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

182 Atheism & Humanism News Articles
for December 2020
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12-31-20 The vaccine velvet rope
On the surface, it's great news: Turns out people really, really want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Over the summer, only about half of Americans had said they were "likely" to get their shots, a concerning number that has grown, in one recent poll, to as high as 84 percent. It's an exciting development: Every inoculation brings us one step closer to establishing herd immunity, and finally seeing an end to this tragic chapter of our history. But the jostling for the jab has come with some elbow-throwing. And par for the pandemic course, it is America's elites — people deemed, for one reason or another, more "important" than the rest of us — who are given the opportunity to jump in line. The pandemic, sadly, has been divided in such terms since the start. Back in mid-March, when COVID-19 tests were in short supply, "politicians, celebrities, social media influencers, and even NBA teams" who often weren't even showing symptoms still managed to get tested even as "health care workers and many sick people [were] unable to get diagnoses," The New York Times reports. Far from being a "great equalizer," the pandemic has done nothing if not cement the differences between the haves and the have-nots as it's continued to run its course. Most obvious of all was the president's case of COVID-19: One can't help but wonder how his illness might have ended if he hadn't had access to a helicopter airlift, a small herd of world-class doctors, experimental drug treatments, and a luxury hospital suite. Meanwhile, now, mere months later, public hospitals in L.A. are so overwhelmed with dying patients that gurneys are being wheeled into gift shops in order to make space for everyone who needs to be seen. Disparities in the health care system are disappointing, but not revelatory. What's infuriating about the vaccine rollout in particular is that there is clear guidance about who should be the priority for getting the shots, since vaccinations that go to the most vulnerable directly reduce the number of expected deaths. Guided by concerns about ethics, science, and implementation, the CDC recommends frontline health care personnel and nursing home residents and caregivers be first, followed by essential workers (police, transportation, agriculture workers, etc.), followed by adults over the age of 65 or with high-risk medical conditions, before eventually moving on to the younger, healthier population. The problem, though, is in the gray areas around the categories. Members of Congress and their office staff, for example, were deemed "critical" employees whose jobs are essential for the "continuity of operations," leading them to jump the line in front of, say, someone's 80-year-old grandfather with comorbidities. And while there's a logic to vaccinating the president and vice-president and their incoming counterparts, because of the potential national security threat of having any one of them seriously ill for a long period of time, would the country really grind to a halt if 49-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio or 31-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needed to take sick days? Besides, what does it say if the members of the governing body making the decisions that affect the rest of our lives are doing so while comfortably immune to the disease, even as the majority of regular Americans won't be until spring or summer?

12-31-20 Large parts of Africa may not get covid-19 vaccines for several years
Some African countries may not receive enough covid-19 vaccine doses to reach herd immunity for years to come, according to an internal report by a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative to coordinate vaccine roll-out. Vaccinations aren’t likely to begin in Africa until mid-2021, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. It could take years to secure the doses needed to immunise 60 per cent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people, the threshold at which herd immunity may be achieved. In comparison, on 8 December, the UK, which has bought enough doses to vaccinate the entire population three times over, became the first country to begin its vaccination programme, using the covid-19 shot made by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech. Nearly all of the countries in Africa have signed up to participate in the COVAX scheme, a global initiative launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in which high-income nations will subsidise vaccines at a maximum price of $3 per dose. It aims to deliver enough doses by the end of 2021 to protect 20 per cent of the populations in the 92 low and middle-income countries that have signed up to receive financial help to access vaccines, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Officials in South Africa, the African country with the most coronavirus cases, have said the country plans to vaccinate 10 per cent of its population of 58 million via a separate part of the COVAX scheme, through which 80 countries are pooling funds to purchase vaccines. In Kenya, the African country with the seventh most coronavirus cases, officials have said the country plans to vaccinate 20 per cent of its population of 53 million through the COVAX scheme. COVAX’s plans, both for countries funding their own vaccine purchases and those requesting subsidies, rely heavily on cheaper vaccines that are still in development or aren’t yet widely available.

12-31-20 Cautious optimism for 2021
In this space a year ago, I admitted to a pessimistic feeling about 2020. If President Trump loses an election that will be "the ugliest of our lifetimes," I said, he will "denounce the results as a fraudulent coup" and refuse to accept them. This forecast required no prescience: Donald Trump has cried "fraud" after every election whose results he didn't like, including the 2016 Iowa primary that he insisted should be "nullified" because Ted Cruz had "stolen" it. But while an election fiasco was utterly predictable, my crystal ball failed to foresee the defining catastrophe of the coming year. At this time last December, a virus was silently jumping from person to person in Wuhan, China, and would soon radically transform every one of our lives. "Never make predictions," the great sage Casey Stengel reminded us, "especially about the future." Still, there is reason for cautious optimism for 2021. Democracy has survived, although with open wounds which will not quickly heal. Vaccination has begun after less than a year of development and testing — a nearly miraculous achievement. Life may return to a semblance of normal by summer; how incredibly sweet it will be to gather again with family, friends, and co-workers. Even now, with that rebirth too far away and our terrible losses still mounting, we can find a space for gratitude. The list of people who've earned it is long: The brilliant scientists who made the vaccines possible. The doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who've defied their exhaustion, fear, and heartbreak to save lives and comfort the dying. The post office workers, delivery people, teachers, meat-packers, farmworkers, cops, EMTs, supermarket cashiers, cooks, and other frontline workers who've risked their lives to keep us fed and supplied and the country functioning. It's been a truly horrible year, with one painful blow after another. But we're still standing, so let's give ourselves a round of applause.

12-31-20 Trump's call for $2,000 cheques blocked by Senate leader
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has rejected calls from an unlikely alliance of President Donald Trump, congressional Democrats and some Republicans to boost coronavirus aid. The House of Representatives, held by the Democrats, had voted to increase aid cheques to Americans to $2,000. Dozens of House Republicans, reluctant to defy Mr Trump, backed the increase. But Mr McConnell's objections mean there will not be a direct vote on a revised Covid aid bill in the Senate. Mitch McConnell said raising aid cheques would be "another fire hose of borrowed money". The move could in effect kill off Mr Trump's demands for bigger cash handouts to help the economy recover, correspondents say. Congress had initially agreed to the smaller $600 (£440) payments in a Covid relief and government funding bill. Mr Trump sent that back to Capitol Hill before Christmas, saying the stimulus payment should be higher. He eventually, and grudgingly, signed the original bill with the lower payments into law on Sunday, but has continued to demand more money. On Monday, House Democrats - usually sworn political foes of Mr Trump - passed the measure for $2,000 cheques that he requested. "Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2,000 payments ASAP," the president tweeted on Tuesday. The total number of people who have died with Covid in the US stands at nearly 350,000. There are concerns that the figure could continue to surge following Christmas and New Year gatherings. California meanwhile became the second state to confirm a case of the new strain of the virus, considered to be highly contagious. The first case was confirmed in Colorado. The Kentucky senator rejected Democrats' calls for the upper chamber to vote on the $2,000 cheques package passed by their counterparts in the House. He said the bill had "no realistic path to quickly pass the Senate".

12-31-20 Republican senator to dispute certification of Biden victory
A Republican says he will be the first senator to object when Congress certifies US President-elect Joe Biden's election victory next week. Missouri's Josh Hawley said he had election integrity concerns, despite a lack of evidence for widespread fraud. A group of Republicans in the lower chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, is also planning to contest the election results. But the objections are not expected to change the outcome. The US Electoral College - which confirms November's presidential election result by awarding points for each state won by the two White House rivals - earlier this month cemented Mr Biden's victory over Donald Trump by 306-232. These votes must be affirmed by Congress on 6 January. Inauguration Day, when the new Democratic president and vice-president are sworn in, will be on 20 January. Since losing the election, Mr Trump has repeatedly alleged systemic voting fraud without substantiation. The Republican president's legal efforts to overturn results have been rejected by the courts. Mr Hawley said he could not vote to certify the electoral results "without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws". "At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act." Mr Hawley - a first-term senator rumoured to have presidential ambitions - did not specify any electoral fraud that could have changed the final result. Meanwhile, Walmart was forced to issue an apology after the company's account tweeted that Mr Hawley was being a "sore loser". The retail giant deleted the tweet and said it had been mistakenly posted by a member of their social media team. Mr Hawley tweeted back at the superstore chain: "Now that you've insulted 75 million Americans, will you at least apologize for using slave labor?"

12-31-20 Covid: Pandemic dampens New Year celebrations around the world
Restrictions are being placed on New Year festivities around the world as many countries struggle to curb new spikes in coronavirus cases. Fireworks displays and other public gatherings have been cancelled from Sydney to New York. Festivities are being particularly muted in Europe, amid fears over a new more contagious strain of the disease. France has mobilised 100,000 police to break up New Year's Eve parties and enforce a night-time curfew. More than 1.8 million people have died with the virus across the world since the start of the pandemic a year ago. More than 81 million cases have been reported. One of the first nations to ring in the New Year was Australia. The Sydney fireworks display went ahead, but crowds were not allowed to gather on the city's harbour to enjoy it. "We don't want to create any super-spreading events on New Year's Eve," New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said. Many Sydney residents simply watched the pyrotechnics on TV at home, where gatherings are limited to five guests. In China, the annual New Year light show in the capital Beijing has been called off. Celebrations are being scaled down in cities across the country. Japan has cancelled a traditional New Year event at which Emperor Naruhito and other imperial family members were to greet people. In India, Delhi and several other cities have imposed a night curfew and other restrictions to prevent large New Year gatherings. However in New Zealand, where a strict lockdown and border closures have all but eliminated Covid, New Year celebrations were held as usual. In France, the government has ordered a visible security presence in urban areas from 20:00 on Thursday, when the curfew begins. In Paris half of the metro lines will be closed in the evening. France has had two lockdowns and bars, restaurants and cultural attractions will remain shut into the new year. In England - where the new coronavirus strain is spreading fast and 20 million people in the worst-affected regions are forced to stay at home - UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to follow the rules.

12-31-20 Covid-19: China approves Sinopharm vaccine for general use
Chinese authorities have given conditional approval for general public use of a coronavirus vaccine developed by state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm. The move came a day after the firm said interim data showed its leading vaccine had a 79% efficacy rate in phase three trials, without providing more details. Several Chinese-made vaccines at a late trial stage are already in use in China after being granted emergency licences. The pandemic emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. It has since spread around the world, but China has managed to bring infection rates down to very low levels through strict anti-virus measures. The search for the source of the coronavirus has led to tensions with the West. The US - among a number of other countries - raised questions about whether China was fully transparent when the virus first emerged there. Thursday's announcement concerning the vaccine made by the China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm, is China's first general approval of a homemade jab - and it is being seen as potentially a major step towards inoculating the world's largest population. The deputy commissioner of China's National Medical Products Administration, Chen Shifei, announced the decision at a news conference in Beijing. "After a series of strict reviews, verification, test and data analysis in accordance with the law and procedures, it is concluded that the known and potential benefits of Sinopharm's new inactivated coronavirus vaccine are bigger than the known and potential risks, and it fully meets the pre-set requirements of conditional marketing standards," he said. Vice Minister of the National Health Commission Zeng Yixin said approval would allow the government to "extend vaccination to high-risk groups, those susceptible to a severe viral infection... and the elderly". In July, China approved three different jabs for emergency use in key workers and other people at high risk. More than 4.5 million doses have so far been administered.

12-31-20 Breonna Taylor: Two officers linked to medic's death could be dismissed
Two US police officers linked to a notorious raid in which young black medic Breonna Taylor was fatally shot could soon be dismissed from their positions, US media report. The incident in March prompted global outrage as protesters decried another killing of a black American by police. One of the officers likely to be dismissed obtained the search warrant for Ms Taylor's home in Kentucky. The other fired the shot that killed her, lawyers say. Ms Taylor, 26, died when police raided her home in connection to a drug case. Ms Taylor's boyfriend fired at the officers who he said he believed were attackers breaking into their home. Police say they knocked on the door to announce their presence before breaking down the door with a battering ram. Ms Taylor's boyfriend said police did not make their presence known, and he fired out of self-defence. Three officers returned fire with 32 shots, six of which hit Ms Taylor. Ms Taylor's name became a global rallying cry as people demanded a thorough investigation into her death. Of the police officers present at the raid, one has been sacked so far. Brett Hankison has pleaded not guilty to charges of wanton endangerment for firing three shots into adjoining apartments during the narcotics raid. In September a grand jury ruled that the three officers should not face homicide charges. One officer, Jonathan Mattingly, who shot Ms Taylor's boyfriend in the leg, later said the case had "nothing do with race". In the latest development, two officers received letters this week from Louisville police department that indicate they will soon be removed from their positions, according to the New York Times. Officer Joshua Jaynes was told that an investigation by the department found he had lied when preparing the paperwork to obtain permission to conduct the search of Ms Taylor's home, reported US media. The letter also said he did not plan the raid appropriately. "Because the operations plan was not completed properly, a very dangerous situation was created for all parties involved," it said, according to CBS news. (Webmaster's comment: These officers shoud be arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of murder! The slaughter of blacks by police has got to stop!)

12-30-20 Coronavirus: Senate wrangles over boosting help for Americans
The US Senate is set to discuss boosting one-off payments for Americans hit by the coronavirus downturn. But Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, appeared to tie the issue to other unrelated proposals on legal immunity for tech companies and electoral fraud. Mr Trump, Democrats and some Republicans want the payments boosted from $600 (£441) to $2,000. However, there is concern the latest wrangling could scupper any increase. Americans are to begin receiving $600 dollars each under a $900bn-coronavirus stimulus package signed into law on Sunday. But President Trump, Democrats and a growing number of Republicans say that is not enough. "Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2,000 payments ASAP," Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday. From the left of the Democratic Party, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is among those supporting a boost. "The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s," he said. Republicans also have an eye on two key Senate run-off elections in Georgia next week, which will determine which of the main parties controls the Senate. The two Republican candidates have come out in favour of increasing the payments. Republicans have blocked a Democratic Party proposal for a quick vote on boosting the payments. Most Senate Republicans are opposed, saying they are not the best way of helping those hardest hit by the pandemic. Senate majority leader McConnell has instead linked the issue to two other proposals. One would end legal protection for tech companies, known as Section 230. The other would set up a bipartisan commission to investigate electoral fraud, something which Mr Trump has alleged in the presidential election without providing evidence. Both proposals are favoured by Mr Trump, but opposed by Democrats. Some are predicting that these proposals, along with increased coronavirus payments, could all fail to reach the statute book if they are linked in the legislative process. Mr McConnell did not go into great detail on Tuesday, saying merely that the Senate would "begin a process" and bring all issues "into focus". Democrats have said they will defeat the new bill in the House of Representatives, which they control.

12-30-20 Covid-19: US reports first known case of highly-infectious variant
The first reported US case of the highly-infectious Covid-19 variant that emerged in the UK has been confirmed in the state of Colorado. The patient, a man in his 20s with no recent travel history, is currently in isolation. State health officials said they were working to identify contacts and other potential cases of the new variant. It came as US President-elect Joe Biden criticised the Trump administration's distribution of vaccines. He said the programme was falling behind schedule. The US has recorded more than 19 million infections and more than 337,000 deaths from coronavirus, the highest figures in the world. The new variant is considerably more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous for those infected, experts say. US health officials said last week that they believed it was already in circulation in the country. In a statement on Tuesday, Colorado governor Jared Polis said the infected patient was in isolation in Elbert County near Denver. Public health officials were carrying out "a thorough investigation", he said, and no infections had been discovered among close contacts so far. Cases of the new variant have been appearing around the world. The first two known infections on the North American continent came to light in Canada at the weekend. Two coronavirus vaccines - one by Moderna and one by Pfizer - are currently being distributed and administered across the US. The government had aimed to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of December. But so far, only 2.1 million have received shots, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). President-elect Biden said the vaccine drive was the "greatest operational challenge we've ever faced as a nation". "The Trump administration's plan to distribute vaccines is falling far behind," Mr Biden said in a speech on Tuesday. "I'm going to move heaven and earth to get us going in the right direction." Responding to Mr Biden in a tweet, President Donald Trump said it was "up to the states to distribute the vaccines" once they had been delivered by the federal government. "We have not only developed the vaccines, including putting up money to move the process along quickly, but gotten them to the states," he wrote. Mr Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million Americans during the first 100 days of his presidency when he takes office on 20 January.

12-30-20 Tamir Rice killing: US closes investigation into 2014 shooting
The US Justice Department says it will not bring charges against two white police officers involved in the 2014 fatal shooting of a 12-year-old black boy who was holding a toy gun. It said it was closing its investigation into the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. The shooting was one of several high-profile cases that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Five years ago a grand jury declined to bring charges against the officers. In a statement on Tuesday, the justice department said that prosecutors had "found insufficient evidence to support federal criminal charges". Closing the case, it said it was not possible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that either officer had wilfully broken the law, as opposed to making a mistake or exercising poor judgment. "Although Tamir Rice's death is tragic... both the Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney's Office concluded that this matter is not a prosecutable violation of the federal statutes," the department added. The two officers, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, had been responding to an emergency call of a male brandishing a gun near a recreation centre. However, the dispatchers failed to pass on the caller's information that the person was a juvenile and that the "gun" might be a toy. "The officers believed they were responding to a playground where a grown man was brandishing a real gun at individuals, presumably children," the justice department's six-page statement said. Security camera video of the incident was found to be too grainy to show detailed circumstances of the shooting, the statement said. The officers claimed that they told Rice to drop the weapon - but instead of dropping it he pointed it at them. Police confirmed that the gun was a toy after Rice had been shot dead. Timothy Loehmann, who fired the fatal shots, was sacked three years later for lying on his job application form. Although no charges have been brought over the case, in 2016 the city of Cleveland agreed to pay $6m (£4.4m) to Rice's family. Following Tuesday's announcement, the family's legal team said Rice's mother was profoundly upset by the decision. "Justice for the family would be to prosecute the officers who killed their child," lawyer Subodh Chandra said. (Webmaster's comment: Killing blacks for any reason remains the prerogative of the police.)

12-29-20 Covid: US House votes to boost stimulus package payments
The US House of Representatives has voted in favour of increasing the aid sent to individuals under the new coronavirus stimulus package from $600 (£445) to $2,000. The Democratic-led House passed the bill with the support of more than 40 Republican members. President Donald Trump has championed the increased payments. However, the bigger relief package is likely to struggle in the Republican-led Senate. In another development on Monday, the House also voted to override President Trump's veto of a $740bn defence bill that was passed by Congress earlier this month. That bill also now moves to the Senate. Although Democrats have a narrow majority in the House, Monday's votes both required two-thirds support to pass. On boosting the stimulus cheques, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Republicans had a choice - "vote for this legislation, or vote to deny the American people the bigger paycheques that they need". But many Republicans were concerned about the financial burden of increased payments. (Webmaster's comment: I guess Americans will just have to starve then.) "For me, I worry that this whopping $463bn won't do what's needed - stimulate the economy, or get the jobless back to work," said senior Republican Representative Kevin Brady. The House finally voted 275-134 in favour of the higher payments. President Trump belatedly signed the coronavirus relief and spending package bill into law late on Sunday. The move averted a partial government shutdown. But even as he put his name on the bill he called for the stimulus cheques to increase to $2,000, saying he wanted "far less wasteful spending and more money going to the American people". The $900bn (£665bn) relief package is part of a $2.3tn bill that includes $1.4tn for normal federal government funding. Republican and Democratic Party lawmakers had been pleading with him to sign it before a budget deadline of midnight on Monday. If he had not, about 14 million Americans faced a lapse in unemployment benefit payments and new stimulus cheques. The House vote to override Mr Trump's veto of the defence bill saw even more Republicans break with the president to see it pass by 322 to 87.

12-29-20 Biden accuses US defence department of obstruction on transition
US President-elect Joe Biden has accused the US defence department of "irresponsibility" for failing to give his team the information it needs for the transition of power. He said his team had encountered "obstruction from the political leadership". Mr Biden also claimed that agencies critical to US security had suffered "enormous damage" under Donald Trump. A Pentagon spokesman said it had been "completely transparent". Mr Biden takes office on 20 January but President Trump has refused to concede. For weeks after the 3 November election, Mr Biden was blocked from receiving key intelligence briefings, an essential and normally routine part of a presidential transition. After Mr Trump finally agreed to allow the formal transition process last month, Mr Biden praised the White House for its help in the process. But his tone had changed on Monday. Mr Biden spoke after a briefing by national security and foreign policy aides. In a speech which he posted on Twitter, Mr Biden said his team was facing "roadblocks" in the defence department and the Office of Management and Budget. "Right now, we just aren't getting all the information that we need from the outgoing administration in key national security areas," he said. "It's nothing short, in my view, of irresponsibility." The president-elect added that his team needed a "clear picture of our force posture around the world" and that US adversaries could exploit any confusion that resulted. Following Mr Biden's remarks, Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller said officials had been "working with the utmost professionalism to support transition activities". "The Department of Defense has conducted 164 interviews with over 400 officials and provided over 5,000 pages of documents - far more than initially requested by Biden's transition team," he said. The presidential transition process is the handover of important information and duties from the outgoing administration to the president-elect and his or her team, ensuring that they are fully up to speed when they reach the White House on 20 January.

12-29-20 Covid in prison: 'We should be treated like humans'
As coronavirus cases continue to surge in the US, a key source of infection is clusters in prisons. One-in-five prisoners have tested positive for the virus, and at least 1,700 have died, according to recent figures by the Associated Press. The BBC has obtained telephone recordings of female inmates who are currently incarcerated at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, just outside Detroit. The women phoned a prison helpline set up by prisoners rights group American Friends Service Committee's Michigan Criminal Justice Program to monitor conditions inside. The helpline has shared the recordings with us, with the consent of the women who made the phone calls.

12-29-20 Russian Covid deaths three times the official toll
Russia's deputy prime minister has revealed more than 80% of excess deaths this year are linked to Covid-19, which would mean its death toll is three times higher than previously reported. Excess deaths are the difference between the total number of deaths registered and the average over the previous years for the same period. Official figures say 55,827 people have died with Covid-19 in Russia. The deputy prime minister said excess deaths would take that to 186,000. (Webmaster's comment: In the United States we've had 343,270 deaths! Twice even the new numbers for Russia!) Countries use different methods when reporting deaths related to the virus, which makes international comparisons difficult. Russia has been criticised for calculating its official deaths from Covid-19 based on the number of post-mortem examinations that list coronavirus as the main cause of death. However, this means that other deaths linked to Covid-19, which did not list it as the main cause of death, will not have been included. The new numbers mean Russia's coronavirus death toll could be the world's third-highest, after the US with 335,000 deaths and Brazil, which has had 192,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. More than 3.1 million infections have been reported in the country. Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said mortality in the first 11 months of 2020 had been 13.8% higher than the previous year. Based on her announcement, that would mean that more than 186,057 deaths were linked directly or indirectly to coronavirus. According to Rosstat, the Russian statistics agency, 229,700 more people had died this year from all causes. But Ms Golikova was adamant the Russian government had never hidden mortality data. "I would like to draw attention to the fact that over 81% of that rise in mortality which took place in that period can be attributed to Covid-19 and the effects of the virus," she said.

12-29-20 Breonna Taylor statue smashed in California weeks after installation
A statue of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was shot dead by police during a raid on her home in March, has been smashed in California. It happened two weeks after the bust was erected in the city of Oakland. Police have launched an investigation. Sculptor Leo Carson called the destruction an act of "racist aggression". He said he would rebuild the piece in bronze. Ms Taylor's death spurred protests against racism and police brutality. The ceramic bust in Oakland depicted her smiling, with a message on its base that reads: "Say her name: Breonna Taylor." It was found smashed on Saturday. The Oakland police department said late on Monday that it was investigating what appeared to be an act of vandalism, but had not yet identified any suspects or motive. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf described it as a "vicious attack against the light [and] justice sought in Breonna Taylor's name." "We will keep moving forward; Oakland will not tolerate acts of hatred," she wrote on Twitter. Mr Carson told local media that he made the statue to honour the legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he was "devastated and enraged" that it had been destroyed, but announced on Monday that he had raised enough money to rebuild the statue in bronze. Plainclothes police officers stormed Ms Taylor's Louisville home shortly after midnight on 13 March. The 26-year-old medical technician was in bed with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, at the time. The officers were executing a search warrant as part of a drugs investigation. Mr Walker fired a shot from his licensed gun, later telling police he thought that Ms Taylor's ex-boyfriend had broken in, according to the New York Times. The three officers returned fire, discharging 32 rounds, according to a ballistics report from the FBI. Ms Taylor was shot amid the commotion and died on the hallway floor. No drugs were found at the property, though Jefferson County Prosecutor Thomas Wine said the search was cancelled after the shooting. Ms Taylor's family sued Louisville authorities in May and reached a $12m (£9.4m) settlement. None of the officers have been charged with Ms Taylor's death. One was charged in September with "wanton endangerment" for firing into a neighbour's apartment. (Webmaster's comment: After 155 years racism is still runs rampant in America! Our police operate as death squads for blacks!)

12-28-20 The best of America, the worst of America
As we open a new calendar page, we have choices to make about which version of America we want to enact in 2021 and beyond. How do you sum up a year like this one? The past 12 months have thrown so many curveballs that it's become cliché to try and enumerate them all. Among my friends and loved ones, "2020" has become a kind of shorthand for baffling, absurd, heartbreaking, enraging. I started the year by proclaiming how exhausted I was. I don't think any of us had any idea how exhausted we were about to become. As I look back on 2020, I find myself thinking of it as a study in contrasts. This year has brought out both the best and the worst of America. In the absence of a decisive, science-based national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been largely left on our own to navigate challenges many of us never expected to face in our lifetimes. As a country, we are reaping the consequences of a political, economic, and cultural machinery built on cruelty and conquest. But at the same time, individually and collectively, Americans have stepped up in extraordinary ways to protect our communities and reshape our immediate future. As we open a new calendar page, we have choices to make about which version of America we want to enact in 2021 and beyond. We must look to the best and most humane versions of ourselves as we decide. It's a matter of literal life and death. Let's start with the ugly stuff. The American mythos is rooted in a toxic mix of white supremacy and rugged individualism: a sense that the white-privileged among us are the sole masters of our own destiny. We are steeped in a culture that insists freedom means behaving exactly as we please, and that everything around us is ours for the taking. Even at the best of times, that attitude sits very poorly with our responsibility towards each other, and towards the land on which we live. With the arrival of COVID-19, it's become abundantly clear that our health and safety — our very lives — are intimately bound up with the behavior of those around us. And Americans' rugged individualism is fundamentally incompatible with the self-sacrificing behaviors that have been proven to slow the spread of viral illnesses like COVID-19 — wearing masks, keeping physically distanced, avoiding prolonged indoor contact. Unfortunately the reigning political regime has consistently played into this narrative, casting mask mandates and shelter-in-place orders as somehow un-American, and couching its push for states to resume "business as usual" in the language of liberty. And then, of course, there's our health-care system. COVID-19 is battering America's hospitals and clinics beyond their breaking point, and putting those who get sick at the mercy of a system that routinely bankrupts people after serious illness. But the rot the virus is exposing has been spreading in this country for a long time. Here, too, American individualism rears its head: We are taught that our health is our responsibility alone; that it can and should be managed through sheer force of will; and that it's our fault if we are too old or sick or disabled to survive without halfway decent medical care. White supremacy tags along too, insisting that the communities of color who have borne the brunt of the pandemic are to blame for being vulnerable to illness in the first place.

12-28-20 2021 might just be incredible
It would be impossible to heap too much abuse on the annus horribilis that was 2020, a year in which a grave public health crisis upended the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. It was a year from the pits of hell. The COVID-19 pandemic killed millions, debilitated countless others, triggered the worst economic depression in nearly 100 years, brought on a wave of homelessness, hunger, and despair, and forced even the lucky ones to navigate a seemingly bottomless morass of depression, isolation, psychological trauma, and fear. Whatever your most dire predictions for this year were when the calendar flipped almost twelve months ago, 2020 didn't just exceed them but buried them in a mountain of misery. It's not like the immediate journey into 2021 is going to be a picnic either. But while the early months of this coming year are likely to be much like those that preceded them — with escalating cases and deaths from the virus, ongoing and painful social distancing measures, and the continued disruption of normal life — we may also be on the verge of a great release that could make the second half of 2021 something to genuinely look forward to. The best news is the vaccine rollout which is already underway. Scientists around the world worked tirelessly to produce vaccines for this terrible disease, and not only did they succeed in that Herculean task, they did so on a timetable that many experts believed impossible and with extraordinary levels of efficacy that almost no one expected and which vastly exceed the protection offered by the seasonal flu vaccine. This is perhaps the only area of pandemic management that the Trump administration should be credited with at least not actively screwing up. Front-line health care workers are already getting their shots, months or years before some experts believed feasible, and they may be injecting the leading edge of a new scientific miracle just as consequential as the invention of the Polio vaccine into their bloodstreams. The innovative mRNA vaccines deployed by Pfizer and Moderna aren't just wildly effective against COVID-19 — they offer promise of a completely new tool in the fight against countless other viral scourges like Zika, the Norovirus stomach flu, the season flu, and possibly even some kinds of cancer. As 2021 rolls on, expect to hear new hope about humanity's ongoing battle against some of these ailments, and to marvel yet again at the inspirational magnitude of human ingenuity. If you're a healthy, working age adult, you may not get your vaccine until May or even sometime this summer. As hard as that might be to stomach, the reality is that things are going to get better, and quickly, much earlier, in tangible ways that will make your life more bearable. Those who survive what promises to be a nightmarish winter will see rates of infection, hospitalizations, and deaths begin to plummet in February and March, as hotspot sites like nursing homes and prisons see the vaccines work their magic. When K-12 teachers are inoculated, many parents will finally be relieved of the burden of trying to work full-time jobs while also serving as the harried principles of makeshift, one-room schoolhouses. When the elderly get their shots, they will be able to travel and see their kids and grandkids, and to socialize openly with one another, lifting so many out of loneliness and gloom.

12-28-20 Covid: Trump signs relief and spending package into law
US President Donald Trump has belatedly signed into law a coronavirus relief and spending package bill, averting a partial government shutdown. Mr Trump had previously refused to sign the bill, criticising "wasteful spending" and calling for higher payouts to people hit by the pandemic. The delay meant that millions temporarily lost unemployment benefits. The relief package worth $900bn (£665bn) was approved by Congress after months of negotiation. It is part of a $2.3tn spending package that includes $1.4tn for normal federal government spending. Republican and Democratic Party lawmakers had been pleading with the president to sign it before a budget deadline of midnight on Monday. If he had not, some government agencies would have had to close, unless legislators could pass a stopgap bill. About 14 million Americans faced a lapse in unemployment benefit payments and new stimulus cheques. Unemployment benefits will now be restored. After the coronavirus aid relief bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives and Senate last Monday, Mr Trump issued an implied veto threat, describing the package as a "disgrace" and full of "wasteful" items. The bill includes a payment of $600 to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year. Mr Trump said he wanted Americans to receive $2,000 - but Republicans in Congress refused to agree to the change. Mr Trump also baulked at the annual aid money for other countries in the federal budget, arguing that those funds should instead go to struggling Americans. His demand to send the measure back to Capitol Hill stunned lawmakers since he had largely stayed out of the negotiations. His top economic adviser, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, had proposed the $600 payments early this month, and many questioned why the president had waited so long to object. It was not immediately clear why Mr Trump - who is in Florida - finally decided to sign the bill into law on Sunday. He said he was signing the bill with "a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed". He leaves office on 20 January after losing November's election to Mr Biden, although he has refused to admit defeat.

12-27-20 Covid: Trump fails to sign economic relief bill into law
Millions of Americans have temporarily lost their unemployment benefits after President Donald Trump failed to sign the Covid relief bill into law. US President-elect Joe Biden had warned of "devastating consequences" if Mr Trump continued to delay signing but the Saturday deadline has now passed. Unemployment benefits and a ban on evictions will be affected. The package worth $900bn (£665bn) was approved by Congress after months of difficult negotiations and compromises. Mr Trump says he wants to give people bigger one-off payments. The bill includes the payment of $600 to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year. Mr Trump says he wants Americans to receive $2,000 but Republicans in Congress refused to agree to the change. In a tweet late on Saturday evening local time, Mr Trump again defended his position on the issue, blaming China for the coronavirus outbreak. The coronavirus economic relief comes with a $1.4tn federal budget attached. A partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday unless legislators pass a stopgap bill before then - but this would not include coronavirus aid and Mr Trump would still have to sign it. About 14 million Americans would be affected by a lapse in unemployment benefit payments and new stimulus cheques. (Webmaster's comment: Trump proves he doesn't care about the American people!) In a strongly worded statement published on the transition website on Saturday, Mr Biden described Mr Trump's refusal to sign the bill as an "abdication of responsibility". "It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don't know if they'll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump's refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority," Mr Biden said. He praised the example of members of Congress in compromising and reaching a bipartisan agreement, adding: "President Trump should join them, and make sure millions of Americans can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads in this holiday season."

12-27-20 Coronavirus: Cases of new variant appear worldwide
Cases of the more contagious variant of Covid-19 first identified in the UK have been confirmed in several European countries as well as Canada and Japan. Infections linked to people who arrived from the UK were reported in Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and France. A couple found infected in Ontario, Canada, had no known travel history or high-risk contacts, officials say. Japan is to ban most non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country for a month from Monday. Since reporting infections in five passengers who had all arrived from the UK, the country has confirmed two more cases, one of which is said to have been domestically transmitted. News of the new variant triggered travel restrictions around the world last week. Meanwhile, several EU countries have started to vaccinate people against the virus ahead of a co-ordinated rollout across the whole bloc on Sunday. Health workers in north-east Germany said they were not prepared to wait another day to distribute the newly approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. They began by immunising elderly residents of a nursing home in Halberstadt. In Hungary, the state news agency said the first recipient of the vaccine was a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital. The authorities in Slovakia also said they had begun vaccinating. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has released a video on Twitter celebrating the vaccine rollout, calling it a "touching moment of unity. Scientists say the new variant of Covid-19 may have been spotted in the UK first because of the strength of the country's surveillance system. The new variant is considerably more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous for those infected, experts say. Those infected in Canada are a couple from Durham, near Toronto, who are now self-isolating. In Japan, the two new cases are a pilot in his 30s who returned to Japan from London on 16 December and a woman in her 20s, one of his family members with no history of visiting the country, Kyodo News reports. Under the travel suspension coming in on Monday, Japanese nationals and non-Japanese residents who are abroad will be allowed to return, and some travellers such as businesspeople will be allowed to enter from a small number of mainly Asian countries. In Spain, four cases of the new variant were confirmed in Madrid. None of the patients, all of whom travelled from the UK, were seriously ill. Switzerland identified three cases, two of which are known to be British citizens currently in the country. Switzerland is alone in Europe in keeping its ski slopes open to tourism over the Christmas and New Year period, and thousands of tourists from Britain have arrived in the last couple of weeks. In Sweden, the health agency said a traveller there was ill with the strain but had been self-isolating since he returned from the UK.

