people who went on to have lasting symptoms. Testing for this antibody signature can’t yet predict whether an individual will get long covid, but it might help identify those at increased risk, Cervia told The Guardian. A separate study by Yapeng Su at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and colleagues has identified a set of four factors that, together, appear to increase the risk of long covid. Having a high viral load and autoantibodies – those that attack the body’s own cells and tissues – as well as a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus are linked to long covid, whether the initial infection was mild or severe. “Each [factor] is biologically plausible, consistent with theories that other people are pursuing, and importantly, each is actionable,” Steven Deeks at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times. “If these pathways get confirmed, we as clinicians can actually design interventions to make people better.”

1-26-22 How much more contagious could the coronavirus get?
The coronavirus is evolving to become more transmissible, and eventually it could even overtake measles, the most contagious virus we know of. Over the past two years, we have witnessed evolution in action, with new variants of the coronavirus becoming increasingly contagious. But where will it end? Is there a ceiling that viruses reach where they can’t become any more contagious? Viruses tend to become more contagious over time because natural selection favours mutations that increase their ability to spread, says Julian Druce at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, who is a member of the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution. Measles is perhaps the most contagious virus we know of. Its basic reproduction number – or R0 – is 12 to 18, meaning that in a naïve population with no immunity from prior infection or immunisation, like a group of young children who haven’t yet received the measles vaccine, one individual could transmit the virus to 12 to 18 others. Measles has been around for 2500 years, so why hasn’t it evolved to become even more contagious and push its R0 value up further? “There are constraints within the measles virus itself on how much it can evolve, so it doesn’t evolve anywhere near the rate of other viruses like coronaviruses, influenza and HIV,” says Allison Imrie at the University of Western Australia in Perth. That is why we typically need to be vaccinated against measles only once in childhood to protect us for life, because the virus doesn’t evolve new variants that can evade vaccines, she says. By contrast, SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19, can evolve with ease. The original strain that emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 had an R0 of about 2.5, while the delta variant pushed the R0 up to about 6.

1-26-22 Texas synagogue siege: Two men arrested in Manchester
Two men have been arrested as part of an investigation into an attack on a Texas synagogue which saw a gunman take four people hostage. Malik Faisal Akram, 44, from Blackburn in Lancashire, was shot dead by the FBI after a 10-hour standoff in the US on 15 January. Greater Manchester Police said two men were arrested in Manchester earlier. Two other men arrested in Birmingham and Manchester on 20 January have been released with no further action. The force said officers from Counter Terrorism Policing North West were continuing with their investigation and working closely with US law enforcement. The siege began at about 11:00 local time (17:00 GMT) when police were called to the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, near Dallas. Akram had entered the place of worship during a morning service by pretending to be homeless, before pulling out a gun. One hostage was released after six hours, while the other three - including the synagogue's rabbi - escaped several hours later. During the standoff Akram was heard demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in nearby Fort Worth, Texas, over attempts to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. Siddiqui has distanced herself from his actions, issuing a statement through a lawyer. Akram is thought to have arrived in the US via New York's JFK International Airport two weeks prior, according to police sources. He is believed to have bought weapons used in the incident "on the street" after his arrival. Akram had been on the British security service's watchlist as a "subject of interest" in 2020 and was investigated in the second half of that year. But by 2021 Akram, who had a criminal record in the UK, had moved from the active list to the "former subject of interest" list and was no longer considered a threat. In a now deleted statement published on the Blackburn Muslim Community's Facebook page, Akram's brother Gulbar said his sibling had been suffering from mental health issues. Friends of Akram in Blackburn said his mental health had been getting worse and expressed surprise that he had been able to travel to the US.

1-25-22 Health check newsletter: England lets covid-19 rip: What happens next?
As covid restrictions are relaxed in the UK, we look at how these new policies could play out. Hello, and welcome to this week’s Health Check, the weekly newsletter that gives you the health and fitness news you can really trust. To receive this free, weekly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here. The big news in the UK is the easing of covid-19 restrictions, including England stopping the advice to work from home where possible and this week ending mandatory face masks in indoor public spaces. The rule that people must self-isolate if they test positive for the coronavirus also looks set to go, from 24 March or sooner. There is, naturally, a wide spectrum of opinion on these moves. The debate over how we should respond to covid-19 has long been polarised, with each new wave of cases seeing the more cautious arguing for stricter rules and earlier implementation of them, while their opponents argue for less and later. But whatever our personal opinions, it looks like England, possibly to be followed by the rest of the UK, will soon have a policy more akin to “let it rip” than ever before. So, what is likely to happen next? To get one thing out of the way, some believe covid-19 will naturally evolve to be less virulent. But this is wrong – pathogens evolve to be more transmissible. The coronavirus doesn’t “care” if it kills people or not because it generally spreads long before it kills. “Diseases don’t always evolve to become less virulent,” says Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And you can’t predict that.” A virus’s inherent virulence isn’t the only thing that matters, though. Over the course of the pandemic, the coronavirus has gradually caused less serious illness because of a build-up of immunity in populations, from both natural infections and vaccines. National figures show that while immunity against catching the virus – from either source – wanes quite quickly, there is longer-lasting immunity against severe illness.

1-25-22 The Justice Department is investigating pro-Trump 'fraudulent elector certifications' from states Biden won
Federal prosecutors are looking into "fraudulent elector certificates" Republicans in a handful of states sent the National Archives on Dec. 14, 2020, the day the Electoral College met to certify President Biden's victory, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told CNN on Monday. The attorneys general of Michigan and New Mexico, plus a local prosecutor in Wisconsin, have asked federal prosecutors to investigate the fake slates of electors, and "we've received those referrals," Monaco said. "Our prosecutors are looking at those, and I can't say anything more on ongoing investigations." The effort to send slates of illegitimate electors for former President Donald Trump from seven states Biden won was reportedly spearheaded by Trump campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as part of a broader scheme to overturn Biden's legitimate victory. "The breadth of federal prosecutors' review was not immediately clear," The Washington Post notes. "Nor was it clear whom they might be targeting or what crimes they might be considering." If prosecutors determine that Trump's campaign or allies "created the fake slates to improperly influence the election, they could in theory be charged with falsifying voting documents, mail fraud, or even a conspiracy to defraud the United States," The New York Times reports. "It is unclear whether the Republican Party officials and others who submitted the false documents did so on their own or at the behest of the Trump campaign." Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Jan. 6 committee, acknowledged that proving criminal activity could be tricky for prosecutors. "The people who pretended to be official electors in states that were won by Biden were undoubtedly guilty of fraud on the Constitution and on the democracy," he told the Times. "It's a trickier question whether they are guilty of either common-law fraud, state statutory fraud, federal mail fraud, or some other offense."

1-25-22 Ukraine: US troops on alert as West voices unity
US President Joe Biden has said there is "total unanimity" with European leaders over Russia's troop build-up on its border with Ukraine. During crisis talks on Monday, Western powers agreed to "unprecedented" sanctions against Russia if it were to invade. The US has also put 8,500 troops on alert, which Russia said caused it "great concern". It denies having any plans for an invasion. However some 100,000 Russian soldiers have been deployed on Ukraine's border. Joining the US and UK in Monday's talks were the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the EU. The head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg also dialled in. "I had a very, very, very good meeting - total unanimity with all the European leaders," Mr Biden said afterwards. A Downing Street spokesperson said the leaders "agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility". Should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine happen, they agreed that "allies must enact swift retributive responses including an unprecedented package of sanctions". The aim of the 80-minute video call between the allies was to agree on a common strategy against Russia's actions, after some disagreements over how Western nations were responding. On Monday, UK PM Boris Johnson warned that "gloomy" intelligence suggests Russia is planning a lightning raid on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the UK started withdrawing some staff from its embassy there. The US took a similar move, by ordering relatives of its embassy staff to leave. But EU staff are to stay in place for now, with foreign policy chief Josep Borrell saying he would not "dramatise" the tensions. There have also been differences on the support given to Ukraine - the US and UK are among the nations to have sent military aid. However Germany refused Ukraine's request for defensive weapons, and will instead send medical aid, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht told local media.

1-25-22 US black man mistaken for older white suspect - lawsuit
A black man in Nevada spent six days in jail after police mistook him for a suspect with the same name who is white and twice his age, a lawsuit says. Shane Lee Brown, 25, was arrested in January 2020 in a traffic stop after he failed to show his licence. Las Vegas police found a warrant in his name. But that warrant was actually for Shane Neal Brown, a middle-aged white man with a beard, the lawsuit claims. The younger man was not charged with a crime and is now suing for damages. A spokeswoman for the city of Henderson told US media that the younger man had been lawfully detained for driving with a suspended licence. The city did not refer to the allegation of mistaken identity in the legal action. The lawsuit says officers wrongly thought Mr Brown was Shane Neal Brown, a white man with brown hair, blue eyes and a beard. Now 51, he was first jailed for a felony in 1994, before the younger Mr Brown was even born, reports US media. Shane Lee Brown stands about 4in shorter than the older man, adds the lawsuit against the Las Vegas and Henderson police departments. "During his unlawful detention, Shane Lee Brown repeatedly explained to numerous unknown Henderson police officers and supervisors that he was not the 49-year-old white 'Shane Brown' who was the subject of the felony warrant," the lawsuit says. It accuses officials of failing to perform "due diligence" by comparing his booking photo to the one on file for the older white man. Shane Lee Brown was eventually released nearly a week after his arrest when his lawyer had a judge compare the two photos. He is now seeking $500,000 (£370,000) in punitive damages. Las Vegas police discovered eight days after his release that Shane Neal Brown had been arrested in San Bernardino County, California. He appeared in court later in January and accepted a plea deal. It is unclear if he was already in custody at the time of the younger man's arrest.

1-25-22 Covid-19 news: Strain on health services led to extra non-covid deaths
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Deteriorating standards in healthcare were responsible for at least 4000 avoidable non-covid 19 deaths in England in the first year of the pandemic. At least 4000 extra deaths unrelated to covid-19 occurred in hospitals in England during the first year of the pandemic, researchers estimate. The deaths resulted from strains on health services that left people with inadequate care, say Thiemo Fetzer at the University of Warwick and Christopher Rauh at the University of Cambridge. The pair assessed emergency hospital admissions, referrals for specialist care and diagnoses and waiting times, as well as changes to the reported number of deaths among people who had been admitted to hospital and did not have covid-19. They found that standards of care across hospitals in England dropped significantly, with an estimated 4000 excess deaths unrelated to covid-19 occurring between March 2020 and February 2021 alone. The acute phase of the pandemic could end this year, but only with greater global vaccination rates, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus said at a meeting on Monday. “If countries use all of the strategies and tools in a comprehensive way [by vaccinating at least 70 per cent of the population of each country]… we can end covid-19 as a global health emergency, and we can do it this year,” he said. A lack of financial support is hampering efforts to reach this goal, Tedros added. “If the current funding model continues, WHO is being set up to fail,” he said. “The paradigm shift in world health that’s needed now must be matched by a paradigm shift in funding the World Health Organization.” An Israeli health ministry advisory panel has recommended that the government offer a fourth covid-19 vaccine dose to all adults in the country, reports The Times of Israel. The fourth dose should be offered five months after either a third dose or recovery from covid-19, the panel advised. International travellers to England will no longer need to test for covid-19 within two days of arrival if they are fully vaccinated, prime minister Boris Johnson has announced. The change will take effect from Friday 11 February.

1-24-22 mid Ukraine tensions, U.S. puts 8,500 troops on heightened alert
Military units stationed in the United States have been notified by the Pentagon that they should be ready to deploy to Europe should NATO send a request. Russia has spent the last year moving tens of thousands of troops to the border with Ukraine, and the U.S. warns that an invasion could be imminent. The Pentagon has put about 8,500 troops on heightened alert, CBS News reports, and most would deploy as part of the NATO Response Force. Some could be sent to other countries in Eastern Europe to bolster security there, should matters escalate even further. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that President Biden decided to put the troops on high alert after receiving advice from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. "No decisions have been made to deploy any forces from the United States at this time," Kirby said. Kirby did not reveal which units are on alert, but did say that some have been ordered to be ready to deploy in as little as five days. He also told reporters that Russia has not shown any signs of deescalation, and instead has spent the last few weeks moving even more troops to its border with Ukraine and into Belarus.

1-24-22 Cops on the scene during Floyd murder 'didn't lift a finger' to help, prosecutor says
The federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with failing to intervene to stop the murder of George Floyd or to provide him with lifesaving medical care began Monday. The three men — Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng — can be seen in videos actively participating in the incident in which their former colleague Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for over nine minutes as he begged for his life. The former officers also face state charges for aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. Chauvin, who killed Floyd on May 25, 2020, was convicted of second-degree murder in April 2021 and sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison. According to The New York Times, Thao handled crowd control as Chauvin killed Floyd, while Lane and Kueng — both rookies — pressed down on Floyd's legs and back, respectively. "They watched as Mr. Floyd suffered a slow and agonizing death," federal prosecutor Samantha Trepel said in her opening statement, adding that they "didn't lift a finger to help." Per NPR, Lane and Kueng were the first on the scene after an employee at a Minneapolis corner store called 911 to report that Floyd had attempted to pay with counterfeit money. Floyd resisted arrest, and Chauvin and Thao arrived to provide backup.

1-24-22 Stock market rallies after rough start Monday
Markets fell dramatically on Monday morning but rallied in the afternoon, CNBC reported. In what CNBC called a "stunning comeback," the Dow Jones Industrial Average "closed up 99.13 points, or 0.3 percent, at 34,364.50, gaining for the first day in seven." The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 4.9 percent earlier in the day but closed up 0.6 percent, marking the first time since the 2008 financial crisis that the index finished up after falling more than 4 percent. According to JPMorgan strategist Marko Kolanovic, "The recent pullback in risk assets appears overdone, and … we could be in the final stages of this correction." Even so, Ann Miletti, head of active equity at Allspring Global Investments, told CNBC she expects "a lot of turbulence as we march through these next couple of months." This news comes on the first trading day following the market's worst week since the pandemic began in March 2020. Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,400 points, with tech stocks and cryptocurrencies hit especially hard.

1-24-22 Tourist arrested at Auschwitz for making a Nazi salute
A Dutch woman was arrested on Sunday at the site of the Auschwitz death camp after she made a Nazi salute while posing for a picture. Police said the 29-year-old tourist was standing in front of the gate that says "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Sets You Free," when she made the salute. Auschwitz is in Poland, where people who promote Nazi propaganda can receive up to two years in prison, and a security guard detained the woman until police arrived. The woman and her husband were questioned by officers, and she told them making the gesture was "a stupid joke," the Auschwitz Museum tweeted. She has been fined an undisclosed amount. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi death camp, and at least 1.1 million people — most of them Jewish — died there, with many immediately gassed upon their arrival and others dying after working hard labor in deplorable conditions. The "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate is one of the most well-known parts of Auschwitz, and this wasn't the first time someone was arrested for making the Nazi salute there; in 2013, two Turkish students made the gesture at the gate, and were fined and sentenced to six months in prison, the Polish News Agency reports.

1-24-22 NATO sends fighter jets, ships to Eastern Europe as 'deterrence' against Russian aggression
NATO said Monday that it is putting forces on standby as member states bolster the alliance's "deterrence" presence in Eastern Europe. The military alliance is warily watching Russia's massive troop buildup along its border with Ukraine, which is not a NATO member but has aspirations to join. Denmark is sending a frigate and F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania while Spain is sending warships to Bulgaria, with fighter jets and French troops on standby. Russia insists it has no plans to invade Ukraine. "NATO will take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday. "We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense." NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia confirmed over the weekend that they are sending U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, with the U.S.'s approval. Britain on Monday joined the U.S. in bringing home staff at its embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, citing the "growing threat from Russia" but describing the diplomatic drawdown as precautionary. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU won't join the U.S. and Britain yet, so as not to "dramatize" the situation, but the EU is monitoring the situation. Ukraine's foreign ministry criticized the U.S.'s withdrawal of some embassy personnel and their families as "premature and a manifestation of excessive caution" that plays into Russia's hands. "In fact, there have been no cardinal changes in the security situation recently: The threat of new waves of Russian aggression has remained constant since 2014 and the buildup of Russian troops near the state border began in April last year," foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said in a statement. The EU foreign ministers are meeting Monday to present a united front in support of Ukraine, with serious economic consequences for Russia if it invades. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also said Monday that Ireland objects to Russia's plans to hold military exercises 150 miles off Ireland's coast, inside Ireland's exclusive economic zone but international waters. "This isn't a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what's happening with and in Ukraine," he said.

1-24-22 Young kids are handling COVID 'less childishly' than Bari Weiss, other 'done with COVID' elites, MSNBC host says
. While hospitals are still fighting a huge wave of COVID-19 cases, verified talking heads on social media and TV are having a heated discussion about whether we should be "done" with the pandemic. (Not that the pandemic cares: New U.S. cases and hospitalizations are starting to fall from record highs as the Omicron surge peaks, but an average of 2,018 Americans are still dying each day from the virus.) MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan went on a "60-second rant" Sunday night about the "done with COVID" crowd, singling out Bari Weiss and her denunciation of ongoing COVID restrictions on Friday night's Real Time With Bill Maher. "The people who should be complaining right now are our overworked health-care workers," he said, very fast. "But no, it's never them moaning or whingeing about the pandemic — it's the Bari Weisses and Bill Mahers and Tucker Carlsons of this world!" "My young children have handled this pandemic more maturely and less childishly than the likes of Bari Weiss, who — I'm sorry — can't go to as many indoor parties as she'd like to," Hasan concluded. Weiss made a slightly more nuanced case on Real Time, while Maher's other panelist, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), noted that restrictions are easing even as people are still dying from COVID-19 in large numbers. Alex Pareene, in the essay Hasan cited, said he finds "the tenor of discussion around COVID-19 restrictions genuinely bewildering," because "there basically aren't any." Despite the "well-publicized opining" from "people for whom COVID-19 is just a thing they are sick of hearing and thinking about," he argued, "the United States is powering through the Omicron wave with its usual enforced individualism. The hard restrictions on our activities are, for the most part, not mandated or enforced by the state, acting at the behest of liberals who refuse to go back to normal because they are addicted to panic and quarantine; the limits are imposed by the virus that isn't going away." Pareene noted that his child's New York City school, like most schools, is open, even though lots of students and teachers are out with COVID. "As usual in the United States," he said, "the people who won the political argument are now complaining the loudest that they're dissatisfied with the results, and, apparently, it's all the fault of the losers." Read his full essay at The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter.

1-23-22 Taliban, in desperate need of humanitarian aid, meets with Western leaders in Norway
Representatives of Afghanistan's Taliban government opened three days of talks with Western government officials and Afghan women's rights and human rights activists in Norway on Sunday, The Associated Press reported. According to NBC News, the U.S. delegation said it plans to discuss "the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women." A video clip that showed Taliban fighters laughing at a female journalist who asked if women would be able to hold elected office under Taliban rule went viral around the time of the U.S. withdrawal last summer. Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who leads the Taliban delegation to Oslo, said he hopes the trip will be "a gateway for a positive relationship with Europe." His delegation previously attended meetings in Russia, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan, China, and Turkmenistan. He is also expected to press for Western countries to unfreeze nearly $10 billion of Afghan money. According to the United Nations, most of Afghanistan's 38 million people live below the poverty line, and as many as one million children are in danger of starvation, Politico reported.

1-23-22 Russia-Ukraine tensions: UK warns of plot to install pro-Moscow ally
The UK has accused President Putin of plotting to install a pro-Moscow figure to lead Ukraine's government. The Foreign Office took the unusual step of naming former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev as a potential Kremlin candidate. Russia has moved 100,000 troops near to its border with Ukraine but denies it is planning an invasion. UK ministers have warned that the Russian government will face serious consequences if there is an incursion. In a statement, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: "The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking. "Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy." The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted that the Foreign Office was "circulating disinformation" and urged it to "cease these provocative activities" and "stop spreading nonsense". Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said there was "a very serious risk" of invasion but there would be "severe economic consequences", including sanctions, if Russia took that step. However, he told the BBC's Sunday Morning programme it was "extremely unlikely" British troops would be sent to defend Ukraine, adding that the country was not a Nato ally. Asked if the threat of sanctions would be enough to deter Russia from invading, Mr Raab said Vladimir Putin would also be worried about getting "bogged down in Ukraine" and ending up "with another Chechnya", where there was several years of conflict in the 1990s. He added that Russia "needs to live up to the basic tenets of international law and invading another country is not one of those". Russia has denied it is planning any attack but Mr Putin has issued demands to the West, including that Ukraine be prevented from joining the Nato military alliance.

1-22-22 Families of U.S. Embassy personnel must evacuate Ukraine, State Department orders
The State Department issued an order Saturday directing families of U.S. Embassy personnel in Ukraine to evacuate the country as soon as Monday, Fox News reports. Per Fox, the State Department is also expected to issue guidance next week encouraging American civilians to begin leaving Ukraine on commercial flights. News of the evacuation order comes only hours after the first shipment of a $200 million military aid package U.S. lawmakers approved last month arrived in Ukraine, Reuters reported. As U.S. and Russian diplomats continue to pursue a peaceful solution, Russia continues to move more troops to the Ukrainian border and refuses to back down from its demands that Ukraine be barred from NATO membership and that the alliance roll back its military presence in Eastern Europe. According to The Associated Press, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also announced joint military drills on Ukraine's border with close ally Belarus as well as new naval exercises in the Black Sea, and even threatened to deploy Russian military assets to Cuba and Venezuela. In a White House press conference held Wednesday, President Biden said he expects Putin "will move" against Ukraine but that the U.S. and its NATO allies are ready to impose "heavy" costs on Russia via sanctions and military support for Ukraine.

1-22-22 Flights to and from Xi'an resume as China eases lockdown
Seven planes took off from Xi'an Xianyang International Airport in China on Saturday, the first flights since Beijing imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown on the city last month, The Associated Press reported. The first inbound flights are expected to arrive at the airport Sunday. According to AP, China has followed a "zero tolerance" policy that "aims to keep the virus out of China by finding and isolating every infected person." Travel to and from the city of 13 million people has been restricted for exactly one month. China locked Xi'an down on Dec. 22 after public health authorities recorded 52 new COVID cases in the city the previous day. Under the lockdown, residents were forbidden to leave their homes except in emergency situations. One woman in a different city also affected by China's COVID policy earned special sympathy when quarantine orders trapped her in the house of a blind date. The woman, identified as Yang, went viral on Chinese social media after sharing her story, which began when she traveled to Zhengzhou from her home in Guangzhou for a series of blind dates. She was on her fifth blind date when Chinese officials locked down Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, on Jan. 7. Wang had agreed to meet at the blind date's house so he could "show off his cooking."

1-22-22 Ukraine tension: US 'lethal aid' arrives in Kyiv amid border build-up
Some 90 tonnes of US "lethal aid" has arrived in Ukraine, amid tensions over Russia's troop build-up on the border. It was the first shipment of a recently approved package of US military aid for Ukraine, and included ammunition for "front-line defenders". The delivery followed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Kyiv this week, where he warned of a tough response if Russia was to invade. Moscow has denied any plans to attack or invade Ukraine. US President Joe Biden approved the $200m (£147.5m) security support package in December. The US embassy in Kyiv said the shipment demonstrated its "firm commitment to Ukraine's sovereign right to self-defense". "The United States will continue providing such assistance to support Ukraine's Armed Forces in their ongoing effort to defend Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression," it wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov thanked the US for the aid. The shipment arrived hours after Russia's foreign minister and his US counterpart held what they called "frank" talks to try to reduce the chance of a wider conflict in Ukraine. Russia has seized Ukrainian territory before, annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Since then, some 14,000 people have been killed and at least two million fled their homes because of fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed rebels. A fragile peace agreement was made in 2015. Now, the head of the military defence alliance Nato has warned there is a real risk of a fresh conflict in Europe after an estimated 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the border. Moscow has denied it is planning an invasion, but President Vladimir Putin has issued demands to the West which he says concern Russia's security, including that Ukraine be stopped from joining Nato. He also wants Nato to abandon military exercises and stop sending weapons to eastern Europe, seeing this as a direct threat to Russia's security.

1-22-22 Our war with natural selection
Omicron may not necessarily be the last punishing wave Two years after COVID began spreading through humanity, we are still adapting to SARS-CoV-2, and it is still adapting to us. It's a Darwinian struggle, fought on the battlefield of natural selection, with immunity conferred by vaccination and infection competing against the random mutations that enable the coronavirus to shape-shift, become fitter, and launch new waves of attack. Will the Omicron wave — now starting to subside on the East Coast, as it previously did in South Africa and the U.K. — be the last big one, with COVID soon becoming a milder disease we can live with? Scientists have varying opinions — but the truth is, no one knows. There are so many variables involved: vaccination and booster rates, human behavior (do people abandon all precautions too quickly?), and whether a new variant emerges that's even more effective than Omicron in evading built-up immunity. Understandably, many people have embraced the comforting belief that SARS-CoV-2 must evolve to cause milder disease. It's just not true, virologists say. Smallpox did not grow milder over time, nor did polio, HIV/AIDS, or Ebola. Only vaccination, antiviral treatments, and precautions to limit transmission enabled humanity to mitigate or defeat those scourges. Our own actions will largely determine what happens from here. Letting the virus rip only increases the likelihood of nastier mutations, and may prolong rather than end the pandemic. "COVID-19 becoming a milder disease is not a decision the virus will make," said virologist Dr. Andrew Pekosz. "It's a decision that all of us can make if we take advantage of the vaccines that can control spread." There's reason for optimism: Pfizer's potent antiviral treatment, Paxlovid, will become more widely available in months, and several groups of scientists are working on a pan-coronavirus vaccine providing immunity against all variants. But if we've learned anything during these two ghastly years, it's that magical thinking will not make our viral foe disappear.

1-22-22 Kiribati goes into first lockdown after Covid flight cases
The remote island nation of Kiribati has gone into lockdown after passengers on the first international flight in 10 months tested positive for Covid. Under the new measures, people have been told to stay at home and social gatherings are banned. Some 36 people on the flight from Fiji have tested positive. Four people have caught the virus from community transmission. Until last week, Kiribati had recorded just two Covid cases. Kiribati is one of the most isolated islands in the world. It is some 5,000km (3,100 miles) from its nearest continent, North America. On Tuesday, the government confirmed that 36 of the 54 passengers had tested positive. It said in a post on Facebook that all passengers are currently being monitored by health officials. All of the passengers on the flight are fully vaccinated, the government said. However three members of the quarantine facility's security team have since tested positive. Another person who does not work at the facility has also contracted the virus, the government said. The lockdown came into force on Saturday but it is not clear how long it will last. People are not allowed to leave their homes unless for essential services. They can buy essential items from shops but only between 06:00 and 14:00. "The only way that we can fight this virus is through complete vaccination," the office of President Taneti Maamau said on Facebook. "The public is urged to complete their vaccination doses in order to protect themselves and families." It is not known what proportion of the 120,000 people in the country have been fully vaccinated.

1-21-22 Booster shots are keeping Omicron patients out of the hospital, studies show
Booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are 90 percent effective against hospitalization with the Omicron variant, The New York Times reports, per new data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. Booster shots were also found to have "reduced the likelihood of a visit to an emergency department or urgent care clinic," and were shown most effective against infection and death in Americans aged 50 and older, the data revealed, per the Times. The findings, spread across three new, large studies, are the "first real-life data to examine the effect of boosters against Omicron, which now accounts for more than 99 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States," reports CNN. "Data from other countries have also shown significant benefit of getting the booster, but this is really showing it in the U.S.," said immunologist Akiko Iwasaki on Friday, per the Times. "These numbers should be very convincing." Overall, however, the new data prove boosters more effective against the Delta variant than Omicron, which studies have shown able to circumvent the body's immune response, notes the Times. For some, the question now becomes how we should define being "fully vaccinated." "I think we have to redefine fully vaccinated as three doses," Dr. William Schaffner, a CDC vaccine adviser who was not involved in the studies, told CNN. "I think it's the third dose that really gives you the solid, the very best protection," he added. Despite the overwhelmingly positive evidence in favor of boosters, "less than half of those eligible to receive booster shots have gotten one, and only about a quarter of the total US population is fully vaccinated and boosted," per CNN.

1-21-22 Thousands of anti vaccine-mandate protesters are reportedly expected in D.C. this weekend
Organizers are supposedly expecting thousands of protesters for an anti-vaccine mandate rally in Washington, D.C. this weekend, NBC News reports, a sign that the vaccination resistance "that gained traction on social media during the pandemic is spilling even further into politics and real life." The rally, largely organized in Facebook group "Defeat the Mandates DC" and on some internet forums, has raised at least $200,000 in crowdfunding, per NBC News. The Facebook group itself has also grown in size within the last week. Leaders say they are expecting "tens of thousands of attendees" to begin protesting at the Washington Monument at 10:30 a.m. ET on Sunday. Though the rally has been marketed as anti-mandate — not explicitly anti-vax — "organizers on Facebook have been quick to promote their links with anti-vaccine organizations," including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Children's Health Defense fund, who filed the permit for the event. Researcher Kolina Koltai told NBC News this presumably purposeful lack of big, bold anti-vax language is intended to subvert censorship on social media platforms and garner more support. "As policies have changed on Facebook, we've seen anti-vaccine groups rebrand to 'pro-medical freedom' or 'pro-choice,'" Koltai said. "They're using terms that they know are not going to get censored." Futhermore, the event's scheduled speakers include Dr. Robert Malone, "a virologist who has recently emerged as a new leader of the anti-vaccination movement after appearing on Joe Rogan's podcast in December," NBC News writes. Malone has insisted the rally is solely intended to decry mandates. In any event, the rally should bring together some of the "most high-profile anti-vaccine activists," NBC News notes, per Koltai. "It's a who's who of grifters and people who made a profit off the pandemic," she said. Read more at NBC News.

1-21-22 Biden's $15 minimum wage for federal employees will affect close to 70,000 workers
Federal agencies were directed on Friday to raise the minimum wage for government employees to $15 an hour, The Hill reports. The rule will take full effect on Jan. 30. The new pay guidance will impact close to 70,000 federal employees, "most of which work at the Departments of Agriculture, Defense and Veterans Affairs," Axios reports per the Office of Personnel Management. The largest share of employees currently making under $15 an hour work at the Department of Defense, Axios adds. Just over 2 million federal workers are already earning at least $15 an hour, the Hill writes, according to OPM. The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. "As the largest employer in the country, how the federal government treats its workforce has real impact," said OPM director Kiran Ahuja, per Axios. "This pay increase is an important step for the civilian men and women who support the military community and their families," added Gilbert Cisneros, Defense Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness. The pay bump excludes the U.S. Postal Service and Postal Regulatory Commission, both of which fall outside OPM's purview.

1-21-22 U.S. reportedly considering evacuating diplomats' families from Ukraine
The U.S. is reportedly discussing whether to evacuate family members of diplomats in Ukraine as tensions with Russia continue to rise, Bloomberg reports. Under the potential plan, "family members would be ordered to return home while non-essential employees would be able to leave voluntarily," writes Bloomberg. An announcement could come within days, according to people familiar with the discussions, and does not mean the U.S. is positive Russia will invade; rather, the consideration "simply reflects prudent preparations," Bloomberg writes, per one of the individuals. A White House official also emphasized such discussions are part of normal contingency planning. According to the embassy wesbite, the U.S. employs about 180 Americans and 560 Ukrainians at the embassy in Kyiv. That number does not include family members, "so the number of U.S. citizens living in embassy housing is probably much higher," notes Bloomberg. The possibility of an evacuation arrives "amid a flurry of diplomatic meetings that have so far failed to ease the crisis," Bloomberg notes. Following talks in Geneva on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that "if Russia wants to begin to convince the world that it has no aggressive intent toward Ukraine, a very good place to start would be de-escalating." Lavrov, for his part, shrugged it all off. "What NATO is now doing toward Ukraine clearly shows that NATO sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence," he said. Read more at Bloomberg.

