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

177 Atheism & Humanism News Articles
for December 2021
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source


12-31-21 South Africa 'may have passed the peak' of Omicron wave
Authorities in South Africa say the peak of the country's fourth wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant appears to have passed, according to The Washington Post. "All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level," a statement said following a cabinet meeting, per The Guardian. "While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves." The cabinet said the "marginal increase" in fatalities was low compared to prior COVID-19 waves, per the Post, and the country is now easing some COVID-19 restrictions. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was originally identified in South Africa. The country saw 89,781 infections during the week ending on Dec. 25, down from 127,753 a week prior, BBC News reports. The news comes as the United States on Thursday again shattered its record for daily COVID-19 cases with more than 580,000, up from 488,000 the day prior.

12-31-21 Covid-19: WHO chief optimistic disease will be beaten in 2022
The World Health Organization (WHO) chief says he is optimistic that the coronavirus pandemic will be defeated in 2022, provided countries work together to contain its spread. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu warned against "narrow nationalism and vaccine hoarding" in a new year statement. His comments come two years since the WHO was first notified of cases of an unknown pneumonia strain in China. Global Covid cases now stand at 287m, while nearly 5.5m people have died. Across the world people are marking the new year but celebrations are muted, with many countries wanting to discourage crowds gathering. Coronavirus remains part of daily life: a disease that has shut borders, split families and in some places made it unthinkable to leave the house without carrying a mask. Despite all this, Dr Tedros sounded a positive note in his speech, noting that there are now many more tools to treat Covid-19. But he warned that continuing inequity in vaccine distribution was increasing the risk of the virus evolving. "Narrow nationalism and vaccine hoarding by some countries have undermined equity and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of the Omicron variant, and the longer inequity continues, the higher the risks of the virus evolving in ways we can't prevent or predict," he said. "If we end inequity, we end the pandemic," he added. In his comments, Dr Tedros also alluded to low vaccination rates. While most of the population in Europe and the Americas have received at least one dose, a WHO target of full vaccination rates in 40% of every country by the end of 2021 has been missed across most of Africa. Dr Tedros has previously criticised wealthier nations for "gobbling up" the global vaccine supply, fully vaccinating much of their populations while others wait for their first doses. The WHO has set a new goal for 2022: vaccinate 70% of people in all countries by July to end the pandemic.

12-31-21 Putin reportedly warns Biden of 'complete rupture' of relations on call
President Biden held another call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday amid continuing Ukraine tensions. Biden during the call "urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine" and warned the U.S. and its allies "will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine," the White House said. "President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki added. This was the second call between Biden and Putin this month, CNN notes, and it came after Russia amassed troops on the Ukraine border. The call was held at Putin's request, and the Russian leader warned Biden that any economic sanctions being placed on Russia in response to military action against Ukraine may result in a "complete rupture" of relations between the countries, The New York Times reported. Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said Putin warned that "many such mistakes have already been made over the past 30 years," and "therefore, it is advisable not to make such mistakes in this situation," according to The Washington Post. The 50-minute call, though, "ended without clarity about Mr. Putin's intentions," the Times said. According to CNN, diplomats from the U.S. and Russia will meet in Geneva next month.

12-31-21 Teva Pharmaceuticals found liable in New York opioid trial
A New York jury has found that drug maker Teva Pharmaceuticals and its affiliates helped fuel an opioid epidemic in the US state. A lawsuit filed by the state's attorney general in 2019 accused Teva and other firms of aggressively marketing painkillers across the state, while doing nothing to minimise addiction. Damages the company will have to pay will be determined later. Teva said on Thursday it will appeal the verdict. The drug maker argued at trial that it complied with federal and state regulations and denied engaging in deceptive marketing. In a statement, New York State Attorney General Laetitia James said that the jury found the firm and its affiliates liable for "death and destruction" across the US. "Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and others misled the American people about the true dangers of opioids," she said. The 2019 lawsuit targeted six drug makers, members of the Sackler family - which founded Purdue Pharma - and opioid distributors. Many reached settlements with the state. Supporters of the lawsuit hope that the damages that Teva will have to pay will be used to improve treatment and support services for those affected by opioid addiction. The judge in the case, however, still must consider a request from Teva that the case be declared a mistrial after an attorney representing New York cited incorrect statistics about opioid prescriptions during the trial's closing arguments. Teva did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement released to the BBC's US partner CBS, it said it "strongly disagrees with today's outcome and will prepare for a swift appeal as well as continue to pursue a mistrial". Authorities estimate that almost half a million people died in the US of opioid overdoses over a 20-year period up to 2019. In November, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 100,000 people died of overdose between April 2020 and April 2021, figures partially driven by a significant spike in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. More than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed against opioid producers by local governments and communities across the country that accuse the pharmaceutical firms of misleading the public about the potential for abuse. (Webmasters Comment: But why aren't executives going to prison?)

12-31-21 Ukraine tensions: Putin tells Biden new sanctions could rupture ties
Russia's Vladimir Putin has warned his US counterpart Joe Biden that imposing new sanctions over Ukraine could lead to a complete breakdown in relations. In a phone call late on Thursday, the Russian president said such sanctions would be a "colossal mistake". Mr Biden, meanwhile, told Mr Putin that the US and its allies would respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine. The call, requested by Russia, was the pair's second such conversation this month and lasted for almost an hour. It marked the latest effort to defuse tensions over Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, where Ukrainian officials say more than 100,000 Russian troops have been sent. The build-up has prompted concern in the West, with the US threatening Mr Putin with sanctions "like none he's ever seen" if Ukraine comes under attack. Russia, however, denies it is planning to invade the country and says the troops are there for exercises. It says it is entitled to move its troops freely on its own soil. Although the two sides exchanged warnings during the call, Russian foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters shortly after that Mr Putin was "pleased" with the conversation. He added that it had created a "good backdrop" for future talks. A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the tone had been "serious and substantive." "President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. "He made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine," she added. US and Russian officials are set to meet for in-person talks in Geneva next month, and the White House said Mr Biden urged his Russian counterpart to pursue a diplomatic solution.

12-31-21 Omicron: Third wave looms as India Covid cases spike
A sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in India over the past week has sparked fears that a third wave, driven by Omicron, is around the corner. The country reported 16,764 new infections and 220 deaths on Friday for the last 24 hours. This is the highest single-day increase in cases since October. The jump appears to be the starkest in densely packed metros such as the national capital, Delhi, financial hub Mumbai and Kolkata city. Mumbai reported 3,671 new cases on Friday, up 46% from the previous daily total - cases in Delhi (1,313) were up by 42%, and in Kolkata (1,090) by 102% in just 48 hours. India experienced a devastating second wave in April and May, with daily averages of around 400,000 cases at the peak of the crisis. Caseloads dropped significantly since then - for many months the national tally remained well under 10,000 cases a day. But officials and experts fear that the new highly transmissible Omicron variant is starting to fuel a third wave. It accounted for 309 fresh infections on Friday - taking the total number of Omicron cases in India to 1,270 cases. Maharasthra state, where Mumbai is located, has reported he highest Omicron cases (450) so far, followed by Delhi (320). The variant, which was first discovered in South Africa in November, has since spread fast across the world, dampening Christmas and New Year celebrations. Many countries, including India, have imposed travel restrictions after the World Health Organization (WHO) designated it a variant of concern. Preliminary studies published in the UK and South Africa suggest that fewer people infected with Omicron need hospital treatment when compared with other variants. But experts still advise caution as the infectious nature of the variant could lead to a surge in cases, increasing the load on already strained healthcare systems.

12-31-21 Xi'an: Cries for help and food in quarantined Chinese city
Some residents under lockdown in the Chinese city of Xi'an say they do not have enough food, even as officials insist there are adequate supplies. More than 13 million were ordered to stay at home last week as authorities sought to battle a Covid outbreak. But compared to other lockdowns globally, locals cannot go out even for essential reasons like buying food. The government is delivering supplies but many on social media say they are yet to receive them and are struggling. The lockdown on the northern city of Xi'an is in its ninth day. The city's outbreak is the worst China has seen in months amid its zero-Covid strategy. Initially, the restrictions had allowed one person per household to venture out once every two days to buy food and other basic supplies. But the rules were tightened on Monday - banning residents from leaving at all except to get tested for Covid-19. In past days, people have taken to the Weibo social media platform to call for help with getting food and other essentials. Many said they hadn't received their government supplies yet. "I heard other districts are gradually getting supplies, but I didn't get anything. My compound bans us from going out. I ordered some groceries online four days ago, but no sign of getting it at all. I haven't been able to get any vegetables for days," read one comment posted on Friday. Another person said: "The allocation is so uneven. The district I'm based in hasn't got anything. We are told to group up and order together. The price is very high as well." One video taken this week which has been circulating online shows residents in a Xi'an compound arguing heatedly with police over the lack of food. A man tells authorities that his family has run out of food, and a woman can be heard saying: "We've been locked down for 13 days. Resident's basic life can't be sustained. We queued for three to four hours [to buy vegetables]. But they don't allow it to be sold anymore."

12-31-21 Avoid cruises even if vaccinated, CDC tells Americans
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans to avoid cruises regardless of vaccination status due to concern over Covid-19. On Thursday, the CDC said the virus can quickly spread in the confined spaces of a ship and that the likelihood of infection is high. It has elevated its travel warning for cruise ships from level three to four - the agency's highest. The CDC is currently monitoring over 90 cruise ships for Covid-19. The agency said there has been an increase in cases on cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant. It warned that even fully vaccinated passengers who have received a booster dose can spread the virus while onboard. The CDC also recommended that cruise ship passengers be tested between one and three days prior to their voyage, and three to five days after, regardless of vaccination status. It added that unvaccinated passengers should self-isolate for a week after disembarking. On Wednesday, the CDC said it was monitoring 92 cruise ships for Covid-19 amid a spike in cases across the US. It maintains a colour-coded chart for cruise ships on its website based on surveillance data from the previous seven days. Ships that are marked "red status" are believed to contain a "sustained transmission" of the virus on-board. As of Thursday, no vessels were marked with the red status. The vast majority were classified as yellow, meaning that at least one case of Covid-19 among crew has been detected. Yellow status also means that a particular vessel meets the threshold for further CDC investigation. Reuters reported on Thursday that one vessel - the Queen Mary 2 - will remain in Barbados and not return to New York as a precautionary measure as it brings on additional staff. The cruise industry was one of the sectors worst hit by Covid-related shutdowns in 2020. The industry's largest company, US giant Carnival, reported losses of $10bn (£7.4bn) in 2020 after revenues fell 73% during the pandemic.

12-30-21 FDA to reportedly expand booster eligibility to those between 12 and 15 next week
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reportedly set to authorize COVID-19 booster shots for those between the ages of 12 and 15. The FDA will expand eligibility for Pfizer booster doses to this age group on Monday, The New York Times reported, citing sources familiar with the agency's planning. This would reportedly be followed by a meeting of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee in the middle of the week to decide whether to recommend the authorization. CNN also reported the FDA will make this move "in the coming days." Additionally, the Times reports that regulators "plan to allow both adolescents and adults to seek an extra shot of Pfizer's vaccine five months after receiving a second dose," down from six months, and will also authorize boosters for kids between 5 and 11 who have immune deficiencies. This will come as the United States grapples with new daily records for the number of COVID-19 cases amid the spread of the contagious Omicron variant. The FDA expanded Pfizer booster dose eligibility to 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds earlier this month. "I strongly encourage adolescents ages 16 and 17 to get their booster if they are at least 6 months post their initial Pfizer vaccination series," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at the time. Walensky previously told CNN this week that the FDA was looking at expanding booster eligibility to those between 12 and 15. "The FDA is looking at that right now," she said. "Of course, the CDC will swiftly follow as soon as we hear from them, and I'm hoping to have that in the days to weeks ahead." The CDC director also told CNN that "companies and manufacturers are working towards data" on vaccines for children under five but that this will "not be in the month ahead."

12-30-21 CDC investigating dozens of cruise ships with COVID-19 outbreaks
Nearly 90 cruise ships experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks are under investigation or observation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC did not say how many COVID-19 cases have been reported on board the ships, The Associated Press reports. Some of the vessels have been turned away at foreign ports, including the Carnival Freedom, which was denied entry to Aruba and Bonaire after it was reported that it is carrying sick passengers and crew members. At the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, some cruise ships were forced to wait off the coasts of Florida and California, as officials were concerned about welcoming passengers and crew infected by the virus. After being shut down for months, the industry started to make its comeback in June, with cruises once again resuming in North America. The CDC has not said if it will enact any changes because of the new outbreaks, and no cruise lines have said they will stop running. Most require adult passengers to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus. CDC spokesperson Jasmine Reed told AP the agency "acknowledges that it is not possible for cruising to be a zero-risk activity." Florida is a hub for cruise ships, and with the highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants both in circulation, the state is seeing its COVID-19 numbers rise. On Tuesday, Florida reported 46,900 new COVID-19 cases in one day, a new record. Hospitalizations are also up, with 3,400 patients in the hospital on Wednesday compared to 1,200 patients two weeks ago. This is not as bad as in late August, when five times as many people were hospitalized amid a Delta surge.

12-30-21 CDC recommends avoiding cruise travel, warns the chance of getting COVID-19 is 'very high'
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now urging everyone to avoid cruise ships, including those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The CDC on Thursday issued the recommendation to "avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status." The agency at the same time said it was upgrading its travel health notice to the highest level of level 4, citing "increases in cases onboard cruise ships since identification of the Omicron variant." The move comes as the CDC is investigating or observing around 90 cruise ships with COVID-19 outbreaks. On its website, the CDC lists dozens of ships that have received yellow color status, meaning they have met the threshold for a CDC investigation. "There has been an increase in the number of cruise ships meeting the COVID-19 case threshold for CDC investigation," the CDC said. As it raised the health notice level, the CDC warned Thursday that COVID-19 "spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose." Those who do choose to travel on cruise ships, the CDC said, should make sure they're fully vaccinated and have received a booster dose if eligible, and they should wear a mask in shared spaces. The Cruise Lines International Association trade group pushed back on the CDC's recommendation, per Bloomberg, calling it "perplexing" because the number of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships "make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard — far fewer than on land."

12-30-21 FDA authorizes at-home COVID test by Siemens Healthineers
The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday granted an emergency use authorization to an at-home COVID-19 test made by German company Siemens Healthineers. The highly contagious Delta and Omicron coronavirus variants are causing a surge in new cases across the United States, and several retailers, including CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart are limiting the number of at-home testing kits customers can purchase. The Siemens tests are expected to become available in January, and the company said its product can be used by children 2 and up as long as an adult collects the sample. The Department of Health and Human Services said on Wednesday the Biden administration wants to get tens of millions of new tests into the U.S. every month, with the goal of distributing them for free to U.S. households.

12-30-21 CDC investigating dozens of cruise ships with COVID-19 outbreaks
Nearly 90 cruise ships experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks are under investigation or observation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC did not say how many COVID-19 cases have been reported on board the ships, The Associated Press reports. Some of the vessels have been turned away at foreign ports, including the Carnival Freedom, which was denied entry to Aruba and Bonaire after it was reported that it is carrying sick passengers and crew members. At the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, some cruise ships were forced to wait off the coasts of Florida and California, as officials were concerned about welcoming passengers and crew infected by the virus. After being shut down for months, the industry started to make its comeback in June, with cruises once again resuming in North America. The CDC has not said if it will enact any changes because of the new outbreaks, and no cruise lines have said they will stop running. Most require adult passengers to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus. CDC spokesperson Jasmine Reed told AP the agency "acknowledges that it is not possible for cruising to be a zero-risk activity." Florida is a hub for cruise ships, and with the highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants both in circulation, the state is seeing its COVID-19 numbers rise. On Tuesday, Florida reported 46,900 new COVID-19 cases in one day, a new record. Hospitalizations are also up, with 3,400 patients in the hospital on Wednesday compared to 1,200 patients two weeks ago. This is not as bad as in late August, when five times as many people were hospitalized amid a Delta surge.

12-29-21 Facebook reportedly told Republicans whistleblower was 'trying to help Democrats'
In the wake of a whistleblower coming forward with allegations against the company, Facebook made an effort to "muddy the waters" in Congress and "divide lawmakers," according to a new report in The Wall Street Journal. The report details Facebook's response to a whistleblower, former employee Frances Haugen, who came forward in October to allege the company prioritizes profits over user safety. Among the claims included in a series of reports based on the documents Haugen provided was the allegation that Facebook, which has since been renamed Meta, is aware that Instagram is "toxic" for many young users. After Haugen's claims emerged, Facebook's Washington team alleged to Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups that Haugen "was trying to help Democrats," while the company's lobbyists told Democratic staffers that Republicans "were focused on the company's decision to ban expressions of support for Kyle Rittenhouse," The Wall Street Journal reports. The company's goal, the Journal writes, was to "muddy the waters, divide lawmakers along partisan lines and forestall a cross-party alliance" against Facebook in Congress. Facebook received scrutiny from Republican and Democratic lawmakers after the whistleblower revelations emerged, with multiple hearings since being held on Capitol Hill. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), for example, alleged the whistleblower documents showed Facebook "knew" its platform "promotes extremism and hurts our communities." A recent congressional hearing in December, though, suggested Haugen's "credibility with Republican lawmakers may be starting to wear thin," Politico wrote. The Journal also reports that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg "has told employees not to apologize" amid the scrutiny, as well as that officials at Meta have considered hiring a "high-ranking outsider" in an attempt to take "pressure" off both Zuckerberg and Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. A spokesperson told the Journal, "When our work is being mischaracterized, we're not going to apologize. We're going to defend our record." Read more at The Wall Street Journal.

12-30-21 Ukraine tensions: Biden and Putin phone call seeks 'diplomatic path'
US President Joe Biden is set to hold talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin for the second time this month, in a bid to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine. The two leaders will speak by phone on Thursday evening. They will discuss forthcoming security talks between the countries and the situation in Europe, a White House official said. Russia, which has built up forces on the border with Ukraine, denies planning to invade the country. It says its troops are there for exercises, and that it is entitled to move its troops freely on its own soil. Hours before the call, Mr Putin told Mr Biden in a holiday message he was "convinced" the pair could work together based on "mutual respect and consideration of each other's national interests". His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Moscow was "in the mood for a conversation". The US consulted European leaders ahead of the call to co-ordinate a common response to the Ukraine issue, a White House statement said. Ukrainian security officials say more than 100,000 Russian troops have been sent close to their shared border, and the US has threatened Mr Putin with sanctions "like none he's ever seen" if Ukraine comes under attack. Mr Biden will offer his Russian counterpart a "diplomatic path" but remains "gravely" concerned by the Russian troop build-up on the border, a US official told AFP news agency. Mr Biden is expected to tell Mr Putin that the US is prepared to respond if Russia advances with "a further invasion of Ukraine". US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday. The US state department said Mr Blinken had "reiterated the United States' unwavering support for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's borders".

12-30-21 Putin requests Thursday call with Biden amid ongoing Ukraine tensions
President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will speak on a call Thursday afternoon amid tensions over Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's border. Putin reportedly requested the call, with National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne telling CNN the leaders plan to "discuss a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia." There is "some mystery about the reason for Putin's request to chat," Politico writes in "Playbook," though they quoted a New York Times report suggesting that Putin could be "trying to de-escalate a situation largely of his own creation." But as Politico adds, Putin's motives might also "be the opposite." Biden reportedly plans to emphasize to Putin on the call that in order to make "real progress," talks must be held in "a context of de-escalation rather than escalation." Putin seeks a legally binding agreement that Ukraine will not join NATO, which the U.S. and its allies have so far refused. American and Russian officials plan to hold talks in Geneva on Jan. 10.

12-29-21 Covid: US reports record infections as Europe's Omicron cases also soar
The US and several European countries have reported their highest daily rises in Covid cases since the pandemic began, as the Omicron variant spreads. More than 440,000 new cases were recorded in the US on Monday, health officials said. France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and England have also reported record numbers of daily infections. Officials have said the high figures could be due in part to reporting delays over the Christmas period. Studies suggest that Omicron is milder than the previously dominant Delta variant, but fears remain that the sheer number of cases stemming from the highly infectious Omicron could overwhelm hospitals. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the risk posed by Omicron "remains very high". Poland on Wednesday recorded 794 Covid-related deaths, the highest number in its fourth wave of the pandemic, with more than three-quarters of the victims unvaccinated. In the US, cases recorded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rose by 441,278 on 27 December - by far the highest number of daily cases ever reported to the agency. The CDC data tracker says US media report the seven-day average rise in infections is now at its highest level since January 2021. A CDC spokeswoman told news site Politico that the latest infection figures could be overestimated due to lags in testing and test centre closures over the Christmas period, adding that case numbers would "become more stable after the new year". The health agency has also expanded its travel warnings for parts of Europe, adding Malta, Moldova and Sweden to a list of countries where travel poses a very high risk of infection. Travellers are asked to avoid these countries under the CDC's Level 4 criteria, which a destination receives if it reports more than 500 cases per 100,000 people. US infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja told the BBC that Omicron could "get round the protection afforded by vaccines" and "affect anybody at will". "So we are going to see cases rise," he said. "The key is to keep this away from high-risk people... we're really going to have to focus on severe cases and hospitalisations."

12-29-21 CDC director addresses criticism over new COVID-19 isolation recommendations
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is defending new COVID-19 isolation guidelines after criticism that a negative test result recommendation should have been included. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky appeared on several morning shows Wednesday to explain why the agency earlier this week reduced the recommended isolation time for people who test positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to five days if they're asymptomatic. Some experts criticized the guidelines, arguing the CDC should recommend obtaining a negative test result prior to leaving isolation. Walensky addressed this criticism on CNN, saying the agency decided not to recommend a rapid test to leave isolation because "we actually don't know" how well rapid tests "predict whether you're transmissible during the end of disease." She added that regardless of whether a rapid test at the end of isolation is negative or positive, the CDC's recommendation either way would be to wear a mask, and so "given that we were not going to change our recommendations based on the result of that rapid test, we opted not to include it." The new guidelines were made based on the fact that "about 85 to 90 percent of viral transmission happens in those first five days," and "we want to be able to get people back out if they're feeling well," Walensky told CBS This Morning, adding the decision had "nothing to do with" rapid tests being difficult to find in some parts of the country. The CDC is still recommending that those exposed to COVID-19 get tested on day five "if possible." On CNN, Walensky also said the CDC took into account "what we thought people would be able to tolerate," noting "we have seen relatively low rates of isolation" during the pandemic and that the agency wanted to ensure it had guidelines in place that "people were willing to adhere to."

12-29-21 The still-urgent problem of police violence in America
This can't be fixed with minor tweaks, as tens of millions of Americans increasingly realize. New evidence recently emerged about a Los Angeles police officer fatally shooting two people on December 23: one a seemingly deranged man who was assaulting random people in a Burlington store with a bike lock, and the other a 14-year-old bystander. Body cam footage shows the officer rushed into the scene despite being told over a dozen times by other police to "slow down," then shot the man with a rifle without giving any verbal warnings or attempting to disarm him. In the process, the officer killed a young girl with a ricochet. This is a tragedy. It's also a reminder that despite the national backlash against meaningful police reform both among conservatives and centrist Democrats, there is still an epidemic of police violence in this country, and it will keep happening unless someone does something about it. The Los Angeles story is just the most prominent recent story of police violence. Overall, The Washington Post counts some 900 Americans fatally shot by police so far this year. Reading through the database provides a grim cross-section of human dysfunction — people killed after a police chase following a stop for allegedly driving on a suspended license, or because they allegedly advanced on officers with a knife after a domestic dispute, or because they allegedly went on a bizarre rampage with a backhoe, and on and on. Occasionally — as in this well-documented and plausible account of police shooting a man who refused to stop holding a knife to the throat of his ex-wife — police actions seem proportionate and reasonable. In other cases, they are totally unjustifiable, as with the Minnesota officer recently convicted of manslaughter for killing an unarmed 20-year-old Black man back in April — or straight-up murder, as in the killing of George Floyd. The rest appear to be somewhere in the middle. Even if we make allowances for the chronic police habit of lying to reporters after they commit some atrocity, I think it's fair to conclude the bulk of police killings happen when officers are faced with some moderately dangerous situation — someone armed with a weapon other than a gun, or a gun simply being nearby, or a fight going on, or someone suffering a mental breakdown — and use extreme violence as a response, often a first response. In the Los Angeles case, for instance, there was every reason to attempt non-violent de-escalation rather than immediately opening fire — especially with a rifle, given its far greater bullet velocity than a pistol — because of the risk of hitting a bystander in a crowded store. But that is plainly not what American cops are trained to do, not with any kind of rigor, and it's not what the paranoid, violent culture of many police departments encourages. Yes, American violent crime rates are higher than those of comparable countries. But as I've previously argued, they're higher in part because of our extreme economic inequality and skinflint welfare state (along with ludicrous quantities of guns and incompetent policing). Where the Nordic countries, for instance, provide a baseline of material comfort to virtually every citizen and a panoply of wraparound services to deal with social problems, and hence have vastly lower rates of incarceration and murder, in America those problems are largely left to fester. The police and the courts end up dealing with all that disorder — desperation, conflict, rage, and madness caused by homelessness, poverty, untreated mental illness, and so on — in the only way they know how: brute force.

12-29-21 Prosecutor declines to seek criminal charges against Andrew Cuomo
Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah said on Tuesday that two "credible" allegations of misconduct were made against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), but she is unable to file criminal charges. Two women accused Cuomo of kissing them without consent, including a state trooper who said Cuomo made overtures toward her while she was a member of his detail. The alleged incidents took place in Rocah's district, and her office conducted a review. In a statement, Rocah said the investigation "found credible evidence to conclude that the alleged conduct in both instances ... did occur. However, in both instances, my office has determined that, although the allegations and witnesses were credible, and the conduct concerning, we cannot pursue criminal charges due to the statutory requirements of the criminal laws of New York." An investigation earlier this year by the New York Attorney General's office found that Cuomo sexually harassed several women during his time in office, including staffers. After Attorney General Letitia James released the report in August, Cuomo resigned. He is facing a criminal misdemeanor charge for forcible touching, and is set to be arraigned in Albany in January.

12-29-21 Robert E. Lee: Virginia workers open Civil War era time capsule
A conservation team in the US state of Virginia has opened a box containing Confederate war memorabilia believed to be more than 130 years old. It contained newspapers, books and ammunition dated to the US Civil War. Workers discovered the container in the state capital of Richmond while finishing the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee. The memorial was removed after protests against it following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. Records held by the Library of Virginia say that the capsule was buried in 1877 and that dozens of local residents contributed around 60 objects to the container. The lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, said the contents and design of the box appeared to match the historical records. She added that while the contents were damp, they were in better condition than expected. "We thought everything would be soup and it's not soup, so that's great," Ms Ridway told reporters. The capsule contained a host of civil war era artefacts, including a Confederate flag said to have been made from the tree that grew over the famed separatist General Stonewall Jackson's original grave, Miniè balls - a type of bullet used in the Civil War - and a map of the city of Richmond. Some historical records had led to some speculation that the capsule might contain a rare photo of the deceased President Abraham Lincoln. While conservators did find a printed image from an 1865 issue of Harper's Weekly that Ms Ridgway said seemed to show a figure grieving over Lincoln's grave, it did not appear to be the much-anticipated photo. A smaller time capsule was found at the site earlier this month and turned out to be an unofficial memorial placed by the men who built parts of the statue. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the statue taken down in September in the wake of protests that gripped the US following the murder of George Floyd. Lee is a controversial figure in the US. While some celebrate his memorials as symbols of southern pride, many others deride them as daily reminders of the America's history of racism and oppression.

12-29-21 Stand News: Independent outlet to close after senior staff arrested
One of the last pro-democracy media organisations in Hong Kong, Stand News, is shutting down after it was raided by police and senior staff were arrested. Seven people, both current and former employees, were detained by Hong Kong police for "conspiracy to publish seditious publications". "Because of the situation, Stand News is ceasing operations immediately," the organisation said in a Facebook post. More than 200 police officers were sent to raid the publication's office. Hong Kong police said in a statement they were authorised to "search and seize relevant journalistic materials". In a post on Facebook, Stand News said it would no longer be updating its website and would be removing its social media content "within a day". "This morning, the police arrested a number of senior and former senior staff of the company, [and] took many people away to assist in the investigation," the statement reads. It adds that computers and documents were seized from its office and that it would be assisting the police with their inquiry. Those arrested - three men and four women - are aged between 34 and 73 years old. They include the former and acting chief editors of Stand News, Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam, as well as pop star turned democracy icon Denise Ho, who was a former board member. Other board members Margaret Ng, Christine Fang and Chow Tat-chi were also among those arrested. The identity of the seventh person detained has not yet been reported. Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee said during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon that he supported the police operation against the news outlet. "Anybody who attempts to make use of media work as a tool to pursue their political purpose or other interests [and] contravenes the law, particularly offences that endanger national security, they are the evil elements that damage press freedom."

12-29-21 Hong Kong pro-democracy website closes after police raid on its office
A pro-democracy website in Hong Kong is shutting down in the wake of a police raid on its office.. Stand News' office was raided by police on Wednesday, and six current and former staff and board members were arrested, The Associated Press reports. Among those arrested was singer Denise Ho, who served on the board. The news website announced on Facebook it would end operations and dismiss all of its employees, according to CNN. "Stand News' editorial policy was to be independent and committed to safeguarding Hong Kong's core values of democracy, human rights, freedom, the rule of law and justice," an announcement from Stand News said, per The New York Times. "Thank you, readers, for your continued support." This comes after the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily announced in June it would also close amid an ongoing crackdown following a new national security law implemented in 2020. According to CNN, Hong Kong police accused Stand News of publishing "seditious" articles between July 2020 and November 2021. Hong Kong Watch CEO Benedict Rogers told The Associated Press the arrests were "nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong," adding, "When a free press guaranteed by Hong Kong's Basic Law is labeled 'seditious,' it is a symbol of the speed at which this once great, open, international city has descended into little more than a police state."

12-28-21 U.S. breaks daily record for COVID-19 cases
On Tuesday, the record for daily coronavirus cases in the United States was shattered, as the seven-day average topped 267,000. The previous record was set on Jan. 11, when the seven-day average was 251,232, The New York Times reports. Now, there are two highly contagious variants — Delta and Omicron — fueling surges across the United States, and hospitalizations are on the rise. Scientists say early evidence is showing that Omicron causes milder symptoms, and vaccinations and booster shots protect against hospitalization. Still, because it spreads faster, public health experts are worried that so many more people will become infected and overwhelm hospitals that have been operating at the brink for nearly two years. On Monday, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia all reported their highest number of COVID-19 cases of the pandemic, with D.C. recording nearly 1,000 percent more new cases over the last two weeks. Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health, told the Times D.C. is "a marker for what we're likely to see in much of the rest of the country. A tidal wave in Omicron cases is likely to flood much of the country in the next month."