12-27-20 Covid: EU starts mass vaccination in 'touching moment of unity'
The EU is launching a co-ordinated vaccine rollout to fight Covid-19, in what the bloc's top official says is a "touching moment of unity". European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been delivered to all 27 member states. Some countries started administering the jabs on Saturday, saying they were not prepared to wait another day. The EU has so far reported more than 335,000 Covid-related deaths. More than 14 million people have been infected, and strict lockdown measures are currently in place in nearly all the member states. The vaccine rollout comes as cases of the more contagious variant of Covid-19 are confirmed in several European nations as well as Canada and Japan. Mass vaccination across the EU - a bloc of 446 million people - began early on Sunday. This comes after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Commission authorised the German-US Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The EU has secured contracts for more than two billion vaccine doses from a range of drug companies. "Today, we start turning the page on a difficult year. The #COVID19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will begin tomorrow across the EU," Ms von der Leyen tweeted on Saturday. "The #EUvaccinationdays are a touching moment of unity. Vaccination is the lasting way out of the pandemic," she added. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Saturday: "This really is a happy Christmas message. At this moment, lorries with the first vaccines are on the road all over Europe, all over Germany, in all federal states. Further deliveries will follow the day after tomorrow. "This vaccine is the crucial key for defeating the pandemic. It's the key for us getting back our lives." Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio urged his compatriots to get the jabs. "We'll get our freedom back, we'll be able to embrace again," he said. Health workers in north-east Germany decided not to wait for Sunday and started immunising elderly residents of a nursing home in Halberstadt. In Hungary, the first recipient of the vaccine was a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital on Saturday, the state news agency says. The authorities in Slovakia also said they had begun vaccinating.

12-27-20 Seismic change: How Covid-19 altered world events in 2020
The year 2020 has been like no other. The coronavirus infected more than 67 million people, impacted 80% of jobs, and placed billions in lockdown. It's tempting to imagine how 2020 would have turned out differently without a pandemic. What extra time would we have had with loved ones? What birthdays, weddings and milestones did we miss? And while the crisis affected all of us personally, it also shaped news events around the world, with knock-on effects for millions. Here are just four political issues, from four continents, which were altered by the pandemic. The presidential election was meant to look very different. There should have been raucous rallies, and busy trips up and down the campaign trail. Instead, the pandemic meant in-person rallies were delayed, and Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination in a near-empty room. Several attendees at a White House event became infected - while the president himself was dramatically flown to hospital after testing positive. Experts believe there are various reasons why Donald Trump lost - but his handling of the pandemic was one of the biggest factors. "It's clear the impact of the pandemic hurt Trump considerably," says Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory College. Mr Trump failed to introduce adequate measures, and "to some extent discouraged" public health guidelines like social distancing and mask wearing, he says, turning off enough voters in swing states to tip the balance in Mr Biden's favour. Ironically, Prof Abramowitz adds, people typically rally behind the president in a crisis. "If Mr Trump had addressed the pandemic seriously and effectively, I think he would have won the election pretty easily." The pandemic also caused an economic downturn, which typically hurts incumbent presidents. Allan Lichtman, a historian who devised a "13 keys" system that correctly predicted each presidential race since 1984, called the 2020 election for Joe Biden in August - on the basis of several factors, including the short-term and long-term economy. "It was Trump's failed response to the pandemic that resulted in his defeat," Prof Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, says. Mr Trump downplayed the pandemic and so failed to contain infections quickly, which "cost him the short-term economic key and the long-term economic key". Covid-19 meant the Democratic party moved most of their campaigning online - which may have also helped the Biden campaign.

12-26-20 Covid: Millions of Americans face unemployment benefits lapse
Millions of Americans face going without unemployment benefits after Saturday amid a political standoff over a $900bn (£665bn) stimulus package. President Donald Trump has refused to sign the measure into law unless it is amended, though Republicans and Democrats have blocked proposals. The coronavirus economic relief, which comes with a $1.4tn federal budget attached, was agreed by both sides. But Mr Trump wants bigger one-off payments and a cut in foreign aid. As well as threatening unemployment benefits, a moratorium on evictions may not be extended unless the bill is enacted by the end of 26 December. Legislators could pass a stopgap bill by Monday to prevent a partial government shutdown looming a day later, but this would not include coronavirus aid and Mr Trump would still have to sign it. Some 14 million Americans would be affected by a lapse in unemployment benefit payments and new stimulus cheques. Mr Trump says the one-time payments to Americans should increase from the $600 in the legislation to $2,000 - but Republicans have refused to agree to the change. For their part, Democrats blocked Republican attempts to cut foreign aid from the federal spending bill. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in a letter to colleagues: "House Democrats appear to be suffering from selective hearing." While the haggling continues on Capitol Hill, the president is spending Christmas at his resort in Palm Beach, Florida. A White House memo said he was working "tirelessly" with "many meetings and calls", though he was spotted at his golf course on Thursday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the lower chamber would meet again next Monday to vote on the stimulus payments for Americans. On the same day, the House is also expected to vote on an unrelated, $740bn defence spending bill, which Mr Trump vetoed on Wednesday instead of signing into law. Lawmakers plan to override the president's veto and enact the legislation anyway, but to do so they need two-thirds of votes in both the House and Senate. Mr Trump is objecting to provisions in the defence bill that limit troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Europe, and remove Confederate leaders' names from military bases.

12-26-20 737 Max: Air Canada flight in unscheduled landing after engine issue
An Air Canada Boeing 737 Max aircraft has been forced to make an unscheduled landing after developing engine trouble, the airline has said. The plane was en route from the US state of Arizona to Montreal in Canada when it was diverted shortly after take-off, Air Canada said. The plane was carrying three crew members at the time and landed safely. 737 Max aircraft were grounded in 2019 after two fatal crashes, but resumed flying this month after an overhaul. The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia came within five months of each other and together killed 346 people. The accidents were attributed to flaws in automated flight software called MCAS, which prompted the planes to nosedive. The latest incident happened on Friday. In a statement, Air Canada said the pilots "received an engine notification and, according to the standard operating procedure for such a situation, they decided to shut down an engine" before rerouting to Tuscon, Arizona. According to Belgian aviation news site aviation.be, the crew were alerted to "left engine hydraulic low pressure" followed by "an indication of a fuel imbalance" from the left-hand wing, at which point they diverted. The aircraft, with no passengers on board, was being flown from a storage site. It remains on the ground in Tuscon. In the wake of the two crashes, Boeing implemented a series of modifications including updating flight control software, revising crew procedures and rerouting internal wiring. The aircraft resumed passenger flights, in Brazil, less than three weeks ago. (Webmaster's comment: The 737 Max is a death trap waiting to happen. All airline passengers should refuse to fly on it!)

12-26-20 Coronavirus: More cases of new Covid variant found in Europe
Spain and Sweden have confirmed cases of the more contagious coronavirus variant recently identified in the UK, the latest European countries to do so. The infections were linked to people who had returned from the UK. France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany, as well as other places outside Europe, have also reported cases in the past few days. The details given a week ago of the new variant in England triggered travel curbs from dozens of countries. Scientists say the new variant is considerably more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous for those infected. Meanwhile Hungary became the first EU country to start vaccinating people against the disease. The state news agency said the first recipient of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine there was a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital. Madrid deputy health chief Antonio Zapatero said the confirmed cases in the Spanish capital involved three relatives of a man who flew from the UK on Thursday. The fourth case concerned another man, who had also travelled from the UK. Mr Zapatero said none of the patients were seriously ill and there was "no need for alarm". He said there were three further suspected cases of the new variant, though test results will not be ready before Tuesday or Wednesday. Sweden's health agency said a traveller there was ill with the strain but had been self-isolating since he returned from the UK. News of the latest cases came just hours after France confirmed its first patient known to have the new variant. The French health ministry said the person was a French citizen in the central town of Tours who had arrived from London on 19 December. The ministry said the man, who had been living in the UK, was asymptomatic, and currently self-isolating at home. France closed its border with the UK after the new variant was confirmed in Britain but ended its ban for EU citizens on Wednesday, providing people tested negative before travelling.

12-26-20 South Africa players raise fists before first Test against Sri Lanka
South Africa have expressed their "ongoing commitment" to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after their players raised their fists before the first Test against Sri Lanka. The Proteas opted not to take a knee before their limited overs matches against England last month. Former South Africa president Nelson Mandela raised a clenched fist after his release from prison in 1990. "The raised fist is a powerful gesture in our history," said a team statement. Referring to Mandela's salute, the Proteas added it was "an acknowledgment of the struggle against apartheid" and represented a "commitment to continuing to fight for equality, justice and freedom". South Africa were excluded from international cricket from 1970 until 1991 because of apartheid. (Webmaster's comment: Americans should never forget that the GOP President Ronald Reagan supported apartheid in South Africa!) Under Cricket South Africa's (CSA) ethnic quota policy - intended to help redress imbalances created during the apartheid era - the team should contain at least two black Africans and four others from the country's mixed-race and Indian communities. South Africa said last month they "unanimously" decided not to take the knee before matches against England. American football star and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick became a symbol in the fight against racial injustice when he kneeled in protest during the United States national anthem in 2016. Many sports teams and individuals have taken the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement this year following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and subsequent protests across the world. Every South Africa player raised their right fist before the start of play on day one of the first Test against Sri Lanka at Centurion on Saturday. "We continue to own our journey," said CSA in a statement. "We recognise that our actions will most likely result in criticism from some community, one way or another, but we work to prioritise the team, to be honest about our own learning journey and to continue to make decisions that we can own in good conscience as a team, first and foremost, and as individuals."

12-26-20 Chinese economy to overtake US 'by 2028' due to Covid
China will overtake the US to become the world's largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast, a report says. The UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) said China's "skilful" management of Covid-19 would boost its relative growth compared to the US and Europe in coming years. Meanwhile India is tipped to become the third largest economy by 2030. The CEBR releases its economic league table every year on 26 December. Although China was the first country hit by Covid-19, it controlled the disease through swift and extremely strict action, meaning it did not need to repeat economically paralysing lockdowns as European countries have done. As a result, unlike other major economies, it has avoided an economic recession in 2020 and is in fact estimated to see growth of 2% this year. The US economy, by contrast, has been hit hard by the world's worst coronavirus epidemic in terms of sheer numbers. More than 330,000 people have died in the US and there have been some 18.5 million confirmed cases. The economic damage has been cushioned by monetary policy and a huge fiscal stimulus, but political disagreements over a new stimulus package could leave around 14 million Americans without unemployment benefit payments in the new year. "For some time, an overarching theme of global economics has been the economic and soft power struggle between the United States and China," says the CEBR report. "The Covid-19 pandemic and corresponding economic fallout have certainly tipped this rivalry in China's favour." The report says that after "a strong post-pandemic rebound in 2021", the US economy will grow by about 1.9% annually from 2022-24 and then slow to 1.6% in the years after that. By contrast the Chinese economy is tipped to grow by 5.7% annually until 2025, and 4.5% annually from 2026-2030. China's share of the world economy has risen from just 3.6% in 2000 to 17.8% now and the country will become a "high-income economy" by 2023, the report says.

12-25-20 Covid: US parties wrangle in Congress after Trump shuns stimulus bill
Democrats and Republicans have blocked each other's attempts to amend a vital $900bn (£665bn) stimulus package after President Donald Trump sent it back to Congress demanding changes. The coronavirus economic relief, which comes with a $1.4tn federal budget attached, was agreed by both sides. But Mr Trump said one-off payments to Americans should increase from $600 to $2,000, and foreign aid should be cut. Without the bill in force, many Americans face an uncertain Christmas. Unemployment benefits are due to expire on Saturday if the bill is not enacted, and a moratorium on evictions may not be extended. Legislators could pass a stopgap bill by Monday to prevent a partial government shutdown looming a day later, but this would not include coronavirus aid and Mr Trump would still have to sign it. Meeting on Thursday in response to Mr Trump's intervention, Democrats in the House of Representatives blocked Republican attempts to cut foreign aid from the federal spending bill, while Republicans refused to allow the increase in coronavirus payments to $2,000. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in a letter to colleagues: "House Democrats appear to be suffering from selective hearing." While the haggling continues on Capitol Hill, the president is spending Christmas at his resort in Palm Beach, Florida. A White House memo said he was working "tirelessly" with "many meetings and calls", though he was spotted at his golf course on Thursday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the lower chamber would meet again next Monday to vote on the stimulus payments for Americans. On the same day, the House is also expected to vote on an unrelated, $740bn defence spending bill, which Mr Trump vetoed on Wednesday instead of signing into law. Lawmakers plan to override the president's veto and enact the legislation anyway, but to do so they need two-thirds of votes in both the House and Senate. Mr Trump is objecting to provisions in the defence bill that limit troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Europe and remove Confederate leaders' names from military bases.

12-25-20 Black US doctor dies of Covid alleging racist hospital care
A black physician in Indianapolis has died with Covid-19 weeks after she accused a doctor of denying her proper medical care because of her race. In a video from her bed at Indiana University Hospital North, Susan Moore said she had to "beg" for treatment. Offering its condolences, the hospital said it took accusations of discrimination very seriously but could not comment on specific patients. Black people are at greater risk from Covid than white people, studies show. Dr Moore, 52, passed away at another local hospital on Sunday. In her 4 December post on Facebook, she described how her pain had been downplayed by the doctor, whom she said was white, though she had been crying and having difficulty breathing. "He did not even listen to my lungs, he didn't touch me in any way. He performed no physical exam. I told him you cannot tell me how I feel," she wrote. A statement from the hospital said "as an organisation committed to equity and reducing racial disparities in healthcare, we take accusations of discrimination very seriously and investigate every allegation". "We stand by the commitment and expertise of our caregivers and the quality of care delivered to our patients every day," it added. Dr Moore is survived by her 19-year-old son, Henry, and her parents, who suffer from dementia, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help cover the family's expenses. The page has already raised more than $102,000 (£75,000). Dr Moore tested positive for Covid-19 on 29 November and was admitted with a high fever while she coughed up blood and struggled to breathe. But even as a physician herself, she said she had struggled with getting care. Dr Moore said she had had to plead for antiviral Remdesivir doses and request a scan of her chest. The doctor at one point reportedly told her she did not qualify for the drug and that she should go home. "He made me feel like I was a drug addict," Dr Moore said in a Facebook video. "And he knew I was a physician. I don't take narcotics. I was hurting." Dr Moore wrote she had requested a medical advocate and had asked to be transferred elsewhere. She was eventually discharged but had to return hours later after experiencing a drop in blood pressure and fever. "This is how black people get killed," Dr Moore said. "When you send them home and they don't know how to fight for themselves." Her post later included an update saying the hospital's chief medical officer had said staff would receive diversity training. But a promise for an apology from the doctor she accused of discrimination fell through. "I put forward and I maintain, if I was white, I wouldn't have to go through that," she said.

12-25-20 Covid: Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica begin mass vaccination
A Mexican nurse became the first person in Latin America to receive a coronavirus jab when her country began its vaccination programme on Thursday. Mexico has received an initial shipment of 3,000 doses of the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The country has one of the highest pandemic death tolls in the world, behind only the US, Brazil and India. A short time later on Thursday, Chile and Costa Rica also began administering Pfizer-BioNTech. Argentina also plans to start inoculations in the next few days but has chosen the Russian-produced vaccine Sputnik V for its initial phase, with a delivery of 300,000 doses arriving in the capital Buenos Aires on Thursday morning. Brazil, which has recorded the highest number of deaths in the region, is not due to start until mid-February despite a recent surge in the number of cases. President Jair Bolsonaro says he is not planning to be inoculated. He believes he has developed immunity against coronavirus as he tested positive earlier this year. In Mexico, María Irene Ramirez, 59, the head of the intensive care unit at Ruben Leñero Hospital in Mexico City, was the first to volunteer to be vaccinated. "We are afraid, but we have to move on... and I want to stay in the line of fire," she said afterwards, according to El Universal newspaper. The first 3,000 doses - of 34 million purchased - arrived in Mexico on Wednesday from Belgium, where they are being manufactured. Footage of the launch was broadcast during President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's televised morning news conference. The Mexican government says it wants to vaccinate all health workers fighting the pandemic by the end of the first quarter of 2021. The country has recorded more than 1.3 million infections so far, with at least 121,000 Covid-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins university.

12-25-20 Pope urges coronavirus vaccine access for all
Pope Francis has called on world leaders to ensure unfettered access to coronavirus vaccines for everyone. In a Christmas Day address delivered online for the first time, the pontiff warned against putting up "walls" to treatments. The pandemic meant this year the annual Urbi et Orbi message was not presented from the balcony at St Peter's Basilica to huge crowds, as is tradition. Instead the Pope spoke from a lectern in a chamber inside the Vatican. Pope Francis' warning comes amid concerns that wealthier countries are buying up disproportionate doses of vaccines to the detriment of poorer ones. "May the Son of God renew in political and government leaders a spirit of international cooperation, starting with health care, so that all will be ensured access to vaccines and treatment," he said. "In the face of a challenge that knows no borders, we cannot erect walls. All of us are in the same boat." The Pope said the effects of the health crisis showed the need for global unity was greater than ever. "At this moment in history, marked by the ecological crisis and grave economic and social imbalances only worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, it is all the more important for us to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters." The pontiff called for generosity and support to victims of the pandemic, singling out women suffering domestic violence during lockdown. Turning to other troubles in the world, the Pope called for peace and reconciliation in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon and Iraq. He is due to visit Iraq in March in what would be the first such trip to the war-torn country by a pontiff.

12-25-20 Our pandemic half-lives
On a year spent under lockdown. Saying goodbye to a classroom full of first-year college students in my writing class at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month was more melancholy than usual. None of us had ever met in person. These young men and women had been flattened images on my laptop screen all semester — some of them Zooming in from a few miles away, others struggling to keep up from time zones on the other side of the planet. When the time came to sign off on the last day of class, I told my students that they would look back on the pandemic of 2020 in the same way their grandparents or great-grandparents did with the doldrums of the Great Depression or the dread of World War II, when nothing less than the fate of liberal civilization seemed to be at stake. Things aren't quite that ominous right now, but it's been a very hard year — one that most of us will be struggling to absorb into the narrative of our lives for a long time to come. Back in April, I wrote about how difficult it was for my kids to cope with a world in which it seemed as if time itself had stopped, with longstanding goals and rites of passage indefinitely delayed, canceled, or transmuted into pale, incomparable substitutions for themselves. Eight months later, things are somewhat less grim. The literal lockdown of the pandemic's first few months has given way to an odd twilit form of half-life where a shadow of uncertainty falls across nearly everything. My son got to experience his first semester at college on an actual campus this fall, which is more than my own students at Penn were granted. But it was a strange few months, with ubiquitous mask-wearing, frequent COVID-19 tests, classes taught half in person and half online, and full-on quarantines (with students confined to dorm rooms in response to rising case counts) ebbing and flowing like the tides. The in-person portion of the semester was supposed to end at Thanksgiving, but we picked him up a week early. After two weeks spent isolated in a single room with next to no human contact, he was getting depressed. We still don't know when or if he will be returning to campus for a spring term. My daughter started high school with classes conducted entirely online. Then she got to ride a mostly empty school bus to a half-empty school building twice a week. Then she moved back fully online. Then, for a week or so, she was back in hybrid mode. Now it's virtual school again. Hybrid is supposed to return after the holiday break, but really, no one knows anything for sure. And I do mean “anything.” That's been one of the hardest things about 2020: Not knowing what to do in the face of uncertainty around grave risks. In one direction is reckless disregard for the safety of those we love — ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow Americas. In the other, safety won at the price of constant fear, financial precarity, oppressive isolation, and depression. Confronted with those extremes, we have aimed for drastically imperfect compromises. We set up a pod for our daughter to get some human contact with a small circle of friends once or twice a week, and let her continue to attend an indoor dance class (where, of course, all of the students and their teacher wore masks). These lasted through most of the fall but have now disbanded. My wife and I sometimes went out to dinner, seated outdoors, until mid-November. But not anymore. It's all imperfect. We continue to go grocery shopping (separately) once or twice a week, which is a bigger risk. Could one of us catch the virus on one of these excursions into public spaces and bring it back to our home, infecting several or all of the members of our household? Absolutely. But it's a risk we're willing to take — like the risk we accept when driving on a curvy highway in bad weather.

12-24-20 America's corrosive obsession with scarcity
The most important question often isn't how to divide what we have fairly, but how to make enough for all. Earlier this month, my family and I celebrated Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of one side in a complex civil war and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in the war's aftermath. But the focus of the celebration — pushed heavily by the early rabbis who wanted to mute the nationalistic and sectarian sides of the holiday — is on a minor-sounding miracle. When they set out to rededicate the Temple, the Maccabees found only enough oil for one day, but they needed at least a week to make more oil. Miraculously, the small supply lasted for eight days, and the Temple could be rededicated successfully. I've been thinking about that story lately in the context of American politics. More and more, I fear, our politics revolve around how to distribute a resource presumed to be scarce. Whether it's jobs, or education, or housing, or the right to vote, the presumption in many quarters seems to be that if someone gets more, someone else must be getting less, and therefore what we really need to argue about is who got more than their fair share. But even in situations where scarcity is real, the most important question often isn't how to divide what we have fairly, but how to make enough for all. Take a very current example — vaccine distribution. A limited amount of COVID-19 vaccine has already been produced, and with the United States recently averaging over 200,000 new cases and over 2,500 new deaths every day, the need to distribute the supplies that are available efficiently and quickly is acute. The first round of inoculations sensibly prioritized health-care workers (who were both especially vulnerable to infection and especially crucial in fighting the disease) and residents of nursing homes (the population that suffered nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths). But who should come next? Should the vaccine simply be distributed by age, since age is by far the largest factor in fatality rates (and also the factor hardest for people to manipulate in order to cut the line)? Or should some attention be paid to other co-morbidities like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity? Should the emphasis be entirely on preventing deaths, or are quality adjusted life years a better metric? What about slowing the progress of the pandemic itself — should populations that are more likely to be vectors of spread be inoculated before those who, though vulnerable, are better able to distance themselves? And what about racial disparities in both likelihood of infection and disease outcome — should they affect the distribution plan, and if so how? Grocery clerks, for example, are more likely to be non-white than teachers, are more likely to get infected, and get paid less for the essential work they do. But the children suffering the most from the disruption of in-person schooling are poor and non-white, with effects that are likely to have a far more lasting impact on racial disparities in achievement, wealth, and power than the disparities in COVID-19 death rates. So which group should be inoculated first to advance the goal of racial equity? The question gets tangled extremely quickly, and gets more so the further down the list you go — which is precisely why it was great fodder for angry arguments on Twitter. But while different orders of distribution could have real consequences in terms of lives lost, as well as racial and economic impact of the disease, the difference wouldn't be remotely as large as, say, doubling the rate of inoculation. That doubling may be possible. The protocol for both the Pfizer and Modena vaccines require two doses, but the effectiveness of a single dose for either is quite high. Why isn't the distribution plan to maximize the number of people getting a single dose, with a second dose provided as soon as production has ramped up, rather than planning on giving everyone two doses? And why isn't this question — how to get the most people protected as fast as possible — the one that pitted pundit-Twitter against public-health-Twitter all weekend, instead of the question of who should be inoculated first while supplies are the most scarce?

12-24-20 Trump pardons Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Charles Kushner
US President Donald Trump has pardoned his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, ex-adviser Roger Stone and the father of Mr Trump's son-in-law. DMr Manafort was convicted in 2018 in an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Mr Trump had previously commuted the prison sentence of Mr Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress. They are among 29 people to benefit from Mr Trump's latest pardons before he leaves office next month. Twenty-six of them won full pardons on Wednesday night, while another three received commutations. A commutation usually takes the form of a reduced prison term, but does not erase the conviction or imply innocence. A pardon is an expression of the president's forgiveness that confers extra privileges, such as restoring the convict's right to vote. Presidents often grant pardons in their final days of office. (Webmaster's comment: Trump is pardoning all the criminals and thugs that supported him!)

12-24-20 Trump vetoes 'unconstitutional' defence bill
US President Donald Trump has vetoed a $740bn (£549bn) defence spending bill that passed Congress this month. Mr Trump is objecting to provisions that limit troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Europe and remove Confederate leaders' names from military bases. He also wanted it to repeal a liability shield for social media companies. Lawmakers passed the measure with an overwhelming majority and could override the president's rejection. Bills passed by Congress need a president's signature to become law. On rare occasions, a president may choose to veto - or reject - legislation because of some policy disagreement. Lawmakers can override a presidential veto and enact bills into law by mustering two-thirds of votes in both chambers of Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate. On Tuesday, Mr Trump also urged Congress to amend a $900bn (£670bn) coronavirus relief bill by more than tripling its stimulus payments to Americans. He described the bill in a video statement as a "disgrace" full of "wasteful" items. This bill also includes general funding of federal agencies, so a government shutdown is possible if it is not passed within days. The House of Representatives is due to hold a vote on the defence bill on Monday, and the Senate is scheduled to on Tuesday. If Congress does not override Mr Trump's veto in this case, it would be the first time in 60 years that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) does not become law. Mr Trump called the 4,500-page act, which has been nearly a year in the making, a "gift to China and Russia". "Unfortunately, the Act fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military's history, and contradicts efforts by my administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions," he said in a statement. Mr Trump also said the bill's measures to limit bringing troops home was "bad policy" and "unconstitutional".

12-24-20 2021 preview: How soon will a covid-19 vaccine return life to normal?
IF 2020 felt hellish, be warned that we aren’t out of the fire yet, even if we are moving in the right direction. Welcome to 2021, aka purgatory. There is little doubt that vaccines hold the key to ending the pandemic. A recent modelling study predicted that vaccinating just 40 per cent of US adults over the course of 2021 would reduce the coronavirus infection rate by around 75 per cent and cuthospitalisations and deaths from covid-19 by more than 80 per cent. But all this is still some way off. In the meantime, we will have to adapt to a middle ground where some people are protected but not others. As Adam Kleczkowski, a mathematical biologist at the University of Strathclyde, UK, points out, supplies of the various vaccines are limited, distributing them is challenging, immunity takes a few weeks to develop and the protection they offer isn’t 100 per cent. In the northern hemisphere, he says, themost likely scenario is a third wave of covid-19 in the new year, requiring further lockdowns and restrictions for up to five months. “Realistically, we’re in for a longer ride than we hope for,” he says. Tim Spector at King’s College London, who leads the Covid-19 Symptom Study inthe UK, also predicts a third wave. But if lots of healthcare workers and vulnerable people have been vaccinated, the mortality rate will be lower and the pressure on the healthcare system lessened, he said at a recent Royal Society of Medicine seminar. The upsides of ever-widening vaccination will kick in around April, he said: “I’m optimistic that if we can just get our mental state together until Easter, we can hang onin there.” There are still many things we don’t understand about this virus, however (see”Unanswered questions”), and we may well be in for some surprises in the coming year that throw that trajectory off course. As this magazine went to press, for example, there was widespread speculation about the impact of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus circulating in the UK that may be more highly transmissible.

12-23-20 Trump's ghoulish pardons
Despite posing as a peacemaker, the president keeps tying his legacy to war criminals. here is a lot to despise about the list of pardons and commutations issued Tuesday night by the White House, a "Who's Who" of disgraced GOP congressmen and presidential cronies who ran afoul of the law in recent years. No doubt we will see a lot more of this kind of thing over the next few weeks before Donald Trump leaves office. But all of that was expected, wasn't it? It is Trump's pardon of four convicted war criminals, however, that nags at the conscience — and connects this president to the legacy of the Iraq War he has often falsely claimed to have opposed. Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard are the four veterans who were pardoned on Tuesday. They were found guilty in 2014 for their roles in a notorious 2007 massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square during the war. The men — who were working as private contractors for Blackwater Worldwide at the time — were convicted on federal murder, manslaughter, and weapons charges for the incident that killed 17 Iraqis civilians and injured many others while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy. In separate reviews, both the military and the FBI determined the shootings were reckless and unjustified. It was one of the worst and most-senseless events of a terrible and unnecessary war. Tuesday's pardons are particularly notable because Trump defined himself in 2016 as an opponent of the war, drawing a contrast against then-frontrunner Jeb Bush — whose brother ordered the invasion of Iraq — and discovering along the way that there are a lot of Republican voters who prize nationalism but don't love long, drawn-out wars where a satisfyingly clear victory proves elusive. In office, Trump has tried — and mostly failed — to offer himself as a peacemaker. He initiated high-level talks with North Korea, which fell short of ending that country's nuclear program. He promised various troop withdrawals in places like Afghanistan and Syria that never fully materialized. During the recent presidential campaign, his surrogates argued that (rare among U.S. presidents) he had not started any new wars. At the same time, Trump has often seemed to celebrate the violence committed in the wars he publicly disdained. He has endorsed torture and "much worse" against terrorism suspects. He fantasized about stealing the oil of Middle Eastern countries where U.S. troops are stationed. And last year, he pardoned two Army officers convicted of murder in Afghanistan, and reversed the demotion of a Navy SEAL who had been acquitted in the stabbing death of an unarmed Islamic State fighter in 2017. There are those who argue that the Blackwater contractors deserve the mercy of a presidential pardon. At this stage of events, though, it seems naive to expect that Trump does the plausibly right thing for plausibly right reasons. He simply has no credibility. In that context, the pardons look less like an act of mercy and more an endorsement of brutality — a reward for having done something horrific and appalling. That impression is heightened by other developments. Trump on Tuesday also pardoned to a pair of former Border Patrol agents who shot a fleeing immigrant from behind — and then covered it up. CNN reported Tuesday night the White House is considering granting legal immunity to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against a lawsuit alleging he ordered the assassination of an official who shared information with the United States. Meanwhile, the government is racing through an unprecedented series of last-minute federal executions before Joe Biden takes office. Taken together, those items suggest Trump's vision of justice means accountability for the little people and impunity for the powerful and well-connected.

12-23-20 Baby, it's COVID outside
On Americans' catastrophic impatience this Christmas Not content with precipitating a dramatic coronavirus surge with reckless Thanksgiving travel and maskless get-togethers, the heedless citizens of these United States seem determined to bring about another exponential increase in cases and mortality with their holiday plans, just days before many older Americans start receiving their vaccines. Confronted with widespread death, immiseration, and suffering caused in large part by their own refusal to take this thing seriously, millions of Americans are preparing to crisscross the country to see each other anyway. The theme song of this year's holiday season might as well be Baby It's COVID Outside. We've seen this movie before. Despite plaintive appeals from public health experts and sensible elected officials, too many Americans made all the wrong moves over the Thanksgiving holiday. The number of people who didn't travel at all dropped just 6 percent year-over-year from 2019. Millions descended on airports and highway rest stops and seeded the virus far and wide, helping to turn just about every state in the union into a raging COVID fire. The seven-day rolling average of cases stood at an already calamitous 165,000 on Thanksgiving day. It is now nearly 240,000, with no end to the spike in sight. And now it's happening again. Eighty-five million people plan to travel in the coming week, and more than a million have passed through airports every day this week. Sure, movement is way down from last year, but in a functioning country it would be close to zero. Who are these people lining up to gulp down each other's plague droplets in the Starbucks line at O'Hare? The national death tally is now 316,000. What would it have to be for people to change their behavior? A million? Five million? Anyone who has spent five minutes reading about this horrible disease knows that bodies start stacking up a few weeks after infections rise. The seven-day average of deaths was around 1,500 on Thanksgiving and is now over 2,600. The latter number is actually the product of the Thanksgiving-era caseload, and we are consequently already locked into a daily death toll of about 3,500 by mid-January. If there is a similar increase in post-holiday cases — all but guaranteed based on what we're seeing unfold — that average could creep up to well over 4,000 before it finally starts to come down as Americans over 75 get their Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. If this carnage continues unchecked into February, we're looking at well over 100,000 people who will die just in the next month or so because so many lacked the fortitude and solidarity to put off their gatherings for a few months. And that's assuming there isn't an increase in case fatality rates when hospitals get overrun. If they can't be persuaded, and they can't be shamed, people should at least have to face the consequences with eyes wide open.

12-23-20 Joe Biden: 'Darkest days in the battle against Covid are ahead'
President-elect Joe Biden has urged Americans to remain vigilant and prepare for tens of thousands more deaths from Covid-19 in the months to come, despite new vaccines. Mr Biden, who is due to be sworn in next month, has made the fight against the virus a priority and promised to distribute 100m vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office.

12-23-20 Trump urges Congress to amend 'wasteful' coronavirus aid bill
US President Trump has urged Congress to amend a $900bn (£670bn) coronavirus relief bill to more than triple its stimulus payments to Americans. In a video message posted on Twitter, he said the package "really is a disgrace", full of "wasteful" items. "It's called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid," he said. The $900bn bill includes one-off $600 payments to most Americans, but Mr Trump said the figure should be $2,000. His statement stunned Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating a coronavirus stimulus rescue package since July and Mr Trump - who has largely stayed out of the talks - had been expected to sign the legislation into law following its passage through Congress on Monday night. The package of measures is linked to a bigger government spending bill, which includes foreign aid funding as well as a $1.4tn spending measure to fund federal agencies for the next nine months. Those agencies will have to shut if the president vetoes or refuses to sign it by midnight next Monday. Most legislation that comes from Congress requires the approval of the president before becoming law. If the president rejects this bill, it would require at least a two-thirds majority in each chamber - the House of Representatives and the Senate - to override the veto. However, Mr Trump has not specifically said he would veto the bill. While Congress has overridden fewer than 10% of all presidential vetoes, US media say there could be enough votes from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to do so in this instance. In Tuesday night's message from the White House, Mr Trump baulked at spending in the bill on other countries, arguing that this money should go to struggling Americans. "I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple.