1-21-22 The coronavirus vaccines are safer than aspirin or Tylenol
Since the release of the coronavirus vaccines, there has been a lot of overheated coverage of their potential side effects (most recently from podcaster Joe Rogan). In truth, the risk of the coronavirus vaccines is microscopic. A good way to understand this is by comparing them to common over-the-counter painkillers. Take aspirin. As Dr. Nathan Grills from the University of Melbourne points out, this drug has all kinds of rare but bad side effects — certain kinds of heart failure, strokes, intestinal bleeding, and on and on. One study estimated that for 50-year-old men, 325 milligrams of aspirin daily ran a fatality risk of 10.4 per 100,000 person-years. Acetaminophen (commonly known as Tylenol) is even worse. This drug is both less helpful than aspirin and much easier to overdose on than people tend to think. Take just a bit more than the maximum recommended dose, and severe complications follow. It's also a brutal overdose mechanism — if it isn't caught in time, then there is basically no way to prevent a slow and excruciating death from liver failure. A 2006 study estimated that acetaminophen overdoses over one year were responsible for 56,000 trips to the emergency room, 26,000 hospitalizations, and 458 deaths — 100 of them accidental. What's more, the drug may have additional rare side effects like hormone disruption or asthma. Let's compare to the coronavirus vaccines. The most serious complications reported after many billions of doses administered are unusual blood clots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines (made with traditional technology) and heart swelling from the Pfizer/Moderna mRNA shots. The clotting risk is so tiny it might not exist at all — some studies have found a few dozen cases of clotting and a handful of deaths out of hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca/J&J doses administered, but the European Medical Agency concluded AstraZeneca at least does not actually increase clotting risk. There does appear to be a risk of heart swelling with the mRNA vaccines, particularly for young men, but it's extremely small — a 2.13 in 100,000 risk according to one study, or a 23 in 2.8 million risk in another. Moreover, in the large majority of cases, the swelling was mild and recovery was quick. In short, the coronavirus vaccines have a risk of serious side effects that is something like an order of magnitude less than the risk of dying from taking aspirin regularly (as half of adults over 45 do), and have virtually no risk of death. Anyway, of course it would be wrong to ban aspirin because it does have many benefits: improving heart health in some populations, reducing the risk of some cancers, and so on (though personally, I would not allow acetaminophen to be sold over the counter anymore). It's simply that the benefits of aspirin come at a small risk — so small that most nations don't even bother requiring a doctor's note to get it. The coronavirus vaccines are both much, much more beneficial than aspirin, and much, much less risky. There is simply no reason to fret about them.

1-21-22 All U.S. Olympians are fully vaccinated ahead of Beijing Games
All of the approximately 240 American athletes heading to Beijing for February's Winter Olympics are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Axios reports, per Team USA's top doctor. In September, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee updated its policy to mandate all employees, athletes, and contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19, Axios notes. During the Summer Games in Tokyo, during which there was no vaccine mandate for American athletes, approximately 100 of Team USA's 613 competitors were unvaccinated. "Vaccination is sort of the foundation of our COVID mitigation protocol," Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Finnoff told The Associated Press on Thursday. Not a single athlete competing in the Winter Games requested a medical exemption, he said. Any unvaccinated competitors would be required to complete a 21-day quarantine period, per the IOC. That, Finnoff said, combined with education from both the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, "really resonated with the athletes."

1-21-22 Is it time for Western Australia to open up and let covid-19 in?
Western Australia, which has remained largely covid-free, has cancelled its border reopening due to omicron fears, but there may be little to gain by holding out longer. Western Australia, which has mostly dodged the coronavirus by sealing itself off from the rest of the world, has scrapped its plan to reopen next month based on concerns about the omicron variant. But researchers say there may be little point in waiting longer before letting the virus in. The state, which has a population of 2.7 million, has recorded just 1300 covid-19 cases and nine deaths to date. It has achieved this by heavily restricting travel from the rest of Australia and other countries. In December, the state’s premier, Mark McGowan, announced that Western Australia would restore travel freedoms on 5 February, when 90 per cent of its population aged 12 and over was expected to be double-vaccinated. But on 20 January, McGowan cancelled the reopening, citing fears of an omicron surge. “Omicron is a whole new ball game,” he said at a press conference. McGowan didn’t set a new reopening date, but said the aim was to get 80 to 90 per cent of people boosted with a third dose of vaccine. The state currently has a third dose vaccination rate of 25 per cent for people aged 16 and older. Allison Imrie at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says it is unclear if this would put the state in a better position, since by the time everyone has received their booster shots, people who received them early on will already have waning immunity. “There’s never going to be a situation where everyone is synched to the same level of immunity so you can say, ‘OK, now we can let the virus in’,” she says. The two main benefits of waiting longer are having time to vaccinate 5- to 12-year-olds, who have only recently become eligible for the vaccine, and being able to import more rapid antigen tests, which are currently in short supply, says Imrie.

1-21-22 Capitol riot inquiry asks Ivanka Trump to voluntarily testify
US congressional investigators have asked Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the former president, to testify about the 6 January riot at the US Capitol. The move to request testimony from a Trump family member marks an escalation of the committee's probe of the riot. In a letter, lead investigator Bennie Thompson said Ms Trump was there when her father allegedly pressed his vice-president to reject election results. A mob stormed the Capitol as lawmakers met to confirm President Biden's win. Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump's eldest daughter, served as one of his senior advisers during his presidency, alongside her husband Jared Kushner. The committee says she participated in efforts to convince Mr Trump to call off his supporters during the violence. "The Committee would like to discuss any other conversations you may have witnessed or participated in regarding the President's plan to obstruct or impede the counting of electoral votes," says the nine-page letter to Ms Trump from Mr Thompson, a Mississippi congressman. "Testimony obtained by the Select Committee indicates that members of the White House staff requested your assistance on multiple occasions to intervene in an attempt to persuade President Trump to address the ongoing lawlessness and violence on Capitol Hill," he adds in the letter, which asks her to speak to the committee next month. A representative for Ms Trump told US media that she had just learned that the 6 January committee had issued a public letter asking her to appear. "As the Committee already knows, Ivanka did not speak at the January 6 rally," the spokesperson said. "As she publicly stated that day at 3:15pm, 'any security breach or disrespect to our law enforcement is unacceptable. The violence must stop immediately. Please be peaceful.'" The representative did not say whether she would comply with the voluntary request. The panel is also seeking the phone records of Mr Trump's son Eric Trump, as well as Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is engaged to Mr Trump's other son, Donald Trump Jr.

1-21-22 George Floyd: Federal civil rights trial of three ex-officers begins
A federal civil rights trial for three US ex-police officers indicted in the murder of George Floyd has begun in Minneapolis. J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao helped senior officer Derek Chauvin detain Mr Floyd for allegedly handing a counterfeit bill. Chauvin was filmed pressing his knee into the unarmed black man's neck for more than nine minutes before he died. His death, filmed by a bystander, led to global protests in 2020. Chauvin was convicted last June of murder and is currently serving time in state prison. In December, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Mr Floyd's civil rights, averting a second trial. Federal prosecutors allege the officers "wilfully deprived" Mr Floyd of his civil liberties during the attempted arrest and have submitted a list of 48 witnesses they could call to the stand. Jury selection was completed in a single day on Thursday. The court expects to begin opening arguments next Monday with a full bench of 12 jurors and six alternates. Two of the selected jurors appear to be Asian and the others are white, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper. The selected jury are composed of five men and seven women. Judge Paul Magnuson questioned one juror on whether his daughter's involvement in protests in the wake of Mr Floyd's death would allow him to remain impartial. When the man said it would not affect his judgement, the judge responded that his granddaughter also "kind of got caught" up in the same thing, the newspaper reported. The three men will also face their own state charges - for aiding and abetting Chauvin - in a separate trial later this year. Here is what we know about the four former police officers and the charges they face.

1-21-22 Texas synagogue: How synagogues stay safe - and still welcoming
Survivors of the armed attack at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas last weekend said they were saved by years of security training at their synagogue. As reports of anti-Semitism rise in the US, Jewish American leaders say this is the new norm. The daylong siege ended with a sprint. After nearly 11 hours captive in his own synagogue, Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the armed assailant and ran from the building with the two other hostages. Outside, about 200 local, state and federal law enforcement officers had congregated, preparing to stage a rescue. But inside, the hostages had quietly been forming their own plans, while shifting furtively toward an exit. "We escaped," Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages, wrote on Facebook after the incident. "We weren't released or freed." Rabbi Cytron-Walker and Mr Cohen credited the escape to survival courses taken with their congregation. In recent years, a new security standard has been ushered in at Jewish American institutions - in large part a response to the devastating 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, as well to a broader rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the US. Active shooter drills, hostage training and bomb threat protocols have become routine. But what is lost when a place of worship is secured from the outside world? Can it remain a sanctuary? The enhanced security traces a disturbing uptick in anti-Semitism in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks incidents of anti-Jewish bias and violence. In 2020, it recorded more than 2,000 anti-Semitic events, a 10% increase from the year before and the third-highest year on record since the ADL began recording in 1979. The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, in which 11 people were killed, remains the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in US history. Jewish American leaders often point to this assault as a turning point for security standards at synagogues. There was a before Tree of Life and an after, said Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who leads the Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington, DC. "That was so surprising and so violent, I think every synagogue said to themselves: we need to beef things up," he said.

1-21-22 American Airlines plane turns around mid-flight over mask row
An American Airlines plane travelling from Miami to London has had to turn back because a passenger refused to wear a face mask, the airline has said. American Airlines said flight AAL38 with 129 passengers on board returned to Miami where police were waiting. They escorted a woman in her 40s off the plane, reports say. She has been placed on a list of people barred from flying with American Airlines, pending further investigation, the airline said. The Wednesday flight turned around about an hour into its journey, according to tracking service FlightAware. The woman was sitting in first class, another passenger Steve Freeman told Miami's Local 10 news. "There was a lot of drinking involved and I was nervous. She sat behind us in first class," he said. "I could see the writing on the wall - they gave her a lot of warnings, so we were kind of ready for it." Passengers on the flight to London's Heathrow Airport were re-booked on to another flight for Thursday. "Everyone was shocked," one passenger told CBS station WFOR-TV after getting off the Wednesday flight. Another passenger said she was disappointed. "They wouldn't really say anything, and I don't believe they told the flight attendants anything either, because they said that all they could say was there was an extreme incident with a passenger and they had to turn around," she told the station. Airlines reported nearly 6,000 incidents involving unruly passengers last year and 151 in the first two weeks of this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of them involved passengers who refused to wear masks.

1-21-22 US charges four Belarus officials with aircraft piracy over flight diversion
The US has charged four Belarusian officials with aircraft piracy over the diversion of a passenger plane to Minsk last May. Prosecutors allege the officials used a false bomb threat to divert a Ryanair flight to the Belarus capital, where opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner were detained. FBI officials said the incident was a "reckless violation". Earlier this week a UN report concluded the bomb threat was deliberately false. A spokesperson for the US Justice Department said the four men, Leonid Mikalaevich Churo and Oleg Kazyuchits - the director general and deputy director general of Belarus' state air navigation authority - and state security officers Andrey Anatolievich Lnu [Last Name Unknown] and Fnu [First Name Unknown] Lnu, remain at large in Belarus. If they were tried in a US court they would face a life sentence. According to the charges, Mr Churo personally communicated the false bomb threat to Belarusian air traffic officials before the Ryanair flight to Vilnius in Lithuania took off from the Greek capital Athens. The air traffic officials waited for the plane to enter Belarusian air space before alerting the pilot to the purported bomb threat in order to force it to land in Minsk. Mr Churo's deputy, Mr Kazyuchits, later attempted to have the incident record falsified to hide the bomb threat and the involvement of state security officials, the indictment alleges. Speaking after the charges were filed at a federal court in New York, FBI Assistant Director Michael Driscoll called the hijacking a "reckless violation of US law". "The next pilot who gets a distress call from a tower may doubt the authenticity of the emergency - which puts lives at risk," Mr Driscoll added. Last year, Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary referred to the incident as a "state-sponsored hijacking".

1-21-22 Fly-tipping: Government plans to tackle 'new narcotics' of waste crime
The government has announced plans to tackle what the head of the Environment Agency has called the "new narcotics" of fly-tipping and waste crime. The proposals would see checks on who is able to handle and dispose of waste, as well as a digital tracking system. Fly-tipping is the illegal dumping of rubbish, like mattresses and bags of waste, in parks, or on pavements. There were 1.13 million fly-tipping incidents in England in 2020-21, a rise of 16% on the previous 12 months. The cost, which includes clear-up and lost taxes, has been estimated to be £1bn a year. The government says its reforms will address flaws in part of England's waste disposal system, the Environment Agency's Carrier, Broker and Dealer registration scheme (CBD). The consultation on reforms covers England only, but the mandatory digital waste tracking will be UK-wide. If you want someone to come to your house and pick up an old sofa or rubbish, they are supposed to be registered on the CBD database, and you should be able to go online to check they are legal. The problem with the CBD system is that there appear to be almost no checks made on who can register, as Mike Brown, who runs an environmental consultancy company, discovered. Back in 2017 he successfully registered his dead dog to highlight the many flaws in the system. "Oscar, our beloved highland terrier, died in 2006. Frankly we were very surprised at just how easy it was to register him as a waste carrier in just 15 minutes for £154," he explained. "The reason the system is broken is that, over the last decade, the funding for the waste regulator has reduced at exactly the time that these inadequate rules are being tested by criminals, whose proceeds from crime have increased." The system hasn't changed since then. If you've got the money to spare, you can register yourself or your pets to take away rubbish. A Guardian columnist even registered his goldfish. In practice, many people don't even get as far as the website and use unregistered operators. Some research suggests that as many of two-thirds of those advertising waste disposal services are unregistered.

1-20-22 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott takes fire from all sides for indefinite National Guard border deployment
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has made his deployment of state police and National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border a centerpiece of his re-election campaign. But a growing chorus has begun criticizing it as a politically motivated waste of $2 billion a year that has forced hundreds of part-time troops to deploy to the border with inadequate resources, a fuzzy mission, COVID outbreaks, cramped housing, and delayed paychecks, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Abbott's deployment, named Operation Lone Star, has been slammed this month by his likely Democratic gubernatorial opponent Beto O'Rourke but also Allen West, a conservative former Army lieutenant colonel and chairman of the Texas Republican Party who is challenging Abbott in the GOP primary. National Guard troops and veterans are speaking out, too. Abbott launched Operation Lone Star last March, saying he had to deploy troops to bolster border security amid what he called President Biden's soft immigration enforcement. His office says that is still true. In September he requested 1,500 National Guard troops to join the 500 already at the border. After Fox News host Tucker Carlson began regularly attacking Abbott for not sending down more troops, Abbott quickly requested another 2,500 troops, the Times reports. By November, his office boasted of 10,000 National Guard members deployed to the border. "But the Texas Guard could not reach those numbers solely with volunteers," the Times notes. "So the mission became mandatory," and "those called up had to report within weeks or, in some cases, a few days." Maj. Gen. Charles Aris said Guard members can expect to spend 365 days on the border mission, with probably two yearlong "turns." "This is just ridiculous, you're playing with my life and my family's life," Hugo Brito, a 20-year Guard veteran who said he decided to retire because of Operation Lone Star, told the Times. An unidentified active Guard member deployed near Brownsville was more blunt. "All we're doing is standing down here," he told the Times. "If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We're basically mall cops on the border." O'Rourke and West both pointed to Army Times reports about four suicides among guardsmen tied to the mission. "We rushed into a failure," West said. "We decided that it was all about a political optic." Read more about Operation Lone Star at The New York Times.

1-20-22 Cory Booker, Tim Scott spar over comparing voting restrictions to Jim Crow laws
Things got heated on the Senate floor Wednesday during debate on a voting rights bill, with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) at odds over whether the strict voting restrictions being put in place by Republican-led state legislatures can compare to Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws were first enacted in the late 1800s in order to segregate and disenfranchise Black people, especially in the South. Poll taxes and literacy tests, plus intimidation, were deployed to stop Black Americans from voting. The landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices, which in turned increased voter registration and turnout. Democrats have been trying to pass voting rights legislation that would, among other things, reinstate parts of the 1965 law, make Election Day a national holiday, and ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots. Scott, the Senate's only Black Republican, stated that when Democrats refer to these state laws as "Jim Crow 2.0," they are putting forward "a negative, false narrative of what is happening in America." The comparison is "offensive not just to me or Southern Americans, but offensive to millions of Americans who fought, bled, and died for the right to vote," he said. Scott noted that he defeated the son of late GOP segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond when he first won a House seat, and referring to himself and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), said it's "hard to deny progress" when two of three sitting Black senators "come from the Southern states that people say are places where African American votes are being suppressed. Not to mention the fact that 2020 was a banner year for minority participation." Democrats have argued that the higher minority participation is exactly why Republican-led state legislatures have enacted voting restrictions since the 2020 election. "Don't lecture me on Jim Crow," Booker said, speaking after Scott. "I know this is not 1965. That's what makes me so outraged — it's 2022 and they're blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented. I'm not making that up. That is a fact." Booker also said data shows that on average, Black voters have to wait in line at polling places twice as long as white voters. "In the United States today, it is more difficult for the average African American to vote than the average white American," he stated. "That is not rhetoric, that is fact."

1-20-22 Ukraine tension: Biden says he thinks Putin will 'move in'
US President Joe Biden has said he thinks his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will "move in" on Ukraine but does not want "full-blown war". He told a news conference Mr Putin would pay a "serious and dear price" for invading, but indicated a minor incursion might be treated differently. The White House later stressed any Russian military move would be met with a swift, severe response from the West. The Kremlin warned the comments could further destabilise the situation. Russia has some 100,000 troops near the border but denies planning an invasion. President Putin has made a series of demands to the West, insisting Ukraine should never be allowed to join Nato and that the defensive alliance abandons military activity in Eastern Europe. "We have made it clear that any further eastward expansion of Nato is unacceptable," Mr Putin said at a televised press conference last month. Mr Putin's exact reasons for the build up of Russian troops near Ukraine's border are unknown, but many believe it is an attempt to force the West to take Russia's security demands seriously. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting foreign ministers from Germany, France and the UK to co-ordinate Western strategy over a potential invasion of Ukraine. He has previously warned that Russia could attack Ukraine at short notice. At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr Biden said: "There are differences in Nato as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens. "If there's Russian forces crossing the border… I think that changes everything. "What you're going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does," he said. "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc."

1-20-22 Biden questions if US midterm elections will be 'legit'
US President Joe Biden has suggested the 2022 midterm elections could be "illegitimate" as his plan to overhaul the voting system was blocked. In a White House news conference, he argued voting integrity hinged on his bid to enact the most sweeping changes to US elections in a generation. He also conceded shortcomings on Covid testing and messaging, but pledged: "It will get better." For the first time, he vowed to retain Kamala Harris as his 2024 running mate. In his second ever solo White House press conference on Wednesday, Mr Biden was asked if November's congressional elections would be legitimate if he could not pass his voting plans. "It all depends on whether or not we're able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election," he said, referring to stricter voting rules enacted by Republican state houses. "I'm not saying it's going to be legit," Mr Biden said when asked about the possibility of fraud in the forthcoming elections that will decide the balance of power in Washington. "The increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed," the Democratic president continued. Members of his own party quickly pushed back against the suggestion. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin said new Republican state voting laws were "very troublesome", but he added of Mr Biden's remarks: "I don't know if I'd use those terms." "We might have a little difference of opinion on that one," West Virginia's Joe Manchin told CNN. Shortly after Mr Biden spoke, Mr Manchin was one of two rebel senators who doomed the president's voting bills. He and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema refused to go along with a radical rule change to Senate procedure - dumping the filibuster and removing the requirement for 60 votes to pass certain legislation. They argued such a tactic would only worsen political polarisation in America. Republicans used the filibuster on Wednesday night to block the bills. Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called Mr Biden's speech an attempt to "baselessly smear election integrity provisions".

1-20-22 George Floyd: Federal civil rights trial of three ex-officers begins
A federal civil rights trial for three US ex-police officers indicted in the murder of George Floyd has begun in Minneapolis. J Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao helped senior officer Derek Chauvin detain Mr Floyd for allegedly handing a counterfeit bill. Chauvin was filmed pressing his knee into the unarmed black man's neck for more than nine minutes before he died. His death, filmed by a bystander, led to global anti-racism protests in 2020. Chauvin was convicted last June of murder and is currently serving time in state prison. In December, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Mr Floyd's civil rights, averting a second trial. Federal prosecutors allege the officers "wilfully deprived" Mr Floyd of his civil liberties during the attempted arrest and have submitted a list of 48 witnesses they could call to the stand. ury selection begins on Thursday. The court expects to begin opening arguments next Monday with a full bench of 12 jurors and six alternates. The three will also face their own state charges - for aiding and abetting Chauvin - in a separate trial later this year. Here is what we know about the four former police officers and the charges they face.

1-20-22 Havana syndrome: Most cases not caused by foreign power - CIA
Most cases of a mysterious illness striking US officials dubbed "Havana syndrome" were not caused by a foreign power, CIA officials say. Since 2016, US diplomats around the world have reported symptoms - sparking suggestions Russia, China or another adversary could be responsible. But a majority of 1,000 cases looked at by the CIA can be explained by stress or natural causes, officials say. The release of the findings has angered some of those who fell ill. The CIA is still looking into a small number of unexplained cases, where the role of a foreign power has not been ruled out. Americans who have been hit by Havana syndrome have described dizziness, headaches and an intense and painful sound in their ears. First reported in Cuba in 2016, cases have since been reported in Geneva, Berlin and elsewhere. Some US officials have previously suggested the illness could be caused by microwave attacks, fuelling speculation the illness could be a kind of weapon from a foreign actor such as Russia. Moscow has always denied any involvement. But a CIA official told the BBC's US partner CBS the agency had "so far not found evidence of state-actor involvement in any incident". Most cases could be explained by "medical conditions or environmental and technical factors, including previously undiagnosed illnesses", the official added. The official said it was "unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign, harming US personnel with a weapon or mechanism." Groups representing victims of the illness said they were disappointed by the release of the CIA's interim report. "Not all the cases can be explained away. This cannot and must not be the last word on this matter, because it is neither definitive, nor comprehensive," the Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome group said.

1-20-22 CIA reportedly doubts 'Havana Syndrome' is a sustained assault by Russia or another hostile power
The CIA has determined it's unlikely that "Havana Syndrome," a mysterious set of symptoms first detected among U.S. diplomats in Cuba, is the result of a sustained global campaign by a hostile foreign actor, NBC News and The New York Times reported late Wednesday, citing CIA officials familiar with a new intelligence assessment. Most of the 1,000 cases reported by U.S. diplomats and spies have plausible, alternate explanations, like undiagnosed medical conditions, environmental causes, or stress. But "in about two dozen cases, the agency can't rule out foreign involvement, including many of the cases that originated at the U.S. embassy in Havana beginning in 2016," NBC News reports. "We assess it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism," a senior CIA official tells The Washington Post. The CIA is focusing now on the two dozen unexplained cases that "offer the greatest chance of yielding clues to whether a foreign power is responsible" for the mysterious maladies, the Times reports. The CIA's interim reports is "not a final conclusion of the broader Biden administration or the full intelligence community," NBC News reports, and an expert panel convened by the White House National Security Council is still examining Havana Syndrome, as are the Pentagon, FBI, and State Department. Still, the Times says, the CIA's assessment "left many victims dissatisfied, particularly current and former officials who have been battling chronic ailments for years without being given a clear explanation." CIA Directors William Burns, who has publicly characterized Havana Syndrome as an attack, said in a statement that "while we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done." He noted that CIA officers have experience real symptoms, adding, "We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it." Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer afflicted with Havana Syndrome symptoms on a 2017 trip to Moscow, told the Times "it took us 10 years to find Osama bin Laden," so "I would just urge patience and continued investigation by the intelligence community and the Department of Defense."

1-19-22 Supreme Court refuses Trump request to block documents from Jan. 6 committee
The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected former President Donald Trump's attempt to block the release of records to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Trump's lawyers argued the records from his time in the White House should be protected by executive privilege. The House panel asked for the documents — including drafts of speeches, call and visitor logs, and handwritten notes — in order to gain a clear picture of Trump's actions and mindset before, during, and after the Capitol riot. The records are being kept by the National Archives, and President Biden has said he will not block their release. In an unsigned order, the Supreme Court said that "the questions whether and in what circumstances a former president may obtain a court order preventing disclosure of privileged records from his tenure in office, in the face of a determination by the incumbent president to waive the privilege, are unprecedented and raise serious and substantial concerns. Because the Court of Appeals concluded that President Trump's claims would have failed even if he were the incumbent, his status as a former president necessarily made no difference to the court's decision." Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court to say he would have granted Trump's request to shield the documents, but did not go into detail as to why, Politico reports.

1-19-22 Top Florida health official suspended after urging staff to get vaccinated
Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, was placed on administrative leave after emailing employees about their low COVID-19 vaccination rate, telling them it was "irresponsible not to be vaccinated." WFTV reports that Pino had an analyst gather vaccination data on his department's 568 employees, and found that less than half had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and just 13 percent had their booster. "I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it!" Pino wrote in his Jan. 4 email. "The reasons can be many, but so many of us? I am sorry, but at this point in the absence of reasonable and real reasons, it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated." He added that for the department to not even hit a 50 percent vaccination rate is "pathetic." In November, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law prohibiting government agencies, schools, and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccination, and officials are investigating whether Pino violated the ban, Reuters reports. In a statement, the Florida Department of Health said that as the "decision to get vaccinated is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers, the employee in question has been placed on administrative leave." Pino works closely with Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who has been critical of how DeSantis is handling the pandemic, WESH reports, and Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith called Pino's suspension "political." In a statement, Demings said Pino "has been our trusted partner and friend throughout the pandemic" whose "sound medical advice has helped guide me and countless other Orange County leaders to make the best decisions possible in dealing with COVID-19. It is my fervent hope that Dr. Pino returns to work on behalf of the residents of Orange County soon."

1-19-22 Concerns about Afghan air force were 'being actively addressed,' Pentagon spokesperson says
A Defense Department spokesperson said that a recently declassified government report casting doubt on the Afghan air force's ability to operate without U.S. support was based on old data and that the concerns it raised were "being actively addressed" in the months prior to withdrawal. ccording to the report from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Spoko, which was submitted to DoD in Jan. 2021, American forces in Afghanistan were aware the country's air force could not survive without American support. "In particular," The Associated Press reports, "the report points to U.S. failure to train Afghan support staff, leaving the air force unable to maintain its aircraft without American contractors." Some commentators argue that, in light of this report, the likelihood of the Taliban rapidly seizing the country after American forces withdrew should have been obvious months in advance. At the time, top Biden administration officials expressed shock at the speed with which Afghanistan's government collapsed. "Without an air force, the Afghan army was destined to collapse; without an army, the Afghan government was destined to collapse. In other words, just about everybody in the American government realized that a Taliban takeover was the most likely scenario ... except the man at the top," Jim Geraghty opined in National Review Wednesday. In a press briefing Tuesday, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters the SIGAR report "was from January 2021" and "included data that was well before that timeframe." Kirby then claimed that, by the time of the August withdrawal, significant progress had been made in fixing the issues the report raised. "[T]he specific challenges that were presented in this report were well known to us, in fact were being actively addressed by the department and our coalition partners," Kirby said. "As we were heading into the summer, it was an air force that we and our coalition partners helped make much more capable."

1-18-22 Chinese have most trust in institutions, Americans near bottom, and Russians dead last, new survey shows
A new survey suggests people living under authoritarian regimes increasingly trust their major institutions more than citizens of democratic countries trust theirs, Axios reported Tuesday. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed 35,000 respondents across 28 countries, trust in NGOs, business, government, and the media fell most sharply in Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea, and the United States since 2021. China and the United Arab Emirates saw the biggest gains. Average trust in institutions stood at 83 and 76 in the two nations, up 11 and nine points, respectively, from last year. Saudi Arabian institutions also improved on an already high score, with trust rising from 69 in 2021 to 72 in 2022. South Korean institutions scored a 42 in 2022. Institutions in the U.S. did only one point better. Developed democracies, especially Western democracies, occupied most of the bottom two-thirds of the trust index rankings, but one authoritarian regime — Russia — finished dead last, with an average trust rating of only 32. Those surveyed were asked, for each institution, to indicate on a nine-point scale "how much you trust that institution to do what is right." The survey spanned 35,000 respondents across 28 countries via online interviews held between November 1-24, 2021. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.

1-19-22 Omicron may be close to peaking in the U.S., but there's lots of death to come, models predict
"The latest Omicron developments continue to be encouraging," David Leonhardt writes in Wednesday's New York Times. "New COVID-19 cases are plummeting in a growing list of places. The percentage of cases causing severe illness is much lower than it was with the Delta variant. And vaccines — particularly after a booster shot — remain extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death." Still, the math suggests a lot more hospitalizations and deaths before Omicron is spent. A combination of various models shared with the White House expects that 1.5 million Americans will be hospitalized and 191,000 will die from mid-December through mid-March, The Associated Press reports. "Taking into account the uncertainty in the models, U.S. deaths during the omicron wave could range from 58,000 to 305,000." Omicron cases are expected to peak by early February, but as with floods, the real question for Omicron isn't "where's the high-water mark" bur rather, "When will the water recede?" Johns Hopkins University's Gabe Kelen tells The Washington Post. "We're at such high numbers that even as we're coming down, we're still overwhelmed." "A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible Omicron has been," University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi tells AP. "It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better." Yes, "the COVID situation in the U.S. remains fairly grim, with overwhelmed hospitals and nearly 2,000 deaths a day," and "it's likely to remain grim into early February," Leonhardt concedes. "The available evidence suggests that Omicron is less threatening to a vaccinated person than a normal flu," but "small individual risks have added up to large societal damage." Still, "Omicron appears to be in retreat, even if the official national data doesn't yet reflect that reality," Leonhardt adds. Combine that with the variant's decreased severity and "the U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging COVID situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged." The U.S. faces "a few more tough weeks," but at some point "the virus moves from the pandemic stage to endemic stage" and some degree of normality, Justin Lessler, an epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells the Post. "It's possible, and I sincerely hope that after Omicron we're in that zone. That's completely plausible that that's where we'll be, but we can't be sure of that."