12-28-21 Covid: US halves isolation time for asymptomatic infection
US health officials have halved the recommended isolation time for people with asymptomatic Covid-19 from 10 to five days, amid a surge in cases. The measure is expected to alleviate disruption caused by staff shortages in many areas because of infections. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says most transmissions happen in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop. But experts have criticised the lack of testing requirements to end isolation. The sharp rise in cases has been fuelled by the Omicron variant of the virus, which is now dominant in the US. Early studies suggest Omicron is more contagious than other variants, although milder. The growing number of people having to isolate has put pressure on several industries, including air travel, with thousands of flights cancelled during the Christmas holiday. Leaders of major US airlines were among those calling for the change, as cancellations continued for a fourth day on Tuesday. The CDC said the new guidance was "motivated by science", and that the isolation must be followed by five days of wearing a mask around others. The announcement came as more than 200,000 daily infections were confirmed in the past two days nationwide. CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said the recommendation "balances what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses". "These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives," Dr Walensky said in a statement. But there was no recommendation for people to take rapid at-home tests before the end of their isolation periods. Many experts say such tests help to show whether people continue to spread the virus. Dr Michael Mina, an assistant professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, called the lack of such requirement "reckless". "I absolutely don't want to sit next to someone who turned Positive 5 days ago and hasn't tested [negative]," he said on Twitter.

12-28-21 CDC reduces isolation time for asymptomatic coronavirus infections
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday cut the recommended isolation time for asymptomatic Americans infected with the coronavirus from 10 days to five, The Washington Post reports. The decision was based on research showing that those first five days are when people are the most infectious, the CDC said. The agency also reduced the recommended quarantine time for people who are vaccinated but not boosted to five days after any coronavirus exposure. They also should wear masks for five days after their isolation is over. People who have received booster shots should wear masks for 10 days but don't need to isolate. "These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives" even as the Omicron variant spreads, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said.

12-28-21 New York vaccine mandate on businesses takes effect
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday launched the nation's broadest vaccine mandate on private businesses. Under the policy, all employers in the city must verify that in-person workers have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. If in-person workers got the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, they must provide proof they got the second dose within 45 days. De Blasio, who is in his last week as mayor, said he was "110 percent convinced this was the right thing to do," The New York Times reports. Nearly 72 percent of New Yorkers were fully vaccinated as of Monday, with over 80 percent having received at least one dose of a vaccine. It was not immediately clear what de Blasio's successor, Mayor-elect Eric Adams, would do about the mandate. Some business leaders have said the city should give workers the option of taking regular COVID-19 tests instead of getting the shots.

12-28-21 Covid flight cancellations delay holiday travel
There have been more Covid-related flight cancellations globally as the week starts, capping off a miserable festive period for thousands of people. More than 2,200 flights have been scrapped on Monday, with Chinese and US destinations being the worst hit, the FlightAware data tracking website says. US airlines say the disruption is due to crews testing positive or isolating. Hong Kong is banning all South Korea's Korean Air flights for two weeks, after positive cases among some arrivals. In all, more than 8,000 flights have been grounded over the long Christmas weekend that began on Friday. Although the number of cancellations is a small percentage of the total, it is higher than normal and comes at a time of year when many are travelling to spend time with family and friends. In a separate development, US authorities are monitoring dozens of cruise ships hit by Covid cases while sailing in the country's waters, with several of them reportedly denied port in the Caribbean, AFP news agency reports. Recorded Covid cases are rising sharply around the world, largely driven by the Omicron variant. Despite early findings that Omicron is milder than other coronavirus variants, scientists are concerned by the sheer number of infections being recorded. The majority of the flights cancelled on Monday are those by Chinese companies, according to FlightAware. They include China Eastern, which cancelled more than 420 flights, and Air China, with more than 190 cancellations. Airports in Beijing and Shanghai appear to be the worst affected, with nearly 300 cancellations combined. The Chinese authorities have not commented on the issue. The airport in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an is also on the list. More than 13 million people in the city have been recently ordered to stay at home as authorities attempt to tackle a Covid outbreak there.

12-28-21 Covid: France tightens restrictions amid Omicron surge
France has announced tighter Covid restrictions amid concerns over the Omicron variant. From 3 January, remote working will become compulsory for those who can and public gatherings will be limited to 2,000 people for indoor events. The news comes as France recorded more than 100,000 new infections on Saturday - the highest number reported in the country since the pandemic began. But France's prime minister did not bring in a New Year's Eve curfew. Countries across Europe are tightening restrictions as infections rise and the new Omicron variant spreads through the continent. Studies suggest the strain is milder than Delta, with a 30% to 70% lower chance of infected people ending up in hospital. But there are fears the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals. French Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters the pandemic felt "like a film without an ending" as he unveiled the new measures at a news conference following a crisis cabinet meeting. Health Minister Olivier Véran said coronavirus infections were doubling every two days, warning of a "mega wave" of new cases. The new rules also include limits on outdoor public gatherings - which will be restricted to 5,000 people - and a ban on eating and drinking on long distance transport. Nightclubs will remain closed until further notice and cafés and bars will be able to provide table service only. Employees who work from home will have to do so at least three days a week. Mask-wearing will become compulsory in city centres. The government is also shortening the length of time between booster shots from four months after the last vaccination to three months. France's planned vaccine pass - which will require proof of vaccination, not just a negative test, to enter public spaces - will come into effect from 15 January, if parliament approves a draft bill.

12-28-21 France shuts mosque in Beauvais for sermons 'defending jihad'
A mosque in the northern French region of Oise has been closed because of an imam's radical sermons, said to have "defended jihad". The mosque in the town of Beauvais will remain shut for six months, local authorities say. Oise's prefect said sermons there called jihadist fighters "heroes" and incited hatred and violence. France has been carrying out checks on Islamic places of worship suspected of having links to extremism. Two weeks ago, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he was starting a process to close the Great Mosque of Beauvais, 100km (62 miles) north of Paris, because the imam was "targeting Christians, homosexuals and Jews" in his sermons. Authorities gave the mosque 10 days to respond. The mosque's imam was a recent convert to Islam, Agence France-Presse quoted local newspaper Courrier Picard as saying. A lawyer for the association managing the mosque told the newspaper his remarks had been "taken out of context". The lawyer said that the imam, who was "speaking on a voluntary basis", had been suspended from his duties. But the interior ministry said the man, who was "presented as an occasional speaker but who, in reality, acts as a regular imam", had defended "a rigorous practice of Islam" and "its superiority to the laws of the Republic". Last year, Mr Darmanin announced a crackdown on mosques with extremist links, saying some could be closed if found to be encouraging "separatism". It was a response to the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the fatal stabbing of three people in a cathedral in Nice in October 2020, blamed on Islamist extremists. France's interior ministry said it had investigated around 100 mosques and prayer halls over such extremism in recent months, out of a total of more than 2,620 in France.

12-28-21 Russian court orders oldest civil rights group Memorial to shut
Russia's Supreme Court has ordered the closure of International Memorial, Russia's oldest human rights group. Memorial worked to recover the memory of the millions of innocent people executed, imprisoned or persecuted in the Soviet era. Formally it has been "liquidated" for failing to mark a number of social media posts with its official status as a "foreign agent". That designation was given in 2016 for receiving funding from abroad. But in court the prosecutor labelled Memorial a "public threat", accusing the group of being in the pay of the West to focus attention on Soviet crimes instead of highlighting a "glorious past". Founded in 1989, Memorial became a symbol of a country opening up to the world - and to itself - as Russia began examining the darkest chapters of its past. Its closure is a stark symbol of how the country has turned back in on itself under President Vladimir Putin, rejecting criticism - even of history - as a hostile act. There were shouts of "shame!" from those in court as the decision was read out. The ruling also shines a light on the rise in repression in modern-day Russia, where Memorial's own human rights wing now lists more than 400 political prisoners, and independent groups and media are increasingly blacklisted as "foreign agents". In court, lawyers for Memorial argued that the group's work was beneficial for the "health of the nation". They declared Memorial a friend of Russia, not its enemy, and called the case for liquidation absurd and "Orwellian". Among the sites the group failed to mark with its "foreign agent" status was the vast database of victims of political repression that it has assembled over three decades of work. The team argued that any mistakes had been corrected and that shutting down a prominent and respected organisation over such technical errors was disproportionate. The justice ministry argued that a group's social significance could be no excuse for breaking the law. But the prosecution's closing speech pointed to a deeper motivation for this case. "International Memorial… is almost entirely focused on distorting historic memory, first and foremost about the Great Fatherland War [World War Two]," Alexei Zhafyarov told the court, accusing the group of creating a false image of the USSR as a "terrorist" state.

12-26-21 World marks 30th anniversary of Soviet Union's collapse
On Christmas night, 1991, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and relinquished his powers, including the nuclear codes, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The flag of the USSR that flew over the Kremlin was lowered, never to be raised again. The next day, the Soviet legislature formally dissolved the Soviet Union, bringing a final end to the Cold War. In a Christmas address from the Oval Office, then-President George H.W. Bush called the communist regime's collapse "one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century" and "a victory for democracy and freedom." "Thirty years ago today, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended," Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Brian Reidl tweeted Saturday. "Few people under 40 will appreciate what a cataclysmic event this was. The Cold War (and threat of nuclear war) had dominated our politics for 45 years, and the Soviets just giving up was inconceivable." This landmark anniversary comes as the threat of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe looms once again. "The breakup of the Soviet Union was the collapse of a historic Russia," Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month. "We became a different country. What had been built over a millennium was lost to a large extent." Tens of thousands of Russian troops are currently massed on the border of former Soviet satellite Ukraine, and intelligence experts warn that an invasion could occur in the next few weeks.

12-27-21 Fauci recommends Americans 'stay away' from larger New Year's parties: 'There will be other years to do that, but not this year'
President Biden's chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has recommended Americans "stay away" from larger, presumably out-of-home settings for their New Year's Eve celebrations this year. President Biden's chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has recommended Americans "stay away" from larger, presumably out-of-home settings for their New Year's Eve celebrations this year. "I have been telling people consistently that if you're vaccinated and boosted and you have a family setting in the home with family and relatives, but when you're talking about a New Year's Eve party where you have 30, 40, 50 people celebrating, you do not know the status of their vaccination, I would recommend strongly stay away from that this year," Fauci told CNN's Kaitlan Collins on Monday. "There will be other years to do that, but not this year," he said. On Sunday, Fauci told ABC's This Week that current COVID-19 cases, already at record levels in some areas, will probably continue to climb as the "extraordinarily contagious" Omicron variant spreads rapidly across the U.S. "Every day it goes up and up. The last weekly average was about 150,000 and it likely will go much higher," he said. The doctor also warned that although Omicron appears to cause less severe symptoms and fewer hospitalizations than other strains, Americans shouldn't be complacent because the sheer number of infections "might override a real diminution in severity." Officials are "particularly worried" about unvaccinated people, Fauci added, considering they are the "the most vulnerable ones."

12-27-21 Covid-19: Extra vaccine mandates come into force in New York City
New Covid-19 vaccine requirements have come into force in New York City, as infections continue to surge fuelled by the Omicron variant of the virus. Children aged 12 and over are required to show proof of full vaccination to access indoor dining areas and many extra-curricular school activities. The city is also introducing a vaccine mandate for private-sector workers, the first in the US to take such an action. Jabs are already mandatory for state employees. The measures were announced earlier this month by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who mentioned the threat posed by Omicron, which appears to be more contagious but milder than other variants. Cases of Covid-19 have soared in the city and across the country in recent weeks. From Monday: Workers are required to show they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, a requirement that affects around 184,000 private businesses. They will then be given 45 days to show proof of their second dose. Children aged 12 and over must show proof of full vaccination to enter venues including restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, gyms, fitness centres, pools and theatres. Currently, children aged five to 11 have to prove they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to enter those venues. From 29 January, they will also be required to show proof of full vaccination. Vaccines are available to all residents aged five and older. According to official data, 71.5% of the city's population have been fully vaccinated, but 20% have not yet received a single dose. The measures come as the city is planning a scaled back New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, with everyone required to wear face masks and show proof of full vaccination. Fewer people will be allowed in viewing areas to allow for social distancing. Normally, the event hosts approximately 58,000 people in viewing areas, according to local officials. But this year there will be around 15,000 people only. New York state confirmed a record 49,708 new infections on 24 December, and 36,454 new cases were recorded on Christmas Day (25 December) although the number is likely to be higher due to labs being closed because of the holiday.

12-27-21 Covid: Travel chaos spills into new week
There have been more Covid-related flight cancellations globally as the week starts, capping off a miserable festive period for thousands of people. More than 2,200 flights have been scrapped on Monday, with Chinese and US destinations being the worst hit, the FlightAware data tracking website says. US airlines say the disruption is due to crews testing positive or isolating. Hong Kong is banning all South Korea's Korean Air flights for two weeks, after positive cases among some arrivals. In all, more than 8,000 flights have been grounded over the long Christmas weekend that began on Friday. Although the number of cancellations is a small percentage of the total, it is higher than normal and comes at a time of year when many are travelling to spend time with family and friends. In a separate development, US authorities are monitoring dozens of cruise ships hit by Covid cases while sailing in the country's waters, with several of them reportedly denied port in the Caribbean, AFP news agency reports. Recorded Covid cases are rising sharply around the world, largely driven by the Omicron variant. Despite early findings that Omicron is milder than other coronavirus variants, scientists are concerned by the sheer number of infections being recorded. The majority of the flights cancelled on Monday are those by Chinese companies, according to FlightAware. They include China Eastern, which cancelled more than 420 flights, and Air China, with more than 190 cancellations. Airports in Beijing and Shanghai appear to be the worst affected, with nearly 300 cancellations combined. The Chinese authorities have not commented on the issue. The airport in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an is also on the list. More than 13 million people in the city have been recently ordered to stay at home as authorities attempt to tackle a Covid outbreak there. Meanwhile, the hardest-hit US companies are United and JetBlue. And Seattle-Tacoma is one of the worst-affected airports. United warned last week that a spike in Omicron cases had "had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation", with many employees required to self-isolate after coming into contact with those infected. Omicron now is the dominant variant in the US. But severe weather is also a factor. A blanket of snow delayed flights and disrupted roads in the western state of Washington on Sunday, adding to the travel chaos.

12-26-21 Putin threatens military action if NATO rejects Russian ultimatum
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that if NATO does not provide binding guarantees to curtail military deployments in Eastern Europe and to bar Ukraine from membership in the alliance, he will be forced to consider a variety of options, including a military response. Putin's demands are contained in a pair of draft treaties Russia submitted to NATO earlier this month. POLITICO reported that Putin, whose remarks aired on Russian state TV Sunday, expressed concerns about the possibility of missiles being deployed in Ukraine if the former Soviet satellite joins NATO. "We have nowhere to retreat," Putin said. "They have pushed us to a line that we can't cross. They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them: 'Stop!'" When asked about the exact nature of the response he was proposing, Putin said it would "depend on what proposals our military experts submit to me." NATO is unlikely to agree to Putin's terms. "NATO member countries decide who is a member of NATO, not Russia," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. President Biden has threatened increased sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. The Russian military announced Saturday that more than 10,000 Russian troops had returned to their bases after a month of drilling on the Ukrainian border, Reuters reports. Despite this reduction, Russia still has tens of thousands of troops stationed on the Ukrainian border, and intelligence analysts continue to warn that an invasion could be imminent. Russian state media frequently refers to Ukraine as "a colony of the West" and smears Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, without evidence, as a drug addict, according to BBC News. Over 14,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukraine's military and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

12-26-21 Covid: Travel misery for tens of thousands as flights are cancelled
Tens of thousands of airline passengers have been hit by the grounding of thousands of flights as a surge in Covid cases causes staff shortages. More than 7,000 flights have now been cancelled since Friday and over the Christmas weekend, according to the FlightAware data tracking website. Chinese and US airlines appear to be the hardest hit, with further delays and cancellations announced for Monday. Companies say the cancellations are due to airline crews testing positive. Staff who have not tested positive but have been in contact with those infected are then being forced to self-isolate. Recorded Covid cases are rising sharply around the world, largely driven by the Omicron variant. Despite early findings that Omicron is milder than other coronavirus variants, scientists are concerned by the sheer number of infections being recorded. On Sunday, more than 2,000 flights were cancelled - over 640 of which were to or from US airports, according to FlightAware. The worst-hit US companies are Delta, United and JetBlue. United warned earlier that a spike in Omicron cases had "had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation", adding that it was contacting impacted passengers in advance of them coming to the airport. Omicron now is the dominant strain in the US. However, the most affected single airline appears to be China Eastern with more than 390 scrapped flights on Sunday. The airport in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an has reported more than 100 flight cancellations. More than 13 million people in Xi'an have been recently ordered to stay at home as authorities attempt to tackle a Covid outbreak there. Heathrow Airport in London has seen 60 flights cancelled on Sunday so far. Nearly 5.4 million people have died with coronavirus worldwide, according to America's Johns Hopkins University. There have been more than 279 million confirmed cases.

12-26-21 Desmond Tutu: Obama joins tributes to South Africa anti-apartheid hero
Former US President Barack Obama has joined the tributes being paid to Nobel Peace prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has died aged 90. Mr Obama described the churchman as "a mentor, friend and moral compass". A contemporary of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu was one of the driving forces behind the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he had helped bequeath "a liberated South Africa". One of the country's best known figures at home and abroad, Archbishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel prize in 1984 for his role in the struggle to abolish the apartheid system enforced by the white minority government against the black majority in South Africa from 1948 until 1991. Tutu's death comes just weeks after that of South Africa's last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, who died at the age of 85. Church officials in South Africa say a week of tributes is being organised. The plans include two days of lying in state to allow the public to pay their respects as well as a requiem mass, local media report. Mr Obama said: "Archbishop Tutu was grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere." "He never lost his impish sense of humour and willingness to find humanity in his adversaries, and Michelle and I will miss him dearly." President Ramaphosa said he was "an iconic spiritual leader, anti-apartheid activist and global human rights campaigner". He described him as "a patriot without equal; a leader of principle and pragmatism who gave meaning to the biblical insight that faith without works is dead". "A man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and invincibility against the forces of apartheid, he was also tender and vulnerable in his compassion for those who had suffered oppression, injustice and violence under apartheid, and oppressed and downtrodden people around the world." In a message of condolence, the Queen said she remembered with fondness her meetings with him, and his great warmth and humour. (Webmasters Comment: Don't forget President Ronald Reagon supported aparthdid! He was a racist to his core!)

12-25-21 Covid: Holiday plans disrupted as Omicron surge grounds flights
Holiday travel plans around the world continue to be disrupted with thousands of flights cancelled for the Christmas weekend as Covid infections surge. Airlines have blamed shortages of healthy staff for the cancellations of nearly 2,400 flights on Friday and more than 2,300 on Saturday. More than 800 of those cancelled on Saturday were to or from US airports. In Europe, travel restrictions are among measures aimed at reducing cases, largely driven by the Omicron variant. Despite early findings that Omicron is milder than other variants, scientists are concerned by the sheer number of infections being recorded. being forced to self-isolate to stem the spread. Further delays and disruption is expected with hundreds more flights cancelled on Sunday, according to website FlightAware. The US, like many countries around the world, has seen a sharp rise in cases. "When we have millions and millions and millions of people, all sick, all together at one time, it doesn't take a large percentage of those people to topple over the hospitals," Dr Hallie Prescott, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. In the UK - which once again saw record-breaking case numbers confirmed on Friday - volunteers are preparing for a Christmas Day booster jabs push to reduce the impact of Omicron. Across Europe, governments are bringing in their own measures to combat the increase. But in South Africa - where the Omicron variant was first identified - the government has ended Covid contact tracing, except for serious cluster outbreaks or prisons. The health department announced that as most of the population had now been exposed to the coronavirus, the policy is now shifting from a containment strategy to one of mitigation including self-monitoring, mask wearing and social distancing. The US earlier announced it would lift travel restrictions imposed on South Africa and seven other African countries because of concerns about the Omicron variant on 31 December. Travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi had been blocked since 29 November.

12-25-21 Pope Francis Urbi et Orbi address: World ignoring huge tragedies
Pope Francis has warned that the world is becoming so desensitised to crises and suffering that they are now happening while hardly being noticed. In his annual Christmas Day message, the pontiff pointed to ongoing turmoil in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, as well as in areas of Africa, Europe and Asia. He also said the effects of the pandemic threatened efforts to resolve conflicts on an international level. He spoke outdoors again this year after making his speech indoors last year. Thousands of Catholic faithful - wearing face masks amid Covid precautions - watched in St Peter's Square at the Vatican as the Pope delivered his Urbi et Orbi address from the balcony of the Basilica. Pope Francis warned about the social consequences of the pandemic, saying there was "a growing tendency to withdraw... to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together". He said that "on the international level too there is the risk of avoiding dialogue, the risk that this complex crisis will lead to taking shortcuts rather than setting out on the longer path" to resolve conflicts. "We continue to witness a growing number of conflicts, crises and disagreements," he said. "These never seem to end and by now we hardly even notice them. "We have become so used to them that immense tragedies are being passed over in silence." He singled out Syria, Iraq and Yemen "where an enormous tragedy overlooked by everyone has silently gone on for years". He also urged people to keep in mind continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, and the "unprecedented" economic and social crisis gripping Lebanon. Turning to Asia, the Pope asked God to comfort the people of Afghanistan "who for more than 40 years have been sorely tested by conflicts", and to "sustain the people of Myanmar where intolerance and violence not infrequently target the Christian community and its places of worship". He also prayed for peace to come to conflicts in other troublespots around the world, including Ukraine, Ethiopia and the Sahel, which has been a front line in the war against Islamist militancy for almost a decade.

12-24-21 What Omicron means for schools this winter
What to know about how Omicron is affecting schools, teachers, parents, and students. The sudden national onset of Omicron has induced an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu, a sense of dread that the explosive rise of the hyper-transmissible, little-understood new coronavirus variant could drag us all back to the bad old days of last winter. Professional sports leagues are suspending their seasons; plays and concerts are being canceled; colleges with COVID-19 outbreaks sent students home early for winter break; restaurants and bars in some parts of the country are closing; and many hospitals and their ICUs are filling up — only this time, people are 20 months into the pandemic and sick of living in various physical and metaphorical boxes. Meanwhile, parents of K-12 students are staring down "a return to the drudgery of school through a screen, child care crises, and restless young bodies, penned inside for the winter," The New York Times reports. School districts "have mostly reassured families that despite targeted classroom closures to contain spread of the virus, they plan to continue in-person learning until the Christmas break and reopen as planned in January," but "the alarming spread of the virus could expose the rickety infrastructure that has kept schools running through most of this year." So what does the flash flood of Omicron mean for schools, teachers, parents, and students? Some schools have already announced a temporary return to distance learning — Maryland's Prince George's County school district, one of the largest on the East Coast, said last week it will shift to remote learning until mid-January after three of its 208 schools closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks. "But Prince George's is an outlier," the Times notes, and "the political will to keep schools open" is so strong, not even teachers' unions are calling for a pivot back to Zoom school. "While over 99 percent of schools are open now, we need to make sure we keep that throughout the winter," President Biden said in early December, laying out the government's initial plan for tackling Omicron. "We want our children in school." "We know a lot more today than we did back in March of 2020," Biden said Tuesday, laying out his expanded response. "For example, last year, we thought the only way to keep your children safe was to close our schools. Today, we know more and we have more resources to keep those schools open." Teachers, staff, and children 5 and older can get vaccinated, and Congress gave school districts resources to improve ventilation, social distancing, and other mitigation measures, he said. "We can keep our K-12 schools open, and that's exactly what we should be doing." Schools across the country are already stretched thin, struggling to find enough substitute teachers and bus drivers, and a wave of Omicron that sidelines enough teachers and staff could force schools to shut down. Also, there's not much data on how Omicron affects kids. Presumably, if large numbers of students started getting seriously ill, parents and teachers would agree online classes are the better alternative.

12-24-21 UK has begun using drugs for covid-19 cases before they become severe
Treatments like sotrovimab, molnupiravir and Paxlovid could lead to a new strategy in 2022: tackling covid-19 soon after infection to prevent severe symptoms from developing. People in the UK who are at higher risk for covid-19 can now help trial the first antiviral pill for this infection that can be taken at home, while those who are classed as extremely vulnerable can get antibody infusions as soon as they test positive. “These are potentially game-changing drugs,” says Philip Evans at the UK National Institute for Health Research. So how will the new treatments be delivered and how effective are they? When the pandemic began, doctors had no treatments for covid-19 other than general supportive care, such as giving people oxygen. Then, certain drug treatments became available, but they have mostly focused on tackling severe symptoms and have had to be given in hospital settings. Throughout 2021, though, new treatments were developed that are intended for use when a person first becomes infected and symptoms are still mild. The hope is that by giving such medicines as soon as possible after a positive test, people are less likely to get sick enough to need a hospital stay. In the UK, people who are most vulnerable to covid-19 should by now have received letters containing a PCR test and advice that if they develop symptoms, they should take the test and call a special clinic to discuss treatment. This includes people with cancer, people with Down’s syndrome or those with very weak immune systems. About 70 hospital clinics called Covid Medicines Delivery Units have been set up around the UK to help these groups. The main treatment on offer is an intravenous therapy called sotrovimab, an artificial antibody designed to block the coronavirus. A different antibody mixture called Ronapreve had originally been planned for use, but early lab tests suggest this is less effective against the omicron variant, while sotrovimab maintains enough efficacy to be useful.

12-24-21 2021 in review: Taliban's takeover gutted science in Afghanistan
Academics in Afghanistan were thriving before the shock takeover by the Taliban this year, which saw many researchers leave the country and universities closed. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this year led to a radical makeover of the country, and science was no exception. Since the fall of the Afghan government, scores of academics have fled the country. Public universities have been shut. Some private universities remain open but classes are now segregated by gender. “I was already afraid that I was on a list,” says Hammad*, an academic who fled Afghanistan earlier this year just before the US withdrew its troops. “I was increasingly afraid that if the Taliban came back to power… they might come after me.” The rapid change reverses steady progress in recent years. A 2021 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that Afghan science had been thriving, with academics in 2019 producing more than four times the publications they did in 2015. The percentage of women in higher education had also increased over the last few years. About 25 per cent of the student population were female in 2018 compared with 20 per cent in 2015, according to the UNESCO report. Hammad says all his former colleagues have fled the country. “The only ones who are left are those who cannot flee,” he says. “Whether that be for their lack of English, bureaucratic reasons or they’re just waiting for their visa application to go through.” Scholars at Risk, a charity in the US that helps threatened academics find refuge, says it received 1250 applications from Afghanistan between August and the first week of December The Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), the UK equivalent of Scholars at Risk, says it has received about 620 applications from Afghan academics since August. (Webmasters Comment: What would you expect from barbarians and savages!)

12-24-21 Vaccine mandate protesters slam Trump as a 'fraud' after being turned away from Trump Grill
The Trump Grill, located inside Trump Tower in New York City, refused to allow a group of vaccine mandate protesters to eat at the restaurant on Thursday after they failed to provide proof of vaccination. In response, the group slammed former President Donald Trump as a "fraud" and "a little hypocritical" for enforcing the city's indoor dining vaccine mandate, rather than paying the fines associated with defying the requirement, Newsweek reports. While Trump has come around on promoting the COVID-19 vaccines, he's maintained that "there can't be mandates and all those things." As he further put it to Fox News this week, "The mandate will destroy people's lives — it destroys people's lives, just as the vaccine saves people." Trump Hotels, however, says on its website that its Manhattan location requires proof of vaccination "in accordance with the most recent local government mandate." While the protesters made their point, one can't help but wonder why they wanted to eat so badly at the "worst restaurant in America" in the first place.

12-24-21 Trump asks Supreme Court to block Jan. 6 committee access to his records
Former President Donald Trump on Thursday appealed to the Supreme Court to block the National Archives and Records Administration from handing over documents from his White House to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, USA Today reports. Trump's lawyers said keeping White House deliberations confidential was crucial for the government to function. "The Constitution, this Court's precedent, and federal statutes invalidate the expansive request at issue here," the lawyers wrote in their 195-page submission to the nation's highest court. Trump says he has the right to keep the documents secret, citing executive privilege. President Biden has waived executive privilege, saying the committee can see the documents. The New York Times says the showdown "raises novel constitutional questions about the separation of powers and the power of a president no longer in office."

12-24-21 Roughly 1 in 60 Manhattanites reportedly infected with COVID-19 in the past 7 days
If you live in New York City, you're not just imagining that everyone seems to have COVID-19 right now. Peter Suwondo, a Columbia University medical student and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health policy advisor, took a look at the data shared by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and found that over 1 percent of New Yorkers were infected in the last week alone. "In Manhattan, transmission was even higher: roughly 1 of out every 60 people," he wrote. Nearly 39,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in New York state on Thursday, up more than 10,000 from Wednesday, The New York Times reports. Some 22,808 of Thursday's new cases came out of New York City. The city's average test positivity rate was at 11 percent as of Tuesday. The highly contagious Omicron variant, which is being blamed for the winter surge, "seems to be the variant of the wealthy," Curbed writes, pointing out that hard-hit areas include the affluent Manhattan neighborhoods of Soho and Greenwich Village. But "experts say the reasons why cases are so much higher in Manhattan are varied" — including that being able to wait in line for a test is a luxury — and that "it's likely that the high transmission rates that are being documented there actually exist throughout the rest of the city, too." On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would hold its traditional New Year's celebration in Times Square, but with a reduced crowd to limit the risk of infection due to the surge. Viewing areas for the event that normally can accommodate about 58,000 people will be limited to crowds totaling about 15,000 this year. Everyone attending will have to wear a mask and show proof of vaccination.

12-24-21 Covid-19 news: Booster omicron protection wanes within 10 weeks
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. Immunity offered by vaccines wanes more quickly with omicron, finds UK study. The protection conferred by booster vaccines against the omicron variant begins to wane within 10 weeks, according to a briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).Based on an analysis of 147,597 delta and 68,489 omicron cases, the agency found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are less effective against omicron than delta. For people who had two initial doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the UKHSA estimates that Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna boosters are around 60 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections from omicron 2 to 4 weeks after the third dose, but this falls to 35 to 45 per cent by 10 weeks. For those who had two initial doses of Pfizer/BioNTech, protection falls from 70 per cent at 2 to 4 weeks to 45 per cent at 10 weeks after a Pfizer booster, but stays around 70 to 75 per cent up to 9 weeks after a Moderna booster. Healthcare workers in the US who have tested positive for covid-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after seven days instead of 10, if they test negative for the virus, under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Italy has banned public new year’s eve celebrations as well as all concerts and open air events until 31 January, aiming to curb a rise in infections driven by the omicron variant. Mask wearing will also be compulsory in outdoor public places under new rules. Australia will cut the interval between second doses and booster shots from 5 months to 4 from 4 January, and then to 3 months on 31 January.