12-23-20 Trump pardons Blackwater security contractors over 2007 Iraq killings
US President Donald Trump has pardoned four former Blackwater security guards convicted over their involvement in the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard opened fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square while escorting an American diplomatic convoy. The White House said the pardons were supported by the public and lawmakers. But the father of a boy who died called them "indescribable" and a rights group said Mr Trump had hit a "new low". There was no immediate response from the Iraqi government. Slatten, Slough, Liberty and Heard were among 19 Blackwater private security contractors assigned to guard a convoy of four heavily-armoured vehicles carrying US personnel on 16 September 2007. According to the US justice department, at about noon that day several of the contractors opened fire in and around Nisoor Square, a busy roundabout that was immediately adjacent to the heavily-fortified Green Zone. When they stopped shooting, at least 14 Iraqi civilians were dead - 10 men, two women and two boys, aged nine and 11. Iraqi authorities put the toll at 17. US prosecutors said Slatten was the first to fire, without provocation, killing Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubiay, an aspiring doctor who was driving his mother to an appointment. The contractors said they mistakenly believed that they were under attack. The incident caused international outrage, strained relations between the US and Iraq, and sparked a debate over the role of contractors in warzones. In 2014, a US federal court found Slatten guilty of murder, while Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and other charges. Slatten was sentenced to life in prison, and the other three were handed 30-year terms. However, the US Court of Appeals reversed Slatten's conviction and ordered that the three others be resentenced for their roles in the crime. Slatten was retried in 2018, but a mistrial was declared after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The second retrial began later that year and Slatten was found guilty of committing first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2019. Slough, Liberty and Heard subsequently had their sentences reduced to 15, 14 and 12 years respectively. (Webmaster's comment: Trump supports U.S. war crimes!)

12-23-20 Dr Deborah Birx: White House virus expert quits over holiday travel
A top public health official on the White House coronavirus task force has said she will retire after it emerged she hosted a holiday gathering. Dr Deborah Birx, who is 64, cited the criticism she had faced for a family get-together over Thanksgiving in Delaware in her decision to step aside. "This experience has been a bit overwhelming," she said. "It's been very difficult on my family." Dr Birx had reportedly been seeking a job from US President-elect Joe Biden. A world-renowned Aids researcher, she has worked in the US government since the Reagan administration. Late on Tuesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted President Donald Trump's good wishes, saying he "has great respect for Dr Birx and likes her very much. We wish her well". In an interview with US news network Newsy aired on Tuesday, a masked Dr Birx did not specify when she would stand down, but said she would help the incoming Biden administration and "and then I will retire". She had urged Americans in the days before Thanksgiving to restrict gatherings to "your immediate household". But it emerged on Sunday she had travelled from Washington to one of her other properties, on Fenwick Island in Delaware, where she was joined by three generations of her family from two households. While in Delaware, she did an interview with CBS in which she noted that some Americans had "made mistakes" over Thanksgiving by travelling and they "should assume they were infected". The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose director has often joined Dr Birx on the podium during briefings, has warned Americans not to travel over the holidays. As the US coronavirus caseload surges, the agency has also cautioned against indoor gatherings with people from different households. Dr Birx had insisted she went to the property in Delaware to prepare it for a potential sale, though she acknowledged sharing a meal with her family during the visit.

12-22-20 Covid: Thanksgiving the cause of a spike in US infections?
Concerns that family reunions over Christmas could spread coronavirus have led to much tighter restrictions in many parts of the UK. Some have pointed to the US, claiming that family gatherings at Thanksgiving - at the end of November - led to an increase in cases. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, for example, said: "We saw in Canada and the US, huge spikes in infections after Thanksgiving." So, what - if any - evidence is there for this? The Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the US was between Thursday 26 and Sunday 29 November. There were warnings from US health officials to limit travel and keep gatherings small. The day before and the Sunday following Thanksgiving saw the largest number of people pass through US airports since the start of the pandemic. But far fewer people passed through airports than the estimated 26 million travellers in the week surrounding the holiday last year. Train travel on Amtrak train services over the holiday period was about 20% of what it was at the same time last year, while travelling by car during Thanksgiving was just 5% lower than the same time in 2019, according to the Associated Press news agency. Prior to Thanksgiving, infection rates were already increasing across the US and this upward trend has clearly continued. However, looking at the combined data for the whole of the US, there's no clear indication that infection rates accelerated following the Thanksgiving holiday. What you can see from the graph is that because of reporting delays around the holiday period, there was a flattening of the curve followed by a catch-up period. But overall, cases rose by about 20% in the two weeks following Thanksgiving - about the same increase as over the two weeks prior to 26 November. So the overall rate of growth of infections across the US has remained about the same as it was in the weeks before the holiday. But that's not to say Thanksgiving had no impact on infection levels.

12-22-20 Covid: US Congress passes long-awaited deal for coronavirus aid
The US Congress has passed a long-awaited $900bn (£660bn) package of coronavirus pandemic aid after months of political wrangling. Senators approved the bill late on Monday, hours after it was passed by the House of Representatives. The aid includes direct payments for many Americans and support for businesses and unemployment programmes. The money is to accompany a bigger, $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the package into law quickly. President-elect Joe Biden welcomed the relief package but said Congress needed to get to work to support his Covid-19 relief plan in the new year. In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 359 to 53 and in the Senate it passed by 92-6. Many Covid-19 relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month and about 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to unemployment benefits. But some lawmakers said they felt blind-sided by being asked to vote on a mammoth bill without even having a chance to read it. At nearly 5,600 pages, the legislation was described by the Associated Press news agency as "the longest bill in memory and probably ever". The stimulus includes one-off $600 payments to most Americans, and will boost unemployment payments by $300 per week, extending expiration dates for the jobless programmes until the spring. It also contains more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, schools and tenants facing eviction. The package includes an extension of an eviction moratorium that was due to expire at the end of this month, leaving tens of millions of Americans at risk of being thrown out of their homes. It contains $25bn in rental aid. The bill also has a provision to end surprise medical billing - where hospital patients get slapped with fees because they were treated by a doctor who was not covered by their health insurer. President Trump has championed calls to end these stealth fees, which are one of the most unpopular pitfalls of the US healthcare system.

12-22-20 Coronavirus: EU urges countries to lift UK travel bans
The European Union's 27 member states will try to co-ordinate restrictions on links to the UK, after dozens of countries suspended travel amid alarm over a new coronavirus variant. On Tuesday, the European Commission recommended countries lift restrictions and allow essential travel to resume. But EU member states are free to set their own rules on border controls and may continue with their own policies. France and the UK are trying to reach a deal to end disruption in the Channel. The new variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no sign it is more deadly. Almost all EU member states are now blocking travellers from the UK. The European Commission recommended member states allow people to travel to their country of residence providing they take a Covid-19 test or self-isolate. But it said non-essential travel should be discouraged. It also said transport staff, such as lorry drivers, should be exempt from all travel restrictions and mandatory testing. The recommendation will be put to EU ambassadors later on Tuesday and member states will then consider adopting the rules. But despite this, countries are likely to continue with their own policies, the BBC's Gavin Lee reports from Brussels. Meanwhile, more than 1,500 lorries are stuck in Kent in south-east England as UK and French leaders try to reach an agreement on reopening the French border. Some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Hungary, are only allowing their residents to return home. As the list of countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK grew, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Europe director, Hans Kluge, said member states would convene to discuss strategies and limit travel, while maintaining trade. WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said new strains were a normal part of the evolution of a pandemic, and that it was not "out of control", contradicting earlier remarks in the UK from Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

12-22-20 Covid: Wuhan scientist would 'welcome' visit probing lab leak theory
A Chinese scientist at the centre of unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus leaked from her laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan has told the BBC she is open to "any kind of visit" to rule it out. The surprise statement from Prof Shi Zhengli comes as a World Health Organization team prepares to travel to Wuhan next month to begin its investigation into the origins of Covid-19. The remote district of Tongguan, in China's south-western province of Yunnan, is hard to reach at the best of times. But when a BBC team tried to visit recently, it was impossible. Plain-clothes police officers and other officials in unmarked cars followed us for miles along the narrow, bumpy roads, stopping when we did, backtracking with us when we were forced to turn around. We found obstacles in our way, including a "broken-down" lorry, which locals confirmed had been placed across the road a few minutes before we arrived. And we ran into checkpoints at which unidentified men told us their job was to keep us out. At first sight, all of this might seem like a disproportionate effort given our intended destination, a nondescript, abandoned copper mine in which, back in 2012, six workers succumbed to a mystery illness that eventually claimed the lives of three of them. But their tragedy, which would otherwise almost certainly have been largely forgotten, has been given new meaning by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those three deaths are now at the centre of a major scientific controversy about the origins of the virus and the question of whether it came from nature, or from a laboratory. And the attempts of Chinese authorities to stop us reaching the site are a sign of how hard they're working to control the narrative. For more than a decade, the rolling, jungle-covered hills in Yunnan - and the cave systems within - have been the focus of a giant scientific field study. It has been led by Prof Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Prof Shi won international acclaim for her discovery that the illness known as Sars, which killed more than 700 people in 2003, was caused by a virus that probably came from a species of bat in a Yunnan cave. Ever since, Prof Shi - often referred to as "China's Batwoman" - has been in the vanguard of a project to try to predict and prevent further such outbreaks. By trapping bats, taking faecal samples from them, and then carrying those samples back to the lab in Wuhan, 1,600km (1,000 miles) away, the team behind the project has identified hundreds of new bat coronaviruses. But the fact that Wuhan is now home to the world's leading coronavirus research facility, as well as the first city to be ravaged by a pandemic outbreak of a deadly new one, has fuelled suspicion that the two things are connected. The Chinese government, the WIV, and Prof Shi have all angrily dismissed the allegation of a virus leak from the Wuhan lab.

12-22-20 Covid: Vatican says coronavirus vaccines 'morally acceptable'
Covid: Vatican says coronavirus vaccines 'morally acceptable' In the absence of any alternative, such vaccines "can be used in good conscience", the Vatican said. It added that this would "not constitute formal co-operation" with the terminations that took place. Several vaccine candidates were developed using cells derived from foetuses aborted decades ago. However, no foetal cells are present in any of the vaccines. "All vaccinations recognised as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal co-operation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive," the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced in a statement on Monday. The text, which was approved by Pope Francis, also said there was "a moral imperative" to ensure that poorer countries received access to effective vaccines. The issue of whether to accept a coronavirus vaccine has divided some members of the clergy, with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops arguing in favour last week. "Given the urgency of this crisis, the lack of available alternative vaccines, and the fact that the connection between an abortion that occurred decades ago and receiving a vaccine produced today is remote, inoculation with the new Covid-19 vaccines in these circumstances can be morally justified," a document published by two of the group's members said. It said the inoculations produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which both used a cell line derived from an aborted foetus to test their vaccines, were preferable to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which used such cells in the design, development, production and testing stages. Where no choice was available, however, "it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine", the document said. (Webmaster's comment: A voice from the dark ages!)

12-21-20 Are the worst days of the Trump presidency still ahead?
Trump and martial law: Can it get worse? Yes. American troops probably won't take to the streets over the next few weeks to keep President Donald Trump in the White House — but not necessarily because Trump doesn't want them to. The New York Times over the weekend reported that the president had "asked about" deploying the military to impose martial law and re-do the presidential election — already fairly won by Joe Biden, the Democrat — to obtain a better result for Trump. The idea was rejected by some of his top aides, the Army wants no part of it, and Trump himself denied the discussion had occurred. Still, the report raised the possibility that we still haven't seen the worst days of this presidency. That would be unusual. Just one month remains before Biden's inauguration. This is the stage after the election when the outgoing executive is usually dreaming of vacation, book deals, and presidential libraries. But Trump is a different case. He continues to scheme fruitlessly to hold onto his job, no matter the cost to the country, and all the worst people have his ear. Which means there is still plenty of time for this president to do more damage to the country. The idea for martial law reportedly came from Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's recently pardoned former national security advisor and, more recently, a QAnon conspiracy enthusiast. According to the Times, Trump also entertained the idea of appointing Sidney Powell — purveyor of some of Trumpland's more bizarre conspiracy theories — as a special counsel to investigate her false allegations of election fraud. And Rudy Giuliani reportedly wants the Department of Homeland Security to seize swing-state voting machines. Taken together, the proposals alarmed the remaining Trump advisors who still have a foot planted in reality. "I've been covering Donald Trump for a while. I can't recall hearing more intense concern from senior officials who are actually Trump people," Axios' Jonathan Swan tweeted on Saturday. "The Sidney Powell / Michael Flynn ideas are finding an enthusiastic audience at the top." All this takes place while the COVID-19 pandemic grows ever deadlier. More than 18,000 people have died of the coronavirus within the last week. That's horrific — and will only get more so — but the president seems completely uninterested in the carnage. "I think he's just done with COVID," one of his advisers told The Washington Post. The problem, of course, is that COVID isn't done with us. Trump, in other words, is doing little to ameliorate the deadly problem we do have, while expending his energy and passions on a doomed effort to overturn the expressed will of the voters. The combination of willful impotence and Ahab-like obsession would usually be pathetic. For the next few weeks, though — and this is the important part — Trump remains one of the most powerful human beings on the planet. The problem is compounded by the way bad ideas and bad people tend to enter and remain in Trump's orbit. The president once fired Flynn because Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contact with the Russians; now Flynn is advising Trump how to steal the election. Just a few weeks ago, Trump's campaign distanced itself from Powell after her election theories proved embarrassingly outlandish. Now Trump proposes giving her federal prosecutorial powers. (She was back in the White House on Sunday night, continuing to pitch investigations.) The specter of martial law has been raised and rejected, but this tendency means it wouldn't be a surprise if we hear about it again within the next few days. There isn't much, if anything, that can be done about this situation. A #25thAmendment hashtag trended Sunday on Twitter, but it is impossible to imagine Pence and Trump's collection of acting cabinet secretaries being audacious enough to functionally depose their boss. Another impeachment isn't going to happen, and Republicans in the Senate wouldn't convict, anyway. The best bet, for now, might be to try to ride out the crisis of Trump's last weeks, then work for reform after he has left Washington. For now, though, thousands of our fellow citizens are dying every day while the president rejects the plain obligations of democracy. The United States at the end of 2020 is in terrible shape, perhaps the worst in living memory. Under President Trump, though, things can always get worse.

12-21-20 US evictions crisis: 'My pride has gone. We're pretty much homeless now'
For Omar Lightner and his family in Florida, this Christmas will mean much more than a smaller gathering. With a US-wide moratorium on eviction set to expire on 31 December, they could be homeless by the end of the holiday season. "We've got 200 bucks saved up, it's going to get us nowhere, It's the timing. It's the holidays," Lightner said. "I sit up at night thinking how I can explain to my kids they can't have a Christmas because we have to get out of here in a few days." Lightner, 42, lost his job as a truck driver with a home removals firm because of the pandemic in February. Since then, he has been living off his savings in a motel in Jacksonville with his wife Tawanda and children Jayla, 10, Jasmine, eight, and Jamal, six. Their money is quickly running out. "My savings were $22,000 (£16,200) when we went to the extended stay," Lightner said. "That ran us to about $17,300. The rest went towards food stamps. That helped out a lot. But we've got two kids with severe autism; there's medicine and therapy to pay for." While the Lightners figure out how to stretch their finances, US lawmakers are trying to reach an agreement on a second $900bn Covid-19 aid bill that could help those most affected by the pandemic. The package is expected to include hundreds of billions of dollars of support for America's unemployed and struggling businesses, as well as vaccine distribution and education. Back in March, President Trump signed the largest-ever US financial stimulus package, worth $2tn. Through it, Omar managed to access $1,200 (£887) per month in unemployment benefits. In August, those payments stopped. He said he has been told to be patient whilst an administrative backlog is cleared. As Lightner continues to look for work, he's pinning his hopes on support from the second stimulus package. Though less than the first package, it is expected to offer $600 (£444) stimulus cheques to millions of Americans and 10 weeks of jobless aid.

12-21-20 Covid: US reaches long-awaited deal for coronavirus aid
After months of wrangling, US lawmakers have agreed to a roughly $900bn (£660bn) package of pandemic aid, including money for businesses and unemployment programmes. The money is set to accompany a bigger, $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months. Many Covid-19 relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month. About 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to unemployment benefits. The House of Representatives and the Senate are expected to vote on the package on Monday. It will then need to be signed into law by President Donald Trump. The new package will include one-off $600 stimulus payments to most Americans, and will boost unemployment payments by $300 per week. It is also set to include more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, schools and renters facing eviction. The deal was announced on Sunday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. "We can finally report what our nation has needed to hear for a very long time: More help is on the way," he said. The package, he added, contained "targeted policies to help struggling Americans who have already waited too long". House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, said the package delivered "urgently needed funds to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people as the virus accelerates". The bill does not include substantial aid to local governments, which had been a top priority for many Democrats. Mr Schumer said the package did help local governments indirectly by providing money for schools, Covid-19 testing and other expenses. He said the package would "establish a floor, not a ceiling, for coronavirus relief in 2021", and that Democrats would push for more aid after President-elect Joe Biden took office on 20 January. Congress was expected to pass the bill by Friday, but negotiations continued through the weekend. The delays led to concerns over whether the government would shut down without a spending bill. Washington has been operating on temporary funding since October, the start of the federal government's financial year.

12-21-20 Covid: Flights shut down as EU discusses UK virus threat
EU officials are discussing a joint response to a new, more infectious Covid-19 variant in the UK, which has sparked travel bans by many countries. Canada and India joined European states in blocking flights from the UK while Europe-bound train services via the Channel Tunnel have been halted. The new variant is said to be up to 70% more transmissible, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly. There is also no proof to suggest that it reacts differently to vaccines. Two meetings are taking place in Brussels on Monday - one involving health ministers and another with the EU's crisis response team. But no decision is expected until Tuesday, when EU ambassadors meet. A French official told the BBC's Gavin Lee that they were desperate to reopen the borders "as soon as safely possible", with one option discussed being the requirement that UK travellers - including lorry drivers - prove they have had a recent negative Covid-19 test. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier said the new variant was "out of control", while Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands announced they had already detected it. Also on Monday, the EU's medicines regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use in all 27 member states. The vaccine is already being administered in the UK and in the US, and some European countries plan to begin administering doses from 27 December. France suspended all travel links, including freight lorries, with the UK for 48 hours from midnight (23:00 GMT) on Sunday. Thousands of lorries move between the countries every day. Eurotunnel said it would suspend access to its Folkestone terminal for traffic heading to Calais. People booked to travel on Monday can get a refund. Trains will still run from Calais to Folkestone. The ferry terminal at Dover is now closed for all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice because of the French restrictions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra emergency response meeting to discuss the issue on Monday.

12-21-20 Covid: Australian states enforce travel bans amid Sydney outbreak
Australian states and territories have begun enforcing entry bans on Sydney residents amid a growing coronavirus outbreak in the nation's largest city. The border closures outside New South Wales (NSW) have dashed Christmas plans and family reunions for many people. Airlines cancelled several flights leaving Sydney Airport on Monday, following a midnight deadline. The city has recorded 83 cases so far in this outbreak, all linked to Sydney's Northern Beaches region. Speaking from Canberra on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: "2020 is not done with us yet." "The events of the past few days... are incredibly frustrating and disappointing for people all around the country who had plans in place to get together and move in between states." However, he and others welcomed the dip in new case numbers reported on Monday. NSW state authorities recorded 15 new infections - half the previous day's numbers - out of a record 38,000 tests conducted in 24 hours. Many viewed the numbers as encouraging that the virus had not spread further beyond the Northern Beaches, which is subject to a local lockdown. But authorities warned that one day's results were not enough to determine a trend. "Obviously, we have halved the number of cases overnight, but in a pandemic, there is a level of volatility, so we'll closely monitor what happens," said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. She said it was too early to tell whether wider restrictions for the city's five million residents would ease in time for Christmas. Australia - currently seeing all but no cases outside Sydney - has become known for its swift and aggressive response to outbreaks this year. In Sydney, indoor gatherings have been limited to 10 guests, and all residents have been told to minimise their social activity and to wear a mask in public spaces. Those living in the Northern Beaches will remain in lockdown until at least Wednesday.

12-21-20 Kyle Rittenhouse: YouTube struggles with hero worship
"We're gonna run what I call a Kyle drill." A man wearing sunglasses and carrying an assault rifle talks his way through a training circuit he's built at a gun range, showcased in a YouTube video. The course lets participants recreate the moment Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters in Kenosha earlier this year, killing two of them. "This is the simulated mob," the man says. "You're going to sit down and take a shot at the skater. I don't know how many shots Kyle took, but Kyle's a badass. So we're going to assume one shot, one kill." The skater he is referring to is Anthony Huber. He was shot in the heart and killed by Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, turned up at a protest in Kenosha after Jacob Blake was killed by police. He was carrying an assault rifle and said he was there to protect property, claiming he acted in self-defence when opening fire. He is awaiting trial for double murder. This piece isn't about the mass shooting itself, rather what it tells us about YouTube and its policies on extremism. The Kyle Drill video is just one of dozens of disturbing uploads we found on YouTube venerating Rittenhouse. Other social media companies like Facebook have tight rules on what you can and can't say or show about Rittenhouse. Facebook, for example, has banned his name from being searched for. On YouTube though, there are no such rules. "Facebook and Twitter have taken much more concerted action against content supporting Rittenhouse," says Chloe Colliver from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue. "YouTube has fallen behind other social media companies in the US this year in its efforts to deal with extremist content and disinformation." That last sentence is one I've heard many times covering extremism on social media this year - that YouTube has a moderation problem. The company has a set of rules that "prohibit any violent or graphic content intended to shock viewers". "We take swift action to remove content flagged by our community that violates those policies," YouTube told the BBC. The glorification of Rittenhouse on YouTube, however, suggests community flagging simply isn't working.

12-20-20 Coronavirus: Trump's Covid vaccine chief admits delivery mistake
The army general in charge of distributing Covid vaccines in the US has admitted he failed over the initial number of doses promised to states. Gen Gustave Perna, the head of Operation Warp Speed, said he took "personal responsibility for the miscommunication" to state governors. More than a dozen states have expressed alarm at a cut in the expected number. The Pfizer-BioNTech doses are being rolled out following approval - and a Moderna vaccine is now also approved. The US has registered more than 17.5 million of the 76 million infections confirmed globally since the pandemic began, along with 315,000 deaths. Both are the highest numbers in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University research. Gen Perna apologised several times to state governors during a telephone briefing to reporters. He said he had given out the numbers of doses based on what he believed would be ready, stressing it was his personal fault. "I'm the one who approved forecast sheets. I'm the one who approved allocations," he said. "There is no problem with the process. There is no problem with the Pfizer vaccine. There is no problem with the Moderna vaccine. "I failed. I'm adjusting. I'm fixing and we'll move forward from there." US media said some states had been told the doses they would get next week would be lower. The New York Times listed 14 states by name, including California, New Jersey and Michigan. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state tweeted on Thursday: "This is disruptive and frustrating. We need accurate, predictable numbers to plan and ensure on-the-ground success." Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said the White House was "slow-walking the process". Gen Perna said: "Please accept my personal apologies if this was disruptive to your decision-making." Gen Perna said he did not know "with exactness" when all the vaccines available would be distributed.

12-20-20 Covid vaccine: 'Disappearing' needles and other rumours debunked
The roll out of Covid-19 vaccines in the UK and US this week has led to a spate of new false claims about vaccines. We've looked into some of the most widely shared. BBC News footage is being passed off as "proof" on social media that Covid-19 vaccines are fake, and that press events showing people being injected have been staged. The clip, from a report which aired on BBC TV this week, is being shared by anti-vaccine campaigners. They claim fake syringes with "disappearing needles" are being used in an attempt by the authorities to promote a vaccine that doesn't exist. One version posted on Twitter has had more than 20,000 retweets and likes, and half a million views. Another major spreader of the video has been suspended. The posts use genuine footage showing healthcare professionals using a safety syringe, in which the needle retracts into the body of the device after use. Safety syringes have been in widespread use for over a decade. They protect medical staff and patients from injuries and infection. It's not the first time claims of fake needles have appeared since vaccine roll out began. One showed an Australian politician posing with a syringe next to her arm, the needle clearly covered with a safety cap, with claims that her Covid-19 vaccination had been faked. But in reality, it showed Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk posing for the cameras after receiving a flu vaccine in April. The video has had close to 400,000 views on Twitter. Photographers had asked for more photos because the real injection happened too quickly. Public Health authorities in Alabama released a statement condemning "misinformation" after a false story that a nurse died after taking the coronavirus vaccine spread on Facebook. The state had just started injecting its first citizens with the jab. After being alerted to the rumours, the department of public health contacted all vaccine-administering hospitals in the state and "confirmed there have been no deaths of vaccine recipients. The posts are untrue."

12-20-20 Covid: Italy, Belgium and Netherlands ban flights from UK over variant
A number of European countries have or are considering banning travel from the UK to prevent the spread of a more infectious variant of coronavirus. Both the Netherlands and Belgium have suspended flights. Trains to Belgium have also been banned. Italy's foreign minister has indicated his government plans to ban flights. France and Germany are among others reportedly planning similar action. The new variant has spread quickly in London and south-east England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday introduced a new tier four level of restrictions, scrapping a planned relaxation of rules over the Christmas period for millions of people. Top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly, or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70% more transmissible. Within hours of the UK announcement on Saturday, the Netherlands said it would ban all passenger flights from the UK from 06:00 (05:00 GMT) on Sunday until 1 January. Pending "greater clarity" on the situation in the UK, the Dutch government said that further "risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimised as much as possible". The country on Sunday reported a daily increase of more than 13,000 cases - a new record, despite tough lockdown measures being applied on 14 December. Belgium is suspending flights and train arrivals from the UK from midnight (23:00 GMT) Sunday. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian television channel VRT the ban would be in place for at least 24 hours as a "precautionary measure", adding "we will see later if we need additional measures". Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on his Facebook page that the government was about to sign a measure to suspend flights from the UK. In Germany, a health ministry official told AFP news agency that the government was also considering banning flights from the UK, and South Africa, where the variant has also been detected.

12-20-20 Covid: WHO in 'close contact' with UK over new virus variant
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is in "close contact" with UK officials over the emergence of a new variant of coronavirus. The new variant is spreading more rapidly than the original version, but it is not believed to be more deadly. Along with the UK, the same mutation of the Covid-19 virus has also been detected in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia, the WHO told the BBC. There is no evidence to suggest the new variant reacts differently to vaccines. In the UK, large parts of south-east England, including London, are now under a new, stricter level of restrictions in a bid to curb the rapidly spreading virus. On Sunday, the Netherlands introduced a ban on passenger flights from the UK until 1 January because of the new variant. The move comes after tests carried out on samples taken in the Netherlands earlier this month revealed the same new variant of coronavirus as that reported in the UK. Pending "greater clarity" on the situation in the UK, the Dutch government said that further "risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimised as much as possible". The Dutch government also said it would work with other European Union member states in the coming days to "explore the scope for further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK". Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr programme, WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said that specialists had been "following mutations across the world since the beginning of the pandemic". The WHO said that it was in contact with UK officials over the new variant. It said the UK was sharing information from ongoing studies into the mutation, and that the WHO would update member states and the public "as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant [and] any implications". Although there is "considerable uncertainty", UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old one. But officials say there is no current evidence to suggest the new variant causes a higher mortality rate or that it is affected any differently by vaccines and treatments.

12-20-20 Covid in Sydney: New restrictions announced as outbreak grows
Australia's most populous state has announced new restrictions for the Greater Sydney area in an attempt to contain a growing outbreak of Covid-19. Household gatherings will be capped at 10 people and hospitality venues at 300 until Wednesday. Residents had already been told to stay at home. The cases were found in the city's Northern Beaches area, which entered a five-day lockdown on Saturday. Since then Sydney residents have rushed to leave the city ahead of Christmas. Thousands have travelled from the city in New South Wales (NSW) to the neighbouring state of Victoria. In response, Victoria will close its borders to residents of Greater Sydney and the NSW Central Coast from midnight. People will then face a 14-day quarantine. South Australia state also said all arrivals from the Greater Sydney area would have to quarantine for 14 days from midnight. People who have been in the Northern Beaches area will be barred from the state entirely. The outbreak has also forced organisers of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race to cancel the event for the first time in its history. Until Wednesday, Australia had recorded just one locally transmitted infection in the past fortnight. The country, which is considered a relative success story of the pandemic, has recorded about 28,000 infections and 908 deaths in total, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. The restrictions in Greater Sydney - including the Central Coast and Blue Mountains - can be lifted if no cases of community transmission are reported. They include: 1. The rule of one person per 4 sq m (43 sq ft) will return for all indoor settings including hospitality venues and places of worship A cap of 300 people will be introduced in those places. 2. Singing and chanting at indoor venues will not be allowed. 3. Dance floors will not be permitted, apart from weddings when up to 20 people from the bridal party will be allowed 4. Speaking at a news conference, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian urged people in the Sydney area to wear face masks in public although it was not mandatory. Earlier she pleaded with all residents to limit their activities over the next few days and stay at home "unless you really have to" go out.

12-19-20 Executions under Trump administration buck global trend away from death penalty
"There is no doubt that the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to its use of capital punishment" ast week, the Trump administration carried out the execution of two prisoners on death row, Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeoise. The case of Bernard, who received a lethal injection of pentobarbital at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed. Three more people are said to be put to death before President Donald Trump leaves office. This marks the first time in more than a century that federal executions have been carried out during a president's lame-duck period. Federal executions were resumed by Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite a coronavirus outbreak in U.S. prisons. This is a reminder that the U.S. is increasingly out of step with much of the rest of the world when it comes to the death penalty. Delphine Lourtau, the executive director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about the U.S.' outlier stance and what it signals for human rights around the world. Delphine Lourtau: The United States is really bucking a global trend that we've seen start to develop after the Second World War and really accelerate in the past 20 to 25 years. And this trend is one toward the abolition of the death penalty, but also in states that continue to use the death penalty, toward an ever-more restricted use of capital punishment. We already know President-elect Biden has announced that he would halt federal executions after inauguration. We've seen a shift in his position vis-a-vis capital punishment over the years. Last year, he tweeted that a system in which there was no possible redress for people who are executed after wrongful convictions had to change. The executions of the last few months of the Trump presidency reflect an attachment to the institution of capital punishment that is at odds not only with global trends but also with changing political perspectives and public opinion in the United States. My organization tracks executions carried out around the world and so far in 2020, there are only six other states that have carried out more executions than the United States. They are China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Somalia, and North Korea. If you look at this list of countries, and if you look at the fact that within, for instance, member states of the G20, the U.S. is one of five states that carry out executions, but only Saudi Arabia has carried out more executions than the U.S. in that group. If you look regionally within the Americas, this is the 12th consecutive year that the United States is the sole country that has carried out executions. There's no doubt that the U.S. is an outlier when it comes to its use of capital punishment. And there is also no doubt that this affects its credibility when it comes to bringing human rights challenges or raising concerns about human rights violations in other countries. The position of the United States and the position of many other countries that do continue to carry out executions is that the death penalty is not a question of human rights. It is a question of the administration of criminal justice and as such, an issue that is best left to individual sovereign states. The problem with this argument is that it ignores that when you're talking about human rights, we're not just talking about the death penalty in and of itself. You're also talking about the process and the procedures surrounding the death penalty. We're talking about the criminal legal system as a whole. It's much more difficult for countries that continue to apply the death penalty — to defend their trial practices that under international human rights law are supposed to provide fair trial guarantees above and beyond what is already required in other criminal cases — and stand beside their application of capital punishment.

12-19-20 How does the newly authorized Moderna COVID-19 vaccine compare to Pfizer’s?
The United States now has two vaccines available for emergency use. A second coronavirus vaccine has now joined the fight against COVID-19 in the United States. On December 18, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use in people 18 years or older. The decision follows a thumbs-up vote from a panel of experts that convened on December 17 to discuss vaccine data that the biotechnology company had collected from its ongoing clinical trial. The vaccine joins a similar one from pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, which was authorized December 11 and has begun to be administered to people in high-risk groups in the United States, including health care workers and people living in nursing homes (SN: 12/11/20; 12/1/20). Here’s a look at how the two vaccines stack up against one another. Both clearly protect people ranging in age from 18 to older than 65 from developing COVID-19 symptoms. Both Moderna’s vaccine — developed in collaboration with the U.S. National Institutes of Health — and Pfizer’s exceeded expectations in clinical trials. In documents provided to the FDA for review, Moderna reported that their Phase III clinical trial, which includes more than 30,000 people, showed that the vaccine was 94.1 percent effective at preventing those who received it from developing COVID-19 symptoms. The biotechnology company had previously released the finding, determined two weeks after participants received a second dose of the vaccine, in a Nov. 30 news release (SN: 11/16/20). Pfizer’s vaccine is similarly effective at preventing symptoms, with an efficacy of 95 percent. The comparable results are likely because the pair of COVID-19 vaccines are “a lot more alike than they are different,” says Susanna Naggie, an infectious disease physician at Duke University. “I think that’s why we are seeing a very similar profile in terms of the early efficacy data.”

12-19-20 Covid: US approves Moderna as second vaccine
Moderna has been approved by the US government as the country's second Covid-19 vaccine, clearing the way for millions of doses to be released. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised the US-made jab about a week after approving a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which is now being distributed. The US has agreed to purchase 200 million doses of Moderna, and six million may be ready to ship now. The country has the world's highest numbers of Covid-19 deaths and cases. It has recorded more than 313,500 deaths and about 17.5 million infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said the emergency approval of the vaccine on Friday marked "another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic that is causing vast numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States each day". The authorisation came after an advisory panel on Thursday voted 20-0 with one abstention that the benefits of the Moderna vaccine outweighed the risks for those aged 18 and over. Regulators reported earlier this week that the Moderna vaccine was safe and 94% effective. US President Donald Trump, who hours before the official announcement tweeted that the vaccine had been "overwhelmingly approved" and distribution would "start immediately", said on Twitter: "Congratulations, the Moderna vaccine is now available!" President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be vaccinated on Monday, said the authorisation of the Pfizer and the Moderna jabs "assures us that brighter days lie ahead". But, he added, "the fight against Covid-19 is not yet over." "We know the immense challenges ahead, including scaling up manufacturing, distribution, and the monumental task of vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans. We need to make sure we have the resources to do all of this and to do it quickly."

12-19-20 Covid: Italy latest European country to order Christmas lockdown
Italy has ordered a nationwide lockdown over much of the Christmas and New Year period in an effort to combat a rise in coronavirus cases. The country will be under "red-zone" restrictions over the public holidays, with non-essential shops, restaurants and bars closed, and Italians only allowed to travel for work, health and emergency reasons. Limited home visits will be allowed. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said it was "not an easy decision". "Our experts were seriously worried that there would be a jump in cases over Christmas... We therefore had to act," he said in a news conference. Italy has recorded the highest Covid death toll in Europe, with close to 68,000 fatalities. Mr Conte said the launch of the vaccination drive later this month would mark the beginning of "the end of this nightmare." The announcement of the Christmas restrictions on Friday followed days of wrangling in the governing coalition between those wanting a complete lockdown and others seeking limited action to help struggling businesses and allow families to meet. Meanwhile in France, President Emmanuel Macron remains in self-isolation in the official presidential residence at La Lanterne at Versailles after testing positive for Covid-19. Mr Macron said he was suffering from fatigue, headaches and a dry cough. The "red-zone" restrictions will be in place across Italy on 24 to 27 December, 31 December to 3 January, and 5 to 6 January. During this period people "can leave the house only for reasons of work, necessity and health," Mr Conte said. But, he added, the rules will allow people to receive a maximum of two guests, not including people under the age of 14, in their homes. A curfew from 22:00 to 05:00 will remain in place. Slightly looser curbs will be in place from 28 to 30 December and on 4 January. On these days, people will be free to leave their houses but bars and restaurants will remain closed.

