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Thousands stranded at airports in Christmas holiday travel nightmare

Dozens of flights have been canceled across the US on Christmas Eve due to Covid staff shortages with thousands of passengers stuck at the airports and others forced to cancel holidays altogether.

The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation. As a result, we’ve unfortunately had to cancel some flights and are notifying impacted customers in advance of them coming to the airport,” Chicago-based United Airlines said in a statement.

United did not specify how many flights have been affected by Covid-related issues, but according to media reports, about 120 got canceled, with Delta saying that it has canceled 90.

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Anthony Fauci (C) and other White House officials meet with President Joe Biden, in the White House in Washington, DC, December 16, 2021.
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The Atlanta-based Delta said that prior to this decision its teams “have exhausted all options and resources – including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover scheduled flying.”

This follows a call to US authorities by Delta CEO Ed Bastian, who asked to cut quarantine for fully vaccinated people to five days from the current 10. As a reason for his request, he cited Covid-related staff shortages. Earlier, JetBlue and the trade group Airlines for America addressed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with similar requests.

According to an American Automobile Association forecast, more than 109 million people – almost 34% more than in 2020 – “will travel 50 miles or more as they hit the road, board airplanes or take other transportation out of town” between December 23 and January 2. Out of these 109 million, 6.4 million are going to travel by air.

Passengers affected by delays and cancellations took to Twitter to express their frustration over the unfortunate start to the holidays.

My international flight just got canceled 5 hours before I have to leave for the airport. Canceling my family Christmas reunification. The wait to speak to a cust serv rep is 3, 4 hours according to the machine. I need help now. Please,” wrote one of the users tagging Delta airlines.

US congresswoman carjacked at gunpoint

A Democrat member of the US Congress was carjacked and robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight in South Philadelphia. Representative Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pennsylvania) was not physically harmed, but her car and possessions were taken.

Scanlon was walking to a parking lot on Pattison Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, around 2:45pm local time, when she was approached by two armed men who demanded her car keys and personal effects. They took her personal and government-issued cell phones, and drove away in Scanlon’s 2017 Acura, spokesperson Lauren Cox told reporters.

“She’s physically OK, but her vehicle and possessions are gone,” Cox told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The congresswoman, first elected in 2018, was meeting with constituents at nearby FDR Park, over the proposed development plan. The robbery took place just down the road from the Wells Fargo Center, where the Democrats held their 2016 presidential convention.

Chief Inspector Frank Vanore of the Philadelphia Police Department said the two suspects were last seen driving the car toward the southbound I-95 interstate highway. The FBI is assisting the Philadelphia PD with the investigation.

Mayor Jim Kenney, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement he was “appalled to learn of this violent crime that was perpetrated against my friend and congresswoman.”

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© Getty Images / Paul Bradbury
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“Everyone deserves to feel safe in our city, and sadly, as we know, that hasn’t always been the case this year. It’s disheartening, and quite frankly infuriating, that criminals feel emboldened to commit such a reckless crime in the middle of the day in what should be a place of tranquility and peace – one of Philadelphia’s beautiful parks,” Kenney added.

The attack on Scanlon comes amid a surge in violent crime in the city of some 1.5 million residents, where the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776. Philadelphia had recorded 521 homicides in 2021 earlier this month, shattering its previous record set in 1990. 

Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner, a civil rights activist backed by Democrat mega-donor George Soros, as district attorney in 2017. Since then, Krasner has worked to abolish cash bail and prosecuted a record number of police officers for alleged misconduct, while “dramatically” reducing prosecution for “minor” crimes such as retail theft and prostitution.

Scanlon has campaigned with other congressional Democrats to “dismantle systems of hate, hold law enforcement officers accountable, and push for the adoption – and use – of unbiased policing practices,” according to her official website

Amazon limits Covid test kit purchases amid Omicron wave

Amazon has announced a limit to the number of at-home Covid test kits per customer as demand surges amid a rise in cases since the discovery of the Omicron variant. Walgreens and CVS also introduced purchase limits.

Online retail giant Amazon revealed on Wednesday that the company and its vendors are experiencing inventory shortages for Covid tests as demand rises amid more people traveling for the holidays. Purchases will now be limited to 10 tests per shopper. 

Testing kits sold through vendors have also been capped, though these decisions are made by the third-party sellers, Amazon said. 

A surge in home testing for Covid infections amid Omicron fears has also led to Walgreens and CVS putting purchase caps on such kits. Shortages across the nation also led to President Joe Biden announcing recently that the federal government would be investing in making 500 million testing kits available to the public. 

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(FILE PHOTO) © REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham
Study estimates risk of Omicron causing severe disease

Walgreens announced this week that customers are limited to four test kits each, while CVS has capped purchases at six per customer. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky urged calm in a Wednesday interview when addressing the latest coronavirus variant, which she says has a “rapid” rate of transmission. 

“We have vaccines. We have boosters, and we have all the science that demonstrates the prevention interventions like masking in indoor settings work to mitigate the spread of this virus,” she said, adding there “is really no need to panic.”

Omicron was first identified by scientists in South Africa last month and has since been confirmed in multiple countries, including the US, where it has become the dominant coronavirus strain. 

After Trump’s move, White House says Biden to speak on Jan 6

President Joe Biden will make a public statement on the anniversary of the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, the White House said. This comes after former President Donald Trump said he would hold a public event on that day.

“I think it's safe to say that the American people will hear from him on that day,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing on Wednesday, when asked if Biden would speak.

Psaki said last week that Biden wanted to commemorate “one of the darkest days in our democracy,” but could give no details at that point as to what specifically he might do.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said on Monday she was planning a “solemn observance” of the anniversary, featuring a panel of historians, a “prayerful vigil,” and an opportunity for members of Congress to “share their experiences and reflections from that day,” even though the House is not scheduled to be in session.