12-24-21 Omicron: US to lift travel restrictions from southern Africa
The US is to lift travel restrictions it imposed on eight southern African nations over a new coronavirus strain. The White House said the 29 November measure, affecting South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Malawi, would be lifted by New Year's Eve. The official said the curbs were no longer necessary amid a US explosion of cases of the Omicron variant. The variant now makes up most of all new US cases. "The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, esp boosted," tweeted White House assistant press secretary Kevin Munoz. The restrictions were first imposed by the EU and UK. The US and a host of other countries followed suit. The move was roundly criticised, with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling it "travel apartheid". Justifying the move, the White House's chief coronavirus adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, said earlier this month it was "done at a time when we were really in the dark" about Omicron. "We all feel very badly about the hardship that might have been put upon not only South Africa, but the other African countries," he said. Last week, Canada lifted its own ban on foreign travellers from 10 African countries. An official said the country's spike in domestic Omicron cases meant the requirements were "no longer needed". Canadian media had previously reported that the ban forced some citizens to travel through Ethiopia on their way home in spite of an active travel advisory against visiting that Horn of Africa nation due to the civil war. In recent weeks the US has further tightened its testing requirements. All international travellers must provide proof of a negative test result within one day of their flight, regardless of vaccination status. President Joe Biden - who has called Omicron "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic" - has so far resisted backing the lockdown measures seen in some European Union countries. The ban did not prevent Americans from returning to the country from the region and only applied to non-US citizens. Doctors in South Africa - where Omicron was first reported - said early on that infections from the new variant were resulting in only cause mild illness. This finding has since been backed up by studies in the UK. The strain has spread faster than any previous variant in the US but has not yet resulted in a significant spike in hospitalisations. Only one US death so far has been linked to Omicron: a Texas man in his 50s who was unvaccinated and had underlying health conditions.

12-24-21 Covid: Christmas flights cancelled and new curbs amid Omicron spread
Millions of people are facing travel disruption and increased Covid restrictions over Christmas, as the surging Omicron variant sees flights cancelled and safety curbs tightened. Italy, Spain and Greece have made face masks compulsory outdoors again. Catalonia, in northern Spain, has imposed an overnight curfew, and the Netherlands is in a strict lockdown. Despite early findings that Omicron is milder than other variants, scientists are concerned by the number of cases. Record infections were tallied in the UK, France and Italy on Thursday. In the US, daily Omicron cases have risen beyond the peak of the recent Delta wave, and hospitals are filling up across the country. "When we have millions and millions and millions of people, all sick, all together at one time, it doesn't take a large percentage of those people to topple over the hospitals," Dr Hallie Prescott, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. America's top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, warned earlier this week that Christmas travel would increase the spread of the variant even among the fully vaccinated. On Christmas Eve (Friday), US airlines said they were already suffering from staffing shortages due to flight crews testing positive or being forced to self-isolate. United Airlines said rising numbers of Omicron cases had "had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation", adding that it was contacting impacted passengers in advance of them coming to the airport. Hundreds of US flights scheduled for 24 December have been cancelled, according to the FlightAware website. The US is to lift travel restrictions imposed on eight African countries because of concerns about the Omicron variant on 31 December, the White House confirmed. Travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi had been blocked since 29 November.

12-24-21 Daunte Wright death: US 'Taser mix-up' ex-officer guilty of manslaughter
A veteran former Minnesota police officer has been found guilty of manslaughter for the fatal shooting of a black motorist in April. Kim Potter, 49, claimed she had mistakenly drawn her gun instead of a Taser and killed Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop. His death occurred at a time of high tensions, with the trial over George Floyd's murder taking place nearby. Potter's sentencing has been scheduled for 18 February. Over four days, the 12 jurors deliberated for approximately 27 hours before convicting her on both charges she faced. The first charge against Potter - first-degree manslaughter - is applied to cases in which the defendant causes someone's death while attempting to commit a lesser crime. In Potter's case, prosecutors accused her of killing Mr Wright as a result of her "reckless" handling of a firearm. The second charge - second-degree manslaughter - is used in cases where a death is caused by negligence and the taking of unreasonable risk. The first charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years and a fine of up to $30,000 (£22,000). The second charge is punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment and a $20,000 fine. As the verdict was read, Potter kept her head down, looking at the jury only briefly, as her two lawyers placed their hands on her shoulders. Judge Regina Chu then ordered she be taken into custody and held without bail until the sentencing. One of her relatives could be heard shouting "love you Kim" as she was handcuffed, to which she replied "love you", according to court reporters. Outside the courthouse, a crowd of demonstrators cheered, with some chanting Mr Wright's name and "the people can never be defeated". Speaking to reporters, Mr Wright's mother Katie said she had felt "every single emotion you can imagine" as the verdict was read, adding that it had been a "long fight for accountability". Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said the guilty verdict "shows the whole world" that those who enforce the law "are also willing to live by it". "My thoughts are also with Ms Potter today," Mr Ellison added, noting she was "remorseful" and wishing "the best for her and her family". "But the truth is she will be able to correspond with them no matter what happens. The Wrights won't be able to talk to Daunte."

12-24-21 Haridwar: Police case after outrage in India over anti-Muslim hate speech
Police in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand have launched an investigation after Hindu leaders called for violence against Muslims. Videos from a meeting of Hindu religious leaders showing provocative speeches went viral earlier this week, sparking outrage. The event took place in the holy town of Haridwar between 17 and 19 December. Police said they had not opened a case until Thursday because there had been no official complaints before that. There have been no arrests and the police case names only one man - Waseem Rizvi, a Muslim who says he has converted to Hinduism and is now known as Jitendra Narayan Tyagi. Police said a case had been registered against Mr Tyagi and unnamed "others" under charges of "promoting hatred between religious groups". Social media users, however, have identified many of the speakers in the videos who are important religious leaders often seen in the company of ministers and members from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Activists say the frequency of hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities has increased since 2014, when the BJP first came to power. Videos of hate speech or violence against Muslims regularly go viral in India. Critics allege this is because of the support - both open and tacit - that the perpetrators receive from ruling party leaders. One organiser of the Haridwar event, Prabodhanand Giri, has often been photographed with party leaders, reported NDTV. In one photo, Uttarakhand's Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami, a BJP politician, is seen touching his feet. At the event, Mr Giri was seen asking India's army, politicians and Hindus to do what was done in Myanmar - referring to the deadly violence against Rohingya Muslims that led to their exodus. He told NDTV he wasn't afraid of the police and stood by his statement. Another speaker, Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, has made several anti-Muslim statements in the past.

12-23-21 Cuba’s home-grown vaccines have massively cut covid-19 cases
Four months after hospitals collapsed in Cuba due to skyrocketing covid-19 case numbers, the country has rolled out its own vaccines and cases are down to 5 for every 100,000 people. Four months after Cuba reported the world’s highest number of daily covid-19 infections per capita, and more than 9000 cases a day, it has driven the incidence of new cases down to double digits with its own vaccines. The island reported 61 new daily infections on 21 December – 0.54 for every 100,000 people – as cases declined for the fourth consecutive month. Experts had predicted that Cuba’s economic crisis would make it fertile ground for the coronavirus because basic medical products, such as covid-19 tests and face masks are often unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and many hospitals lack antibiotics and oxygen. Hospitals collapsed in August and September, when daily infections exceeded 9000 a day. But the country now seems to have emerged from the health crisis in an enviable position. Cuba has developed and approved two covid-19 vaccines, with which 84 per cent of its 11 million people have been vaccinated. The country is also rolling out booster shots, and has a vaccine specifically for the omicron variant in the pipeline. “All this has been made possible thanks to Cuba’s autonomy in the development of its own vaccines, otherwise we would not be in the privileged place we are in the world today,” says Dagmar García Rivera at the Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana, Cuba. Cuba’s government didn’t negotiate with foreign pharmaceutical companies because it said foreign vaccines would be unaffordable or arrive too late. It also didn’t participate in COVAX, the World Health Organization’s scheme to provide jabs to lower-income countries. Instead, the country relied on its state-run biotech industry to develop a covid-19 vaccine – so far, the country has produced two covid-19 vaccines. Abdala is 92.3 per cent effective against symptomatic infection after three doses, and Soberana 2 is 92.4 per cent effective after two doses and an additional dose of Soberana Plus, another vaccine, according to studies that haven’t been peer-reviewed. Cuba has other vaccine candidates in trials, including Mambisa, which is delivered using nasal drops.

12-23-21 China locks down city of 13 million people with Olympics weeks away
As the 2022 Beijing Olympics approach, China has imposed a strict lockdown affecting about 13 million people. Authorities imposed the lockdown on the Chinese city of Xi'an as 63 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Wednesday, CNN reports. The lockdown measures prevent people from being able to leave their homes outside of emergency situations. The city's number of new cases passed 200 over the course of the past week, The Associated Press reports. The strict lockdown came as China is set to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing beginning on Feb. 4 and amid concerns over the Omicron variant of COVID-19, although there reportedly haven't yet been any cases of the Omicron variant reported in Xi'an. China has pursued a policy of striving for "zero COVID" during the pandemic; in November, over 30,000 people were locked inside Shanghai Disneyland for testing after a single COVID-19 case was reported. But according to CNN, this was just the fourth time during the pandemic that an entire Chinese city was put into what's known as a "controlled area" lockdown, the second strictest kind of lockdown. China previously banned foreign spectators from the Beijing Olympics, and according to The New York Times, it's taking "elaborate precautions" to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including having participants stay inside a "closed-loop" bubble. Still, the Beijing Winter Games organizing committee secretary general said Thursday, per the Times, "A certain number of positive cases will become a high probability event.

12-23-21 3 new studies, with caveats, add to evidence Omicron is less severe than other COVID-19 variants
Three separate studies out of England, Scotland, and South Africa on Wednesday suggested the new Omicron coronavirus is less likely to send people to the hospital and usually produces milder symptoms. The Omicron variant is also infecting more people at a much faster rate, among other caveats, so "this is a qualified good-news story," said Jim McMenamin, national COVID-19 incident director at Public Health Scotland and a co-author of the Scottish study. "Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at" these new studies, Manuel Ascano Jr., a virus researcher at Vanderbilt University, tells The Associated Press. "It is clearly good news, to a degree," said Neil Ferguson, who led the English research team at Imperial College London. In South Africa, where the sharp surge in Omicron cases appears to have peaked and started to decline after a month, researchers found that people infected with Omicron had a roughly 70 percent lower risk of hospitalization versus other variants. The Scottish study, from a team at University of Edinburgh, found Omicron patients were two-thirds less likely to be hospitalized than Delta patients. The Imperial College researchers found that those infected with Omicron were 15 to 20 percent less likely to go to the emergency room and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized overnight. Their analysis also found that Omicron's mutations made it intrinsically milder than Delta, BBC News reports. But Omicron hospitalizations are also believed to be stalling because majorities of the populations under study have some immunity from vaccines or previous infections. The Imperial College team estimated that people with no prior immunity were only about 11 percent less likely to visit the ER with Omicron than Delta. The Scottish study found the odds of being reinfected are 10 times higher with Omicron than Delta, but that vaccines still provide some protection against symptomatic infection, especially if you got a third dose. Given the vigorous transmissibility of Omicron, hospitals are still expected to become overwhelmed, but mostly with unvaccinated people. "If you are unvaccinated and you have never been infected, it is a little less severe than Delta," William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells The New York Times. "But that's a bit like saying you're being hit over the head with one hammer instead of two hammers. And the hammers are more likely to hit you now."

12-23-21 Covid: Who is not vaccinated in the US and what's the risk?
US President Joe Biden has urged Americans to get jabbed, saying the unvaccinated "have a significantly higher risk of ending up in hospital, or even dying". "Almost everyone who has died from Covid-19 in the past many months has been unvaccinated," he told Americans on Tuesday. About six in ten Americans are fully vaccinated, but in some states it's fewer than that. Case and death rates for people who are not vaccinated are higher in the US than for those fully vaccinated, according to data collected by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There are some breakthrough infections which result in death, but unvaccinated Americans have made up the majority of Covid deaths over the past few months. The CDC found that an unvaccinated American is 14 times more likely to die from Covid-related complications than a fully vaccinated person. This goes up to 20 times more likely, when compared with someone who has received a booster vaccination. Unvaccinated people are also nine times more likely to be admitted to hospital compared with fully vaccinated people. Every adult age group in the US is much more likely to die from Covid if they are unvaccinated. More than 204 million people in the US are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. That's about 61% of the population, with a further 12% partially vaccinated. On top of this, about 62 million people have been given a booster jab. However, in some US states, such as the north-western states of Wyoming and Idaho, fewer than 50% of the population are fully vaccinated. In the southern states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, upwards of half of their populations are also not fully vaccinated. Polling suggests resistance to vaccinations is divided down political lines, and the least vaccinated states have consistently voted Republican in recent presidential elections. The unvaccinated population is now disproportionately made up of those who identify as Republican - 60% compared with 17% who identify as Democrats, according to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a US-based health research group.

12-23-21 Omicron wave appears milder, but concern remains
The wave of Omicron appears to be milder according to preliminary studies published in the UK and South Africa. Early evidence suggests fewer people are needing hospital treatment than with other variants - with estimates ranging from a 30% to a 70% reduction. But the concern remains that even if Omicron is milder, the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals. More than 100,000 cases have been reported in the UK in a single day for the first time. A deeper understanding of the severity of Omicron will help countries decide how to respond to the virus. The study in Scotland has been tracking coronavirus and the number of people ending up in hospital. It said that if Omicron behaved the same as Delta, they would expect about 47 people to have been admitted to hospital already. At the moment there are only 15. The researchers said they were seeing a roughly two-thirds reduction in the number needing hospital care, but there were very few cases and few at-risk elderly people in the study. Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director at Public Health Scotland, described it as a "qualified good news story". He said the data was "filling in a blank" about protection against hospitalisation, but cautioned it was "important we don't get ahead of ourselves". The Omicron variant is spreading incredibly quickly and a high number of cases could wipe out any benefit of it being milder. Prof Mark Woolhouse, from the University of Edinburgh, said: "An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains." Meanwhile, another study in South Africa also points to the Omicron wave being milder. t showed people were 70-80% less likely to need hospital treatment, depending on whether Omicron is compared to previous waves, or other variants currently circulating. However, it suggested there was no difference in outcomes for the few patients that ended up in hospital with Omicron. "Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants," said Prof Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, in South Africa.

12-23-21 Omicron: Biden denies failure in pandemic testing response
US President Joe Biden has denied his administration bungled its response to the emergence of the Omicron variant. He told a TV network that "nobody" could have predicted it. His top adviser Dr Anthony Fauci has said experts did foresee variants. It comes a day after the White House unveiled plans to order 500 million at-home coronavirus tests amid a shortage. There have been long waits for in-person tests as Christmas looms. "I don't think it's a failure," Mr Biden said in a sit-down interview with ABC News on Wednesday. "I think it's - you could argue that we should have known a year ago, six months ago, two months ago, a month ago." The Democratic president said he wished he "had thought" about ordering the 500 million test kits "two months ago". One year ago Mr Biden lambasted a shortfall in Covid-19 testing under the Trump administration as "a travesty". On Wednesday, New York City recorded nearly 29,000 new cases - a new single day record during the pandemic and a 30% jump from the record set earlier this week. Pressed by ABC on US Vice-President Kamala Harris' remarks to the Los Angeles Times last week that the White House did not see Delta or Omicron coming, Mr Biden laughed. "How did we get it wrong?" he responded. "Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world. Who saw it coming?" On Tuesday, the White House also pledged to open more testing sites around the country. In a briefing on Wednesday, Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki was unable to provide specifics about how and when the free test kits would be distributed. On Sunday, top White House coronavirus adviser Dr Fauci dismissed any suggestion that the emergence of new Covid variants could not have been predicted. "We certainly were anticipating that there were going to be variants," he told CNN. "Because when you have so much replication going on in the community, if you give a virus enough opportunity to replicate you know it's going to ultimately mutate. "And sometimes those mutations become a new variant, and that's what happened with Delta, and certainly with Omicron."

12-23-21 Covid-19 news: Omicron is dangerous despite lower hospitalisation risk
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Omicron’s high transmissibility means it’s still a severe threat despite its lower hospitalisation risk. People infected with the omicron variant appear to be 15 to 20 per cent less likely to attend hospital compared with those infected with delta, according to a study of data from England by researchers at Imperial College London. Omicron cases are also 40 to 45 per cent less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more, the researchers found. The team analysed 56,000 cases of omicron infection and 269,000 delta cases between 1 and 14 December. The researchers found a moderate decrease in hospitalisation risk for those infected with the omicron variant. However this reduced risk is offset by the diminished efficacy of coronavirus vaccines against omicron, and the variant’s high transmissibility, said Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London, who worked on the study. “Given the high transmissibility of the omicron virus, there remains the potential for health services to face increasing demand if omicron cases continue to grow at the rate that has been seen in recent weeks,” he said in a statement. A separate study in Scotland has also found that omicron is associated with proportionally fewer hospitalisations. A University of Edinburgh team looked at over 150,000 covid-19 cases from 1 November to 19 December. Only about 672 of the cases sequenced were due to the omicron variant. They found that omicron cases were around two thirds as likely to be hospitalised as delta cases, however the small size of the study and the fact that many of the omicron cases were in younger, less vulnerable groups, means this cannot be taken as an indication of the variant’s severity. “An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains,” said Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh. The first covid-19 antiviral pill has been approved in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Paxlovid will be prescribed to over-12s with mild or moderate covid who are at risk of severe disease or hospitalisation. The authorisation of the Pfizer drug is a big step, said Patrizia Cavazzoni at the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “This authorization provides a new tool to combat covid-19 at a crucial time in the pandemic as new variants emerge and promises to make antiviral treatment more accessible to patients who are at high risk for progression to severe covid-19,” she says.

12-23-21 Joe Biden hails supply chain win but problems persist
US President Joe Biden has said government measures to tackle global supply chain issues have averted a pre-Christmas crisis. He was speaking ahead of a meeting with officials and company bosses, including transportation giant FedEx. In June, he created a task force to address rising prices and shortages of goods caused by the pandemic. However, some business owners and industry experts say American firms are still facing supply problems. "The much-predicted crisis didn't occur," Mr Biden said ahead of a meeting with his Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force and corporate executives. He went on to say that shop shelves are stocked at 90% of their full capacity and deliveries are happening at a faster rate than before the pandemic: "Packages are moving, gifts are being delivered, shelves are not empty." The meeting included the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Labor and Transportation as well as National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Port Envoy John Porcari. The chief executives of clothing retailer Gap, Kansas-based trucking company Yellow Corp and the American Association of Port Authorities also took part in the event. FedEx chief executive Fred Smith said "most of Santa Claus' products will be delivered to the consumers." but supply chain issues are "not all solved". In October, the Biden administration pushed for round-the-clock operations at ports and called on the help of some of the country's biggest retailers, including Walmart and Target, to tackle a major backlog of goods. In response the Port of Los Angeles in California said it would handle more goods at night after a similar move by nearby Long Beach port. The ports - which handle 40% of all cargo containers entering the US - had faced months of problems. Hailing the initiative as a success the White House has pointed to a record number of goods now moving faster through the ports, while waiting times for shipping containers has been cut in half.

12-23-21 1st Proud Boy pleads guilty to Jan. 6 conspiracy charges, will cooperate with the feds
Matthew Greene, a former member of the Proud Boys from New York, pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal conspiracy and obstruction charges, a big break in the Justice Department's prosecution of extremist groups that participated in or led the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Greene, 34, also "agreed to cooperate with the government — potentially against other members of the far-right extremist group," The New York Times reports. Greene traveled to Washington on Jan. 5 with a fellow upstate New York Proud Boy, Dominic Pezzola, and a third, William Pepe, slept on the floor of his hotel room, according to Greene's plea. Greene said he helped program earpiece-fitted handheld radios belonging to Pezzola that Proud Boys used to communicate during the Capitol siege. All three men were indicted on the same conspiracy charges in April; Pezzola and Pepe have pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say the Proud Boys took a lead role in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. In his plea, Greene said he and Pezzola were "among the first wave to cross the downed police line" and climb scaffolding up to higher tiers of the Capitol. Greene said he left after police began pushing back with chemical irritants, but Pezzola continued up the steps and, according to prosecutors, used a police shield to break a window and enter the Capitol. You can watch him in a Wall Street Journal video following the Proud Boys' trail on Jan. 6. After the riot, Greene boasted that "we took the capital" [sic], and later urged other Proud Boys on an encrypted channel to "take back our country" and "stand together now or end up in the gulag separately," according to court records. Greene subsequently concluded "his personal beliefs and ethics do not align with those of the Proud Boys" and "is anxious to publicly disavow his brief membership in this group," his lawyer says. Greene is scheduled to be sentenced on March 10. He faces up to 25 years in prison but will probably get closer to 41 to 51 months because of his cooperation with investigators. Federal prosecutors have charged more than 700 people with crimes related to the Jan. 6 riot, and more than 150 have pleaded guilty, including two others with more tenuous Proud Boy ties and at least five members of another extremist group, the Oath Keepers. One of those Oath Keepers, Graydon Young, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

12-23-21 Philadelphia congresswoman carjacked at gunpoint in broad daylight
A US congresswoman has had her car and possessions snatched from her at gunpoint in a daylight carjacking in the city of Philadelphia. Mary Gay Scanlon's government phone and ID were among belongings that the two robbers took. The Democrat was not injured, her office said. The FBI is assisting in the hunt for the attackers. Like many US cities, Philadelphia has seen an uptick in violent crime over the past year. In a statement, the city's Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, called the robbery, which occurred at 14:45 local time (19:45 GMT) on Wednesday, "appalling". The two male attackers struck after Mrs Scanlon toured FDR Park in south Philadelphia, part of her congressional district, and was walking alone back to her 2017 Acura MDX. She had been there for a work meeting, her office said. A dark-coloured SUV approached, and two armed males inside demanded her keys and belongings. "She's Philly tough so I know she will be ok!" tweeted fellow Democratic Philadelphia congressman Brendan Boyle. Philadelphia has witnessed an 80% increase in carjackings in 2021, according to CBS News. Gunpoint robberies are up 27% compared with 2020 in the place known as the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia has also seen a record 544 homicides this year, up from 347 in all of 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. Mrs Scanlon, who joined Congress in 2018, has co-sponsored a police reform bill to dispatch mental health professionals to certain 911 incidents "in lieu of law enforcement officers". Her robbery in Philadelphia comes just 24 hours after another US lawmaker was carjacked at gunpoint in a suburb of Chicago. Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat, and her husband had their Mercedes SUV taken at gunpoint on Tuesday night, police say.

12-23-21 Russia-Ukraine crisis: Putin says ball in West's cour
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on the West to give immediate security guarantees to defuse a crisis prompted by Russia's military build-up near Ukraine's borders. "It's you who must give us guarantees, and give them immediately, now," he said in his annual press conference. Mr Putin has demanded that Nato abandon military activity in Eastern Europe and not admit Ukraine as a member. He has threatened military measures but denies planning to invade Ukraine. Ukraine security officials says more than 100,000 Russian troops have been sent close to its borders, and the US has threatened Mr Putin with sanctions "like none he's ever seen" if Ukraine comes under attack. The Russian leader has already laid out "red lines" on Ukraine, and he became animated when he was asked on Thursday if he would guarantee that there would be no invasion. "We didn't come to the US or UK borders, no, they came to ours," he said, accusing Nato of cheating Russia with five waves of expansion since the 1990s. In a list of demands outlined last week, Russia has said it wants Nato to roll back to where it was in 1997, a demand seen as a non-starter for Poland, the Baltics and other Eastern European states that joined the West's defensive military alliance. Mr Putin said military measures were not his preferred choice and he expressed hope that talks would take place with the US early next year in Geneva, adding: "The ball is in their court, they have to give us some response." Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and then seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and Moscow is seeking assurances that neither country will be allowed to join Nato. Extra troops have been moved to Crimea and military exercises are due to take place there. Germany has expressed alarm at Russia's troop movements and said dialogue was "now essential to try to defuse a major crisis".

12-22-21 South Africa's ferocious Omicron wave already appears to be 'past the peak,' medical experts say
In South Africa, the Omicron coronavirus variant that roared in like a lion in mid-November appears to be going out like a lamb a month later. The country reported a record-high 27,000 new COVID-19 cases last Thursday, almost all of them the Omicron strain, but that number dropped to 15,424 on Tuesday, The Associated Press reports. And in Omicron epicenter Gauteng province, "the decrease started earlier and has continued," offering "one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike." "The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak," Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told AP. "It was a short wave ... and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths." The sharp drop in recorded cases in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province, is "very significant," agreed Dr. Fareed Abdullah, who has been working in the COVID ward of Pretoria's Steve Biko Academic Hospital. "The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we're seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave." Not everyone agrees. "In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled," Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, tells AP. "But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak." She noted that South Africa is in the middle of its holiday season, which involves a lot of travel and opportunity to spread the virus. There are other caveats, too.. "Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuation," AP notes, and South Africa, with its average age of 27, is not the U.S. or Europe. "Each setting, each country is different," Nunes told AP. "The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries." But the virus is the same, so maybe — just maybe — Omicron's reign of terror will be short and less terrible than feared.

12-22-21 Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death in the US in 2020
In the first year of the pandemic, covid-19 became one of the leading causes of death in the US. The country also had the biggest drop in life expectancy than any other. More than 3 million deaths were recorded in the US in 2020 – an increase of 500,000 from 2019. The coronavirus was directly responsible for more than 350,000 lives lost there in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “At this point in the pandemic, it’s clear that these numbers are pretty accurate,” says Steven Woolf at Virginia Commonwealth University. This is the largest increase in deaths in the US since the second world war, he says. Many of the excess deaths not related to covid-19 will also have been caused by the pandemic, Woolf says. These could have been due to missed operations, healthcare staff shortages and rises in mental ill health, he says. Life expectancy in the US also fell for both men and women in 2020. The average life expectancy for women fell from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.9 years in 2020. For men it fell from 76.3 years in 2019 to 74.2 years in 2020. “Based on our research, the US has faced the largest drop in life expectancy due to covid-19 than any other country in the world,” Woolf says. He says this is probably due to the country’s disjointed covid-19 response, with each state determining its own policies for how to deal with the coronavirus. “We had 50 different response plans, each depending on the governor of the state and their politics.” “A lot of these deaths were preventable,” says Woolf. “At the beginning of this year I was hopeful that with the vaccine there’d be fewer deaths in 2021… but now with the rise of the delta and omicron variants I’m not sure.” Heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US in 2020, according to the CDC report, accounting for around 168 deaths per 100,000 people. Cancer was the second leading cause of death with 144 deaths per 100,000 people. They were the two biggest killers in 2019 as well.

12-22-21 Covid Omicron: Biden buys 500m test kits to tackle surge
US President Joe Biden has said 500 million Covid rapid tests will be made available at no cost amid new measures to tackle the surging Omicron variant. Mr Biden also announced expanded testing and military support for hospitals, but said lockdowns were not yet on the horizon. "This is not March of 2020," he said. "We're prepared. We know more." Omicron has become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases. It was first identified in southern Africa last month but has now spread around the globe. Only one death in the US has been linked to the new variant: a 50-year-old from Harris County, Texas, who had an underlying health condition and was unvaccinated. Although 73% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against Covid, the administration remains concerned about those who have not had jabs. Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Biden again implored Americans to protect themselves and get vaccinated. He acknowledged that some vaccinated Americans would also be infected but he stressed that the unvaccinated have "a significantly higher risk of ending up in the hospital, or even dying". "If you're not fully vaccinated you have reason to be concerned," said an unmasked Mr Biden, who coughed into his hand during his remarks. Those who have been vaccinated and have had no exposure to Covid-19 may go ahead with Christmas celebrations, the president said. The White House said the new measures would "mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our healthcare system". In the same speech, he acknowledged that his vaccine mandates have been "unpopular". "My administration has put them in place not to control your life, but to save your life and the lives of others," he said. His administration is facing a barrage of lawsuits as it seeks to require federal contractors, healthcare providers and private companies to ensure their employees are vaccinated.

12-22-21 Covid-19 news: Isolation rules for covid cases changed in England
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Officials say isolating for 10 days avoids only a few more transmissions than 7 days. The isolation period for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus has been cut from ten to seven days in England, providing people have two negative rapid lateral flow tests, on days six and seven of their isolation period. But such people are “strongly advised” to still work from home, minimise contact with vulnerable people and mixing in crowded spaces, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said. The two lateral flow tests should be taken 24 hours apart, and people should not end their isolation early if they still have covid-19 symptoms. The relaxation of self-isolation rules applies whether or not people are vaccinated. But people who are not fully vaccinated and are isolating because they have had close contact with someone who has tested positive still have to isolate for the full ten days. The rest of the UK and most other countries tell people with covid-19 to isolate for ten days. The UKHSA says analysis shows that releasing people from isolation after seven days and two negative rapid tests has nearly the same protective effect as a ten-day isolation period without testing. “This new guidance will help break chains of transmission and minimise the impact on lives and livelihoods,” Jenny Harries of the UKHSA said in a statement. “It is crucial that people carry out their lateral flow tests as the new guidance states and continue to follow public health advice.” Israel will start offering a fourth dose of covid-19 vaccine to people who are health workers, over 60, or with weak immune systems who are at least four months out from their third shot. Israel was previously the first country to offer a widespread booster programme of third doses. The US will start offering people rapid lateral flow tests that people can order online for free, starting from next month, President Joe Biden said yesterday. At the moment such tests cost about $10 and are in short supply in shops. The number of booster vaccine doses given each day in the UK has risen by 75 per cent over the past week.

12-22-21 Covid Omicron: European nations reinstate restrictions
European leaders are reinstating coronavirus restrictions as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the continent. Germany and Portugal are among nations announcing post-Christmas curbs and greater social distancing measures. Omicron is already the dominant version in many European countries. Spain has reported its highest number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic and France has warned daily cases there could soon pass 100,000. French Health Minister Olivier Véran said the increase in daily infections in the country, currently at about 70,000, would be driven by the Omicron variant, which he said was likely to become the dominant variant by early January. The surge in cases across Europe will push health systems towards the brink of collapse, the World Health Organization's top official in the continent has warned. Hans Kluge said "another storm" was coming and governments should brace for significant increases in cases. France began vaccinating children between the ages of five and 11 on Wednesday, but said that boosters were not currently being offered to 12 to 15-year-olds. Germany announced that from 28 December limits would return that restrict private gatherings to 10 people and nightclubs would close. Football matches from that date will also be played behind closed doors. "Coronavirus doesn't take a Christmas break," Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday. "We cannot - and must not - close our eyes to this next wave, which is beginning to loom over us," he added. Meanwhile, Portugal ordered bars and nightclubs to shut from 26 December, and made working from home obligatory from that date until 9 January. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people. Bars and restaurants in Finland will have to close at 22:00 on 24 December, as the Nordic nation sees infections at a record level. For three weeks from 28 December, restaurants will have to close at 18:00 with limited seating. Travellers coming from the EU's border-free Schengen zone will have to show a negative Covid test.

12-22-21 Europe spat will weaken research - science leaders
Scientific leaders have urged the government not to abandon talks to enable the UK to participate in a €100bn European research programme. They have told BBC News that being cut out of EU research would "greatly disadvantage" British science. Agreement in principle was reached, but UK involvement is now a bargaining chip in talks over Northern Ireland. In response the Science Minister, George Freeman, has said the UK is ready to set up its own scheme. Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, told BBC News that ''losing the agreement on UK participation in the world's biggest international science funding programme at this stage, when it has already been negotiated and is ready to sign, would be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory". He added: "While it's natural for the government to plan for the worst-case scenario, we have to realise that any UK-only scheme would greatly disadvantage our scientists compared to the international opportunities that Horizon Europe opens up, with both the EU and many other countries that take part in it, such as Israel or Norway." The EU's Horizon Europe programme brings together researchers from industry and academia across the EU. The projects range from fundamental research to tackling societal issues, such as combating climate change and efforts to find treatments for debilitating diseases. The UK's continued participation in the EU's Horizon programme was agreed in principle just before Christmas 2020 in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But the signing off of a formal agreement on the UK's associate membership has dragged on for a year. The delay is creating problems, because funding cannot be released to UK collaborators until there is a formal agreement. If it becomes apparent that agreement will take many more months, EU researchers will not include UK scientists in their projects.