12-19-20 Covid: The countries worried they won't get the vaccine
Pictures of the first people being vaccinated against Covid-19 haven't filled everyone around the world with joy. In some places - in countries such as Zimbabwe, Mexico and Pakistan - the battle to get hold of the vaccine is likely to be long and tortuous. Watching the vaccine roll out in the UK, Lois Chingandu wasn't excited - she was worried. Like most of us, she's looking forward to getting vaccinated and getting life back to normal. But unlike many people right now, she doesn't see light at the end of the tunnel. It's not clear when her country, Zimbabwe, will get a vaccine. "It's now just an issue of sitting and hoping if we will get it in my lifetime," she says. "I live in fear that I will contract Covid and die because of where I am sitting." It may sound like an exaggeration, but she has seen something very similar happen before. Ms Chingandu works in HIV prevention and in the late 1990s in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city, she watched thousands of people die from AIDS each day. Medicine was available to stop it - but only to those who could afford it. "Eventually when the privileged decide that it's time to save the poor people, then we will get the vaccine," she says. Ms Chingandu is a member of a campaign called the People's Vaccine Alliance, which has admonished rich countries - particularly the US, UK, EU countries and Canada - for hoarding vaccines. According to researchers at Duke University, which is keeping track of deals between governments and vaccine companies, a handful of countries have secured more supply than their populations actually need. Canada has secured enough vaccines to vaccinate its entire population five times. These countries took a risk in buying vaccines before they proved to be effective and in turn helped to finance their development. Ms Chingandu and the People's Vaccine campaign believe this process is unfair. They say excess vaccines should be redistributed to country's that need them.

12-19-20 737 Max: Boeing 'inappropriately coached' pilots in test after crashes
US Senate investigators say that Boeing officials "inappropriately coached" test pilots during efforts to recertify the company's 737 Max aircraft. The planes were grounded in March 2019 following two deadly crashes. Investigators accused Boeing and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials of "attempting to cover up important information". Boeing said it was reviewing the findings and took them "seriously", while the FAA defended its conduct. The FAA said the Senate Commerce Committee's report contained "a number of unsubstantiated allegations", and that its review of the 737 Max had been thorough. It said it was confident that safety issues with the aircraft had been addressed. The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia came within five months of each other and together killed 346 people. They have been attributed to flaws in automated flight software called MCAS, which prompted the planes to nosedive shortly after take-off. A simulator test was conducted as part of the FAA's efforts to ensure that the aircraft could be made safe to fly again. The test was designed to see how quickly pilots could react to the faulty software. In its report on Friday, the Senate committee said that based on "corroborated whistleblower information and testimony during interviews of FAA staff", it concluded that FAA and Boeing officials involved in the test had "established a pre-determined outcome to reaffirm a long-held human factor assumption related to pilot reaction time". "Boeing officials inappropriately coached test pilots in the MCAS simulator testing contrary to testing protocol," it said. "It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 Max tragedies." The report cited a whistleblower who claimed that Boeing officials prompted test pilots to use a particular control immediately before an exercise. (Webmaster's comment: For Boeing executives it's always "profits first, safety second." Why are these executives not going to prison?)

12-18-20 Covid: Moderna vaccine moves closer to US approval
A second coronavirus vaccine is nearing emergency approval in the US after it was endorsed by a panel of experts. The head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said his agency would move quickly to authorise the Moderna vaccine, allowing the company to begin shipping millions of doses. President Donald Trump tweeted incorrectly that the vaccine had already been "overwhelmingly approved". The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved earlier. America has recorded more Covid-19 cases and deaths than any other and earlier this week, its death toll passed 300,000. The advisory panel on Thursday voted 20-0 with one abstention that the benefits of the Moderna vaccine outweighed the risks for those aged 18 and over. The same committee last week backed the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, leading to its authorisation for emergency use the following day. Following the panel's endorsement, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said his agency had informed Moderna it would work "rapidly" towards issuing emergency use authorisation. Yet Mr Trump posted without confirmation from the FDA that the vaccine had been "overwhelmingly approved" and distribution would "start immediately". Regulators reported earlier this week that the Moderna vaccine was safe and 94% effective. The US has agreed to purchase 200 million doses, and six million could be ready to ship as soon as the vaccine gets FDA approval. "To go from having a sequence of a virus in January to having two vaccines available in December is a remarkable achievement," said Dr James Hildreth, a member of the expert panel and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. How does Moderna differ from the Pfizer jab? It requires temperatures of around -20C for shipping - similar to a normal freezer. The Pfizer jab requires temperatures closer to -75C, making transport logistics much more difficult. Like the Pfizer jab, the Moderna vaccine also requires a second booster shot. Moderna's second injection comes 28 days after the first.

12-18-20 A triumph for science — and immigration
A month before the first American died of the coronavirus, scientists already had designed the vaccine. In a Massachusetts lab last Jan. 13, Moderna researchers used the genetic sequence of the virus, made public by China, to design an mRNA molecule that teaches the immune system to recognize and neutralize it. By February, their vaccine had actually been made and shipped to the National Institutes of Health to start clinical trials. This largely unknown time line shows that while development of coronavirus vaccines was astonishingly rapid, approval of them was painstaking: More than 300,000 Americans died and 16 million were infected while a nearly miraculous solution underwent testing and approval. "For the entire span of the pandemic in this country," David Wallace-Wells said last week in New York magazine, "we had the tools to prevent it." But for sound reasons of safety and ethics, science and government did not authorize their use — until now. In this darkest winter in recent history, the vaccines promise a spring. They are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence — all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna's vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we've relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

12-18-20 What will life be like after the coronavirus pandemic ends?
Experts predict the social consequences of COVID-19. As 2020 blessedly clangs to a close, it’s tempting to wonder where we’re headed once the pandemic is history. In the spirit of year-end curiosity about COVID-19’s possible long-term effects, Science News posed this question to a few scholars: What major social changes do you see coming after the pandemic? As baseball’s Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” The following forecasts, edited for length and clarity, aren’t written in stone and aren’t meant to be. But they raise some provocative possibilities. What happens in the next six months will have a disproportionate impact on what happens in the more distant future. If vaccines are very effective, if immunity lasts for a few years, if therapeutic drugs come online that are highly effective and if we have broad usage of cheap rapid antigen tests that can assure people that others around them are safe, I would foresee relatively few changes other than the really obvious ones, such as more work from home, teledoc services and a decimation of small business. The changes that I think are most likely include increasing political division and increased economic inequality in the United States and elsewhere, with the basic science of epidemiology and public health attacked and undermined by conspiracy theories spread on social media. If an effective vaccine is developed and becomes widely available in 2021, then the pandemic will contract, but the social environment will still support new disease outbreaks. There is no reason to assume that a post-COVID world will be a post-pandemic world. The pandemic has shown us how online teaching can be a tool that makes the classroom more accessible, particularly for students with disabilities. In the past, I’ve had students who sometimes struggled to attend class because they were coping with anxiety or living with significant pain. They needed my empathy and flexibility with class attendance but still missed the classroom experience. I now realize how easy it is to turn on a camera and pop on a microphone so they can join from the comfort of their homes. COVID-19 has shown that a lot, though by no means all, of higher instruction can happen online. Parents and students will likely ask how much of the on-campus experience is truly needed and demand alternatives. And when the virus is under control, I suspect that companies, organizations, governments and individuals will take a look at their travel practices and decide to cut back, although many of us will yearn to engage in the physical contact that is part of social interaction. We could see a dramatic rise in leisure activities and collective gatherings post-pandemic, including live music concerts and sports events. That’s what happened in the 1920s as societies emerged from the 1918 [influenza] pandemic and World War I. In the United States, the rise [in popularity and national prominence] of professional baseball and college football occurred. In Europe, professional soccer expanded. We’re not having fun together right now.

12-17-20 Covid-19 news: England will see more regions moved into tier three
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. Regions in the east and south-east of England face tier three rules from Saturday. Almost 70 per cent of England’s population will be living under strict tier three coronavirus rules from Saturday as “pressures on the NHS remain”, said UK health minister Matt Hancock on Thursday. Regions in the east and south-east of the country, including Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire will move into tier three one minute after midnight on Saturday 19 December, as will parts of Surrey, East Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. “I know that tier three measures are tough, but the best way for everyone to get out of them is to pull together, not just to follow the rules, but to do everything they possibly can to stop the spread of the virus,” Hancock told parliament. There will be 38 million people in the country living in tier three from Saturday, including other parts of England already under tier three rules. Two healthcare workers in Alaska developed allergic reactions after receiving the coronavirus vaccine developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, including a woman who did not have a history of allergies to vaccines and who was admitted to hospital. Both individuals received treatment and have recovered. The woman’s reaction appears to be similar to the allergic reactions experienced by two healthcare workers who were vaccinated in the UK last week. Following the two allergic reactions in the UK, US Food and Drug Administration officials said they would require Pfizer to monitor severe allergic reactions and submit data on this later on. French president Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the coronavirus. In a statement, the Élysée Palace said Macron would “self-isolate for seven days in line with the health protocol applicable to everyone” and that he would continue to work remotely.

12-17-20 Fed: Brighter forecast but challenging months still ahead
Prospects for the US economy have brightened since September, despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases, America's central bank said on Wednesday. Federal Reserve officials said they expected growth of roughly 4.2% next year, better than previously forecast. They forecast a fall in the unemployment rate from 6.7% to 5%. The update comes as US medical authorities begin to distribute vaccines against Covid-19. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the coming months would be "particularly challenging," as the US battles a surge in coronavirus cases, while businesses and the unemployed face deepening hardship. But he said he was hopeful that widespread distribution of the vaccines would enable a strong rebound in the second half of 2021. "You have to think that sometime in the middle of next year, you will see people comfortable going out and engaging in a broad range of activities," he said. "The issue is more the next four or five months." Policymakers said they expected to keep interest rates near zero and continue other stimulus until they saw "substantial" progress toward recovery. In recent weeks, hiring has slowed and retail sales have dropped, as consumers avoid restaurants and cut back spending. Officials in some places such as California have re-imposed strict lockdowns, while others, such as New York City have warned of such steps. Meanwhile poverty rates have surged as government virus assistance expires. Mr Powell said there was need for more support and he was optimistic that Congress would approve additional aid, describing the roughly $900bn (£666.9bn) package being debated in Washington as "substantial". Analysts have also said they expect the US economy to improve as vaccines become more widely available. "Until then it is going to be a long bleak winter," wrote Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics.

12-17-20 Coronavirus: Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf says coronavirus approach 'has failed'
Sweden's king has said his country "failed" to save lives with its relatively relaxed approach to the coronavirus pandemic, describing 2020 as "a terrible year". King Carl XVI Gustaf made the remarks as part of an annual TV review of the year with the royal family. Sweden has relied more on guidelines than most countries and has never imposed a full lockdown. It has seen nearly 350,000 cases and more than 7,800 deaths. "I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible," the king says in the programme. "The people of Sweden have suffered tremendously in difficult conditions. One thinks of all the family members who have happened to be unable to say goodbye to their deceased family members. I think it is a tough and traumatic experience not to be able to say a warm goodbye." When asked if he was afraid of being infected with Covid-19, the king - who is 74 - said: "Lately, it has felt more obvious, it has crept closer and closer. That's not what you want." Instead of relying on legal sanctions, Sweden appeals to citizens' sense of responsibility and civic duty, and issues only recommendations. There are no sanctions if they are ignored. Sweden has never imposed a nationwide lockdown or the wearing of masks, and bars and restaurants have remained open. However, earlier this week, schools across the Stockholm region were asked to switch to distance learning for 13 to 15-year-olds for the first time as soon as possible. The measure was announced in response to rising Covid-19 cases. This came a week after a nationwide decision on 7 December to switch to remote learning for those over 16. And on Monday, new nationwide social-distancing recommendations for the Christmas period came into force, replacing similar region-specific guidelines. Swedes are advised to meet a maximum of eight people, gather outdoors if possible and avoid travelling by train or bus. A formal ban on public gatherings of more than eight people remains, affecting events such as concerts, sports matches and demonstrations.

12-17-20 Pete Buttigieg: 'Eyes of history' on LGBT appointment to Biden cabinet
Former US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has been formally nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to be his transportation secretary. It marks the first time an openly LGBT cabinet member has been sent to the Senate for confirmation. But, if confirmed, the former South Bend mayor will not be the first LGBT person to serve at cabinet level - Richard Grenell was Donald Trump's acting intelligence chief earlier this year. Mr Biden's cabinet choices so far have included several historic firsts.

12-17-20 US election: Texas ex-officer charged for botched arrest in voter conspiracy
A former Texas police captain has been arrested after he drove an air conditioning repairman off the road and held him at gunpoint over false election fraud claims. Mark Aguirre said he believed the driver was transporting 750,000 fake ballots. Instead, all he was carrying was air conditioning parts and tools. The 63-year-old was hired to investigate pre-election voter fraud by a group of private citizens. Despite repeated allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election spearheaded by incumbent President Donald Trump, his Republicans have produced scant evidence. Their claims have taken centre stage in Texas, where key Republican officials and their allies have made several unsuccessful attempts to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's now-certified victory, frequently relying on far-flung and unsubstantiated theories. Mark Aguirre was hired earlier this year by a Houston-based group called the Liberty Center for God & Country, according to a statement from the Harris County District Attorney's office. The group paid about 20 private investigators hundreds of thousands of dollars to uncover alleged voter fraud across the state. Mr Aguirre received $266,000 (£197,000) - $211,000 deposited into his account the day after the incident. According to Harris County District police, Mr Aguirre put surveillance on the repairman for four days, convinced he was "the mastermind of a giant fraud". On 19 October, he slammed his SUV into the back of the man's truck to force him off the road and threatened him with a handgun, placing his knee on the man's back. When police officers responded to Mr Aguirre's call, he told them the repair truck contained fraudulent ballots. When no ballots were found, Mr Aguirre himself was arrested for assault. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. "He crossed the line from dirty politics to commission of a violent crime and we are lucky no-one was killed," said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, in her statement. "His alleged investigation was backward from the start - first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened." Mr Aguirre is a 24-year veteran of the Houston police force, who was fired in 2003 after he led a failed parking lot raid.

12-16-20 2020 in review: The countries that got covid-19 under control
While the coronavirus continues to rampage in many parts of the world, countries including China, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea are returning to normality UNTIL 2020, many experts thought it was impossible to halt the spread of a respiratory virus once it started to spread out of control. During the course of the year, many countries have shown it is possible to contain the coronavirus even without the help of a vaccine – but only a few have managed to keep it contained. By late January, the crowded metropolis of Wuhan in China was reporting thousands of new covid-19 cases every day. It seemed inevitable that the outbreak would spread throughout the country of 1.4 billion people, especially as it was becoming clear that the virus can be infectious even when a person shows no symptoms. Instead, China took decisive action. It halted all movement into and out of the city, closed public transport and most shops and quarantined those who tested positive. In February, a World Health Organization mission there led by epidemiologist Bruce Aylward called it “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”. It worked. “China did something that many people thought… impossible,” Aylward told New Scientist in March. At the time, many researchers still doubted that the same could be achieved in Western countries. But by late March, with death rates soaring, many nations in Europe were forced to introduce lockdowns too, which did greatly reduce case numbers. The harder part is preventing a resurgence. New Zealand, which has a population of around 5 million, managed to eliminate the virus for a while by quickly imposing a tough lockdown and shutting its borders, but has had a small number of cases since, after another outbreak began in August. Other places to eliminate the virus are isolated islands with small populations. Only a few countries with large numbers of people have successfully prevented major outbreaks, including Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. In fact, South Korea has done so well that its economy began growing strongly in the second half of the year after smaller declines in the first half than most places.

12-16-20 2020 in review: How the coronavirus crisis unfolded month by month
As one of the most extraordinary years of modern times draws to a close, New Scientist looks back at the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of life on Venus and more.

  1. December 2019: Cases of a mysterious form of pneumonia are reported in Wuhan, China. Doctors rule out some known viruses as the cause, suspecting it is a new microbe. Some of those affected work at Huanan Seafood Market, where live animals are also sold.
  2. 31 December 2019: China notifies the World Health Organization (WHO) of the cluster of pneumonia cases. At this stage, officials say there is no clear evidence of transmission between people. Huanan Seafood Market is closed for disinfection the following day.
  3. 9 January 2020: China identifies the microbe responsible for the outbreak as a new coronavirus – the same kind of virus that caused the deadly SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2004. Soon, researchers publish the first draft of the new virus’s genome, an initial step towards making genetic tests.
  4. Mid January 2020: The new coronavirus spreads outside China, with cases reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Those infected had caught the virus in Wuhan, but some reported that they hadn’t been in contact with animals, suggesting that the virus is now passing between people.
  5. Late January 2020: Several studies make it clear that the new coronavirus, probably originating in animals, is now being passed between people. The WHO declares a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January, as 18 countries beyond China confirm cases of the virus.
  6. February 2020: Several outbreaks in ski resorts in Austria and Italy lead to travellers taking the virus home with them. One resort, Ischgl in Austria, was linked to thousands of cases in 45 countries. Hasty evacuation of some resorts in crammed buses may have added to the spread.
  7. 11 March 2020: The WHO officially declares a pandemic. Cases are rising so quickly in northern Italy that some hospitals are starting to run out of ventilator beds and have to draw up rules for how to allocate them. Meanwhile, hospitals in New York teeter on the edge of their capacity.
  8. Mid March 2020: Many countries bring in unprecedented restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, such as ordering people to stay at home unless they must travel for emergencies, to do essential work or to buy food, medicines and other supplies.
  9. April 2020: The tide turns in favour of the public wearing face coverings, which had been contentious outside some Asian countries in the early days of the pandemic. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people wear masks when possible.
  10. 8 June 2020: New Zealand declares it is free of covid-19 and will lift most restrictions, showing that countries can eliminate the virus with strict enough measures – although it has since seen cases imported from elsewhere that required implementing further lockdowns.
  11. June 2020: Dexamethasone, an existing steroid drug that quells a counterproductive response by the immune system, becomes the first medicine for covid-19 shown to save lives. The antiviral agent remdesivir also shows signs of speeding recovery, though this remains inconclusive.
  12. August 2020: During the northern hemisphere’s summer, many countries see much lower rates of infections and deaths, and many restrictions are eased. In the UK, the government funds discounts on food bills to give people an incentive to go to restaurants.
  13. October 2020: Many countries in Europe and parts of the US see second waves of infections that eclipse their first waves, and new lockdowns or tighter social restrictions are brought in. But the state of Victoria in Australia declares victory over the virus when non-imported cases drop to zero.
  14. November 2020 Positive results are released for three vaccine candidates: one by Pfizer and BioNTech, one by Moderna and one by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. The first two are based on mRNA, which tells cells to make the virus’s surface protein, triggering an immune response.

12-16-20 2020 in review: Calls for universal basic income on the rise
With the coronavirus pandemic causing a sharp rise in unemployment, one idea is rapidly growing in popularity: universal basic income (UBI), in which the government pays people a regular sum, no strings attached. A Finnish study published in May (although carried out in 2017 and 2018) with 2000 unemployed people found that UBI boosted recipients’ financial well-being, mental health and cognitive functioning, and also modestly improved employment rates. People who received €560 per month, rather than regular unemployment benefits, reported higher levels of confidence in being able to control their future. The researchers involved say that regular guaranteed payments could alleviate stress in periods of uncertainty, such as the pandemic. Elsewhere, the idea is also gaining traction. A recent analysis suggests that giving all Australians earning less than $180,000 annually a payment of $18,500 a year would reduce wealth inequality by 20 per cent. The study’s authors estimate that UBI would cut poverty by 1.9 per cent, lifting half a million Australians above the poverty line. Meanwhile, in the US, 25 cities are launching pilot UBI initiatives across the country to support low-income families, funded by philanthropic donations.

12-16-20 Together scientists can back Black Lives Matter and boost race justice
This year, scientists took action to support Black Lives Matter. Let 2021 be your year to advance race justice, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. ON MY desk in my home office I have a few items that keep me focused and inspired. I have an autographed photo of myself with Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green, the first Black woman to helm a Star Trek series. Next to that, I have a Barbie Uhura in the box, autographed by Nichelle Nichols, the Black woman who played the first Black Star Trek character, along with an autographed, black-and-white picture of Nichols in costume. I also have a woodcarving of a famous Toni Morrison quote, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” In other words, I make sure that the visions and ideals of Black women and Afrofuturism – reminders of the privilege and possibility in a life of science for someone like me – are always right in front of me. It is in this halo of hope that I first started having conversations with colleagues about what came to be known as #ShutDownSTEM and #StrikeforBlackLives. These joint calls for a global day of action on 10 June came from a place of grief, anger, fear and, yes, exhaustion. But they also came from a space-time of dreams. When Brian Nord and Brittany Kamai both separately put forward the idea to me that it was time for science to stop business as usual and do more to support the people risking their lives in the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, I immediately agreed. Nord and I didn’t have to do much to convince our colleagues in a crew of particle physicists and cosmologists known as Particles for Justice (P4J) when we asked them if they wanted to help. Five days later, in partnership with a group of astronomers led by Kamai, P4J was publicly calling for 10 June to be unlike any other day in the history of science. On strikeforblacklives.com and shutdownstem.com we posted statements that said, among other things, “We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives.”

12-16-20 This year could come to be regarded as a turning point in history
This momentous year could mark one of those rare moments when the old world order is swept away and something new, and hopefully better, emerges, says Graham Lawton. THROUGHOUT this strange, scary but wierdly exhilarating year, an old saying has often popped into my head: “May you live in interesting times.” This supposedly ancient Chinese curse – though no such expression actually exists in the Chinese language – is meant ironically. Perhaps it is derived from an actual Chinese saying: “Better to be a dog in times of tranquillity than a human in times of chaos.” It has been chaos, but fascinating all the same, and I don’t yearn for tranquillity just yet. I have no desire to see yet more sacrifices made and losses endured, but we aren’t out of the woods yet and for somebody in my profession, 2020 has been a vintage year. In January, I was gearing up to write yet more features on environmental science, biodiversity and biomedicine. In February, I was seconded into New Scientist‘s covid-19 editorial team and plunged into the biggest and fastest-moving science story the world has ever seen. I have spent the past 10 months frantically reporting, writing and commenting on the pandemic. My background is in biochemistry, so all those years studying genetics, virology, immunology and molecular biology have come in handy. I never expected to need them to report on an epoch-defining historic event. I have also continued to write my monthly environment column, No planet B. To have such a platform is a privilege and responsibility, and I have tried to use it well. I have had plenty to work with – let’s not forget that the pandemic is also an environment story. Covid-19 is the Western world coming face to face with the biodiversity crisis for the first time. That crisis is at crunch point, but even so, as we head into what will be an unusual Christmas period, I am feeling optimistic. It is increasingly clear that we will get a successful vaccine – I cannot overstate what an immense scientific triumph that will be – and once we have the pandemic under control, there is growing expectation that we will build back better. As Nobel prizewinning economist Esther Duflo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out, the pandemic is a “dress rehearsal” for the much greater challenge that is climate change. I think the world has performed the dress rehearsal better than expected, and there is now cause for confidence that we can meet other problems ahead. The defeat and imminent defenestration of that one-man environmental wrecking ball, Donald Trump, also adds to my cautious optimism.

12-16-20 Will vaccines give us lasting immunity to the coronavirus?
LESS than a year after a new kind of coronavirus started spreading around the globe, we have several vaccines that seem to be very effective at producing strong enough immune responses to protect people from developing covid-19. Despite this great news, however, critical questions remain about how our immune system responds to the virus. Speaking at an online conference, Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh, UK, listed some of the gaping holes in our knowledge. “How long does immunity last? Can you get reinfected? Is a vaccine going to provide immunity, for how long?” Immunity remains the pandemic’s “million dollar question”, she said. Actually, make that $12 trillion, which is the amount governments have collectively spent propping up their ailing economies, according to Gita Gopinath at the International Monetary Fund. That financial haemorrhage will only stop once we have high levels of immunity in the population. “Either vaccine-induced immunity or some level of natural immunity is the only way out,” says John-Arne Røttingen, co-founder of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Throughout the pandemic, immunologists have been working hard to answer these questions. But the results have been mixed. On the key question of the duration of the immune response following infection, for example, some early studies concluded that it looked set to last for months, but others that it would be very short-lived. The vaccine trial results have enlightened us somewhat. According to a scientist who has worked on teams developing vaccines at drug companies, who spoke to New Scientist on condition of anonymity, vaccine developers usually aren’t that interested in the fine details of the immune response. Clinical trials are typically designed with one thing in mind – to apply for approval, and for that they only need to show that the vaccine is safe and protects against disease for the trial’s duration. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration have said they would like to see a minimum of six months’ protection.

12-16-20 Covid-19 news: UK nations issue stricter advice over Christmas mixing
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. UK nations issue sterner recommendations about household mixing over Christmas. The UK’s four nations will issue stricter warnings about the risks of mixing between households during the Christmas period, but current plans to ease restrictions between 23 and 27 December will largely remain in place, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced. The UK government has been under pressure to abandon its planned easing of restrictions over Christmas. But on Wednesday, Johnson said people must show “personal responsibility” and try to avoid contact with people from vulnerable groups. UK housing minister Robert Jenrick echoed the Prime Minister. “I strongly feel that this is something where members of the public need to use their own judgement,” Jenrick told the BBC’s Breakfast show. “Exercise good judgement, think about the particular vulnerabilities of your own family and friends who might be coming together and decide what’s right for you,” he said. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she recommends that people spend Christmas at home with their own household where possible. The Welsh government is advising people to only mix with a maximum of one other household during the Christmas period, and Wales will enter a nationwide lockdown from 28 December. A Royal Society for Public Health survey found that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the UK are less likely to accept a covid-19 vaccine than the population as a whole. The poll found that 57 per cent of respondents from BAME backgrounds were likely to accept a covid-19 vaccine, compared to 79 per cent of white respondents or 76 per cent for the population as a whole. Confidence was lowest among people of Asian ethnicity – 55 per cent said they were likely to accept a covid-19 vaccine. In the US, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35 per cent of Black respondents said they definitely or probably wouldn’t get vaccinated. In both the UK and US, people from ethnic minority backgrounds have been found to be disproportionately at risk from covid-19. Germany entered a strict new lockdown, with schools and non-essential businesses closed from Wednesday until at least 10 January. Over Christmas, one household will be allowed to host up to four close family members from one other household. The worldwide covid-19 death toll has passed 1.63 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 73.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

12-16-20 Covid-19: Europeans urged to wear masks for family Christmas
The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged Europeans to wear masks during family gatherings at Christmas. It said Europe was at "high risk" of a new wave of coronavirus infections in the early part of 2021, as transmission of the virus remained high. Countries across the continent have been registering thousands of daily cases and hundreds of deaths. Germany was among countries tightening restrictions on Wednesday, closing schools and non-essential businesses. Meanwhile European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the first Covid vaccine would be authorised for use within a week. Ms von der Leyen told the European Parliament the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine - developed in Germany - would be rolled out for the bloc immediately, more than a week earlier than originally envisaged. A statement from the WHO's European regional office said that the massive increase in gatherings of families and friends across Europe during the winter holiday season brought a significant risk of increased Covid-19 transmission. It urged individuals, families and communities to play their part to prevent another resurgence of cases. Family gatherings should be held outside if possible, and if indoors participants should wear masks and practice social distancing, it said. "It may feel awkward to wear masks and practise physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy," the WHO added. "Vulnerable people and older friends or relatives may find it very difficult to ask loved ones to stay away physically, regardless of the anxieties or concerns they may have. Consider what others may be feeling and the difficult decisions they will be facing." The statement also urges people to avoid crowded public transport, and suggests that countries with ski resorts take steps to adapt them to avoid crowding during the skiing season.

12-16-20 Covid-19 successes: How schools and sports leagues tamed the virus
As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded this year, many national governments have come under fire for perceived failings in their responses. Yet some organisations took their own steps to combat the virus. New Scientist spoke to some of these universities, companies and sporting bodies to find out how they did it. A coronavirus test isn’t normally the most pleasant of experiences, involving a long swab being put up the nose or to the back of the throat. When students returned to campuses in September, the University of Exeter, UK, encouraged them to come forward for testing if they had covid-19 symptoms by offering saliva tests, which just require spitting into a pot. When case numbers rose in the region in October, as they did in most of the UK, Public Health England took over testing and switched to the usual swab tests. Once students realised the change of approach, the number of people coming forward for tests dropped, suggesting that the spit method is less off-putting, says Sean Fielding at the University of Exeter. “The numbers of people getting a test went down by half quite quickly when they realised it was a swab test.” Once the outbreak was brought under control, the university returned to asking for saliva samples. The idea of regular frequent tests for all, whether or not they have symptoms, is the basis of the UK government’s shelved “Operation Moonshot”. The problem is that the country doesn’t yet have enough testing capacity to cover everyone. But some companies are paying private labs to do in-house mass testing of their employees. This is how BAE Systems returned staff to work in September at its shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, where it makes the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet. Weekly tests are offered to all 8000 staff members and visitors at the site, using RT-LAMP technology, which gives faster results than the usual polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method – they can arrive as quickly as within an hour. “It’s very fast and very sensitive,” says Chris Stanley at Circular1 Health, which provides the service. Anyone who tests positive is given a second PCR test to confirm the result, which cuts the number of people wrongly told to self-isolate.

12-16-20 Mitch McConnell: Top Trump ally breaks silence to congratulate Biden
A top member of US President Donald Trump's Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has congratulated Joe Biden on winning the presidential election last month. Senator McConnell spoke after the electoral college formally confirmed Mr Biden's victory over Mr Trump. The Democrat won 306 electoral college votes to Mr Trump's 232. President Trump still refuses to concede, making unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud. Relations with the Senate, currently controlled by the Republicans, will be crucial to Mr Biden's presidency. He visited Atlanta, Georgia, to campaign for the Democrats in next month's Senate run-off elections. Two seats will be decided on 5 January and could determine whether or not his party takes control of the chamber. Democrats already control the House of Representatives. After Monday's confirmation of Mr Biden's victory, three world leaders whose refusal to congratulate the president-elect had been commented widely, did so on Tuesday: Russia's Vladimir Putin, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Speaking on the Senate floor, Mr McConnell said he had hoped for a "different result" from the 3 November election but the electoral college had spoken. "So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden," he said. Also congratulating Mr Biden's running-mate, Kamala Harris, he added: "All Americans can take pride that our nation has a female vice president-elect for the very first time." Mr Biden said later he had phoned Mr McConnell to thank him for the congratulations and the two had agreed to "get together sooner than later". In an interview to ABC News, Ms Harris said she welcomed Mr McConnell's comments. "It would have been better if it were earlier but it happened, and that's what's most important. Let's move forward. And where we can find common purpose and common ground, let's do that."

12-16-20 These 6 graphs show that Black scientists are underrepresented at every level
Nationwide protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black men and women in the first part of 2020 inspired calls to action within academia’s ivory tower. Social media movements such as #BlackInSTEM brought attention to discrimination faced by Black students and professionals throughout the science, technology, engineering and mathematics pipelines. U.S. Black residents studying and working in STEM fields are underrepresented at every level, from undergraduate degree programs to the workforce. The academic environment fails to support Black students, says economist Gary Hoover of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “Black students in STEM are some of the most talented people around, and if the environment isn’t going to be welcoming, these folks just take their talents elsewhere.” More U.S. students are getting science and engineering degrees than ever before. But the gap for Black students in these fields has been stubbornly wide, as population-adjusted figures show. In 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, about 238 of every 100,000 U.S. residents earned a STEM bachelor’s degree. If the Black community was adequately represented in STEM higher education, its rate would be similar – 238 of every 100,000 Black residents would have earned these degrees. Yet only 161 of every 100,000 Black residents had done so. The gap continues into graduate school. In 2018, Black residents were 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but only 8.4 percent of bachelor’s graduates, 8.3 percent of master’s graduates and 5.5 percent of doctoral graduates. Within the U.S. STEM workforce, Black scientists are also underrepresented, as are Hispanic or Latino and Native American scientists, according to 2017 data. Among 11 STEM professions reviewed by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, or NCSES, only one field demonstrates a rate of Black representation that is close to the overall population: 92 of every 100,000 Black residents are social scientists, compared with 122 of every 100,000 U.S. residents overall. The disparity is especially severe in engineering. For example, 29 of every 100,000 U.S. residents are chemical engineers compared with 2 of every 100,000 Black residents. Disparities in salary are found in most, but not all, STEM fields. Computer science has the largest disparity, with a median annual salary in 2017 of $97,000 for white professionals compared with $72,000 for Black professionals. There are so few working Black mathematicians that the NCSES couldn’t even make a comparison. When Black students shift to other tracks, Black communities suffer from a lack of doctors, researchers and engineers who directly understand their experiences and needs. The loss leads to blind spots in innovation, Kyle says.

12-16-20 Meet 5 Black researchers fighting for diversity and equity in science
These researchers are standing up for their Black peers in STEM fields. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum this year, Black scientists jumped in to call for inclusivity at school and work. Within days of the news that a Black bird watcher, Christian Cooper, had been harassed in New York City’s Central Park, the social media campaign #BlackBirdersWeek was launched (SN Online: 6/4/20), followed closely by #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInSciComm and many others. Young scientists led many of these efforts to make change happen. Science News talked with some of these new leaders, as well as a few researchers who have been pushing for diversity in the sciences for years and see new opportunities for progress. Deja Perkins, Urban ecologist. Raven Baxter, Science education graduate student. Brian Nord, Cosmologist. Angeline Dukes, Neuroscience graduate student. Gary Hoover, Economist.

12-15-20 Hunger spikes, demand rises for US food banks
Food banks across the country are straining to meet rising demand during the pandemic, even in some of the country's wealthier regions. Karla Candelario, 30, never thought she and her husband would have to rely on a food bank to feed their family. Before the pandemic, the couple, who live in Loudoun, Virginia, were getting by with their combined salaries, Karla caring for the elderly and her husband working in construction. But last June, Candelario lost her job. "That's when everything changed," she says. The sudden loss of income and an unexpected and necessary $3,000 (£2,250) dental procedure that Candelario had to undergo put the family, which includes four children - an 11-year old, a nine-year-old, and four-year-old twins - under serious financial strain. They have recently been so "high in debt", Candelario says, that they have depended on Loudoun Hunger Relief, a food pantry in Leesburg, Virginia, to put food on the table. The Candelarios are not alone in their unforeseen struggles. More Americans are going hungry than at any point during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to data by the Census Bureau. One in eight Americans reported they sometimes or often did not have enough food in November, according to a recent census survey. Nearly 26 million adults - 12% of all adults - reported in that their household had food shortages in the past week, according to Household Pulse Survey data collected in November. Overall, food insecurity has doubled since last year, reaching the highest level since 1998, when data about US household ability to get enough food was first collected. Although hunger is not new in America, the pandemic has had a major impact. Food insecurity has become a widespread national issue sparing not even some of the wealthier regions. Since early November, not far from Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, in an area that used to have some of the lowest hunger rates in the country, Loudoun Hunger Relief fed between 750 and 1,100 households a week - a 225% average increase from its pre-pandemic weekly average.