1-19-22 White House to distribute 400 million free N95 masks at 'tens of thousands' of locations starting next week
The Biden administration will distribute 400 million high-quality N95 masks through "tens of thousands" of pharmacies, community clinics, and other locations starting next week, a White House official told reporters ahead of an official announcement Wednesday. Each adult will get up to three masks, and "we anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future," the official said. The masks will be shipped around the U.S. from the federal Strategic National Stockpile at the end of the week. The White House, which launched a website for ordering free COVID-19 tests on Tuesday, is stepping up the federal response to the flood of cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. "This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," the White House official said. "Experts agree that masking is an important tool to control the spread of COVID-19," especially the Omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control advised last week that N95 or KN95 masks are more effective than disposable surgical masks, and "loosely woven cloth coverings" offer the least protection of any masks. The Strategic National Stockpile has more than 750 million N95 masks, and "unlike earlier in the pandemic when severe shortages of personal protective equipment affected hospitals, forcing hospital staff to make homemade face shields and use bandanas, an ample supply of high-quality masks exists for health-care workers," The Washington Post reports. "Those masks are also widely available to the public online and in stores." "I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get," President Biden acknowledged last week. And "I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But ... they're a really important tool to stop the spread." While Biden is urging people to mask up in public indoor spaces, he hasn't asked state or local governments to require them for the public at large. That sets the U.S. apart from every other Group of Seven country, all of which have mask mandates or widespread mask-wearing, said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University. "We should implement data-driven mask policies so that mask policies automatically turn on and better protect everyone and our society during surges," she suggested.

1-19-22 Joe Biden one year: How is he doing so far?
When he took office as the 46th US president, Joe Biden declared that his ascension was the "triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause - the cause of democracy". Speaking to a divided country in the midst of a pandemic, just weeks after the Capitol riot, he vowed to bring back unity and do "great things". "We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus," he said. A year into his presidency, we take a look at what progress Mr Biden has made, his standing with the American public, and what it all means for the president going forward, with analysis from the BBC's North America correspondent Anthony Zurcher. Despite a bitter presidential race, Mr Biden began his term with 56% of the country approving of his performance, according to RealClearPolitics, and having won more than 80 million votes - more than any other president. But in his first year, he has had a startling slide in fortunes. His star began to fall at the time of a widely criticised withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and as the Delta variant advanced. Since then, his approval ratings have fallen further as he has struggled to deliver on his biggest campaign promises to tame the pandemic and restore prosperity for working families. Compared with other recent presidents, only Donald Trump has had a more disappointing first year - his approval rating fell from 45% on his inauguration day to 35% a year later, according to historical trends by Gallup. Mr Biden's former boss, Barack Obama, began at a high of nearly 70% when he took office and ended close to 50% a year later. George W Bush began his first term in a similar position to Mr Biden, with approval around 60%, but that rose to nearly 90% after 9/11. Anthony Zurcher: It's hard to say that the honeymoon is over for Joe Biden because he never really had one. His ratings started modestly positive, without the kind of big inaugural bump most presidents (not named Donald Trump) receive. Now his numbers are in the danger zone for first-term presidents hoping to win re-election - a reflection of near universal Republican dislike and a majority of independents who are souring on him.

1-19-22 Joe Biden one year on: Has the United States become ungovernable?
One of Joe Biden's central election campaign themes was restoring unity to an angry and divided nation. Twelve months after assuming office, things aren't any better, writes Nick Bryant. Long before the sun had risen over the dome of the US Capitol on the day that Joe Biden was sworn in as president, technicians on the inaugural platform tested the teleprompter he would later read from by scrolling through America's most celebrated sermon: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." When I first saw the lines of the Gettysburg Address on those screens in front of the presidential podium, I thought it must be some kind of sick joke. However, the words of Abraham Lincoln could hardly be described as being out of place. Washington, after all, looked that morning like a military encampment. Troops had slept overnight in the corridors of Congress to protect it from seditionists, just as their forebears had done in Lincoln's day. The scaffolding of the inaugural platform had been used only two weeks before as a staging post for the January 6th insurrection. The Confederate flag had even been held aloft in the halls of US power, as American once again fought American. So the question posed by the country's 16th president seemed especially pertinent as the 46th occupant of the office prepared to assume power - could this country long endure? Rather than speaking that day of national renewal, a platitudinous staple of presidential inaugurals, Joe Biden focused on national reunification. And though it was three words from his address that instantly entered the history books, "democracy has prevailed," it was three short sentences that set out his presidential mission statement: "Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation." A year on, however, that plea for national unity sounds more like magical thinking. Far from coming together, the United States is in an even more perilous state of disunion. Often it feels as if the only thing that unites the nation is mutual loathing. America seems to be engaged in a forever war with itself.

1-19-22 Donald Trump investigation reveals new details of alleged fraud
Donald Trump's family business misrepresented the value of some of its biggest assets by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to documents filed by the New York attorney general. Letitia James accuses the Trump Organization of using "fraudulent or misleading asset valuations" to get loans, insurance and tax breaks. It is Ms James' strongest language yet, as she tries to get Mr Trump to testify in her civil investigation. Mr Trump denies any wrongdoing. The former president, a Republican, has called the investigation into his business practices a politically motivated witch-hunt by Ms James, who is a Democrat. She opened a civil inquiry in 2019 into claims that - before he took office - Mr Trump had inflated the value of his assets to banks when seeking loans. Mr Trump's lawyers are trying to stop Ms James from questioning the former US president and his children, and he has sued her to try to halt the probe. Ms James's civil case is separate to an ongoing criminal investigation in Manhattan into the organisation's business practices. Her latest court filing on Tuesday is the first time the allegations being levelled at the Trump Organization have been detailed with specific examples. They involve six of his properties in New York and Scotland, and the "Trump brand". For example, his large property in Westchester county, north of Manhattan, was valued by the Trump Organization at $291m in 2012 (£189m at the time), however an appraisal in 2016 valued it far lower, at just $56m, the court filing says. The attorney general also alleges that Mr Trump's lavish three-storey penthouse in New York's Trump Tower was valued based on a size of 30,000 sq ft (2,800 sq m), but it is in fact 10,996 sq ft. The court filing claims that at least two false statements were made to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) - the main tax body in the US - that "substantially overstated" the value of two properties to get a tax break.

1-19-22 US Capitol riot committee issues subpoena to Rudy Giuliani
The congressional panel investigating last year's US Capitol riot have issued a subpoena to former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The House of Representatives committee demanded Mr Giuliani and three others hand over documents and sit for depositions on 8 February. Mr Giuliani travelled the US after the 2020 election to promote the baseless claim that Mr Trump had won the vote. The riot on 6 January 2021 was stoked by falsehoods about mass voter fraud. Subpoenas were issued on Tuesday to three other Trump associates: 1. Jenna Ellis - Mr Giuliani's assistant who the committee says prepared memos claiming that the election could be legally overturned. 2. Sidney Powell - A former lawyer to Mr Trump who claimed that a court filing would unleash a "Kraken" of evidence, but it never materialised. 3. Boris Epshteyn - A Trump campaign strategist who the panel says held a call with Mr Trump on the morning of the riot to discuss tactics to delay certification. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic lawmaker who is leading the House select committee, said in a statement that all four aides "advanced unsupported theories about election fraud, pushed efforts to overturn the election results, or were in direct contact with the former president about attempts to stop the counting of electoral votes". It is not clear whether the four of them intend to comply with the committee. If they refuse, they could be held in contempt of Congress and face possible criminal prosecution. The subpoena calls on Mr Giuliani - a longtime ally of Mr Trump - to submit a sworn testimony and provide documents. The document charges that Mr Giuliani and Ms Powell urged Mr Trump to seize voting machines around the country after being informed by the Department of Homeland Security that it "had no lawful authority to do so". On the day of the riot, Mr Giuliani addressed the crowd of Trump supporters outside the White House and called for "trial by combat". Later, as the mob was storming the building, he called senators in a further effort to halt Joe Biden's certification as president.

1-19-22 Covid-19 news: Most short-term vaccine symptoms down to nocebo effect
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Most symptoms reported following covid-19 vaccines are likely to be caused by a nocebo effect rather than an immune response. Around two-thirds of reported short-term covid-19 vaccine side effects could be explained by a nocebo response, according to a review of vaccine trials. The nocebo effect, a counterpart to the placebo effect, is when someone experiences ill effects due to negative expectations. Julia Haas at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and her colleagues looked at data from 12 published studies comparing covid-19 vaccines to placebo injections. The trials included 22,802 people who had been given a first or second dose of a range of vaccines, including those made by Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. The adverse effects reported by these participants were compared to those reported by a total of 22,578 trial participants who had been given a placebo, typically a saline injection. The researchers only considered generally mild symptoms that developed in the short term. The UK has recorded its highest daily covid-19 death toll since February 2021, reports Sky News. Government figures show 438 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for covid-19 were reported on 18 January. Since the start of the pandemic, the UK has recorded 174,233 deaths with a mention of covid-19 on the death certificate. Free lateral flow tests could cease to be available to people in England, Scotland and Wales from the end of June, according to a document seen by Reuters. A source told Reuters that tests could cost around £30 for a pack of seven. Spain’s government is exploring how to move to treating covid-19 as an endemic illness, reports Euronews. The move would mean lifting restrictions and a change in the way cases are monitored, bringing it more in line with the way the country deals with the flu. However, there are different kinds of endemicity. “Whether it becomes endemic at a low level or a high level really matters,” Christina Pagel at University College London recently told New Scientist.

1-19-22 Winter Olympics: Athletes warned over speaking out on human rights issues
Athletes at next month's Beijing Winter Olympics face punishment for behaviour that is against the spirit of the Games or Chinese rules, an official has said. It comes after Human Rights Watch held a briefing to warn of the dangers of athletes speaking out at the Games. Athletes were told to "stay silent" about human rights issues as they will "not be protected" in an "Orwellian surveillance state". The Games start on 4 February, followed by the Winter Paralympics from 4 March. China has been accused of committing genocide against Uighurs and other mainly Muslim peoples, an allegation China has repeatedly rejected. "Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I'm sure will be protected and anything and any behaviour or speeches that are against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment," said Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022's International Relations Department. Yang suggested that a possible punishment could be the cancellation of athletes' accreditation. When asked for a response, the International Olympic Committee referred to rule 50.2 of its guidelines, which protect the neutrality of sport and of the Games. "The Games are governed by the IOC Rules, they will be applied at Beijing 2022 like at any other edition of the Games before," it said. The IOC relaxed a ban on protests before the Tokyo Games last summer, allowing athletes to "express their views" during news conferences - but political demonstrations are still banned on the medal podiums. Nordic skier Noah Hoffman says he feels "fear" for athletes over "the lack of the ability to speak freely". "My advice for athletes who are there and my hope for athletes who are going there is to stay silent," said Hoffmanm, speaking at the Human Rights Watch seminar.

1-19-22 Mobile firms agree another 5G delay at US airports
US mobile networks AT&T and Verizon have agreed to postpone the rollout of their new 5G service at some airports. The C-band service, which offers faster speeds and broader coverage, was due to be turned on tomorrow. But airlines in the US have pushed to delay the start, warning that the signals could interfere with aeroplane navigation systems. The telecoms firms expressed frustration as they bowed to pressure to limit their rollout. AT&T said it was "temporarily" deferring the rollout at a "limited number of towers around certain airport runways". Regulators had had "two years" to plan for the start of 5G service, it added. "We are frustrated by the Federal Aviation Administration's inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner," AT&T said in a statement. "We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers." Verizon also said it had "voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports". This third postponement came as the White House and aviation authorities rushed to work out a solution to an issue that airlines have warned could cause major disruption, forcing them to ground some of their fleets and cancel flights. In a statement, President Joe Biden thanked Verizon and AT&T for agreeing the delay, which he said would affect only about 10% of wireless tower locations. "This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans," he said, adding that officials would continue talks to find a "permanent, workable solution around these key airports". Phone companies have spent tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their networks to deploy the 5G technology, which brings much faster internet services and greater connectivity. But airlines fear C-band 5G signals will disrupt planes' navigation systems, particularly those used in bad weather. Two major planemakers, Airbus and Boeing, have also voiced concerns.

1-18-22 Free COVID-19 tests now available on government website prior to official launch
Orders for free COVID-19 tests from a government website can now be placed, one day before it officially launches. On Tuesday, the government website COVIDtests.gov allowed users to order free at-home tests after entering their name and shipping address. This was one day earlier than expected, as the White House said last week the website would begin taking orders on Jan. 19. The website was quickly flooded with traffic, with Politico reporter David Lim noting it soon made up over half of the traffic on all government websites. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday the website was currently in its "beta phase" and "in the early stages of being rolled out," adding that it would "officially" launch on Wednesday morning. The administration website offers four free at-home COVID-19 tests per household, and it says the orders will "usually ship in 7-12 days." The White House also previously announced that a call line would be set up for those who can't access the website. The website launch comes after President Biden recently ordered an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests. "Every website launch, in our view, comes with risk," Psaki said. "We can't guarantee there won't be a bug or two, but the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success."

1-18-22 U.S., Russia to hold high-stakes talks on Ukraine
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Friday in Geneva, capping off a week of diplomacy as the United States aims to fend off a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Over the last year, Russia has been shifting its troops, and it's estimated that about 100,000 are stationed near the border with eastern Ukraine. Russia recently deployed more troops to its ally Belarus for military exercises, a move that one U.S. official told The Guardian NATO didn't know about in advance. These troops, the official added, are in "numbers beyond what we'd expect in regard to a normal exercise." The Biden administration has warned that Russia could be planning a false-flag attack, sending operatives into Ukraine to launch an assault that would give pretext to an invasion. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at this stage, "Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine." During their meeting, Blinken and Lavrov will discuss "if there is a possible diplomatic off-ramp to this crisis," a State Department official told reporters on Tuesday. The United States is "prepared to continue to engage with Russia on security issues in a meaningful, reciprocal dialogue," the official added. "We will see this Friday if Russia is prepared to do the same." Before the summit, Blinken will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, as well as his French, German, and British counterparts in Berlin. indicate that an invasion is imminent. Citing security concerns, Moscow is insisting that the West not let Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, a demand the Biden administration has said it will not entertain.

1-18-22 World's 10 richest men doubled their wealth during the pandemic, while most people got poorer, Oxfam reports
The wealth of the world's 10 richest people, as measured by Forbes, more than doubled between March 2020 and November 2021, advocacy group Oxfam reported Monday, rising to $1.5 trillion from about $700 billion. Meanwhile, the incomes of 99 percent of people in the world fell during the pandemic, Oxfam said, citing World Bank data. The group suggested a one-time global tax on billionaires. "Billionaires have had a terrific pandemic," Oxfam International Executive Director Gabriela Bucher said Monday in a statement accompanying the charity's annual report. "Central banks pumped trillions of dollars into financial markets to save the economy, yet much of that has ended up lining the pockets of billionaires riding a stock market boom." If the world's 10 richest men — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bernard Arnault and family, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Ballmer, and Warren Buffett — lost 99 percent of their wealth, Bucher said, they would still be richer than 99 percent of all people on this planet. Musk's wealth grew by more than 1,000 percent during the pandemic, while Gates saw a more modest 30 percent rise in his fortune. "Even during a global crisis our unfair economic systems manage to deliver eye-watering windfalls for the wealthiest but fail to protect the poorest," Oxfam Great Britain CEO Danny Sriskandarajah told BBC News. "There's been a new billionaire created almost every day during this pandemic, meanwhile 99 percent of the world's population are worse off because of lockdowns, lower international trade, less international tourism, and as a result of that, 160 million more people have been pushed into poverty." Stocks plummeted in March 2020, setting a low base to measure the spike in wealth, but even "if you take the wealth of billionaires in mid-February 2020 instead, we estimate that the increase in the top ten richest men is more like 70 percent," Max Lawson, one of the report's authors, told BBC News. That "would still represent a record breaking increase, and something the like of which we have never seen before."

1-18-22 US airlines warn of impending 5G flight disruption
The 10 biggest US airlines have warned that the impending switch-on of 5G mobile phone services will cause "major disruption" to flights. They said the start of Verizon and AT&T 5G mobile phone services, planned for Wednesday, would cause a "completely avoidable economic alamity". Airlines fear C-band 5G signals will disrupt planes' navigation systems, particularly those used in bad weather. The warning was issued in a letter sent to US aviation authorities. The chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines were joined by others in saying: "Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies", including vaccine distribution. The BBC has seen the letter outlining their urgent concerns. It was sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the chair of the Federal Communications Commission and the director of the National Economic Council. The BBC understands that negotiations are continuing at the highest levels of the US government about what has been described as a "very fluid situation". The airlines want 5G signals to be excluded from "the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA on 19 January 2022". "This will allow 5G to be deployed while avoiding harmful impacts on the aviation industry, travelling public, supply chain, vaccine distribution, our workforce and broader economy. "We further ask that the FAA immediately identify those base stations closest to key airport runways that need to be addressed to ensure safety and avoid disruption," they added. These concerns were recently highlighted by the two big planemakers, Airbus and Boeing, in a rare joint warning. The group of airlines said: "Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swathes of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded. "In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable wide-body aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas." (Webmasters Comment: China is leading the way in the size and consistency of its 5G network. It does not have these problems!)

1-18-22 5G phones: How serious is the threat to US flights?
Ten leading US airlines are warning that the imminent rollout of 5G services could be disastrous. They say the new technology could cause thousands of flights to be delayed, and risks leaving large parts of the US aircraft fleet grounded indefinitely. 5G relies on radio signals. In the US, the radio frequencies being used for 5G are in part of the spectrum known as C-Band. These frequencies are close to the ones used by radio altimeters on aeroplanes, which measure the height of the aircraft above the ground, but also provide data for safety and navigation systems. The concern is that interference from 5G transmissions could stop these instruments from working properly, and cause safety problems, particularly when aircraft are coming in to land. It is potentially very serious. In late 2020, the RTCA - a US organisation which produces technical guidance on aviation issues - published a report on the subject. It said there was "potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations". More recently, the US aviation regulator, the FAA, warned that 5G interference could lead to problems with a number of different systems aboard Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. These could make it difficult to slow the plane down on landing, causing it to veer off the runway. Planes won't be allowed to use radio altimeters in circumstances where there could be a risk of serious interference. But that will restrict the ability of some aircraft to land, for example, in poor visibility. Airlines for America, which represents 10 major carriers, has warned that this could lead to more than 1,000 flights being delayed or cancelled in bad weather and mean at times "the vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded". It has also suggested a large part of the US aircraft fleet will be "deemed unusable" because of restrictions on their operation. (Webmasters Comment: China is leading the way in the size and consistency of its 5G network. It does not have these problems!)

1-18-22 Ivermectin: Arkansas inmates sue over Covid treatment with horse dewormer
A group of inmates at a jail in the US state of Arkansas are taking legal action, saying they were unknowingly prescribed the horse deworming drug Ivermectin to treat Covid-19. Small doses of Ivermectin are approved for use on humans, but health officials have warned against its use for Covid. Anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists have been promoting the drug as an alternative to vaccination. The doctor who administered the drug said no inmates were forced to take it. In a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the inmates said that after contracting Covid they were given a "cocktail of drugs" they were told contained vitamins, antibiotics and steroids. It said they had been administered Ivermectin without prior informed consent. The plaintiffs were named as Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Jeremiah Little, Julio Gonzales and Dayman Blackburn. The lawsuit said they experienced problems with their vision, diarrhea and stomach cramps after taking the medication. "No-one - including incarcerated individuals - should be deceived and subject to medical experimentation," said ACLU Arkansas legal director Gary Sullivan in a statement. "The detention centre failed to use safe and appropriate treatments for Covid-19, even in the midst of a pandemic, and they must be held accountable." The defendants in the case - Washington County Jail, county sheriff Tim Helder and health provider Robert Karas - are yet to comment on the lawsuit. But in a letter sent by his lawyer to investigators in September when the accusations first came to light, Dr Karas denied that inmates were coerced or misled into taking the drug, according to the Associated Press news agency. Dr Karas said that 254 inmates had been treated with the drug since November 2020. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement last year urging people not to take Ivermectin for Covid-19.

1-18-22 Texas synagogue hostage-taker was known to MI5
A British man who took four people hostage at a synagogue in Texas had been investigated by MI5. Malik Faisal Akram, from Blackburn in Lancashire, was the subject of an investigation in late 2020 but by the time he flew to the US he was assessed to be no longer a risk. The four people held hostage at the synagogue in Colleyville near Dallas were eventually freed unharmed, after a 10-hour siege. Akram, 44, was shot dead by police. He had been on the British security service's watchlist as a "subject of interest" in 2020 and was investigated in the second half of that year. But by 2021 Akram, who had a criminal record in the UK, had moved from the active list to the former subject of interest list and was no longer considered a threat. Two teenagers remain in custody after being arrested in England as part of the investigation into what US President Joe Biden described as "an act of terror", but their ages and genders have not been released. The siege began at around 11:00 local time (16:00 GMT) on Saturday, when police were called to the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. Akram gained initial access to the synagogue during the service by claiming to be a homeless man, according to a police source quoted by CBS. One hostage was released after six hours, while the other three - including the synagogue's rabbi - escaped several hours later. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-White told BBC partner CBS how he and two other hostages were able to get out "without a shot being fired" after he threw a chair at the hostage-taker. He said the group had been praying when he heard a click that turned out to be the hostage-taker's gun, beginning an ordeal he described as "terrifying". Both Greater Manchester Police and the Metropolitan Police have said they are in contact with the US authorities and Counter Terrorism Policing North West is leading the investigation in the UK. Akram is thought to have arrived in the US via New York's JFK International Airport two weeks ago, according to police sources, and he is believed to have bought weapons used in the incident "on the street" after his arrival. While he had been considered a subject of interest (SOI) in 2020 he had been downgraded by the time he travelled to the US.

1-17-22 Fauci: It's too soon to say whether Omicron will hasten pandemic's end
Experts are looking into COVID's crystal ball to predict where the Omicron variant will lead the U.S., but the picture is far from clear. White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Monday that it's "an open question" whether Omicron will be the last variant wave to majorly disrupt regular life, reports CNBC. Asked whether the highly transmissible variant could spread widely enough to hasten the end of the pandemic, Fauci said, "I would hope that that's the case. But that would only be the case if we don't get another variant that eludes the immune response of the prior variant." Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, meanwhile, predicted a "return to normal life" sometime in the spring, reports Fox Business, citing an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro. Bourla argues COVID-19 antiviral drugs in development could work alongside vaccines to prevent severe disease. Separately, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said the company's combined COVID-19 and flu shot could roll out by fall 2023, per CNN. Other experts, like London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Annelies Wilder-Smith, say it's "too early" to call COVID endemic, but predict "there is a high probability that we will have a new variant" before then, though it would likely be less severe. Regardless of the murky post-Omicron pandemic, all agree that while still in the grips of the current variant, we should first focus on getting through our more immediate future. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned Sunday that this record-setting wave has not yet peaked, and declared "the next few weeks will be tough."

1-17-22 Harris says to 'truly honor' the legacy of MLK, voting rights legislation must pass
Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday urged the Senate to "do its job" and pass voting rights legislation. Harris marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day by appearing virtually at an event hosted by the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In a pointed message, Harris said that in order to "truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all." King pushed for "the freedom that unlocks all others — the freedom to vote," Harris continued, and that is now "under assault. In Georgia and across our nation, anti-voter laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote — 55 million Americans. That is one out of six people in our country." The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act would expand voting access and prevent voting restrictions from being enacted at the state level. In the last year, several Republican state legislatures have passed strict voting restrictions, and Harris said now is not the time to be "complacent or complicit. We must not give up, and we must not give in." Senate Republicans are blocking voting rights legislation in the chamber, claiming it's a power grab, and last week President Biden said he supports changing filibuster rules in order to work around them. Two Democrats, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, quickly voiced their opposition. Ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day D.C. Peace Walk on Monday, King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said Democrats were "successful with infrastructure, which was a great thing. But we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the unencumbered right to vote."

1-17-22 MLK family to lead march supporting voting rights legislation
Descendants of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will lead more than 100 civil rights groups in a march on Washington on Monday, the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, to urge Democrats to push through a bill expanding voting rights protections, reports Reuters. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day D.C. Peace Walk comes after President Biden called on Senate Democrats to change the chamber's filibuster rule to prevent Republicans from blocking the legislation. Two key moderate Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), said they oppose the rule change, leaving Democrats without the votes they need. Democrats say the legislation would counter voting restrictions approved by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Republicans opposed the bill, calling it a partisan power grab.

1-17-22 Covid-19 news: Falling cases in UK suggests omicron wave has peaked
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. A fall in coronavirus cases and plateau in hospital admissions across the UK is ‘cautiously good news’. A fall in new coronavirus cases in the UK suggests the wave triggered by the highly-transmissible omicron variant may have passed its peak. On Sunday, 70,924 people in the UK tested positive for coronavirus, according to UK government data. Within the past seven days, 754,054 new cases have been reported – a decrease of 463,043 on the previous seven days. “It does look like across the whole of the country cases do seem to be falling,” Mike Tildesley of the University of Warwick told BBC Breakfast today. “We have had… very, very high case numbers throughout late December and early January – we peaked above 200,000 at one point. We do now seem to be a little bit beyond that,” he said. But deaths have risen over the same period. A total of 1834 people died within 28 days of a positive test result in the seven days to Sunday, a 41.6 per cent increase on the previous week. France’s parliament approved a controversial vaccine passes policy on Sunday. In coming days, people in France will be required to show evidence of vaccination to enter restaurants, cafes, cinemas, long-distance trains and other public spaces. Austria, on the other hand, is reviewing plans for obligatory vaccination across the country. The government has raised the minimum age of those affected by the proposed vaccine mandate from 14 to 18. The bill is planned to become law at the end of February, and will mean people who aren’t vaccinated could be fined thousands of euros. COVAX delivered its one billionth coronavirus vaccine dose on Saturday. The global vaccine-sharing initiative, which aims for fair and equal access to covid-19 vaccines, has shipped the doses to 144 countries since February 2021.

1-17-22 Volcano eruption in Tonga was a once-in-a-millennium event
The underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption has already triggered a tsunami, a sonic boom and thousands of lightning bolts, and could now lead to acid rain. The massive explosion of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in Tonga on Saturday was its most powerful eruption since AD 1100. The after-effects have been felt around the globe and the damage is still being assessed. The volcano, located about 65 kilometres north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, exploded with violent force at 5:10pm local time on 15 January. Satellite images show a mushroom cloud of ash billowing 30 kilometres high and later sweeping more than 3000 kilometres west to Australia. A sea level gauge at Nuku’alofa recorded a tsunami wave of 1.19 metres before it stopped recording, according to Hannah Power at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Videos posted to social media show waves crashing into houses in Tonga, and large waves also reached Japan, prompting evacuation orders, and Peru, where two people drowned at a beach. The extent of destruction in Tonga is still uncertain because the country’s main undersea phone and internet cable was damaged. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference on 16 January that she had received reports of boats and large boulders washed ashore in Nuku’alofa and damage to properties, but that there was no news from other coastal areas. No deaths have been reported at this stage. A New Zealand air force plane was deployed on 17 January to assess the damage, but its findings haven’t yet been reported. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is 1.8 kilometres tall and 20 kilometres wide, but most of it is underwater, with only its top 100 metres poking out of the sea. It has been spewing ash intermittently and making small blast noises since 20 December. The pressure wave generated by the explosion blasted through the atmosphere at more than 1000 kilometres per hour and was recorded crossing the US, UK and Europe. The resulting sonic boom was heard in nearby Fiji, in New Zealand and even in Alaska, over 9000 kilometres away.

1-17-22 Eric Zemmour: Far-right candidate found guilty of hate speech
Far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has been fined €10,000 (£8,350) by a Paris court for hate speech. The case was launched over a TV appearance, where he described unaccompanied migrant children as "thieves", "rapists" and "murderers". Former broadcaster Zemmour is known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigration views. His lawyer said he would appeal against the court's decision. Reacting to the verdict on social media, Zemmour complained that his freedom of speech was being restricted, and said there was an "urgent need to drive ideology out of the courts". He made the comments in September 2020 on the CNews television channel, where he used to work as a pundit. Answering a question about a recent knife attack by a young radicalised Pakistani immigrant, he said: "They have nothing to do here. They are thieves, they are murderers, they are rapists, that's all they are. They must be sent back and they must not even come." Zemmour has two previous convictions for hate speech. For several weeks last year, polls suggested that he could come second in April's presidential election in France, facing a run-off with current President Emmanuel Macron. However, his support has since slipped. Polls now suggest he could get around 11% of the first round vote.

1-17-22 Anne Frank betrayal suspect identified after 77 years
A new investigation has identified a suspect who may have betrayed Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. The Jewish diarist died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, aged 15, after two years in hiding. Her diary, published after her death, is the most famous first-hand account of Jewish life during the war. A team including an ex-FBI agent said Arnold van den Bergh, a Jewish figure in Amsterdam, probably "gave up" the Franks to save his own family. The team, made up of historians and other experts, spent six years using modern investigative techniques to crack the "cold case". That included using computer algorithms to search for connections between many different people, something that would have taken humans thousands of hours. Van den Bergh had been a member of Amsterdam's Jewish Council, a body forced to implement Nazi policy in Jewish areas. It was disbanded in 1943, and its members were dispatched to concentration camps. But the team found that van den Bergh was not sent to a camp, and was instead living in Amsterdam as normal at the time. There was also a suggestion that a member of the Jewish Council had been feeding the Nazis information. "When van den Bergh lost all his series of protections exempting him from having to go to the camps, he had to provide something valuable to the Nazis that he's had contact with to let him and his wife at that time stay safe," former FBI agent Vince Pankoke told CBS 60 Minutes. The team said it had struggled with the revelation that another Jewish person was probably the betrayer. But it also found evidence suggesting Otto Frank, Anne's father, may himself have known that and kept it secret. In the files of a previous investigator, they found a copy of an anonymous note sent to Otto Frank identifying Arnold van den Bergh as his betrayer. Mr Pankoke told 60 Minutes that anti-Semitism may have been the reason it was never made public.

1-16-22 Over 2,400 Sunday flights canceled as winter storm strikes East Coast
According to tracking site FlightAware, airlines canceled more than 2,400 Sunday flights into, out of, or within the United States as winter storms struck the southeastern part of the country. North Carolina's Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, a hub for American Airlines, was hardest hit, canceling almost 90 percent of its flights, CNN Business reported. American Airlines announced it will allow travelers affected by the weather to rebook flights with no fee. In anticipation of the storm, the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia all declared states of emergency Saturday, CNN reported. The announcement sent Southerners scrambling to stock up on essentials like bread and milk. According to The Associated Press, Atlanta, which gets an average of only 1.9 inches of snow per year, is expected to be hit by a "mixture of ice and up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) of snow … as well as sustained winds of up to 35 mph (56 kph) with gusts as high as 60 mph (95 kph)." As of Sunday afternoon, over 1,500 U.S. flights scheduled for Monday had already been canceled, as had more than 200 Tuesday flights.

1-16-22 Suspect dead and all hostages safe after FBI storms Texas synagogue
An FBI hostage rescue team stormed a Texas synagogue Saturday night, ending an almost 11-hour standoff with a hostage-taker who claimed to have a bomb and may have ties to al-Qaeda, CNN reports. The suspect was shot and killed. According to CNN, four people, including the congregation's rabbi, were held hostage Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The suspect released one hostage around 5:00 p.m., and the other three were freed following the FBI raid, which started around 10:00 p.m. According to FBI spokeswoman Katie Chaumont, police were called to the synagogue at around 11:00 a.m., The Associated Press reported. Services were being livestreamed at the time, and the hostage-taker could be heard ranting about America and Islam. He also referred to himself as "the guy with the bomb" before the feed cut out. The hostage-taker demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan and now serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison. Siddiqui's attorney told CNN "she has absolutely no involvement with" with the attack. According to FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno, the suspect has been identified, but authorities are not yet ready to reveal his name. DeSarno also confirmed that the FBI's offices in London and Tel Aviv are participating in the ongoing investigation.