12-22-21 Five big questions about Trump and the riot
It has been nearly a year since a mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to halt the certification of Joe Biden's presidential victory. The most comprehensive account of the events leading up to and during that day is still ongoing, the focus of a special House of Representatives committee set up for that purpose. Established in a contentious 1 July House vote after attempts to create an independent inquiry failed, the committee - made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans - has conducted more than 250 interviews and issued at least 45 subpoenas over the course of its investigation. According to committee members, most of those contacted have agreed to co-operate. A handful of those closest to Donald Trump, however, have resisted. They've cited executive privilege, a legal principle that protects candid communications between presidents and their advisors. Two so far, Trump confidante Steve Bannon and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have been cited for contempt of Congress by the House. Bannon is facing a criminal trial next year. Others, like former Trump advisor Roger Stone and Trump ally Alex Jones have invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions on their role. As its investigatory work — and legal battles — continue, there are a number of gaps and key questions that the committee is seeking to address. Here are a few of the most pressing ones. Bennie Thompson, the chair of the congressional investigation, recently set out some of what his committee is trying to learn about the Washington DC rallies that served as a precursor to the attack on the Capitol. "We need to know who organised, planned, paid for and received funds related to those events, as well as what communications organisers had with officials in the White House and Congress," he said. One of those organisers, far-right conservative activist Ali Alexander, has already testified to the committee — and said he was in touch with the White House and Republican members of Congress ahead of time. The exact nature of these contacts have yet to be publicly revealed. (Webmasters Comment: Trump is Hitler reincarnated!)

12-22-21 Winter Olympics: NHL will not send players to Beijing
The National Hockey League (NHL) has confirmed it will not send its players to the men's ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Winter Olympics. It follows disruption to the regular NHL season because of a surge in Covid-19 cases. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said "Olympic participation is no longer feasible" with 50 league games postponed through to 23 December. The Games are scheduled to begin in China on 4 February, 2022.

12-21-21 We can't starve Afghanistan into democracy and shouldn't try
Afghanistan is teetering on the edge of famine. There are several causes, including chronic drought and a bad harvest, but the main reason is the national economy has collapsed following U.S. military withdrawal. The 20-year American occupation created a warped economic system totally dependent on foreign aid. When the Taliban took over, the Biden administration halted those cash flows, which accounted for about 40 percent of GDP and three-quarters of the government budget, and seized Afghanistan's currency reserves. Now, as The Washington Post reports, unemployment is high, inflation is rising, and millions of people are already going hungry. Hospitals are filled with malnourished babies — according to UNICEF, a million Afghan children could die this winter, a stunning proportion of a population of 39 million. The United States should respond with generous humanitarian aid, but the Biden administration is reportedly resisting this step for political reasons. There are apparently voices in the administration who would starve the Afghan people to avoid funding the Taliban. Because like it or not, the fates of the Afghan people and the Taliban can't be disentangled right now. A group of former ambassadors to Afghanistan and U.S. generals recently wrote on a number of proposals to distribute aid without directly aiding the Taliban. But realistically, there's no way to send money to Afghanistan without the Taliban benefiting. If the economy is restored to some level of functioning, and people have enough to eat, the Taliban government will be cemented in power. That's the choice: starvation or letting the Taliban govern. Frankly, were it up to me, I'd give the Taliban whatever aid is necessary in the short term, unfreeze Afghanistan's financial system, remove U.S. sanctions, and be done with it. There was a 20-year political struggle over who would rule the country, and the Taliban won decisively. Our government lost. The least Washington can do now is not make things worse for Afghan innocents. A friendly hand might even encourage the Taliban to behave more moderately. But if it doesn't, remember: If the Taliban falls, a more extreme group may well succeed them. We didn't bomb Afghanistan to democracy, and we won't starve them into it, either. (Webmasters Comment: The Taliban wil make sure its enforcers are fed. All others can starve!)

12-21-21 Fauci calls for Fox News to fire Jesse Watters over 'kill shot' comments
Dr. Anthony Fauci is calling for Jesse Watters to be fired after the Fox News personality suggested people should "ambush" him and "go in for the kill shot." On Tuesday, CNN host John Berman asked Fauci for his reaction to Watters telling a conservative crowd to "ambush you with what he said was some kind of rhetorical kill shot." President Biden's chief medical adviser called the comments "horrible" and "such a reflection of the craziness that goes on in society." "You have some guy out there saying that people should be giving me a kill shot, to ambush me?" Fauci said. "I mean, what kind of craziness is there in society these days. That's awful that he said that. … The guy should be fired on the spot." Speaking at a Turning Point USA event earlier this week, Watters suggested confronting Fauci and telling him that "you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab," remarks he compared to a "kill shot" that would be "deadly." Watters added that after telling this to Fauci, "Boom, he is dead! He is dead! He's done!" Watters also suggested such a confrontation with Fauci should be filmed so it could air on Fox News. "Get us that," Watters said, adding, "just make sure it's legal." Fauci appeared to be unaware of what network Watters was affiliated with, but he suggested to CNN "he's gonna go very likely unaccountable," adding it's "crazy" that "whatever network he's on is not going to do anything." Fauci previously spoke out after Fox Nation personality Lara Logan compared him to a Nazi doctor. "What I find striking… is how she gets no discipline whatsoever from the Fox network, how they can let her say that with no comment and no disciplinary action," he said. "I'm astounded by that."

12-21-21 Young pupils allegedly forced to re-enact Holocaust in Washington school
Washington DC school officials say a staff member who allegedly forced young students to re-enact events from the Holocaust has been placed on leave. The alleged re-enactment by eight and nine year olds included shootings and digging of mass graves, with one child assigned to act as Adolf Hitler. DC Public Schools confirmed the incident to the BBC and said an investigation was underway. In an apology, the school said this was not part of an approved lesson plan. In an email sent to parents of Watkins Elementary School on Friday, principal Mscott Berkowitz acknowledged "the gravity of this poor instructional decision". "Students should never be asked to act out or portray any atrocity, especially genocide, war or murder," he said in the email, which was published online by local news outlet Fox5DC. Mr Berkowitz could not immediately be reached for comment. Parents quoted by the Washington Post claimed that some children were forced to act as if they were shooting their classmates and pretend they were on transportation trains or gas chambers. One parent cited by the paper alleged that the instructor told students that the Holocaust took place "because the Jews ruined Christmas". n a statement to the BBC, DC Public Schools said that the unnamed staff member is on leave pending the results of the investigation. "This was not an approved lesson plan, and we sincerely apologise to our students and families who were subjected to this incident," spokesman Enrique Gutierrez said. Mr Gutierrez added that the staff member allegedly used hate speech during the lesson, which he said "is unacceptable and not tolerated at any of our schools". Several other local schools have recently reported anti-Semitic incidents. Earlier in December, students at a Washington DC high school, Woodrow Wilson, reported swastikas being painted on a bathroom wall alongside racist epithets. The case also comes amid warnings from experts about the rise of anti-Semitism in the US. (Webmasters Comment: This is obscene!)

12-21-21 Covid Omicron: Biden buys 500m test kits to tackle surge
US President Joe Biden's administration is to make 500 million rapid tests for Covid available free, amid new measures to tackle the surging Omicron variant. Mr Biden will address the nation later, telling people to protect themselves as the holiday season gets under way. There will be more vaccines and more support for hospitals, but no need for a lockdown, a senior official said. Omicron has become the dominant strain in the US, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all new cases. It was first identified in southern Africa last month but has now spread around the globe. Although 73% of adult Americans are fully vaccinated against Covid, the administration remains concerned about those who have not had jabs. The senior official said: "If you are unvaccinated, you are at high risk of getting sick. This variant is highly transmissible and the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalised and 14 times more likely to die from Covid." The White House said the measures Mr Biden was announcing would "mitigate the impact unvaccinated individuals have on our health care system". 500 million at-home rapid tests (antigen/flow) will be bought and delivered free to all Americans who request them from January. Kits can currently cost $7-$15 (£5-£11) over-the-counter and availability can be sketchy in some areas. 1,000 military medical personnel will be deployed to hospitals nationwide over the next two months, five times the current amount. The launch of new federal testing sites nationwide, with the first in New York City - which has seen a massive surge in Omicron - by Christmas. Expanded hospital capacity and distribution of critical supplies.Mr Biden will say in his address later that even vaccinated Americans are going to be infected by the new variant, but that they will become far less sick than the unvaccinated. He will stress the need for mask wearing, particularly when travelling, and caution while celebrating.

12-21-21 Covid-19 news: WHO calls for holiday festivities to be postponed
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Omicron variant could overwhelm health systems, says WHO chief. The head of the World Health Organization has urged people to scale back their Christmas plans, warning that festivities would in many places lead to “increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths”. There is consistent evidence that the omicron variant is spreading faster than delta, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing yesterday. Compared with other variants, omicron is also more likely to infect people who are vaccinated or have been infected with the virus before, he said. “All of us are sick of this pandemic. All of us want to spend time with friends and family. All of us want to get back to normal,” Tedros said. “The fastest way to do this is for all of us, leaders and individuals, to make the difficult decisions that must be made to protect ourselves and others. “In some cases, that will mean cancelling or delaying events… But an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled. It’s better to cancel now and celebrate later than to celebrate now and grieve later.” Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the US, and accounted for 73 per cent of new infections last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. “All of us have a date with omicron,” Admesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told The Guardian. “If you’re going to interact with society, if you’re going to have any type of life, omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated.” The UK prime minister Boris Johnson said yesterday the government is “looking at all kinds ot things to keep omicron under control”, but did not announce any new measures, despite calls from scientists to impose tougher curbs before Christmas. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has announced that spectators will not be allowed at sporting events from 26 December and the mayor of London has cancelled the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Trafalgar Square. New Zealand has postponed a plan to relax border restrictions from mid-January to the end of February. The European Union’s medicines regulator has approved a coronavirus vaccine made by Novavax for people aged 18 and over, the fifth covid-19 jab to be authorised in the bloc. The EU has ordered 200 million doses of the vaccine.

12-21-21 The omicron variant is surging. Here’s what we’ve learned so far
The new version of the coronavirus can evade some antibodies, but booster shots may help. With omicron spreading globally at a dizzying pace, scientists are scrambling to learn as much as they can about the latest worrisome variant of the coronavirus. First spotted in South Africa and Botswana at the end of November, omicron is already poised to soon become the dominant variant — dethroning delta — in some regions, public health officials warn. In a few places, it already has. So answers, including how sick does omicron make people and how well do vaccines hobble it, can’t come fast enough. A rising tide of data on omicron is beginning to provide a glimpse at what’s ahead as we enter year three of the global pandemic, though many questions linger. And with many people preparing to gather with family and friends for holidays, experts are bracing for yet more case surges, compounded by already high infection rates in some countries linked to the still-prevalent delta variant. Omicron’s collision with the holidays and travel is “a perfect storm,” Thomas Denny, a vaccine expert at Duke University, said December 16 in a call with journalists. At this point, even vaccinated people should be taking precautions, such as wearing masks indoors and testing before family gatherings, he said. “This new variant has thrown us a curve ball at the worst possible time.” Still, amid the worries, there are positive signals that vaccines can still protect people from the worst of COVID-19. As many countries hurtle toward a season of omicron, here’s what researchers are learning so far. Omicron’s high number of mutations in important viral proteins, and signs that the variant was behind a surge of COVID-19 cases in South Africa, quickly raised red flags, hurling the pandemic into yet another tsunami of uncertainty (SN: 12/1/21).

12-21-21 How Covid deepened America's teacher shortages
The autumn school term that has just ended in the United States was marked by a shortage of teachers and support staff. The pandemic has heightened the long-running problem - with a huge spike in retirements and resignations. In a classroom full of colourful posters, Jennifer Wolfe plays a geography quiz game with her teenage students at Oceanside High School in Long Island, New York. This is her 25th year in education. She absolutely loves her job, she said - and was given New York state's "Teacher of the Year" award for 2021 in recognition of her excellence as a social studies teacher and mentoring of fellow educators. But it has been a particularly exhausting few years for Jennifer and her colleagues. There is a shortage of them in almost every state with teachers citing low pay, overbearing bureaucracy and lack of respect as reasons for their unhappiness. "I'm exhausted and a little crispy around the edges. It's really hard to get out of bed sometimes in the morning", said Jennifer. "Teachers need time to rejuvenate and are not given that time", she added. "They don't need more and different responsibilities." This is a common refrain from teachers across the country. The demand-supply ratio has been skewed for several years - but the pandemic has been especially hard. They had to figure out new tools to keep students engaged during online learning and deal with an increased workload. Lisa Morrison, an arts and communications teacher in the island of Maui in Hawaii, said the pandemic proved to be a breaking point for many. "People have relied for years on the fact that teachers have a love for teaching and for being with kids in order to make up for poor salary and hard working conditions. "Now many of them are feeling that's not enough of a reason to stay." The historical reasons for a lack of teachers are complex. Low wages, reduced interest among young people in entering the profession and the high cost of student debt that they have to endure are some of them.

12-21-21 Boeing and Airbus warn US over 5G safety concerns
Bosses from the world's two biggest plane makers have called on the US government to delay the rollout of new 5G phone services. In a letter, top executives at Boeing and Airbus warned that the technology could have "an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry." Concerns have previously been raised that C-Band spectrum 5G wireless could interfere with aircraft electronics. US telecoms giants AT&T and Verizon are due to deploy 5G services on 5 January. "5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate," said the bosses of Boeing and Airbus Americas, Dave Calhoun and Jeffrey Knittel, in a joint letter to US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The letter cited research by trade group Airlines for America which found that if the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 5G rules had been in effect in 2019, about 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have faced delays, diversions or cancellations. The aviation industry and the FAA have raised concerns about potential interference of 5G with sensitive aircraft equipment like radio altitude meters. "Airbus and Boeing have been working with other aviation industry stakeholders in the US to understand potential 5G interference with radio altimeters," Airbus said in a statement. "An Aviation Safety Proposal to mitigate potential risks has been submitted for consideration to the US Department of Transportation." This month, the FAA issued airworthiness directives warning 5G interference could result in flight diversions, saying it would provide more information before the 5 January rollout date. In November, AT&T and Verizon delayed the commercial launch of C-band wireless service by a month until 5 January and adopted precautionary measures to limit interference. Aviation industry groups have said the measures did not go far enough, with Boeing and Airbus saying they made a counterproposal that would limit cellular transmissions around airports and other critical areas.

12-20-21 Senator Joe Manchin threatens to sink signature Biden bill
A Democratic senator has said he will not support a major social spending plan, throwing the US president's flagship legislation into jeopardy. "I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation," Joe Manchin told Fox News of the $1.9tn (£1.4tn) bill. Fellow Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have spent weeks trying to secure Mr Manchin's crucial support. All 50 Democrats are needed to pass the bill in the Senate, with opposition Republicans staunchly opposed. The Build Back Better Act is a sweeping social spending and climate package, which is considered a key pillar of Mr Biden's agenda. It would increase funding for government health-insurance programmes, expand tax credits for low-income families, provide government-funded universal preschool, and invest hundreds of billions of dollars in addressing climate change. It would be mostly paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. It passed the House of Representatives last month following a vote that largely fell along party lines, but was expected to face significant hurdles in the Senate. Republicans say the legislation will fuel inflation and damage the economy. On Sunday, the Democratic West Virginia senator said he had "worked as diligently as possible... to determine the best path forward despite my serious reservations". "My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face. "I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29tn and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight," Mr Manchin said. The White House said Mr Manchin's comments marked a "breach of his commitments" to Mr Biden as well as his Democratic colleagues in Congress. "We will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word," it said. "The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year," it added. (Webmasters Comment: Senator Manchin hates the American people as much as the Republicans do!)

12-20-21 Covid: Christmas travel will fuel spread of Omicron, US expert warns
Christmas travel will increase the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, even among the fully vaccinated, the top US infectious disease expert says. "There's no doubt about this, [Omicron] has an extraordinary capability of spreading," Dr Anthony Fauci told NBC's Meet the Press programme on Sunday. Dr Fauci, who advises the US government on the pandemic, said the variant was now "raging through the world". Countries are tightening measures as the heavily mutated variant spreads. In Europe, France and Germany are among those to issue travel restrictions and the Netherlands has imposed a strict lockdown over Christmas. Governments are also ramping up their Covid booster vaccination programmes after researchers said the additional shot could provide around 85% protection against severe illness. On Sunday, Dr Fauci said the rapid spread of Omicron in the US could have a serious impact on health services across the country. "Our hospitals, if things look like they're looking now, are going to be very stressed," he warned. Dr Fauci said people needed to take precautions such as wearing face masks and social distancing. He also urged more Americans to get their vaccine and booster shots. "The difference between a vaccinated and boosted person who has an infection, and someone who has an infection who has never been vaccinated - it's a major difference with regard to the risk of severity," he said. At a White House press briefing on Friday, Dr Fauci said unvaccinated people were at a much higher risk of serious infection and hospitalisation. "We are looking over our shoulder at an oncoming Omicron surge," he said, adding: "The fully vaccinated are doing much better... the optimum protection is fully vaccinated plus a boost." Dr Fauci gave the warnings as two US Senators, Democrats Elizabeth Warren, 72, and Cory Booker, 52, said they had tested positive for the virus. Almost 73% of the US population has received at least one Covid vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So far, almost 30% have had a booster shot. The latest CDC estimates suggest the Omicron variant accounts for about 3% of current cases, most of which have been recorded in the state of New York. Since the start of the pandemic, the US has recorded more than 50 million cases of coronavirus, and more than 800,000 Covid-related deaths.

12-20-21 Pope Francis condemns domestic abuse as 'almost satanic'
Pope Francis has condemned domestic violence against women as "almost satanic", in some of his strongest language yet on the issue. The head of the Catholic Church made the remark during a programme broadcast on Italy's TG5 network on Sunday. He spoke to a panel of four people from difficult backgrounds, including a survivor of domestic abuse. He lamented the "very, very high" number of women "who are beaten and abused in their homes." "The problem is that, for me, it is almost satanic because it is taking advantage of a person who cannot defend herself, who can only [try to] block the blows," said Pope Francis. "It is humiliating. Very humiliating." He spoke with a woman named Giovanna who said she had escaped from a violent home with her four children. The Pope added that women who suffered abuse had not lost their dignity. "I see dignity in you because if you didn't have dignity, you wouldn't be here," he told Giovanna. "Look at the Blessed Mother and stay with that image of courage." Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis has made several comments about domestic abuse. Incidents of abuse have increased in a number of countries, as many people are left trapped with their abusers during lockdown. According to a UN report which covered 13 countries, half of women surveyed said they'd experienced some form of violence since the start of the pandemic. In Italy, police figures released last month reported around 90 episodes of violence against women every day - 62% of these were domestic abuse cases. Addressing Giovanna, Pope Francis said it was possible to still have hope, even during the pandemic. "You are giving an example of resistance, a lesson of resistance to calamities," he said. "You're coming out better than before."

12-20-21 Hong Kong: Pro-Beijing candidates sweep controversial LegCo election
Pro-Beijing candidates have claimed a victory in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) election, as the city saw its lowest-ever voter turnout. It was the first LegCo election since China made sweeping and controversial changes to the city's electoral system. Officials argue the changes were needed to ensure stability, but critics say they weakened democracy. On Monday, Beijing also unveiled a statement outlining "democracy with Hong Kong characteristics". In a white paper released hours after election results were announced, China said Hong Kong was now entering a new stage of "restored order" as a result of these Beijing-introduced changes. But a group of Western nations expressed "grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements" in Hong Kong's electoral system. "Since handover, candidates with diverse political views have contested elections in Hong Kong. Yesterday's election has reversed this trend," the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the British foreign secretary and US secretary of state said in a statement. "These changes eliminated any political opposition." The LegCo, Hong Kong's mini-parliament, is a powerful body that makes and amends laws in the city. One analysis by local news outlet HK01 found that 82 of the 90 seats were won by members from pro-establishment and pro-Beijing camp. Only one candidate was from a non-establishment camp, and the rest had unknown political backgrounds. Government officials had urged the city's 4.5 million registered voters to take part in the election, and had made public transport on Sunday free as well as sent out mass texts to encourage a higher turnout. But in the end only 30.2% of voters participated, amid wide apathy about the poll. One woman, an accountant in her 20s, told AFP news agency: "My vote won't mean anything because ultimately it's Beijing's people winning."

12-20-21 Leftist Gabriel Boric to become Chile's youngest ever president
Leftist candidate Gabriel Boric has won Chile's presidential election to become the country's youngest ever leader. In what was expected to be a tight race, the 35-year-old former student protest leader defeated his far-right rival José Antonio Kast by 10 points. Mr Boric told supporters he would look after democracy, promising curbs on Chile's neoliberal economic model. He will lead a country that has been rocked in recent years by mass protests against inequality and corruption. Mr Boric's victory prompted celebrations on the streets of the capital Santiago, with his supporters waving flags and honking car horns. In his speech, Mr Boric said he was taking on the job with humility and a "tremendous sense of responsibility", vowing to "firmly fight against the privileges of a few". "We have an enormous challenge. I know that in the coming years, the future of our country is at stake, so I guarantee that I will be a president who cares for democracy and does not risk it, listens more than speaks, seeks unity, and attends to the needs of the people daily," he told supporters. Official results gave Mr Boric 56% of the votes against Mr Kast's 44%. Mr Kast conceded defeat barely an hour-and-a-half after polls closed, and with around half of ballots counted. Both candidates offered starkly different visions for the country, and both are outsiders representing political parties that have never been in government. Once the most stable economy in Latin America, Chile has one of the world's largest income gaps, with 1% of the population owning 25% of the country's wealth, according to the United Nations. Mr Boric has promised to address this inequality by expanding social rights and reforming Chile's pension and healthcare systems, as well as reducing the work week from 45 to 40 hours, and boosting green investment. "We know there continues to be justice for the rich, and justice for the poor, and we no longer will permit that the poor keep paying the price of Chile's inequality," he said. The president-elect also promised to block a controversial proposed mining project which he said would destroy communities and the national environment.

12-19-21 Covid: Dutch go into Christmas lockdown over Omicron wave
The Netherlands has begun a strict lockdown over Christmas amid concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant. Non-essential shops, bars, gyms, hairdressers and other public venues are closed until at least 14 January. Two guests per household will be allowed - four over the holidays. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the measures were "unavoidable". Countries across Europe have been tightening restrictions as the heavily mutated variant spreads. The new rules in the Netherlands are the strictest to have been announced over Omicron so far. "I stand here tonight in a sombre mood. And a lot of people watching will feel that way too," Mr Rutte told a news conference on Saturday. "To sum it up in one sentence, the Netherlands will go back into lockdown from tomorrow." Under the new restrictions, people are being urged to stay at home as much as possible. There are strict limits on the number of people who can meet. A maximum of two guests, aged 13 and over, are allowed in people's homes. This will rise to four people between 24 and 26 December, and on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Events are not permitted other than funerals, weekly markets selling groceries and professional sports matches with no spectators. Restaurants can continue to sell takeaway meals, and non-essential shops can offer click and collect services. Meanwhile all schools are now closed until at least 9 January. "I can now hear the whole of the Netherlands sighing. This is exactly one week before Christmas, another Christmas that is completely different from what we would like," Mr Rutte said. But, he added, a failure to act now would likely lead to "an unmanageable situation in hospitals". Earlier on Saturday, people rushed to do their Christmas shopping amid reports that new measures were about to be introduced. "It's too busy, but I'm coming before the Christmas holidays to pick up gifts, it seems like a new lockdown is coming," Ayman Massori told AFP news agency. For weeks, curfews have been placed on hospitality and cultural venues in the Netherlands in an effort to limit the spread of Omicron.

12-19-21 Covid: Germany tightens restrictions on UK travellers
Germany has become the latest European country to ban most travellers from Britain, to try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. German nationals and residents will still be allowed to enter from the UK. They must have a negative test and quarantine for two weeks, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. The measures take effect from Sunday evening and France has already introduced similar curbs as coronavirus infections surge in Britain. The Robert-Koch-Institut - a federal health agency - announced the new rules as it classified the UK as a virus variant area of concern, the highest Covid risk level. Denmark, France, Norway and Lebanon have also been added to Germany's high risk list and travel from those countries will also be restricted. The move comes after another 90,418 daily Covid cases were reported across the UK on Saturday - following days of record highs. London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a "major incident" in the capital on Saturday due to sharp rise in cases. On Saturday, 26,418 new cases reported - the highest number since the start of the pandemic. Scientific advisers have warned that England's hospital admissions could reach 3,000 a day without further restrictions. Although the number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany is lower than in the UK, with 50,968 new cases reported on Friday, the number of deaths following a positive Covid test is rising. Germany reported 437 deaths on Friday. German health minister Karl Lauterbach said he expected the Omicron variant to unleash a "massive fifth wave" of the pandemic. He said Germany had to prepare for a challenge "that we have never seen in this form before". On Saturday, Prof Lauterbach said that the "more we can push back... the better". France is also worried about the spread of Omicron in the UK and authorities there banned UK tourists from travelling between the two countries on Saturday. Under its new rules, UK citizens now need a "compelling reason" to enter France, with trips for tourism or business banned.

12-18-21 US court reinstates Covid vaccine mandate for large US businesses
A federal appeals court has reinstated a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large US businesses. The mandate will require workers at private companies with more than 100 employees to get fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or be tested weekly. It had been blocked by a court ruling last month, with critics citing "grave statutory and constitutional" issues. But a three-judge panel ruled on Friday that delaying its implementation would hinder efforts against Covid-19. The ruling, which would cover more than two-thirds of the nation's workers, marked a major win for President Joe Biden. But opponents have signalled plans to appeal the verdict at the Supreme Court. Many businesses in the US already require their employees to be vaccinated. There are also requirements for military and federal contractors. The latest mandate is set to be in place from 4 January. In addition to its vaccine and testing regulations, it also requires companies to determine which of their employees are vaccinated, and to enforce a mask mandate among unvaccinated workers. It was issued by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in November. OSHA argued that it could save more than 6,500 lives and prevent a quarter of a million hospitalizations during the six months it would be in effect. But the mandate attracted a raft of legal challenges from 27 states, as well as private companies and industry groups. Opponents argued that OSHA did not have the legal authority to enforce the rule, and that it would be costly and lead to worker shortages. In a 2-1 ruling, the judges said these concerns were "entirely speculative". "Fundamentally, the [rule] is an important step in curtailing the transmission of a deadly virus that has killed over 800,000 people in the United States, brought our healthcare system to its knees, forced businesses to shut down for months on end, and cost hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs," wrote Circuit Judge Jane Stranch.

12-18-21 Covid-19: Omicron spreading at lightning speed - French PM
The Omicron variant is "spreading at lightning speed" in Europe and will likely become dominant in France by the start of next year, French Prime Minister Jean Castex has warned. He spoke on Friday, hours before France imposed strict travel restrictions on those entering from the United Kingdom. The UK has so far been the hardest hit in the region, with nearly 15,000 confirmed Omicron cases on Friday. Across the continent, health officials are bracing for a wave of infections. Additional restrictions were announced in Germany, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands on Friday as governments seek to stem the tide. Europe has already seen more than 89 million cases and 1.5 million Covid-related deaths, according to the latest EU figures. But Germany's Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on Friday the country "must prepare for a challenge that we have not yet had in this form", while its public health agency designated France, Norway and Denmark as "high risk" due to rising infections in those countries. Germany itself reported more than 42,000 cases on Saturday, down from 50,000 new infections recorded on Friday. In Ireland, where a third of new cases have been due to the new variant, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said they were expecting "to see infections at a rate that is far in excess of anything we have seen to date". The warnings came as the UK reported a record number of Covid infections for a third day in a row - more than 93,000 - largely driven by Omicron. France closed its borders to people travelling from the UK for business or tourism at 23:00 GMT on Friday, with huge queues forming at the Port of Dover and Eurostar terminals as people tried to enter before the ban came into effect. It is not the only country tightening its controls. Earlier this week, Italy, Greece and Portugal announced that visitors from the EU will need to present a negative test result on arrival - even those who have been vaccinated.

12-18-21 Kim Potter: 'Taser mix-up' ex-officer weeps in manslaughter testimony
A former Minnesota police officer has tearfully recounted the "chaotic" moment she shot and killed a black motorist in April. Kim Potter, 49, claims she mistakenly drew her gun instead of her Taser and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. She now faces two manslaughter charges for his death. Her defence team claims he was resisting arrest. In court, Ms Potter testified that she saw "a look of fear" on the face of a fellow officer during the scuffle. The shooting on 11 April 2021 caused several days of demonstrations. It happened as another Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Footage of the incident shown in court last week shows Ms Potter repeatedly yelling "Taser" before firing a single shot from her pistol. She is later seen sitting on the pavement in tears. Testifying in her own defence for the first time on Friday, Ms Potter said that she was standing near the vehicle as Mr Wright and another officer, Mychal Johnson, struggled during the attempted arrest. "He [Mr Johnson] had a look of fear on his face. It's something I've never seen before," a visibly upset Ms Potter said. "It just went chaotic." "I remember yelling 'Taser, Taser, Taser', and nothing happened. Then he told me I shot him," she added, breaking down in tears. She added that she has largely lost her memory of what happened in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Ms Potter resigned from the police force two days after the incident. In court, she said that "she did not want anything bad to happen to the city" following the shooting, which had received widespread attention. Additionally, Ms Potter said that she had been trained on Tasers since 2002, and had drawn the weapon for "de-escalation" multiple times in her career, but never fired it. Similarly, she said she had never fired a pistol in her 26-year-long career. Ms Potter said she was "very distraught" after the shooting. (Webmasters Comment: It amazes me that white people are almost never killed in these kinds of incidents!)