12-15-20 What you need to know about the new variant of coronavirus in the UK
On 14 December, the UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, told parliament that a new variant of the coronavirus associated with faster spread had been identified in south-east England. This has led to widespread concern, spurred by newspaper headlines about “super covid” and “mutant covid”. Here’s what you need to know about this new variant. It was first sequenced in the UK in late September. It has 17 mutations that may affect the shape of the virus, including the outer spike protein, according to Nick Loman at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who is part of a team that has been monitoring and sequencing new variants. Many of these mutations have been found before in other viruses, but to have so many in a single virus is unusual. Yes. To put this in context, however, the coronavirus is constantly mutating and there are lots of variants with one or more mutations. In fact, by July, there were already at least 12,000 “mutants”. The number will be higher now, though many mutations are rare and the viruses carrying them often die out. There are tens of thousands that differ from each other by at least one mutation in the genome. But any two SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses from anywhere in the world will usually differ by fewer than 30 mutations, and are regarded as all belonging to the same strain. Researchers instead talk about different lineages. How fast it is spreading really caught the attention of researchers monitoring viral evolution. By 13 December, 1100 cases of the variant had been identified, mostly in the south and east of England, which is a lot because only a small proportion of viral samples get sequenced. “It’s the growth rate we are worrying about,” says Loman. “We are seeing very rapid growth.”

12-15-20 Covid-19: First vaccine given in US as roll-out begins
The first Covid-19 vaccination in the United States has taken place, as the country gears up for its largest ever immunisation campaign. "I feel like healing is coming," said New York nurse Sandra Lindsay - among the first health workers given the jab. On Monday, as the US death toll topped 300,000, 150 hospitals across the country were to receive millions of vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The US vaccination programme aims to reach 100 million people by April. Ms Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, received the vaccine live on camera. Footage was streamed on the Twitter feed of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state was the epicentre of the US epidemic in the first wave earlier this year. "It didn't feel any different from taking any other vaccine," Ms Lindsay said. "I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history. I want to instil public confidence that the vaccine is safe. We're in a pandemic and so we all need to do our part." "First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!" President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday morning following the news from New York. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received emergency-use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday. The roll-out comes as the epidemic continues to ravage the country. Deaths have been rising sharply since November and the number of people in hospital with the disease has also continued to grow steadily, with more than 109,000 people currently admitted, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine - a collaboration between a US pharmaceutical giant and a German biotechnology company - offers up to 95% protection and is the first Covid-19 vaccine to be approved by US regulators. It is already being rolled out in the UK, while Canada also began its inoculation programme on Monday, with an initial 30,000 doses going to 14 sites across the country. (Webmaster's comment: With half of Americans refusing to be vacinated This virus will be with us for a long, long time!)

12-15-20 Moderna vaccine safe and effective, say US experts
Moderna's vaccine is safe and 94% effective, regulators say, clearing the way for US emergency authorisation. The analysis by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) means it could become the second coronavirus vaccine to be allowed in the US. It comes one day after Americans across the country began receiving jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The news comes as the US coronavirus death toll passes 300,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. Endorsement of the Moderna vaccine by FDA scientists was announced on Tuesday, two days before the vaccine panel meets to discuss emergency approval. The 54-page document said there were "no specific safety concerns" and that serious adverse reactions were rare. If approved by the team of experts later this week, and by the FDA's vaccine chief, shipments could begin within 24 hours. The FDA found a 94.1% efficacy rate out of a trial of 30,000 people, according to the document they released. The most common side effects included fever, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. Last week, the FDA released similar data from Pfizer before voting to issue approval. Moderna was founded in 2010 and so far has never had a product approved by the FDA. The company's stocks have seen a nearly 700% increase so far this year. The Moderna vaccine requires temperatures of around -20C for shipping - similar to a regular freezer. The Pfizer jab requires temperatures closer to -75C, making transport logistics much more difficult. Like the Pfizer jab, the Moderna vaccine also requires a second booster shot. Moderna's second jab comes 28 days after the first. The company is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has said that if approved, the "vast majority" of its vaccine would be manufactured there. Pfizer's drug is being manufactured in several countries, including Germany and Belgium.

12-15-20 Coronavirus: European nations tighten restrictions ahead of Christmas
A number of European countries have tightened coronavirus restrictions ahead of Christmas following a surge of infections in recent weeks. The Netherlands has entered a five-week lockdown, with non-essential shops, theatres and gyms all closing. Germany, meanwhile, will enter a hard lockdown from Wednesday after the number of infections hit record levels. France has lifted its lockdown, but widespread measures remain in place as the infection rate is still high. Italy, Spain, France and the UK are among the countries that have recorded the highest number of cases during the pandemic. In recent weeks, governments around the continent have been wrestling with difficult questions about whether to ease restrictions in time for the holiday period. But the recent wave of infections in some nations has prompted governments to halt plans to loosen the rules. The five-week lockdown in the Netherlands is the strictest set of measures announced in the country since the pandemic began. Non-essential shops, cinemas, hairdressers and gyms have all closed and schools will follow suit on Wednesday. People have also been told to refrain from booking non-essential travel abroad until mid-March. But restrictions will be eased slightly for three days over Christmas, when Dutch households are allowed three instead of two guests. Elsewhere, schools and non-essential shops will also close in Germany from Wednesday. Restaurants, bars and leisure centres have already been shut there since November. The new German lockdown will run from 16 December to 10 January, but there will be a slight easing over Christmas when one household will be able to host a maximum of four close family members. France has lifted its national lockdown, but the government said the infection rate had not lowered sufficiently for a further easing. This means theatres and cinemas will remain shut as will bars and restaurants. A nationwide curfew will also be imposed from 20:00 to 06:00. The curfew will be lifted on Christmas Eve but not on New Year's Eve.

12-15-20 William Barr: US attorney general to leave post by Christmas
US Attorney General William Barr, one of Donald Trump's staunchest allies, is stepping down before Christmas, the president has announced. Mr Barr's term was due to end on 20 January, when Mr Trump leaves office. Tensions between the two flared after Mr Barr said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in November's vote. He was criticised by Mr Trump for not publicly disclosing during the election campaign that the justice department was investigating Joe Biden's son. Mr Trump tweeted Mr Barr's resignation letter saying: "Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!" Mr Barr's letter to the president began by saying he "appreciated the opportunity to update" the president on the Department of Justice's (DOJ) review of voter fraud allegations in the recent election and "how these allegations will continue to be pursued". He did not give more details about the review, and praised Mr Trump's achievements in office before ending the letter by saying he would depart from his position on 23 December. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen will serve as acting attorney general, Mr Trump said. Democratic critics of Mr Barr accused him of shielding his ex-boss from justice. Trump supporters recently turned on him due to his unwillingness to support Mr Trump's election lawsuits. His comments in early December that claims of voter fraud were unproven were a blow to Mr Trump, who has not accepted defeat.Since the 3 November election, Mr Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, and members of his legal defence team have spoken of an alleged international plot to hand President-elect Joe Biden the win. (Webmaster's comment: One of the chief Thugs abandones ship!)

12-15-20 Good riddance, Bill Barr
Trump's legal henchman is on the way out, and not a moment too soon. Bill Barr was supposed to be the adult in the room. It is difficult to remember now, but when Barr was originally nominated in December 2018 for a second stint as attorney general — he had earlier served under President George H.W. Bush during the early 1990s — he was widely portrayed as a steadying influence for the Department of Justice, somebody who could take a firm stance against President Trump's attempts to use the federal justice system for corrupt and undemocratic ends. "Barr plainly has the stature and the character to stand up for the department's institutional prerogatives, and to push back on any improper attempt to inject politics into its work," Harry Litman, a liberal constitutional scholar, wrote for The Washington Post. That's not how it worked out. (And Litman, for what it is worth, has admitted as much.) Instead of character, Barr has treated Americans to a parade of hypocrisy for two years: He was a law and order crusader who helped presidential cronies evade consequences for their crimes in two administrations; a constitutionalist who didn't mind blowing off congressional oversight; a moralist who put his talents and intellect in the service of the most corrupt president since Richard Nixon. Barr's resignation, reported by the president Monday on Twitter, changes none of that. While both Barr and Trump tried to put a happy face on the attorney general's early departure from office, reports suggested that Trump had been enraged by Barr's recent declaration that — despite the president's false allegations — "we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome" in the presidential election. Barr, meanwhile, was reportedly tired of taking the president's guff. "For weeks Barr had expressed frustration to advisers about the attacks on the integrity of the election system by Trump and his allies, telling one they were outlandish and nutty," the Los Angeles Times reported. "He was particularly irked when they pushed him to launch investigations on the thinnest of reeds." This explanation makes no sense. Barr knew Trump would attack the results of any election he lost — he has telegraphed his plan to do so for years. And as president, he has long made it abundantly clear that he expected the Department of Justice — including the FBI — to serve him in much the way his former fixer Michael Cohen did before Trump was president, protecting his friends and punishing his enemies. For the most part, Barr has seemed willing to play that role, no matter how "outlandish and nutty" the president's demands. Most famously, Barr released his own distorted summary of the Mueller Report, one that seemed to exonerate the president from wrongdoing connected to Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (The actual report, released later, strongly suggested Trump had committed obstruction of justice.) And while Barr was in charge, federal prosecutors often ended up giving the president's friends the benefit of the doubt — trying to undo its prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and reducing its sentencing recommendation for dirty trickster Roger Stone after Stone was convicted of obstruction in the Russia investigation. Indeed, Barr's record under Trump is one of undermining the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice. So, why grow a spine now? If the reports are true, why the sudden attack of integrity? Was there some real principle being violated, some line crossed by the president that was too far for Barr? If so, what could it have been? Did he just decide that he simply didn't want to endure Trump's tantrums for a few more weeks? Or did he think by leaving now, under these circumstances, he might preserve some shred of his reputation for probity? If so, too bad. Barr's legacy as Trump's legal henchman is already set.

12-14-20 The first US coronavirus vaccinations have taken place in New York
Vaccinations against the coronavirus have begun in the US and are expected in Canada within days after both countries last week authorised the vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech for emergency use. The vaccine roll-out in the US coincides with the country reporting more than 3000 deaths in one day for the first time, on 10 December. “Yesterday marked another tragic, preventable milestone in our fight against COVID-19, but this news is a bright light,” President-elect Joe Biden said on Twitter on 11 December after a US Food and Drug Administration panel voted to green-light the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Officially, nearly 300,000 people have died of covid-19 in the US, but this is thought to be an underestimate of the true toll. More countries are expected to authorise the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in the coming days, but supplies remain limited. The US has had an initial shipment of around 3 million doses. Canada has received about 30,000 doses, and is expecting around 250,000 in total this year. Two other coronavirus vaccines, one developed by Moderna and the other by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, could be authorised for emergency use soon in Europe, North America and other regions. Some other vaccines have already been authorised in China, Russia and elsewhere. In the US, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is being distributed to hundreds of hospitals. Healthcare workers at high risk of being infected should get vaccinated first, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory panel has recommended. Nursing home residents are next in line, and are due to start getting vaccinated from next week. White House officials were due to be among the first to get the shot. But the Trump administration seems to have backtracked in the face of criticism. Mass vaccination could be a particular challenge in the US because it lacks a centralised healthcare system. Different states and hospitals can make different decisions on who gets the vaccine. There is also concern about the rate of uptake, even though the vaccine will be free. Only half of US adults say they will get vaccinated, according to a recent survey. Another quarter are unsure and the remaining quarter say they won’t take it.

12-14-20 What can the Biden administration do to stop covid-19 in the US?
ALMOST 300,000 people have died of covid-19 in the US, and 200,000 more are expected to succumb to the disease by April. Coronavirus cases are spiking across the nation and hospitals are at or near capacity in many communities. US president-elect Joe Biden has outlined a science-based approach to combating coronavirus that is a striking contrast to the actions of his predecessor. President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the virus and flouted public health recommendations such as wearing a face covering and avoiding large gatherings. Biden has already assembled a covid-19 advisory board and named a new health secretary, surgeon-general and covid-19 czar. He has also asked Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and current member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to stay on and become his chief medical adviser. That is a relief to Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington in Seattle. These are “smart people who know what they are doing”, he says. Quelling the latest surge of covid-19 won’t be easy for Biden’s administration, however. “They’re going to walk into a raging epidemic, where there’s distrust,” says Georges Benjamin at the American Public Health Association in Washington DC. “There are still people that don’t believe the disease exists.” New Scientist spoke with public health experts, epidemiologists, physicians and social scientists to see how Biden might turn the tide. Biden’s toughest challenge might be persuading the people who didn’t vote for him to adopt behaviours that curb the virus’s spread, such as wearing masks. The most basic public health recommendations have become political flashpoints under the Trump administration. “It’s not just that they’re being silent on the guidelines, it’s that they’re actively advocating for citizens to violate public health guidelines,” says Jay Van Bavel at New York University. His research suggests partisanship is one of the biggest predictors of behaviour. “That, to me, is the hardest part of it to overcome,” he says.

12-14-20 Covid-19 news: Scepticism over UK claims of a faster spreading variant
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. UK health minister claims new coronavirus variant is associated with faster spread. A new variant of the coronavirus that may be associated with faster spread has been identified in southeast England, UK health minister Matt Hancock said today. However, researchers have responded sceptically to the claim. Eric Topol at The Scripps Research Institute said, “This is going to require rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed. New variant sure, functionally significant unlikely. Suspect it will be refuted or seriously questioned.” Vaccinations against covid-19 have begun in the US, with the first being given to a nurse in a medical centre in Queens, New York. Canada is also expected to begin vaccinating people today. Both countries last week granted emergency use authorisation for the coronavirus vaccine developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. “We’ve got to convince as many people as possible in this country and worldwide to get vaccinated when it becomes available,” Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CBC. “If we get the overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated, we can actually get a degree of herd immunity in this country and elsewhere that could actually crush this epidemic.” People may be able to travel freely between Australia and New Zealand from early next year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said. People arriving in Australia from New Zealand are already exempt from the usual two-week quarantine. Singapore today authorised use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Others to do so include Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. A plan for staff at the White House to be among the first people in the US to get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been delayed after US president Donald Trump tweeted that it would not go ahead.

12-14-20 Covid-19: First vaccine given in US as roll-out begins
The first Covid-19 vaccination in the United States has taken place, as the country gears up for its largest ever immunisation campaign. An intensive care nurse in Long Island, New York is believed to have been the first person to be given the jab. Millions of vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are being distributed, with 150 hospitals expected to receive doses on Monday. The US vaccination programme aims to reach 100m people by April. Covid-19 fatalities are nearing 300,000 in the US, which has by far the world's highest death toll. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received emergency-use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday. The roll-out of the vaccine comes as the epidemic continues to ravage the country. Deaths have been rising sharply since November and the number of people in hospital with the disease has also continued to grow steadily, with more than 109,000 people currently admitted, according to the Covid Tracking Project. "I think it's been probably the darkest December on record here. As of this last week, Covid-19 is the leading cause of death in the US, even more than cancer and heart disease," Dr Dora Mills of MaineHealth, a network of 12 hospitals in Portland, Oregon, told the BBC. "It's a very dark season for us, but it's also extraordinary that we have a vaccine less than a year after this virus has emerged. If the efficacy and safety data hold up, this is likely [to be] the greatest public health and scientific achievement of our lifetime." The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine - a collaboration between a US pharmaceutical giant and a German biotechnology company - offers up to 95% protection and is the first Covid-19 vaccine to be approved by US regulators. It is already being rolled out in the UK, while Canada is also beginning its inoculation programme on Monday, with an initial 30,000 doses going to 14 sites across the country.

12-14-20 Covid-19: Trump rejects plan for early vaccines at White House
US President Donald Trump says he has reversed a plan for White House officials to receive a coronavirus vaccine in the coming days. Officials said senior members of the Trump administration would be among the first to get the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. But Mr Trump later tweeted that people working at the White House "should receive the vaccine somewhat later... unless specifically necessary". The US will begin its roll out of the vaccine on Monday. The vaccine offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19. The first three million doses are being distributed to dozens of locations in all 50 states across the US. The first shipment of those doses left a facility in Michigan on Sunday, with health workers and the elderly in line to receive the first shots. News on Sunday that White House staff would be among the first to be vaccinated drew criticism on social media. It was not clear why Mr Trump decided to change the plans, or what effect it would have on the government's efforts to protect top officials. Coronavirus deaths have been rising sharply since November in the US, with a world-record daily increase of 3,309 reported on Saturday. The vaccine's rollout has been framed as a turning point in the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of almost 300,000 people in the US. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said its emergency-use authorisation of the vaccine, announced on Friday, was a "significant milestone" in the pandemic, after it came under intense pressure from the Trump administration to approve the jab. Doses of the same vaccine are already being administered in the UK. The Pfizer vaccine has received regulatory approval in Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as well. The beginning of the vaccination drive in the US comes as the Electoral College - the system which elects US presidents - is set to endorse Joe Biden's victory on Monday.

12-14-20 Donald Trump's defeat is good. Why does it feel so bad?
Today should be a celebratory day. The Electoral College will gather in state legislatures across the country and cast its votes, and Joe Biden will officially be designated the next president of the United States. The system, such as it is, is still working despite dozens of junk lawsuits, multiple attempts to undermine the will of the voters, and endless falsehoods from the loser of the presidential election. We're not an authoritarian country, yet. But it doesn't feel great, does it? The election of Donald Trump in 2016 made many of us fear for American self-government. But the election of Biden in 2020 hasn't provided the relief we'd hoped for — not yet, at least. That's probably because thousands of Americans are dying every day from the coronavirus, a disaster that grows more tragic with each passing moment, but also because, while the Electoral College vote should be the functional end of the 2020 presidential election, it almost certainly isn't. There are still cards for Trump and his allies to play, and it is clear they'll be playing those cards right up to noon on Inauguration Day. The most notable card, of course, is Congress. In early January, the legislative branch will meet to tally the presidential election results — a rubber-stamping exercise in most years. But Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a Trump ally, has other ideas: He is contemplating a challenge to the voting results in the swing states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, and Wisconsin. "We have a superior role under the Constitution than the Supreme Court does, than any federal court judge does, than any state court judge does," Brooks said. "What we say, goes. That's the final verdict." Like other efforts to overturn Biden's election, Brooks' scheme probably won't be successful. It is, however, dispiriting. I've spent much of the last four years anticipating a moment of ultimate clarity — a point in time when Trump's influence in our politics would be snuffed out, or when his victory over America's institutions and good sense would be complete. There would be a moment when he either won or lost and the rest of us would have to live with the results. Instead, Trump has created a little-known third option: He has lost, and he keeps losing, then losing some more, but he refuses to bow to reality. Worse yet, he has persuaded a critical mass of elected Republicans to join him in that refusal. Dozens of Republican members of Congress and state attorneys general joined Texas' misbegotten lawsuit to overturn the election results. The Supreme Court made quick work of that case on Friday, but the fact that so many elected officials signed onto the legal kamikaze mission suggests that Trump's influence on the GOP won't soon fade. The president may lose influence and attention once he leaves the White House, but, with some exceptions, the party seems more hostile to good old-fashioned democracy than ever. The picture gets worse when you account for the specter of violence. The offices of the Michigan legislature will be closed today because of threats. In Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington, election-related fights spilled into the streets over the weekend, replete with stabbings and a shooting. This isn't exactly a peaceful transition of power. Today's Electoral College vote won't fix these problems. We're stuck in limbo — not quite a failed democracy, but not quite a full democracy either. Maybe we will have to live with that muddled state for a while. That will be difficult and exhausting, but the alternative is to surrender to the lies and cynicism of Trump and his cronies. (Webmaster's comment: Trump's behavior is to prepare us for him to become the Hitler of America!)

12-13-20 Covid: First round of US vaccinations to begin on Monday
The US public will start receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine from Monday after it was authorised for emergency use, officials say. The first three million doses of the vaccine would be shipped "across all states" this weekend, said Gen Gustave Perna, who is overseeing distribution. The vaccine offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 and was deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On Saturday, the US recorded a daily toll of 3,309 Covid-related deaths. The figure, reported on the Johns Hopkins University website, is the highest total in a single day anywhere in the world. Coronavirus deaths have been rising sharply since November in the US. Authorising the emergency use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Friday, the FDA - which had come under intense pressure from the Trump administration to do so - said the move was a "significant milestone" in the pandemic. A mass inoculation drive using doses of the same vaccine has already begun in the UK. During a news conference on Saturday, Gen Perna - speaking for the US government's vaccination campaign Operation Warp Speed - said doses of the vaccine would be packed into shipping containers for transportation "within the next 24 hours". "Expect 145 sites across the states to receive the vaccine on Monday, another 425 sites on Tuesday, and the final 66 sites on Wednesday," he said, adding that next week's distribution would complete the initial delivery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and cover about three million people. Gen Perna told reporters he was "100% confident" that the doses "needed to defeat the enemy Covid" would be transported safely. He warned, however, that while it had been a week of progress, "we are not done until every American has access to a vaccine". The Pfizer vaccine has already received regulatory approval in the UK, Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Like those countries, US health authorities are expected to prioritise health workers and care home residents for the first doses. More Americans outside the highest-priority groups are likely to be able to get the vaccine in January, with general availability expected by April.

12-13-20 Coronavirus: US starts huge vaccine delivery operation
The US is gearing up for the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccination after it received emergency use authorisation from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) on Friday. US Army General Gustave Perna said it will be delivered to 145 locations around the country on Monday, followed by the remaining 636 delivery locations on Tuesday and Wednesday.

12-13-20 Coronavirus: Germany to go into lockdown over Christmas
Germany is to go into a hard lockdown over the Christmas period as the number of deaths and infections from the coronavirus reaches record levels. Non-essential shops will close across the country from Wednesday, as will schools, with children to be cared for at home wherever possible. Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Christmas shopping for a "considerable" rise in social contacts. The latest figures showed 20,200 more infections and a further 321 deaths. The new lockdown will run from 16 December to 10 January. Announcing the move after meeting leaders of the country's 16 states, Mrs Merkel said there was "an urgent need to take action". Restaurants, bars and leisure centres have already been closed since November, and some areas of the country had imposed their own lockdowns. Under the national lockdown, essential shops, such as those selling food, will stay open, as can banks. Outlets selling Christmas trees can also continue trading. Hair salons are among the businesses which must close. Companies are being urged to allow employees to work from home. A maximum of five people from no more than two households are allowed to gather in a home. This will be relaxed from 24 to 26 December - one household can invite a maximum of four close family members from other households. Bavaria is extending a night curfew from areas with high infection rates to the whole state - the second most populous in Germany. Chancellor Merkel said it was the government's job to "prevent an overload of our health systems and that's why there is an urgent need to take action". The latest official figures on Sunday showed 20,200 more infections, bringing Germany's total to date to more than 1.3 million. The death toll has risen by 321 to 21,787, the Robert Koch Institute says. Germany had been seen as relatively successful in controlling the pandemic compared with European neighbours, thanks in part to testing and tracing. But there is a growing recognition among political leaders that what was dubbed "lockdown lite" has not achieved enough. "If we're not careful, Germany could quickly become Europe's problem child," Bavaria's Prime Minister Markus Söder warned. "For that reason, we had to and we must act." He did not rule out Germany extending lockdown beyond 10 January.

12-13-20 US election: Pro-Trump rallies see scuffles in US cities
Thousands of Donald Trump supporters alleging electoral fraud converged on several US cities and towns on Saturday and there were isolated scuffles with counter-demonstrators. In Washington DC, more than 20 people were arrested and four people were stabbed, police said. Mr Trump lost the 3 November election to Joe Biden but is yet to concede. The Electoral College, the system which elects US presidents, is due to endorse Mr Biden's victory on Monday. Mr Biden won 306 votes to Mr Trump's 232 in the Electoral College, and gained over seven million more votes than his Republican rival in the popular vote. In the nation's capital, police sought to keep the two sides apart, a strategy that included sealing off Black Lives Matter Plaza where counter-demonstrators had gathered. Pro-Trump demonstrators, rallying under the banner of "Stop the Steal", were joined by members of the far-right Proud Boys, dressed in yellow and black, many wearing bullet-proof vests. Mr Trump caused controversy by saying the group should "stand back and stand by" during a September presidential debate, though he later condemned "all white supremacists". As night fell, Proud Boys and antifa counter-demonstrators, mostly separated by police lines, yelled insults at each other. But sporadic violence broke out. The stabbings took place near the downtown Harry's Bar, but it was not clear which group those injured belonged to, according to the Washington Post. Rallies also took place in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, Atlanta and St Paul, Minnesota. Police in Olympia said one person had been shot and three arrested as rival groups clashed. The Washington DC rally attracted several thousand Trump-supporters but it was smaller than a similar event on 14 November. Few participants wore masks despite Covid-19 restrictions. There were speeches by Mr Trump's now pardoned former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and Sebastian Gorka, another former White House official. (Webmaster's comment: Many Trump supporters are a violent lot!)

12-13-20 What will become of Trump's border wall?
In its final weeks, the administration is rushing to complete more of its signature border barriers. How much got built? President Trump inherited 654 miles of border structure along America's 1,900-mile border with Mexico. Over four years, he's constructed 415 miles, although of that total, only about 25 miles cover areas that had no previous barriers. The rest replaced or reinforced existing structures. In the most heavily fortified places, the barrier consists of two walls of concrete and steel bollards up to 30 feet high separated by a paved road. In recent months, the pace of work has surged. Right now, 11 private contractors under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers are working around the clock to add at least 50 miles of wall in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before Trump leaves office. To maintain the pace, the administration has waived dozens of regulations regarding endangered species and Native American burial sites. Portions of once protected saguaro cactus forests have been cleared, and communities' access to the Rio Grande and canals has been cut off. In Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, crews were blasting in a mountainous area known as the final resting place of Apache warriors who died in battle. "The heartbreaking thing is we're watching them detonate these areas that will never be finished," says Laiken Jordahl of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona. He calls it "a true desecration of indigenous land." Trump started his 2015 campaign with a promise to build "a big, beautiful wall" on the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico and make Mexico foot the bill. The idea ascended to mythical status among his supporters, becoming a totem for nearly everything that he stood for: "America First," reduced immigration, closed borders. When Trump leaves office, he believes, the wall he did succeed in building will stand as a monument to his presidency — a kind of anti–Statue of Liberty. President-elect Joe Biden has said "there will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration," although he's indicated that he has no plans to tear down what's been built already. Biden has said he prefers "smart" border security achieved by installing surveillance systems, sensors, and lighting, rather than barriers. Nonetheless, the Trump administration continues to clear land for wall that may never be built. Some of the most invasive construction is now being conducted in New Mexico's remote Guadalupe Canyon, 30 miles from the nearest town of Douglas, as blasting crews carve a path through the rock. The area, according to a World Wildlife Fund report, includes some of the "most endangered and critical habitats in North America." Diana Hadley, whose family farm encompasses much of the canyon, called the construction "heartbreaking," and also "totally pointless" because so few migrants cross in the area. Trump says the wall is "virtually impenetrable." But The Washington Post has documented that drug smugglers and migrants have been sawing through the bollards in minutes with a $100 household reciprocating saw. Some migrants have used ladders or simply shimmy up over the top of the wall. Massive drug trafficking continues, with much of it coming across the border hidden in trucks carry­ing commercial cargo. Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said, however, that the wall has succeeded in squeezing illegal immigration into more easily patrolled bottlenecks. Halting construction, he said, would have a "dramatic negative impact." Border arrests have recently spiked to nearly 100,000 a month — far higher than at any point during the Obama administration. Local officials in Douglas say the wall has made the town safer.

12-13-20 Black Lives Matter: Driver charged after crashing into New York protest
A driver who ploughed into a crowd of 50 protesters in New York City on Friday has been charged with reckless endangerment, the city's police department says. Six people at the Black Lives Matter racial justice protest in Manhattan were hit by the vehicle. A number were taken to hospital though none of the injuries were life-threatening, police said. The woman driving was detained and questioned by police. "After the initial investigation with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, the operator of the vehicle has been charged with reckless endangerment," the New York City police department tweeted on Saturday. Video from the scene in the busy area of the city showed pedestrians approaching a black vehicle, some carrying placards. The vehicle then accelerated, crashing into a number of people and sending a bicycle flying through the air as people screamed. Several people were shown on the ground in the aftermath. The protest organised by the Black Lives Matter group was to draw attention an hunger strike by immigration detainees in New Jersey. The incident resembled recent confrontations in which cars were driven at protesters in the US. In September a driver drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in New York City, but no-one was left injured.

12-12-20 US Supreme Court rejects Trump-backed bid to overturn election
The US Supreme Court has rejected an unprecedented attempt to throw out election results in four battleground states that was backed by President Donald Trump. The lawsuit, filed this week by the state of Texas, sought to invalidate results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. President-elect Joe Biden won all four. The lawsuit was supported by 18 state attorneys general and 106 Republican members of Congress. But in a brief order rejecting the bid, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Texas did not have legal standing to bring the case. The ruling represents a setback for Mr Trump, who has previously suggested without evidence that the result of November's presidential election would be settled in the Supreme Court. The court rejected a separate legal challenge against Mr Biden's victory in Pennsylvania earlier this week, dismissing it in a one-sentence ruling. Mr Trump has made repeated unsubstantiated assertions that "illegal votes" cost him a second presidential term. Since the election, Mr Trump and his supporters have launched dozens of lawsuits questioning the results of the election. None have come close to overturning Mr Biden's victory. The Democratic candidate defeated Mr Trump by a margin of 306 to 232 votes in the US electoral college, which chooses the US president. Mr Biden won seven million more votes than the president nationwide. The electoral college is expected to meet on Monday to formally elect Mr Biden as the 46th president of the US. The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday by the Republican Attorney-General of Texas, Ken Paxton - an ally of Mr Trump. It was supported by the president, who on Wednesday filed a motion to intervene and become a plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit sought to discard the presidential election results in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, four crucial states won by Mr Biden. Texas alleged that the results in those states were unlawful because of changes to voting procedures to help Americans cast their ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

12-12-20 Texas election case: A week in Trump and Biden's split-screen America
It's been a week of split-screens in American politics. The nation's attention is divided between the president and the president-elect; between the coronavirus vaccine and the rising death toll from the pandemic; between congressional attempts to reach compromise and congressional attempts to rebuff Donald Trump. As the days tick down until the holidays, and a new year, and a new Congress and a new president, here are some of the key political stories from this week. "For individuals and organisations that champion the rule of law and claim the mantle of the founding principles of our nation to call for overturning an election reeks of hypocrisy" - conservative commentator Linda Chavez. It was yet another rough week for the president's efforts to reverse the results of his November defeat in the US presidential election. First, the "safe harbour" date for states certifying the results arrived on Tuesday with all but one, Wisconsin, meeting the deadline. That will make it much more difficult for Trump's allies in Congress to contest the results of the election in January. Tuesday also delivered a one-two legal punch to the president. The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was no evidence of fraud or misconduct in Joe Biden's victory in that state. And the US Supreme Court batted down a legal challenge to the Democrat's win in that state with a terse, one-sentence "application denied" order. That left Trump placing all his judicial hopes on a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Texas that sought to discard the presidential election results in four states Biden won - Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Texas asked the court to allow the state legislatures - which all happen to be controlled by Republicans - to determine who should get their electoral college votes. Election law experts largely scoffed at the prospects for the suit - "utter garbage," writes UC-Irvine Professor Rick Hasen - but 17 other states with Republican attorneys general, as well as Trump himself, joined the effort. On Friday night, the Supreme Court slammed that door closed, as well.

12-12-20 The Constitution has an answer for seditious members of Congress
Let's review two pieces of news from the last week. First, the American coronavirus pandemic is entering its worst stage yet, with cases and deaths skyrocketing across the country. Last Thursday saw over 3,000 deaths — more than 9/11 or Pearl Harbor — and with ICU beds at or near capacity in most of the country, absent serious change it is possible there will be double or even triple that number per day in a matter of weeks. We may yet top the deadliest day in American history, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 8,000 people, very soon. President Trump is doing precisely nothing about this. Second, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under investigation for bribery and abuse of office, filed a baldly seditious lawsuit calling for the Supreme Court to overturn the election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and hand their electoral votes to Trump. It was flatly an attempt to overturn the 2020 election, end constitutional government, and install Trump in power. Before the Supreme Court threw the suit out Friday night, 17 other Republican state attorneys general had joined him, along with 126 members of the Republican caucus in the House, while Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has agreed to represent Trump. And this is just one of dozens of attempts that Republicans at all levels of government have concocted to overturn Trump's loss. In short, material conditions in this country have not been this bad since 1932 at least, and the political situation has not been this bad since 1860. The logical endgame of the rapidly-accelerating Republican attempt to destroy democracy while the country burns would be civil war — if it weren't for the high probability that Democratic leaders would be too cowardly to fight. But it's worth thinking about what a party seriously committed to preserving democracy would do when faced with a seditious opposition party — namely, cut them out of power and force them to behave. Democrats could declare all traitors ineligible to serve in national office, convene a Patriot Congress composed solely of people who have not committed insurrection against the American government, and use that power to re-entrench democracy. The reasoning here is very simple. All members of Congress swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, which establishes a republican form of government. The whole point of a republic is that contests for power are conducted through a framework of rules and democratic elections, where all parties agree to respect the result whether they lose or win. Moreover, the premise of this lawsuit was completely preposterous — arguing in effect that states should not be allowed to set their own election rules if that means more Democrats can vote — and provides no evidence whatsoever for false allegations of tens of thousands of instances of voter fraud. Indeed, several of the representatives who support the lawsuit were themselves just elected by the very votes they now say are fraudulent. The proposed remedy — having Republican-dominated legislatures in only the four states that gave Biden his margin of victory select Trump electors — would be straight-up election theft. In other words, this lawsuit, even though it didn't succeed, is a flagrant attempt to overturn the constitutional system and impose through authoritarian means the rule of a corrupt criminal whose doltish incompetence has gotten hundreds of thousands of Americans killed. It is a "seditious abuse of the judicial process," as the states of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin jointly wrote in their response to Texas trying to steal their elections.

