The Weekly National News Roundup | Shlomo Rudman

FDA Approves 2 Anti-Covid Pills – US health regulators authorized Pfizer’s and Merck’s COVID-19 pills, the first antiviral drugs to fight infections to gain such approval in the US. The Pfizer treatment was found to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by 89% in a large-scale trial. Company officials say it is likely to be effective against the omicron variant, as it targets proteins that help the virus replicate.

Meant to be taken shortly after an infection begins, the treatments are viewed as a significant tool in battling the virus in at-risk populations and eventually lower-income countries where vaccines are not readily available. The drugs are also cheaper and easier to administer than monoclonal antibodies, a separate method of battling COVID-19 infections, which are now in short supply.

New COVID-19 cases per day in the US have spiked dramatically in recent days, while current hospitalizations—which lag infection rates—have plateaued around 60,000 total patients.

In related news, a pair of studies backed preliminary data suggesting the omicron variant is causing less severe symptoms. A Scottish analysis of 5.4 million people found the risk of hospitalization with omicron to be two-thirds lower than the delta variant, while a South African study put the reduction closer to 70% to 80%.

Manchin Blocks Build Back Better – Sen. Joe Manchin said Sunday he would not support the Biden administration’s $1.75T social and climate spending plan. The statements likely doom the current version of the bill, which was expected to be a party-line vote requiring the support of all 50 Democrats in the evenly divided chamber.

Framed as an investment in soft infrastructure, the package included $585B for universal pre-K and paid family leave, $555B in clean energy investments, and more. Manchin, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, has long raised concerns about the bill, most notably that the estimates did not reflect the bill’s true cost, as many key provisions have expiration dates that may ultimately be extended.

It’s unclear whether the administration will continue negotiating with Manchin on the package in the new year. In related news, an enhanced child tax credit is set to expire in January.

Pfizer: 2-Dose Vaccines for Toddlers Doesn’t Work – Biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer is exploring the benefits and risks of a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine in children aged two to five, after early results showed a two-shot regimen of reduced dosages failed to stimulate sufficient immune response. The company said it still plans to seek emergency use authorization in the age group in the first half of 2022.

The doses in the trials are one-tenth of the amount given to adults. Children aged five to 11 receive one-third of the amount of an adult dose; an estimated 20% of that age group has received at least one shot.

Separately, US health officials recommended unvaccinated students remain in school after exposure if they test negative for the virus. Vaccinated students are not recommended to self-isolate.

Biden to Send Covid Tests Directly to Homes – The Biden administration announced it would purchase 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests, making them available at no cost for Americans in an effort to counter a surge in new coronavirus cases. The tests will reportedly become available in January and can be ordered via a to-be-launched website. The move came one day after health officials revealed the omicron variant now accounts for an estimated 73% of new cases reported in the US.

US Population Growth Slows – The US Census Bureau says population growth dropped to its lowest rate in the nation’s history between July 2020 and July 2021. The country’s population grew by only 0.1%, or an additional 392,665 people—the first time it grew by fewer than 1 million people since 1937. Analysts say the first year of the pandemic saw decreased immigration, lowered the pregnancy rate, and killed hundreds of thousands of residents. The overall total population was just under 332 million.

The data also revealed that the number of immigrants to the US (245,000) was higher than the natural increase (148,000)—the number of births over deaths—for the first time in the nation’s history. Immigrants account for 14.2% of the US population as of November 2021.

Overall, 33 states saw an increase in population, while 17 states and the District of Columbia decreased.

Biden Admin Delays Resumption of Student Loan Debt Payments – The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will extend its moratorium on student loan payments until May 1, citing the ongoing pandemic. The current pause would have expired on Jan. 31, when millions of borrowers were set to resume payments after a nearly two-year hiatus. The move is a reversal of the administration’s previous stance. The White House said in August that the extension until Jan. 31 would be the final pause on federal student loan payments.

Congress Passes Uyghur Slave Labor Bill –  In a rare bipartisan compromise, the Senate unanimously passed a bill punishing the Chinese government for its genocide of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities — and agreed to hold a vote later on Thursday to confirm Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China. The Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, signed into law by President Biden on Thursday, bans all imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang unless the U.S. government determines with “clear and convincing evidence” that they were not made with forced labor.

Human rights activists say the bill will impose the first substantive costs the Chinese government has ever faced for its atrocities in Xinjiang — and could set a precedent for other countries to follow suit.

Kim Potter Found Guilty – A Minneapolis jury on Thursday convicted former police officer Kim Potter on all charges she faced for fatally shooting Black motorist Daunte Wright this year — with a gun, not her Taser. Potter, a former Brooklyn Center officer, showed no emotion as the Hennepin County jury found her guilty of first-degree manslaughter, meaning she improperly used “such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable.” She said she accidentally killed Wright by shooting him with her Glock when she meant to fire her Taser.

Jurors also found Potter guilty of second-degree manslaughter, which required a finding of only “culpable negligence” that created “unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”

Potter, 49, who faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, is scheduled for sentencing Feb. 18.

EPA Readies New Vehicle Gas Efficiency Standards – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finalizing new vehicle emissions requirements through 2026 that reverse former President Donald Trump’s rollback of car pollution cuts and will speed a U.S. shift to more electric vehicles.

In August, President Joe Biden’s administration proposed undoing the Trump-era action easing requirements imposed during the presidency of Barack Obama. The new rule finalized Monday is tougher than EPA’s August proposal or requirements issued by Obama.

If expressed in miles per gallon (mpg) requirements, the EPA rules would result in a fleetwide average of about 40 mpg in 2026, versus 38 mpg under the August proposal and 32 mpg under the Trump rules.

Revolutionary Telescope to Launch Tomorrow – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch Saturday, a highly anticipated deployment that has seen multiple delays due to inclement weather. The craft, jointly developed with the European and Canadian Space Agencies, is the largest and most complex space telescope ever built and is viewed as the successor to the Hubble Telescope.

Unlike observatories on Earth, space telescopes detect wavelengths otherwise absorbed by the atmosphere. Among other studies, the craft will collect infrared signals emanating from some of the universe’s most distant galaxies—an ability that effectively allows it to look back in time. Astrophysicists expect the results to reveal new insights into the early formation of the universe.

$100 Billion-Plus in Pandemic Relief Funds Stolen – The U.S. Secret Service named a pandemic fraud recovery coordinator Tuesday, saying stolen benefits are nearing $100 billion. Roy Dotson, formerly assistant special agent in charge of the Jacksonville, Fla., field office will assume the role. The Secret Service is using its Cyber Fraud Task Forces to partner with federal, state, local and tribal governments, law enforcement and others to deal with pandemic funds fraud. Over two years, the Secret Service has seized over $1.2 billion in fraudulent Covid-19 relief money.

988 Mental Health Hotline Readies for Launch – The Department of Health and Human Services announced it would launch the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July. The new 988 number will work just like 911, but for mental health crises. To facilitate its launch, federal officials will set aside $282M to transition to the three-digit help line from the national 10-digit number—$177M to improve and expand current operations and telephone infrastructure and $105M to increase call center staff.

Trained counselors at more than 180 centers will be available over phone, text, or chat, providing support and necessary services to those in need. The 10-digit number has received more than 20 million calls since it was launched in 2005.

The news comes as the US is suffering from a nationwide mental health crisis, with suicide being the second-leading cause of death in young adults and 10th in the nation overall. More than 10.7 million adults reported serious suicidal thoughts in 2021, increasing more than 460,000 from last year.

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