12-18-21 Afghanistan to Wisconsin: Refugees dream of home
When the US pulled its troops from Afghanistan, it triggered a crisis for the hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens who had helped the American military. Writing for the BBC, journalist Anisa Shahid spoke to some of the refugees who have settled in the US about their incredible journey - and the ones they left behind. Last August, when simply crossing the gates of Kabul airport was as dangerous as taking a raft across the Mediterranean, about 150,000 Afghans were able to board a plane to the United States. Some 13,000 of them overcame the odds to settle in a US military base in southern Wisconsin. Sakineh, who had been a private kindergarten teacher in Kabul's Dughabad district, was one of them. Speaking through tears, she recalled the day the Taliban arrived in Kabul, when seven or eight people entered the kindergarten where she taught and opened fire, before beating the director with an AK-47. Later, members of the children's families took the terrified children home. But it was what happened that evening that made Sakineh realise she had to run. Four men who said they were Taliban attacked her house - two of them grabbed her and her husband, while the other two tried to rape her 14-year-old daughter. Her screams and cries alerted her neighbours, who came to their aid and they were saved. The fear of being attacked and dragged out of her house forced them to flee. With the help of US forces, they began to make their way to the airport, when a bomb went off near the perimeter. At least 95 people were killed and 150 others wounded in the explosion, including her husband, who lost three toes and later needed a foot amputated. Separated from her husband, Sakineh and her six small children waited in the airport two days before they were able to board a military plane bound for Qatar. But amid the chaos, Sekinah had lost track of her teenage daughter, and had to make the painful choice to journey on without her. Thankfully, she later found out that her daughter escaped and is now in Texas. She due to join Sekinah in Wisconsin. Each of the stories of those at the base was unique. But in all were heard the pain of leaving loved ones behind, and wistful hope for the future of Afghanistan.

12-17-21 England must act before Christmas to reduce the impact of omicron
The world is fast running out of time to act to limit hospitalisations and deaths from omicron, with England having just a week or two left to implement policies that will have a substantial impact. The world is facing a surge in hospitalisations and deaths from the omicron variant of the coronavirus that could be as bad as in previous waves, even if omicron is only a third as severe as the delta variant – and so far, data from England does not suggest it is any less severe, according to a team at Imperial College London. What’s more, countries are fast running out of time to do anything to limit the impact. The UK is in a better position than most countries because it has already rolled out vaccine boosters to older people but has less time left to act, says team member Neil Ferguson. “Time is of the essence,” says Ferguson. “I think if we are going to have to make additional decisions, they probably will need to be made within the next week or two to have a substantial impact.” “The key message coming from this is: countries need to prepare,” says team member Azra Ghani. That means rolling out boosters as fast as possible and implementing additional measures such as mask wearing and social distancing, she says. Independent SAGE, a self-appointed group of experts who provide covid-19 advice aimed at the UK government, says a “circuit-breaker” should be implemented throughout the UK immediately to prevent omicron from spiralling out of control. It is calling for indoor hospitality to shut, no indoor gatherings between households, no outdoor gatherings of more than 6 people and a return to 10-day isolation for people who have come into close contact with cases. But the UK government has said that no further measures would be introduced. The Imperial team used data from the UK and from lab studies to estimate how much less protection people have against omicron than delta, in terms of preventing infection, severe disease requiring hospitalisation and death.

12-17-21 Covid-19 news: Pregnant women added to UK’s vaccine priority list
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 vaccine committee urges pregnant women to book jabs. Pregnant women should be regarded as a clinical risk group for covid-19 and be given vaccines quickly, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said. The expert team advising the government said there was “growing evidence showing that women who are pregnant are at increased risk of serious consequences from covid-19”. According to new figures published by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), 34 women have died in the UK after acquiring covid-19 while pregnant. Four newborn babies have also died where medics said the reason was covid-19. Studies suggest the death rate for pregnant women is usually about nine per 100,000 live births, which equates to roughly 60 pregnant women a year dying from any cause. Up to the end of October this year, there were 27 covid-19 deaths in addition – an almost 50 per cent rise on what would normally be expected for the year, according to analysis by the University of Oxford. In a snapshot of cases, 1436 pregnant women were admitted to hospital between 16 May and the end of October this year with symptoms of covid-19, of which 230 ended up in intensive care. More than 96 per cent of these women were unvaccinated. Just 16 women in hospital had had two vaccine doses. The JCVI urged all those who are unvaccinated to book their vaccines now, while women who have had two doses can get their booster if they had their second vaccine dose at least three months earlier. “The serious risks posed to women who become infected with covid-19 during pregnancy have become increasingly clear,” Gayatri Amirthalingam from the UKHSA said in a press release. “We know that the vaccines used in the UK covid-19 vaccination programme have been highly effective in preventing serious complications and those recommended for pregnant women have a good safety record. I would urge all pregnant women to come forward and get their vaccine without delay. This is the best way to protect you and your baby.” Wales will introduce tougher restrictions after Christmas to combat the surge in the omicron coronavirus variant in the UK. The first minister, Mark Drakeford, announced a “two-phase plan” including advice for the Christmas period in addition to new regulations that come into force on 27 December. From this date, nightclubs will be closed, two-metre social distancing will be mandatory in offices, and measures including one-way systems and physical barriers will be introduced in businesses to protect customers and staff. The regulations will also include a requirement to work from home wherever possible. The Welsh government has announced a £60 million fund to support any businesses affected by the restrictions. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that people have the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines in preference to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, because of rare but sometimes fatal blood clots. So far around 16 million people in the US have had the J&J vaccine, out of 200 million who are fully vaccinated. The CDC has identified more than 50 cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, which involves blood clots accompanied by a low level of platelets, in people who had the J&J vaccine, a rate of 3.83 cases per million doses administered. At least nine people have died following these incidents.

12-16-21 Michelle Odinet: Louisiana judge faces calls to quit over home video slurs
A US judge is to take leave of absence after video recorded at her home captured a racial slur directed at a burglar, local media report. Judge Michelle Odinet, of Lafayette, Louisiana, said in a statement she had taken a sedative and had "zero recollection" of the incident. In the clip, voices are heard narrating CCTV footage, reportedly of a burglar caught outside the judge's house. The unseen people use an epithet and compare the suspect to a roach. Judge Odinet's lawyer, Dane Ciolino, told CBS News on Wednesday night one of the voices in the video belonged to the judge and that she had used a racist slur. He said he would file a motion on Thursday for his client to go on unpaid leave. "She is humiliated, embarrassed and sorry for what she's done and the trouble she's caused to the community," Mr Ciolino told the Acadiana Advocate. "Tomorrow, she's going on interim leave without pay. And as far as what'll happen in the longer term, she'll have to deal with that in the weeks to come." The Current, a news outlet in Lafayette, quoted Judge Odinet as confirming in a statement to them that the footage had been recorded in her home. The statement said: "The incident [the burglary] shook me to my core and my mental state was fragile." "I have zero recollection of the video and the disturbing language used during it," the statement continued. "Anyone who knows me and my husband, knows this is contrary to the way we live our lives. "I am deeply sorry and ask for your forgiveness and understanding as my family and I deal with the emotional aftermath of this armed burglary." Judge Odinet did not say whether she had used any of the racial epithets heard in the clip. It is not clear who released the minute-long video, in which voices are heard laughing as they comment on security camera footage playing on a television, reportedly of a burglar being detained in front of the judge's home. There are references to "mom" during the clip.

12-16-21 'If you eat here, you're dining with rats'
Diem Boyd was sitting outside a restaurant in New York's fashionable Greenwich Village in September, when a family of rats scurried across her feet. "Within seconds everybody jumped up," she says."We lost our appetite." Everyone in New York has a similar story to tell, she explains. "We have a complete and utter rat explosion." "You see them when you come out at night," agrees Deborah Gonzalez, who, like Diem, lives in Manhattan's Lower East Side. "When you walk on this block you see them running back and forth." It is difficult to gauge precise numbers, but calls to New York City's complaints hotline mentioning rodents have jumped this year, 15% up on pre-pandemic levels. "Obviously New York has always had rats," says Marcell Rocha, who also lives in the neighbourhood, but now "they are bigger and bolder, they jump at you. They're gymnastic, doing backflips". So, what's changed? Diem, Deborah and Marcell put the blame for this new plague, squarely at the door of the al fresco dining that has spread through the city during the pandemic, encouraging many more people to eat at outdoor tables. Hundreds of New York's streets are now lined - often on both sides - with ad hoc shelters, completely altering the urban landscape. To give you an idea of the scale - there are more than 11,000 new outdoor eating spots. Some of these new venues are little more than a frame and a scattering of chairs, others are sturdy structures with floors, fairy-lights, flower pots and electric heaters. Diem, Deborah and Marcell say the shelters encourage "mile high" piles of black plastic rubbish bags to accumulate at the roadside, and provide the perfect hideout for rats under the floorboards. Nevertheless, these venues have proved hugely popular with customers over the last year and a half. Too popular in fact, for local residents. "This is hell on earth because of the crowd and the noise," says Marcell. The Lower East Side has always been a lively neighbourhood, but last summer it felt like "living at a festival" he explains. At the start of the pandemic, New York's mayor Bill de Blasio launched an "open restaurants" scheme. It was part of a wider vision of a city less dominated by traffic and more focused around its residents and visitors. But, above all, it provided a lifeline to the hospitality industry.

12-16-21 Omicron: What can we learn from South Africa's experience so far?
South Africa was where the new Omicron variant was first identified, and cases there have taken off rapidly. This is starting to be seen in other countries, and the World Health Organization (WHO) says it is "spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant". What else can we learn from the South African experience? Data on hospital admissions for Covid in South Africa show them rising quite sharply in all provinces. But they are not going up as fast as you would expect given the number of cases. Fewer patients currently need oxygen and ventilators, and they are in hospital for shorter periods. Discovery Health, a major health provider there, calculated adults infected early in the Omicron outbreak were roughly 30% less likely to be admitted to hospital than those infected in South Africa's first wave. Senior South African scientists say this doesn't show the variant itself is milder, though. The big difference from previous waves is the rate of vaccination and natural immunity in the population. Although either two doses of vaccine or a previous infection appear much less effective at stopping people catching the Omicron variant, they still seem to provide protection against severe illness. Dr Vicky Baillie, a senior scientist at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Johannesburg, said the lower rates of hospital treatment were probably because of people having greater immunity. "There's no evidence it's a less virulent mutation," she said. The WHO warns that the data suggesting the variant could be milder could also be skewed by the fact that numbers in hospital are small, and most of those admitted are under the age of 40 - so at lower risk of falling seriously ill. They may be in hospital for other reasons - but South African hospitals test everyone who is admitted, so pick up a lot of mild cases. It could also be because over-60s in South Africa are much more likely than the average population there to be vaccinated, protecting them against severe disease. And South Africa has a young population, with a median age of 27.6 years compared with 40.4 in the UK for example - so its experience of Omicron may not be the same as countries with older populations.

12-16-21 Covid-19 news: Chris Whitty urges caution as UK cases hit record level
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. England’s chief medical officer suggests people should reduce social contacts. The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, has urged people to cut back on socialising in the run-up to Christmas, as the UK recorded a record high of 78,610 covid-19 infections in one day. Speaking at a Downing Street briefing yesterday, Whitty strongly encouraged people to prioritise social events that mean a lot to them and deprioritise others, take lateral flow tests before meeting up and ensure there is good ventilation. “I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up,” Whitty said. He also warned that the new wave of infections, driven by the omicron variant, will have a serious impact on businesses and the National Health Service. “The reality is this speed of onset is going to lead to lots of people getting ill simultaneously and we have to be realistic about that.” France is introducing tougher rules for travellers from the UK in an attempt to counter the spread of the omicron variant of coronavirus. From midnight on Friday, people arriving from the UK will be required to show a negative covid-19 test taken within 24 hours, to test again upon arrival and self-isolate for seven days, although that can be reduced to 48 hours if the second test is negative. Children aged 12 to 15 in England can book a second dose of covid-19 vaccine from Monday. The latest government figures show that 2.9 per cent of all pupils – nearly 236,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to the coronavirus on 9 December. People with long covid who were admitted to hospital and continued to experience symptoms five months afterwards showed a limited recovery one year on, new research suggests. The study also confirmed earlier research that those who were female, obese or needed mechanical ventilation in hospital were all less likely to make a full recovery from the condition. Researchers assessed 2230 adults who had been admitted to hospital with coronavirus. One year after hospital discharge, less than three in 10 patients in the study reported they felt fully recovered, largely unchanged from 2.5 in 10 at five months. The most common ongoing symptoms were fatigue, muscle pain, physically slowing down, poor sleep and breathlessness.

12-15-21 In 2021, we made real progress in fighting covid-19 and climate change
“A YEAR of tackling great challenges.” In the title of our review of the year, “tackling” is the operative word. Two great challenges have dominated the past 12 months: the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, and efforts to address climate change, as embodied by the COP26 summit held in Glasgow, UK, in November. Both have seen significant progress – but only the most irrational optimist could claim that what we have achieved so far amounts to solutions. Our retrospective leader of 2020 was devoted to the promise that vaccines might bring a swift end to covid-19. At the time, more than 70 million people had fallen ill with the virus, and according to (undoubtedly conservative) quasi-official estimates, 1.5 million had died. Today, those figures stand at almost 270 million and over 5 million. The world looks to be entering a significant fourth wave. It could have been so much worse. Vaccines have indeed been a triumph in terms of lives saved and serious health consequences averted, for those who have received them. Looking to the future, the success of mRNA vaccines should lead to many more jabs against other diseases, and also to a whole new kind of treatment for all sorts of conditions that uses mRNA technology to get our bodies to make therapeutic proteins. That justifies the three rousing cheers for science that we allowed ourselves last year. But in terms of ending the pandemic, the vaccine-boosted optimism of the early part of the year has been undone by many factors, not least evolution doing what evolution does. The predictable emergence of new, more transmissible variants has complicated things, and new variants could well keep emerging indefinitely, although as the world’s collective immune system builds strength against SARS-CoV-2 over the years to come, new emergences should cause less disruption.

12-15-21 Occam’s razor: The medieval monk who saw the power of simplicity
William of Ockham was tried for heresy before the Pope, only to make a daring escape. His big idea, known as Occam’s razor, remains the keenest tool for honing our understanding of the world. ON MY daily drive into work at the University of Surrey, I pass a road sign to Ockham. Perhaps a slight difference in spelling is one reason why it took me a surprising while to realise the English village’s connection to one of the most fundamental concepts in science – I would argue, in my now more enlightened state, perhaps its most fundamental concept. I am talking about Occam’s razor. The creation of a 14th-century theologian with a racy life story, this is a principle often quoted as “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. It urges us to choose the simplest explanations or models for any phenomenon we observe. If you see moving lights in the night sky, say, think of known existing entities such as aeroplanes, satellites or shooting stars before considering flying saucers. It has been a tool for scientific progress, not to mention a guiding principle for our own thoughts, right up to the present day. But I believe that modern science has rather lost sight of the simple fact that simplicity is the sharpest guide to greater truths. Ockham is linked to Occam’s razor by virtue of William of Ockham. Born in the village around 1285, William went to a local Franciscan school before being sent to Oxford to study theology, then known as “the Queen of Sciences”. This title was largely due to the influence of Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, who had recently Christianised the work of the greatest scientist of ancient Greece, Aristotle. That mind-meld had supplied five scientific “proofs” of the existence of God, a variety of metaphysical essences of reality known as “universals”, and diverse accounts of objects in terms of their ultimate purpose or telos. The purpose of acorns was to feed pigs, for example, while the purpose of pigs was to feed humans and the purpose of humans was to worship God.

12-15-21 US Congress narrowly votes to raise debt limit
US lawmakers have voted to raise the national debt limit, just days before a potential US credit default. The measure, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law in the coming days, raises the US borrowing limit by $2.5tr (£1.9tr). Treasury officials had warned that the economy could slip into a recession if it was not raised by mid-December. The vote comes after a bipartisan deal was struck last week to raise the limit through a one-time-only rule change. That agreement, which was struck between Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saw 14 Republicans vote along with every Senate Democrat to change the rules. The deal allows Democrats to raise the limit on their own through a simple majority, rather than by 60 votes, which would be needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Democrats and Republicans have normally voted together to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, but this year Republicans have said that Democrats should be responsible for doing it on their own. On Tuesday, the vote narrowly passed the Senate by a vote of 50-49. The House passed the bill by a vote of 221-209. It will now be sent to President Joe Biden for his signature. The measure also suspends the debt ceiling until 2023 - after the 8 November midterm congressional elections that could shift the balance of power in Washington. The bill increases the US borrowing limit to $31.4tr from $28.9tr and brings an end to a months-long row between both parties that continued despite both sides agreeing that a default would severely harm the US economy. The increased limit is in part needed to pay off the $7.85tr in additional debt added by the Trump presidency through tax cuts and Covid spending. "This is about paying debt accumulated by both parties," Mr Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. "The American people can breathe easy and rest assured there will not be a default," he added.

12-15-21 Mark Meadows: Trump ex-chief of staff in contempt of Congress
The US House of Representatives has voted to hold ex-Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress, paving the way for prosecution. Last week, Mr Meadows said he would stop co-operating with a congressional panel investigating the 6 January riot at the US Capitol. The vote largely fell along party lines, with the Democrat-run chamber voting 222 in favour and 208 against. He could face up to a year in prison and a $100,000 (£75,631) fine. Mr Meadows will now be referred to the Justice Department, which will ultimately decide whether to formally charge him. Trump supporters breached the US Congress building on 6 January as lawmakers were meeting to certify the election result. Before last week, Mr Meadows had provided the committee about 9,000 pages of records regarding the events, before reversing course and claiming that his communications are protected by executive privilege - a legal principle designed to shield certain White House records. After Mr Meadows twice refused to appear at scheduled depositions, on Monday the congressional panel voted unanimously to recommend that the House hold him in contempt. "Mr Meadows started by doing the right thing - co-operating. He handed over records that he didn't try to shield behind some excuse," said Representative Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the 6 January committee. "When these records raise questions - as these most certainly do - you have to come in and answer those questions," Mr Thompson added. "He changed his mind and told us to pound sand. He didn't even show up." On Monday, the committee released messages sent to Mr Meadows while the riot was underway, revealing that key Trump administration officials and allies were concerned about what was happening. Among those who contacted Mr Meadows was Donald Trump Jr, who wrote "he's [the president] has got to condemn this" as soon as possible.

12-15-21 Covid: Omicron spreading at unprecedented rate, WHO says
The new coronavirus variant Omicron is spreading across the globe at an unprecedented rate, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. Cases of the heavily mutated variant have been confirmed in 77 countries. But at a press conference, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was probably in many others that had yet to detect it. Dr Tedros said he was concerned that not enough was being done to tackle the variant. "Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems," he said. The WHO's latest data suggests the variant - first detected in South Africa in November - can better evade existing vaccines and carries a higher risk of re-infection, leading the organisation to say the level of risk remains very high. A number of countries have introduced travel bans affecting South Africa and its neighbours following the emergence of Omicron, but this has failed to stop it from spreading around the world. In Tuesday's news conference, Dr Tedros reiterated concerns about vaccine inequity, as some countries accelerate rollouts of a booster shot in response to Omicron. Recent studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed it produced far fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original strain, but that this deficit could be reversed by a third, booster, jab. Dr Tedros said boosters could play an important role in curbing the spread of Covid-19, but that it was "a question of prioritisation". "The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints," he said. Supplies to the global vaccine-sharing programme Covax have increased in recent months. However, world health officials fear a shortfall of tens of millions of doses - like the one which occurred in the middle of this year when India suspended its vaccine exports - could happen again. In poorer countries, some vulnerable people are yet to receive a single dose.

12-15-21 In 2021, COVID-19 vaccines were put to the test. Here’s what we learned
Although the shots proved effective, they can’t single-handedly end the pandemic. 2021 was the year the COVID-19 vaccines had to prove their mettle. We started the year full of hope: With vaccines in hand in record-breaking time and their rollout ramping up, we’d get shots in arms, curb this pandemic and get life back to normal. That was too optimistic. Roughly 200 million people in the United States — and billions globally — have now been fully vaccinated. Three vaccines — one from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, and the other two from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are available in the United States. Pfizer’s is even available for children as young as 5. About two dozen other vaccines have also been deployed in other parts of the world. In some higher-income countries, the United States included, people have already queued up for booster shots. But 2021 has also been the year of learning the limits of the vaccines’ superpowers. With the vaccines pitted against aggressive coronavirus variants, inequitable distribution, some people’s hesitancy and the natural course of waning effectiveness, there’s still a lot of work to do to bring this pandemic to an end. As if to hammer home that point, the detection of the omicron variant in late November brought new uncertainty to the pandemic’s trajectory. Here are some of the top lessons we’ve learned in the first year of the COVID-19 vaccine. — Macon Morehouse. Many COVID-19 vaccines proved effective over the last year, particularly at preventing severe disease and death (SN: 10/9/21 & 10/23/21, p. 4). That’s true even with the emergence of more transmissible coronavirus variants. In January, in the midst of a bleak winter surge that saw average daily cases in the United States peaking at nearly 250,000, the vaccination rollout here began in earnest. Soon after, case numbers began a steep decline

12-15-21 Covid-19 news: Myocarditis more common after infection than vaccines
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. Huge study finds myocarditis is at least four times more likely to occur after a covid-19 infection than after a vaccination. Heart inflammation is more likely to develop after a covid-19 infection than following vaccination, a study of almost 39 million people in England has found. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines have previously been linked with rare cases of heart muscle inflammation, known as myocarditis. Symptoms include breathlessness and chest pain. The condition is generally mild and treated with rest and ibuprofen, although all suspected cases require medical attention. Two antibody-based treatments for covid-19 lose most of their effectiveness when exposed to the omicron variant in lab tests, a study posted online yesterday has found. Ronapreve, made by Regeneron, appeared to be inefficient in inhibiting the virus, while Eli Lilly’s cocktail of bamlanivimab and etesevimab seemed to fail to prevent the virus from entering human cells. “The neutralizing activity of several monoclonal antibodies is strongly affected against the omicron variant and will limit treatment options for omicron-induced covid-19,” the researchers said in their paper. Adults must now present a covid-19 pass showing they have had two vaccines or proof of a negative test in order to access nightclubs and large events in England. The tests can be either PCR or the rapid lateral flow types, but must have been done in the last 48 hours. People in Scotland have been advised that social events over Christmas should involve no more than three households. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also asked people to limit their social contacts as much as possible over the coming weeks.

12-14-21 Trump's son urged father to intervene in 6 January Capitol riot
Donald Trump's son sent the White House chief-of-staff frantic texts calling for his father to intervene during the Capitol riot on 6 January. A committee investigating the violence was shown messages from Donald Trump Jr to Mark Meadows, saying the deadly riot had "gotten out of hand". He was one of several senior political and media figures who texted Mr Meadows with their concerns. The president was criticised for not intervening early on in the riot. He did eventually urge his supporters to "go home", but not before the pro-Trump mob had stormed the Capitol building, where Congress were meeting to certify Joe Biden's presidential election win. In the newly-revealed messages to Mr Meadows, Mr Trump Jr used strong terms to suggest his father should act. "He's got to condemn this shit ASAP," the younger Trump wrote, according to US lawmaker Liz Cheney, vice-chair of the committee investigating if the former president had foreknowledge of the riot. The former president has repeatedly denied suggestions that he encouraged his supporters to act violently. The messages had been submitted by Mr Meadows, who faces criminal contempt charges for refusing to comply with the committee's inquiry. "As the violence continued, one of the President's sons texted Mr Meadows," said Ms Cheney, the Republican lawmaker representing the state of Wyoming, told the Select Committee on Monday. She said Mr Meadows responded to Mr Trump Jr's plea by writing back: "I'm pushing it hard. I agree." "Still, President Trump did not immediately act," Ms Cheney said, and "Donald Trump Jr texted again and again". "Quote, 'We need an Oval office address. He [ex-President Trump] has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand,' end quote." On Monday, it was also revealed that at around the same time several leading hosts of the Fox News TV channel - which is widely seen as being sympathetic to Donald Trump and the Republican party - were also urging Mr Meadows to get the then-president to stop the rioting.

12-13-21 The world faces an omicron Christmas but isn’t doing much about it yet
The festive season will be dominated by a large wave of covid-19 infections caused by the omicron variant, but few countries appear to have substantially changed their plans. There now seems little doubt that the Christmas period will coincide with another major wave of coronavirus cases around the world, as it becomes clear that the omicron variant can largely evade prior immunity from infection or two vaccine doses, and might be even more transmissible than the delta variant. In England and Scotland, cases have been doubling every two days. The big unknown remains whether there will be as many hospitalisations and deaths as in previous waves. In South Africa, the country that first detected omicron, the variant has spread far faster than earlier variants, with cases doubling every three to four days. As New Scientist went to press, there was confusion – due to IT issues – about whether case numbers in South Africa were now slowing or still accelerating. But in Gauteng province, nearly as many cases have already been reported as during the country’s delta wave earlier this year. Initial reports suggest there have been fewer hospitalisations and deaths in South Africa than during previous waves, but it is too early to be sure. Furthermore, it is estimated that almost everyone in the country had already been infected or vaccinated before omicron began to spread, so prior immunity – although usually insufficient to prevent infection – would be expected to greatly reduce the risk of severe disease. Outside South Africa, the UK and Denmark have so far reported the most confirmed cases of omicron, prompting Israel to plan to ban travel to these nations on top of other travel restrictions it has already imposed. Yet the high case numbers may largely reflect the fact that the two countries do far more sequencing than most others. Sequencing the viral genome remains the only way to confirm which variant has infected someone, though PCR tests can sometimes give an indication too. The UK would be expected to have more omicron cases than other nations because of its strong travel links to South Africa, but there is no reason to think Denmark is exceptional.

12-14-21 Covid-19 news: Two vaccine doses not enough to stop omicron
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Two doses of the Pfizer jab are only 33 per cent effective against infection with the omicron coronavirus variant. One of the first major analysis of real-world data involving the omicron variant suggests that two doses of a coronavirus vaccine are not particularly effective at preventing infection, but they do give reasonable protection against hospitalisation. Researchers at South Africa’s largest private health insurance administrator, Discovery Health, looked at over 200,000 positive covid-19 cases from 15 November to 7 December in the country. Around 37 per cent of their sample was from this period and so they estimate that about 78,000 of the cases were probably due to the omicron variant. The researchers found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are only 33 per cent effective against infection and are 70 per cent effective against hospitalisation. Previous research by the firm found that two Pfizer doses were 80 per cent effective against infection before the spread of the omicron variant and 93 per cent effective against hospitalisation. Norway has banned alcohol in restaurants and bars to curb the spread of the omicron variant. The country has also closed gyms and swimming pools to most users. “There is no doubt – the new variant changes the rules. That’s why we need to act fast and we need to act again,” prime minister Gahr Stoere said yesterday. The US Air Force has dismissed 27 members for refusing to get vaccinated for coronavirus. They are believed to be the first military members in the US to be forced out over the jabs. Almost 96 per cent of active-duty members have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Meanwhile not a single service member has thus far been granted a religious exemption for getting vaccinated.

12-13-21 Kentucky tornadoes: Race to find missing in flattened US towns
US rescue teams are racing to locate dozens of people after tornadoes devastated towns across Kentucky, with at least 64 confirmed deaths. At least 105 people remain unaccounted for, leaving many families still awaiting news of loved ones. Governor Andy Beshear said there would undoubtedly be further deaths confirmed in the coming days. No-one has been found alive since Saturday morning, but search efforts have been continuing. Emergency workers, including 300 members of the National Guard, have been scouring debris for survivors and distributing water and generators to residents. Mr Beshear said dogs were also being used to help search through rubble, adding that "we're still finding bodies" in some locations. "Nothing that was standing in the direct line of [one] tornado is still standing," the governor said. "The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life." A resident in the town of Mayfield, one of the areas worst-hit, said he had "dropped down to my knees and covered my head" when the tornado hit. "My ears popped, and debris started coming through the doorway," Rick Foley, 70, told Reuters, adding: "It was gone in 30 seconds." Another Mayfield resident, David Norseworthy, said the storm ripped the roof of his property clean off and destroyed his porch as his family hid in a shelter. "We never had anything like that here," the 69-year-old told AFP news agency. Elsewhere in the town, eight deaths were confirmed at a candle factory, where 110 employees were feared to have been trapped inside at the time. Others were reported missing. Later, the governor said the factory's owner believed more of the workers had been located and were safe. Kyanna Parsons Perez, a factory worker who made a desperate plea for help on Facebook from under the wreckage, told the BBC that other businesses had shut down for the storm and staff there should not have been at work. Mr Beshear said a tornado had wrecked places all along its 227-mile (365km) path. Thousands of people had their homes destroyed - but the exact number was still not clear.

12-13-21 Kentucky tornadoes: Rebuilding lives from 'hell on Earth'
The people of Kentucky are working to rebuild their lives after tornadoes devastated the US state. One resident, surrounded by rubble, described the scene as "the definition of hell on Earth". In the town of Mayfield, one of the worst-hit areas, volunteers are donating hot dogs and burgers to the community.

12-13-21 Kentucky tornadoes: 100-year-old church destroyed in seconds
Watch the BBC's Nomia Iqbal as she takes us into the ruins of the Mayfield First United Methodist Church in Kentucky, which was destroyed in the tornadoes. At least 80 people have died in the state, including dozens in a candle factory, and the death toll is expected to rise above 100.

12-13-21 Howard University: Why these students slept out in tents on campus for weeks
Dozens of students at Howard University took over their student centre in October, sleeping on floors and in tents outside the building. The weeks-long occupation was sparked by poor living conditions in dormitories, and fuelled by the high cost of attendance. It ended after the university and the protesters came to an agreement. Watch our video as students reflect on the longest-running protest in the historically black university’s history, and the latest episode in the battle over the high cost of US higher education.

12-13-21 Covid-19 news: Booster jabs to be rolled out to all adults in England
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. All adults in England will be offered a booster dose of a covid-19 vaccine – but it may not be enough to stop the spread of omicron, warn scientists. England’s vaccination programme will be accelerated to offer all over-18s in the country a booster dose from this week, in light of soaring cases of the omicron variant. Prime minister Boris Johnson declared an “omicron emergency” yesterday in a televised briefing. The UK government plans to deliver one million booster jabs a day this month – 156,000 more than the UK’s previous record of 844,000 per day in March. But the booster programme will need to be accompanied by other measures to limit the impact of the omicron variant, scientists have warned. Omicron induces a lower antibody response in those with two doses of the coronavirus jab compared to the delta variant, a study suggests. Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed blood samples of participants who were given two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. The team found that omicron infections generated a lower antibody response than the delta variant. This does not necessarily mean that omicron is likely to cause more severe disease, but it suggests that vaccinated individuals may be more likely to become infected with the variant. “These data are important but are only one part of the picture,” study co-author Matthew Snape at the University of Oxford said in a press release. Snape and his colleagues only looked at neutralising antibodies after a second dose, but didn’t look at other forms of immunity, such as that conferred by T-cells. “Importantly, we have not yet assessed the impact of a ‘third dose’ booster, which we know significantly increases antibody concentrations, and it is likely that this will lead to improved potency against the omicron variant,” Snape said. So far, UK data suggests that a third vaccine dose substantially raises protection against symptomatic infection with the omicron variant. Very little is known about the clinical severity of the omicron variant, the World Health Organization has said. But the overall risk the variant poses is high, due to its high transmission rates and preliminary evidence suggesting that the variant escapes some forms of immunity, the organisation has warned. The US recorded its 800,000th death from coronavirus on Sunday, according to a tally by the Reuters news agency. Over 450,000 people in the US have died from covid-19 since the start of this year.