12-12-20 The FDA has authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Now what?
It’s the first to win emergency use approval in the United States. Millions of Americans will soon be lining up for COVID-19 shots. On December 11, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those age 16 and older. The decision comes as numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been rising at alarming rates. The United States recorded a record-high 3,411 COVID-19 deaths on December 9. The United States is the latest country to authorize the vaccine, after the United Kingdom, Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (SN: 12/2/20). Here’s what happens next in the United States. The vaccine starts to be shipped, but won’t have a widespread impact for several months. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will likely be an enormous help in immediately keeping some people out of hospitals and preventing deaths. But while the vaccine and any others that are authorized may protect individual people, when it comes to widespread public health changes, “it will likely be several months before we get the full positive impact of a vaccine,” infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said December 11 in an online interview with JAMA. Initial doses of vaccines will be limited. The federal government had previously said that 6.4 million Pfizer doses would be shipped out to states within 24 hours of FDA’s authorization. On December 9, a top official with the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed said that only about half of those doses, about 2.9 million, will be shipped within 24 hours of emergency use authorization. Another 2.9 million will be held for distribution until the first vaccinated people are due for their second shot 21 days later. Another half a million doses have been set aside in a reserve, U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who is Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, said in a news conference. Vaccinations could begin as soon as early next week.

12-12-20 Covid: FDA approves Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in US
The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use. The agency said the authorisation was a "significant milestone" in the pandemic, which taken more than 295,000 lives in the US. The vaccine, which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19, was deemed safe and effective by the FDA. President Donald Trump said the first vaccinations will take place "in less than 24 hours". "Today our nation has achieved a medical miracle," Mr Trump said. "We have delivered a safe and effective vaccine in just nine months." Before the announcement on Friday night, the FDA had come under intense pressure from the Trump administration to approve the vaccine's use. The head of the agency, Stephen Hahn, was told to approve it for emergency use by Friday or quit, US media reported, although he called this "untrue". Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, told reporters earlier on Friday that his department would work with Pfizer to get the mass vaccination programme started by Monday or Tuesday. The Pfizer vaccine has already received regulatory approval in the UK, Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Like those countries, the US will give its first doses of the vaccine to the elderly, health workers and emergency crew. Coronavirus deaths have been rising sharply since November in the US. On Wednesday, the country recorded more than 3,000 deaths - the highest total in a single day anywhere in the world. "The FDA's authorisation for emergency use of the first Covid-19 vaccine is a significant milestone in battling this devastating pandemic that has affected so many families in the United States and around the world," said Mr Hahn. He said the authorisation came after "an open and transparent review process" that ensured the vaccine met the "FDA's rigorous, scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality".

12-12-20 Covid-19 in the US: Bleak winter ahead as deaths surge
Americans should start being vaccinated against coronavirus in the coming days, providing some light at the end of the tunnel for the country with the highest death toll in the world. But the good news about vaccines comes as the US is experiencing its toughest period of the pandemic so far. The number of daily reported deaths is at a record high while both the number of infections and admissions to hospital continue to rise. Robert Redfield, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has warned that the next few months will be "the most difficult in the public health history of this nation". So why is the outlook so bleak and what will next year bring? The number of daily reported deaths began to increase substantially in November and it has now passed 3,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The highest number of deaths in one day during the spring outbreak, which was limited to states in the Northeast, was just below 2,800. If you ignore the recent slight drop in the seven-day average, which was caused by the limited reporting of data around the Thanksgiving holiday on 26 November, the trend does not look good. Earlier this week, Dr Redfield told the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank that he expected the daily death toll to be higher than the 3,000 killed in the 9/11 attacks "probably for the next 60 to 90 days". At the moment, the US death toll stands at nearly 300,000 - the highest figure in the world and about a fifth of the global total of confirmed coronavirus deaths. One of the reasons the death toll is expected to rise at such a fast rate is because the number of infections is also still on the way up. With more than 15 million confirmed cases, the US has the highest number of infections in the world and the spread shows no sign of slowing down. The chart below shows that the current wave is still growing at a faster rate than the previous two - although some of that is down to increased levels of testing. During the spring wave, testing was mostly limited to confirming cases in people who were already in hospital, meaning the true scale of that outbreak wasn't fully captured.

12-12-20 This COVID-19 pandemic timeline shows how fast the coronavirus took over our lives
Few people noticed on New Year’s Eve last year when China reported a mystery illness to the World Health Organization. But soon, the never-before-seen coronavirus responsible for the disease was infiltrating the rest of the world. As we prepare to enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Science News looks back on how the disease took over 2020 and how society attempted to fight back. Global cases stand at more than 69 million, with more than 1.5 million deaths.

12-12-20 How to overcome vaccine hesitancy
Once vaccines are distributed across the globe, people will need to agree to take them. The World spoke to Julie Leask, who researches vaccine hesitancy, on how to address people's questions. In modern medical history, what is about to happen is unprecedented: Multiple new COVID-19 vaccines are being developed with different approaches. They'll be hitting markets around the globe in just a short period of time to combat the coronavirus pandemic. It is a colossal medical achievement, but there's more hard work ahead. Once vaccines are distributed across the globe, people then have to agree to take them. Julie Leask researches vaccine hesitancy at the University of Sydney in Australia. She spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about how to address people's questions about the vaccine. Marco Werman: So this is going to be a worldwide effort. Julie, what are the key dos and don'ts when it comes to getting people to have confidence in the vaccine? Julie Leask: One of the most important things when people are thinking about having a new vaccine is looking at what their peers and their family and friends are doing. Seeing that other people are having the vaccine is starting to become normalized. I think that will probably flip some of those people over who are on the fence right now and aren't quite sure what to do about it. Of course, there are going to be some people who will not ever vaccinate. Hopefully that's going to be a small number of people. Look, countries are quite varied. Australia, we have about 88 percent of people intending to have the COVID-19 vaccine — if it were recommended to them. And I know that drops a little bit if you are in the U.S. right through to Russia and Poland, which have intentions of around 50 percent. So in Australia, where we're a very pro-vaccination country, actually, we really defend vaccination of children very strongly with some of our policies. But naturally, there is always going to be a group of people who are a bit wary, particularly when we haven't got the Phase 3 trial results released yet and we're not exactly sure what we're looking at with these vaccines. Certainly the public cannot [either]. So, confidence will build a little bit more over time in Australia and other countries. No, surprisingly not, because here, of course, we're talking about a vaccine that will be initially offered to adults, health care workers, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, people working on the front line. So with adult vaccination, you see slightly lower vaccination rates. And you also see a little bit more hesitancy around adult vaccination. And the levels of hesitancy we're seeing globally at the moment, at least in the countries that are measuring this, are sort of what you'd expect at this stage. You know, in a way, it is on a bit of a knife-edge because — depending on how this program goes, how people experience having that vaccine, how they experience side effects and make sense of them — it will have a lot of impact on how people in future cohorts approach having the vaccine and think about it and are motivated to have it. I've been an adviser for the World Health Organization, visiting countries including Serbia, Romania, and Samoa. And I've also observed programs to address vaccine hesitancy in many countries. It always starts with understanding the communities you're working with. We can't second-guess people. We need to understand, in a country or a locality or a community, what are the issues that those people have with the vaccine? What are the experiences they've had with the vaccine program so far? Who are the community influences and what are they saying about the vaccine? The religious leaders? And that flows right over to the individual conversation a health professional or even a family member might have with someone else who is hesitant. "Tell me about your thoughts. What is concerning you right now?" Hearing them out and acknowledging them and then tailoring the information that you give them and share with them according to where they're at — you know, that's the core to dealing with vaccine hesitancy really well.

12-12-20 Covid pandemic: South Korea sees record rise in daily cases
South Korea has recorded a new high in the number of coronavirus cases, with 950 infections announced on Saturday. President Moon Jae-in said the country was facing "an emergency situation" and vowed to strengthen testing and tracing in response. "This is the last hurdle before the roll-out of vaccines and treatments," he said. Most of the new cases have been in the capital Seoul and the surrounding areas. The region is home to around half of South Korea's population. In recent days, the country has recorded between 500 and 600 new daily infections. Earlier this week, South Korea raised its level of alert amid a third wave of cases. New measures, which came into effect on Tuesday, include a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. Gyms and karaoke bars have been closed, while restaurants are only allowed to offer deliveries after 21:00 local time. However, the government has warned that restrictions could be raised to the highest level, which would see gatherings limited to 10 people, school closures and all but essential roles working from home. South Korea has recorded more than 41,000 cases and 578 deaths since the pandemic began. The country initially saw a huge spike in infections in February, after a religious group in the city of Daegu was identified as a virus cluster. Unlike many countries in Europe and elsewhere, however, the South Korean government has avoided nationwide lockdowns and has instead focused its efforts to contain the virus on testing and contact tracing.

12-11-20 Covid-19 news: London on ‘worrying’ trajectory says public health boss
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. London may face tier three restrictions soon to combat surging coronavirus cases. Cases in London continue to rise, making it increasingly likely that the city will be put under tier three coronavirus rules. “We know that as cases go up, hospitalisations and deaths follow. The current trajectory is a worrying one,” Public Health England (PHE) London director, Kevin Fenton, told the Evening Standard. The seven-day average across England is 153 cases per 100,000 people. London now has a case rate of 191.2 per 100,000, with 22 of the 32 boroughs above the national average. Four boroughs in the north east – Havering, Barking and Dagenham, Waltham Forest and Redbridge – have case rates above 300 per 100,000. Last week Fenton warned Londoners: “If we want to avoid being placed in tier three, it is vital we keep transmission down.” And after a meeting of London MPs with health minister Helen Whately on Thursday, one MP told Sky News: “It was a very clear preparation for tier three. I think the decision is pretty much made.” The UK government is expected to review the tier allocation for London, as well as for all other regions in England, on 16 December. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to grant emergency use authorisation for the coronavirus vaccine developed by US company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. A panel of independent experts recommended its use yesterday, saying that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks in people aged 16 and over. The panel spent a day discussing data from trials of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, and voted 17-4 in favour of the authorisation, with one abstention. A final decision from the FDA could come in the “next couple of days”, Marion Gruber, director of the FDA’s research office, told the Financial Times. The vaccine has already been authorised for use in the UK, Bahrain, Canada and Saudi Arabia. A coronavirus vaccine candidate being developed by UK company GlaxoSmithKline and its French partner Sanofi has been delayed until late 2021, after interim analysis of results from a phase I/II trial showed that it did not produce a sufficiently strong immune response in people aged 50 and older. Australia halted trials of a vaccine being developed by Australian company CSL in partnership with the University of Queensland after some trial participants received false positive HIV test results.

12-11-20 Experts recommend the FDA approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use
The agency could quickly decide whether to accept the recommendation. The benefits of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine outweigh its risks for emergency use in those 16 and older in the United States, a panel of vaccine experts told the Food and Drug Administration on December 10. The recommendation followed a daylong meeting the panel, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, held to discuss data collected from clinical trials of the vaccine involving more than 40,000 people. The panel overwhelmingly voted to allow emergency use of the vaccine, with some members voting no, mostly on the grounds that there isn’t enough data on 16- and 17-year-olds to say whether the vaccine carries more benefit than risk for teens who are at relatively low risk of severe disease and death. Though not binding, the panel’s recommendations are often taken by the FDA. The agency must now decide whether to authorize the vaccine for emergency use, a decision that could be made as soon as the next few days. In clinical trials, the vaccine was about 95 percent effective at keeping vaccinated people from getting ill, Pfizer reported, confirming data the company had already released. The company had also indicated that the vaccine could protect against severe illness. But there were not enough severe cases in the trials to make that determination, some experts not involved in the trials said at the meeting. Others argued that other vaccines that prevent milder illness also prevent severe illnesses and that the data suggest the Pfizer vaccine can also help stave off the worst complications. It’s not yet known to what extent the vaccine can also prevent infection or keep infected people from passing the virus on to others (SN: 12/8/20). Pfizer said December 10 that it is measuring antibodies in participant’s blood to determine whether there have been asymptomatic infections among the vaccinated group, which could help answer those questions.

12-11-20 Covid vaccine: US drugs agency FDA to proceed with Pfizer approval
The US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has said it will proceed with emergency use approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine. In a statement, the FDA said it would "rapidly work toward finalisation and issuance" of the authorisation. US Health Secretary Alex Azar said the vaccine should be authorised within a couple of days. The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved for the public in the UK, Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday the US recorded more than 3,000 deaths - the highest total in a single day anywhere in the world. On Thursday, medical experts advising the FDA recommended the emergency use approval. A 23-member panel concluded the vaccine's benefits outweighed its risks. "Following yesterday's positive advisory committee meeting outcome regarding the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, the US Food and Drug Administration has informed the sponsor that it will rapidly work toward finalisation and issuance of an emergency use authorisation," the FDA statement said. "The agency has also notified the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Operation Warp Speed [the federal government's vaccine distribution programme], so they can execute their plans for timely vaccine distribution." Mr Azar said the US would work with Pfizer to get the vaccine shipped out, so that it could be administered to the most vulnerable people by Monday or Tuesday. Operation Warp Speed says that vaccine deliveries will begin within 24 hours of approval. Pfizer plans to have 6.4 million doses ready for the US in its first rollout round in late December. Because two shots are required per person, that is enough for three million people, out of a total US population of 330 million. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say the nation's 21 million healthcare workers should be prioritised first, as well the three million elderly Americans living in long-term care homes.

12-11-20 Coronavirus: Trump hosts Hanukkah events as Covid-19 deaths soar
US President Donald Trump has hosted two Hanukkah events at the White House, defying Covid advice again. Wednesday's gatherings occurred on the day 3,053 died, according to a tally by the Covid Tracking Project - a new daily record in the country. Video on social media shows Mr Trump at one of the parties with the sound of one person coughing in the background. The president has consistently ignored official advice, despite contracting Covid-19 himself. According to the Times of Israel, more than 100 people attended each of the events, which were held to mark the Jewish holiday. Among those in attendance was White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who tested positive for coronavirus last month. Images on social media show him at one event without a face covering, shaking hands with other maskless guests. In October, Mr Trump made a theatrical return to the White House after spending three days in hospital with coronavirus - removing his mask in front of reporters despite still being contagious. Several senior aides and Republican officials also fell ill with coronavirus after the president hosted an event in the White House to announce his nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.

12-11-20 Casey Goodson: Family demand answers after police shooting
The family of a black man fatally shot outside his Ohio home has demanded answers, claiming he was killed for being a "young black man". Casey Goodson, 23, had just returned from the dentist when an officer, identified as deputy Jason Meade, shot him in the back, his family said. Columbus Police Department and the FBI has launched probes into the shooting. The Franklin County Sheriff's Office would not comment on possible motives amid the open investigations. Mr Meade is "currently off-duty", sheriff's office spokesman Marc Gofstein said. "He's not coming back to work or doing anything for the sheriff's office and there's no timetable associated with it." A post-mortem examination this week has ruled Mr Goodson's 4 December death a homicide. Nearly one week after he was shot, the facts surrounding Mr Goodson's death remain in question. According to his family, Mr Goodson was shot in the back three times as he unlocked his front door and entered his home. He had just picked up some Subway sandwiches for his family. Nine of Mr Goodson's relatives were at home at the time, and his death was witnessed by his 72-year-old grandmother and his five-year-old brother. "We are all destroyed," said Mr Goodson's mother, Tamala Payne, during a press conference on Thursday. "And we still don't have answers as to why." "He was just a black man, coming home from a dentist appointment. He didn't do anything," she said. Mr Goodson was "full of life, and full of love", his family's lawyer said. Law enforcement officials said in a statement that the deputy involved, Jason Meade, had been working as a member of a US Marshal's Task Force looking for violent offenders on the day he shot Mr Goodson. Mr Goodson was not the subject of this operation, and no other criminal investigation involving him has been disclosed.

12-11-20 Biden and Harris named Time's Person of the Year
US President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris have been chosen as Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2020. "The Biden-Harris ticket represents something historic," Time tweeted. The Democratic pair beat three other finalists: frontline healthcare workers and Dr Anthony Fauci, the racial justice movement, and President Donald Trump, who lost the White House race. Time has been choosing the year's most influential person since 1927. "For changing the American story, for showing that the forces of empathy are greater than the furies of division, for sharing a vision of healing in a grieving world, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are TIME's 2020 Person of the Year," wrote Time's editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal. Mr Biden and Ms Harris, who was not mentioned on Time's initial shortlist, are yet to publicly comment on the announcement. In 2016, Mr Trump, then also president-elect, received the same recognition from the magazine. Every year, Time chooses a person, a group, an idea or an object that "for better or for worse" has had the most impact on the events over the 12 months. In 2019, the publication expanded Person of the Year to include such categories as a Businessperson of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Athlete of the Year and the Guardians of the Year.

12-11-20 Covid: Record deaths in Germany and Russia
Germany is facing calls for a second lockdown before Christmas after recording 585 deaths and 29,875 new infections in one day - the highest numbers since the pandemic began. "We have to act urgently. We have to do more than was previously planned," warned Economy Minister Peter Altmaier. Russia and Ukraine also reported record numbers of fatalities on Friday. However, the latest excess death statistics have cast doubt on the numbers announced in Russian updates. Germany has been under partial lockdown since early November, shutting bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, and a relaxation had been planned over Christmas. But the rise in infections has increasingly alarmed top officials, with Lothar Wieler, head of Germany's public healthy body, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), describing the situation as "extremely fragile". Chancellor Angela Merkel made an impassioned speech in the Bundestag (parliament) this week calling for tighter measures, saying that "500 deaths a day is unacceptable". On Friday, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer warned that the only chance of regaining control was an immediate lockdown. "If we wait until Christmas, we'll have to struggle with high numbers for months," he told the Spiegel website. Bavaria, in the south, has already imposed tighter measures and Mrs Merkel is reportedly set to meet all 16 state leaders on Sunday. Russia's pandemic task force says 613 deaths were recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 45,893. Moscow and St Petersburg were worst hit. However, official data about "excess" deaths - those above expected levels - has called this total into question. There were nearly 50,000 more "excess" deaths in October 2020 than in the same month last year. Statistics service Rosstat said 22,761 of the October deaths were either confirmed or suspected Covid cases. Official health figures were less than a third of that, but only count deaths listed by a post mortem examination as having coronavirus as the main cause.

12-10-20 Covid-19 news: US records new high of 3000 deaths in single day
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. Daily covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths reached new records in the US on Wednesday. More than 3000 people died in a single day from coronavirus for the first time in the US, and new records were set for cases and hospitalisations as some US states set up field hospitals to treat people. Across the country on Wednesday, there were 221,276 new cases identified, 106,000 people hospitalised with covid-19 and 3124 people who died from the disease. California, Texas and Rhode Island are setting up field hospitals in preparation for a potential overflow of coronavirus patients as intensive care units continue to fill. Two weeks ago, US health adviser Anthony Fauci urged people to follow covid-19 guidelines during Thanksgiving. The holiday still saw more than a million people passing through airports in the US, and a few days later, Fauci said the country could expect to see “surge upon surge” of cases as people returned home. Canada’s health regulator approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday. It is expected that the first people will be vaccinated next week. Canada is the third country to authorise the vaccine after the UK and Bahrain. Today a panel of independent experts is meeting to consider whether the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should authorise the jab for emergency use. In a report to the panel published online on Tuesday, the FDA endorsed the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Complete results from phase III trials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were published in the New England Journal of Medicine today. The paper confirmed findings announced earlier by the two companies that the vaccine had a similar rate of efficacy across all groups of age, sex, race, ethnicity, weight and underlying chronic conditions, and concluded that the safety profile over an average of two months after vaccination was similar to that of other viral vaccines. It also mentioned one case of severe covid-19 in the vaccinated group, compared to nine in the placebo group. London had the highest coronavirus infection rate in England in the week up to 6 December, according to Public Health England, increasing the chance the city will be moved into tier three – the highest level of coronavirus restrictions – in the coming days. London’s case rate per 100,000 people was 191.8 in the seven days up to 6 December, higher than other regions currently under tier three rules, such as the West Midlands where the case rate was 158.4 per 100,000 people during the same period. Coronavirus cases are rising in Japan. Tokyo reported a record 602 new cases on Thursday, out of 2078 daily new cases across the country. Japan announced plans to buy 10,500 deep freezers to store coronavirus vaccines when they arrive.

12-9-20 Covid-19 news: UK issues vaccine advice for people with allergies
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. UK regulator says people with history of significant allergic reactions shouldn’t get Pfizer vaccine. People with a history of significant allergic reactions should not receive the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, which is being rolled out in the UK this week, according to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The advice was released after two healthcare workers experienced allergic reactions shortly after receiving their first doses of the vaccine yesterday. Both individuals have a history of serious allergies and they have since had treatment and recovered. “The prompt reporting of these events […] and the rapid issuing of additional information to guide practice shows that the safety monitoring system is working well,” said Penny Ward at King’s College London in a statement. “As these two events occurred in people with a history of severe allergy, it is sensible of the MHRA to draw attention to these reports and to suggest that individuals with a history of severe allergy not receive the vaccine at this time,” said Ward. India’s health ministry announced that coronavirus vaccines, including the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca, are likely to receive licenses in the next few weeks. India’s initial plan involves vaccinating about 300 million of the country’s 1.4 billion people, with priority for healthcare and other frontline workers, as well as people above age 50 or those who are clinically vulnerable to severe covid-19. A coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm has 86 per cent efficacy, according to interim data from phase III trials released by the health ministry of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the vaccine is being trialled. The UAE’s health ministry told state media 31,000 volunteers have participated in the trial, and that it has officially registered the vaccine, though it is unclear whether it has been approved for wider use.

12-9-20 Why is the coronavirus pandemic so politically polarising?
Covid-19 continues to split some people along party lines. We are now beginning to work out why, writes Graham Lawton. LIKE the majority of people in my local area, I follow the rules on face coverings. It’s an inconvenience, but I consider putting on a mask a small sacrifice to protect my health and that of other people. Every day, I see many people – more than could possibly have a legitimate exemption – flagrantly flouting the rules and it really gets up my nose. The refuseniks annoy me on multiple levels. They are selfishly putting me and other people at risk. They think they know better than experts. They often fall for conspiracy theories. And even if they are mainly endangering themselves, I’d rather they didn’t end up wasting NHS resources. I’m tempted to confront them, but just mutter darkly under my mask. Yet my biggest beef is that for some people, refusal to wear a mask has slotted neatly into a set of beliefs that I already found both baffling and unforgivably selfish. You know who I mean: the equality-hating, climate change-denying, PC-gone-mad brigade. I’d let them wallow in their own swamp, but their beliefs are barriers to social and environmental progress. In the US, this new front in the culture war has escalated to shocking levels. Wearing a mask or not has become a high-vis badge of political affiliation. The issue even came up in the presidential debates and cleaves neatly along party lines, with Democrats much more accepting than Republicans of masks and other interventions such as social distancing. Covid-19 has thus become yet another issue sucked into what political scientists call “affective polarisation” – the visceral and mutual hatred between supporters of the two opposing political parties. Both sides regard the other as selfish, hypocritical and closed-minded.

12-10-20 US Covid vaccine: Three key questions answered
The United States could move a step closer to approving the Pfizer-Biontech Covid vaccine on Thursday, as the Food and Drug Administration's advisers meet to discuss its authorisation. But how will Americans get it? Will it be free? And will enough people take it? BBC global health correspondent Smitha Mundasad explains.

12-10-20 Hear from people taking action against COVID-19
A drive to help others pushes these individuals to overcome the pandemic’s challenges. As the coronavirus pandemic picked up speed this year, some people’s jobs became a nonstop race to help save lives. Here, an emergency medicine doctor, vaccine trial volunteer, protective equipment manufacturer, public health director and others share what 2020 was like for them. Yvette Calderon is chair of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital. She was on the front lines of New York’s City’s early pandemic surge. Abigail Echo-Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board, a federally qualified health center that serves American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Puget Sound region. As director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, she focuses on gathering data on the more than 70 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives who live off tribal reservation lands, and whose information is rarely collected or analyzed, making COVID-19 resource allocation difficult. Dale Chappell is chief scientific officer of Humanigen, a biotech company in Burlingame, Calif., that makes the monoclonal antibody lenzilumab, developed to prevent an immune system overreaction known as a cytokine storm. The drug is in Phase II and Phase III clinical trials against COVID-19. Chappell is currently based outside Geneva. Michael Bowen is executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech in North Richland Hills, Texas, a maker of surgical masks and respirators. He predicted that a future epidemic would eat up U.S. supplies of personal protective equipment because most PPE is made in other countries. Lisa Fitzpatrick is a clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. She launched the company Grapevine Health to promote health literacy. She is also a coronavirus vaccine trial volunteer. Evan J. Anderson is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, which has been conducting trials of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine and others. He supports testing promising vaccine candidates in children. Virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, is living in Seattle while doing research on SARS CoV-2. Trying to combat misinformation has become a big part of her job. Thomas Quade is health commissioner of Geauga County, Ohio, managing a team of about two dozen people who enforce state law to protect public health.

12-10-20 Covid travel nurse's six months on the road across the US
The demand for travel nurses in the US has skyrocketed due to the pandemic, from 8,000 openings in January to 32,000 in December. They've played a crucial role in places overwhelmed with Covid patients. Laura Liffiton, a nurse from Phoenix, Arizona, has been travelling for six months following Covid spikes across the US. She's worked in ICUs and emergency rooms from New York to the Midwest. "I want my kids to ask me where I was and I want to be able to show them that if you can help somebody, you should," she says.

12-10-20 In Trump’s final days, a rush of federal executions
As President Donald Trump's days in the White House wane, his administration is racing through a string of federal executions. Five executions are scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden's 20 January inauguration - breaking with an 130-year-old precedent of pausing executions amid a presidential transition. And if all five take place, Mr Trump will be the country's most prolific execution president in more than a century, overseeing the executions of 13 death row inmates since July of this year. The five executions are to begin this week, starting with convicted killers 40-year-old Brandon Bernard and 56-year-old Alfred Bourgeois. They are both scheduled to be put to death at a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Attorney General William Barr has said his justice department is simply upholding existing law. But critics have said the move is concerning, coming just weeks before Mr Biden - who has said he will seek to end the death penalty - takes office. "This is really outside the norm, in a pretty extreme way," said Ngozi Ndulue, director of research at the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. Here's what you need to know about President Trump's last-minute rush of executions. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated by the US Supreme Court in 1988, executions carried out by the national or federal government in the US have remained rare. Before Mr Trump took office, only three federal executions had taken place in this period. All were carried out under Republican President George W Bush, and included inmate Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Since 2003, there have been no federal executions at all. US states have continued to execute inmates in state prisons, putting a combined 22 death row inmates to death last year. But state executions are also on a downward trend. A growing number have moved to abolish capital punishment altogether, and the majority have either formally banned the practice or have not put any inmates to death in more than a decade. Popular opinion, too, has shifted away from capital punishment. A November 2019 Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans supported life in prison over the death penalty for the first time since the survey began more than 30 years ago. "Public support for the death penalty is at a decades-long low," Ms Ndulue said. Further problems have emerged with the methods of execution, sourcing drugs used for lethal injections, and the costs of decades-long court battles and appeals.

12-9-20 Covid: Biden vows 100m vaccinations for US in first 100 days
US President-elect Joe Biden has set a goal of 100 million Covid vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. He said his first months in office would not end the outbreak and gave few details on a rollout plan but he said he would change the course of Covid-19. Introducing his health team for when he takes office on 20 January, he urged Americans to "mask up for 100 days". On Tuesday, a report paved the way for a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be approved and rolled out for Americans. Emergency authorisation for its use could be issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday, with the country's top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci saying mass vaccination could start as soon as next week. Also on Tuesday, President Donald Trump attended a summit at the White House of his Covid-19 vaccination programme, Operation Warp Speed, and hailed the expected approval of vaccines. His administration hopes to vaccinate as many as 24 million people by mid-January. The US has recorded more than 15 million cases so far and 285,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University research, both global highs. Many parts of the country are seeing peak infections, with record numbers of people in hospital, with some experts blaming travel by millions over the recent Thanksgiving holiday. At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr Biden laid out how he plans to address the pandemic in his first 100 days in office. That period is traditionally seen as a benchmark for new presidents to make their mark with new policies and ideas. He vowed to get "at least 100 million Covid vaccine shots into the arms of the American people". "My first 100 days won't end the Covid-19 virus. I can't promise that. But we did not get into this mess quickly. We're not going to get out of it quickly," he said at the event in Delaware, giving few details of how the largest vaccination programme in US history would be carried out.

12-9-20 Trump's jaw-dropping vaccine screwup
The cherry on top of the president's staggering pandemic failure The coronavirus vaccine has arrived. The U.K. began the first post-trial injections of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine with a 90-year-old woman on Tuesday, with hospital workers not far behind her. (China and Russia have also begun deploying their own vaccines, but it is not clear yet how effective they are.) The Food and Drug Administration is somewhat behind the U.K. in its approval process for the BioNTech vaccine, but it is expected in the next few days. Though the virus is spreading completely out of control in almost every state, it's good news on that front at least. Except there's another problem: The U.S. will not have nearly enough doses from Pfizer to vaccinate everyone until well into 2021 at the earliest. Though we may get other vaccines from different manufacturers, the shortfall is just one more inexplicable failure from the most incompetent clod who has ever occupied the White House. Here's the story. Months ago, the Trump administration agreed to buy 100 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer for $1.95 billion (part of its Operation Warp Speed). But because the vaccine requires two doses, this is only enough to inoculate 50 million people — far, far short of the whole population. Now The New York Times reports that Pfizer repeatedly offered the administration another bite at the supply apple, and it turned them down several times. Other countries have naturally snapped up the doses, and Trump has shamefacedly rushed out an executive order trying to prevent other countries from getting their doses before America. "But the order appears to have no real teeth and does not expand the U.S. supply of doses," notes the Times. People seem completely baffled as to why the administration rejected Pfizer's offer, and nobody in the administration has even attempted an explanation. The entire point of Operation Warp Speed (the smart if obvious move) was to both incentivize vaccine development and get first crack at the vaccine supply. Yet apparently the explicit goal outlined by the administration was to secure just 300 million doses — or less than half as many as would be required. In this administration the simplest explanation — that it is staffed from top to bottom with gormless, irresponsible sycophants — is usually the right one. (My personal theory is that Jared Kushner did not understand that the vaccine requires two shots.) Now, as noted above, there are more vaccines just slightly behind Pfizer in the approval pipeline. The U.S. might be able to fill in the gaps with doses from Moderna and AstraZeneca. But declining the additional Pfizer doses was still a brain-meltingly terrible decision, and may well delay a return to normal in this country by several months. But there are still more intriguing possibilities regarding vaccines that were all foreclosed by Trump's presence in power. As David Wallace-Wells writes at New York, it turns out that the vaccine development happened even faster than I understood in my previous article celebrating how fast it was. The Moderna vaccine took just a single weekend to be developed — literally two days after Chinese researchers released the coronavirus DNA sequence publicly. The Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford formulations were not far behind. What's more, the reason these were developed so fast was that they were built on pre-existing templates that were already fairly well-understood, and therefore experts had a solid and correct suspicion that they would be work. "None of the scientists I spoke to for this story were at all surprised by either outcome — all said they expected the vaccines were safe and effective all along," writes Wallace-Wells.

12-9-20 Rich countries hoarding Covid vaccines, says People's Vaccine Alliance
Rich countries are hoarding doses of Covid vaccines and people living in poor countries are set to miss out, a coalition of campaigning bodies warns. The People's Vaccine Alliance says nearly 70 lower-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people. This is despite Oxford-AstraZeneca pledging to provide 64% of its doses to people in developing nations. Steps are being taken to ensure access to vaccines is fair around the globe. This vaccine commitment, known as Covax, has managed to secure 700 million doses of vaccines to be distributed between the 92 lower-income countries that have signed up. But even with this plan in place, the People's Vaccine Alliance - a network of organisations including Amnesty International, Oxfam and Global Justice Now - says there is not enough to go round, and drug companies should share their technology to make sure more doses are produced. Their analysis found that rich countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over if all the vaccines are approved for use. Canada, for example, has ordered enough vaccines to protect each Canadian five times, it claims. And even though rich nations represent just 14% of the world's population, they have bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines so far, according to data from eight leading vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials that have done substantial deals with countries worldwide. "No-one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket," said Anna Marriott, Oxfam's health policy manager. "But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come." The People's Vaccine Alliance is calling on all pharmaceutical corporations working on Covid-19 vaccines to openly share their technology and intellectual property so that billions more doses can be manufactured and made available to everyone who needs them. This can be done through the World Health Organization Covid-19 technology access pool, it says.

12-9-20 Are children likely to give covid-19 to older relatives at Christmas?
Should we be worried about the risk of children passing the coronavirus on to older or vulnerable relatives? The short answer is yes. “I think there is a risk of that,” says Katy Gaythorpe at Imperial College London. In England, about 2 per cent of people aged between 11 and 24 have covid-19, according to the latest survey by the Office for National Statistics, compared with about 1 per cent in most other age groups, including younger children. The reason is that schools and universities remained open during the latest lockdown in England, so students were more likely to mix with others and pass on the virus. The high number of infected young people could lead to a high number of older relatives being infected during family gatherings. “If grandparents and vulnerable people mix with other people that have been mixing in the run-up to Christmas, such as schoolchildren, this inevitably increases risk of infection,” says Duncan Robertson at Loughborough University, UK. Teaching unions have called for schools to close a week early, and a petition for this has gathered more than 100,000 signatures, but the UK government says schools will stay open. Most children have only mild symptoms if infected, and about 21 per cent remain asymptomatic, according to a meta-analysis by Gaythorpe’s team. Overall, it seems that children – particularly younger ones – might be slightly less susceptible to the coronavirus than adults, and slightly less likely to infect others, but the evidence is mixed. “If we are working towards a clear objective of minimising deaths, then it would make sense to close schools around two weeks before Christmas bubbles are formed,” says Robertson. “But doing this could have an unintended consequence of encouraging more mixing.”

12-9-20 Covid-19 Christmas: How is Europe planning to tackle the holidays?
AS THE end of a difficult year approaches, there is growing debate over how people can celebrate the festive season together while minimising the spread of the coronavirus. With scientists warning that relaxing restrictions could lead to a third wave in the new year, countries are implementing different rules. The UK’s Christmas rules were announced in late November. Up to three households will be able to meet in homes for the five days spanning 23 to 27 December in most of the country, pushed up to seven days in Northern Ireland. Within these “Christmas bubbles” there is no requirement to socially distance unless it is a short visit. Whether the government has got it right in terms of the number of people and days for these bubbles is still debated. “I don’t understand why it needs to be so long,” says Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds, UK. In addition to the rule of three households, Scotland has some extra measures. People are being encouraged to avoid meeting in person unless it is felt necessary, and social distancing should continue. It is also capping the total number of people over the age of 12 who can meet in a home at eight. In the rest of the UK, numbers are unlimited. “One household could be as high as 20 people,” says Griffin. Several other countries are also relaxing rules during the holidays. In France, for example, people will be able to meet in groups of six adults but a national curfew is expected when lockdown lifts on 15 December. People will need to be in their homes from 9 pm until 7 am, except on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Restaurants and bars aren’t expected to reopen until well into January, in line with findings that closing such venues has more impact on virus spread than simply closing early.