1-16-22 Hostages freed after stand-off at Texas synagogue
Four people who were held hostage at a synagogue in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, have been freed unharmed after a 10-hour stand-off with police. They were taken hostage during a morning service in Colleyville on Saturday. Police deployed special weapons teams, while FBI negotiators spent hours talking to the assailant. Explosions and gunfire could be heard before the incident ended. The hostage-taker has since died, police say. The four people taken hostage included the synagogue's rabbi, according to US media reports. The service was being streamed online when the incident began. One of the hostages was released unharmed six hours later, with the other three being led to safety by police several hours after that. The rescue team breached the synagogue but it is not yet clear how the hostage-taker died or who he was. President Joe Biden was briefed about the developing situation. The incident began at around 11:00 local time (16:00 GMT) when police were called to the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. People were evacuated from the area shortly after. A live stream of the Shabbat morning service on Facebook captured audio of a man talking loudly. He could be heard saying: "You get my sister on the phone" and "I am gonna die". He was also heard saying: "There's something wrong with America." The feed has since been taken down. The hostage-taker was also heard demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is currently serving an 86-year prison term in the US, law enforcement officials told local media. Siddiqui was convicted of trying to kill US military officers while in custody in Afghanistan. Barry Klompus, a member of the congregation since it opened in 1999, said he had been told about the incident by another member and had quickly turned to the live feed until it was taken down. "It was horrible listening and watching, and it's that much more horrible not knowing," he told Reuters news agency. Victoria Francis told the Associated Press that she heard the man rant against America and claim he had a bomb during the live stream. "He was pretty irritated and the more irritated he got, he'd make more threats," she said.

1-16-22 Texas synagogue hostage-taker was British – reports
A hostage-taker who detained four people at a synagogue in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, was a British citizen, reports say. The man interrupted a morning service in Colleyville on Saturday and has since died. Police deployed special weapons teams, while FBI negotiators spent hours talking to the assailant. Explosions and gunfire could be heard before the 10-hour stand-off ended. The hostages have been freed unharmed. In a statement, the UK Foreign Office said it was aware of the death of a British man in Texas and was in contact with the local authorities. It is not yet clear how the hostage-taker died or who he was. The four people taken hostage included the synagogue's rabbi, according to US media reports. The service was being streamed online when the incident began. One of the hostages was released unharmed six hours later, with the other three being led to safety by police several hours after that. President Joe Biden was briefed about the developing situation. The incident began at around 11:00 local time (16:00 GMT) when police were called to the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. People were evacuated from the area shortly after. A live stream of the Shabbat morning service on Facebook captured audio of a man talking loudly. He could be heard saying: "You get my sister on the phone" and "I am gonna die." He was also heard saying: "There's something wrong with America." The feed has since been taken down. The hostage-taker was heard demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is currently serving an 86-year prison term in the US, law enforcement officials told local media. Siddiqui was convicted of trying to kill US military officers while in custody in Afghanistan. Thousands took to the streets in Pakistan to protest against her conviction in 2010.

1-16-22 Key moments: Dr Anthony Fauci and the pandemic
After nearly two years as the face of America's fight against Covid-19, Dr Anthony Fauci was caught calling a senator "a moron" in a hot mic moment during a congressional hearing. Having served under two administrations during the pandemic, here are the moments that reveal how his attitude shifted.

1-16-22 Novak Djokovic: Tennis star deported after losing Australia visa battle
Novak Djokovic has been deported from Australia after losing a last-ditch court bid to stay in the country. Judges rejected a challenge by the unvaccinated tennis star after the government cancelled his visa on "health and good order" grounds. Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed" but accepted the ruling. He has left on a flight to Dubai. It marks the end of a 10-day saga, in which the Serb fought to stay to defend his title in the Australian Open. Djokovic's supporters fell silent outside the courtroom as the decision was announced on the eve of what would have been his opening match in the tournament. One fan told the BBC her summer would be "empty" without the 34-year-old playing at the Open. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed "the decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe" but his government faces criticism at home and abroad for its handling of the affair. Djokovic launched his case after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used his powers to cancel his visa, arguing his presence in the country risked fanning anti-vaccine sentiment. During Sunday's court hearing before a three-judge panel, Djokovic's defence unsuccessfully argued that the grounds given by the government were illogical because to deport the star also risked fanning anti-vaccine sentiment. Chief Justice James Allsop said the court ruling was based on the legality of the minister's decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. He promised to release the full reasoning for the ruling in the coming days. There has been much public anger in Australia over the player's attempt to enter the country without being vaccinated against Covid-19. The federal government has repeatedly said people must comply with the strict laws in place to deal with the pandemic, and that no-one is "above the law". (Webmasters Comment: Good riddance to bad rubbish!)

1-15-22 Hundreds of students walk out of schools over Omicron concerns
Hundreds of students in Boston, Chicago, and other U.S. school districts staged walkouts Friday, demanding increased health precautions or a return to remote instruction as Omicron cases continue to spike, Reuters reported. This news comes after a week of abnormally low attendance rates in districts across the country. "It was like: 'This person has COVID. That person has COVID. Another person has COVID,'" Zoe Cantor, one of the students organizing a walkout in Montgomery County, Maryland, told The Washington Post. "Amid the recent surge of COVID cases in the country, specifically the omicron variant, it is unsafe to hold students in schools that do not mandate any social distancing and allow masks to be taken off," Cantor wrote in a Change.org petition currently signed by almost 18,000 people. Many of the protesting students argue schools need to do more facilitate social distancing and provide students with COVID tests and high-quality masks. Others insist that in-person learning should be suspended altogether. Some educators, however, remain skeptical, suggesting that many of the students signing petitions and participating in walkouts are motivated by nothing more than the desire to stay home from school. Megan Struder, who teaches English in Stafford County, Virginia, told The Week Wednesday that a number of students "are looking to take advantage of the virtual setting," which "complicates things for those who are truly in need." According to data provided by The New York Times, Omicron continues to produce record numbers of new cases but without a proportionate rise in deaths.

1-15-22 Tsunami strikes Tonga after undersea volcanic eruption
The Polynesian archipelago nation of Tonga was struck by a tsunami Saturday after an undersea volcano erupted 40 miles south of the capital city on the main island of Tongatapu, BBC reports. The volcano, called Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, shot smoke and ash more than 12 miles into the sky and produced a shockwave felt as far away as New Zealand. No injuries or fatalities have yet been reported, but videos show large waves striking the shore and swirling around cars and houses as ash blotted out the sun and people fled to higher ground. The extent of the damage is still unclear due to spotty communications, but a local news outlet confirmed that Tongan King Tupou VI was evacuated from his palace by the sea. According to The Wall Street Journal, neighboring Fiji and Samoa have also issued tsunami warnings. Tonga has a population of just over 100,000 people, of whom 70 percent live on the main island.

1-15-22 Russia-Ukraine: US warns of 'false-flag' operation
Russia is plotting to stage acts of provocation to create a pretext to invade Ukraine, a US official has said. A Pentagon spokesman said Russian operatives were planning a "false-flag" operation, to allow Moscow to accuse Ukraine of preparing an attack. Russia has dismissed the claims. It comes after a week of US-Russian talks aimed at defusing tensions. Ukraine on Friday accused Russia of being behind a cyber-attack on dozens of official websites. Before the sites went offline, a message appeared warning Ukrainians to "prepare for the worst". Access to most of the sites was restored within hours. The US and Nato condemned the attack and have offered support to Ukraine. Russia has not commented on the hack. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday about what he said were Russia's plans. "It has pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false-flag operation, an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian speaking people in Ukraine as an excuse to go in," he said. The operatives were trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against pro-Russian rebels, US officials said. Ukraine's Defence Ministry said similar acts were being prepared against Russian troops stationed in the breakaway Transdnistria region of Moldova. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by describing the reports as unsubstantiated and "confirmed by nothing". The US official's remarks follow an earlier statement by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who told reporters about intelligence that Russia was laying the groundwork to try to fabricate a pretext for invading Ukraine. He said it was the same playbook Russia used when it occupied Crimea in 2014. Russia has amassed weaponry along with tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, prompting invasion fears. US and Russian officials have been in talks for the past week in an attempt to reduce tensions over Ukraine, but little agreement appears to have been reached. Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine but is seeking guarantees against Nato's eastward expansion, something that Western countries say they are unable to give. (Webmasters Comment: The United States used the "false flag" gulf of tonkin operation to justify and start the war with North Vietnam!)

1-15-22 Jailed 'Pharma Bro' Martin Shkreli ordered to repay $64m
Martin Shkreli, the former drug firm executive who ordered dramatic price hikes of a life-saving medicine, has been barred from the industry for life. In a decision on Friday, Judge Denise Cote ordered him to repay $64.6m (£47m) in profits he made from the scheme. She ruled that Mr Shkreli's actions had violated laws against monopolies. Mr Shkreli is currently serving a prison sentence for defrauding investors. But this decision is about action he took in 2015 to raise the price of Daraprim, a long-established medicine used to treat toxoplasmosis, from $13.50 to $750 - around 4,000% - overnight. He also designed supply agreements to block competitors from offering a generic version of the unpatented medicine, which is used to treat the parasitic disease in pregnant women and patients with Aids. The moves were unpopular, and earned him the nick-name "Pharma Bro". Seven states and the Federal Trade Commission brought a lawsuit over the conduct in 2020, saying he had violated state and federal laws that ban anti-competitive conduct. In her opinion, US District Judge Cote called Mr Shkreli the "prime mover" in the scheme. "It was his brainchild and he drove it each step of the way," she wrote. Vyera Pharmaceuticals, which Mr Shkreli founded and was previously known as Turing Pharmaceuticals, earlier agreed to pay $40m. New York Attorney General Letitia James, one of the officials who brought the suit, celebrated the decision. She said Mr Shkreli and his partner had illegally raised the "price of a life-saving drug as Americans' lives hung in the balance". "But Americans can rest easy because Martin Shkreli is a Pharma Bro no more."

1-14-22 You can order 4 free COVID-19 tests from the government starting next week
Americans will be able to order free at-home COVID-19 tests from the U.S. governmen beginning next week. The White House on Friday announced that starting on Jan. 19, every American home can order four free at-home COVID-19 tests via a newly-launched website, COVIDtests.gov. There won't be any shipping costs, and entering a credit card won't be necessary to order the tests, the website said. "To order their tests, the only two things people will need are their name and residential mailing address," the White House said. "Tests will typically ship through the mail within 7-12 days of ordering, and be delivered First Class through the U.S. Postal Service." The White House also said that the administration would be launching a call line to "help those unable to access the website to place orders." The launch of the website comes after President Biden announced that his administration had purchased an additional 500 million COVID-19 tests amid concern and criticism that they were not more readily available amid a surge in cases sparked by the Omicron variant. In December, when asked why the Biden administration doesn't give free COVID-19 tests to all Americans, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, "Should we just send one to every American? Then what happens if every American has one test? How much does that cost?"

1-14-22 COVID-19 cases in ICE detention centers have jumped 520 percent this year
The number of COVID-19 infections among U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees has risen 520 percent since the start of the new year, CBS News reports, "prompting calls for increased vaccination efforts and detainee releases." Per government statistics, cases jumped more than sixfold between Jan. 3 and Thursday, when 1,766 immigrants were being monitored due to confirmed coronavirus infections, writes CBS News. As of Jan. 3, there were just 285 active cases. The recent surge arrives as the highly-transmissible Omicron variant continues its rampant spread nationwide, renewing concerns surrounding ICE's vaccination campaign among detainees and preventative procedures. Per unpublished ICE records, 37.6 percent of immigants who have been offered the vaccine while in custody have declined it, CBS News reports. Experts attribute that refusal rate to misinformation, distrust of the government, and a lack of vaccine education. "Making vaccines available to detainees is essential but it must be coupled with effective education and counseling to overcome skepticism and confusion regarding COVID and vaccinations," said Scott Allen, a doctor focused on the medical treatment of migrants, to CBS News. "As for anyone else, he added, "a decision to accept or decline a vaccination involves informed consent, so health education and individual counseling has to be part of the strategy to increase vaccination uptake among detainees." Lawyers have also been urging ICE to "release immigrants with medical conditions," especially with COVID-19 infections on the rise, CBS News reports. "The number of people who are medically vulnerable in ICE custody is shocking," said ACLU lawyer Eunice Cho. "The Biden administration needs to take a very quick and hard look at who they are detaining and be very aggressive about making sure they are releasing people to the safety of their homes."

1-14-22 Putin calls America's bluff on Ukraine
Now the hard choices begin. Russia has amassed significant forces along the border of Ukraine. Talks between Russia and NATO appear to have broken down. Members of Washington's foreign policy establishment are beginning to suggest the need to respond to any Russian military moves against Ukraine with a strong show of force. How did we get here, seemingly on track toward either direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state nearly 5,000 miles from American shores, or poised to back down and retreat in the face of a frontal challenge to a military alliance led by the United States? The answer is that we got here by bluffing — and the evident decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to call our bluff. One possible response to this unhappy situation is to continue bluffing in the hopes that Putin will eventually blink. The other, far more reasonable path is to reassess the decisions that got us here in the first place and move forward with less unsustainable hubris. Once the Cold War had drawn to a close, the United States began to extend formal and informal security guarantees to far-flung places around the globe. These came on top of older guarantees that originated during the West's decades-long confrontation with the Soviet Union and its numerous satellite and client states. The U.S. was already formally committed to defending Western Europe through NATO, as well as Japan and South Korea. Our arrangement with Taiwan was less explicit, but everyone understood that we would be unlikely to turn a blind eye to any Chinese move to invade the island. America's reaction to Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait just months prior to the final dissolution of the USSR demonstrated that the U.S. intended to use its military and diplomatic clout to prevent the outbreak of cross-border military conflict in the Middle East — and to punish governments that violated such strictures. Then, later in the 1990s, came the beginning of NATO's expansion eastward and its projection of power outside its own borders into the Balkans to halt horrible bloodletting in the states of the former Yugoslavia. The spectacular terrorist attacks of 9/11, planned by Al Qaeda in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, prompted the U.S. and its NATO allies to project power even farther, now all the way to South Asia. The subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq, undertaken by the United States and select allies apart from NATO, was sold as necessary to eliminate an unacceptable threat to America and its allies in the Middle East. Eight years later, NATO projected power across the Mediterranean Sea, toppling the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Each move was an extension of American military reach, and many of them signaled the transformation of NATO from a defensive alliance into an occasionally offensive one. With each step, the U.S. and its allies demonstrated a willingness to use military force to challenge and defeat vastly weaker powers across the globe. In doing so, we began constructing what looked more than a little like a rudimentary worldwide police force with the United States at its head. But there were undeniable downsides. For one thing, a foreign policy aimed at punishing "evildoers," to invoke former President George W. Bush's language after 9/11, left us with a series of messes on our hands. We became directly responsible for security in places we invaded. And instead of those countries learning to take care of themselves over time, they became dependents, forcing the United States and our allies to extend open-ended internal and external security commitments, with the only alternative being eventual collapse into civil war or dictatorship. We've seen different versions of this scenario unfold on varying time scales in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan over the past two decades.

1-14-22 Russia preparing 'false-flag' operation as pretext to Ukraine invasion, U.S. intelligence indicates
The U.S. reportedly has information indicating Russia to be preparing a "false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine" in an attempt at creating pretext for an invasion of the former Soviet republic, CNN reports, per a U.S. official. The official also said the U.S. has evidence that Russia has prepositioned operatives "trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces," writes CNN. A false-flag attack is one designed to look as though it were carried out someone other than the person (or, in this case, country) responsible. Notably, Ukranian government servers were also hit by a "massive" overnight cyberattack on Friday, which, among other things, replaced the homepage for the Foreign Ministry website with a temporary message warning Ukranians to "be afraid and expect the worst," writes CBS News. Though a claim of responsibility for the attack has yet to be made, Ukraine's ambassador in Washington, D.C. had just hours before told CBS News her country "believed a cyberattack would precede any major military action by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's forces," CBS News reports. Ukraine has also blamed parties with links to the Russian government for previous cyber assaults. The U.S. official speaking with CNN said the White House thinks Russia could be prepping for a Ukraine invasion "that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives." "The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February," the official said. "We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea." The official also noted how Russian influence actors have already begun preparing Russian audiences for an attack, a strategy involving emphasizing narratives of anti-Ukranian propaganda.

1-14-22 Oath Keepers planned to 'rapidly transport firearms' to Capitol from D.C. suburbs on Jan. 6, indictment alleges
The Justice Department's seditious conspiracy charges against 11 members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group are the most serious yet in its year-long investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the indictment released Thursday spells out a more elaborate and violent "plot to oppose by force the 2020 lawful transfer of presidential power," including by "breaching and attempting to take control of the Capitol." Nine of the Oath Keepers had already been charged with lesser crimes. But Justice Department is now formally indicting Oath Keepers leader and founder Stewart Rhodes and member Edward Vallejo, accused of organizing the group's "quick reaction forces." The FBI arrested Stewart, 56, at his home in Texas and Vallejo, 63, in Phoenix, Arizona, on Thursday. Rhodes planned and coordinated events from just outside the Capitol, the indictment alleges, citing encrypted Signal chats federal investigators were able to recover. The indictment says the Oath Keepers who breached the Capitol formed two teams, or "stacks," one of which confronted police officers inside the Capitol Rotunda while the other split into two, one group headed toward the House to find Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the other headed to the Senate. The Oath Keepers at the Capitol did not bring firearms, but "others remained stationed just outside of the city in QRF teams," the indictment charges. "The QRF teams were prepared to rapidly transport firearms and other weapons into Washington, D.C., in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power." (Marcy Wheeler has details of previously disclosed Oath Keeper discussions on the QRFs and the logistics of getting the weapons to the Capitol from a Comfort Inn in nearby Arlington, Virginia.) And Stewart did not give up on the idea of using violence to keep former President Donald Trump in office even after the Capitol riot was put down, the indictment alleges. Stewart, a former Army paratrooper and disbarred Yale Law graduate, has maintained over the last year that he did not break any laws. He acknowledged the QRF weapons caches in an interview with The Washington Post last February, but said they were to be used "only if the president calls us up." Sedition charges, rare and hard to win, bring prison sentences of 20 years. The last successful sedition prosecution was against "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman and nine others 26 years ago. (Webmasters Comment: They should be convicted of treason and executed!)

1-14-22 Capitol riot: Oath Keepers leader charged with seditious conspiracy
The leader of far-right militia group the Oath Keepers has been charged with seditious conspiracy over last year's attack on the US Capitol. Stewart Rhodes was among 11 people to be charged with the crime on Thursday. He was arrested at his home in Texas, according to his lawyer. This is first time the sedition charge has been applied over the deadly riot. Trump supporters stormed Congress in January 2021 as it was meeting to certify Joe Biden's victory. More than 725 people have been arrested for the attack, which shocked the world. Mr Rhodes, a 56-year-old former US paratrooper and Yale-educated lawyer, is accused of conspiring with others to "oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power". The sedition charge is defined as attempting "to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States". The Department of Justice accuses Mr Rhodes of working with other Oath Keepers - a loosely-knit militia that believes the US government has been corrupted by elites - to transport weapons and ammunition to Washington DC in their effort to block Mr Biden's presidency. Prosecutors say that starting in late December 2020, Mr Rhodes used encrypted communications to plan the attack on Congress, although he himself is never said to have entered building. He is accused of creating several "quick reaction force" teams, which "planned to use the firearms in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power". The charges allege that Mr Rhodes split members into different "stacks," who went into the Capitol heavily clad in riot and tactical gear. The first "stack" split up after entering the building and went separately to the House and Senate chambers, while the second "stack" confronted officers in the Capitol Rotunda, according to prosecutors. Mr Rhodes has said in previous interviews with conservative groups that the members who entered the Capitol had "gone off mission" and were not acting on his orders.

1-14-22 Report: Biden to soon sign executive actions on police reform
President Biden plans to sign executive actions on police reform in the near future, three people familiar with the matter told NBC News. The details are still being worked out, but may be finalized by the beginning of Black History Month in February, the sources said. In September, the Department of Justice announced new policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds unless deadly force is authorized and limiting "no-knock" warrants, and NBC News says it's not yet clear how Biden's executive actions will differ. Before bipartisan talks on police reform fell apart in the Senate last year, Biden decided against signing any executive actions because he didn't want to get in the way of negotiations. In September, Biden shared his disappointment over the Senate not supporting the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but said he still hoped to "sign into law a comprehensive and meaningful police reform bill that honors the name and memory of George Floyd, because we need legislation to ensure lasting and meaningful change." (Webmasters Comment: The police need to rid themselves of all their KKK, Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and other far-right members!)

1-14-22 Covid-19 news: Wales rows back omicron restrictions as cases fall
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Wales joins Scotland and Northern Ireland in planning exit strategy from omicron restrictions. Wales is reversing some of its restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of covid-19 over the next few weeks, as cases there have started to fall. From Saturday, the number of people who can attend an outdoor event will rise from 50 to 500. That will rise to unlimited numbers on 21 January, although covid passes will still be required. From 28 January, nightclubs can reopen and pubs and restaurants can return to operating normally, although covid passes will still be needed for cinemas and theatres. Tighter restrictions were introduced in Wales in late December as the country experienced a surge of omicron cases. But these peaked on 30 December and have since been falling equally rapidly. Scotland and Northern Ireland also set tighter rules in December, although in England, omicron restrictions were limited to advising people to work from home where possible and making face masks mandatory again in shops, cinemas and theatres. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford denied the move was a U-turn and said he was following the science. Scotland will also remove any restrictions on numbers at large sporting events from next week. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Paul Givan has said restrictions could start to be eased next week. Panic buying has started in some shops in China, when citizens were told on the Ministry of Commerce website to stockpile food and other daily necessities. They were told “to store a certain amount of daily necessities as needed to meet daily life and emergencies”. State newspaper, The Economic Daily, said the move was to ensure people were prepared in the event of a covid-19 lockdown. Covid-19 cases are very low in China, but there are local lockdowns and mass testing to try to stamp out local outbreaks. Israel has now administered half a million fourth doses of coronavirus vaccines, in an effort to blunt its surge of omicron cases. But the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said last week they would not be recommending fourth jabs, as three doses were continuing to provide good protection after three months.

1-14-22 The puzzle of America's record Covid hospital rate
Even as the Omicron variant sweeps around the world, public health officials have noted that, in most cases, the number of Covid patients in hospitals remains significantly lower than during previous pandemic surges. That's not the case in the US, however, where the number of patients with the coronavirus currently in hospital has reached record numbers. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 145,982 people were in hospital with the virus on 11 January, surpassing a previous record set in January 2021. On Thursday, US President Joe Biden was expected to announce plans to deploy military medical personnel to help in six of the states hardest hit by the influx of patients. Similarly, hospitals in large parts of neighbouring Canada have also seen surges, with Quebec reporting a pandemic high last weekend. So what is going on, and why might North America's experience be different to South Africa and Europe so far? Let's begin with this chart comparing how many people in several countries have been in hospital with Covid-19 during the pandemic. It's adjusted to account for population size and represents a ratio of the number of infected hospital patients per million inhabitants. The various peaks represent times in which each nation was hit by a new Covid wave, including the initial outbreak and influx of hospital patients, last winter's surge or the summer spike caused by the Delta variant. The green line, for example, shows how hard Italy was hit at both the beginning of the pandemic and again last year, reaching a high of 638 infected patients per million inhabitants on 23 November, 2020. On the right side of the chart, every country has experienced a large spike in Covid-infected hospital patients due to Omicron. What's interesting, however, is to compare the rates each country is hitting now with those previous peaks. For Italy, France, and the UK, we see that the number of patients in hospital with Covid remains much lower than in previous waves. In the UK, 291 patients with coronavirus per million were in hospital on 10 January. Just under a year ago, the ratio stood at 576 per million. In France, the ratio stood at 347 per million on the same day, compared with a high of 490 in November. In the US, on the other hand, 411 US Covid-19 patients per million people were in hospital as of 9 January - surpassing a previous peak of 400 per million set on 14 January 2021. Similarly, the data shows that in Canada, 206 people were in hospital per million as of 11 January, compared to previous peaks of 118 in April and 128 in January 2021.

1-14-22 US Supreme Court blocks Biden's workplace vaccine mandate
The US Supreme Court has blocked President Joe Biden's rule requiring workers at large companies to be vaccinated or masked and tested weekly. The justices at the nation's highest court said the mandate exceeded the Biden administration's authority. Separately they ruled that a more limited vaccine mandate could stand for staff at government-funded healthcare facilities. The administration said the mandates would help fight the pandemic. President Biden, whose approval rating has been sagging, expressed disappointment with the decision "to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees". He added: "I call on business leaders to immediately join those who have already stepped up - including one third of Fortune 100 companies - and institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities." Former President Donald Trump cheered the court's decision, and said vaccine mandates "would have further destroyed the economy". "We are proud of the Supreme Court for not backing down," he said in a statement. "No mandates!" The administration's workplace vaccine mandate would have required workers to receive a Covid-19 shot, or be masked and tested weekly at their own expense. It would have applied to workplaces with at least 100 employees and affected some 84 million workers. It was designed to be enforced by employers. Opponents, including several Republican states and some business groups, said the administration was over-stepping its power with the requirements, which were introduced in November and immediately drew legal challenges. In a 6-3 decision, the justices agreed with that argument, saying that the workplace safety rule for large employers was too broad to fall under the authority of the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration to regulate workplace safety. "Covid-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather," the court's majority wrote. "That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases." (Webmasters Comment: The Supreme Court is not a friend of the American people!)

1-14-22 Biden plans dealt crushing blow by fellow Democrats
President Joe Biden's hopes of overhauling the US election system look doomed after two of his fellow Democrats came out against them. Mr Biden has been arguing for the hugely controversial step of scrapping a key Senate norm to pass the bills. But Senator Kyrsten Sinema said she refused to worsen the "disease of division infecting our country". At the Capitol to arm-twist lawmakers, Mr Biden conceded he was "not sure" his plans would work. He wants to repeal the filibuster, which requires a 60% majority to pass certain legislation in the Senate. The upper chamber of Congress is currently split 50-50 between the two parties. No Republicans support the two Democratic-proposed plans, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Among other things, the bills would impose federal standards on elections, ushering in the most sweeping reform in a generation. On Thursday, Mr Biden went to Congress in a last-ditch effort to persuade lawmakers to remove the filibuster so he could get the legislation passed. But emerging from a meeting that lasted over an hour, he conceded that opposition from two key Democratic lawmakers had blocked his agenda. "The honest to God answer is I don't know whether we can get this done," Mr Biden said. "As long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting," he added. Ms Sinema, an Arizona senator, and another Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, both said they would not support nuking the filibuster rule. Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Ms Sinema said: "We must address the disease itself, the disease of division, to protect our democracy." In a statement later on Thursday reiterating his position, Mr Manchin quoted Mr Biden's late friend, the former Senator Robert Byrd, who once warned against any attempt to scrap the filibuster.

1-14-22 White House to fund $27 billion in bridge repairs as part of infrastructure push
The White House announced Friday over $27 billion in spending over the next five years to repair worn-down bridges nationwide, "including full funding for structures that aren't part of the federal highway system," The Wall Street Journal reports. The spending comes as part of the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in November. Traditionally, state and local governments must pitch in up to 20 percent "of the costs of bridge work to win federal funding," notes the Journal; however, the administration is removing that requirement for bridges not connected to the federal highway system in hopes that governments prioritize projects they normally wouldn't. Should states want to use federal money for bridges that are part of the federal system, however, they must still pitch in 20 percent of the cost, per administration officials. The White House estimates the funding will improve "15,000 highway bridges across the country," notes the Journal. Notably, there are over 45,000 bridges considered to be in poor condition nationwide. Funds will be allocated to states based on need. That said, the largest amount of money will go to California, which is set to receive $4.2 billion over the five-year period. New York wil receive the second highest state total, per Bloomberg. "Modernizing America's bridges will help improve safety, support economic growth, and make people's lives better in every part of the country, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement, "across rural, suburban, urban, and tribal communities."

1-14-22 A glimpse of Jewish life before World War Two
A digitised archive of pre-WW2 documents, books and cultural artefacts showing how members of the Jewish community expressed themselves through art, literature and music, has gone online. Many items were destroyed by the Nazis, but 4.1 million of them survived. The project is being launched at a time of rising anti-Semitic attacks and vandalism. It is the culmination of a project sponsored by the New York-based Institute for Jewish Research in conjunction with libraries in Lithuania.

1-13-22 Biden to deploy military medical teams to hospitals in 6 states struggling with Omicron
President Biden is sending military medical teams to help hospitals in six states manage rising COVID-19 cases, USA Today and ABC News report. Biden will announce the deployment of doctors, nurses, and clinical personnel to New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Michigan on Thursday alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, and the medical teams will arrive as early as next week. These will be the first teams sent out from a reserve force of 1,000 military medical personnel the White House announced in December, when Biden had the Pentagon send an initial batch of doctors, nurses, and paramedics to several states. The stampede of cases of the Omicron variant appears to be slowing in several East Coast cities, including New York, and health officials and epidemiologists are cautiously optimistic that cases will start falling in a week or two. But hospitalizations are a lagging indicator and will likely continue to rise for about a week after new infections start dropping, The Washington Post reports.

1-13-22 US consumer prices rise at fastest rate in nearly 40 years
Prices in the US are rising at their fastest rate in almost 40 years, with inflation up 7% year-on-year in December. Strong demand and scarce supply for key items such as cars are driving the increases, which are putting pressure on policymakers to act. The US central bank is expected to raise interest rates this year. The rise in borrowing costs is aimed at reducing demand by making purchases such as cars more expensive. December's increase marked the third month in a row that the US annual inflation rate has hovered above 6% - well north of policymakers' 2% target. The last time the pace of inflation exceeded that level was 1982. Housing costs were up 4.1% year-on-year, while the cost of groceries rose 6.5% - compared to a 1.5% annual average over the last 10 years. Wednesday's report from the Labor Department showed signs that some of the pressures may be easing. The cost of energy dropped 0.4% from November to December - its first decline since April. But over 12 months energy costs are up by nearly 30% and have returned to their upward trend in recent days. "Overall, this is every bit as bad as we expected," Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics, said of the December inflation report. Reacting to the latest report, President Joe Biden said that it "demonstrates that we are making progress in slowing the rate of price increases". He added that there is "more work to do" in the US and noted that "inflation is a global challenge, appearing in virtually every developed nation as it emerges from the pandemic economic slump". The price pressures occurring in the US have been seen to varying degrees around the world. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents more than 30 of the world's largest economies, said this week that inflation among its members had hit its highest rate in 25 years in November.