12-12-21 Kentucky tornadoes: Desperate search for survivors as death toll rises
A desperate search for survivors is under way in parts of six US states devastated by powerful tornadoes that have left at least 94 people dead. Dozens more people are missing and entire towns were destroyed by about 30 tornadoes on Friday. President Biden has declared a disaster in Kentucky, the worst-affected state. At least 80 people have died in the state, including dozens in a candle factory, and the death toll is expected to rise above 100. Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman told the BBC the death toll was continuing to rise "with every hour". "All of these numbers continue to unfold...," she said. "Our emergency response teams are still surveying the damage and knocking on doors and reaching out to folks trying to make contact to see who's alive." Local congressman James Comer, working with rescuers in the ruined town of Mayfield, said the tornado there was the widest ever seen. "It's the most devastating storm damage I've seen in my entire life. We've had tornadoes that have been the same length as this tornado but we've never had one with the width of this tornado," he said. Forty people have been rescued from the collapsed candle factory in Mayfield but 60 more remain missing and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who has visited the scene, said it was unlikely there were more survivors. He said no-one had been found alive since Saturday. "There's at least 15ft of metal with cars on top of it, barrels of corrosive chemicals that are there. It'll be a miracle if anybody else is found alive in it," he said. One candle factory employee made a desperate plea for help on Facebook from under the wreckage as co-workers could be heard moaning in the background. "We are trapped, please, y'all, get us some help," said Kyanna Parsons-Perez - who was later rescued - in the broadcast played on CNN. Mayfield resident Tony Meeker described the moment the tornado hit. "Out of nowhere the sirens went off and then not long after that our ears popped. I mean it was like the pressure dropped. And then it felt like our house was about to just be gone, get carried off," he said. "It looks like a bomb went off. I don't know how anybody could've lived. I feel bad for anybody that didn't make it or people who got stuck. I'm sure it was terrifying."

12-12-21 Aerials show aftermath of deadly Kentucky tornadoes
More than 70 people have died in Kentucky after Friday night's storms, including dozens in a candle factory, and the death toll is expected to rise above 100. The governor of Kentucky has said the tornado system was "the deadliest to ever run through" the US state.

12-12-21 Russia Ukraine: Massive consequences if Moscow invades, G7 says
The G7 group of rich democracies has warned Russia of "massive consequences" if it invades Ukraine. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, speaking after a summit in Liverpool, said the group wanted Russia to stop its aggression towards Ukraine. However President Putin told President Biden during their video call last week that Russian troops did not pose a threat to anyone, Russian media report. Tensions are growing as Moscow amasses troops on Ukraine's border. Mr Putin added that he had no particular grounds for optimism after speaking to Mr Biden, but would like to meet him in person, local media quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. Russia and the US continue to have serious conceptual differences, Mr Peskov added. Ukrainian authorities have said Moscow could be planning a military offensive at the end of January, although US officials say it is not yet clear whether Mr Putin has made a decision. On Tuesday Mr Biden and Mr Putin held a virtual summit aimed at reducing tensions in the region. Mr Biden said he had made it clear to Mr Putin that there would be "economic consequences like none he's ever seen" if he invaded Ukraine. On Sunday Ms Truss echoed that, telling reporters: "We've been clear that any incursion by Russia into Ukraine would have massive consequences for which there would be a severe cost." Ukraine shares borders with both the EU and Russia, but as a former Soviet republic it has deep social and cultural ties with Russia. However, Russia has accused Ukraine of provocation, and sought guarantees against eastward Nato expansion and deployment of weapons close to its border. On Thursday Mr Putin hardened his rhetoric over the situation in Ukraine, saying the war in the country's east looked like genocide. Russian-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian troops there since 2014. "We see and know what is happening in Donbas," he said, referring to the conflict zone. "It certainly looks like genocide."

12-12-21 Covid: Brazil to demand proof of vaccination from foreign visitors
A Supreme Court judge in Brazil has ruled that foreign visitors will need to provide a Covid-19 vaccination certificate to enter the country. The ruling invalidates regulations issued previously by the national health agency demanding only a negative PCR test for foreign arrivals. The judge said it would be impossible to check all visitors and prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant. Lenient measures had made the country popular among non-vaccinated tourists. The ruling is seen as another defeat for President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly undermined efforts to control the spread of the virus in one of the world's hardest-hit countries by the pandemic. The president, who says he has not been vaccinated, had denied requests of the health agency Anvisa to demand vaccination proof from visitors. Judge Luís Roberto Barroso said exceptions would be made for those coming from countries that had been unable to vaccinate most of their populations. They will need to quarantine on arrival for five days. It is not yet clear when the new requirements will be introduced. The announcement comes ahead of the country's busy summer season, with cities hosting popular New Year's Eve parties and Carnival parades. But several celebrations have already been cancelled because of the Omicron variant. In Rio de Janeiro, the famous fireworks display at Copacabana beach on 31 December has been called off for the second year in a row. Since the start of the pandemic, Brazil has reported 22 million Covid-19 infections and 616,000 deaths. About 65% of the population has been fully vaccinated. The country has confirmed four cases of the new Omicron variant.

12-12-21 Covid in Austria: Mass protest in Vienna against measures
Tens of thousands of people have staged a protest in Austria against measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, including mandatory vaccinations. Police say about 44,000 people rallied in the capital, Vienna, the fourth straight weekend of demonstrations. Last month Austria became the first western European country to reimpose a lockdown for those who are vaccinated, which ends on Sunday. But restrictions will continue for unvaccinated people. The protesters, backed by the far-right Freedom Party, are against the government's decision to make Covid-19 jabs mandatory from February. The country is the first in the EU to adopt such a measure, which applies to all residents older than 14, except in the case of a dispensation for health reasons. Opponents say people should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether to be vaccinated. The government says nobody will be vaccinated by force but those who refuse the jab will receive fines of up to €3,600 (£3.070; $4,000). Protesters carried banners saying "No to compulsory vaccination" and chanted "We are the people," and "resistance". Smaller demonstrations were held in the cities of Klagenfurt and Linz. Austria, with a population of 8.9 million people, has confirmed 1.2 million infections and more than 13,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University. About 68% of the country's population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

12-11-21 Mexico truck crash: Crackdown on people smugglers launched
Mexico has announced a working group to combat people-smuggling in the wake of the truck crash that resulted in the deaths of 54 people, the majority said to be Central American migrants. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the group would be made up of Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and the US. Meanwhile, authorities are trying to identify the victims of the accident. The injured are still recovering in hospitals. More than 150 people were crammed into the truck's trailer. The vehicle was reportedly speeding when it flipped on a sharp bend and hit a pedestrian bridge on a main road leading to the Chiapas state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, on Thursday afternoon local time. According to Mr Ebrard, the working group would investigate and learn from the crash and help bring to justice the people smugglers involved in the case. Speaking alongside Mr Ebrard, Guatemala's Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo urged the US to invest in the region to make migration less attractive. But critics of the Mexican government say migrants have been forced to make increasingly dangerous journeys to avoid the heavy military presence in the state of Chiapas, which neighbours Guatemala and is a major transit point for undocumented migrants. Sabina López, who lives near the site of the crash, told the AFP news agency she had seen dozens of people screaming in pain, some trapped in the wreckage and others unconscious. "It was horrible to hear the wailing. I just thought about helping," Ms López, 18, said. She said the impact of the crash had broken the container in half and ripped off its roof, and she saw a wounded man pleading with a wounded companion not to succumb to his injuries. "Don't go to sleep, don't close your eyes," she recalled him saying. "Remember what you promised your mother! Hold on." Residents offered crash survivors water and mobile phones to contact relatives. They also said the driver and a person with him had appeared to be injured but had fled the scene.

12-11-21 Afghanistan: Donors to release frozen funds for food and health aid
International donors have agreed to transfer $280m (£210) from a frozen fund to UN food and health services in Afghanistan, the World Bank says. The country faces a deep humanitarian and economic crisis made worse by the removal of financial support after the Taliban seized power in August. The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that more than half of the population is under threat of acute hunger. Three million children are suffering from malnutrition. The situation is the result of a severe drought, which has ruined much of the wheat crop and sent prices soaring, and an economic crisis accelerated by the decision of Western nations to cut off financial aid after the Taliban takeover. Western powers have refused to recognise the Taliban government officially. The US and other nations have frozen about $10bn of Afghan reserves, while the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also halted the country's access to funding. The WFP estimates that 23 million people require urgent food assistance as winter takes hold in the aid-dependent country, calling it "the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth". The money from the World Bank-administered Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund will be transferred to the WFP and to Unicef, both UN agencies. The World Bank said both agencies had "presence and logistics capacity on the ground" to deliver services directly to Afghans in line "with their own policies and procedures". Unicef will receive $100m to provide essential health services, and the WFP will get $180m.

12-10-21 Why won't the West embrace Russia’s highly effective covid-19 vaccine?
Scepticism in Western countries around Russia’s vaccine reflects politics not science – the Sputnik V vaccine has the highest protection against symptomatic disease of any covid-19 vaccine. The Sputnik V covid-19 vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, has been subject to scepticism since August 2020, when it became the first registered covid-19 vaccine in any country. In October 2021, UK newspaper The Sun ran a story alleging that Russian spies had stolen the formula for the Oxford/Astra Zeneca covid-19 vaccine and used it to create Sputnik V. The claim was tiresomely familiar to Kirill Dmitriev. He is CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), the financial backer of Sputnik V’s developers, and ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin surprised the world by announcing the approval of the vaccine, Dmitriev and his scientific colleagues have endured a barrage of criticism, hostility and disinformation. “There is no basis for it whatsoever,” says Dmitriev about the theft allegation. He points out that the Gamaleya centre developed the technology seven years ago, published papers about it and used it to create experimental vaccines against Ebola and MERS. “We said it’s fake, because look, years ago there was publication. Nobody is talking about it now.” The Sun said its source was “security services” but didn’t go into detail. But Dmitriev doesn’t believe this. He sees it as part of an orchestrated campaign against Sputnik V waged by hostile anti-Russian forces and parroted by Western media. “Initially, people said, oh, you registered Sputnik before phase III. Well, our point is that none of the vaccines finished phase III. All of the phase III will be finished in two, three years. Now we see only interim results.

12-10-21 US price rises hit highest level for 40 years
Prices for American consumers are rising at their fastest annual rate since June 1982. The consumer price index (CPI) rose 6.8% in the year to November according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Petrol prices jumped 6.1%, while the cost of second-hand cars, rent and food also rose. However the monthly pace of price rises at 0.8% in November was slightly lower than October's 0.9%. Rising inflation is putting pressure on President Biden's political agenda as he tries to pass his $1.9tn (£1.4tn) social spending bill. On Thursday, the president made the unusual move of attempting to diffuse the impact of the latest figures ahead of their release, saying the data would not reflect recent declines in the price of energy and used cars. "The information being released tomorrow on energy in November does not reflect today's reality, and it does not reflect the expected price decreases in the weeks and months ahead, such as in the auto market," the president said. Inflation has become a potentially damaging political issue for President Biden. It affects ordinary voters directly. And some economists blame the president's spending programmes designed to offer support amid the Covid pandemic, for exacerbating price increases. However bottlenecks in the supply chain remained a key source of inflationary pressure, said Caleb Thibodeau, at Validus Risk Management. "Regardless, the political pressure on President Biden, and hence the Fed, to acknowledge and act has grown immensely," he said. Fuel, shelter and used vehicles made up over half of the 6.8% figure, he said. "These are factors that could ease quickly, as we have seen recently in oil markets, but remain persistent for the time being." Excluding the volatile food and energy components of inflation, the CPI index is 4.9% higher year on year, up from 4.6% in October. Inflation, triggered by a combination of higher demand from consumers and supply chain problems, was initially expected to fade as disruptions were smoothed out.

12-10-21 Capitol riot: US appeals court rejects Trump's request to block files
A US appeals court has rejected a bid by former President Donald Trump to block Capitol riot investigators from accessing his White House records. Mr Trump, a Republican, has argued that his past communications are protected by executive privilege, under which presidential files can be kept secret. But President Joe Biden has waived executive privilege on the documents. Lawmakers are trying to find out if Mr Trump had foreknowledge of the riot, which took place on 6 January. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building as Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden's presidential election result. Mr Trump has refused to acknowledge losing the election to Mr Biden last year, making claims - without evidence - of mass voter fraud. He is expected to appeal against Thursday's decision, which will then be passed to the Supreme Court. Announcing their ruling, three judges from the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the former president had provided "no basis" for them to grant his request to override Mr Biden's judgment. They said both branches of government agreed that there was a unique legislative need for the records, which were directly relevant to the attack. The inquiry is being conducted by a committee set up by the House of Representatives, which is dominated by President Biden's Democrats. The panel wants to see phone records, visitor logs and other White House documents that could shed light on events leading up to the attack on Congress. Mr Trump's lawyers had said in an earlier filing to the appeals court that their client could "suffer irreparable harm through the effective denial of a constitutional and statutory right to be fully heard on a serious disagreement between the former and incumbent president". Following the Capitol riot, Mr Trump was impeached by the lower house of Congress, but cleared by the then Republican-dominated upper house - the Senate - of inciting an insurrection. More than 670 people have been arrested for the invasion of the Capitol complex.

12-10-21 Donald Trump swears in criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyalty
Former US President Donald Trump has launched a scathing attack on his once-close ally, ex-Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing him of disloyalty. Mr Trump said he was furious at Mr Netanyahu for the way he congratulated Joe Biden on his election victory, using an expletive towards him. He also said he believed he saved Israel from destruction. Mr Trump made the comments in interviews for a book about his role in Middle East peace-making. The US administration under Mr Trump, from 2017-2021, is considered the most favourable towards Israel in the two countries' history. Mr Netanyahu served as Israeli prime minister while Mr Trump was in office, and the two men were portrayed as having particularly warm personal relations, often publicly praising one another. Speaking to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid for his book Trump's peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, Mr Trump accused Mr Netanyahu of congratulating too quickly Mr Trump's successor Joe Biden on winning the 2020 US election. Mr Trump disputed the election result, though his claims were never upheld. "The first person who congratulated [Joe Biden] was Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu, the man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with… Bibi could have stayed quiet. He has made a terrible mistake. "He was very early," Mr Trump said. "Like earlier than most. I haven't spoken to him since. [Expletive] him. In actual fact, Mr Netanyahu was not the first foreign leader to congratulate Mr Biden. He also tweeted his gratitude towards Mr Trump minutes later. In other comments, Mr Trump says: "Nobody did more for Bibi. And I liked Bibi," adding: "I still like Bibi. But I also like loyalty." Mr Netanyahu was ousted from office in June this year after failing to form a government following deadlocked elections. In the interviews given in April and July, Mr Trump also expresses his belief that he saved Israel from destruction. "I'll tell you what - had I not come along, I think Israel was going to be destroyed. OK. You want to know the truth? I think Israel would have been destroyed maybe by now."

12-10-21 Covid-19 news: UK will see large wave of omicron, scientist says
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Omicron variant may be spreading faster in UK than in South Africa. The UK is going to see a large wave of omicron cases and deaths in the next few months, a scientist advising the government has said. John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said that sequencing suggested omicron had been around since mid-October and the variant may be spreading even faster in the UK than it is in South Africa, where it was first detected. “I think over the next two months, we’re going to see a really rather large wave of omicron,” he said at a Royal Society of Medicine briefing. “We’re getting large numbers of cases and that will result in a large number of hospitalisations and, unfortunately, it will result in a large number of deaths, I’m pretty sure of that.” At a Christmas party in Oslo, Norway, 80 out of 111 people who attended were subsequently diagnosed with covid-19, according to a report by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Genetic sequencing has confirmed 17 of those cases as being linked to the omicron variant, and the researchers think it is likely that most of the others are also infected with omicron. The vast majority of the participants were vaccinated with two doses of mRNA vaccine. Australia will start vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 against covid-19 in January, prime minister Scott Morrison has said. The rollout will initially use two doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, eight weeks apart. Regulators are also considering whether to approve the Moderna vaccine for this age group.

12-9-21 Omicron: WHO concerned rich countries could hoard vaccines
The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern that wealthy countries will start to hoard Covid vaccines in response to the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant. It said this could threaten supplies to nations where most people are still unvaccinated. Some rich countries are accelerating the roll-out of a booster shot in response to Omicron. There are concerns that vaccines are less effective against the variant. Recent studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed it produced far fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original strain, but that this deficit could be reversed by the booster. However, the WHO says administering primary doses should be the priority. WHO vaccine director Kate O'Brien urged richer nations to continue donating vaccine doses and shipments to underserved countries to address what had become a dangerous inequity in access. "As we head into whatever the Omicron situation is going to be, there is risk that the global supply is again going to revert to high-income countries hoarding vaccines," she said. Dr O'Brien said it was possible that additional doses might provide added protection against Omicron, but there was as yet little evidence they were needed to protect against severe disease. Omicron is the most heavily mutated version of coronavirus found so far. It was first identified in South Africa, where there is now a surge in the number of people catching Covid multiple times. UK officials say early signs suggest Omicron could be more transmissible than the current Delta strain. But Omicron's ability to cause severe disease is not yet clear. Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, said early evidence suggested Omicron could be more transmissible but less severe. There have been more than 267 million cases of Covid-19 and more than five million deaths around the globe since the pandemic started in 2020, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

12-9-21 The latest lab science on Omicron's threat
Here are two big questions: how fast can Omicron spread? And how sick will it make you? Understand those and you understand the threat and the challenge posed by Omicron. Scientists around the world are now making the first stabs at answering those questions and giving us hints of what's in store. Immunity is critical, Omicron has not rewound the clock to the start of the pandemic, but uncertainty clouds everything and definitive answers could be weeks away. How quickly is it spreading? The answer seems to be fast. And that applies even in places where there are high levels of immunity, either through vaccination or big waves of Covid in the past. South Africa had seen the end of its Delta wave and was averaging less than 300 cases a day a month ago. Now it's more than 10,000 with Omicron seemingly the driving force behind their fourth wave. The UK has seen Omicron spreading too. Scientists have been able to track their Omicron quarry by the unusual set of footprints it leaves behind in Covid tests. It's known as S-gene dropout and in late-November only 0.1% of test results had this footprint. It's now in excess of 5% which would suggest about 2,500 new cases a day. This is not an infallible way of measuring the speed of Omicron's spread as imported cases and targeting testing to find the variant distorts the figures. But it has allowed a rapid estimate to be formed without having to wait for a full genetic analysis of viral samples. Those early calculations - and there is still uncertainty - suggest cases of Omicron may be doubling roughly every three days in the UK. That is faster than Delta in the UK and is comparable to the speed of the original virus when we had no immunity back in early 2020. This could be partly down to a shorter gap between you catching the virus and passing it on to somebody else. The power of exponential growth - think snowballing credit card debt - is that a small number can rapidly become a big one. About 2,500 daily cases would exceed 100,000 a day by the end of the month, if cases did double every three days.

12-9-21 Covid-19 news: England activates Plan B to slow omicron spread
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Mask-wearing rules extended under new coronavirus measures in England. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced new measures in England to reduce the spread of covid-19 with cases of the omicron variant growing rapidly. Mandatory mask-wearing will be extended to indoor public venues including cinemas, theatres and places of worship from Friday but will not be required in pubs and restaurants, while the guidance to work from home where possible will return on Monday. The NHS covid pass, which can be obtained by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test, will be required for entry into nightclubs and other large venues from 15 December. Johnson warned it is clear that the new variant is “growing much faster” than the delta variant, and cases of omicron could be doubling every two or three days. He said Christmas parties and nativities could go ahead, but urged people to “exercise due caution” and get their booster jabs. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned omicron is spreading “rapidly” and it is possible hospital admissions from the new variant in England could exceed 1000 per day – and still be increasing – by the end of the year. “The overall scale of any wave of hospitalisations without interventions is highly uncertain, but the peak could reach several times this level,” the minutes from a meeting held on Tuesday said. People who have three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine have high enough antibody levels to neutralise the omicron variant, according to laboratory tests carried out by the vaccine makers. In blood samples taken around a month after the third dose, antibodies neutralised the omicron variant about as effectively as two doses neutralised the original SARS-CoV2 virus. Having only two doses of the vaccine results in lower levels of neutralising antibodies, but could still protect against severe disease, the companies said.The US medicines regulator has approved a new therapy to prevent covid-19 infections in people with weak immune systems or a history of severe side effects from coronavirus vaccines. Evushield, made by AstraZeneca, is made up of two lab-made antibodies that linger in the body for months. A trial found that it cuts the risk of people developing covid-19 symptoms by 77 per cent.

12-9-21 Sauti Sol singer Chimano hailed in Kenya for coming out as gay
One of the stars of top Kenyan band Sauti Sol, Willis Austin Chimano, has come out as gay, telling a local outlet that he no longer wants to live a lie. Sauti Sol is one of Africa's biggest male bands and won the 2016 MTV Africa Music Awards. Chimano's opening up about his sexuality is being hailed as a boost to the LGBT community. Gay sex in Kenya is punishable by up to 14 years in prison - a challenge to this law was rejected in 2019. Prosecutions under this law are not common and attitudes towards gay people are more liberal than in neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania. Although there are few reports of homophobic attacks in Kenya, many members of the LGBT community live in clandestine communities and are often shunned by their families in this deeply religious country. However, attitudes are softening, especially among younger people and Chimano joins a growing list of prominent young Kenyans who have come out as gay or lesbian. "Young people are saluting him and are seeing him as an icon who comes out to celebrate his life and his sexuality. It's a good thing, it shows our diversity as a country," gay activist Kevin Mwachiro told the BBC. Last week, Chimano released a solo single, Friday Feeling, that he told the local Standard newspaper was "a true representation of who he is". "It is the first time I am expressing myself in a song. You really get to know who Chimano is and that is a heavy crown to carry. It is just a representation of the underground ballroom culture within the queer community... which I am part of," he is quoted as saying. A Kenyan High Court ruled in 2019 against campaigners seeking to overturn a law banning gay sex. Campaigners wanted the colonial-era law scrapped, saying that it gave rise to a climate of homophobia.

12-9-21 Canadian man charged over ransomware attacks
A Canadian man has been accused of co-ordinating ransomware and other cyber-attacks on individuals, businesses and government agencies. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) announced that 31-year-old Matthew Philbert had been charged with fraud and unauthorised use of computers. The US State of Alaska has also brought charges against Mr Philbert. He was arrested on 30 November and remains in police custody awaiting a court date. The OPP said the arrest was made following a 23-month investigation which involved the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the US FBI and Europol. At present, the alleged targets of the cyber-attacks have not been disclosed. The OPP said this was to avoid compromising court proceedings. However, it is alleged that Mr Philbert co-ordinated cyber-attacks using malicious emails with virus-infected attachments. Another Canadian man was charged in January for allegedly carrying out ransomware attacks linked to the Netwalker gang. This is the second significant arrest of an alleged ransomware hacker in Canada this year. Does this mean that Canada is a hotbed for these ransomware groups? No. But it does highlight that the fight against this pervasive cyber-threat is a global issue. Many of these crews are run completely remotely, so you never really know who is ultimately pressing the buttons and where they are from. While evidence points to Russia being the headquarters for many ransomware gangs, it is clear that the lure of riches is not overlooked by criminals in other parts of the world. Of course, suspects in Canada are investigated, arrested and face a trial to find out if they are guilty. In Russia, the authorities refuse to acknowledge they have a role to play, and suspected Russian hackers avoid facing prosecution or justice.

12-9-21 China committed genocide against Uyghurs, independent tribunal rules
China has committed genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, an unofficial UK-based tribunal has found. The Uyghur Tribunal cited birth control and sterilisation measures allegedly carried out by the state against the Uyghurs as the primary reason for reaching its conclusion on Thursday. Sir Geoffrey Nice, a prominent British barrister who chaired the tribunal hearings, said its panel was satisfied China had carried out "a deliberate, systematic and concerted policy" to bring about "long-term reduction of Uyghur and other ethnic minority populations". He added that the panel believed senior officials including the Chinese president Xi Jinping bore "primary responsibility" for the abuses against Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. The tribunal's panel was made up of lawyers and academics. Its findings have no legal force and are not binding on ministers, but its organisers said at the outset they intended to add to the body of evidence around the allegations against China and reach an independent conclusion on the question of genocide. The Chinese government denies all accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Responding to the tribunal's ruling on Thursday, a spokesman told the BBC the body was a "pseudo tribunal" and a "political tool used by a few anti-China elements to deceive and mislead the public". Reading the tribunal's judgement, Sir Geoffrey said there was "no evidence of mass killings" in Xinjiang, but he said that the alleged efforts to prevent births amounted to genocidal intent. The panel also said it had found evidence of crimes against humanity, torture, and sexual violence against the Uyghur people. Speaking to the BBC after the judgment, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said it was time for the UK government to accuse China of genocide.

12-9-21 China warns nations will 'pay price' for Olympic boycott
China has warned countries who have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics that they "will pay the price for their mistaken acts". The US, UK, Australia and Canada will not send government representatives to the Games because of concerns over China's human rights record. This includes widespread allegations of abuse against the Uyghur minority group. France, host of the next Summer Games, said it would not join the boycott. The Winter Olympics are set to take place in Beijing in February. "The United States, Britain and Australia have used the Olympics platform for political manipulation," Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, said. Chinese state media claimed on Wednesday that Beijing "never planned to invite US and Western politicians who hype the 'boycott' topic". The US was the first country to announce a diplomatic boycott, with Australia, Canada and the UK following suit. The move by these countries stops short of preventing athletes from attending - something which has been welcomed by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. "The presence of government officials is a political decision for each government so the principle of IOC neutrality applies," he said. Relations between the boycotting nations and China have been tense in recent years. The US has accused China of genocide in its repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. China denies all allegations of human rights abuses, saying its network of detention camps in Xinjiang are for "re-education" of the Uyghurs and other Muslims. Relations are also strained over a crackdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong and concerns over Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who was not seen for weeks after she accused a top government official of sexual assault. The Women's Tennis Association last week suspended all tournaments in China because of "serious doubts" about Ms Peng's safety.

12-8-21 How likely are you to get reinfected now that omicron is spreading?
Many people all over the world have now had one infection with covid-19 – how does that affect their future chance of a second round with the coronavirus? For the past year, there has been great interest in measuring how much protection the covid-19 vaccines give against infections and severe illness – and now the focus has turned to how the vaccines will fare against the new omicron variant. But there is another question about immunity that is relevant: how much protection is provided by a previous covid-19 infection? Two years after the pandemic began, there have been about 250 million confirmed coronavirus infections around the world, although the real number is probably much higher because so many cases go unrecorded. In the UK, a modelling study by the University of Cambridge suggests that 25 per cent of people over 65 have been infected, rising to as many as 81 per cent of those aged 15 to 24. One source of data on how much immunity this gives is an analysis of figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) large, ongoing COVID-19 Infection Survey. By tracking people’s antibody levels over time, the authors estimated in October that people would be protected against infection for an average of 1.5 to 2 years. People’s responses to the vaccines were variable, though, with nearly a quarter of participants in this study making no detectable antibodies against the virus. That doesn’t mean they would have no immunity, though, because this analysis didn’t measure their T-cells, the other main arm of the immune system. We can also look at figures on actual reinfection rates, rather than estimates based on people’s immune system responses. Recent ONS figures show that a prior infection cut people’s chances of testing positive for covid-19 by 80 per cent – the same as having had three vaccine doses.

12-8-21 Covid: Vaccines should work against Omicron variant, WHO says
Existing vaccines should still protect people who contract the Omicron variant from severe Covid cases, a World Health Organization (WHO) official says. It comes as the first lab tests of the new variant in South Africa suggest it can partially evade the Pfizer jab. Researchers say there was a "very large drop" in how well the vaccine's antibodies neutralised the new strain. But the WHO's Dr Mike Ryan said there was no sign Omicron would be better at evading vaccines than other variants. "We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there's no reason to expect that it wouldn't be so" for Omicron, Dr Ryan, the WHO's emergencies director, told AFP news agency. He said initial data suggested Omicron did not make people sicker than the Delta and other strains. "If anything, the direction is towards less severity," he said. The new South African study - which has not yet been peer-reviewed - found the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may result in up to 40 times fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original Covid strain. But Omicron's ability to escape vaccine antibodies is "incomplete", said Prof Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute, who led the research. He said the results, based on blood tests from 12 people, were "better than I expected of Omicron". Prof Sigal said vaccination, combined with previous infection, could still neutralise against the variant. That suggests boosters may bring a significant benefit. Scientists believe previous infection, followed by vaccination or a booster, is likely to increase the neutralisation level and will probably protect people against severe disease. More data on how well the Pfizer jab works against Omicron is expected to be released in the coming days. There is no significant data yet on how the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and other jabs hold up against the new variant.

12-8-21 UK celebrates one year of its covid-19 public vaccination programme
A year ago today, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial. 12 months and billions of shots later, several countries are already on a third round of coronavirus vaccinations. The phenomenal covid-19 vaccine roll-out in 2021 demonstrates some of the best and worst aspects of modern medicine. It is now estimated that nearly 8 billion doses have been put into people’s arms in the past 12 months – an incredible effort by health services around the world. But the vaccines haven’t been distributed equally. While many people in high-income countries will have received three jabs by Christmas, only about 5 per cent of people in low-income countries are expected to have had at least one by the end of the year. On 8 December 2020, Margaret Keenan in the UK became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine outside of a clinical trial. But it was in January 2021 that immunisation started taking off in the UK and other wealthy nations, with limited initial supplies meaning shots had to be prioritised for the most vulnerable. Figures on the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines are encouraging. In the UK, two shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech versions reduced infections by the delta variant by 67 and 80 per cent respectively, hospitalisations by 92 and 96 per cent, and deaths by 91 and 90 per cent. If vaccinated people do get infected, they are 63 per cent less likely to pass the virus on to others. We do not know yet how different these figures might be for the omicron variant. There have been serious, but rare, side effects from vaccination. In March, it became clear that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can cause a blood-clotting syndrome called vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, which it turned out is also associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and is more likely in younger people.