12-9-20 Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani receiving same Covid drugs as president
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has revealed in a call to his own radio show that he is being treated for coronavirus with the same drug cocktail his boss received when he was ill with Covid-19. He was admitted to hospital on Sunday after becoming the latest official close to Mr Trump to test positive. Mr Giuliani, 76, told the show he expects to leave hospital on Wednesday. He has been treated with Remdesivir and Dexamethasone, he explained. Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday that his ally, who has been leading the Trump campaign's legal challenges to the November election outcome, had been diagnosed with the virus. "I am doing fine. Pretty much all the symptoms are gone. The minute I took the cocktail I felt 100% better. It works very quickly, wow," he told his colleagues on his weekly show with 77 WABC radio from the Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC. Mr Trump has strongly praised the experimental combination of drugs he received when he spent three nights in hospital with Covid-19 in October. Dozens of people in Mr Trump's orbit are said to have tested positive for Covid-19 since October. Mr Giuliani said the president's doctor had urged him to go to hospital where he could "get it [Covid-19] over with in three days". Mr Giuliani's son Andrew tweeted that his dad had "improved significantly" adding "I can't seem to get him off the phone for the last day". Referring to his prior diagnosis of prostate cancer, Rudy Giuliani suggested "You don't screw around your whole life because of an illness. I'd rather face risks than live in a basement my whole life." During the election campaign earlier this year, Mr Trump's campaign attacked his rival Joe Biden for "hiding in his basement" during the pandemic. Mr Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, had been on a cross-country tour in an effort to convince state governments to overturn the results of the November election vote when he contracted the disease. He had criticised face masks and was frequently pictured at indoor events without a face covering.

12-9-20 Supreme Court rejects bid to overturn Pennsylvania result
The US Supreme Court has rejected a challenge against President-elect Joe Biden's victory in Pennsylvania. Republicans in the state wanted to overturn certification of the result, but justices rejected the request in a one sentence ruling. It is a blow to President Donald Trump, who has previously suggested without evidence that the election result would be settled in the Supreme Court. Mr Trump lost his bid for re-election last month. Since then he and his supporters have launched dozens of lawsuits questioning the vote results. None have come close to overturning Mr Biden's victory. The Democratic candidate defeated Mr Trump by a margin of 306 to 232 votes in the US electoral college, which chooses the US president. Mr Biden won seven million more votes than the president nationwide. Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Wolf has already certified Mr Biden's victory in the state. Under the rules of the electoral college, the state's 20 electors will meet on 14 December to officially cast their votes for the president-elect. Republicans in the state however wanted to overturn Mr Wolf's certification. The state's top court had rejected their bid last week, which made them appeal to the US Supreme Court in Washington. Lawyers for the state and Governor Wolf criticised the case as "fundamentally frivolous". "No court has ever issued an order nullifying a governor's certification of presidential election results," they wrote. And on Tuesday the Supreme Court dismissed the suit. The one-sentence ruling did not even cover the Republicans' allegations, reading simply: "The application for injunctive relief presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is denied." Before, during and after the election, Mr Trump has made unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud and suggested that the result would eventually be decided in the Supreme Court.

12-8-20 Covid-19 news: Pfizer vaccine moves closer to US FDA authorisation
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. FDA says Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine data fits its guidance on emergency authorisation. The coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech has moved one step closer to approval for emergency use in the US. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released documents today, which said figures on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy meet its expectations for emergency use authorisation. The documents said the two-dose vaccine is highly effective at preventing confirmed cases of covid-19 at least seven days after the first dose. They also said there wasn’t enough data to conclude whether the vaccine is safe in people under 16, people who are pregnant and those whose immune systems are compromised. The agency is expected to make a decision on whether to authorise the vaccine within days or weeks. The US has purchased 100 million doses (enough for 50 million people) of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with an option to buy up to five times more. However, the Trump administration opted not to secure an additional 100 million doses during the summer for delivery in the second quarter of next year, according to the Associated Press. The decision could delay US delivery of a second batch of vaccine doses in 2021. More information about the phase III trials of the vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca has been published in The Lancet. The peer reviewed paper lays out the data for the interim findings of three phase III trials, which had been partially released in a press statement on 23 November. The headline figure remains the same: the vaccine is very safe and 70.4 per cent effective on average. But depending on the dosing regime it can be as high as 90 per cent or as low as 62.1 per cent effective. AstraZeneca has begun the process of seeking regulatory approval in the UK, Canada, EU, Brazil, India, Russia and other countries, according to Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals R&D. Hong Kong announced new restrictions on hospitality and leisure aimed at curbing a fourth wave of coronavirus infections. Yesterday, Hong Kong recorded 78 new coronavirus cases, and daily new cases have surpassed 100 – the highest level since July – on several occasions in recent weeks.

12-8-20 First Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccinations take place in the UK
The roll-out of a vaccine against the coronavirus has begun in the UK. On 8 December, more than 50 hospitals across the country started to vaccinate people aged over 80 and some healthcare staff against the coronavirus, after the UK became the first nation to authorise a vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its partner BioNTech for emergency use on 2 December. The first person to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was Margaret Keenan. “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against covid-19. It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the new year after being on my own for most of the year,” Keenan, who is about to turn 91, told reporters. “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it. If I can have it at 90, then you can have it too,” she said. Keenan was given the injection at University Hospital in Coventry. She is due to have a second dose in around three weeks. The full immune response to the two doses should kick in by early January, greatly – but not completely – reducing her risk of developing covid-19 if she is exposed to the coronavirus. The second person to get the shot at the hospital was 81-year-old William Shakespeare, prompting a wave of Shakespeare-related references on social media. The UK has received 800,000 doses of the vaccine, and is due to get millions more by the end of the year. However, vaccinating the 12 million people aged over 65, let alone all those who are eligible, will be a massive challenge. UK health minister Matt Hancock said life might start to get back to normal as early as springtime in the northern hemisphere. “I hope we can lift the restrictions from the spring,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. In the meantime, people need to follow the rules, he said, warning that rising cases in some parts of the country might lead to the introduction of tougher restrictions. In some other countries, vaccination has already begun. Chinese company Sinopharm said in November that around a million people in China had already received its vaccine. Mass vaccination also began in Russia this week.

12-8-20 Covid: Fauci warns Christmas is 'greater challenge' than Thanksgiving
Top US diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci has warned of another surge in Covid cases after Christmas - even with the rise following Thanksgiving still being tackled. He said the longer Christmas/New Year period may be even more of a challenge. The US is seeing peak infections of close to 200,000 a day on average with record numbers of people in hospital. California is under a strict new lockdown, with other states announcing record increases. The US has recorded more than 14.7 million cases of infection in the pandemic so far and 282,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University research, both global highs. President Donald Trump has been accused of playing down measures such as mask wearing but the US has also had to deal with different states taking different approaches to tackling the virus. Dr Fauci, who has been asked by President-elect Joe Biden to be his Covid chief medical adviser, told CNN his concerns for Christmas were the same as his concerns for Thanksgiving, "only this may be even more compounded because it's a longer holiday". He said nobody wanted to modify or shut down the holiday season, but "we're at a very critical time... we've got to not walk away from the facts and the data. This is tough going for all of us". Millions defied appeals from experts not to travel over the Thanksgiving period - the Sunday after the Thursday 26 November holiday saw the most air travellers since March and the Covid effects are still to be fully felt. Dr Fauci, who has been part of the Trump administration's response to Covid-19 but has also drawn criticism from the president for his views, said people tended to return to work the week following Thanksgiving but that this is often not the case with Christmas leading into New Year. On Sunday, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb said US deaths could be near 400,000 by the end of January, adding: "As bad as things are right now, they're going to get a lot worse." Also on Sunday, Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force co-ordinator, criticised the Trump administration for flouting guidelines and peddling "myths" about the pandemic.

12-8-20 Here are answers to 6 burning questions about COVID-19 vaccines
One big unknown: Can these early vaccines stop the spread of the coronavirus? The recent success of some coronavirus vaccines in late-stage clinical trials has inched us closer to the end of the pandemic — a glimmer of hope in a long year of living with the virus. Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is gearing up to consider emergency use authorization for Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine on December 10 and for Moderna’s on December 17. But there are still crucial questions about how these vaccines and others will work once they get injected into people around the world. While vaccinated people — especially those at highest risk of the worse COVID-19 complications — could soon be protected from severe illness and death, the shots may not yet signal a return to normal life. Here’s what to know about these first vaccines and what their rollout might mean. Can you still get infected, and infect others, if you get vaccinated? Possibly. None of the vaccines tested so far have been 100 percent effective so some vaccinated people may still catch the coronavirus. What’s more, neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine trials tested whether the vaccines prevent people from being infected with the virus. Those trials, instead, focused on whether people were shielded from developing disease symptoms. That means that it’s not clear whether vaccinated people could still develop asymptomatic infections — and thus still be able to spread the virus to others. In both trials, some people who got the vaccine did get sick with COVID-19, but not as sick as those who got placebos. One vaccine recipient became severely ill in the Pfizer study compared with nine in the placebo group (SN: 11/18/20). No one who got the Moderna vaccine became severely ill, while 30 people who got the placebo developed severe disease (SN: 11/30/20). In a separate trial, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford have reported that they found fewer asymptomatic cases among people who had gotten their vaccine than in a comparison group (SN: 11/23/20). That might suggest some protection against infection as well as illness. But it remains to be seen how any of these vaccines actually affect transmission. It is important to remember that you can’t get COVID-19 directly from the vaccines being evaluated now as none of them contain the complete virus.

12-8-20 Covid-19 news: First people receive Pfizer/BioNTech vaccinations in UK
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. First people take part in UK’s mass vaccination programme. A 90-year-old woman became the first person to take part in the UK’s mass vaccination programme this morning when she was given the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech. Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, received the first of two doses of the vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry. She told the BBC, “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against covid-19, it’s the best early birthday present I could wish for.” William Shakespeare, 81, was the second person to receive the injection at the same hospital. Vaccinations have also taken place today in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. More than 23 million people in southern California have been placed under a strict new lockdown, after the state reported a record daily increase in new coronavirus cases on Friday with 25,068 new confirmed infections. On Saturday, the state reported that only 12.5 per cent of intensive care beds remained available. People are required to stay at home and minimise contact with those from other households. The new rules came into force on Sunday and will remain in place for at least three weeks. Serum Institute of India, the Indian producer of a vaccine candidate being developed by UK-Swedish company AstraZeneca in partnership with the University of Oxford, applied for emergency use approval of the vaccine in India today, a government official told Reuters. Pfizer applied for emergency use approval in India for its vaccine over the weekend, according to the same government official.

12-8-20 Coronavirus has an optics issue
This is one of the darkest moments of American history. Why doesn't it feel like it? The United States — a country that, in the last 80 years, has experienced an enemy strike on its soil, a presidential assassination, and a terrorist attack in its largest city — is entering the "darkest winter in modern history," in the words of one whistleblower. An American now dies roughly every 30 seconds of COVID-19, meaning that by the time you finish this article, 14 or 15 more people will be dead. The virus, which has been in the U.S. for less than a year, passed heart disease last week as the leading cause of death. And yet "we have not even come close to the peak," Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recently told CNBC. So why does everything feel so … normal? Or perhaps not normal, but at least the same. We are only on the cusp of what experts say will be the hardest three or four months in living memory for our country, but for many it seems increasingly difficult to muster genuine concern — at least if the pandemic has not touched you or your immediate loved ones directly and significantly. Part of that is due to compassion fatigue, as well as the general mental drain from every day of the last 10 months being a crisis. But the pandemic also has an optics problem, one where the lack of emotional images is leading to an easy dismissal by the remaining, yet-untouched public. When the outbreak first began, we were overwhelmed with images: the spiky medical illustrations of the crown-like virus, designed to elicit a "feeling of alarm"; graphs with multi-tentacled arms showing the U.S. shooting ahead of China and Italy in cases; field hospitals and mass graves in New York City; and, most strikingly, photos of "the great empty," the abandoned landmarks of the world during lockdown. But what was lacking was a face. Though the images were exciting or shocking or scary, they focused primarily on health-care workers or other quiet, empty images of the "new normal." Nearly a year on, it's telling that there is still no "Napalm Girl" of the COVID-19 crisis. But it is such images that "force us to contend with the unspeakable," The New York Times' Sarah Elizabeth Lewis wrote in May, in an opinion piece asking, "Where are the photos of people dying of COVID?" Pictures, Lewis further argues, "help humanize clinical statistics, to make them comprehensible." Think of Vietnam, where photojournalists brought the grisly realities of war into Americans' homes, and then later, the contrasting, sanitized images out of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the government learned its lesson and restricted photographers to "the highly controlled system of embedding," in the words of Mother Jones — down to even a ban on photographing soldiers' coffins. Photos are powerful tools, after all, and even more so when they have a central character we can connect and empathize with; such pictures have, over the decades, swayed distant people living safe and stable lives into caring about famine in South Sudan, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the Dust Bowl refugees, and even the American Civil War.

12-7-20 Covid: Most of California under strict new lockdown as cases surge
Most parts of the US state of California are under a strict new lockdown, as Covid-19 continues to surge across the country. The stay-at-home order affects around 85% of the state's 40 million people. It will be in place for at least three weeks and cover the Christmas holiday. Many businesses will be closed, and people will be banned from meeting anyone outside their household. On Sunday, the US had a record number of people in hospital with Covid-19. The country has seen a sharp rise in cases and Covid-related deaths in recent weeks, a surge that could be partly down to last month's Thanksgiving holiday, when millions of Americans travelled around the US. The new restrictions in California - the country's most populous state - were triggered by intensive care capacity in hospitals shrinking. The measures apply to the southern part of the state and its central valley, while other areas could follow within days. San Francisco has also gone into lockdown, with the mayor imposing a separate set of orders. California's lockdown in March, in which all non-essential businesses were closed, was seen as an early model for the US at the beginning of the pandemic. Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered that when capacity at intensive care units in any of five regions of the state goes below 15%, that region will go into lockdown within 24 hours. The stay-at-home orders triggered in this way will be similar to the far-reaching order issued for the state after the pandemic first hit in March, but with a few significant relaxations. The lockdown will last for at least three weeks, and until ICU capacity goes above 15% again. Mr Newsom said the measures would help to "flatten the curve" and reduce the pressure on health services. "We are at a tipping point in our fight against the virus and we need to take decisive action now to prevent California's hospital system from being overwhelmed in the coming weeks," he said last week.

12-7-20 Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani admitted to hospital with Covid-19
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has tested positive for Covid-19 and is being treated in hospital. The president wrote in a tweet: "Get better soon Rudy, we will carry on!" Mr Giuliani, who has led the Trump campaign's legal challenges to the election results, is the latest person close to the president to be infected. The president and his team have been criticised for shunning safety guidance. Mr Trump was ill in October. Mr Giuliani, 76, was admitted to the Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC on Sunday, according to US media reports. Following news of Mr Giuliani's diagnosis, the Arizona legislature announced sudden plans to shut down for one week. Several Republican lawmakers in the state had spent hours with the former New York mayor last week discussing election results. In a tweet, Mr Giuliani thanked well-wishers for their messages, and said he was "recovering quickly". His son, Andrew Giuliani, who works at the White House and tested positive for the virus last month, tweeted that his father was "resting, getting great care and feeling well". It is not clear if Mr Giuliani is experiencing symptoms or when he caught the virus. Nearly 14.6 million people have been infected with Covid-19 in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University, and 281,234 people have died - the highest figures of any country in the world. On Sunday, Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force co-ordinator, criticised the Trump administration for flouting guidelines and peddling "myths" about the pandemic. "I hear community members parroting back those situations, parroting back that masks don't work, parroting back that we should work towards herd immunity," Dr Birx told NBC. "This is the worst event that this country will face," she said.

12-7-20 Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani asks witness to remove her face mask
At a hearing before the Michigan legislature about alleged voter fraud, Donald Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani asked a witness seated next to him to remove her mask, because he said he couldn’t hear her. Mr Giuliani tested positive for Covid-19 just a few days later. His diagnosis has prompted the closure of the Arizona state legislature where he had been speaking recently.

12-7-20 Pakistan: Covid patients die due to oxygen shortage in Peshawar
Six coronavirus patients have died in a hospital in Pakistan after oxygen supplies ran too low. Patients' relatives have described how they begged for help as panic engulfed the government-run hospital in the northern city of Peshawar. A delay in deliveries meant more than 200 patients were left for hours on reduced oxygen. Hospital officials have blamed the shortage on the supply company but several staff have been suspended. Pakistan is currently fighting a new wave of coronavirus cases, with a total of more then 400,000 infections and over 8,000 deaths reported since the start of the outbreak. According to local media, the problems at Khyber Teaching Hospital began after the daily supply of fresh oxygen cylinders did not arrive on Saturday evening. The 300 backup cylinders were then unable to supply the required pressure for the ventilators. Mureed Ali, whose mother is ill with Covid-19, told BBC Urdu that "throughout the hospital, we were running to save our patients, begging the medical staff". He explained that some patients were eventually moved to the emergency room, where there was still a good oxygen supply. But after those supplies ran low as well, several patients died, while many others deteriorated into critical condition. Hospital staff eventually asked the patients' relatives to try to buy oxygen cylinders themselves, according to Mr Ali, but only some managed to do so. A spokesman of the government-run hospital told the BBC that five of the dead were patients in the coronavirus ward and one in the intensive care unit. Officials say all of the dead were adults. By 04:00 local time (23:00 GMT) on Sunday, the delayed official oxygen supply finally arrived at the hospital. Hospital officials described the shortage as "criminal negligence". An inquiry found staff meant to be on duty at the hospitals' oxygen plant were not present at the time, and that the oxygen tank on site would routinely only be partially filled. The director of the hospital and several other staff have already been suspended.

12-6-20 How to minimise your risk of spreading coronavirus over Christmas
If you plan to meet people over the festive season, there are many ways you can reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, says Clare Wilson. THE question of how to safely celebrate the holiday season this year is currently occupying a lot of people’s minds. In the UK, up to three households will be able to meet indoors at private homes for five days over Christmas in most of the country, and for seven days in Northern Ireland. The UK isn’t the only country where people are pondering this question. France and Germany have just announced similar loosening of restrictions, although the details differ, showing that the science is unclear on the right approach. People in the US, where Thanksgiving fell on 26 November, have already been wrestling with the same dilemma. Some people – such as Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – believe it isn’t worth the risk to meet with other households even when it is legally allowed. Studies of how the virus spread in January and February suggest that the biggest risk comes from indoor gatherings, especially ones involving drinking alcohol and eating. For those set on face-to-face meet-ups, remember they don’t have to be all or nothing. It may sound obvious, but it is well worth ploughing on with the same hygiene measures that have been advised from the start, like handwashing and keeping your distance from people. It isn’t easy to do so in winter, but opening windows and doors as much as possible would increase the chances of virus particles drifting away on air currents. And sorry to sound puritanical about it, but hugging and kissing anyone not in your household should be a no-no. There are also preventive measures to consider beforehand. In Germany, it looks like people will be advised to self-isolate for several days before mixing with other households. But that isn’t possible for everyone, including those who work outside the home or go to school. In the UK, there are calls for schools to switch to online lessons for the last two weeks of term. And it isn’t in any official advice, but if I were planning to visit more than one household in separate outings, I would schedule my trips to see anyone more vulnerable first of all, to lower the risk of bringing the virus into their house.

12-6-20 Covid tensions in US hotspot of North Dakota: 'Grow up, mask up'
North Dakota is the US state with the highest rate of Covid cases per capita since the pandemic began, according to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But residents there remain split on how seriously to take the virus. (Webmaster's comment: They'll take it seriously when it kills them!)

12-6-20 Covid: South Korea raises alert level amid spike in cases
South Korea is raising its Covid-19 alert levels, as it battles a rise in infections. Gatherings of more than 50 will be banned in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas from Tuesday, while gyms and karaoke bars be closed. On Sunday 631 new infections were reported in one day, the highest number in nine months. The country was widely praised for its virus response earlier this year, with aggressive testing and contact tracing. But the authorities have struggled in recent weeks. The number of active cases in South Korea now stands at 7,873, and there are concerns about rising numbers in hospitals. There have now been 37,546 cases in total, and 545 deaths. Restrictions would also be tightened in other parts of the country, Mr Park said, but at a lower level. They will last at least three weeks. On Saturday, Seoul's municipal government introduced a curfew, with most businesses including restaurants, bars and cafes being forced to close at 9pm.

12-6-20 Trump campaigns in Georgia amid crucial Senate race
US President Donald Trump has held his first rally after losing the US presidential election. The event in Georgia comes before key Senate runoff elections there in January, which will decide control of the upper house. Joe Biden is the first Democratic candidate to win the state in a presidential election since 1992. Mr Trump has repeatedly refused to admit his defeat and made numerous unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Ahead of the rally he criticised Georgia's Republican governor on Twitter, calling on him to help overturn Joe Biden's election victory in the state. In his speech on Saturday, however, the president seemed to admit his loss, claiming his foreign policy measures could be reversed under the incoming Democratic president-elect. Under the US constitution, Mr Biden will take office on 20 January regardless of whether Mr Trump admits defeat. Mr Biden won the presidential election with 306 votes in the electoral college - the system the US uses to elect a president - to Mr Trump's 232. The college will meet on 14 December to formalise the outcome. Appearing in Valdosta, Georgia, for his first rally since the 3 November vote, Mr Trump again made claims of electoral fraud and attacked Governor Brian Kemp. Mr Trump has alleged throughout the election that the increase in postal ballots had led to widespread fraud, but there has been no evidence of this. In a speech nearly two hours long - nominally to support two Republican Senators campaigning for re-election - President Trump told the cheering crowd that he could still win the election. Repeating his unsubstantiated claims, he said "they cheated and rigged our presidential election but we'll still win it", adding that Mr Kemp should "get a lot tougher". The crowd - many waving "Make America Great Again" posters - chanted "Stop the steal" and "Four more years". Despite the euphoria of the event, some Republicans are concerned that the president's continuing allegations of fraud will discourage his supporters from voting in the Senate races by falsely convincing them that the system is rigged. Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said on Wednesday that no evidence of widespread fraud had been found to support Mr Trump's claims. An election official in the state, Gabriel Sterling, also a Republican, has urged the president to tone down his fraud claims, saying they were inciting violent threats. (Webmaster's comment: Trump is obviously psychotic!)

12-5-20 Joe Biden: Covid vaccination in US will not be mandatory
President-elect Joe Biden says Americans won't be forced to take a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available in the US. It comes as the nation's health protection agency for the first time urged "universal mask use" indoors, apart from when Americans are at home. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said the US had "entered a phase of high-level transmission" of the virus. On Friday the US recorded over 2,500 deaths and nearly 225,000 new cases. It has confirmed 14.3 million cases and more than 278,000 deaths. Mr Biden - who is due to take office on 20 January - also said he expected his inauguration to be a scaled-back event without large crowds because of coronavirus concerns. "My guess is there'll still be a platform ceremony but I don't know how it's all going to work out," he said. Pfizer, which says its vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective in clinical trials, and Moderna, which says its jab is 94% effective, have both applied to the Food and Drug Administration to distribute their drugs in the US. The UK on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine. Earlier on Friday Vice-President Mike Pence said during a visit to Atlanta's CDC that federal approval for a Covid-19 vaccine could be "a week-and-a-half away." Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, the US president-elect said it would not be necessary to make a coronavirus vaccine mandatory. "I will do everything in my power as president to encourage people to do the right thing and when they do it, demonstrate that it matters," he said. The Pew Research Center says just 60% of Americans are currently prepared to take a coronavirus vaccine, up from 51% who said the same in September. On Thursday Mr Biden told CNN he would be happy to take a vaccine in public to allay potential concerns about its safety. Three former presidents - Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton - have said they are also prepared to be inoculated publicly.

12-5-20 Covid: Russia begins vaccinations in Moscow
Russia is starting its Covid-19 vaccination programme, with clinics in the capital Moscow inoculating those most at risk from the virus. Its own vaccine Sputnik V, which was registered in August, is being used. Developers say it is 95% effective and causes no major side effects, but it is still undergoing mass testing. Thousands of people have already registered to get the first of two jabs over the weekend, but it is unclear how much Russia can manufacture. Producers are only expected to make two million doses of the vaccine by the end of the year. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who announced the programme earlier in the week, said it was being offered to people in the city of 13 million who work in schools and the health service, and social workers. He said the list would grow as more of the vaccine became available. An online registration service allows city residents in the above professions aged 18-60 to book free appointments at 70 sites around the city. They will operate from 08:00 until 20:00 local time (05:00-17:00 GMT). People who have received injections in the last 30 days or who have had respiratory diseases within the last two weeks will be excluded, as will those with certain chronic illnesses, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Each person will receive two injections, the second 21 days after the first. We've seen a handful of health workers and teachers getting vaccinated at this smart, central Moscow clinic. They were all calm enough about receiving Sputnik V, even though it's still undergoing mass trials to test its safety and efficacy. One doctor said she'd seen enough Covid patients at her own hospital to prefer taking her chances with the vaccine. When I asked another woman whether she was worried about the experimental injection, she reasoned that "everything has to start somewhere".

12-5-20 Covid: Argentina passes tax on wealthy to pay for virus measures
Argentina has passed a new tax on its wealthiest people to pay for medical supplies and relief measures amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Senators passed the one-off levy - dubbed the "millionaire's tax" - by 42 votes to 26 on Friday. Those with assets worth more than 200 million pesos ($2.5m; £1.8m) - some 12,000 people - will have to pay. Argentina has recorded close to 1.5 million infections and almost 40,000 deaths from the coronavirus. It has been hit hard by the pandemic, becoming the fifth country worldwide to report one million confirmed cases in October despite only having a population of about 45 million people - making it the smallest nation at the time to surpass that figure. Lockdown measures have further dented an economy struggling with unemployment, high poverty levels and massive government debt. Argentina has been in recession since 2018. One of the law's authors said it would only affect about 0.8% of taxpayers. Those affected will pay a progressive rate of up to 3.5% on wealth in Argentina and up to 5.25% on that outside the country. AFP news agency reports that of the money raised, 20% will go to medical supplies, 20% to relief for small and medium-sized businesses, 20% to scholarships for students, 15% to social developments, and the remaining 25% to natural gas ventures. Centre-left President Alberto Fernandez's government hopes to raise 300 billion pesos. But opposition groups fear it will discourage foreign investors, and that it will not be a one-time tax. Centre-right party Juntos por el Cambio reportedly described it as "confiscatory".

12-5-20 Daca: Judge orders Trump to restore undocumented immigrants scheme
A US judge has ordered the Trump administration to fully reinstate a scheme that protects immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from being deported. The administration had moved to close the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme to new applicants earlier this year. But District Judge Nicholas Garaufis on Friday ruled against the restrictions. He told the administration to announce the full resumption of Daca by Monday. The Daca programme was introduced by former Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012. He set it up to help some of the more than 10 million immigrants who as young people entered the US illegally or overstayed a visa. Most of the children protected by the Daca programme are from Mexico and other Latin American countries. These migrants are known as "Dreamers". The scheme protected an estimated 700,000 people, offering temporary permits for work and study. But as part of his efforts to curb immigration, US President Donald Trump sought to end the programme in 2017, calling it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court took up the case after lower courts ruled the administration did not adequately explain why it was ending the programme, criticising the White House's "capricious" explanations. In June this year, the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that found Mr Trump's move to rescind Daca was "unlawful". Despite this ruling, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf issued a memo to limit the programme to those who were already enrolled. Now Judge Garaufis of the US District Court in Brooklyn has ruled that Mr Wolf was not acting within his legal authority and that the scheme should resume. The Center for American Progress, a think tank, said more than 300,000 new applicants could now be eligible for Daca. "This is a really big day for Daca recipients and immigrant young people," Karen Tumlin, director of the Justice Action Center, told AFP news agency. Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on 20 January, has said he plans to revitalise Daca.

12-5-20 US House passes federal cannabis decriminalisation bill
The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to decriminalise cannabis at the national level for the first time. It calls for removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances and erasing certain federal convictions. It also supports reinvestment in communities adversely impacted by the decades-long "war on drugs". The bill is very unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (More) Act was passed in the lower chamber 228 to 164 on Friday afternoon, with five Republicans - and one independent - supporting the measure. To become law, the bill needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the president. If that happens, it could help bridge a major disconnect between national and state drug policy in the US. Cannabis is still prohibited by the 1970 federal drug policy known as the Controlled Substances Act and classed as a Schedule I narcotic - defined as having no medical value and a high potential for abuse - but states have made their own laws relating to the drug. One in three Americans currently live in states where cannabis is legal for adult use, despite the federal prohibition. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have passed ballot measures or initiatives that allow the recreational use of cannabis by anyone over the age of 21. In addition, 38 states have passed measures that allow its use for medicinal purposes. Last month, voters in three states - Arizona, Montana and New Jersey - overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to legalise recreational use, with voters in Mississippi supporting its medicinal use. South Dakota, a traditionally conservative state, made history when voters there simultaneously backed initiatives for the medicinal and recreational use of the drug. Support for federal cannabis legalisation is now at an all-time high, with a Gallup poll last month showing more than two-thirds of American adults support it. Several lawmakers took to the House floor ahead of the vote, arguing the bill had less to do with legalising marijuana and more to do with how the enforcement of cannabis prohibition has hurt communities of colour, leaving behind "a legacy of racial and ethnic injustices".

12-4-20 Covid-19 news: US health adviser says January will be ‘terrible’
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. US coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths reached new record daily figures. The US reported record daily increases in coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths yesterday. There were 217,664 new cases, 100,667 people hospitalised with the virus and 2879 people who died from covid-19 – all record high figures since its epidemic began. US health adviser Anthony Fauci warned that the situation is likely to become even worse in the coming weeks. “I think January is going to be terrible because you’re going to have the Thanksgiving surge super-imposed upon the Christmas surge,” Fauci told Newsweek. “It’s entirely conceivable that January could be the worst,” he said. California, where hospital admissions have risen by 86 per cent in the past 14 days, is one of the latest US states to introduce new restrictions. Yesterday, the state’s governor Gavin Newsom announced a new stay-at-home order as well as restrictions on businesses and on non-essential travel. “This is the most challenging moment since the start of the pandemic,” Newsom told a press conference. “Lives will be lost unless we do more than we’ve ever done. We are being called to do everything in our power to make the kind of tough decisions that are required to get through this,” he said. London is at risk of being moved from current Tier 2 restrictions into Tier 3 because the fall in confirmed cases is starting to level out, particularly in outer boroughs, according to Kevin Fenton, London director for Public Health England. “If we want to avoid being placed into Tier 3, it is vital we keep transmission down,” he told the Evening Standard. Switzerland tightened restrictions as coronavirus cases in the country remain at a high level described by the country’s health minister as “very worrying”. The government said ski resorts should be able to remain open to domestic tourists with safety measures in place. Germany, France and Italy are shutting ski lifts over Christmas, and France said it will also impose border checks to stop people travelling from France to Switzerland to go skiing.

12-4-20 Pardoning himself
Thanks to President Trump, we have a new version of the five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression will now be followed by "pardoning." (Acceptance has been deleted as fake news.) The president took a brief break from trying to overturn the election results last week when he pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his backdoor conversations with the Russians. In return for his loyalty and silence, Flynn — a paid foreign agent — was blessed with a blanket, pre-emptive pardon for any federal crime he may have committed. In coming weeks, Trump will probably make it rain pre-emptive pardons on allies suspected of shady activities in his service, including Don Jr. (who may have invoked the Fifth to avoid testifying in the Russia investigation), Eric, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner. Despite failing to deliver proof of massive election fraud, Rudy Giuliani has reportedly requested one, too. Will Trump then pardon himself? Can he? Constitutional scholars differ on this question. Most think the former casino owner would be risking indictment and imprisonment if he gambled on a self-pardon standing up in the Supreme Court. There, textualists may debate what the Framers intended when they gave the president the expansive power to "grant" pardons — a transitive verb suggesting a recipient. But a common-sense way to look at it is this: If presidents know they can pardon themselves, they can spend four years embezzling funds, taking bribes, selling state secrets to foreign powers, stealing the White House china and silverware — and then simply wipe the slate clean on their last day in office. Is such unlimited royal privilege really the Framers' design? By defying all norms, this president has left us with a valuable legacy: He's shown us the many holes and vulnerabilities in our democratic system, and compelled us to ponder so many previously unimagined moral, legal, and constitutional questions.

12-4-20 Covid: Biden to ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days
US President-elect Joe Biden has said he will ask Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office to curtail the spread of coronavirus. He told CNN he believed there would be a "significant reduction" in Covid-19 cases if every American wore a face covering. Mr Biden also said he would order masks to be worn in all government buildings. The US has recorded 14.1 million cases and 276,000 deaths from Covid-19 - the highest of any country in the world. Mr Biden is preparing to take office as pharmaceutical giants are poised to ship millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines to the American public. The UK on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine. In his first joint interview with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris since the election, Mr Biden said: "The first day I'm inaugurated to say I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask. Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. "And I think we'll see a significant reduction if we occur that, if that occurs with vaccinations and masking to drive down the numbers considerably." The first 100 days of a new presidency is symbolically important in the US and is seen as a gauge of how a president will get things done. Constitutional experts say a US president has no legal authority to order Americans to wear masks, but Mr Biden said during the interview he and his Vice-President Kamala Harris would set an example by donning face coverings. The president's executive authority does cover US government property, and Mr Biden told CNN he intended to exercise such power. "I'm going to issue a standing order that in federal buildings you have to be masked." He added: "Transportation, interstate transportation, you must be masked, airplanes and buses, et cetera." US airlines, airports and most public transit systems already require all passengers and workers to wear face coverings. The Trump White House has rejected calls from American health experts to mandate masks in transportation as "overly restrictive".