1-13-22 Inflation isn't going away. That should make Biden very nervous.
The Great Inflation flashback in Wednesday's consumer prices report. U.S. inflation hasn't been this persistently high since the last days of the Great Inflation between 1965 and 1982. Consumer prices rose 7 percent in December, the Labor Department said earlier today. That's the largest 12-month gain since June 1982, and the third straight month in which inflation exceeded 6 percent. What's more, core inflation — excluding food and energy, whose prices tend to jump around more — increased to 5.5 percent last month, with many economists expecting continued acceleration in the immediate future. "This is every bit as bad as we expected," said Capital Economics in a morning note to clients. Maybe now is a good time to recall just how dismissive many on the left — from the Biden White House to Congress to think tanks — have been, arguing that higher inflation was no biggie. "Our experts believe and the data shows that most of the price increases we've seen … were expected, and expected to be temporary," said President Biden back in July. That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.): "The price increases we're seeing are due to supply chain issues worsened by COVID. They are not permanent. We need to understand this. If we panic and raise interest rates, rather than strengthening infrastructure to help the supply chain, unemployment will go up." The economic rationale mentioned by Ocasio-Cortez was hardly unreasonable. The global economy is reopening, and the global supply chain is having trouble adjusting. Inflation skeptics point to things like a semiconductor shortage as evidence of the one-off nature of the rise in prices. Eventually, supply chains will adjust. Indeed, the Federal Reserve held much the same opinion back then. Higher inflation was "transitory," said Chairman Jerome Powell. But there was a political rationale, too. Republicans said rising prices, caused in large part by too much stimulus spending, showed Bidenomics was not only hurting the average American's pocketbook but was fundamentally unsustainable. Sure, the economy was growing at its fastest pace in decades and the unemployment rate was plummeting. But those were the things that were truly transitory. Invoking the name of Jimmy Carter, GOP politicians and pundits said it was the 1970s and early '80s all over again, when inflation eventually forced the Federal Reserve to cool things off by raising interest rates and pushing the economy into a deep recession. Of course, Econ 101 — currently out of fashion for much of lefty EconTwitter — would have advised caution. Sustained inflation often looks like a short-term blip when it begins, perhaps caused by a temporary shortage somewhere in the economy. Oil back in the 1970s, chips today. But if inflation stays accelerated, consumers and business expectations can change. As Powell said Wednesday at his Senate confirmation hearing. This is exactly why a few center-left economists like Larry Summers advised against the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in March 2021. Too much money flowing into a supply-constrained economy would mean a sustained inflation spike and risk altering expectations. Of course, left EconTwitter vilified Summers. But some Democrats, most notably the Biden administration, now realize inflation can't be dismissed. The president, for instance, has unpersuasively pointed to a lack of competition in the meat industry as a key factor pushing up food costs. And liberal economist Paul Krugman now concedes he got the inflation story wrong, telling readers of his New York Times column last month, "Even once the inflation numbers shot up, many economists — myself included — argued that the surge was likely to prove transitory. But at the very least it's now clear that 'transitory' inflation will last longer than most of us on that team expected." Maybe inflation will yet settle down. And maybe the Fed will be able to navigate a "soft landing" where it's able to raise interest rates and shrink its bond portfolio enough to slow inflation without sinking the recovery. Biden, currently with a dismal 43 percent approval rating, better hope so. Recessions and inflation are a toxic political mix. Just ask one-termer Carter.

1-13-22 Biden to deploy military medical teams to hospitals in 6 states struggling with Omicron
President Biden is sending military medical teams to help hospitals in six states manage rising COVID-19 cases, USA Today and ABC News report. Biden will announce the deployment of doctors, nurses, and clinical personnel to New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Michigan on Thursday alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, and the medical teams will arrive as early as next week. These will be the first teams sent out from a reserve force of 1,000 military medical personnel the White House announced in December, when Biden had the Pentagon send an initial batch of doctors, nurses, and paramedics to several states. The stampede of cases of the Omicron variant appears to be slowing in several East Coast cities, including New York, and health officials and epidemiologists are cautiously optimistic that cases will start falling in a week or two. But hospitalizations are a lagging indicator and will likely continue to rise for about a week after new infections start dropping, The Washington Post reports.

1-13-22 Top Republican slams Biden voting speech as unpresidential
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell has denounced US President Joe Biden's voting rights speech as "incoherent" and "profoundly unpresidential". "I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years," Mr McConnell said on the Senate floor. "I did not recognise the man at the podium yesterday." The remarks come one day after Mr Biden delivered a fiery speech in Atlanta calling for an overhaul of the US election system. The president said he supported changes that would allow his party's proposed overhaul of the election system to be passed without the support of opposition Republicans. Currently, a majority of 60% is needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. Mr Biden said the push to pass the legislation was a "battle for the soul of America", adding that the 60-vote rule - known as the filibuster - had rendered the Senate "a shell of its former self". The upper chamber of Congress is currently split 50-50 between the two parties, therefore Mr Biden's sweeping election bills are almost certain not to pass unless there is a change to that rule. But misgivings from two senators in his party are hampering his plans, and no Republicans have backed them. In his speech, Mr Biden compared those that oppose election reform to believers in racial segregation and rebels in the US Civil War. He cast his supporters as civil rights leaders and abolitionists. Addressing his colleagues in Washington on Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican senator slammed Mr Biden's comments as a "rant" that was "incoherent, incorrect, and beneath his office". "Unfortunately, President Biden has rejected the better angels of our nature. So it is the Senate's responsibility to protect the country," Mr McConnell said. He described Mr Biden's speech as evidence the filibuster must be preserved. (Webmasters Comment: McConnell has always opposed all non-white voters. He is anti-human!)

1-13-22 Covid: Half of France's schools could close as teachers strike
French teachers are staging a mass strike that could close half of schools in protest against the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis. French ministers have made keeping schools open a priority, despite a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, fuelled by the Omicron variant. Teachers say Covid rules in school are confusing and constantly changing. Many primary schools will be closed on Thursday as unions expect about 75% of teachers go on strike. The nationwide strike could be the biggest in decades as 11 unions representing teachers, parents and other school staff vent their anger at the government's Covid policies. "The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level," the 11 unions said in a statement. The unions said the government and the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, were to blame for what they called a "chaotic situation" in schools. The main trigger for the strike was France's health protocol, which has been changed a number of times since December. Under rules announced on 2 January, a day before the start of the new school year, students exposed to a Covid case were required to take an antigen or PCR test and then self-test two and then four days later to continue classes in person. As coronavirus infections surged, the rule change caused massive pressure on testing capacity, with long queues seen outside pharmacies. In response to this huge demand, the government this week eased rules on Covid checks for students. On Monday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said students will be allowed to do self-tests instead of a PCR if one of their classmates tested positive. But the relaxation has caused concerns for the safety of teachers as France reported a record 368,149 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday. The unions say they the government's lack of communication, frequent changes to testing, and insufficient protection against Covid has left them unable to teach properly.

1-13-22 Covid-19 news: Self-isolation period cut to 5 days in England
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Isolation period shortened for people with covid-19 in England. People who test positive for covid-19 in England will be able to stop self-isolating after five days if they have two negative lateral flow test results, the UK health minister has announced. Sajid Javid told MPs in the House of Commons that UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed “that around two-thirds of positive cases are no longer infectious by the end of day five”. From Monday, people will be able to finish isolation at the start of day six if they record two negative results on lateral flow tests on days five and six. The change is intended to maximise activity in the economy and education while minimising the risk of people passing on the virus, he said. Previously, people with covid-19 had to self-isolate for a minimum of seven days. The move follows a similar policy change in the US. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “This is a pragmatic move which leaders will welcome if it can mean more health and care workers who are well enough can return to the frontline, providing it does not significantly add to the risk of the virus spreading.” England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam is to leave his role at the end of March. Van-Tam, whose appearances in televised covid-19 briefings have been widely praised, has been on secondment to the Department of Health from the University of Nottingham since 2017. He will return to the university to take up a new role as pro-vice chancellor for the faculty of medicine and health sciences. UK prime minister Boris Johnson thanked Van-Tam “for his extraordinary contribution to our country and his invaluable advice throughout the pandemic”. It is too soon to say the coronavirus is moving into an endemic phase, a World Health Organization official has warned. “Endemicity assumes that there’s stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels with predictable waves of transmission… that doesn’t rely on external forces being placed in order to maintain that stability,” Catherine Smallwood said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But what we’re seeing at the moment, coming into 2022, is nowhere near that. We can’t just sit back and see a stable rate of transmission.” Measures to tackle covid-19 also led to a dramatic fall in hospital admissions for common childhood infections in England, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. There were thousands fewer admissions for meningitis, flu, tonsillitis and pneumonia and other conditions as the nation went into lockdown, schools closed and children’s social contacts significantly reduced. Some children with pre-existing conditions such as asthma were also “substantially protected” from other infections that could have potentially been life-threatening, researchers reported. The study analysed data from 2017 to mid-2021. Around three-quarters of teachers in France are expected to strike today in protest at the government’s handling of covid-19 measures. Since the start of January, a surge in cases caused by the omicron variant has led to major disruption, with about 10,000 classes closed due to infections among staff and pupils. Teaching unions are demanding better protections against the virus, including high-quality face masks for staff and carbon dioxide monitors.

1-12-22 How U.S. sanctions are driving Afghanistan to famine
American sanctions almost never achieve their stated goals, but they do harm innocent civilians. Afghanistan is starving. The country's economy has collapsed, a bitter winter has taken hold, and half the population doesn't have enough to eat. Already many have died — and it could get much, much worse. UNICEF estimates 1 million children could perish over the next few months without sufficient humanitarian aid, roughly four times the number of deaths caused by the entire 20-year American occupation. The approaching famine is not only a fluke of bad weather or poor agriculture. It is being caused by the United States' economic sanctions against the Taliban, which now rules Afghanistan. Despite the recent announcement of another round of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, the bulk of U.S. sanctions will remain. They're the latest example of America's brainless addiction to punitive sanctions regimes that virtually never achieve the desired effect and too often inflict pointless suffering on innocents. As Murtaza Hussein explains at The Intercept, when American forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August and the puppet regime they had supported instantly collapsed, that left the country without three quarters of its government budget and 40 percent of its GDP. The U.S. government also seized Afghanistan's central bank reserves this past fall and now is using our control of global financial pipelines to prevent most economic interaction with Afghanistan's new government. Result: a shattering economic crisis only made worse by drought and the ongoing pandemic. And Washington's position is so irrational there's no sign the Taliban could do anything to relieve U.S. pressure. The group could crown President Biden king and that probably wouldn't do it. Even more aid won't negate U.S. policy here. It's just one more failure to add to our list of sanctions disasters. U.S. sanctions have done nothing, for example, to get Iran to stop working on a nuclear weapon — on the contrary, what actually helped was the nuclear deal negotiated under former President Barack Obama. When former President Donald Trump unilaterally went back on America's word and reimposed sanctions for no reason, Iran logically returned to nuclear development. It's an open question whether Tehran can be convinced to trust American good faith again. Sanctions equally haven't convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop being an aggressive warmonger who interferes with elections in Western countries — on the contrary, he's currently threatening to annex Ukraine. And sanctions haven't destabilized the North Korean dictatorship, nor have they ousted Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, nor have they achieved any major U.S. policy goal in this century. Now, some of the ineffectiveness of American sanctions likely has to do more with execution than concept — especially because they're notoriously impossible to remove. Indeed, many Russia experts suspect one reason Putin is being so aggressive is he has concluded he'll be sanctioned no matter what he does, so he shouldn't bother trying to get back in America's good graces. Our execution problems are many because American sanctions are almost always applied for reasons of domestic politics and chauvinism, not hard-nosed foreign policy. As Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman write in The New York Times, American imperialists can't resist the temptation to use U.S. control over the dollar funding system to economically strangle perceived adversaries. Presidents use sanctions to signal they're tough by inflicting pain on "enemies" (most often innocent civilians) who are helpless to fight back from thousands of miles away. Presidents don't remove sanctions because that would be "weak," or because the Kafkaesque imperial bureaucracy only goes in one direction, or because it would be humiliating to admit error. The one place where sanctions did work in the past few decades, against apartheid South Africa, only underlines these points. That was the sole instance since 1945 when American sanctions have been applied as part of a consistent and well-understood foreign policy objective. The tactic was also unusually realistic, because South Africa was an American ally heavily dependent on good relations with the U.S. at the time. (Incidentally, this example is why partisans of Israel react so hysterically to the BDS movement: U.S. sanctions might also work there.) The sanctions against the Taliban, by contrast, have all the usual pathologies. The Biden administration has no clearly articulated list of demands, much less ones that the Taliban might realistically except. We are not the Taliban's allies. To the contrary, the administration fears being attacked for doing anything that could, even indirectly, help the group that sheltered al Qaeda before 9/11.

1-12-22 Teachers face tough decisions as Omicron sends attendance rates plummeting
Since classes resumed earlier this month, U.S. schools have seen abnormally low attendance rates as the Omicron variant infects or spooks huge numbers of students, staff, and parents, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. According to the Journal, attendance rates in New York City are down from over 91 percent before the pandemic to less than 70 percent since classes resumed at the beginning of 2022. Boston Public Schools have seen similar drop-offs in attendance. In Chicago, the rate of absenteeism stood at about 15 percent before winter break, but around a third of students stayed home on the first day of the new semester. This increase in absences comes after most public schools scaled back remote instruction, leaving some students who are unable to attend classes with few options for keeping up with their classmates. Teachers are being placed in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to slow down the pace of classroom instruction or risk absent kids falling far behind their peers. Heather Hill, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, told the Journal that some teachers are setting up cameras in their classrooms or having present students stream video to their homebound classmates. Others are scheduling after-school calls with absent students. Megan Struder, a public high school teacher in Stafford County, Virginia, told The Week that the "workload for teachers has doubled" since the start of the pandemic and that Omicron has been "even more disruptive" than previous variants. According to data provided by The New York Times, Omicron continues to produce record numbers of new cases but without a corresponding rise in deaths. The 7-day average of new cases per day currently stands at over 760,000, while daily deaths are at just over 1,700. Exactly 4 months ago, a 7-day average of less than 150,000 new cases per day produced a similar number of fatalities.

1-12-22 The IRS's phone service in 2021 was 'the worst it has ever been,' watchdog says
The Internal Revenue Service is "in crisis," a new government watchdog report alleges, and American taxpayers are paying the ever-frustrating price. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, years of budget cuts, a declining workforce, and a slew of new responsibilities, the IRS even managed to make 2021 "the most challenging year ever for taxpayers," said the National Taxpayer Advocate in the report, pieces of which were highlighted by The Washington Post. "During 2021, tens of millions of taxpayers were forced to wait extraordinarily long periods of time for the IRS to process their tax returns, issue their refunds, and address their correspondence," reads the document submitted to Congress by the national taxpayer advocate Erin M. Collins. "The IRS is in crisis." In addition to a spike in frustration-led web traffic and a deep backlog of returns, the watchdog found that the IRS "response rate to taxpayer phone calls plummeted to 11 percent" last year, writes the Post, down from 29 percent the year before the pandemic. What's more, an increasing number of calls and a strained workforce combined to make the IRS's phone service in 2021 "the worst it has ever been," the report found. Notably, the agency received 282 million calls in 2021, versus 100 million in 2019. Investigate more of the watchdog's findings at The Washington Post.

1-12-22 Biden pushes overhaul of US election laws in fiery speech
US President Joe Biden has called for a historic change to Senate rules as he seeks to overhaul the country's election laws. In an impassioned speech, he said he supported changes that would allow his voting reforms to be passed without the support of opposition Republicans. Misgivings from two senators in his party are hampering his plans, and no Republicans have backed them. Currently, a majority of 60% is needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. And with the upper chamber of Congress split 50-50 between the two parties, Mr Biden's sweeping election bills are almost certain not to pass unless there is a change to that rule. Such a change is unlikely, analysts say, as it would require the support of every Democrat in the Senate as well as the tie-breaking vote of the vice-president. The bills - the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act - passed the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, last year. The former would introduce standardised, nationwide, voting rules as opposed to the current patchwork of state-by-state rules. The John Lewis Act, meanwhile, would require certain states to obtain government permission for any change to election regulations. "To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights," the president said in a speech in Georgia on Tuesday. "I've been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months. I'm tired of being quiet," he added, while banging his fist on the lectern. Mr Biden said the push to pass the legislation was a "battle for the soul of America", adding that the 60-vote rule - known as the filibuster - had rendered the Senate "a shell of its former self". For much of the Senate's history unlimited debate was allowed, enabling opponents to block legislation. Supporters say it is a check on government power and forces administrations to seek consensus. During World War One, rules were adopted to allow a two-thirds majority to bring debate to an end, but it was rarely used, and reduced to the 60-vote rule during the 1970s.

1-12-22 Health experts say Omicron is headed for a sharp drop, most Americans will get infected, everyone's confused
There's good news about this Omicron phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and bad news, but much of it is based on educated guesses and the good and bad often blur together. One bit of good news, The Associated Press reports, is that "scientists are seeing signals that COVID-19's alarming Omicron wave may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the U.S., at which point cases may start dropping off dramatically." "It's going to come down as fast as it went up," says Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington, whose influential model predicts that daily cases will peak at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 then start plummeting, he says, "simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected." "I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now," acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock told a Senate panel on Tuesday, "which is, most people are going to get COVID." People should try to avoid infection, but as a society the priority right now should be to "make sure the hospitals can still function" and protect "other essential services as this variant sweeps through the population," she added. "I don't think that will last a really long time." Where we are now, The Wall Street Journal reports, is record-high averages of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, but significantly below-peak ICU occupancy and deaths. "There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside," Lauren Ancel Meyers, whose University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium predicts reported cases will peak within the week, tells AP. "At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of COVID," she added, but "Omicron may be that point where we transition from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that's a much more manageable disease." Or, Ancel Meyers says, a variant worse than Omicron could strike next. "As Americans push into a third winter of viral discontent," The Washington Post reports, "a strange unity of confusion is emerging, a common inability to decipher conflicting advice and clashing guidelines coming from government, science, health, media, and other institutions." For example, the Post says, "in liberal and conservative media alike, countervailing voices alternately raise and dash hopes that the pandemic endgame is nigh." And many Americans are tuning out the muddled messages and managing the best they can.

1-12-22 Biden bungles at-home COVID tests — again
In a series of tweets this week, the Biden administration announced its latest plans to increase access to at-home, over-the-counter tests for COVID-19. The plans don't make a whole lot of sense. To begin with, the administration appears to think it's reasonable to force insurance companies to reimburse Americans for the cost of such tests, an approach that not only costs those companies money (making rate hikes more likely down the road) but also puts the onus on individual Americans to keep receipts and gather, fill out, and mail in forms in the hope of ultimately receiving a check. That's hardly the simplest or easiest approach to ensuring people don't have to bear the burden of paying for tests. Why not simply make the tests available for free? There's a sort of pandemic precedent in how the Internal Revenue Service was directed to start sending monthly payments to parents of children aged 6 to 17 once the American Rescue Plan, including its expanded Child Tax Credit, was passed last March. Of course, distributing a physical product is more challenging than direct depositing money to checking accounts. But the principle should be the same: If the tests are important, the government should be making them available as widely, quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible. That's no doubt why the administration, in a separate plan President Biden announced in a speech three weeks ago, is also purchasing 500 million tests "to distribute for free to Americans who want them." That sounds great, at least until you realize that in a country of 330 million, that's fewer than two tests per person. Then there's the fact that, although we're already deep into the Omicron surge, with cases numbers growing massively and deaths beginning to rise as well, the website where people can request the tests (which will be mailed) hasn't even launched yet. This sounds like too little, much too late. The administration's additional plan to provide 50 million free, at-home tests to community health centers and rural clinics, like its intention to establish more than 20,000 free community-based pharmacy testing sites, sounds promising, but also quite complex and time-consuming. Will either be off the ground before the current variant has run its course? If other variants follow Omicron, all of this could prove helpful down the road. But it's hard to see how it can do much to address the current wave. It's understandable that Biden's team originally assumed the vaccines would have put the pandemic behind us by now. But between the rise of the Delta variant during the summer and fall and now the Omicron surge, that early summer optimism has been outdated for a long time. The administration clearly dropped the ball on at-home testing months ago and is now scrambling to catch up. It should expect political consequences to follow bungling this bad.

1-12-22 US consumer prices soar 7% as food and car costs jump
Prices in the US are rising at their fastest rate in almost 40 years, with inflation up 7% year-on-year in December. Strong demand and scarce supply for key items such as cars are driving the increases, which are putting pressure on policymakers to act. The US central bank is expected to raise interest rates this year. The rise in borrowing costs is aimed at reducing demand by making purchases such as cars more expensive. December's increase marked the third month in a row that the US annual inflation rate has hovered above 6% - well north of policymakers' 2% target. The last time the pace of inflation exceeded that level was 1982. Housing costs were up 4.1% year-on-year, while the cost of groceries rose 6.5% - compared to a 1.5% annual average over the last 10 years. Wednesday's report from the Labor Department showed signs that some of the pressures may be easing. The cost of energy dropped 0.4% from November to December - its first decline since April. But over 12 months energy costs are up by nearly 30% and have returned to their upward trend in recent days. "Overall, this is every bit as bad as we expected," Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics, said of the December inflation report. The price pressures occurring in the US have been seen to varying degrees around the world. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents more than 30 of the world's largest economies, said this week that inflation among its members had hit its highest rate in 25 years in November. In the UK, inflation hit a 10-year high that November, while globally, prices are rising at their fastest pace since 2008, according to the World Bank. Economists in the US were initially hopeful that inflation would be transitory and ease as the pandemic faded. But ongoing production snarls and staff shortages as virus variants wreak havoc have made the price increases more persistent than expected. "The supply-side constraints have been very persistent and very durable," Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told Congress on Tuesday. "We're not seeing the kind of progress we thought we would see by now."

1-12-22 Past 12 months saw 7 percent consumer price increase, largest since 1982
Consumer prices in the U.S. have risen 7 percent over the last 12 months, the biggest increase in 39 years, The Associated Press reports. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Wednesday, showed massive increases in the cost of gasoline (up 49.6 percent since Dec. 2020) and used cars and trucks (up 37.3 percent). Food prices rose 6.3 percent, and keeping a roof over your head got 4.1 percent more expensive. This spike in the BLS "all items index," the largest since 1982, comes as Americans grow increasingly concerned about inflation. In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Monday, the share of respondents who said government should make "Personal finances/Cost of living" a priority in the coming year doubled from 12 percent in 2020 to 24 percent in 2021. The AP-NORC poll surveyed 1,089 adults from Dec. 2-7, 2021. Results have a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points. During his Tuesday confirmation hearing, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell took flak over the Fed's handling of inflation, which he initially dismissed as "transitory." "If we have to raise interest rates more over time, we will. We will use our tools to get inflation back [under control]," Powell said.

1-12-22 Covid-19 news: Pandemic rapidly moving towards endemicity, says EMA
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly moving toward becoming endemic, according to the European Medicines Agency. As cases of coronavirus continue to soar around the world, the status of the coronavirus outbreak is rapidly moving from pandemic to endemic, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). “Nobody knows exactly when we’ll be at the end of the tunnel, but we’ll [get] there,” EMA head of biological health threats and vaccine strategy Marco Cavaleri told journalists at a press briefing on 11 January. “What is important and what we’re seeing is that we are moving towards the virus being more endemic.” Cavaleri didn’t define what he meant by endemic. The term technically means that infections are stable and predictable. Cases continue to rise across Europe. Germany and Bulgaria both reported the highest daily rate of new cases since the start of the pandemic in the last 24 hours, for example, Al Jazeera reports. “We should not forget that we are still in a pandemic,” Cavaleri said. “Nevertheless… with omicron there will be a lot of natural immunity taking place on top of vaccination, we will be [rapidly] moving towards a scenario that will be closer to endemicity.” Cavaleri also warned that the repeated delivery of booster doses of covid-19 vaccines is not a sustainable strategy for managing outbreaks. “We are rather concerned about a strategy that entangles repeated vaccination within a short term,” he said. While booster doses might be necessary for those who are immunosuppressed or otherwise vulnerable to severe disease, “we cannot really continuously give a booster dose every three or four months”, he said. However, Ugur Sahin, the head of BioNTech, yesterday told the JP Morgan Health Care Conference: “We do not know how much immunity is associated with an omicron infection.”

1-12-22 Covid: Quebec to impose health tax on unvaccinated Canadians
The Canadian province of Quebec will charge a health tax to residents who are not vaccinated against Covid-19. Quebec, which has seen the highest number of Covid-related deaths in Canada, is currently struggling with a surge in cases. On Tuesday, the premier announced that it would be the first in the nation to financially penalise the unvaccinated. Only about 12.8% of Quebec residents are not vaccinated, but they make up nearly a third of all hospital cases. According to federal data, just over 85% of Quebec residents had received at least one vaccine dose by 1 January. Premier Francois Legault said during a news conference that people who have not received their first dose of vaccine will have to pay a "contribution". The fee has not yet been decided, but will be "significant", he said. "I think right now it's a question of fairness for the 90% of the population who made some sacrifices," Mr Legault said. "I think we owe them this kind of measure." Last week, the province announced that it would require proof of vaccination to shop in government cannabis and liquor stores. A curfew is also in place, the second one of the pandemic, running from 22:00 to 05:00 each day. On Tuesday, Quebec's death toll from Covid reached 12,028. It comes after 62 deaths were recorded in the previous 24-hour period. The daily figure represents a similar rate to January 2021, before widespread vaccinations had begun in the province. The percentage of Covid patients in intensive care who have not been vaccinated is 45%, provincial data shows. The premier's press conference was attended by his interim public health director, who took over after the long-serving previous director resigned over criticism of his handling of the latest Omicron-driven surge. Hospitals in Montreal, the province's largest city, are nearing 100% capacity and have already started limiting non-Covid related care.

1-11-22 U.S. supermarket shelves really are half-empty, and Omicron isn't the only culprit
When shoppers in Great Britain began posting photos of supermarket shelves filled with stock photos of absent produce last fall, maybe you, consumer in the land of bountiful supermarket options, smirked a little. Well, now the barren shelves — if not the fake photos — have arrived in U.S. grocery stores. "Some of the culprits for this round of shortfalls are the same as in the early days of the pandemic, and some can be chalked up to new problems bumping up against old ones," The Washington Post reports. Reporter Laura Reiley broke the culprits down into four main categories: The Omicron surge, winter weather, supply chain kinks, and the uptick in the number of people eating at home. But really, all of those reasons are connected, and most of them are tied to the troublesome new COVID-19 variant. For example, people are probably eating at home more because of concerns about getting infected at restaurants, belt-tightening due to inflation linked to supply chain issues, and children staying home from school due to a COVID-19 infection or Omicron-linked staff shortages at school. And Omicron has caused its own supply chain meltdown, sidelining workers at every step from factories for key ingredients through the transportation sector to the grocery stores themselves. Companies are reporting more positive COVID-19 tests among workers in the first two weeks of 2022 than in all of 2020, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association trade group, told food industry chief executives in a call Monday. "That's remarkable," he said. "Throw on top of that being down 80,000 truck drivers nationally, and another 10 percent of workers being absent at food manufacturing facilities, and you're putting a lot of pressure on the system all at one time. Jim Dudlicek, communications director for the National Grocers Association, said "there is plenty of food in the supply chain," but many grocery stores are functioning with less than half of their normal workforce, making it hard to stock shelves and prepare premade meals. Read more about why some of your favorite items may currently be unavailable at The Washington Post.

1-11-22 Over half of Europe could get COVID-19 in next 6 to 8 weeks, WHO warns
The World Health Organization's regional director for Europe is warning that more than half of the population there could be infected with COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, made the warning at a briefing Tuesday discussing the "new west to east tidal wave sweeping across the region" amid the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, The New York Times and CNN report. "Fifty of the 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have now reported cases of Omicron," Kluge said. "It is quickly becoming the dominant variant in western Europe and is now spreading into the Balkans. At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks." Kluge said Europe is "under intense pressure" as the Omicron variant surges and that there were more than seven million new cases in the region during the first week of the year, "more than doubling over a two-week period," and as of Monday, "26 countries report that over one percent of their population is catching COVID-19 each week." He also expressed concern that the "full impact" of Omicron hasn't yet been seen in countries with lower vaccination uptake rates, and he urged those countries that haven't yet experienced the surge to act now. "For countries not yet hit by the Omicron surge," he said, "there is a closing window of opportunity to act now and plan for contingencies." At the briefing, WHO senior emergency officer for Europe Catherine Smallwood also warned that COVID-19 shouldn't be treated like an "endemic" illness, Axios reports, noting, "We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges."

1-11-22 Biden administration announces $308 million in aid, 1 million additional vaccine doses for Afghanistan
The U.S. will provide the people of Afghanistan with over $308 million in humanitarian aid, as well as an additional one million COVID-19 vaccine doses, CNN reports, per the National Security Council. Independent humanitarian groups will disseminate the aid, which will "help provide lifesaving protection and shelter, essential health care, winterization assistance, emergency food aid, water, sanitation, and hygiene services," said NSC spokesperson Emily Horne in a Tuesday statement. The vaccine donation will run through COVAX, the World Health Organization's global vaccine sharing initiative. This latest administration committment brings total U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to over $780 million since October 2021, The Associated Press and CNN report. The country has fiercely struggled with both the pandemic and widespread hunger ever since the U.S. exit and Taliban takeover in August, per NBC News. Including those newly-pledged, the U.S. will have sent a total of 4.3 million vaccine doses to Afghanistan, AP writes. "The United States is committed to supporting the Afghan people and we continue to consider all options available to us," Horne added in her statement. "We stand with the people of Afghanistan."

1-11-22 Covid-19 news: Majority of people in Europe will soon catch omicron
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. More than 50 per cent of people in Europe will be infected by the omicron variant within the next 6 to 8 weeks, warns WHO. Most people in Europe will become infected with the omicron variant in the next 6 to 8 weeks if the trend in case rates continues, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. The region saw 7 million new cases of covid-19 in the first week of 2022 – a figure that had more than doubled over a two-week period, WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge told journalists at a press briefing on Tuesday. “As of 10 January, 26 countries reported over 1 per cent of their population is catching covid-19 each week,” Kluge said. “At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with omicron in the next 6 to 8 weeks.” Over 176,000 people in the UK have had covid-19 mentioned on their death certificate since the start of pandemic, according to the nation’s Office for National Statistics, The Guardian reports. The 176,035 figure is higher than the UK government’s official count, which currently stands at 173,509. The figure for deaths within 28 days of a positive test currently stands at 150,230. Cases remain high in the UK. Over 1.2 million cases have been recorded in the last seven days, and 142,224 cases were reported yesterday alone. The US recorded 1.35 million cases of coronavirus infections on Monday – the highest daily total for any country in the world since the pandemic began, according to a tally by news agency Reuters. The previous record for the US was 1.03 million cases, which was reported on 3 January, Reuters reports. The entire US is currently experiencing high levels of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Covid Data Tracker. Over the last seven days, over 4.1 million cases have been recorded in the US, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). The figure represents an 86 per cent increase on the previous week. The number of people hospitalised with a coronavirus infection also continues to rise in the country. As of Sunday, 142,388 people with the virus were hospitalised – a record-breaking figure that surpasses the peak of 142,315 reported on 14 January last year, reports the New York Times. In the last seven days, 8,720 people in the US have died with a coronavirus infection, according to the HHS. So far, around 838,000 people in the US have lost their lives to the virus.

1-11-22 Over half of Europe could get COVID-19 in next six to eight weeks, WHO warns
The World Health Organization's regional director for Europe is warning that more than half of the population there could be infected with COVID-19 in the coming weeks. Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, made the warning at a briefing Tuesday discussing the "new west to east tidal wave sweeping across the region" amid the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, The New York Times and CNN report. "Fifty of the 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have now reported cases of Omicron," Kluge said. "It is quickly becoming the dominant variant in western Europe and is now spreading into the Balkans. At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks." Kluge said Europe is "under intense pressure" as the Omicron variant surges and that there were more than seven million new cases in the region during the first week of the year, "more than doubling over a two-week period," and as of Monday, "26 countries report that over one percent of their population is catching COVID-19 each week." He also expressed concern that the "full impact" of Omicron hasn't yet been seen in countries with lower vaccination uptake rates, and he urged those countries that haven't yet experienced the surge to act now. "For countries not yet hit by the Omicron surge," he said, "there is a closing window of opportunity to act now and plan for contingencies." At the briefing, WHO senior emergency officer for Europe Catherine Smallwood also warned that COVID-19 shouldn't be treated like an "endemic" illness, Axios reports, noting, "We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges."