12-8-21 Covid-19 news: Omicron partly evades vaccine protection
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. Small study shows the omicron variant is less affected by Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine antibodies Some of the first tests of the omicron variant against blood samples show the virus has significant ability to evade the immune response – but that some protection remains, especially in people who have had booster vaccines. The study of 12 people in South Africa found that antibodies triggered by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines and prior infections were on average 40 times less potent at blocking omicron than they were the original coronavirus variant. This does not translate to the vaccine’s overall effectiveness, however, as the immune system comprises multiple other elements, such as T-cells, which attack virus-infected cells directly. The study, which was posted online yesterday, also found stronger protection from antibodies in people who had been infected before being vaccinated. Five out of six people who had been infected with the original variant before they had their two vaccine doses had more potent antibodies against omicron. UK covid-19 cases caused by the omicron variant seem to be doubling every two to three days, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the BBC’s Radio 4 today. Neil Ferguson, who was speaking in a personal capacity, said if the trend continues, omicron is likely to become the dominant UK variant before Christmas. People who are 40 and over in England can now book booster jabs against covid-19 if three months have passed since their second vaccine dose. The interval has been reduced from six months. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked all firms to let people work from home where possible. Sturgeon said the home-working should continue until at least mid-January, when the advice would be reviewed. As of Monday, 99 cases of the omicron variant had been found in Scotland. Convalescent plasma, obtained from people recently infected with the coronavirus, is not an effective treatment for covid-19, the World Health Organization has said.V

12-8-21 Biden warns Putin of 'strong measures' amid Ukraine invasion fears
The US says it is preparing "strong economic and other measures" over fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, after Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke. In a video call, President Biden voiced worries over Russian troop build-ups near the border with Ukraine and called for a de-escalation of tensions. Russia says it will not attack. President Putin accused Ukraine of provocation, and sought guarantees against eastward Nato expansion and deployment of weapons close to Russia. More than 90,000 Russian troops are believed to be massed near Ukraine's borders. The movement has strained already tense relations between Russia and the US. After Tuesday's call, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration was preparing specific robust responses in the weeks ahead if they were required. The measures included economic sanctions and other actions such as additional troop deployments to Nato allies in the region and defence equipment for Ukraine. Mr Sullivan refused to be drawn on what the economic measures might be. But he said Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is not yet in operation, provided "leverage" for the US and its allies. "If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine," he told journalists. Earlier reports said US officials had reached agreement with Germany to shut down the pipeline in the event of an invasion. Other possible measures include restrictions on Russia's banks converting roubles into foreign currencies, or even disconnecting Russia from the Swift global financial payment system, reports say. "Things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now," Mr Sullivan added, referring to Western responses to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

12-8-21 Daunte Wright: Manslaughter trial of ex-police officer begins
Opening statements are set to begin on Wednesday in the trial of a former Minnesota police officer who shot and killed a black motorist in April. Police say Kim Potter, 49, mistakenly drew her gun instead of her Taser and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. Ms Potter now faces two manslaughter charges for Mr Wright's death. Her defence team claims he was resisting arrest at the time. Mr Wright's death sparked protests and clashes with police. According to police officials, Mr Wright was pulled over for an expired tag on his car's licence plate when he was driving in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb. His family, however, has suggested that he was being racially profiled when police stopped him. Body cam footage released after the incident shows Mr Wright attempting to flee from police after they told him he faced arrest for an outstanding warrant. He had missed a court date for two earlier misdemeanour charges. Ms Potter can be heard repeating the word "Taser" several times before firing a shot from her pistol. Mr Wright's mother later told reporters that her son had called her after he was pulled over and claimed to have heard a scuffling sound and an officer telling him to hang up his phone. When she called back, Mr Wright's girlfriend, who was in the car with him when he was stopped, informed her that her son had been shot and showed her that he was "laying there, unresponsive". Ms Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, has claimed the shooting was an accident. Both Ms Potter and Brooklyn Park Police Chief Tim Gannon resigned in the wake of the incident. The former police officer's defence team has said they plan to call a forensic and police psychologist to the stand to testify about the sort of "slips and capture" errors - the theory that errors like mistaking a gun for a Taser can happen in high stress situations - they believe led to the shooting. Ms Potter is also expected to testify in her own defence. Prosecutors have argued that Ms Potter was negligent during the incident and should have been able to tell the difference between her pistol and a Taser.

12-8-21 Boss says sorry for 'blundered' mass Zoom firing
The boss of a US mortgage company, who fired hundreds of his staff in a Zoom meeting has said he is "deeply sorry" for the way the lay-offs were handled. The sackings were necessary said Vishal Garg, but he accepted he had "blundered the execution" and "embarrassed" them. "I failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected," he said in a letter on the firm's website. Mr Garg was heavily criticised after he sacked 900 staff in an online meeting. "I am deeply sorry and am committed to learning from this situation and doing more to be the leader that you expect me to be," he said. Mr Garg said he had realised "the way I communicated this news made a difficult situation worse". The firm, Better.com, a start-up offering mortgages, is based in New York. "If you're on this call you're part of the unlucky group being laid off," Mr Garg told staff in the call last week. "Your employment here is terminated. Effective immediately." A recording of the call was shared on social media, prompting comments that sacking people this way was "cold", "harsh" and "a horrible move", especially in the run up to Christmas. Better.com, which aims to use technology to make the housebuying process "faster and more efficient", confirmed earlier this year that it plans to float the company on the stock market. A deal is likely to value the business - which Mr Garg founded in 2015 - at between $6.9bn (£5.2bn) and $7.7bn. "Hi everyone, thank you for joining. I come to you with not great news. The market has changed, as you know, and we have to move with it in order to survive so that hopefully we can continue to thrive and deliver on our mission. "This isn't news that you're going to want to hear but ultimately it was my decision and I wanted you to hear it from me. It's been a really, really challenging decision to make. This is the second time in my career that I'm doing this and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it I cried. This time I hope to be stronger. But we are laying off about 15% of the company for [a number of] reasons: the market, efficiency and performances and productivity. "If you're on this call you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated. Effective immediately."

12-8-21 Google sues alleged Russian cyber criminals
Google has sued hackers believed to be part of a cybercrime gang that has stolen user information from around the world. A complaint names two Russians and 15 unknown individuals said to be behind Glupteba, a malicious "botnet" that has infected over a million computers. Criminals use these systems of compromised devices to hack private data. It is the first case Google has launched against a botnet. According to a lawsuit filed in New York and unsealed on Tuesday, the botnet built by Dmitry Starovikov, Alexander Filippov and their associates has become a "modern technological and borderless incarnation of organised crime". Glupteba's malicious software - which was first detected in 2011 - is spread by third-party download sites, online movie streaming services and a website which fraudulently purported to be affiliated with YouTube, which is owned by Google. Private information stolen through the botnet can be used to commit crimes like fraud. Court documents allege that the Glupteba botnet stands out from others because of its "technical sophistication". Mr Starovikov and Mr Filippov - the only two hackers whose names were known - could not be immediately located for comment on the charges. In a blog post, Google disclosed that a company investigation had found Glupteba currently involved approximately a million compromised Windows devices. At times, the botnet is believed to grow at a rate of thousands of new devices per day. "Glupteba is notorious for stealing users' credentials and data, mining cryptocurrencies on infected hosts, and setting up proxies to funnel other people's internet traffic through infected machines and routers," the blog post said. Google believes it has disrupted the hackers' "key command and control infrastructure", preventing those behind Glupteba from having control of the botnet "for now". The lawsuit accuses Mr Starovikov, Mr Filippov and the 15 unnamed defendants of computer fraud and abuse, trademark infringement and several other charges.

12-8-21 Germany's Olaf Scholz takes over from Merkel as chancellor
Olaf Scholz has been been sworn in as Germany's new chancellor, formally taking power after Angela Merkel's historic 16 years as leader. DHe promised he would do all he could to work towards a new start for Germany. As she left the chancellery, ending a 31-year political career, Mrs Merkel told her former vice-chancellor to approach the task "with joy". His centre-left Social Democrats will govern alongside the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. Mr Scholz, a soft-spoken 63-year-old, steered the Social Democrats to election victory in late September, positioning himself as the continuity candidate because he played a key role in the Merkel government as vice-chancellor. The German parliament, the Bundestag, backed him as chancellor by 395 votes to 303, and he was then formally appointed as the ninth federal chancellor by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. After the vote in parliament, he was asked by Bundestag President Bärbel Bas whether he accepted the appointment and said "yes". He later took the oath of office and, unlike his predecessor, he left out the religious reference "so help me God". Since the election, Mr Scholz's party has worked with the Greens and the Free Democrats on a coalition deal, which was finally signed on Tuesday. All 16 ministers took the oath of office on Wednesday, becoming Germany's first cabinet to include as many women as men. The new government has ambitious plans to fight climate change by phasing out coal early and focusing on renewable energy, but their initial priority will be tackling the coronavirus pandemic. Health authorities have recorded another 69,601 cases in the past 24 hours and a further 527 deaths - the highest number since last winter. "I said 'yes'," tweeted Olaf Scholz drily, moments after the Bundestag elected him chancellor. This is the moment the career politician has long been waiting for. After 16 years of Angela Merkel, it's a case of out with the old and in with the new-ish.

12-7-21 Omicron variant may make Christmas party infection risk much higher
A series of extraordinary superspreader events at festive celebrations across Europe suggests the omicron coronavirus variant dramatically increases the risk of being infected at social events. Should you go to that festive party this year if you want to avoid being infected by the coronavirus? Probably not. In addition to the risk posed by the high levels of the delta variant in many countries, the omicron variant is now spreading too – and it appears capable of infecting an astonishingly high proportion of people at social events. There are already at least four reports of superspreader events at parties across Europe where a third or more of the people attending have been infected. Omicron hasn’t yet been confirmed in all cases but is likely to blame. “The very high proportion of people infected at these events, taken together with the very rapid increase in cases in South Africa, point to a variant with possibly considerably stronger abilities to infect,” says epidemiologist Gunhild Alvik Nyborg of the Covid Action Group, an international thinktank on eliminating covid. One of the events was a party at a restaurant in Oslo, Norway. Around 70 of the 120 people who attended the party were infected, as were another 50 people at the restaurant. Omicron has been confirmed by sequencing in 13 cases so far. In Denmark, 53 of 150 people who went to a Christmas lunch in Viborg have been confirmed to be infected with omicron. In Spain, 68 medics at the University Regional Hospital in Malaga have tested positive after going to a Christmas party at which 173 people were present altogether. It isn’t yet clear if any of the 68 have omicron. In the UK, Tim Spector at King’s College London says he has been told of a 60th birthday party at which 14 of 18 people were infected with omicron according to PCR tests. All the guests were vaccinated and are said to have tested negative on lateral flow tests in the 24 hours beforehand.

12-7-21 Biden and Putin hold talks amid Russia-Ukraine tensions
US President Joe Biden is holding rare talks by video link with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, amid tensions on Ukraine's eastern frontier. Few expect a breakthrough, but Moscow says talks are needed as tensions in Europe are "off the scale". Russia has moved thousands of troops to the border, but insists it has no intention of attacking Ukraine. It wants guarantees Ukraine will not join Nato, but Western powers say Kyiv's sovereignty should be respected. The talks began at 10:07 US Eastern time (15:07 GMT), the White House said. Video footage of the opening moments showed friendly greetings between the US and Russian leaders. Mr Biden and Mr Putin last met in person in Switzerland in June, but made little progress other than to agree to send their ambassadors back and begin a dialogue on nuclear arms control. In a conference call on Monday night, the White House said the leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy had formed a joint strategy "to impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy" should Russia launch an invasion. Possible measures include restrictions on Russia's banks converting roubles into foreign currencies, or even disconnecting Russia from the Swift global financial payment system, reports say. Russia wants guarantees that Ukraine will not try to seize areas captured by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 and has warned the West not to cross "red lines" by adding Ukraine to Nato's military alliance. More than 90,000 Russian troops are believed to be massed near Ukraine's borders. A large part of the recent Russian military build-up is in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine and then annexed in 2014. Troops are also gathering near Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, the name for parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions which are under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Ukrainian officials have said Moscow could be planning a military offensive at the end of January. More than 14,000 people have lost their lives in seven years of conflict since Russian-backed forces seized large areas of Ukraine's east.

12-7-21 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: China criticises US diplomatic boycott
China has condemned a planned US diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and threatened to retaliate. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China would take "resolute counter-measures", but did not give further details. On Monday, the US said it would not send diplomats to Beijing over concerns about China's human rights record. It added that US athletes could go and would have full government support. At a media briefing on Tuesday, Mr Zhao accused the US of violating "political neutrality in sport" and said the proposed boycott was "based on lies and rumours". Tensions are high between both countries. The US has accused China of genocide in its repression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in the western region of Xinjiang - an allegation China has strongly denied. Relations are also strained over China's suppression of political freedoms in Hong Kong, and because of concerns for the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who was not seen for weeks after she accused a top government official of assault. The Women's Tennis Association last week suspended all tournaments in China because of "serious doubts" about Ms Peng's safety. High-level government representatives - from the US and other countries - are usually present at Olympic Games. Earlier this year, First Lady Jill Biden led the US delegation at the summer Olympics held in Tokyo. But on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US would not contribute to the "fanfare" of the Olympics. She said not sending an official delegation to the 2022 Games "could send a clear message". "US diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of... egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang," she said. "We simply can't do that." However, Ms Psaki added the US government did not feel it was right "to penalise athletes who had been training for this moment". On Chinese social media platform Weibo, the search topic "US diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics" was censored as of Tuesday morning.

12-7-21 Emmett Till: US closes investigation without charges
The US government has closed an inquiry into the infamous 1955 murder of a black boy in Mississippi after failing to corroborate an author's claim that a key figure in the case lied. The Department of Justice (DoJ) made the announcement after meeting Emmett Till's relatives in Illinois on Monday. The Chicago 14-year-old was kidnapped, tortured and killed after a white woman said he had harassed her at a store. His death galvanised America's then-budding civil rights movement. Emmett's mother insisted on an open coffin at the funeral, and the published photos of the boy's brutalised remains shocked the nation. The DoJ reopened the case in 2018 after a book cast doubt on the testimony of a white woman who was central to the case. Carolyn Bryant Donham said Emmett had grabbed her by the waist, uttered a profanity and asked her for a date while she was alone in the family grocery store on the evening of 24 August 1955 in Money, Mississippi. But a 2017 best-selling book, The Blood of Emmett Till, by historian Timothy Tyson, quoted her as recanting this story. The author said she had indicated - in her first ever known interview - that her courtroom testimony six decades earlier about Emmett's purported sexual advance was unfounded. However, the DoJ said in a statement on Monday that the FBI had interviewed Ms Donham, and she had denied ever disavowing her testimony, and did not provide any further information. They added that authorities concluded there was "insufficient evidence to prove that she ever told the professor [Mr Tyson] that any part of her testimony was untrue". "Although the professor represented that he had recorded two interviews with her, he provided the FBI with only one recording, which did not contain any recantation." The statement added: "The professor also provided inconsistent explanations about whether the missing recording included the alleged recantation or whether, instead, the woman made the key admission before he began recording the interview." Officials also said there was nothing to validate the claim that Ms Donham had disavowed her story in any transcript of Mr Tyson's interviews. The author quotes Ms Donham in the book as saying: "That part's not true. Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

12-7-21 Afghanistan: Foreign Office chaotic during Kabul evacuation - whistleblower
The UK Foreign Office's handling of the Afghan evacuation after the Taliban seized Kabul was dysfunctional and chaotic, a whistleblower has said. Raphael Marshall said the process of choosing who could get a flight out was arbitrary and thousands of emails with pleas for help went unread. The then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was slow to make decisions, he added. Mr Raab told the BBC lessons would be learned but the UK did a good job compared to other countries. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, the UK airlifted 15,000 people out of the country, including 5,000 British nationals, 8,000 Afghans and 2,000 children. In written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Marshall said up to 150,000 Afghans who were at risk because of their links to Britain applied to be evacuated - but fewer than 5% received any assistance. "It is clear that some of those left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban," he added. Mr Raab said the two-week evacuation was "the biggest operation in living memory" of its kind and the UK had helped a larger number of people than any nation except the US. The foreign secretary said the criticism of his decision-making was from a "relatively junior desk officer" but the main challenges were in verifying the identities of applicants on the ground and safely escorting them to the airport in Kabul, not in making decisions from Whitehall. Other criticisms were "rather dislocated from the operational pressures and conditions", he said. "I don't doubt there were challenges, I don't doubt there will be lessons to be learned but if you look at the facts, I think we did a good job by recent standards of evacuations and by international comparisons," he told BBC Breakfast. Mr Marshall, who was a senior desk officer at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) until he resigned in September, said there was inadequate staffing at the department's crisis centre, and staff would not normally be expected to work at weekends or overnight.

12-7-21 Rohingya sue Facebook for $150bn over Myanmar hate speech
Dozens of Rohingya refugees in the UK and US have sued Facebook, accusing the social media giant of allowing hate speech against them to spread. They are demanding more than $150bn (£113bn) in compensation, claiming Facebook's platforms promoted violence against the persecuted minority. An estimated 10,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed during a military crackdown in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2017. Facebook, now called Meta, did not immediately respond to the allegations. The company is accused of allowing "the dissemination of hateful and dangerous misinformation to continue for years". In the UK, a British law firm representing some of the refugees has written a letter to Facebook, seen by the BBC, alleging: 1. Facebook's algorithms "amplified hate speech against the Rohingya people", 2. The firm "failed to invest" in moderators and fact checkers who knew about the political situation in Myanmar, 3. The company failed to take down posts or delete accounts that incited violence against Rohingya, 4, It failed to "take appropriate and timely action", despite warnings from charities and the media. In the US, lawyers filed a legal complaint against Facebook in San Francisco, accusing it of being "willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in Southeast Asia." They cite Facebook posts that appeared in an investigation by the Reuters news agency, including one in 2013 stating: "We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews." Another post said: "Pour fuel and set fire so that they can meet Allah faster." Facebook has more than 20 million users in Myanmar. For many, the social media site is their main or only way of getting and sharing news. Facebook admitted in 2018 that it had not done enough to prevent the incitement of violence and hate speech against the Rohingya. This followed an independent report, commissioned by Facebook, that said the platform had created an "enabling environment" for the proliferation of human rights abuse.

12-6-21 Omicron looks set to cause a huge wave of covid-19 around the world
It remains unclear whether the omicron coronavirus variant causes less severe disease, but even if this is true, hospitals could still be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases. There is growing evidence that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus is capable of spreading rapidly in populations with immunity against other coronavirus variants. It has already reached many countries and appears poised to cause a huge wave of infections around the world. The big unknown is whether omicron is more or less likely to cause severe disease and deaths. Aris Katzourakis at the University of Oxford says he very much doubts the variant’s mutations will result in decreased severity, but that it is too early to tell. “We are all worried,” says Katzourakis. “We are waiting with bated breath.” In South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases are rising even faster than during previous waves, with case numbers doubling every three to four days. The rapid spread in South Africa doesn’t necessarily reflect what will happen elsewhere. The beta variant that was first spotted in South Africa and caused its second wave didn’t result in similar spikes in cases in other nations. However, there are signs that omicron is already taking off in different countries too. For instance, the UK is seeing a rapid rise in so-called S-gene dropouts in PCR covid-19 tests, a phenomenon that happens when a variant has certain mutations in the gene for its spike protein. This is likely to be due to omicron. Denmark, which does a lot of sequencing, has already detected nearly 200 cases of covid-19 caused by this variant. The main reason omicron is spreading so fast appears to be that it is excellent at evading prior immunity. Researchers in South Africa have found that the risk of reinfection is much higher with omicron. This suggests that the risk of vaccinated people getting infected is also much greater than it is with delta. Initial case reports back this up. For instance, of 11 omicron cases in Israel so far, six are in people who had had three doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

12-6-21 Thomas Massie: US congressman condemned for Christmas guns photo
A US congressman has faced a barrage of criticism after he posted a Christmas photograph of his family posing with military-style rifles, just days after a deadly school shooting. Kentucky's Republican representative, Thomas Massie, tweeted the photo with the caption: "Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo". The post has been condemned by a host of families affected by gun violence, plus figures on both sides of politics. He has been contacted for comment. In the wake of the controversy, Mr Massie has retweeted messages of support, and also those criticising him - directly engaging with several Twitter users who said he was "tone deaf" and "insensitive". In response to one person who wrote the "bar was on the floor, but somehow you managed to tunnel underneath it," the 50-year-old quipped that "The BAR is under the couch," referring to a type of military assault rifle. The photo was posted days after a school shooting in Michigan which left four teenagers dead and seven people injured after a 15-year-old student allegedly went on a rampage using his father's gun. The suspect's parents have been charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to heed multiple warning signs before the tragedy. They have pleaded not guilty. It is was the latest in a string of shootings in the US that has led to fierce debate about gun rights and laws. The families of students killed in previous school shootings have spoken out against the post. Fred Guttenberg's daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland high school shooting in Florida in 2018 - one of the worst school attacks the US has seen. He posted a photo of Jaime, and also a photo of her gravestone under the congressman's post. Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin also died in the Parkland attack, told CNN that the tweet was in "the worst taste ever". Several figures from the Republican party also condemned the post.

12-6-21 Sarah Gilbert: Next pandemic could be more lethal than Covid
Future pandemics could be more lethal than the current Covid crisis, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has warned. Prof Dame Sarah Gilbert, delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said there needed to be more funding for pandemic preparedness to prevent the advances made from being lost. She also warned vaccines could be less effective against the Omicron variant. Dame Sarah added that people should be cautious until more was known about it. She said: "This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both. "We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness," she added. "The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost." Speaking about the Omicron variant, she said its spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus. "But there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron. "Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant." However, Dame Sarah said reduced protection against infection and mild disease would not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe illness and death. She also called for the rapid progress seen in delivering vaccines and medicines during the pandemic to become the norm. There was no reason why a universal flu jab could not be developed in order to wipe out the threat from influenza, she said. On Saturday, the government announced that travellers heading to the UK will now have to take a Covid test before their departure in an effort to limit spread of the Omicron.

12-6-21 Covid-19 news: Australia plans to vaccinate five to 11-year-olds
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. Children in Australia aged between five and 11 could be vaccinated in January. Five to 11-year-olds in Australia could get a coronavirus vaccine as early as 10 January, following provisional approval by the nation’s drugs regulator. A one-third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved as safe and effective for this age group by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. The rollout is subject to approval by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. Like adults, the 2.3 million eligible children will receive two doses of the vaccine at least three weeks apart.In the UK, covid-19 vaccinations are only available for those aged 12 and over. But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is currently adjudicating on whether under-12s should also get jabbed. The US and Israel began offering the vaccine to 5 to 11-year-olds last month. The omicron variant will be the dominant strain of coronavirus in the UK within the next few weeks according to Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia. He told the BBC that the variant is “spreading rather more quickly than the delta variant”. “How it’s likely to spread in the UK is still uncertain,” he said. “But I think the early signs are [that] it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting delta, and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least.” While it is too soon to be sure how severe infections caused by the omicron variant are, early signs are encouraging, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it, thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci told CNN on Sunday. “Thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging. But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe, or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to delta.”

12-6-21 Covid: UK red list criticised as 'travel apartheid' by Nigeria
Nigeria has criticised the UK's travel restrictions after it was placed on the red list amid fears over the Omicron Covid-19 variant. "What is expected is a global approach, not selective," Sarafa Tunji Isola, Nigeria's high commissioner to the UK, told the BBC on Monday. He also echoed comments made by the UN's chief, who described restrictions imposed on some southern African countries as "travel apartheid". New rules came into force at 04:00 GMT. It means travellers arriving from Nigeria will be required to enter hotel quarantine - at their own expense - and isolate for 10 days. "The travel ban is apartheid in the sense that we are not dealing with an endemic," Mr Isola told the Today programme. "We are dealing with a pandemic. Whenever we have a challenge there must be collaboration." UK government minister Kit Malthouse, meanwhile, said the wording "travel apartheid" was "very unfortunate language". "We understand the difficulties that's created by these travel restrictions, but we're trying to buy a little bit of time so that our scientists can work on the virus and assess how difficult it's going to be" he told the BBC. The UK's Department of Health and Social Care said all countries collect data differently, meaning it is hard to directly compare the information. It said the government would continue to keep the data under review. Nigeria became the 11th country to go on the UK's red list for international travel on Monday. All nations currently on that list are African. The only people allowed to enter the UK from these countries are UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents. They will have to pay for and self-isolate in a pre-booked government-approved hotel for 10 days. Nigerians in the UK have expressed shock at the new restrictions. Olufemi Awokoya told the BBC he was trying to raise money for his wife's quarantine, as she is due to return from a trip to attend her mother's memorial service.

12-6-21 Covid-19: Italy tightens restrictions for unvaccinated
Italy has introduced tougher restrictions for unvaccinated people amid concern over the Omicron variant and a potential spike in infections. Many public activities will be off limits to anyone without a so-called Covid Super Green Pass from Monday. The pass shows proof of vaccination, or recovery from the virus within the last six months. It will be needed to enter theatres, cinemas, music venues, sports events, restaurants and bars until mid-January. The new measures strengthen the existing Covid green passes, which can be obtained following a negative test. The basic green passes will now be required to use public transport, as well as to access places of work. Italy is grappling with a spike in coronavirus infections, which have been rising gradually since mid-October. There is also concern around Europe about the spread of the Omicron variant, which experts fear may be more transmissible and evade some immunity to Covid. Italy was ravaged by infections in the early stages of the pandemic and has one of the highest death tolls at more than 134,000. But the country's vaccination rate is higher than many of its neighbours. About 73% of the total population have been fully vaccinated and 11% have had booster shots, according to the latest data. Even so, several Italian cities have imposed rules obliging people to wear facemasks, even in outdoor settings such as crowded shopping streets. Italy introduced green passes in August for access to cultural and social venues before extending them to workplaces in October. The passes were initially intended to make travel within the EU more efficient, but several countries have widened their use to limit infections and encourage vaccine up-take. France requires a health pass for access to restaurants, bars, planes and trains, while Austria and Cyprus are among other EU countries to have used similar schemes.

12-5-21 Michigan school shooting: Suspect's parents deny involuntary manslaughter
The parents of a teenager suspected of a deadly school shooting have denied charges of involuntary manslaughter following their arrest on Saturday.James and Jennifer Crumbley were found hiding in a Detroit basement having failed to show up in court on Friday. The judge set bail at $500,000 each after agreeing with prosecutors that the Crumbleys posed a flight risk. They are accused of ignoring warning signs before their son's alleged rampage. Prosecutors say Ethan Crumbley, 15, used his father's gun to shoot classmates in the nearby Michigan town of Oxford, killing four and wounding seven. The Crumbleys' lawyers said that the pair had intended to turn themselves in to the authorities on Saturday morning, according to US media. However reports in the US say the couple had withdrawn $4,000 (£3,000) from an ATM and had turned off their mobile phones. Ethan Crumbley is alleged to have opened fire on fellow students and teachers at his school in Oxford, about 35 miles (60 km) north of Detroit, on Tuesday. The four killed were Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Hana St Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17. Ethan Crumbley is being charged as an adult, and is facing one count of terrorism, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assaults with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm. Oakland County lead prosecutor Karen McDonald said the terrorism charge was neither "usual" nor "typical" but reflected the wider impact the shooting would have. "What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can't eat and can't sleep and can't imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?" she said. "Those are victims, too, and so are their families and so is the community. The charge of terrorism reflects that."

12-5-21 Chris Cuomo: CNN fires presenter over help he gave politician brother
US anchor Chris Cuomo has been fired by CNN for help he gave his brother, ex-New York governor Andrew Cuomo, while he was battling harassment allegations. The decision came after CNN said additional information had emerged over the extent of Chris Cuomo's involvement in his older brother's defence. Andrew Cuomo resigned in August after prosecutors said he had harassed staff. Chris Cuomo, 51, said in a statement that he was disappointed and it was "not how I want my time at CNN to end". He had worked for the network since 2013 and became one of its most recognisable news presenters, most recently leading CNN's coverage of the 2020 US presidential election. A CNN statement said that a "respected law firm" had been hired to investigate Chris Cuomo's efforts to help his politician brother fight allegations of sexual harassment. But while that review was happening, "new information has come to light" leading to the network terminating his contract, "effective immediately". Chris Cuomo had already been suspended by CNN on Tuesday after the extent of his behind-the-scenes efforts to help with the scandal were revealed. At that time, the network said that while it "appreciated the unique position [Chris Cuomo] was in and understood his need to put family first and job second", the advice he offered to his brother was a breach of journalistic ethics. Documents released by New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday showed that the younger Cuomo continuously pressed the governor's staff to let him play a larger role in his brother's defence. "You need to trust me," he texted Melissa DeRosa, his brother's secretary, in March, adding: "We are making mistakes we can't afford." He also pledged to contact other US media outlets to try and learn of other allegations that were forthcoming.

12-5-21 Afghanistan: Taliban warned against targeting former security forces
The US and a host of allied countries have called on the Taliban to end the targeted killings of former members of Afghan security forces. In a joint statement, the 22 nations demanded that the Islamist regime respect its pledge not to harm former government or security personnel. "We are deeply concerned by reports of summary killings and enforced disappearances", the statement says. It follows a damning report on killings and abductions by the Islamist regime. Released by the Human Rights Watch earlier this week, the report documented more than 100 executions and abductions of former Afghan government officials since the Taliban took control of the country almost four months ago. It also documented the murder of 47 members of the Afghan security forces who surrendered to, or were captured by, the Taliban between 15 August and 31 October. This is despite the regime's assurance that previous government workers would not be harmed. The short joint statement was issued by the US and signed by the UK, European Union and a further 19 countries. It outlined their deep concerns over the report's findings and called on all cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to be fully investigated. "We will continue to measure the Taliban by their actions," the statement concluded. The Taliban once again denied the allegations, some of which are backed up by the BBC's own reporting, but did say they would be willing to allow an independent investigation into the allegations to happen. "There is no evidence showing anything like this happened," the Taliban said in a statement to the BBC. "We are willing to allow an independent investigation into these allegations and we will fully co-operate with it," it said, adding that the group's hope is that the international community will not base decisions regarding Afghanistan on the allegations.

12-5-21 Pope condemns treatment of migrants in Europe
The Pope has denounced "narrow self-interest and nationalism" over the way Europe treats migrants. Speaking on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he met dozens of migrants, Pope Francis said they were being used for political propaganda. He urged focus on the causes of migration, such as "forgotten wars", instead of punishing those who feel their effects. And he criticised the building of walls to keep people out. "In Europe there are those who persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them - this is tragic," he said. "History teaches us that narrow self-interest and nationalism lead to disastrous consequences." While the coronavirus pandemic had shown that major challenges had to be confronted together and there were some signs of this happening on climate change, there was little sign of such an approach to migration, he said. "It is easy to influence public opinion by instilling fear of the other," Pope Francis said. "The remote causes should be attacked, not the poor people who pay the consequences and are even used for political propaganda." The Pope cited war, economic agreements "where the people have to pay" and the flow of weapons as factors leading people to seek a better life elsewhere. The number of people entering Europe reached a high point in 2015, when more than a million people fleeing the Syrian civil war and other crises made the journey. Since then numbers have fallen as nations along migrant routes closed borders. The EU also agreed a deal to return failed asylum seekers to Turkey and has provided support for the Libyan coastguard to pick up people who set off to sea. Last month 27 people died when their inflatable dinghy sank in the Channel between France and the UK. The number of people attempting the crossing has been growing, with more than 26,000 people arriving in the UK so far this year, more than double last year's total.

12-4-21 Covid: Don't panic about Omicron variant, WHO says
The world should not panic about the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 but it should prepare, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. Speaking at a conference on Friday, top WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the situation now was very different to a year ago. Reports suggest Omicron has been found in close to 40 countries. It is still unclear if the highly mutated variant is more transmissible or better able to evade vaccines. Early data reported by scientists in South Africa - where the variant was first detected - suggests Omicron may evade some immunity to Covid-19, although experts caution the analysis is not definitive. Dr Swaminathan told the Reuters NEXT conference that the variant was "highly transmissible", citing data from South Africa, and said it could possibly become the dominant strain worldwide - although this is hard to predict. Delta currently accounts for 99% of cases globally, she added. "How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," she said. WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan meanwhile said the world currently had "highly effective vaccines" against Covid-19, and the focus should be on distributing them more widely. He said there was no evidence to back changing these jabs to tailor them to the new Omicron variant. Countries around the world have announced travel bans against southern African countries in the wake of Omicron's first detection. US officials have made it compulsory for all international travellers to the US to take a Covid test no more than one day before travel. It comes after authorities tightened US travel rules in light of the variant. Omicron has now been detected in at least six US states including Hawaii, where officials said the case had no recent travel history. India has also reported its first two cases of the Omicron variant. Officials said one of them - a 66-year-old South African national - had travelled from the country and had already left India, while the second - a 46-year-old doctor in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru - had no travel history.