12-4-20 Covid vaccine: How many doses will be given to each US state?
With two Covid vaccines approaching possible approval in the US, states are now racing to finalise their plans for what to do with their first round of injections. There are two vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer, that are both seeking emergency approval in the US. Pfizer's treatment was approved for the British public on Wednesday. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to meet on 10 December to discuss approval for the UK-approved vaccine, which was created through a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech. They will meet again on 17 December to discuss Moderna's request. States have until 4 December to submit their plans for who gets the Pfizer drug first. By 11 December they must submit their plans for the initial rollout of the Modern vaccine. It comes as coronavirus cases continue to balloon across the US, with an average of over 150,000 new cases reported per day. The US has recorded over 14 million cases and some 276,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Here's what you need to know about when the US will have a vaccine. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that the nation's 21 million healthcare workers should be prioritised first, as well the three million elderly Americans living in long-term care homes. But there is less consensus on how states should distribute it to other groups. The nation's approximately 87 million essential workers are expected to be next in line for the jab, but it will be up to states to decide which industries to prioritise. Will postal workers and meat-processing factory workers be included, for example? Moncef Slaoui, who leads the federal government's Operation Warp Speed vaccine distribution programme, said he does not "expect the states to make uniform decisions". "Some may prefer long-term care facilities or the elderly, while others may prioritise their health care workers. It would be wrong to immunise 18-year-olds first. I hope no one does that. But otherwise it's shades of grey."

How some of the Covid-19 vaccines compare

12-4-20 Job growth slows in US as virus cases surge
Hiring in the US slowed sharply last month as the country grappled with a surge in coronavirus cases. Employers added just 245,000 jobs in November, the Labor Department said, below many economists' expectations. The jobless rate dropped to 6.7% from 6.9% a month earlier, partially because many people stopped looking for work. The report comes as several key virus relief programmes, including some unemployment benefits, are set to expire at the end of the month. Analysts said the numbers show the risk that the economic recovery is stalling and underscore the need for Congress to approve further stimulus. In October, job numbers grew by 610,000 in the US. "The bottom line is that job growth has slowed markedly, and this report demonstrates yet again that it's not possible to separate the economy from the virus," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. "We hope these numbers will increase the pressure on Congress to act." Unless lawmakers approve additional stimulus, roughly 12 million people are due to lose access to unemployment benefits at the end of December, according to a recent report by the Century Foundation, a Left-leaning think tank. More than four million people have already been cut off, it found. "For Congress to allow this many workers to be cut off… it's unprecedented," says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the foundation, who worked on the report. Sarah Groome lost her job as an events manager for a Major League Soccer football team in Pennsylvania in April, after coronavirus disrupted the season. The 35-year-old received her last unemployment cheque in October after exhausting the six months of benefits typically allowed. Her efforts to obtain the pandemic-related emergency extension have become mired in bureaucracy, even though she has called dozens of times a day in an effort to clear up the problem. She has found a temporary, part-time retail job that brings in about $100 a week and dug into savings to pay for her rent, health insurance and other essentials. "I don't know what I'm going to do financially," she says. "I'm applying to jobs and I've probably applied to over 100 at this point and I've had one interview." While the US has regained roughly half of the jobs lost this spring at the height of the lockdowns, about 10.7 million people remain unemployed - almost 40% of whom have been without work for more than six months, the Labor Department said.

12-4-20 Coronavirus: US doctor who has worked 258 days straight goes viral
Dr Joseph Varon believes he is fighting two wars. A war against coronavirus and a war against stupidity. The Chief Medical Officer at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston went viral earlier this week when an image of him comforting an elderly patient ended up on social media. The US is seeing a rise in the number of people entering hospital with COVID-19 and several states are concerned that health care facilities could soon be overwhelmed.

12-4-20 Fauci apologises for UK vaccine approval comments
Dr Anthony Fauci has apologised for appearing to criticise the UK's vaccine approval process. The top US infectious disease expert had previously told CBS News the UK "rushed" approving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. "I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint," Dr Fauci told the BBC on Thursday. The UK on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus. (Webmaster's comment: Fauci is nothing but a mouth piece for America!)

12-3-20 Covid-19 news: UK hospitals may get Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine first
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. UK hospitals are expected to get first batch of vaccines before care homes. The first batch of vaccine doses created by Pfizer and BioNTech were sent to the UK from Belgium today. Distribution of the vaccine will be “an immense logistical challenge”, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said during a briefing yesterday. The order in which people will get vaccinated is recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) but ultimately decided by the UK government. Yesterday, the JCVI recommended that priority be given first to care home residents and their carers. However, due to the strict storage requirements of the newly authorised Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the government said it will be delivered first to hospitals, with care home staff, NHS staff and patients likely to receive the first doses. “As soon as it is legally and technically possible to get the vaccine into care homes, we will do so,” said England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, speaking at the same briefing as Johnson. “But this is a complex product with a very fragile culture. This is not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times.” US regulators are expected to meet to discuss emergency use authorisation of a vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical company Moderna on 10 December. They will meet again on 17 December to discuss the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was granted temporary authorisation for emergency use in the UK yesterday. US health adviser Anthony Fauci told Fox News he thought UK regulators were too quick to authorise the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. “We have the gold standard of a regulatory approach with the [US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)],” he said. “The UK did not do it as carefully and they got a couple of days ahead,” said Fauci. He called the FDA approval process “the correct way”, adding that “We really scrutinise the data very carefully to guarantee to the American public that this is a safe and efficacious vaccine.” The US reported record daily increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations yesterday. New cases increased by 195,695 and 100,226 people were hospitalised with covid-19 – the highest figures since the pandemic began. The US also recorded 3157 new deaths from the disease yesterday, its highest number of daily covid-19 deaths since its previous peak of 2607 on 15 April.

12-3-20 Coronavirus: US hits record Covid cases and hospitalisations
Record-high Covid infections and hospitalisations have been reported in the US, with fears they will not slow in the run-up to Christmas. The number of people in hospital passed 100,000 for the first time, a figure that has doubled since early November. New cases rose by a record 195,695 on Wednesday, and the daily death toll of 2,733 was close to a new high. The city of Los Angeles has reacted to an unprecedented surge there by ordering residents to stay at home. Nationwide, infections are now closing in on 14 million, with more than 264,000 deaths, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Figures have continued to soar in recent weeks, with around a million new infections reported every week in November. - equivalent to 99 every minute. In response to surging numbers, US authorities have warned that the country's healthcare system faces an unprecedented strain this winter. "The reality is that December, January and February are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation," said Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). California, Texas and Florida - the three most populous US states - are among the worst-affected areas of the country, and have each registered more than one million cases. In the city of Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an emergency order for residents to stay home with immediate affect, following an unprecedented surge of infections. A similar order is already in place in Los Angeles county - the current epicentre of America's outbreak - where some hospitals are already approaching full capacity. Authorities reported 5,987 cases on Tuesday, bringing the county's total to 414,185. US officials have said they expect infection numbers to continue rising over the next few days because many people travelled over the Thanksgiving holiday, ignoring government advice."Travel volume was high over Thanksgiving," said Cindy Friedman, chief of the travellers' health branch at the CDC. "Even if only a small percentage of those people were carrying the disease and passed it on to other people, that can translate into hundreds of thousands of additional infections." (Webmaster's comment: And we've yet to pay for our Thanksgiving gatherings stupidity!)

12-3-20 Trump 'stoking vast conspiracy' says Georgia election official
An election official in the US state of Georgia has said that President Trump "needs to understand his words have consequences". Gabriel Sterling, who is a "life-long Republican", told the BBC's Beyond 100 Days programme the president "continuing to stoke the idea that there is some path to victory through some giant, vast conspiracy is... unhelpful" - and that "somebody's going to get killed if this continues". In a news conference on Tuesday, Mr Sterling said Mr Trump would be responsible for any violence that occurs as a result of his continued and unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud. The Georgia voting system implementation manager called on the president to condemn the threats workers have faced as the state carries out a second recount of votes at the Trump campaign's request.

12-3-20 The U.K. is the first country to authorize a fully tested COVID-19 vaccine
Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine could start being given on an emergency basis in the coming days. The United Kingdom became the first country to approve a fully tested COVID-19 vaccine for its citizens on December 2 when it OK’d Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use. Russia and China have allowed emergency use of vaccines made in those countries, but did so before safety and effectiveness trials were completed (SN: 8/11/20; SN: 7/21/20). The United Arab Emirates also granted early emergency use authorization for two Chinese-made vaccines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine regulators will review Pfizer’s application for emergency use authorization on December 10. Many experts expect the vaccine, developed with Germany-based BioNTech, will get FDA’s nod because its effectiveness is well above the 50 percent threshold the agency previously said would be required for authorization. In November, Pfizer announced that its vaccine was about 95 percent effective at preventing illness in a large clinical trial in the United States (SN: 11/18/20). Pfizer and BioNTech began a “rolling review” process in the United Kingdom in October, giving health regulators there time to review data as they became available. Scientists and clinicians considered data from laboratory studies, animal studies and safety and effectiveness data from clinical trials in people when making the decision, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said in a news release. Pfizer has contracted with the United Kingdom to provide 40 million doses of vaccine to be delivered in 2020 and 2021. Since the vaccine requires two doses, that’s enough to immunize 20 million people. The first doses will arrive within days from the company’s manufacturing site in Puurs, Belgium, the company said in a news release.

12-3-20 Dr Fauci: The UK 'was not as careful' as US in vaccine approval
Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, has said that the UK was not as rigorous as the US in its Covid-19 vaccine approval process. The UK on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine for the coronavirus. "The UK did not do it as carefully," he told Fox News. "If you go quickly and you do it superficially, people are not going to want to get vaccinated." Dr Fauci said the US approval of the vaccine would come "very soon". The remarks come as the US nears 14 million total Covid-19 infections, with a recorded 273,590 deaths. The top doctor has said he believed that the US would have vaccine approval soon, and defended the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its review process. "The way the FDA is, our FDA is doing it, is the correct way," he said on Fox News. "We really scrutinise the data very carefully to guarantee to the American public that this is a safe and efficacious vaccine." The FDA plans to meet on 10 December to discuss approval for the UK-approved vaccine, which was created through a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech. They will meet again on 17 December to discuss a second vaccine - Moderna's - request. The UK's approval is expected to place extra pressure on FDA regulators to swiftly approve the vaccine, as American regulators will examine the same data. And on Thursday, Dr Fauci told CBS News he will meet with members of President-elect Joe Biden's team to discuss the incoming administration's response to the pandemic. Mr Biden had said that President Donald Trump's initial refusal to engage in the transition process, and to co-ordinate planning for vaccine distribution, could cost American lives. Dr Fauci told CBS that he agreed with Mr Biden that it was "possible" the US might see an additional 250,000 deaths by January.

12-2-20 UK approves Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for rollout next week
The UK has become the first country to approve the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, paving the way for immunisations to begin in the most vulnerable next week. According to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, those who will receive the vaccine first will be older people in care homes, and people will be contacted by the NHS when it is their turn. The news heralds a breakthrough in medicine, with a vaccine being developed in just 10 months rather than decades. The vaccine was approved for emergency use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK, which can allow emergency use without European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval. In general, the UK has to abide by EMA decisions until 31 December, when it stops following EU rules. “This is excellent news and a huge landmark in the global efforts to address this pandemic,” said Michael Head at the University of Southampton, UK, in a statement. “The regulators have clearly been satisfied with the data presented to them.” The swift approval of a vaccine is “great news”, says immunologist Eleanor Riley at the University of Edinburgh, UK. While the full results of trials haven’t yet been made public, regulators will have access to all the data before any approval, she says. “We can be confident that it will be safe and it will work.” One challenge will be storage and distribution, said Head, as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at temperatures of -70°C, “which will pose significant logistical challenges for all countries that choose to use it. These are not insurmountable but certainly challenging.” Three vaccines developed in Europe and North America have been shown to be effective in phase III trials: the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, another by Moderna, plus an adenovirus-based vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

12-2-20 Covid-19 news: UK authorises Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use
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. UK government first in the world to give Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine temporary authorisation. The UK government has become the first in the world to give the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine temporary authorisation for emergency use. The UK has pre-ordered 40 million doses – enough for 20 million people at most, as it is a two-shot vaccine – and will start to vaccinate people possibly as early as next week. To distribute the vaccine, Pfizer has designed special cardboard boxes that can be packed with dry ice, enabling the vaccine doses to be kept at -70°C during transport. They can then be stored in a normal fridge for up to five days. This afternoon the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) released its advice on who will receive priority for the vaccine. It recommended that priority be given first to care home residents and their carers, then to frontline health and social care workers and people aged 80 and over. People 75 and over will be next, followed by those aged 70 and above and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable. The vaccine will not be given to pregnant women or to most children under 16, because there is no safety data for these groups. A revised three-tiered system of coronavirus restrictions came into force in England today, marking the end of the country’s second nationwide lockdown. Under the new rules, most of England is under tier two and tier three, meaning people remain banned from meeting those from other households indoors. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has ordered authorities to start mass voluntary vaccinations with the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine next week. He said Russia will have 2 million doses of the two-dose jab ready within the next few days. Coronavirus cases in Poland passed 1 million today, according to its health ministry. Poland has a shortage of doctors and medical supplies, which is making it difficult to combat the country’s second wave of coronavirus.

12-2-20 The Scandinavian secrets to keeping positive in a covid-19 winter
Lockdown restrictions in winter might seem something to dread, but we can combat this by embracing the mindset of people used to long, dark winters, says health psychologist Kari Leibowitz. WHEN health psychologist Kari Leibowitz moved from the US to the Norwegian town of Tromsø, more than 300 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, her research became personal. Inspired by recent findings on the ways in which people’s attitudes influence their mental and physical health, she wondered whether this might be the secret to coping with the long, dark Nordic winter. Her research revealed that many Norwegians have a winter mindset that allows them to thrive in conditions she was dreading. Now back in the US at Stanford University, Leibowitz believes her findings hold lessons for us all, especially for people living in the northern hemisphere who, as the nights draw in, face the dual challenges of winter and a stressful pandemic. David Robson: What are “mindsets” and why are they so important? Kari Leibowitz: I think of mindsets as a framework that helps us simplify information and make sense of the world. And we’re really just at the beginning of unpacking the ways that they can shape our health and well-being. A lot of my research now is looking at how we can use mindsets in clinical practice. In one of the last studies that I did, we tested the effects of changing people’s mindsets – even without treatment. We brought our participants to the lab and we pricked them with histamine, triggering a minor allergic reaction that looks a bit like a mosquito bite. For some people, a doctor just examined their arm; for the others, the doctor examined their arm and said: “OK, from now on, the itch and irritation will feel better and your rash is going to start to go away.” That single sentence reduced people’s symptoms. It is a really tangible example of the ways that using mindsets can help patients feel better.

12-2-20 Trump inciting violence, warns Georgia election official
A US state of Georgia election official has said President Donald Trump will bear responsibility for any violence that results from unsubstantiated election fraud claims he has stoked. "It's all gone too far! All of it! It has to stop!" Gabriel Sterling warned. He cited intimidation and death threats to election workers. Georgia is carrying out a second recount of votes at the Trump camp's request. Joe Biden was declared a narrow winner in the key state. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said it was trying to make sure "that all legal votes are counted and all illegal votes are not". "No-one should engage in threats or violence, and if that has happened, we condemn that fully," he said. It came after US Attorney General William Barr said his justice department had so far found no proof to back the president's claims of fraud in the election - the latest setback to the Trump camp's legal challenges in several states. Georgia will also hold in January two run-off elections, which will determine who controls the Senate. Mr Trump's Republican party currently has a slim majority in the upper chamber, and a victory in the run-offs would allow it to counter the Democratic administration of President-elect Biden. The Democrats control the lower chamber - the House of Representatives. At a news conference in Atlanta, Mr Sterling, the state's voting systems implementation manager, rebuked his fellow Republicans, including the president. He said a 20-year-old contractor in Gwinnett County for Dominion Voting Systems, which has become the subject of baseless right-wing conspiracy theories, had received death threats. The worker's family was also getting harassed, Mr Sterling added. The unnamed man had been threatened with a noose and accused of treason, Mr Sterling said, after transferring a report on ballot batches to a county computer so he could read it. Mr Sterling said he himself has a police guard outside his home, while the wife of Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, was "getting sexualised threats through her cell phone".

12-2-20 Health care workers and long-term care residents should get COVID-19 vaccines first
Around 40 million doses of the vaccine will be available by the end of the year. Health care workers and long-term care facility residents should be at the head of the line when the first doses of vaccines against COVID-19 are available in the United States, an advisory committee to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on December 1. The news comes as two vaccine candidates, from Pfizer (SN: 11/18/20) and Moderna (SN: 11/16/20), are set to be considered for emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on December 10 and 17, respectively. If one or both vaccines get the go-ahead from FDA and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, people with first priority could begin to be vaccinated before the end of the year. “This is a particularly difficult time in the United States,” said ACIP member Beth Bell of the University of Washington in Seattle, who noted during the meeting that the country is averaging one COVID-19 death per minute. “So we are acting none too soon.” As of December 1, more than 13.6 million people in the United States have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and nearly 270,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker. This is the first guidance that ACIP has issued on the allocation of the initial, limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines. There will still need to be guidance for people next in line, such as other essential workers, older adults and people with preexisting conditions. It will be up to state health departments to implement the guidance. ACIP has been meeting throughout the year to prepare for the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, with the understanding that there wouldn’t be enough of the shots for everyone right away. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines each require two doses taken several weeks apart. There will be about 40 million doses available by the end of the year, meaning around 20 million people could be vaccinated.

12-2-20 Covid-19 news: Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine authorised for use in the UK
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. UK authorises emergency use of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. This morning brought the unexpected news that the UK government has become the first in the world to give the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine temporary authorisation for emergency use. The UK had already pre-ordered 40 million doses – enough for 20 million people at most, as it is a two-shot vaccine – and will start to vaccinate people possibly as early as next week. Health secretary Matt Hancock said that the priority list for vaccination would be released later today. Frontline healthcare workers are likely to be first, followed by vulnerable older people. Priority will be based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI). Further details are thin on the ground. The announcement was made by the Department of Health and Social Care in a short press statement, which confirmed that “The Government has today accepted the recommendation from the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for use. This follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA who have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.” The MHRA has yet to release any information, though we know that it only received the dossier – likely to run to thousands of pages – on 23 November. The information has also been reviewed by another independent advisory body, the Commission on Human Medicines. It has also yet to say anything. Emergency use applications usually only consider safety, but the vaccine has reportedly also been assessed for effectiveness. The Department of Health said “Further details will be set out shortly.”

12-2-20 UK approves Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for rollout next week
The UK has become the first country to approve the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, paving the way for immunisations to begin in the most vulnerable next week. According to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, those who will receive the vaccine first will be older people in care homes, and people will be contacted by the NHS when it is their turn. The news heralds a breakthrough in medicine, with a vaccine being developed in just 10 months rather than decades. The vaccine was approved for emergency use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK, which can allow emergency use without European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval. In general, the UK has to abide by EMA decisions until 31 December, when it stops following EU rules. “This is excellent news and a huge landmark in the global efforts to address this pandemic,” said Michael Head at the University of Southampton, UK, in a statement. “The regulators have clearly been satisfied with the data presented to them.” The swift approval of a vaccine is “great news”, says immunologist Eleanor Riley at the University of Edinburgh, UK. While the full results of trials haven’t yet been made public, regulators will have access to all the data before any approval, she says. “We can be confident that it will be safe and it will work.” One challenge will be storage and distribution, said Head, as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at temperatures of -70°C, “which will pose significant logistical challenges for all countries that choose to use it. These are not insurmountable but certainly challenging.” Three vaccines developed in Europe and North America have been shown to be effective in phase III trials: the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, another by Moderna, plus an adenovirus-based vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

12-2-20 Covid vaccine: What does UK vaccine approval mean for US?
With the UK granting approval to a Covid-19 vaccine that is currently being reviewed in the US, 330 million Americans are left wondering when they will be able to get the potentially life-saving jab. There are two vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer, that are both seeking emergency approval in the US. Pfizer's treatment was approved for the British public on Wednesday. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to meet on 10 December to discuss approval for the UK-approved vaccine, which was created through a partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech. They will meet again on 17 December to discuss Moderna's request. On Monday, Vice-President Mike Pence told US governors in a conference call that rollout of the vaccine could begin "as soon as the week of December 14". It comes as coronavirus cases continue to balloon across the US, with an average of over 150,000 new cases reported per day. The US has recorded a total of 13.6 million cases and some 270,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that the nation's 21 million healthcare workers should be prioritised first, as well the three million elderly Americans living in long-term care homes. But there is less consensus on how states should distribute it to other groups. The nation's approximately 87 million essential workers are expected to be next in line for the jab, but it will be up to states to decide which industries to prioritise. Will postal workers and meat-processing factory workers be included, for example? Moncef Slaoui, who leads the federal government's Operation Warp Speed vaccine distribution programme, said he does not "expect the states to make uniform decisions". "Some may prefer long-term care facilities or the elderly, while others may prioritise their health care workers. It would be wrong to immunise 18-year-olds first. I hope no one does that. But otherwise it's shades of grey." Officials say vaccinations for groups that are not at a high risk are expected to take place in the spring of 2021.

12-2-20 Did Europe's lockdowns work, and which countries got it right?
IN EARLY November, covid-19 cases in Europe were surging, accounting for almost half the world’s new cases and deaths. Now many in the region are emerging from a second round of lockdowns, including England on 2 December and soon France on 15 December. So how well did they work, and which countries got them right? The restrictions imposed by most European nations were “fairly high”, says Thomas Hale at the University of Oxford, who runs a tracker on government responses to covid-19. Last week, most European nations scored more than 60 out of 100 points on the tracker’s index of the stringency of responses, with most having “stay at home” orders. Exceptions included the Baltic states, countries in the Balkans and Switzerland. Hannah Ritchie at online publisher Our World in Data, says that most national lockdowns have already caused new cases to reach their peak. Typically, new cases in European countries peaked one to two weeks after a lockdown started, and deaths a further one to two weeks later, says Ritchie. But some say it should take two to three weeks for an effect to be seen, suggesting that the lockdown might not have been entirely responsible. England’s national lockdown, which began on 5 November, appears to have cut the virus’s prevalence by about 30 per cent, according to the REACT-1 swab test study being run by Imperial College London. Around 1 in 100 people were estimated to be infected, according to results from 13 to 24 November, compared with about 1 in 80 between 16 October and 2 November. On 27 November, the UK government’s science advisers revised down the coronavirus’s reproduction, or R, number for England to between 0.9 and 1 – the first time since September that it may have been below 1 – indicating that the country’s epidemic is stable or shrinking.

12-2-20 Delhi sees deadliest month amid raging pandemic
India has the second highest number of Covid cases in the world. November was the deadliest month for the capital Delhi, which has been struggling to contain the virus, with more than 100 deaths on some days. The death toll has overwhelmed the Indian capital's crematoriums, where many families say goodbye to their loved ones in ancient rituals. A lack of social distancing at the city’s markets has been blamed for the recent uptick. Some hospitals have run out of ICU beds - with pollution and cold weather adding to the burden. Cases are starting to fall, but doctors warn that if people don’t take care, the situation could get worse again, as the BBC's South Asia correspondent Rajini Vaidyanathan reports.

12-2-20 How is China beating covid-19 and are the reported numbers reliable?
AS THE second wave of the covid-19 pandemic worsens across the northern hemisphere, life has largely returned to normal in the country where the virus first made its mark. Restaurants and markets in Chinese cities are bustling, as are tourist sites and cinemas. In Wuhan, where a lockdown in late January first shocked and then became a precedent for the rest of the world, recent months have seen packed concerts, food festivals and pool parties. China never imposed a nationwide lockdown, and seems to have avoided the new wave of cases seen in other countries. According to official data, community transmission in China is low, aside from a few localised outbreaks – including one in Beijing in June, and one in Kashgar in October, which have been kept to a total of a few hundred cases. Covid-19 spread quickly in China early in the year, with 80,000 confirmed cases at the start of March. But the rise in case numbers slowed. In the eight months since, China’s cumulative case count has grown by 7000 cases. Is the country’s success too good to be believed? There are reasons to be concerned over the accuracy of reported case numbers in China, says Jennifer Bouey at the RAND Corporation think tank, headquartered in Santa Monica, California. China’s top-down system of administration means that local governments are often reluctant to escalate issues to more senior officials for fear of causing unnecessary alarm, says Bouey. “It’s very likely to cause a local government to cover up numbers,” she says, which may have occurred in the early stages of the covid-19 outbreak. But previous experience has shown that once China’s central government becomes aware of the nature of a public health problem, it institutes severe penalties for under-reporting, says Bouey. “In 2003, they fired almost 1000 provincial officials – even someone in Beijing – because the central government suspected that they didn’t give the real numbers [of SARS cases].”

12-2-20 US attorney general finds 'no voter fraud that could overturn election'
US Attorney General William Barr says his justice department has found no proof to back President Donald Trump's claims of fraud in the 2020 election. "To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election," he said. His comments are seen as a big blow to Mr Trump, who has not accepted defeat. He and his campaign have filed lawsuits in states that he lost, as they begin certifying Joe Biden as the winner. President-elect Biden defeated the incumbent Mr Trump by a margin of 306 to 232 votes in the US electoral college, which chooses the US president. And in the popular vote, Mr Biden won at least 6.2 million more votes than Mr Trump. Since 3 November's election, Mr Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, and members of his legal defence team have spoken of an alleged international plot to hand Mr Biden the win. On Tuesday, after Mr Barr's statements were released, the president tweeted several times alluding to voter fraud, again without proof. "There's been one assertion that would be systemic fraud and that would be the claim that machines were programmed essentially to skew the election results," Mr Barr, who is seen as a top Trump ally, told AP News on Tuesday, referring to the assertion that ballot machines were hacked to give more votes to Mr Biden. Mr Barr said that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security have investigated that claim, "and so far, we haven't seen anything to substantiate that". A DOJ spokesperson later stressed the department had not concluded its investigation and would continue to "receive and vigorously pursue all specific and credible allegations of fraud as expeditiously as possible". Last month, Mr Barr issued an order to US attorneys, allowing them to pursue any "substantial allegations" of voting irregularities, before the 2020 presidential election was certified.

12-2-20 Trump pardons: US justice department unveils bribery inquiry
The US justice department is looking into claims that lobbyists have tried to use bribes to secure a presidential pardon, unsealed court papers show. They say that in August investigators began investigating a "secret lobbying scheme" possibly involving attempts to contact White House officials. The redacted filings do not give any names, but the justice department says no government official is being probed. In a tweet, President Trump referred to the investigation as "fake news". It is common for outgoing presidents to use their right to issue pardons, which wipe out convictions. President Trump - who is due to leave office in January, although he is still contesting his election defeat in the courts - has used the procedure a number of times. Last week he pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Meanwhile, US media say Mr Trump has been discussing the possibility of pardoning family members. The document released by a federal court in Washington DC on Tuesday relates to a request by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to use emails and other communications seized in a bribery-for-pardon inquiry. The data, prosecutors say in the paper, points to potential "criminal activity". They say individuals - whose identities are redacted - appear to have "acted as lobbyists to senior White House officials without complying with the registration requirements" for such activity. Their aim, according to the papers, may have been to secure "a pardon or reprieve of sentence" for another unidentified individual. According to the documents, prosecutors in August sought a court order "so that the investigative team [could] access" the communications and confront the suspects. It is unknown who the people targeted were. On Tuesday the DOJ said: "No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing."

12-2-20 Trump travel ban: 'I might finally see my sons again'
One of President Donald Trump's earliest and most controversial moves was a travel ban on people from certain nations he said were deemed a security threat to the US. Joe Biden has promised this will be one of the first policies he reverses. The ban - which now applies to 13 countries - has survived many legal challenges, but for some families it has meant years of separation. When he first moved to Ohio in 2015, Afkab Hussein planned for his pregnant wife to join him the following year. But while his wife and children now live in Kenya, they are Somali citizens - and Somalia was one of the countries on the first iteration of the travel ban. Since he moved, he has only been able to pay a couple of very short visits to his family - and missed the births of his two young children. "It's been a really tough few years. It's been really hard," he says. "I don't think I'll ever forget the last four years." Mr Hussein works long, lonely hours, driving lorries in 40 states across the country. He speaks to his wife on the phone, but an eight-hour time difference means that for large stretches of his day, his family is fast asleep. He has missed all of the major milestones in his sons' lives so far: "Yesterday was my first son's fifth birthday - and I wasn't there." Mr Hussein knew that during his campaign Mr Biden had promised to lift the ban in his first 100 days, and was hopeful. Ally Bolour, a lawyer with American Visas in California, says he is optimistic these families will be able to meet again, but argues that even before the travel ban young Muslim men like Mr Hussein faced discrimination in the US visa system. "Before Trump, even during [the term of former president Barack] Obama," this was an issue, Mr Bolour says. "Even people who go for consular processing for émigré visas can be subjected to sometimes years-long background checks if they're Muslim, if they're male, between certain ages and from certain countries. "What Donald Trump did was effectively... what the government was doing already, but in the form of a travel ban." Some argue that the ban is an effective counter-terrorism measure, but caught up in the visa refusals are also families who just want to be together.

12-2-20 Vaccine rumours debunked: Microchips, 'altered DNA' and more
We've looked into some of the most widely shared false vaccine claims - everything from alleged plots to put microchips into people to the supposed re-engineering of our genetic code. The fear that a vaccine will somehow change your DNA is one we've seen aired regularly on social media. The BBC asked three independent scientists about this. They said that the coronavirus vaccine would not alter human DNA. Some of the newly created vaccines, including the one now approved in the UK developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, use a fragment of the virus's genetic material - or messenger RNA. "Injecting RNA into a person doesn't do anything to the DNA of a human cell," says Prof Jeffrey Almond of Oxford University. It works by giving the body instructions to produce a protein which is present on the surface of the coronavirus. The immune system then learns to recognise and produce antibodies against the protein. This isn't the first time we've looked into claims that a coronavirus vaccine will supposedly alter DNA. We investigated a popular video spreading the theory back in May. Posts have noted that messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology "has never been tested or approved before". It is true that no mRNA vaccine has been approved before now, but multiple studies of mRNA vaccines in humans have taken place over the last few years. And, since the pandemic started, the vaccine has been tested on tens of thousands of people around the world and has gone through a rigorous safety approval process. Like all new vaccines, it has to undergo rigorous safety checks before it can be recommended for widespread use. In Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials, vaccines are tested in small numbers of volunteers to check they are safe and to determine the right dose. In Phase 3 trials they are tested in thousands of people to see how effective they are. The group who received the vaccine and a control group who have received a placebo are closely monitored for any adverse reactions - side-effects. Safety monitoring continues after a vaccine has been approved for use.

12-1-20 Covid vaccine: Rumours thrive amid trickle of pandemic facts
With a number of potential vaccines for Covid-19 now imminent, there are increasing concerns that misinformation online could turn some people against being immunized. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the world's not only fighting the pandemic, but also what it calls an "infodemic" - where an overload of information, some of it false, makes it difficult for people to make decisions about their health. And it's trying to answer people's concerns about the vaccines - as well as helping people evaluate the information they see on social media. Nina, who is 21 and lives in London with her 82-year-old grandmother, is one of those who has concerns. She says she has "mixed feelings" about Covid vaccines. Nina, who is a freelance producer, isn't sure yet if she'll be vaccinated in the future. But she thinks the amount of information around makes it harder to understand the science behind the vaccines. "Obviously like everyone I want this virus to go away as quickly as possible," she says. "But at the same time, I'm not sure how much I trust the vaccine yet, because it's happened so quickly." And her view is partly coloured by what she sees on social media, although she also says she seeks out information from "traditional" news sources. "There are quite a lot of opinions flying around on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. I think people are very easily influenced by that," she says. Oscar Hodgson, a trainee solicitor who is taking part in a coronavirus vaccine trial at Imperial College London, says: "It's often very difficult with the amount of information that we are being bombarded with to make sense of what you should be doing." But he adds: "I think a vaccine is one of the only ways out of the situation if we want to get away from endless lockdowns and curfews." Researchers have moved at record speed to develop vaccines, less than a year in to this pandemic, The WHO is monitoring data from more than 200 vaccine trials.

12-1-20 Covid: Dr Scott Atlas - Trump's controversial coronavirus adviser - resigns
US President Donald Trump's controversial special adviser on the coronavirus, Scott Atlas, has resigned. Thanking Mr Trump for the honour of serving the American people, Dr Atlas said he had "always relied on the latest science and evidence without any political consideration or influence". During his four months in the role, Dr Atlas questioned the need for masks and other measures to control the pandemic. He also repeatedly clashed with other members of the coronavirus task force. The radiologist and senior fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution joined the task force in August. As well as questioning the usefulness of masks he was against lockdowns and supported herd immunity as a strategy to deal with the outbreak. He sparked further controversy last month when he tweeted "people rise up" in response to new restrictions imposed in Michigan. His tweet came just weeks after it emerged the state's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, was the subject of an alleged kidnapping attempt by militia members opposed to virus mitigation efforts. Public health officials - including top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci - had accused Dr Atlas of giving President Trump misleading information about the spread of the virus. After Dr Atlas' resignation, Dr Fauci told the BBC that the current situation in the US was worse than at any time since the start of the outbreak. "The slope of our curve is very steep so that every day it seems we almost break a new record," he said. As of Sunday, the number of Covid-19 cases recorded in November in the US surpassed four million, double the figure recorded in October. Academics at Stanford University welcomed Dr Atlas' resignation, saying it was "long overdue and underscores the triumph of science and truth over falsehoods and misinformation".

12-1-20 Trump presidency's final days: 'In his mind, he will not have lost'
As the Trump White House reaches its final days, an eerie quiet has descended on the premises as attempts to challenge the election result founder in the courts. Brian Morgenstern, the deputy communications director, was wearing a jacket with a White House emblem in his office in the West Wing. The jacket was zipped all the way up, as if he were on his way out. The room, a few doors away from the Oval Office, was dark, with the shades drawn. His boss, the president, was in another part of the White House. In that moment, Donald Trump was on speaker phone with Rudy Giuliani, the head of his legal effort to challenge the election, and a group of state lawmakers who had gathered for a "hearing", as they put it, at a hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. "This election was rigged and we can't let that happen," the president said on the phone. Morgenstern was monitoring the event on his computer screen, in a distracted manner. A moment later he swivelled in his chair and spoke to a visitor about college, real estate, baseball, and, almost as an afterthought, the president's achievements. Trump's effort to contest the election results in Pennsylvania failed on Friday, not long after the so-called hearing, and even that had a shaky legal foundation. An appeals court judge said there was "no basis" for his challenge. A certification of ballots showed President-elect Joe Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes. The votes in Arizona were certified on Monday and in Wisconsin that could happen soon - both states Biden won. Government officials have started working towards a transition to the new administration, and the new president starts on 20 January. Trump continues to claim victory. Yet backstage at the White House, people see things the way they are. They know their days in the West Wing are numbered. They also know that when their boss is losing, it is best to steer clear of him. Morgenstern says it is business as usual: "We're upbeat. We're still working hard." He was the only one in a warren of West Wing offices, however. He held a cloth mask in his hands, and he fiddled with the mask's strings, as if they were worry beads. The only sound was the low hum of a TV in another room.


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Atheism News & Humanism Articles for November 2020