1-11-22 Health insurers will cover 8 home COVID-19 tests a month starting Saturday, Biden administration says
Private health insurers will be required to cover the costs for up to eight home COVID-19 tests a month for every person on their plans, beginning Saturday, under a new policy the Biden administration detailed Monday. The administration is offering incentives for insurers and group health plans to partner with specific retailers so members can get tests with no upfront costs, but everyone with private insurance will be able to get reimbursed for tests purchased Jan. 15 or later. After taking flak in December for a national shortage of test kits over the holidays, just as the Omicron variant started sweeping through the U.S., the Biden administration "is working to make COVID-19 home tests more accessible, both by increasing supply and bringing down costs," The Associated Press reports. People without private insurance or on Medicare will be able to request free kits directly from the federal government through a website the Biden administration is set to launch later this month. The two main U.S. insurance trade groups said they will work to carry out the new requirements "in ways that limit consumer confusion and challenges," as Matt Eyles, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement. Kim Keck, president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, expressed concern "that the policy does not solve for the limited supply of tests in the country." The research is mixed on how effective the rapid at-home antigen tests are at detecting Omicron infections, The Wall Street Journal reports, and there are special concerns about false negatives early in an infection. If used correctly, though, they are an important tool for limiting the spread of the highly transmissible variant. There are several approved at-home tests, and if you have a choice, the nonprofit group ECRI rates On/Go, CareStart, and Flowflex brand tests as "very good"; QuickVue, BinaxNOW, and InteliSwab as "good"; and BD Veritor as "OK (Marginally Acceptable)." You can read the pros and cons of each at-home test in their report. The new Biden administration policy "will help millions of families afford COVID tests that allow them to be in school, visit family members, and live their lives," Sabrina Corlette, co-director of Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms, tells the Journal. "It's not perfect, and there will be glitches, but the cost of these tests has been a huge barrier for many people, and this policy helps lower that."

1-11-22 Red Cross: U.S. blood supply is 'dangerously low'
The American Red Cross is calling on healthy donors across the United States to give blood, as the country's supply is "dangerously low." In a joint statement, the Red Cross, the Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies, and America's Blood Centers said the U.S. blood supply "remains at one of its lowest levels in recent years," and many blood centers have "reported less than a one day supply of blood of certain critical blood types — a dangerously low level." In the U.S., more than 45,000 units of blood are needed daily. It takes up to three days to get donated blood tested and ready to go on the shelves, and the organizations warn that "blood donations are needed now to avert the need to postpone potential lifesaving treatments. Some hospitals have already been forced to alter treatments for some patients or cancel some patient surgeries due to blood supply challenges." There's a multitude of reasons why the blood supply is so low — the increase in COVID-19 infections and winter storms are not only keeping people from donating, but also causing staffing shortages that are forcing blood drive cancellations. To learn more about donating blood, visit the American Red Cross website.

1-11-22 What's at stake in the struggle over US voting laws
Both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about the state of US democracy and the nation's electoral systems, although the two parties have very different ideas about what those problems are - let alone what the solutions should be. Democrats in Washington have been trying to enact a series of sweeping new voting reforms since the party regained control of the House of Representatives in January 2019. Those efforts have taken on a renewed sense of urgency, however, following the 2020 presidential election and subsequent steps by some Republican-controlled state legislatures to impose more stringent voting requirements last year. As Democratic efforts to enact President Joe Biden's social-spending agenda have hit a roadblock in the Senate, the party has made a renewed effort to push its voting-reform proposals in Congress. On Tuesday, Mr Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris will promote these legislative efforts in Georgia - a state that is both an electoral battleground and home to some of the more sweeping recent Republican-backed voting-law changes. Given that Democrats currently control the White House and both chambers of the US Congress, much of the party's voting reform efforts has focused on legislation at the federal level. Among the party's top priorities is restoring some of the most powerful enforcement mechanisms in the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s-era civil rights law that has been weakened in two major Supreme Court decisions, the first in 2013 and the second in 2021. One of the provisions struck down - and which Democrats hope to reinstate - required the federal government to pre-approve changes to voting procedures in states with a history of discrimination. That power had been used by the Obama administration to delay moves as minor as the relocation of voting sites or as major as state-wide voter identification laws. Another Democratic goal has been to ensure that the changes to voting procedures enacted during the pandemic, such as an expansion of early voting, the greater use of ballot drop boxes and easier access to absentee and mail-in voting, are kept in place in coming elections. Democratic-controlled legislatures in some states, such as Virginia, Nevada and Maine, have already taken action. Democrats in Congress, however, are pushing to set federal standards that would apply to every state.

1-11-22 Capitol riot anniversary: What QAnon followers believe now
A year ago supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol. Many of them were followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which saw Trump as a hero who would defeat a Satan-worshipping global cabal. A survey by the polling organisation Ipsos Mori has found that 7% of Americans still believe this conspiracy theory - despite a lack of any evidence and the fact that QAnon's many predictions never came true. So who are these people?

1-10-22 Omicron is just starting to hit the parts of the U.S. with the most unvaccinated senior citizens
The U.S. seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases topped 700,000 for the first time over the weekend, reflecting the spread of the highly infections Omicron variant, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing data from Johns Hopkins University.Deaths, a lagging indicator, are rising slower, nearing an average of 1,600 a day, from closer to 1,250 a day early last week — though the new average may be artificially high from holiday-related reporting lags, the Journal says. "Public-health experts believe it will take more time to see how the rapid climb in Omicron cases will translate into deaths." Data from early Omicron hot spots suggests the U.S. may not fare as well as Britain and South Africa, where Omicron cases have already peaked. In three of the U.S. cities with the earlier surges of COVID-19's Omicron variant — New York, Boston, and Chicago — "deaths have followed cases at a slightly reduced scale than in previous peaks," The New York Times reports. And "the number of COVID-19 patients who need intensive care or mechanical ventilation is approaching levels not seen since last winter." "Omicron is hitting the U.S. much harder than the U.K. (or South Africa) in large part because we have significantly fewer double-vaxx'd adults and significantly fewer boosted seniors," The Atlantic's Derek Thompson suggests. And the numbers from New York City seem to bear that out. Unvaccinated seniors are especially vulnerable to bad outcomes from COVID-19. Nationwide, about 12 percent of Americans 65 and older are not fully vaccinated, the Times reports, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. "Many parts of the country where that rate is estimated to be highest are also places where surges fueled by the Omicron variant have not yet begun or are only just beginning. Those places include parts of the Midwest and the Mountain West and more rural areas across the country." In New York state, for example, the health department said Saturday that 40 hospitals across the state have been told to stop nonessential elective surgeries because they are in high-risk regions or low-capacity facilities, the Journal says. "This includes all hospitals in the Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes, and Central New York regions," in rural parts of New York.

1-10-22 Covid-19 testing in the time of omicron: Everything you need to know
With omicron infections surging around the world, many countries are changing their coronavirus testing guidelines to better deal with the new variant and the huge number of cases it is causing. Here's what you need to know. Can you test positive for covid-19 without being infectious? Even if you have had three doses of coronavirus vaccine, a positive lateral flow test (LFT) result means you are infectious to other people because virus protein is present in large quantities in your nose or throat. For that, the virus must be actively multiplying inside your cells. However, PCR tests continue to give positive results for days to weeks after an infection, because they can detect tiny quantities of the virus’s genetic material, which aren’t necessarily infectious. How have testing rules changed? Many countries have lessened their restrictions for people with covid-19 since the start of the surge caused by the omicron variant. In the UK, the isolation period for infected people has been cut from 10 days to seven – as long as you get a negative result on two LFTs, also known as rapid antigen tests. These must be done on days six and seven, and carried out at least 24 hours apart. People should remain cautious around others and avoid those who are vulnerable, though. Could the isolation period be shortened further? In the US, the isolation period has been cut to five days for people who have no symptoms or whose symptoms are on the wane, although you should still wear a mask around other people for a further five days. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says it has no plans to follow suit, and that the situation in the two countries is different. In the UK, the isolation “clock” begins on the day of a positive test or the first day of symptoms, whichever is first. In the US, it starts on the first day of a positive test and, because these can take several days to access, “day five” is likely to fall later on in the progression of an infection.

1-9-22 Covid pandemic: Chinese city tests 14m people after cluster
The Chinese port city of Tianjin is aiming to test its 14 million residents within the next 48 hours after the discovery of a cluster of Covid cases. Residents have been advised to stay home until tested, and must return a negative result to get the health pass needed to use public transport. Of the 20 cases discovered, two are the highly transmissible Omicron variant. China is pursuing a zero-Covid policy, which aims to eradicate the disease in the community. In contrast to other parts of the world, which have opened up following vaccination campaigns, China has responded to small numbers of local cases with mass testing and tight lockdowns. The policy is likely to come under pressure with Lunar New Year on 1 February, when millions of people normally travel, as well as the Winter Olympics starting a few days later. Host city Beijing is just 115 km (70 miles) from Tianjin. Olympics' organisers are operating a "closed loop", in which games participants can only leave if they enter quarantine or leave the country. Beijing residents have been advised to avoid approaching vehicles used to ferry people to and from the games, Reuters reports. In Tianjin, there are large queues of people waiting to get tested. The response stops short of the stricter measures seen in the cities of Xi'an and Yuzhou, which are both under lockdown. Xi'an has been locked down since late last month and its resident ordered to stay indoors, with shopping for essentials also banned. Locals have complained that food supplies have run low, with some resorting to bartering.

1-9-22 Non-citizens can now vote in NYC elections
A New York City bill allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections became law Sunday after Mayor Eric Adams declined to veto it, The Associated Press reports. The new "Our City, Our Vote" measure will reportedly enfranchise around 800,000 legal, non-citizen New York City residents, including green card holders and "Dreamers" brought to the U.S. illegally as children and benefiting from deferred action. The bill passed the City Council in December "despite concerns from more than a dozen lawmakers, former Mayor Bill de Blasio, and some constitutional experts," The New York Post reported. Even Mayor Adams expressed ambivalence about the proposal before finally announcing Saturday that he supported it. The city's Board of Elections must submit an implementation plan by July. They will also have to print separate ballots for municipal races, since non-citizens will still be barred from voting in statewide and presidential elections. Non-citizens can vote and in all local contests in around a dozen smaller towns in Maryland and Vermont and in San Francisco school board elections. New York is the first major U.S. city to give non-citizens the right to cast ballots in all local races.

1-8-22 U.S. COVID hospitalizations approach record high, but new data could provide a silver lining
According to a new tally by Reuters, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States could reach a new record high by Friday. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have spiked in recent weeks to almost 123,000 as the more infectious but probably less deadly Omicron variant takes its place as the dominant strain of the virus. The record currently stands at around 132,000. Hospitals are being overloaded as cases flood in and infected health care workers are forced to call out sick. Even as hospitalizations from the virus increase, though, deaths remain steady. Additionally, many analysts have expressed concerns that hospitalization numbers are overinflated. Data released Friday by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) revealed that for more than half of the COVID patients in New York City hospitals, "COVID was not included as one of the reasons for admission," Fox News reported. In other words, it is likely that many of these patients were admitted to the hospital for reasons entirely unrelated to COVID, then happened to test positive. However, NBC New York reports that although this data suggests Omicron is a "milder" strain, only "people who are fully vaccinated" should feel reassured.

1-8-22 4th jab not necessary for nursing home residents and elderly, say U.K. government advisers
Government public health advisers in the United Kingdom recommended Friday that nursing home residents and people over the age of 80 not be given a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine, The Associated Press reports. Based on their analysis of public health data, the U.K. Health Security Agency concluded that a fourth jab is unnecessary because even three months after the third dose, protection against hospitalization remains at around 90 percent for those over 65. Prof. Wei Shen Lim, chair of the U.K. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said that given the need to focus on getting third shots into the arms of the general population, there is "no immediate need" to boost seniors again, but that public health officials could revisit the possibility at a later date. As of Friday, around 35 million Brits had received a third injection out of a population of over 67 million, according to data provided by the U.K. government. New cases in the U.K. are at an all-time high, with public health authorities reporting a seven-day average over 180,000 cases per day. The seven-day average for deaths, however, is less than 140 per day, well below the January 2021 peak of more than 1,300. At that time, the daily number of new cases was less than 40,000.

1-8-22 Ahmaud Arbery: Jogger's murderers sentenced to life in prison
A white father and son convicted of killing a black jogger have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. A jury found Travis and Gregory McMichael and their neighbour, William Bryan, guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. Bryan also received the maximum penalty of life, but was offered the possibility of parole in 30 years. The judge said the McMichaels had not shown remorse or empathy for Arbery. Judge Timothy Walmsley said he gave them severe sentences in part because of their "callous" words and actions captured on video. Ahead of his verdict, the Arbery family called for the harshest possible punishments for the three men as a means of bringing "closure to a difficult chapter" in their lives. The case has raised questions about racial justice in the US South. Arbery, 25, a resident of Brunswick, Georgia, was out jogging in an adjacent, predominantly white neighbourhood when the trio chased and cornered him in pick-up trucks before the younger McMichael shot him during a struggle. The defendants argued they acted in self-defence while attempting to make a citizen's arrest of a suspected burglar, but prosecutors argued race was a factor. Gregory McMichael, 66, his son Travis, 35, and Bryan, 52, were found guilty in November of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal intent to commit a felony. "Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavour," Judge Timothy Walmsley said on Friday. "A neighbour is more than the people who just own property around your house," continued the judge. "In assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character." Holding a minute of silence to put in context "a fraction of the time Ahmaud Arbery was running in Satilla Shores", Walmsley said he "kept coming back to the terror that must have been in [Arbery's] mind". "Remorse isn't simply a statement of regret. Remorse is something that's felt and demonstrated," he said. "After Ahmaud Arbery fell, the McMichaels turned their backs." (Webmasters Comment: They all should have been convicted to be executed!)

1-8-22 US Supreme Court scrutinises Biden vaccine mandates
The US Supreme Court appears doubtful as to whether the Biden administration can enforce a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large private employers. The rules apply to companies with more than 100 employees, requiring workers to get fully vaccinated against Covid or be tested weekly. The court held a special session on Friday to consider the mandate. The nine justices' decision could have an impact on as many as 80 million US workers. Some justices on the conservative-dominated court signalled support for the mandate on Friday, including Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal, who suggested the rule was not a vaccine mandate but a mandate for the unvaccinated to mask and get tested. But conservative-leaning Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch questioned whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) had the broad authority to implement the mandate without instructions from Congress. "This is something the federal government has never done before," said Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, who is often viewed as a swing vote on the court. The case pits a number of Republican-led states and a coalition of business groups against the US Department of Labor. Critics of the vaccine mandate from the department's Osha argued in court on Friday that the federal government had overstepped its authority by issuing the sweeping mandate, which covers more than two-thirds of all US private sector employees. Additionally, lawyers for the coalition argued that it would be expensive for businesses, particularly the cost to test workers who refuse the vaccine. They have also warned that many workers may quit rather than comply - an argument that the government has contested. The federal government says the mandate is needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to protect workers, arguing the policies could prevent 250,000 hospitalisations and over 6,000 deaths in six months. The government plans to begin enforcing the mandate 10 January.

1-8-22 Canada party plane influencer 'idiots' fly home to face music
Canadian officials say a group of influencers whose rowdy behaviour on a flight led to their stranding in Mexico have flown home to face an inquiry. In a briefing, a top health official said that 27 had returned and were screened at the airport. Some of the group could face stiff punishments. Video shows a party on their charter plane without masks. Some were passing around bottles and vaping. Their behaviour caused the airline to refuse to fly them home. Sunwing Airlines cancelled a 5 January return trip for group of about 130 from Cancun and carriers Air Transat and Air Canada also said they would refuse to fly them. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the group's behaviour a "slap in the face" to citizens who have been following proper social distancing measures, as well as airline workers. In French, Mr Trudeau referred to them as "idiots" and "barbarians". Canadian Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos said in a briefing on Friday: "We know that this issue of Sunwing travellers having behaved irresponsibly, inexcusably, and unacceptably on a flight to Mexico [has] raised a lot of anger and frustration." The 27 who have returned were tested for the virus, and "were checked with regards to whether they had obeyed and followed all of the health regulations they were supposed to follow throughout their trip". They had to provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19, a negative PCR test, and a quarantine plan. Mr Duclos said the Quebec police department was investigating the travellers. Transport Canada is also investigating the group - they could issue fines of up to C$5,000 (£2,900) per offence. Rebecca St Pierre, a 19-year-old student from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, told the Canadian Press she had won the trip on Instagram. She said she had tested positive for Covid on Wednesday, and was not sure how to pay for her hotel stay. She estimated that about 30 people from the plane had tested positive.

1-7-22 Men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery get life in prison
The three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery have been sentenced to life in prison. Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan were convicted of murder in November after chasing down Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. Travis McMichael fatally shot him, and all three men were found guilty of felony murder. On Friday, they were each sentenced to life in prison, the McMichaels without the possibility of parole, reports The Associated Press. "We are all accountable for our own actions," Judge Timothy Walmsley said. "Sometimes, in today's day and age, that statement is lost upon many. And today the defendants are being held accountable for their actions. ... Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavor." Unlike Greg and Travis McMichael, Bryan was given the possibility of parole after 30 years. According to The New York Times, the lead prosecutor said Bryan should be eligible for parole because of his cooperation with investigators. Members of Arbery's family delivered emotional remarks during the sentencing hearing. "This wasn't a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact," said his mother. "They chose to target my son because they didn't want him in their community. They chose to treat him differently than other people who frequently visited their community, and when they couldn't sufficiently scare him or intimidate him, they killed him." A defense attorney for Travis McMichael said his actions were "reckless" but that "this was not a planned murder" and was instead "a fight over a gun that led to Mr. Arbery's death," per AP. Following Friday's sentencing, the Times reports the case is expected to be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. CNN reports that when the sentence was read, Arbery's family "was crying, his father, his mother, they were crying."

1-7-22 America's post-holiday return to work tainted by onslaught of COVID-caused staff shortages
Typically marked by a widespread return to professional form, the first work week of the new year has instead been marred by the effects of the latest Omicron-led COVID-19 spike, The Wall Street Journal reports, as employers contend with an ongoing onslaught of coronavirus-related staff shortages. This recent bout of employee absences is just "the latest strain on public and private sectors already worn down by the pandemic, supply chain snarls, labor shortages and rising prices," writes the Journal. Though many employees are reporting mild COVID symptoms, they must still miss multiple shifts, further complicating the already-stressful burden of scheduling. Difficulty finding a COVID test has also proved a challenge for those attempting to determine whether or not they can head into work that day. "We have gotten to the point this week where there are a number of shifts that nobody can fill," Lena DeGloma, owner of a Brooklyn-based wellness spa, told the Journal. Acccording to Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, the latest spike in cases — though possibly temporary — could "deal a significant hit to the economy over the next month or two," he wrote in a Wednesday report. In fact, more than an estimated 5 million Americans could find themselves isolating at home in the coming days, he said. To ease the staffing strain, some managers and owners have even opted to fill in at their establishments as waiters, dishwashers, or — better yet — de facto health officials. "I feel like I have to take on the role of contract [sic] tracer, just to be sure everyone stays safe," said DeGloma, of the Brooklyn spa. "I am strung out and tired," added Washington-based restaurant owner Greg Casten. Read more at The Wall Street Journal.

1-7-22 Savannah Guthrie asks CDC director if memes mocking the agency point to a 'larger credibility problem'
Savannah Guthrie grilled CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Friday's Today show about why the agency's COVID-19 guidelines have been "so confusing." In her interview with Walensky, the Today anchor asked about the CDC's updates to its COVID-19 isolation recommendations. The agency tweaked its guidelines to reduce the recommended isolation period for people with COVID-19 from 10 days to five days if asymptomatic, and earlier this week, the recommendations were updated again to say that a test isn't necessary to leave isolation but that those who do get a positive test result should continue isolating. "With all due respect and understanding to the changing and volatile nature of this virus, why is the guidance so confusing?" Guthrie asked. Walensky defended the guidelines, saying the agency is "standing on the shoulders of years of science," and explained the guidelines were most recently updated so people would know how to interpret a test result at the end of their isolation period if they want to "take that extra step." But Guthrie also asked about people mocking the CDC's advice via a popular meme that involves jokingly coming up with other things the CDC is recommending, such as one tweet Guthrie read: "The CDC now says that it is in fact okay to eat Tide Pods." "It's amusing, people letting off steam of course, but is there a larger credibility problem with your agency right now?" Guthrie asked. In response, Walensky defended the CDC as "12,000 people who are working 24/7 following the science with an ever-evolving nature in the midst of a really fast moving pandemic," adding the CDC will "continue to improve how we communicate to the American public." The comments come as CNN reports the CDC director has sought media training to "improve her communication skills" as CDC scientists grow "increasingly frustrated with Walensky's handling of public health guidance."

1-7-22 US Capitol attack: Rioters held dagger to the throat of America - Biden
President Joe Biden has heavily criticised former President Donald Trump on the first anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol. In a televised speech Mr Biden accused his predecessor of spreading "a web of lies" that led to the mob's assault. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 as Congress gathered to certify Mr Biden's presidential election victory. Live footage of US politicians cowering from the mob shocked the world. Mr Trump had urged protesters at a rally outside the White House shortly beforehand to "peacefully" march on Congress, but he also encouraged them to "fight" and stirred up the crowd with unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud in the election he had just lost. Shortly after Mr Biden's speech on Thursday Mr Trump released an angry statement hitting out at his successor. In it, he accused Mr Biden of "failure" and repeated false claims about the election. Democrat politicians, who have a majority in the US Congress, planned a number of events to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack - including a candlelit vigil outside the Capitol building. Many spoke about their experiences of the day, including sheltering and hiding from the rioters along with young members of staff. A House committee is conducting an inquiry, and so far investigators have arrested 725 suspects in connection with the riot. Mr Biden condemned the attackers and Mr Trump in his speech on Thursday, using some of his strongest language yet about both the Capitol riots and his predecessor. "Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated this incidence, held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy", Mr Biden said in Statuary Hall, a section of the Capitol complex that was breached by rioters. "They came here in rage, not in the service of America, but rather, in the service of one man. "The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election... His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution". The US leader also warned that the threats to American democracy "have not abated."

1-7-22 How the US marked the Capitol riot anniversary
American lawmakers gathered at the Capitol one year after a mob stormed the building. President Biden delivered a speech condemning former President Donald Trump. Republicans accused him and Democrats of politicising the event.

1-7-22 Tammy Duckworth: 'I feel betrayed' by the Capitol riot
US Senator Tammy Duckworth describes being barricaded for four hours when the Capitol was stormed. The veteran said "never in a million years" did she think the US Capitol would need to be defended.

1-7-22 Hiring slows in US after record year of job gains
Hiring in the US slowed last month, as firms struggled to hire workers and continued to grapple with the effects of coronavirus. Employers hired just 199,000 people in December, a second month of weaker than expected gains. But the jobless rate dropped sharply to 3.9% and wages rose, the Labor Department said. The mixed data, which was collected before Omicron's full force was felt, follows a record year of jobs growth. "For a second straight month, we have conflicting pictures emerging," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. "This report appears to reflect the state of play before the worst impacts of the Omicron variant hit the economy." "We will have to wait until the following report, covering the job market picture in January, to get a clearer picture," he added. The US added more than 6.4 million jobs in 2021, regaining many of the positions lost at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Though total employment remains about 3.6 million lower than its pre-pandemic level - and far lower than it would have been if Covid had not struck - many signs point to a strong economy. A record 4.5 million Americans quit jobs in November - a sign of confidence in the labour market - and more than 10 million positions stand open, the government reported this week. Jobless claims have dropped to a near 50-year low. December's job gains were felt across most industries, led by leisure and hospitality. The unemployment rate fell to 3.9% from 4.2%, while average hourly earnings were up 4.7% year-on-year. Wells Fargo economist Sarah House said future growth would be determined by worker availability. "December's report underscored that workers are only likely to trickle back into the jobs market as reasons for sitting out, like financial cushions, health concerns and childcare issues do not unwind all at once," she said. The labour shortages have helped to push inflation in the US to its highest rate in almost 40 years. In response, America's central bank has signalled it plans to start removing support for the economy, raising interest rates potentially as soon as March.

1-7-22 U.S. economy adds a disappointing 199,000 jobs in December
The U.S. economy added significantly fewer jobs in December than expected. The Labor Department said Friday the economy added 199,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate declined to 3.9 percent. It was a disappointing number after economists had expected over 400,000 jobs would be added, according to CNBC. "Employment continued to trend up in leisure and hospitality, in professional and business services, in manufacturing, in construction, and in transportation and warehousing," the Labor Department said. The latest report came as COVID-19 cases have surged in the United States amid the spread of the Omicron variant, although The New York Times notes the Friday report is based on data collected in the middle of December, prior to the record-breaking number of cases in the past two weeks. The U.S. previously added only 210,000 jobs in November, which was also under expectations after economists were expecting nearly 600,000, though The Wall Street Journal noted the U.S. added a record number of jobs during 2021 as a whole. Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao wrote Friday that the December report was a "disappointing bookend to a historic year in the job market," which also "highlights that the pandemic remains a barrier to many Americans who would otherwise be available to work."

1-7-22 How America could have kept schools open
Congress allocated $190 billion to schools for pandemic response. What happened? Schools across the country are shutting down again. The spectacular surge of Omicron cases has left thousands of teachers and students sick, and many others quite logically fear infection or spreading the virus to their immunocompromised relatives or unvaccinated young children. In some places, teachers unions are demanding a short break to let the wave at least pass — in Chicago, for instance, teachers voted to return to remote classes until January 18. This turn of events has driven a number of centrist and liberal commentators to distraction, if not full-blown derangement. Shutdowns have "been less defensible for the past year and a half, as we have learned more about both COVID and the extent of children's suffering from pandemic restrictions," writes David Leonhardt at The New York Times. "Moving to remote learning at this point is not responsible," economist Emily Oster said on CNN. Elections data geek Nate Silver said in a Twitter argument with Mother Jones' Clara Jeffrey that school closures generally were possibly a worse mistake than the Iraq war (!). It should be emphasized that, at this point, for many schools, some kind of closure is simply unavoidable. It's a matter of mechanical reality — if all the servers and cooks at a restaurant fall sick at the same time, it will close down for a bit no matter how much the owner yells and stamps his feet. Likewise, a school can't operate if so many teachers are out sick there is no one to manage the classrooms. That reality doesn't change though parents really need child care and children really need education. Still, at least some of these closures probably could have been headed off. In particular, a crash program of improving ventilation and air filtration starting in March of last year (or earlier) could have made schools much safer — or even forestalled the worst school-based outbreaks we see happening today. By and large, that didn't happen. Admittedly, building out an all-new HVAC system for a large school is an expensive and lengthy undertaking, but many cheaper options were available. Placing high-grade HEPA filters in every hallway and classroom wouldn't have cost much and might have taken only a couple weeks while schools were empty anyway. Buying up stocks of child-sized N95 or similar masks (as it seems most kids are still wearing crummy cloth masks or ill-fitting surgical ones) would have been even cheaper and easier. Stockpiling testing kits over the summer for the inevitable winter surge could have helped avoid transmission. And if schools had started HVAC upgrades last March, by now they might be finished. There was a lot of money available for this. Federal pandemic rescue bills contained some $190 billion in funds for schools, an average of about $1.5 million per public school explicitly earmarked for pandemic response. So what happened? It seems most of the money disappeared into the black hole of American federalism. ProPublica attempted to find out some months ago, only to discover the Department of Education is barely keeping track, in large part because it doesn't have the staff or organizational capacity to directly oversee thousands of school districts. The feds delegated oversight to the states, most of which sent out money willy-nilly with little direction or focus on air quality. In Iowa, one district spent $231,000 upgrading its outdoor stadium. A Kentucky school spent $1 million replacing its track and field facilities. A Texas school spent $5 million on a "5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center" that won't be finished until 2024. As of September, many other districts hadn't spent all their money yet, in part thanks to confusing federal rules.

1-7-22 Covid-19 news: India’s death toll may be six times higher than thought
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. The potentially massive scale of unrecorded covid-19 deaths in India’s second wave means the official world death toll may be a significant underestimate. India’s death toll from covid-19 may be six to seven times greater than that officially recorded. The country’s records say that nearly half a million people have died from coronavirus infections so far, but the latest study estimates the real figure is 3.2 million deaths up to July last year. If correct, this means the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus would be pushed up from 5.4 to 8.1 million – although other countries may also have underestimated their death rates. “This may require substantial upward revision of the World Health Organization’s estimates of cumulative global covid mortality,” Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto and colleagues say in their paper. India experienced a huge second wave of coronavirus infections in the first half of 2021, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and a national shortage of oxygen supplies. In common with many other low and middle-income countries, India does not have good systemic methods for recording causes of death, especially those that occur in rural areas. For instance, Jha’s team say that in 2020, an estimated eight in ten deaths did not involve medical certification, which is standard procedure in richer countries. Jha’s team reached the figure of 3.2 million by using government data on all-cause mortality and an ongoing telephone survey of 140,000 adults across the country, which asked people about covid-19 symptoms and deaths in their households. The military is being deployed to help in London hospitals due to staff shortages caused by covid-19 infections and people self-isolating. The two hundred members of the armed forces will include doctors, nurses and other personnel for general assistance. London was the first part of England to experience the latest covid-19 surge caused by the omicron variant. People may need a fourth dose of a covid-19 vaccine by autumn in the northern hemisphere, Stephane Bancel of vaccine manufacturer Moderna has said. Israel has approved giving fourth shots to healthcare workers and people over the age of 60.

1-6-22 Millions in Afghanistan are facing extreme hunger
It's been a dire winter in Afghanistan, with 23 million people facing extreme levels of hunger amid the brutal cold. A man receives food aid in Afghanistan. It's been a dire winter in Afghanistan, with 23 million people facing extreme levels of hunger amid the brutal cold. Shelley Thakral, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, told NPR that there are several reasons why so many Afghans don't have enough food to eat. The country is experiencing its worst drought in decades, food prices have gone up, and the Taliban government takeover last August triggered an economic crisis. Many people who are now out of work because of the new government, including teachers and construction workers, are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. "There's a new urban class of hungry people," Thakral said. In order to keep Afghans fed through 2022, the World Food Program needs $2.6 billion, which will be used to provide staples like flour and oil. Some people are going without vegetables, dairy, and meat, and malnutrition is on the rise. "When you're not having green vegetables, and if you're pregnant or if you've got a newborn, or if you're a child under 5, that will start to have an impact," Thakral said. There are vendors selling fruit and vegetables in the streets of Kabul, "but what you're hearing is that people just don't have money to buy food," Thakral said. To scrape together funds to eat and purchase fuel and firewood to stay warm, many are selling household items — and in extreme cases, selling their children into early marriages, Thakral told NPR. Afghanistan is a "poor country, and it has been, but people have always managed to survive," she added. "This is different. The difference now is that people feel this is a very dark time for them."