12-4-21 Michigan school shooting: Suspect's parents arrested in Detroit
The parents of a teenager suspected of a deadly school shooting have been arrested in a Detroit basement hours after going on the run, police say. James and Jennifer Crumbley were found unarmed hiding in a warehouse after a tip-off from someone who saw their car. The couple had failed to show up in court on Friday after being charged with involuntary manslaughter. They are accused of ignoring warning signs before their son's alleged rampage. Prosecutors say Ethan Crumbley, 15, used his father's gun to shoot classmates in the nearby Michigan town of Oxford, killing four and wounding seven. Detroit Police Chief James White told reporters that Ethan's parents had been taken into custody without incident. "They were very distressed as they were walking out," he said. He said they had been aided in getting into the building, which he said was used as an art studio, and that the person who helped them could face charges. Earlier the US Marshals - a federal law enforcement service - had offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to their arrest. The Crumbleys' lawyer had told the BBC that the couple had left town on the night of the shooting "for their own safety" and were not fleeing police. But reports in the US say police knew the couple had withdrawn $4,000 (£3,000) from an ATM in Rochester Hills on the edge of Detroit and had turned off their mobile phones. Ethan Crumbley is alleged to have opened fire on fellow students and teachers at his school in Oxford, about 35 miles (60 km) north of Detroit, on Tuesday. The four killed were Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Hana St Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17. Ethan Crumbley is being charged as an adult, and is facing one count of terrorism, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assaults with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm.

12-4-21 Bolsonaro: Brazilian Supreme Court opens investigation into vaccine comments
Brazil's Supreme Court has opened an inquiry into comments made by President Jair Bolsonaro wrongly claiming that Covid-19 vaccines may increase the chance of contracting Aids. The comments, made during a social media livestream in October saw him temporarily banned from Facebook and YouTube under their fake news policies. Mr Bolsonaro has frequently cast doubt over the effectiveness of vaccines. He is already facing a separate inquiry into his handling of the pandemic. During the livestream on 24 October, Mr Bolsonaro claimed that reports "suggest that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 are developing Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) much faster than expected". The assertion has been strongly rejected by scientists and medical experts. The embattled president, who has refused to get vaccinated himself, has defended the comments and claimed that he was simply quoting from an article in a magazine. On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ruled that Mr Bolsonaro had "used the modus operandi of mass dissemination schemes in social networks" which called for further investigation. Mr de Moraes instructed Brazil's top prosecutor, Augusto Aras, to try to establish whether the president's comments are linked to a group of his supporters who are currently being investigated for the large-scale production of fake news. The group, known in local media as the Office of Hate, has spread misinformation throughout the pandemic and has called for a military coup that would give Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain, unlimited powers to rule the country. Investigations into the group have already seen the arrest of a number of the president's allies, including Roberto Jefferson, the head of the right-wing Brazilian Labour Party. Mr Bolsonaro has come under heavy pressure in recent months and faced a number of political crises that have dented his popularity.

12-3-21 Covid-19 news: Range of vaccines show promise as booster shots
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. Three different vaccines lead to big increases in antibody levels when used as boosters. Three covid-19 vaccines given as boosters in a UK trial were safe and provoked strong immune responses, researchers have reported. The study involved 2878 adults aged 30 or over, all of whom previously had two doses of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. They were given booster vaccines 10 to 12 weeks after their second dose. The trial tested seven vaccines as boosters: AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novavax, Janssen, Moderna, Valneva and Curevac. The researchers measured levels of antibodies and T cells in the participants’ blood. The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines all produced strong antibody and T cell responses, regardless of which vaccine had been given for the first two doses. The results suggest that people’s immunity from covid-19 increased, although the study does not yet include data on how well people are protected against infection or disease. A greater proportion of Black and south Asian people are dying with covid-19 than white people in the UK, despite case numbers in the latter group being higher, a study has warned. The final report into covid-19 disparities, produced by the UK Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit, outlines the main risk factors in ethnic minority groups. These include occupation, particularly in the case of frontline workers, and household size, especially for those containing schoolchildren and older relatives. Living in densely populated areas with higher levels of deprivation was also a risk factor. Raghib Ali, the UK government’s independent adviser on covid-19 and ethnicity, said the higher rates of hospitalisation and death for south Asian and Black people almost certainly reflects differences in vaccination rates. There could be more than 230,000 new cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in England as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned. The figure comes from modelling work by the NHS Strategy Unit, forecasting new referrals for PTSD between 2020/21 and 2022/23. Some covid-19 patients who needed hospital care and frontline healthcare staff are thought to be particularly at risk of PTSD. Studies have found that 35 per cent of covid-19 patients put on a ventilator and 40 per cent of intensive care staff report symptoms of PTSD.

12-3-21 US government shutdown averted hours before deadline
The US Congress has passed a stopgap bill to fund federal agencies until 18 February, avoiding a costly government shutdown over the festive season. In a 69-28 vote, the Senate backed the measure approved earlier by the House of Representatives. President Joe Biden is now expected to sign it into law. "I am glad that, in the end, cooler heads prevailed," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. The bill was passed hours before the funding would have stopped on Friday. This would have left unpaid millions of workers in the public sector over Christmas and New Year, and museums and parks would have been shut. A group of Republican Senators had threatened to derail the funding bill in protest over Mr Biden's push for the federally-mandated Covid vaccination for employees at large companies. But their attempt to attach an amendment preventing the enforcement of the vaccine initiative was thwarted by Democrats. The funding bill was approved by the House of Representatives earlier on Thursday in a 221-212 vote. It is the latest example of the bitter political tug-of-war around government funding that has resulted in several shutdowns in recent years. In October, President Biden signed into law a temporary measure to keep the government running through 3 December.

12-3-21 US jobs growth falls far short of expectations
US employers hired only 210,000 more workers in November, missing economists' predictions for stronger growth. Forecasters had been expecting US non-farm payrolls to increase by 550,000. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics said there had been a decline in employment in the retail sector. But on the upside, it said there had been a rise in hiring across areas such as professional and business services as well as transport and warehousing. The bureau also said construction and manufacturing had added new jobs. While job creation fell short of expectations, the unemployment rate declined to 4.2% in November, down from 4.6% in October. The overall proportion of the population that was in work or looking for work, known as the participation rate, also rose slightly. "The bottom line is it's a disappointment," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital. "The reason we have the drop in unemployment is people dropping out the workforce and that's not a good sign." But Joe Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade, said the low rate of hiring overall and the sharp fall in unemployment didn't "add up" and he expected the figures to be revised upwards. He said the sectors "that don't truly make sense" are leisure and hospitality rising by such a small amount, and retail being down, "which is very odd for this time of year", he said. Hiring in the retail sector fell by 20,000, especially in general merchandise and clothing stores, despite the start of the busy holiday shopping season and many retailers offering higher wages and other perks to attract staff. Employment in leisure and hospitality rose only 23,000 and remains nearly 8% lower than before Covid hit. In September, children returned to schooling in-person and pandemic-related unemployment benefits stopped, leading many analysts to expect strong jobs growth throughout the autumn. Figures for October were revised up to show 546,000 jobs were added that month. However, millions of Americans have not returned to work, leaving the total workforce significantly smaller than it was before the pandemic. Commonly cited reasons are difficulties with childcare and concerns around Covid infection.

12-3-21 Rights groups' warning as Trump's Remain in Mexico policy restored
US human rights groups have criticised the reinstatement of a Trump-era policy requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while claims are processed. The American Immigration Council said it was a dark day for the US and the rule of law. US President Joe Biden had suspended the policy, calling it "inhumane", but was ordered by courts to resume it. Under the policy, thousands of migrants were forced to stay in dangerous conditions on the Mexican border. But Republicans have welcomed the decision as a way to restore order in the border regions. Mexico has now agreed to accept the policy, known as Remain in Mexico, in exchange for concessions such as a shorter turnaround time for asylum decisions and a US-Mexico development programme for Central America. Mr Biden's administration has kept up one other major Trump-era border policy: Title 42, which allows for the quick expulsion of migrants on public health grounds. Former US President Donald Trump introduced the programme, then known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, to send more than 60,000 asylum applicants back to Mexico. Migrants were often left waiting in Mexico for months, where they sometimes fell prey to criminal gangs. According to charity Human Rights First, there have been more than 1,500 publicly reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture and other abuses against migrants returned to Mexico. Mr Biden suspended the programme almost immediately after taking office, as part of a campaign pledge to reverse hardline immigration policies enacted by his predecessor. In June, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas terminated the policy. But in August, a federal court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, ruled that the policy had been improperly cancelled. The Biden administration is appealing against the decision.White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the president stood by past remarks about the "unjustified human costs" of the programme.

12-3-21 Omicron: Biden tightens travel rules amid new Omicron cases
President Joe Biden has unveiled stricter Covid-19 travel rules as the US confirmed a handful of cases of the Omicron variant from coast to coast. From next week, international travellers to the US, including Americans, must take a Covid test no more than one day before travel, regardless of vaccination status. Those recently recovered may provide "proof of recovery" documents instead. Mask requirements on planes, trains and buses will be extended until mid-March. Millions of free and insurer-funded home tests will also be made available. Ten cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the US: in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York, and in Hawaii, where authorities say that person had no recent travel history. State health officials have reported only mild symptoms in these cases. The variant has now been found up to 30 countries, according to reports. It is still not clear whether Omicron, a highly mutated variant, is associated with more transmission or more risk of evading vaccines. The US is encouraging all adults to get booster vaccines, amid warnings Covid cases will rise this winter. "We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Mr Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. He repeated earlier assurances that the plan "doesn't include shutdowns or lockdowns". Over 40 million Americans have received their Covid boosters, but nearly 100 million more are eligible and have not yet had theirs, the president said. Hundreds of family vaccination clinics will be set up across the country in an attempt to increase vaccination rates among children and teenagers. Officials said private insurers would be obliged to reimburse their 150 million customers for at-home Covid tests they buy, and that 50 million tests would be distributed free to the uninsured through health centres and rural clinics. However, reimbursement for tests does not begin until January, after the holiday period which sees increased travel and indoor mixing.

12-3-21 Why has the UK been so slow to vaccinate children against covid-19?
Compared with other high-income countries, the UK has been slow to approve and roll out covid-19 vaccines to teenagers, prompting concerns over long covid and the new omicron variant. For the first few months of this year, the UK led most other nations in vaccinating as many people against covid-19 as quickly as possible. But the country has been one of the slowest to vaccinate teenagers. News of the omicron variant of the coronavirus prompted the UK to recommend that 12 to 15-year-olds can now have a second vaccine dose three months after their first, but 5 to 11-year-olds remain completely unvaccinated. What is behind the UK’s apparent reticence around vaccinating children? While the UK was a pioneer when it came to vaccinating older adults – it was the first high-income country to approve any covid-19 vaccine – when it comes to children, it is being much slower. The country’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) extended legal approval for use of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to children aged 12 and over in June, in line with many other countries. Places such as the US and Israel started vaccinating this age group in May and June, respectively. However, the UK body that decides on vaccine deployment, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), took until September to conclude that the benefits of the jab for healthy 12 to 15-year-olds “are marginally greater than the potential known harms… [but] the margin of benefit… [is] too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination”. The JCVI said the benefits of vaccination are smaller for children because they are less likely to get seriously ill from covid-19 and the jab carries the risk of the rare side effect of myocarditis, or heart inflammation. Regarding long covid, something that worries many parents, the committee said in August that estimates of symptoms lasting more than eight weeks in children ranged from less than 1 per cent to 10 per cent – with more rigorous studies “generally reporting rates at the lower end of this range”.

12-3-21 Covid-19 news: Range of vaccines show promise as booster shots
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. Three different vaccines lead to big increases in antibody levels when used as boosters. Three covid-19 vaccines given as boosters in a UK trial were safe and provoked strong immune responses, researchers have reported. The study involved 2878 adults aged 30 or over, all of whom previously had two doses of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. They were given booster vaccines 10 to 12 weeks after their second dose. The trial tested seven vaccines as boosters: AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novavax, Janssen, Moderna, Valneva and Curevac. The researchers measured levels of antibodies and T cells in the participants’ blood. The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines all produced strong antibody and T cell responses, regardless of which vaccine had been given for the first two doses. The results suggest that people’s immunity from covid-19 increased, although the study does not yet include data on how well people are protected against infection or disease. A greater proportion of Black and south Asian people are dying with covid-19 than white people in the UK, despite case numbers in the latter group being higher, a study has warned. The final report into covid-19 disparities, produced by the UK Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit, outlines the main risk factors in ethnic minority groups. These include occupation, particularly in the case of frontline workers, and household size, especially for those containing schoolchildren and older relatives. Living in densely populated areas with higher levels of deprivation was also a risk factor. Raghib Ali, the UK government’s independent adviser on covid-19 and ethnicity, said the higher rates of hospitalisation and death for south Asian and Black people almost certainly reflects differences in vaccination rates. There could be more than 230,000 new cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in England as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned. The figure comes from modelling work by the NHS Strategy Unit, forecasting new referrals for PTSD between 2020/21 and 2022/23. Some covid-19 patients who needed hospital care and frontline healthcare staff are thought to be particularly at risk of PTSD. Studies have found that 35 per cent of covid-19 patients put on a ventilator and 40 per cent of intensive care staff report symptoms of PTSD.

12-3-21 South Africa battles Omicron fear and vaccine myths
On the beaches north of Durban, some South Africans are already getting into the holiday mood as the first crowds start arriving for the long summer break. Towards sunset, the bars and restaurants overlooking Ballito's seafront have been filling up fast this week. But the new Omicron variant, now driving a fourth wave of infections through the country, is causing deep concern in this small holiday town in KwaZulu-Natal province - as well as frustration for businesses hit by the new wave of international travel bans. A huge annual party for school leavers, known as Rage, was cancelled in Ballito at the last minute this week. "The new variant? Yes, I'm worried," said Fana Dlamini, 43, loading a bucket with sea water for use in what he said was a religious ceremony. Danilia du Plessis, 29, walking past with her two children, agreed: "I've already had Covid. But we don't know the symptoms of this new variant. So, I'm scared." She was shocked that only a third of adults in South Africa's province of KwaZulu-Natal have so far been vaccinated. Twenty-five-year-old Sanele Shabalala is one of those who has not been jabbed. "My problem is the government. We don't believe in them, or the system," she said. Beside her on a bench, her two sisters nodded in agreement and confirmed that none of them had been vaccinated. They cited false claims of allergic reactions to the jabs that they had read about on social media. "It's so frustrating," said Ivy Kaunda, a community liaison worker with Caprisa, a leading HIV/Aids research institute that has been heavily involved in Covid-19 research too. The emergence of the Omicron variant has prompted health officials in the province to step up campaigns to persuade the public - and in particular younger people - to get vaccinated. Although vaccine supplies have, at times, been haphazard, there is currently no shortage in South Africa. Ms Kaunda and a team of health activists have been walking round Umlazi district, in the green hills south of Durban, trying to engage with local people to convince them to get vaccinated. "Social media is the problem, particularly among young men. They say they've heard that it will affect their sex drive," she said, turning away from a group of builders. One man told her that his family had already been infected and were therefore safe.

12-3-21 Fourteen arrested over spate of Los Angeles smash-and-grab raids
Fourteen people have been arrested over a series of smash-and-grab robberies at retail outlets in Los Angeles in recent weeks, police say. Nearly $340,000 (£256,000) worth of goods were stolen between 18 and 28 November. All of the suspects were released from custody pending trial. Police and city officials called for an end to a bail relaxation policy for some defendants, introduced to prevent jail overcrowding during Covid-19. Police chief Michel Moore said four robberies, six burglaries and one grand theft had been carried out, leading to $338,000 worth of goods being stolen and $40,000 of property damaged. He said one of the suspects was a juvenile and the others had either been bailed or met no-bail criteria. It usually took three to four months for suspects to be arraigned, and criminal elements were capitalising on this situation, the police chief added. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that with Covid infection levels easing it was time for more room to be found in jails and for more judges to put more people in them. "There are people who need to be behind bars," he told reporters on Thursday. we realise?" The November incidents are part of a recent spate of large-scale thefts in California and across the US involving shoplifting by flash mobs or smash-and-grab raids on display cases. Retailers fear the perpetrators face little accountability for their crimes, prompting officials to promise a crackdown on these groups.

12-2-21 When Jesus is used to steal from his flock
To his listeners, William Neil "Doc" Gallagher was known as the "Money Doctor" - a charming financial guru who advertised his services on Christian radio, broadcast all over the American conservative 'Bible Belt' that stretches across North Texas. His adverts often concluded with a familiar slogan: "See you in church Sunday." "Doctor Neil Gallagher is a premier true American, with integrity in all his pursuits," a narrator says in a corporate video posted to YouTube. "His life's passion is to help people retire safe, early and happy." The three-minute video goes on to extol the benefits of the octogenarian's "visionary style", claiming he had guided more than 1,000 people to financial independence through his firm, Gallagher Financial Group, while also publishing a book, "Jesus Christ, Money Master". In reality, Gallagher was anything but. Instead, he was a fraudster who amassed $32m (£24m) in a Ponzi scheme that mostly targeted retired victims between the ages of 62 and 91. In Ponzi schemes, earlier investors generated "returns" by taking money from later investors, who are often promised considerable profits with little risk. These schemes rely on a steady flow of new joiners giving money to those already invested in order to continue. When that doesn't happen, the scam collapses. According to court documents, Gallagher had been defrauding people through a Ponzi scheme since at least 2013. His two companies, Gallagher Financial Group, Inc. and W. Neil Gallagher, Ph.D. Agency, Inc. were ordered shut by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in March 2019. Last month, he was given three life sentences in prison by a judge in Texas' Tarrant County, in addition to a 25-year sentence he had already received in Dallas in March 2020. Gallagher promised his victims returns of between 5% to 8% of their investment annually. Instead, they received nothing, with Gallagher spending most of the funds on personal and company expenses and to make payments to earlier investors. To hide the fraud, he also provided fake account statements showing false balances.

12-2-21 Michigan school shooting: Suspect, 15, charged as an adult
The suspect in a Michigan school shooting will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder following a rampage that left four students dead and seven injured. Prosecutors on Wednesday charged Oxford High School student Ethan Crumbley, 15, as an adult. He has pleaded not guilty. Police are yet to identify a motive in the attack. The victims were named as Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Hana St Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17. Announcing the charges on Wednesday, Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said her office had "a mountain of digital evidence" to show the suspect had planned the attack "well before the incident". One such instance is a video of the suspect the night before the shooting, in which he discusses killing students. "This isn't even a close call," she said. "This was not an impulsive act." She added that it was "absolutely premeditated". Ms McDonald said the teen will face one count of terrorism, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder, and 12 counts of possession of a firearm, with further charges likely as the investigation unfolds. At a later news conference, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said charging the suspect as an adult was "the most appropriate" action. "I agree with holding this individual wholly and completely responsible for the deplorable, tragic event that occurred by his choice," he said. The suspect will be transferred from a juvenile detention centre to the local county jail, where he will be held without bond. The teenager has refused to speak with investigators on the instructions of his family. The sheriff stressed that the teenager had never been on the radar of law enforcement or the school. He also added there was no evidence the suspect had been bullied by his peers. "There is nothing that he could have faced that would warrant senseless, absolutely brutal violence on other kids," said Mr Bouchard. (Webmasters Comment: Try him, convict him, and publicly execute him so he suffers as much as his victims!)

12-2-21 Canadian MPs vote to ban LGBT 'conversion therapy'
Canada's House of Commons has voted unanimously to ban so-called LGBT conversion therapy. The legislation would make it illegal to have a child undergo the practice or have anyone unwillingly undergo it. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals proposed the measure, though its passage prompted applause on both sides of the aisle. The bill must now be approved by the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate. Conversion therapy, which purports to change individuals' sexuality or gender identity, has been widely discredited. The House passed an earlier version of the bill in June, but it failed to clear the Senate before Mr Trudeau called an election in September. In emotional scenes on the House floor on Wednesday, Liberal MPs crossed the aisle to shake hands with and even hug their Conservative counterparts, reports CBC News. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole allowed his caucus to have a free vote on the issue. But unanimous support for the bill caught the other side by surprise, according to Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan. Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, who is also a special adviser to Mr Trudeau on LGBT issues, said: "No one can consent to torture. "It's a great day for survivors, to know that no-one else is going to go through what they went through." Several Conservative MPs had expressed concern the wording of the bill could criminalise private conversations about sexuality or gender identity between children and teachers, religious leaders or mental health professionals. But Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said those objections were unfounded.

12-2-21 Israel PM: Nuclear talks must end over Iran ‘blackmail’ tactics
Israel's prime minister has urged world powers to immediately end nuclear talks with Iran, after it decided to start using advanced machines to enrich uranium at an underground plant. Naftali Bennett warned the US that Iran was "carrying out 'nuclear blackmail' as a negotiation tactic". Iran said diplomats in Vienna "won't take instruction" from Israel. They are trying to save a 2015 deal that curbed Iran's nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. It has been close to collapse since then-US President Donald Trump pulled out and reinstated sanctions three years ago. Iran responded by violating key commitments. Many of them are related to the production of enriched uranium, which is widely used as fuel for nuclear power plants but can also be used in nuclear weapons. President Joe Biden has said the US will rejoin the agreement and lift its sanctions if Iran returns to compliance. But his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, has insisted the US make the first move. Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, rejected the 2015 deal as too limited in scope and duration. Mr Bennett, who became prime minister in June, has made clear his opposition to efforts to revive it. In a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, he referred to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that said Iran had started enriching uranium up to 20% purity with 166 advanced "IR-6" centrifuges at the underground Fordo facility. "The prime minister added that Iran was carrying out 'nuclear blackmail' as a negotiation tactic and that this must be met with an immediate cessation of negotiations and by concrete steps taken by the major powers," a statement from his office said. Under the deal, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% purity that is needed for reactor fuel; to install no more than 5,000 of the oldest and least efficient IR-1 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility; and to halt enrichment altogether at Fordo.

12-2-21 Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai says the Taliban are his brothers
The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has described the Taliban as his "brothers" in an exclusive interview. The BBC's Yalda Hakim also questioned Mr Karzai on when girls and women would be able to return to education and work. He said he had had conversations about this and that the Taliban has agreed they should go back. (Webmasters Comment: They lie like all barbaric savages!)

12-2-21 Covid: South Africa new cases double in 24 hours as Omicron spreads
Health officials say the new coronavirus variant Omicron has now become dominant in South Africa and is driving a sharp increase in new infections. Some 8,500 new Covid infections were registered in the latest daily figures. That is almost double the 4,300 cases confirmed the previous day. By contrast, daily infections were averaging between 200 and 300 in mid-November, a top South African scientist told the BBC. Omicron has now been detected in at least 24 countries around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The full picture in South Africa will not become clear until "people get so sick that they need to go to hospital" which is generally "three, four weeks later," says Prof Salim Abdool Karim of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus. "But the feedback we're getting from the ground is that there's really no red flags - we're not seeing anything dramatically different, what we're seeing is what we are used to," he told the BBC's Newsday programme. South Africa was the first country to report on the highly mutated new variant. Its National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has said more than 70% of all the virus genomes it sequenced last month have been of the new variant. India, Ghana, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the latest countries to have confirmed their first cases of Omicron. Others including the UK, US and Germany have also seen people infected by the new variant. Many questions about Omicron remain to be answered, including how much protection current vaccines provide. The WHO has categorised it as a "variant of concern", and says early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. Earlier this week, countries around the world restricted travel from southern Africa as details of the spread emerged. This prompted South Africa's foreign ministry to complain that it was being punished - instead of applauded - for discovering Omicron.

12-2-21 Covid-19 news: Omicron linked to sharp rise in cases in South Africa
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Omicron has become the dominant variant in South Africa. The omicron variant of the coronavirus is driving a sharp rise in covid-19 infections in South Africa and has rapidly become the dominant variant in the country, health officials have said. Yesterday, South Africa reported 8561 new covid-19 cases, almost double the count from the previous day. The proportion of tests with positive results jumped to 16.5 per cent on Wednesday from 10.2 per cent a day before, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said, a strong indication that the rise in cases is not simply due to increased testing. The NICD said omicron, which was first detected on 8 November, accounted for 74 per cent out of 249 virus genomes it sequenced last month. There is concern that omicron may get around immunity to some extent, but “protection against severe disease and vaccines should be less affected”, the institute’s latest surveillance report said. The UK has approved a new antibody-based drug treatment for covid-19 made by GlaxoSmithKline. The company says initial tests in the lab suggest that it works against the omicron variant. Clinical trial results found that Xevudy (sotrovimab) cuts hospital admission and death by 79 per cent in people at high risk. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has authorised the therapy for people with mild to moderate covid-19 who are at high risk of developing severe disease. The UK government has ordered around 100,000 doses of the drug. Scientists believe they may have found the trigger behind the extremely rare blood clot complications linked to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. A study suggests the reaction can be traced to the way adenoviruses, which are used by the vaccine to shuttle the coronavirus’ genetic material into cells, bind with a protein in the blood known as platelet factor 4 (PF4). Researchers think this may spark a chain reaction in the immune system which can culminate in the development of blood clots – a condition known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT).

12-1-21 Michigan school shooting: Student kills three and wounds eight
A 15-year-old has killed three fellow students and injured eight others, including a teacher, in a high school shooting in the US state of Michigan. The victims have been named as Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Hana St Juliana, 14. Officials say they do not know whether they were targeted. Police allege the suspect, a pupil at the school, used a handgun that his father had bought on Friday. Students have described hiding under desks during the attack. Some students had reportedly stayed at home on Tuesday because of safety concerns. Police received the first emergency calls from the high school in the town of Oxford, about 40 miles (65km) from Detroit, at 12:51 local time (17:51GMT). Within minutes, more than 100 calls had been placed to emergency services. Officials say the suspect surrendered five minutes after police were called when officers confronted the teenager in a school corridor. No shots were fired during the arrest, and the suspect was not injured, police said, adding that he was carrying a semi-automatic handgun that still contained seven rounds of ammunition at the time. The precise sequence of events remains unclear, but police said they believed the youth had carried the weapon into school in a backpack, and had emerged from a bathroom brandishing the gun. Three students died in the attack: two girls, Madisyn Baldwin and Hana St Juliana, and Tate Myre, who died in a local deputy's car before the officer could get him to the hospital. More than 32,000 people have signed an online petition to rename the school's stadium after Tate, who was one of Michigan's most promising young American footballers. Two of the injured were undergoing surgery on Tuesday evening, while the other six were in a stable condition with gunshot wounds. A teacher whose shoulder had a graze wound had been discharged from hospital. Oakland County Sheriff, Mike Bouchard, said that investigators were at a loss to explain what might have precipitated "an unspeakable and unforgivable" act of violence, adding that the suspect was not co-operating with authorities.

12-1-21 CNN's Chris Cuomo suspended over help to governor brother
CNN star Chris Cuomo has been suspended indefinitely over help he gave his ex-New York governor brother while he was battling sex abuse allegations. The decision came after the New York attorney general released new documents that showed the extent of his work for his older sibling, Andrew Cuomo. CNN said the documents show "a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew". Andrew Cuomo resigned in August after prosecutors said he harassed staff. Chris Cuomo's behind-the-scenes efforts to help his politician brother were widely considered a breach of journalistic ethics in the media industry. The thousands of pages release by Attorney General Letitia James on Monday show that the younger Cuomo continuously pressed the governor's staff to let him play a larger role in his brother's defence. "You need to trust me," he texted Melissa DeRosa, the governor's secretary, in March. "We are making mistakes we can't afford," he added. Last year CNN briefly suspended its rule barring Cuomo from covering his brother as New York became the global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. The host began interviewing his brother on air and praising his leadership as governor. The network had previously defended Cuomo, who joined the channel in 2013, amid the controversy surrounding his efforts to help his powerful brother. But CNN said in a statement on Tuesday: "The documents, which we were not privy to before their public release, raise serious questions. "When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother's staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly. "But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second. "However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew."

12-1-21 Tel Aviv named as world's most expensive city to live in
Tel Aviv has been named as the most expensive city in the world to live in, as soaring inflation and supply-chain problems push up prices globally. The Israeli city came top for the first time in a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), climbing from fifth place last year and pushing Paris down to joint second with Singapore. Damascus, in war-torn Syria, retained its place as the cheapest in the world. The survey compares costs in US dollars for goods and services in 173 cities. The EIU said the data it collected in August and September showed that on average prices had risen 3.5% in local currency terms - the fastest inflation rate recorded over the past five years. Transport has seen the biggest price increases, with the cost of a litre of petrol up by 21% on average in the cities studied. Tel Aviv's climb to the top of the EIU's World Cost of Living rankings mainly reflected the soaring value of Israel's currency, the shekel, against the dollar. The local prices of around 10% of goods also increased significantly, especially for groceries. The survey found Tel Aviv was the second most expensive city for alcohol and transport, fifth for personal care items, and sixth for recreation. Tel Aviv's mayor, Ron Huldai, warned in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper that rising property prices - not included in the EIU's calculations - meant the city was heading towards an "explosion". "Tel Aviv will become increasingly more expensive, just as the entire country is becoming more expensive," he said. "The fundamental problem is that in Israel there is no alternative metropolitan centre. In the United States, there is New York, Chicago, Miami and so on. In Britain, there's Greater London, Manchester and Liverpool. There you can move to another city if the cost of living is too onerous."

12-1-21 EU launches €300bn bid to challenge Chinese influence
The EU has revealed details of a €300bn (£255bn; $340bn) global investment plan, described as a "true alternative" to China's Belt and Road strategy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the Global Gateway scheme should become a trusted brand. China has funded rail, roads and ports but has been accused of leaving some countries saddled with debt. The Commission chief said countries need "trusted partners" to design projects that were sustainable. The EU is looking at how it can leverage billions of euros, drawn from member states, financial institutions and the private sector. This will largely take the form of guarantees or loans, rather than grants. Mrs von der Leyen said the EU wanted to show that a different, democratic approach could deliver on projects that focused on tackling climate change as well as global health security and sustainable development for developing countries. Projects had to be of high quality, with a high level of transparency and good governance, and had to deliver tangible results for the countries involved, she explained. One EU official told the BBC that Africa would be a major focus of the scheme. China's strategy has reached into Africa, Asia, the Indo-Pacific and the EU too. China's Cosco company owns two-thirds of the huge Greek container port at Piraeus and the China Road and Bridge Corporation has built a key bridge in Croatia. "When it comes to investment choices," said the Commission president, "the few options that exist too often come with a lot of small print which includes big consequences, be it financially, politically but also socially." Andrew Small, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told the BBC it marked "the first serious effort from the European side to put packages together and figure out financing mechanisms, so countries considering taking loans from China have an alternative option".


277 Atheism News & Humanism News Articles
for December 2021

Atheism News & Humanism Articles for November 2021