1-7-22 US Capitol attack: Rioters held dagger to the throat of America - Biden
President Joe Biden has heavily criticised former President Donald Trump on the first anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol. In a televised speech Mr Biden accused his predecessor of spreading "a web of lies" that led to the mob's assault. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 as Congress gathered to certify Mr Biden's presidential election victory. Live footage of US politicians cowering from the mob shocked the world. Mr Trump had urged protesters at a rally outside the White House shortly beforehand to "peacefully" march on Congress, but he also encouraged them to "fight" and stirred up the crowd with unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud in the election he had just lost. Shortly after Mr Biden's speech on Thursday Mr Trump released an angry statement hitting out at his successor. In it, he accused Mr Biden of "failure" and repeated false claims about the election. Democrat politicians, who have a majority in the US Congress, planned a number of events to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack - including a candlelit vigil outside the Capitol building. Many spoke about their experiences of the day, including sheltering and hiding from the rioters along with young members of staff. A House committee is conducting an inquiry, and so far investigators have arrested 725 suspects in connection with the riot. Mr Biden condemned the attackers and Mr Trump in his speech on Thursday, using some of his strongest language yet about both the Capitol riots and his predecessor. "Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated this incidence, held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy", Mr Biden said in Statuary Hall, a section of the Capitol complex that was breached by rioters. "They came here in rage, not in the service of America, but rather, in the service of one man. "The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election... His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution". The US leader also warned that the threats to American democracy "have not abated."

1-7-22 How the US marked the Capitol riot anniversary
American lawmakers gathered at the Capitol one year after a mob stormed the building. President Biden delivered a speech condemning former President Donald Trump. Republicans accused him and Democrats of politicising the event.

1-7-22 Tammy Duckworth: 'I feel betrayed' by the Capitol riot
US Senator Tammy Duckworth describes being barricaded for four hours when the Capitol was stormed. The veteran said "never in a million years" did she think the US Capitol would need to be defended.

1-7-22 Hiring slows in US after record year of job gains
Hiring in the US slowed last month, as firms struggled to hire workers and continued to grapple with the effects of coronavirus. Employers hired just 199,000 people in December, a second month of weaker than expected gains. But the jobless rate dropped sharply to 3.9% and wages rose, the Labor Department said. The mixed data, which was collected before Omicron's full force was felt, follows a record year of jobs growth. "For a second straight month, we have conflicting pictures emerging," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com. "This report appears to reflect the state of play before the worst impacts of the Omicron variant hit the economy." "We will have to wait until the following report, covering the job market picture in January, to get a clearer picture," he added. The US added more than 6.4 million jobs in 2021, regaining many of the positions lost at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Though total employment remains about 3.6 million lower than its pre-pandemic level - and far lower than it would have been if Covid had not struck - many signs point to a strong economy. A record 4.5 million Americans quit jobs in November - a sign of confidence in the labour market - and more than 10 million positions stand open, the government reported this week. Jobless claims have dropped to a near 50-year low. December's job gains were felt across most industries, led by leisure and hospitality. The unemployment rate fell to 3.9% from 4.2%, while average hourly earnings were up 4.7% year-on-year. Wells Fargo economist Sarah House said future growth would be determined by worker availability. "December's report underscored that workers are only likely to trickle back into the jobs market as reasons for sitting out, like financial cushions, health concerns and childcare issues do not unwind all at once," she said. The labour shortages have helped to push inflation in the US to its highest rate in almost 40 years. In response, America's central bank has signalled it plans to start removing support for the economy, raising interest rates potentially as soon as March.

1-7-22 U.S. economy adds a disappointing 199,000 jobs in December
The U.S. economy added significantly fewer jobs in December than expected. The Labor Department said Friday the economy added 199,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate declined to 3.9 percent. It was a disappointing number after economists had expected over 400,000 jobs would be added, according to CNBC. "Employment continued to trend up in leisure and hospitality, in professional and business services, in manufacturing, in construction, and in transportation and warehousing," the Labor Department said. The latest report came as COVID-19 cases have surged in the United States amid the spread of the Omicron variant, although The New York Times notes the Friday report is based on data collected in the middle of December, prior to the record-breaking number of cases in the past two weeks. The U.S. previously added only 210,000 jobs in November, which was also under expectations after economists were expecting nearly 600,000, though The Wall Street Journal noted the U.S. added a record number of jobs during 2021 as a whole. Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao wrote Friday that the December report was a "disappointing bookend to a historic year in the job market," which also "highlights that the pandemic remains a barrier to many Americans who would otherwise be available to work."

1-7-22 How America could have kept schools open
Congress allocated $190 billion to schools for pandemic response. What happened? Schools across the country are shutting down again. The spectacular surge of Omicron cases has left thousands of teachers and students sick, and many others quite logically fear infection or spreading the virus to their immunocompromised relatives or unvaccinated young children. In some places, teachers unions are demanding a short break to let the wave at least pass — in Chicago, for instance, teachers voted to return to remote classes until January 18. This turn of events has driven a number of centrist and liberal commentators to distraction, if not full-blown derangement. Shutdowns have "been less defensible for the past year and a half, as we have learned more about both COVID and the extent of children's suffering from pandemic restrictions," writes David Leonhardt at The New York Times. "Moving to remote learning at this point is not responsible," economist Emily Oster said on CNN. Elections data geek Nate Silver said in a Twitter argument with Mother Jones' Clara Jeffrey that school closures generally were possibly a worse mistake than the Iraq war (!). It should be emphasized that, at this point, for many schools, some kind of closure is simply unavoidable. It's a matter of mechanical reality — if all the servers and cooks at a restaurant fall sick at the same time, it will close down for a bit no matter how much the owner yells and stamps his feet. Likewise, a school can't operate if so many teachers are out sick there is no one to manage the classrooms. That reality doesn't change though parents really need child care and children really need education. Still, at least some of these closures probably could have been headed off. In particular, a crash program of improving ventilation and air filtration starting in March of last year (or earlier) could have made schools much safer — or even forestalled the worst school-based outbreaks we see happening today. By and large, that didn't happen. Admittedly, building out an all-new HVAC system for a large school is an expensive and lengthy undertaking, but many cheaper options were available. Placing high-grade HEPA filters in every hallway and classroom wouldn't have cost much and might have taken only a couple weeks while schools were empty anyway. Buying up stocks of child-sized N95 or similar masks (as it seems most kids are still wearing crummy cloth masks or ill-fitting surgical ones) would have been even cheaper and easier. Stockpiling testing kits over the summer for the inevitable winter surge could have helped avoid transmission. And if schools had started HVAC upgrades last March, by now they might be finished. There was a lot of money available for this. Federal pandemic rescue bills contained some $190 billion in funds for schools, an average of about $1.5 million per public school explicitly earmarked for pandemic response. So what happened? It seems most of the money disappeared into the black hole of American federalism. ProPublica attempted to find out some months ago, only to discover the Department of Education is barely keeping track, in large part because it doesn't have the staff or organizational capacity to directly oversee thousands of school districts. The feds delegated oversight to the states, most of which sent out money willy-nilly with little direction or focus on air quality. In Iowa, one district spent $231,000 upgrading its outdoor stadium. A Kentucky school spent $1 million replacing its track and field facilities. A Texas school spent $5 million on a "5-acre outdoor learning environment connected to a local nature and birding center" that won't be finished until 2024. As of September, many other districts hadn't spent all their money yet, in part thanks to confusing federal rules.

1-7-22 Covid-19 news: India’s death toll may be six times higher than thought
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. The potentially massive scale of unrecorded covid-19 deaths in India’s second wave means the official world death toll may be a significant underestimate. India’s death toll from covid-19 may be six to seven times greater than that officially recorded. The country’s records say that nearly half a million people have died from coronavirus infections so far, but the latest study estimates the real figure is 3.2 million deaths up to July last year. If correct, this means the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus would be pushed up from 5.4 to 8.1 million – although other countries may also have underestimated their death rates. “This may require substantial upward revision of the World Health Organization’s estimates of cumulative global covid mortality,” Prabhat Jha at the University of Toronto and colleagues say in their paper. India experienced a huge second wave of coronavirus infections in the first half of 2021, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and a national shortage of oxygen supplies. In common with many other low and middle-income countries, India does not have good systemic methods for recording causes of death, especially those that occur in rural areas. For instance, Jha’s team say that in 2020, an estimated eight in ten deaths did not involve medical certification, which is standard procedure in richer countries. Jha’s team reached the figure of 3.2 million by using government data on all-cause mortality and an ongoing telephone survey of 140,000 adults across the country, which asked people about covid-19 symptoms and deaths in their households. The military is being deployed to help in London hospitals due to staff shortages caused by covid-19 infections and people self-isolating. The two hundred members of the armed forces will include doctors, nurses and other personnel for general assistance. London was the first part of England to experience the latest covid-19 surge caused by the omicron variant. People may need a fourth dose of a covid-19 vaccine by autumn in the northern hemisphere, Stephane Bancel of vaccine manufacturer Moderna has said. Israel has approved giving fourth shots to healthcare workers and people over the age of 60.

1-6-22 Millions in Afghanistan are facing extreme hunger
It's been a dire winter in Afghanistan, with 23 million people facing extreme levels of hunger amid the brutal cold. A man receives food aid in Afghanistan. It's been a dire winter in Afghanistan, with 23 million people facing extreme levels of hunger amid the brutal cold. Shelley Thakral, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, told NPR that there are several reasons why so many Afghans don't have enough food to eat. The country is experiencing its worst drought in decades, food prices have gone up, and the Taliban government takeover last August triggered an economic crisis. Many people who are now out of work because of the new government, including teachers and construction workers, are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. "There's a new urban class of hungry people," Thakral said. In order to keep Afghans fed through 2022, the World Food Program needs $2.6 billion, which will be used to provide staples like flour and oil. Some people are going without vegetables, dairy, and meat, and malnutrition is on the rise. "When you're not having green vegetables, and if you're pregnant or if you've got a newborn, or if you're a child under 5, that will start to have an impact," Thakral said. There are vendors selling fruit and vegetables in the streets of Kabul, "but what you're hearing is that people just don't have money to buy food," Thakral said. To scrape together funds to eat and purchase fuel and firewood to stay warm, many are selling household items — and in extreme cases, selling their children into early marriages, Thakral told NPR. Afghanistan is a "poor country, and it has been, but people have always managed to survive," she added. "This is different. The difference now is that people feel this is a very dark time for them."

1-6-22 Capitol riot: Biden to blame Trump for 'carnage' one year on
President Joe Biden will blame Donald Trump for the US Capitol riot as he marks the anniversary of the attack on the seat of American democracy. Speaking at Congress, Mr Biden will say his predecessor holds "singular responsibility" for the "chaos and carnage", said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Investigators have so far arrested 725 suspects in connection with the attack. Trump supporters stormed the building as Congress was meeting to certify Mr Biden's presidential election victory. Images of US lawmakers cowering from the mob in the gallery of the House of Representatives on that afternoon of 6 January 2021 shocked the world. Mr Trump had urged protesters at a rally outside the White House shortly beforehand to "peacefully" march on Congress, but he also exhorted them to "fight" and stirred up the crowd with unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud in the election he had just lost. The former president had planned to host a competing news conference on Thursday from his Mar-a-Lago resort home in Palm Beach, Florida. But he cancelled the event after aides reportedly warned of negative press coverage. A spokesman for Mr Trump, Taylor Budowich, said it was "unsurprising" that Mr Biden would spend the day "trying to further divide our nation" in an attempt to distract voters from rising inflation and crime and coronavirus school closures. President Biden - who rarely mentions his predecessor - will speak on Thursday morning in Statuary Hall, a section of the Capitol complex that was breached by rioters. The White House press secretary said the president's speech "will lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol, and the singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw". "He will forcibly push back on the lies spread by the former president - in an attempt to mislead the American people, and his own supporters, as well as distract from his role in what happened," she added. "President Biden has been clear-eyed about the threat the former president represents to our democracy," Ms Psaki continued. on Congress. They have issued legal summonses to members of Mr Trump's inner circle.

1-6-22 The crucial thing the House Jan. 6 committee knows about Trump that we don't
The House Jan. 6 committee has been working quickly and quietly to get the granular details of what happened on and leading up to the violent Capitol insurrection a year ago today. We already know a lot about what happened last Jan. 6 from investigators, prosecutors, and journalists, "eye-popping vignettes about a president obsessed with subverting his own defeat, and a mob willing to do his bidding at nearly any cost," Kyle Cheney writes at Politico. The evidence we have is "voluminous" and "devastating," Cheney writes. "President Donald Trump, glued to his television as violent supporters ransacked the Capitol, ignored increasingly frantic efforts by his aides and his own children to call off the assault." But "the committee wants to tell the full story of Trump's actions, interactions, and refusals to act during a 187-minute timeframe between calling his allies to march to the Capitol and telling them to go home," Axios reports. And they know more than we do. "The most explosive details they may be sitting on could, on the surface, be the most mundane," Cheney points out. "That's because the committee, unlike the rest of us, knows precisely what time key texts were sent and urgent pleas went ignored. Where those messages fit in the already-known timeline of Trump's movements on Jan. 6 could be among the panel's more crucial findings." He laid out several examples where knowing the precise time Trump communicated with somebody really matters in understanding his culpability for the insurrection. In her two voluntary sit-downs with the Jan. 6 committee, former Mike Pence press secretary Alyssa Farah told Axios, "you could see how much information they already had." The witnesses not cooperating, she added, will soon be "realizing the committee has quite a bit more information than they realized. And their involvement is known to a much greater degree than they realized."

1-6-22 Republican politicians can't duck the implications of Jan. 6
Voters deserve leaders who aren't afraid of the truth. Donald Trump has spent the past year trying to rewrite the history of the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol. He's forcing Republican politicians and their media allies to choose between the expedient option — defending or ignoring Trump — and the patriotic one — denouncing him. Earlier this week, Trump canceled a promised news conference at his Mar-a-Lago home, which would have marked the one-year anniversary of the riots, after a small handful of GOP senators said it was time to move on. But the critics didn't fully rein him in: Trump used his cancellation announcement to say he instead would hold a rally in Arizona on Jan. 15 to "discuss many of those important topics," including ones the "Lame Stream Media" refuses to report. There, he'll likely repeat charges that the 2020 election was stolen, and claim that any actual "insurrection" took place on Election Day, when he was "fraudulently" denied a second term. How much longer will the majority of Republican politicians stoke Trump's ego by sitting quietly by as he spews lies and innuendo about fraud and theft and "witch hunts"? Trump's Big Lie — that Joe Biden lost the election — is easy to reject, if only prominent Republicans would do it. Such an admission could slow the calls among party radicals to continue trashing public trust in peaceful democratic processes. CBS News debunked several major conspiracies a week after the Capitol was sacked. Dominion Voting System machines didn't switch votes from Trump to Biden; Sharpie markers didn't invalidate votes in Arizona; ballots weren't "found" or "thrown out" by election workers in several states; poll watchers weren't denied access to witness vote counting; thousands of votes weren't cast by dead people and tallied; nor did thousands cast multiple ballots that were all counted. Even less-credible conspiracies pushed by Trump's legal team — fake ballots were transported from North Korea to Maine! Chinese hackers broke into election office computer systems to change votes! — continue to circulate. The former president may repeat them. What Trump says, though, is less important than how other Republicans respond to it. Republicans shouldn't be allowed to ignore or amplify the Big Lie merely to boost their credentials with unhinged activists. While most defeated presidents stay out of party primary contests, Trump has thrown his influence behind more than 40 candidates running in 2022, many of them vowing to keep the conspiracies alive. Some swear they'd use their power to reverse election results if Republicans lose. Democrats likely stand a better chance of taking control of a 50-50 Senate if Trump-friendly GOP neophytes defeat mainstream Republicans in primaries; even so, the former president is eager to test that thesis. For instance, Trump has endorsed a little-known primary challenger to popular incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Murkowski won re-election in 2010 as a write-in candidate and was one of seven senators to vote for conviction in Trump's 2021 impeachment. She's likely to win this fall, despite Trump's opposition. But the money GOP Trumpists shovel toward a futile Alaska race can't be spent defending competitive seats with mainstream candidates.

1-6-22 'A nation in decline' - how the world saw Capitol riot
.When supporters of President Trump stormed the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, the rest of the world looked on. One year later, BBC correspondents in China, Canada and Germany recount how the historic incident was perceived abroad - and assess what it's meant for the standing of American democracy.

1-6-22 Ashers 'gay cake' case: European court rules case inadmissible
A gay rights activist has lost a seven-year discrimination dispute over a cake order as the European Court of Human Rights ruled his case inadmissible. Gareth Lee started legal action back in 2014 after a Christian-run Belfast bakery refused to make him a cake with the slogan "Support Gay Marriage". The family firm Ashers said the slogan contravened their Christian beliefs. The European court ruled Mr Lee's case inadmissible, saying he had failed to exhaust all options in the UK courts. The Belfast man has long argued that by refusing to fulfil his order, the bakery had discriminated against him on grounds of his sexual orientation and political beliefs. He won his original case and a subsequent appeal in the UK courts, but in 2018 the UK Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts and found in favour of the bakery. Mr Lee then took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, where it was examined by seven judges who decided, by majority, that it should be dismissed. The long-running dispute has raised questions about religious freedom and discrimination law. In their ruling on Thursday, the judges said the case was inadmissible because Mr Lee had not invoked his rights under the European Convention of Human Rights "at any point in the domestic proceedings" in the UK courts. The judges decided that in order for a complaint to be admissible, "the Convention arguments must be raised explicitly or in substance before the domestic authorities". "By relying solely on domestic law, the applicant had deprived the domestic courts of the opportunity to address any Convention issues raised, instead asking the court to usurp the role of the domestic courts. "Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible," said the ruling. Mr Lee expressed disappointment that his case had been dismissed on a "technicality". "None of us should be expected to have to figure out the beliefs of a company's owners before going into their shop or paying for their services," he said. "Everyone has freedom of expression and it must equally apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people," he added. "I am most frustrated that the core issues did not get fairly analysed and adjudicated upon because of a technicality."

1-6-22 Covid-19 news: Omicron cases hit record highs in Europe
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Omicron continues to surge in the UK and other European countries. More than 24 NHS trusts have declared critical incidents in England after being overwhelmed by omicron patients. It means priority services may currently be under threat at one in six trusts in England. In the UK there are currently 17,276 patients in hospital with the virus, according to the latest daily figures – the highest figure since last February. Yesterday close to 200,000 people tested positive for coronavirus. “The sheer volume of covid cases, rising hospital admissions that have increased to over 15,000 and widespread staff absences that are as high as 10 per cent in some trusts are all combining to place front-line NHS services under enormous strain,” said Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation. Other countries in Europe are also facing unprecedented numbers of daily coronavirus cases. In France, 332,252 coronavirus cases were recorded yesterday. There were also over 20,000 covid-19 patients in hospital yesterday – the country’s highest figure since late May. Italy also reported a record number of new coronavirus cases for the second day in a row. The latest total was 189,109. Meanwhile, Turkey hit a record high of 66,467 cases yesterday. Booster jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds have been approved in the US by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children will be offered a Pfizer/BioNTech booster jab. It follows the approval of boosters in the US for 16 to 17-year-olds in December. Tennis star Novak Djokovic is being detained in a hotel in Australia after he failed to provide adequate evidence of his vaccination status on entry to the country.

1-5-22 CDC recommends Pfizer booster for kids 12 and up
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday recommended that youths age 12 to 17 receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine booster. "It is critical that we protect our children and teens from COVID-19 infection and the complications of severe disease," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. "I encourage all parents to keep their children up to date with CDC's COVID-19 vaccine recommendations." There are 16.7 million adolescents in the United States, and about half are fully vaccinated, The Washington Post reports. The highly contagious Omicron variant is fueling a surge in COVID-19 cases across the U.S., and the country's seven-day case average hit 580,000 on Wednesday. Walensky said that data shows boosters "help broaden and strengthen protection against Omicron and other variants" in both children and adults. The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19, while still relatively low, is now higher than the previous record set last summer during the Delta surge, the Post reports.

1-5-22 Why hospitals are struggling with Omicron even as fewer people are getting seriously ill
"In hospitals around the country, doctors are taking notice: This wave of COVID seems different from the last one," The New York Times reports. Yes, hospitals are filling up again as cases surge, "but in Omicron hot spots from New York to Florida to Texas, a smaller proportion of those patients are landing in intensive care units or requiring mechanical ventilation." And there is mounting evidence that Omicron is intrinsically milder for most people, especially the vaccinated or previously infected. "We are seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations," Dr. Rahul Sharma, emergency physician in chief for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, told the Times. But "we're not sending as many patients to the ICU, we're not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged." These "very strong signals" about Omicron's reduced severity are "unambiguously good news!" Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch wrote in a chart-heavy Twitter thread. "But ... as with everything in this pandemic, once we dig deeper it gets complicated." And one of the big complications is that while the Omicron variant appears to be less dangerous for individuals, it is still putting a lot of strain on hospitals. "Not every hospital is overwhelmed, but a lot of them are," Politico's Erin Banco explains. "Doctors and nurses are struggling to keep up with the work of caring for the influx of patients, not only because there are just more of them, but also because staff are calling out sick with COVID." In both London and the U.S., "the picture is clear: While ICU is under less pressure from COVID this year, the rest of the hospital is facing more," Burn-Murdoch wrote. At the same time, "the number of ICU patients is a lagging indicator, likely to rise in the coming weeks," the Times reports. "What's more, some states are still struggling under the crush of hospitalizations from Delta." It's "hard to condense" this wave "into a simple takeaway," Burn-Murdoch concludes. "Yes, a much lower share of cases are developing severe disease. Yes, deaths for this wave will remain well below past peaks. But no, this does not mean everything is fine." But nobody can be sure what's next, either, the Times notes. "It has been about six weeks since the world first learned about Omicron, and hospital personnel are still waiting nervously to see how the coming weeks unfold."

1-5-22 Mayo Clinic fires 700 unvaccinated employees
The Mayo Clinic announced Wednesday that it had fired 700 unvaccinated employees the previous day, NBC News reported. These employees, according to CBS News, make up around 1 percent of the Mayo Clinic's 73,000-strong workforce. They were fired after missing a deadline to either obtain a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or obtain a religious or medical exemption by Monday. Mayo Clinic is headquartered in Rochester, Minnesota with satellite campuses in Jacksonville, Florida and the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. The prestigious hospital system said the firings were "necessary to keep our patients, workforce, visitors and communities safe" but that dismissed employees are welcome to re-apply if they get vaccinated in the future. A group of 85 Minnesota lawmakers, led by state Rep. Peggy Bennett (R), signed a letter to the Mayo Clinic last month urging the hospital not to fire unvaccinated employees and threatening to withhold state funds from any "healthcare facility that fires their employees due to unrealistic vaccine mandate policies." Conservative podcast host Liz Wheeler also stuck up for the fired healthcare workers. "Do not say one word about hospital staffing crises when the Mayo Clinic just fired 700 workers for being unvaxxed," Wheeler tweeted. Former NBCUniversal executive Mike Sington took to Twitter to express a very different view. "Good, keep it up, keep firing them," he wrote. "Ban the unvaccinated from their jobs, from public places. They can sit in their homes alone, while the rest of us enjoy our lives."

1-5-22 How close is America to a new civil war?
It's not inevitable. Maybe not even likely. But it's still worth debate. With the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection looming later this week, analysts and pundits have put the worst-case scenario for the American future on the table for public debate and discussion: Is the country coming unglued? Are we approaching the point where self-government becomes impossible? Will political violence break out again, this time spreading beyond our capacity to contain it? Is the United States careening toward a second civil war? Canadian novelist and commentator Stephen Marche is among the most confident of the pessimists. In an excerpt from his new book published in The Guardian, Marche points out that hardly anyone foresaw the outbreak of the original American Civil War, even as the conflagration was breaking out at a military installation on the South Carolina coast. It's the same today, Marche claims, with the right becoming militarized in response to the widespread delegitimation of American political institutions. Those "structures of power" no longer adequately represent the views of the majority, and Republicans are ready to substitute "the politics of the gun." Writing in New York magazine, author Jonathan Chait adds an additional layer to the story of institutional rot. Just as the Republican Party at first opposed former President Donald Trump's candidacy and nomination in 2016 but eventually rallied around his presidency, so its leading officials initially responded to the violence on Capitol Hill a year ago with outrage but eventually retreated to excusing or even offering a backhanded defense of those who stormed the Congress and the man who incited them to do it. Republican officeholders might not explicitly endorse overturning democratic elections, but they clearly don't think the attempt is anything to get too worked up about — at least, not if the head of their own party is the one behind it. That could well lead to a replay of the events of Jan. 6 during a future election, and on a vaster scale. But, as The Week's own Noah Millman argues in The New York Times, there's no guarantee that Republicans will be the party to initiate extralegal actions. Believing the threat comes solely from the right leads many Democrats to put their faith in a legislative solution to the danger of civil unrest — usually through the reform of election laws. But in truth there is no such legislative solution, Millman claims, because "the deepest problem threatening American democracy" is "the profound lack of trust in the legitimacy of the opposition." We saw Democrats reject this legitimacy in 2000 and to some extent again in 2016, while the GOP went even further in 2020. The suspicion is mutual, and, as long as it stays that way, we run the risk of a buckling system and the outbreak of violence in response. Yet that doesn't mean a civil war is inevitable or even likely. In a long essay in Vox, Zack Beauchamp reviews a wide range of scholarship and case studies of democratic breakdown across the world in attempting to think through possible scenarios for the American future. They range from the U.S. muddling through its troubles without much change to the outbreak of several forms of political violence to the rise of outright authoritarian government to something much more like an actual civil war. Many scholars consider the risk of a civil war to be remote, and I suspect they're right. But these recent pieces by Marche, Chait, Millman, and Beauchamp are still worthwhile, because a remote possibility that's extremely bad is still worth attempting to forestall.

1-5-22 Covid: US reports record 1m cases with peak still to come
The US has recorded more than one million new Covid cases as officials warn the peak of a fast-spreading Omicron surge is still to come. A record 1,080,211 cases were reported on Monday - the highest one-day tally of new cases anywhere in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The Omicron variant accounts for the majority of cases in the US. President Joe Biden, who is facing criticism over his response, called for schools to stay open despite the surge. While rates of death and hospital admissions in the US have been far lower in recent weeks than in previous infection spikes, the number of hospital admissions has been steadily rising. US teacher arrested for vaccinating student The country is now facing "almost a vertical increase" in cases, said top US pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci, adding that the peak may be weeks away. Mr Biden acknowledged on Tuesday that there has been "concern and some considerable confusion about the rising cases", but reiterated that the majority of hospital admissions and deaths from Covid are among the unvaccinated, and that the US has enough vaccines to fully jab every eligible citizen. "We know kids can be safe while they're in school. That's why I believe schools should remain open," he said. Omicron has also led to school districts across the country postponing the return of students to classrooms following the Christmas break due to the rapid spread of the variant and subsequent staffing shortages. There are also concerns over challenges in securing rapid tests for students and teachers. In Detroit, Michigan, for example - which is experiencing an all-time high infection rate of 36% - city school officials announced that schools will remain closed until Thursday. A number of other major school systems, including Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Newark, have announced postponements or a return to virtual classes. In New York City, the largest school district in the US, schools remained open. On Monday, Mayor Eric Adams said that school is "the safest place for our children". The New York Times reported, however, that approximately one third of parents kept their children at home over Covid-19 fears. Across the country, more than 450,000 children returned to temporary remote learning in the past week due to the variants, the Times reported.

1-5-22 Why Omicron has made soaring COVID-19 case numbers less relevant
The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. has tripled over the past two weeks, to a record-smashing average of 480,000 new infections a day, as the super-transmissible Omicron variant continues spreading around the country. The undulating infection numbers "have been one of the most closely watched barometers during the outbreak," The Associated Press reports. But in this Omicron wave, "the value of the daily case count is being called into question as never before.". With the unusually large share of asymptomatic Omicron infections or mild cases, "it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases," Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News on Sunday. "Hospitalizations are where the rubber meets the road," U.C. Irvine public health professor Andrew Noymer told AP. "It's a more objective measure," and "if I had to choose one metric, I would choose the hospitalization data." Hospital admissions have risen to an average of 14,800 a day, up 63 percent from last week but lower than the peak of 16,500 a year ago, and fewer of the new patients are getting seriously ill, AP notes. "Deaths have been stable over the past two weeks at an average of about 1,200 per day, well below the all-time high of 3,400 last January." Case numbers always had their drawbacks — they mostly count the number of lab tests that come back positive, not at-home results, and this recent uptick in cases is probably tied to the surge of people rushing to get tested before the holidays. Hospital admission numbers have their flaws, too. But as the pandemic enters its third year, we should be "shifting our focus, especially in an era of vaccination, to really focus on preventing illness, disability, and death, and therefore counting those," Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr at Columbia's ICAP global heath center tells AP. "Though it's still early for firm predictions, the shift in hospital patterns fits with emerging data that Omicron may be a variant with inherently milder effects than those that have come before," The New York Times reports. "But the lower proportion of severe cases is also happening because, compared with previous variants, Omicron is infecting more people who have some prior immunity, whether through prior infection or vaccination." And that means vaccination numbers are another important metric to watch now, as Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch shows.

1-5-22 Why hospitals are struggling with Omicron even as fewer people are getting seriously ill
"In hospitals around the country, doctors are taking notice: This wave of COVID seems different from the last one," The New York Times reports. Yes, hospitals are filling up again as cases surge, "but in Omicron hot spots from New York to Florida to Texas, a smaller proportion of those patients are landing in intensive care units or requiring mechanical ventilation." And there is mounting evidence that Omicron is intrinsically milder for most people, especially the vaccinated or previously infected. "We are seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations," Dr. Rahul Sharma, emergency physician in chief for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, told the Times. But "we're not sending as many patients to the ICU, we're not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged." These "very strong signals" about Omicron's reduced severity are "unambiguously good news!" Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch wrote in a chart-heavy Twitter thread. "But ... as with everything in this pandemic, once we dig deeper it gets complicated." And one of the big complications is that while the Omicron variant appears to be less dangerous for individuals, it is still putting a lot of strain on hospitals. "Not every hospital is overwhelmed, but a lot of them are," Politico's Erin Banco explains. "Doctors and nurses are struggling to keep up with the work of caring for the influx of patients, not only because there are just more of them, but also because staff are calling out sick with COVID." In both London and the U.S., "the picture is clear: While ICU is under less pressure from COVID this year, the rest of the hospital is facing more," Burn-Murdoch wrote. At the same time, "the number of ICU patients is a lagging indicator, likely to rise in the coming weeks," the Times reports. "What's more, some states are still struggling under the crush of hospitalizations from Delta." It's "hard to condense" this wave "into a simple takeaway," Burn-Murdoch concludes. "Yes, a much lower share of cases are developing severe disease. Yes, deaths for this wave will remain well below past peaks. But no, this does not mean everything is fine." But nobody can be sure what's next, either, the Times notes. "It has been about six weeks since the world first learned about Omicron, and hospital personnel are still waiting nervously to see how the coming weeks unfold."

1-5-22 Chicago public schools cancel Wednesday classes after teachers union vote
Chicago Public Schools officials late Tuesday canceled classes for Wednesday, citing a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to switch to remote learning amid a surge of COVID-19 cases tied to the Omicron variant. The union said 73 percent of its members approved the motion to switch to remote learning until COVID-19 "cases substantially subside" or union leaders and the school district approve an agreement for safety protocols. "This decision was made with a heavy heart and a singular focus on student and community safety," the Chicago Teachers Union said. The school district characterized the move as a "walkout" and "illegal work stoppage," and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested teachers who did not show up to work would be placed on "no pay status," The Associated Press reports. Most schools are reopening as planned after the winter break, but some districts have postponed the return to school due to the Omicron surge or icy weather. President Biden urged schools to stay open earlier on Tuesday, and New York Times columnist David Leonhardt dedicated his Tuesday morning newsletter to all the reasons pandemic-tied school closures have been really bad for children. In Chicago, the teachers union and school district have been sparring over the proper protocols to put in place to keep students, staff, and teachers safe. Chicago Public Schools said it offered teachers 200,000 KN95 masks, a return to daily screen questionnaires, and metrics for closing individual schools. The teachers union said it is reviewing the offer but received it only "minutes" before its news conference on the remote learning vote. It isn't clear yet what will happen with the school schedule after Wednesday.

1-4-22 Covid-19 news: New variant found in France doesn’t seem to have spread
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 variant found in France was identified in November. A coronavirus variant first discovered in France in late 2021 has had a lot of chances to spread but did not, according to an official from the World Health Organization (WHO). The variant has been on the intergovernmental body’s radar since November, Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager said at a press briefing yesterday according to Bloomberg. The variant was discovered around the same time as omicron. Known as the B.1.640.2 variant, it caused at least 12 people to fall ill in Marseilles in November. “[It is] too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this… variant based on these 12 cases,” say researchers in a preliminary analysis of the variant’s genome. The variant has 46 mutations and 13 deletions in its genome, say the team. “This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised as far as we can tell”, tweeted Tom Peacock, at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the analysis. Multiple variants of the virus have evolved since the pandemic began but only a handful have gone on to spread widely. The highly-infectious omicron variant is currently sweeping through Europe, and France yesterday recorded 271,686 covid-19 infections, a national record. Normal life will be made harder for unvaccinated people in France, French president Emmanuel Macron told Le Parisien yesterday. “We need to tell them, from 15 January, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.” The tennis player Novak Djokovic has faced backlash after yesterday saying on Instagram that he had received a medical exemption to take part in the Australian Open. Only people who are fully vaccinated can currently visit Australia. Djokovic has not spoken about his vaccination status, but has previously expressed anti-vaccination sentiments. The organisers of the tournament, which starts on 17 January, say the athlete has not been given special treatment. Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison said the Serbian player would need to show a genuine medical exemption to enter the country unvaccinated. Delhi will impose a weekend curfew to curb soaring omicron cases in the Indian city. All non-essential activity will be banned from Friday night (7 January) to Monday morning (10 January). The curbs are in addition to a nighttime curfew that has been in place since late December from 11pm and 5am. Cinemas and gyms have also been closed since last week.

1-4-22 Covid-19: What can we expect from the pandemic in 2022?
In the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, expect more variants, lower death rates and some continuing restrictions. While the pandemic is unlikely to fully end in 2022, we can hope to see some positive changes: more vaccine coverage, improved treatments and reduced mortality. But mitigation measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing, will remain crucial for controlling outbreaks and restricting the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead on covid-19 at the World Health Organization (WHO), dislikes the phrase “learning to live with the virus”. She says: “I don’t think we should learn to live with it. There are lots of things we can be doing to stop the virus from spreading. No level of death from covid-19 is acceptable to me.” The next year will unfold how we allow it to, she says. “How we use the vaccine going forward among those most at risk will be critical to what happens.” A crucial issue will be vaccine equity. By late December, more than 8 billion doses had been given globally, but only 8.1 per cent of people in low-income nations had received at least one jab. “Global leaders haven’t utilised the vaccine as they should have,” says Van Kerkhove. “If we’d used 8 billion doses differently, we’d be seeing a very different epidemiological situation right now.” In December, WHO member states agreed to draw up a treaty by 2024 that will set out new international rules on preparing for, preventing and responding to pandemics. Forthcoming negotiations are expected to partly tackle the inequality of vaccine provision. “Just as countries have come together against tobacco and climate change, health security is too important to be left to chance or friendly agreements,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general.

1-4-22 House Jan. 6 committee is seeking Sean Hannity's cooperation
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot would like to speak with Fox News host Sean Hannity, telling him in a letter sent Tuesday that they have "no doubt that you love our country and respect our Constitution. Now is the time to step forward and serve the interests of your country." The letter, signed by the committee's chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), is asking for Hannity's voluntary cooperation, and notes that they will not be asking him for any information on his political views or Fox News show. Rather, the panel has received evidence that he had "relevant communications while the riot was underway and in the days thereafter. These communications make you a fact witness in our investigation." Material that has been turned over to the committee also shows that Hannity "had advance knowledge regarding President Trump's and his legal team's planning for Jan. 6th," Thompson and Cheney wrote. The committee has received dozens of text messages sent between Hannity and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the days before and after the Capitol attack, and Thompson and Cheney said one text from Hannity on Dec. 31 suggests "that you had knowledge of concerns by President Trump's White House Counsel's Office regarding the legality of the former president's plans for Jan. 6th. These facts are directly relevant to our inquiry." In addition to speaking with the committee, Hannity has also been asked to preserve all records of his communications relevant to the panel's investigation, The Washington Post reports.

1-4-22 The academic and mental crisis plaguing American children: 'It is maddening'
American children are suffering mentally and academically — and perhaps more than you might already think, writes David Leonhardt for The New York Times. For one thing, children "fell far behind in school during the first year of the pandemic and have not caught up," Leonhardt reports. In fact, math and reading levels among third through eighth graders were lower than normal this fall, with shortfalls most pronounced among Black and Hispanic students and students in high poverty-area schools. Academic life as a whole also has yet to return to normal, with important hallmarks like lunchtime and assemblies "transformed if not eliminated." And districts nationwide have reported seeing an increase in behavioral problems among students. "This is no way for children to grow up," said one reader to the Times. "It is maddening." "A lot of the joy and camaraderie that signifies a happy, productive school culture has disappeared," added Maria Menconi, an Arizona-based former superintendent. The isolation has even aggravated mental health problems among children and teenagers, leading to a devastating increase in suicide attempts that's most pronounced among adolescent girls. On top of all of that, "gun violence against children has increased, as part of a broader nationwide rise in crime," Leonhardt writes. And school shootings are on the rise, with The Washington Post having counted 42 in the U.S. last year — "the most on record and up from 27 in 2019," per Leonhardt. Though certain trade-offs are to be expected in the midst of a pandemic, society's current approach towards children has grown less and less defensible — especially given the data we now have regarding COVID in children, as well as vaccines, Leonhardt argues. "Given the choices that the country has made," he says, "it should not be surprising that children are suffering so much."

1-4-22 Hong Kong activist sentenced for creating 'public health risk' by inciting Tiananmen vigil
A Hong Kong court sentenced pro-democracy activist Chow Hang-tung to 15 months in prison for writing a social media post and a newspaper article supporting commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Reuters reports. Chow is a former vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized annual candlelight vigils in memory of those who died in Tiananmen Square. The alliance opted to disband in September 2021 after all its leaders were arrested, the Hong Kong Free Press reported. Magistrate Amy Chan argued that Chow's article and her post — which read "Lighting a candle is not a crime: Stand one's ground" — incited an illegal gathering that constituted a "public health crisis." Chow argued that her intention was to encourage remembrance, not to incite gatherings. According to CNN, for "three decades, Hong Kong has been the only place on Chinese-controlled soil allowed to publicly commemorate the events in and around Tiananmen Square, during which unarmed mostly student protesters were brutally suppressed by Chinese troops." Police banned the vigils in 2020 and 2021, but illegal vigils took place both years. The cancellations were ostensibly intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Critics of the pro-Beijing regime dispute this explanation, instead tying the cancellations to the Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on the formerly self-governing enclave. Hong Kong's universities removed a pair of monuments to the Tiananmen victims last month. Chow was sentenced last month to 12 months in prison for her role in the 2020 vigils. The court allowed her to serve 5 months of her new sentences concurrently, meaning she will be imprisoned for a total of 22 months. News of Chow's second sentence comes just one day after one of Hong Kong's few remaining pro-democracy news publications closed its doors. A week prior, 7 people associated with online publication Stand News were arrested after a raid on the outlet's offices.

1-4-22 Covid: US reports record 1m cases with peak still to come
The US has recorded more than one million new Covid cases, as officials warn the peak of a fast-spreading Omicron surge is still to come. A record 1,080,211 cases were reported on Monday - the highest one-day tally of new cases anywhere in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The Omicron variant accounts for the majority of cases in the US. The top US pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci has said the country is facing "almost a vertical increase" in cases. He said the peak may be weeks away. But Dr Fauci said the example of South Africa - where Omicron first spread rapidly before subsiding - offered some hope. Rates of death and hospital admissions in the US have been far lower in recent weeks than in previous infection spikes. Some 8,652 people are reported to have died from the disease in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins. The previous US record of cases was 590,000, reported four days ago. The highest number outside the US came during India's Delta surge, when more than 414,188 people were confirmed as having the disease in May 2021. Studies suggest that Omicron is milder than the previously dominant Delta variant, but fears remain that the sheer number of cases stemming from the highly infectious Omicron could overwhelm hospitals.

1-4-22 CDC's Walenksy explains the new 5-day COVID isolation advisory, Omicron severity to Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert had Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on Monday's Late Show, and he began by asking her about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically about the severity of the new Omicron variant. Omicron is two to three times more transmissible than Delta, Walensky said, but it does "seem to be a little bit less severe in any given individual." Colbert was curious about the word "seem," and Walensky said U.S. public health officials are going mostly off of data from South Africa and Britain, where hospitalization rates and deaths "did not rise as much as they've seen in prior waves," and lengths of hospital stays are shorter. South Africa's situation is different than America's, Walensky conceded, "but we're starting to see similar things here," with a modest increase in hospitalizations even as case numbers surge. We'll see the effects of Christmas and New Year's gatherings in a week or two, she added. "The big CDC news," Colbert said, is that "y'all have now gone from recommending a 10-day isolation to a five-day isolation. Why the change?" Walensky said from the past two years we know that "probably about 80 to 90 percent of your transmissibility has happened in those first five days," right before and right after you have symptoms, "and we really want people to be sure if they're gonna be home, they're going to be home for the right period of time, when they're maximally transmissible." The U.K. advises a negative test before you leave quarantine, and on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci "suggested that's under consideration" here, Colbert said. "Is he talking out both sides of his mouth over there and you'd like to tell him, 'Put a cork in it, Tony'?" Walkensky laughed and said no. The rapid antigen tests are approved mostly for early detection, she said, and whether or not you test negative at the end of the five-day period, "you still should probably not visit grandma, you shouldn't get on an airplane, and you should still be pretty careful when you're with other people by wearing your mask all the time." If you can't do that — Colbert, for example, said he wouldn't wear a mask during his monologue — you should still isolate for 10 days, Walensky said. Colbert ended the interview by asking Walensky about the lack of rapid antigen tests and how the CDC plans to restore credibility that was sapped during the Trump administration.

1-4-22 Covid-19 news: Hospitals in England declare critical incidents
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Staff shortages force health service providers to enact emergency measures. At least six National Health Service trusts in England have declared critical incidents as a result of staff shortages caused by covid-19. A critical incident means that the healthcare providers believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services, and the status enables them to call for help from staff and other organisations. University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and United Lincolnshire Hospitals are among the trusts implementing emergency measures. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, wrote in a blogpost that many parts of the health service are currently in “a state of crisis”, while community and social care services are at “breaking point”. Covid-19 cases may have plateaued in London and could start to fall in other parts of the UK within 3 weeks, an epidemiologist and government adviser has said. Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that infection rates in the capital appear to be stabilising in the 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the omicron epidemic. “With an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week; [they] may be already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to 3 weeks,” he said. “Whether they then drop precipitously, or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with delta back in July of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau, remains to be seen. It’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of opening schools again will be.” In the US, thousands of schools have delayed the start of term or switched to remote learning amid surging cases caused by the omicron variant. New York City’s mayor has vowed to keep schools open despite soaring infection rates, in contrast to cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. Nationwide, the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 increased by 40 per cent in the past week, according to Reuters. The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children aged 12 to 15. A panel advising the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will now decide whether to recommend booster shots in this age group.

1-4-22 China: Xi'an residents in lockdown trade goods for food amid shortage
People quarantined in the Chinese city of Xi'an are bartering supplies amid continuing worries over food shortages. Social posts show locals swapping cigarettes and tech gadgets for food. About 13 million have been confined to their homes since 23 December. The strict measures come ahead of the Lunar New Year and the Winter Olympics due to be held in Beijing next month. Overnight, the city of Yuzhou was shut down after the discovery of just three cases, all of them asymptomatic. Yuzhou, with a population of 1.1 million, has closed its transport system and entertainment venues and banned almost all vehicles from the roads. All but essential food shops are shut, with only workers involved in epidemic prevention allowed out. The outbreak in the much larger city to the west is the worst China has seen in months as it continues a "zero Covid" strategy, seeking to stamp out the virus rather than try to live with it. Authorities in Xi'an have been providing free food to households, but there have been numerous complaints on social media. Some residents said their supplies were running low or that they had yet to receive aid. Videos and photos on social media site Weibo showed people exchanging cigarettes for cabbage, dishwashing liquid for apples, and sanitary pads for a small pile of vegetables. One video showed a resident appearing to trade his Nintendo Switch console for a packet of instant noodles and two steamed buns. "People are swapping stuff with others in the same building, because they no longer have enough food to eat," a resident surnamed Wang told Radio Free Asia. The news outlet also reported that another man had wanted to trade a smartphone and tablet for rice. "Helpless citizens have arrived at the era of bartering - potatoes are exchanged for cotton swabs," one Weibo user said, while another described it as a "return to primitive society". Some were more optimistic though, and commented on how "touched" they were by their neighbours' kindness in sharing their supplies with them. Xi'an is at the epicentre of China's current Covid outbreak, and local authorities have enacted drastic measures which have attracted significant criticism online.

1-4-22 Colorado fire investigators are focusing on a Christian fundamentalist sect called Twelve Tribes
Colorado officials initially thought last weekend's fast-moving Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than 900 homes in the Denver suburbs of Louisville and Superior, was sparked by downed power lines. After ruling that out, investigators are now focusing on a property owned by the Christian fundamentalist sect Twelve Tribes, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Monday. Pelle had said Sunday that law enforcement officials had served a search warrant at a specific property, but declined to elaborate. He said Sunday he was referring to the Twelve Tribes land and an adjacent property. People had reported seeing a shed on fire on the Twelve Tribes land Thursday, right before the fire spread through the drought-primed brush and neighborhoods in Boulder County. Pelle on Monday urged people not to jump to conclusions, saying the investigation into the fire's origins could take weeks or months. "We're going to take our time and be methodical because the stakes are huge," he said. The FBI, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) are aiding the investigation. About 35,000 people had to evacuate their homes to escape the Marshall Fire, and many are still in shelters; two people are still missing. A Twelve Tribes spokeswoman said Monday that an investigation was taking place but did not comment further. "Twelve Tribes originated from a youth Bible study group in the 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee," The New York Times reports. "Since then, it has grown into an international network of self-governing communities scattered across North and South America, Europe and Australia. The settlement in Boulder is one of two in Colorado." Men who belong to the sect "are expected to wear long beards and tie their hair back, while women dress modestly," the Times adds. "Its members often work at several businesses owned by the group across the country, which include a deli in Boulder."

1-4-22 Donald Trump's children refuse to testify in fraud inquiry.
Two of Donald Trump's children have refused to testify to a fraud inquiry into the family's business. Donald Jr, 44, and Ivanka, 40, were ordered to give evidence by New York Attorney General Letitia James. She opened a civil inquiry in 2019 into claims that - before he took office - Mr Trump had inflated the value of his assets to banks when seeking loans. Mr Trump's lawyers are trying to stop Ms James from questioning the former US president and his children. They have asked a judge to quash the "unprecedented and unconstitutional" bid for their testimony. Mr Trump sued Ms James last month, accusing the attorney general - an elected Democrat - of pursuing a politically motivated witch hunt against him, a Republican. She had requested he testify in person at her office before Friday. The court filing on Monday is the first time investigators have said they want to question Donald Jnr and Ivanka under oath. Ms James's spokesperson said: "We are confident that our questions will be answered and the truth will be uncovered because no one is above the law." Another son, Eric, 37, who is executive vice-president at the Trump Organization, was questioned in October 2020. into the organisation's business practices. Donald Jr and Eric took over control of the company along with Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer, when their father took office in January 2017. Ivanka also worked at the Trump Organization, before becoming a senior White House adviser. Mr Weisselberg pleaded not guilty in July to tax fraud charges.

1-3-22 Another Hong Kong news site shutters amid ongoing crackdown by Beijing
Hong Kong news site Citizen News will cease publication Tuesday as the Chinese Communist Party erodes press freedom in the formerly semi-autonomous enclave, the outlet's founders announced Monday. According to The Associated Press, Citizen News is the third major outlet to close in recent months. Pro-democracy print newspaper Apple Daily closed its doors in June, and online publication Stand News followed suit last week. The day before Stand News announced its closure, law enforcement raided the outlet's offices and arrested seven people, including two editors who were later charged with sedition. Apple Daily's former owner, Jimmy Lai, has also been jailed on sedition charges. Citizen News initially tried to soldier on, hiring many former employees from other publications and even offering to allow interns from shuttered outlets to finish their internships at Citizen News. Ultimately, though, founder Chris Yeung concluded that he had no choice but to close before Hong Kong's new CCP-aligned regime forced him to do so. "At the center of a brewing storm, we found (ourselves) in a critical situation. In the face of a crisis, we must ensure the safety and well-being of everyone who are on board," a statement from Citizen News read. The same day Citizen News announced its closure, a slate of 90 pro-Beijing lawmakers were sworn into Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) after an election last month that saw historically low rates of voter turnout, according to BBC. Only pre-screened, CCP-approved "patriots" were permitted to stand for election. These electoral policies and crackdowns on freedom of the press are the latest steps in Beijing's campaign to bring Hong Kong, which had been a bastion of freedom within China since it ceased to be a British colony in 1997, into line with the rest of the nation. In 2019, the CCP imposed a strict national security law on Hong Kong, effectively ending the region's decades-long history of self-government.

1-3-22 As House Jan. 6 committee prepares to go public, Liz Cheney says they now know what Trump was doing
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection has "interviewed more than 300 witnesses, collected tens of thousands of documents, and traveled around the country to talk to election officials who were pressured by Donald Trump," The Associated Press reports. Now, the committee "is preparing to go public," with several televised hearings, an interim report in the spring, and a final report in the fall. "Let me say that what we have been able to ascertain is that we came perilously close to losing our democracy," Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told CNN on Sunday. "The full picture is coming to light, despite President Trump's ongoing efforts to hide the picture," committee Vice-Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), told AP. "I don't think there's any area of this broader history in which we aren't learning new things." Among those new things, Cheney told ABC News on Sunday, is what Trump himself was — and was not — doing during the insurrection. "The committee has firsthand testimony now that he was sitting in the dining room next to the Oval Office watching the attack on television," and as he was sitting there, "members of his staff were pleading with him to go on television to tell people to stop," she said. "We have firsthand testimony that his daughter Ivanka went in at least twice to ask him to please stop this violence." At any time, Trump could have gone on TV and his rioting supporters "to go home – and he failed to do so," Cheney said. "It's hard to imagine a more significant and more serious dereliction of duty than that." Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), the other Republican on the nine-member committee, told AP that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) "made an epic mistake" by refusing to appoint any members to the committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected two of his nominees. "I think part of the reason we've gone so fast and have been so effective so far is because we've decided and we have the ability to do this as a nonpartisan investigation," and it would have been "a very different scene" if Trump allies were on the committee, obstructing their work. Politico's Kyle Cheney made a similar case in late December, calling McCarthy's decision to boycott the Jan. 6 committee "the most important development of the entire investigation." And "Pelosi's decision to keep the Jan. 6 panel small has enabled her to populate it with members who stay relentlessly on message," he added, singling out Liz Cheney as "a singular, and singularly disciplined, force."

1-3-22 Marjorie Taylor Greene: Twitter bans congresswoman over Covid misinformation
Twitter has permanently suspended the personal account of the US Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene for repeated violations of its rules around coronavirus misinformation. The action against the Republican lawmaker came under Twitter's strike system, which identifies posts about the virus that could cause harm. The company had previously suspended the Georgia congresswoman four times. Rep Greene said the ban proved that the company is "an enemy to America". In a lengthy statement posted to the social media outlet, Telegram, the 47-year-old said "social media platforms can't stop the truth from being spread far and wide" and accused Twitter of aiding unidentified enemies in "a Communist revolution". Her official congressional account, which staffers appear to post on infrequently, remains active. The congresswoman's ban comes after she had tweeted on Saturday, falsely, about "extremely high amounts of Covid vaccine deaths" in the US. In a statement issued to the BBC, a Twitter spokesperson said that Rep Greene has been banned for "repeated" violations of its coronavirus misinformation policy, which allows four "strikes" with varying suspensions from the platform, before issuing a permanent ban. The social media giant had issued her with a fourth strike in August after she falsely posted that coronavirus vaccines were "failing" and called on regulators not to approve new shots. "We've been clear that, per our strike system for this policy, we will permanently suspend accounts for repeated violations of the policy," the spokesperson said. Since her election in 2020, Rep Greene has become one of Washington's most controversial politicians. She has been a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and has in the past been associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Despite the US struggling to contain the coronavirus, from which more than 825,000 people now died, she has been a determined opponent of measures designed to tackle the virus. She has frequently called into question the efficacy of vaccines and has regularly been fined for refusing to follow Covid guidelines in Congress, including those regarding mask-wearing on the House floor.

1-3-22 China: Concern over Xi'an residents' midnight quarantine
A midnight eviction of some residents in the Chinese city of Xi'an who were later taken to quarantine facilities has sparked concern on social media. Xi'an is at the epicentre of China's current Covid outbreak, and authorities have enacted drastic measures. All 13 million residents are confined to their homes and cannot leave to buy food or supplies. Authorities are hoping to eliminate the outbreak before Lunar New Year and the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month. The situation in Xi'an has led to heightened tensions, with many taking to social media in recent days to complain. Authorities have been providing free food to households, but some have said their supplies are running low or that they had yet to receive aid. In the latest incident, residents in the Mingde 8 Yingli housing compound in the south of Xi'an were reportedly told just after midnight on 1 January that they had to leave their homes and go to quarantine facilities. It is thought this was due to recent reported infections in the community. Multiple Chinese outlets reported that locals had mixed while getting tested for Covid. It is not known exactly how many people were transferred, but one person on social media reported seeing 30 buses outside the compound, while another claimed up to a thousand people were moved. A number of people said they had been left waiting on the buses for several hours. Those taken to the quarantine facilities included elderly people, young children and pregnant women, according to reports. A picture of an old man standing alone in the cold wintry night as he waited to be transferred went viral, sparking pity online. Some people posted images of the isolation facilities claiming the amenities were too basic, it was too cold, and that they had not been given food. "There is nothing here, just basic necessities... Nobody has come to check up on us, what kind of quarantine is this? They did a big transfer of us, more than a thousand people, in the night and many of us are elderly people and children. They didn't make any proper arrangements and so they just carelessly placed us [here]," read one comment posted by an affected resident.

1-2-22 Airlines have canceled 15,000 U.S. flights since Christmas Eve
Airlines canceled more than 2,100 flights into, out of, or within the United States Sunday, bringing the total number of canceled U.S. flights since Christmas Eve to more than 15,000, USA Today reports. Staffing shortages continue to plague airlines as the Omicron strain of COVID-19 infects some employees and leaves others afraid to go to work. According to BBC, even the offer of increased pay has been ineffective at luring flight crews back. On New Year's Day, almost 4,400 flights were canceled worldwide, The Washington Post reports. More than 2,600 of those were flights for which the U.S. was either the origin, the destination, or both. Thousands of travelers were (and many remain) stranded. Chicago, which saw over 1,000 flights into or out of its two major airports scrubbed Saturday, was hit by winter storms in addition to the staffing issues. Travelers are encouraged to check their flight status before heading to the airport and to be aware that, if the flight on which they're rebooked is not convenient, they have the right to request a refund instead.

1-2-22 What's behind the public health switcheroo on COVID?
You may have noticed that public health guidelines have changed a lot over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, masks were discouraged. Then they were mandated in many settings. First, people were asked to choose between getting vaccinated and wearing masks. Now we're often told to don masks even if vaccinated. For months, the number of new COVID cases was treated as an important measure of the severity of a surge. But more recently, the message has been that hospitalizations and deaths are what matter. The shifting standards and expectations have led some, like National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty (an alumnus of The Week), to suggest this is an underhanded switcheroo by public-health authorities, including President Biden. Others insist it's merely that circumstances have changed and the CDC, Anthony Fauci, the president, and others have merely made reasonable adjustments to those shifts. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. A pandemic involving a novel coronavirus, including a series of distinct variants with different fatality rates and levels of contagiousness, will inevitably produce a high degree of uncertainty among doctors and epidemiologists. At the same time, public health professionals tasked with communicating to the country how best to respond to the risk at any given moment in the pandemic understandably feel like they need to speak with authority and simplicity to be taken seriously. The tension between those poles — uncertainty in a fluid situation vs. an aspiration to authority and simplicity — is bound to produce mixed messaging and even, at times, the appearance of incompetence. When that predictable outcome gets mixed up with the culture war, the result is something even worse — namely, the suspicion of bad faith on the part of public servants, along with the spread of corrosive distrust in experts and the institutions they lead. At its worst, this distrust can bleed over into the embrace of conspiracy theories about the government intentionally stamping out individual freedom and infringing on our bodily integrity for nefarious purposes. Dougherty and other critics aren't wrong to note when public health experts make mistakes or contradict themselves. But they might spend somewhat less time playing "gotcha" and somewhat more time showing understanding of the difficult situation these professionals are in, attempting to save lives in a sprawling, chaotic nation of 330 million people that's already badly polarized and disinclined to defer to authority of any kind. The last thing America needs is another, deeper cycle of institutional delegitimation.

1-2-22 US flight cancellations hit new holiday peak amid Covid and bad weather
Flight cancellations in the US have hit a new peak in a Christmas season hit hard by the Covid pandemic and bad weather. Nearly 4,400 flights around the world were cancelled on Saturday, more than 2,500 of them in the US, air traffic site FlightAware reported. Airlines have been struggling with staffing problems with crew quarantining after contracting Covid. Adding to travellers' woes, heavy snow has hit the central US. From the US cancellations, more than 1,000 are from Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports. "Today's cancellations are driven by Omicron staffing and weather-related issues. We did pre-cancel flights in anticipation of inclement weather. We've been contacting passengers early if their flights are cancelled to give them time to rebook or make other plans," United Airlines said in a statement. Sunday, when many people often return home from their Christmas holidays, is likely to bring further disruption, with more snow and heavy winds forecast. "It's too long and there's no space to spend the time, get something to eat, it's a long time here," one traveller stuck at O'Hare airport told ABC news in Chicago. Since 24 December, more than 12,000 flights have been cancelled in the US. Airlines have been trying to woo crew with extra pay to tackle the staff shortages. But unions say workers fear contracting Covid or having to deal with angry passengers. The US is facing a surge in Covid cases powered by the Omicron variant. New York City has seen record cases despite high vaccination rates. The virus has hit everything from the police force to Broadway shows, although there has not yet been a significant hike in hospitalisations. The city's new mayor, Eric Adams, took office on Saturday after low key New Year celebrations. In his first speech, he said the city would not be "controlled by crises". "This pandemic has not only impacted us physically, but emotionally, and I'm going to really encourage people in this city to just find that inner peace, no matter what we're going through," he said. "We have been through tragedies before. This is a resilient city and a resilient country and I want to bring that energy."

1-1-22 New law allowing assisted suicide takes effect in Austria
A law allowing assisted suicide has taken effect in Austria. From Saturday, adults who are terminally ill or have a permanent, debilitating condition, can opt to make provisions for an assisted death. Parliament approved the new law in December, following a constitutional court ruling on the issue. The practice will be tightly regulated, with each case assessed by two doctors - one of whom would have to be a palliative medicine expert. Officials say the government has also allocated funds to develop palliative care to ensure no one chooses to die when other options are available. Assisted suicide, in which somebody is given the means to end their own life, is legal in neighbouring Switzerland. It's also been decriminalised in several European countries, including Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Active assistance to suicide will remain outlawed in Austria, and the new rules explicitly exclude minors or those with mental health conditions. Adults who want to end their lives must produce a diagnosis and have confirmation that they are able to make their own decisions. After gaining approval from two doctors, patients must wait for 12 weeks to reflect on their decision - or two weeks if they have a terminal illness. If they still want to go ahead after this waiting period, they can then get lethal drugs at a pharmacy after giving notification to a lawyer or notary. To prevent abuse, the names of pharmacies that sell these drugs will only be disclosed to lawyers and notaries who receive these notifications, and will not be advertised publicly. Until now, under Austrian law, anyone who induced or helped someone to kill themselves faced up to five years in prison. An absolute ban on assisted dying was lifted by a federal court last year, which ruled that it "violated the right of self-determination". But the same punishment will remain in place for those who kill another person at their "serious and emphatic request".

1-1-22 Is Omicron less severe? It's complicated.
How bad is Omicron? That question is riveting scientists and policymakers as the latest coronavirus variant rampages across the world. We know for sure that it is much, much more contagious than previous variants, given how it has gotten loose in countries like Australia that previously managed to halt transmission entirely. But how about the severity of the illness it causes? On the one hand, it is known with reasonable certainty that Omicron will cause less severe illness. A preprint study in The Lancet recently measured the first month of the Omicron wave in Gauteng province in South Africa against the same period of the Beta and Delta waves, so as to get an apples-to-apples comparison. They found that while there were vastly more cases in the Omicron wave, a far smaller share were hospitalized (4.9 percent versus 18.9 percent for Beta and 13.7 percent Delta) and of those hospitalizations, a much smaller share had severe symptoms (28.8 percent versus 60.1 percent and 66.9 percent, respectively). However, a much larger share of Omicron hospitalizations were children this time, probably because of very limited vaccination in that group. Again, this has not been peer-reviewed yet, but it fits with reported coverage as well as South African statistics. A large portion of this difference between Omicron and Delta is certainly because of widespread population immunity. The vast majority of South Africans have had a coronavirus infection already, plus about 31 percent have at least one dose of vaccine. While Omicron is often getting around natural immunity or vaccination (get boosted!), that still means milder illness in general. But some of the difference is probably also because Omicron is inherently less severe. Several pre-print animal studies suggest that the mutations that make it so incredibly contagious and evasive to prior immunity also make it less able to infect the lungs — where the previous variants wreaked their worst havoc. That is all to the good. But increased contagiousness can compensate for that lessened severity with sheer numbers of infections. Sure enough, across the United States, the staggeringly rapid spread of Omicron is swamping clinics and hospitals that were already reeling from two years of nearly nonstop pandemic. Burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, and simple exhaustion have badly eroded the ranks of medical staff, and thousands of them have also caught Omicron. The remainder are dealing with yet another surge of patients — some of whom are prone to assaulting workers. It would be a good idea to hunker down and avoid the emergency room if at all possible for about the next 6 to 8 weeks.


224 Atheism News & Humanism News Articles
for Janaury 2022

Atheism News & Humanism Articles for December 2021