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FILE PHOTO
Trump announces event on Capitol riot anniversary

On Tuesday, Trump said he would hold a news conference at his residence, the Mar-a-Lago Club, in Florida, to address what he called a protest against the “rigged election.” While the Democrats have called the January 6 events an “insurrection,” Trump said the actual insurrection “took place on November 3,” the 2020 election day.

On January 6, the House of Representatives and the Senate met in a joint session to certify the 2020 election results, according to which Biden won the presidency. Trump alleged irregularities and fraud, giving a speech outside the White House earlier in the day. 

After a group of people urged his supporters to storm the Capitol, hundreds of people entered the building and disrupted Congress just as Republicans began objecting to the election results. Four of the protesters died in the ensuing riot – one of them fatally shot by a Capitol Police officer. When Congress reconvened later that evening, Republicans dropped their objections to the election results amid Democrat accusations of “insurrection.”

None of the participants in the riot have been charged with insurrection, which is a specific term in the 14th Amendment – adopted after the Civil War – under which those declared rebels against the government can be stripped of citizenship and voting rights.

First Covid-19 pill treatment approved for emergency use in US

Pfizer’s Paxlovid tablets against Covid have been given emergency use authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The first pill treatment of this kind, it can be prescribed to high-risk patients aged 12 and older.

“Today’s authorization introduces the first treatment for [Covid]-19 that is in the form of a pill that is taken orally – a major step forward in the fight against this global pandemic,” said Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The combination of nirmatrelvir and ritonavir packaged for oral use will be available to treat mild-to-moderate Covid-19 in people who test positive and are at “high risk for progression to severe” disease, including hospitalization or death, the FDA said on Wednesday.

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FILE PHOTO. © Reuters / Merck & Co Inc
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The drug is available by prescription only, and should be taken as soon as possible after diagnosis, and within five days of the onset of symptoms. It is not authorized for pre-exposure or post-exposure prevention, however, nor is it considered a substitute for vaccination.

According to the agency, the treatment is meant to last no longer than five days and consists of three pills: two tablets of nirmatrelvir and one of ritonavir taken twice daily. Nirmatrelvir is intended to stop the virus from replicating, and ritonavir slows the first drug’s breakdown to enable it to last longer.

While there are “no adequate, approved, and available alternatives” to Paxlovid, the FDA does warn that there are possible side effects. In addition to a risk of “impaired sense of taste, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and muscle aches,” there is potential for “significant” drug interactions with certain HIV medications. Paxlovid is also not recommended for people with liver and kidney impairments, as ritonavir may cause liver damage. The FDA has published a full list of potential drug interactions in a guide for healthcare providers.

The approval is based on a double-blind clinical trial of patients who had not been vaccinated or previously contracted Covid-19. According to the study, Paxlovid reduced Covid-related hospitalization or death by 88% compared to the placebo. 

The White House has already announced it has purchased 10 million doses of the Paxlovid treatment, as well as three million doses of Merck’s Lagrevio, a molnupiravir-based pill, which is also expected to get the green light from the FDA this week.

Twitter sued, accused of acting ‘on behalf’ of US govt

Former New York Times reporter and outspoken critic of the US response to the Covid pandemic Alex Berenson is suing Twitter for suspending his account, claiming the platform “acted on behalf of the federal government.

In the lawsuit, filed this week in the Northern District of California, Berenson accused Twitter of breach of contract and of violating his First Amendment rights.

The alleged breach of contract stems from the fact that Berenson claims a Twitter executive had repeatedly assured him that he would be free to express his views on the platform without fear of retaliation. 

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FILE PHOTO. Vaccination in Rome, Italy. ©REUTERS / Guglielmo Mangiapane
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“Despite the controversy around his statements, a senior Twitter executive repeatedly assured Mr. Berenson that the company backed his right to free expression and that he would continue to enjoy access to the platform,” Berenson’s lawyers said in the suit. 

The independent reporter and best-selling author was reportedly suspended from Twitter in August over a tweet questioning whether Covid vaccines could actually prevent infection and transmission of the virus, referring to them as “therapeutic” drugs. A Twitter spokesperson at the time said Berenson was permanently suspended for “repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation rules.”

In the tweet, Berenson wrote: “It doesn’t stop infection. Or transmission. Don’t think of it as a vaccine. Think of it – at best – as a therapeutic with a limited window of efficacy and terrible side effect profile that must be dosed IN ADVANCE OF ILLNESS.”

Berenson argues the platform acted on behalf of the Biden administration in censoring his posts, as the president himself had criticized “misinformation” about Covid spreading on social media only days before the author’s suspension. 

He is also claiming in his lawsuit that a California law applying to “common carriers” applies to Twitter. The legislation, dating back to 1872, regulates companies that “offer to the public to carry persons, property, or messages.”

Berenson’s lawyers argue the legislation is relevant to the suit as the “courts have repeatedly applied the 1872 law to telephone companies and other technologies that did not exist at the time it was enacted,” adding that Twitter does not have the publishing freedom typically afforded due to the common carrier law.

Berenson has drawn the ire of some political activists and health officials for his views on the pandemic. The author has criticized media coverage of Covid-19 and its lethality, as well as government lockdowns and vaccine mandates. The Atlantic dubbed him “the pandemic’s wrongest man” in April. 

Berenson is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a reinstatement of his Twitter account. 

Trump reveals why he didn’t pardon Snowden or Assange

Former President Donald Trump has said he was “very close to going the other way” on issuing a pardon for Julian Assange or Edward Snowden before he left the White House, ultimately deciding not to grant clemency to either.

During an interview with the Daily Wire’s Candace Owens this week, Trump was asked why he failed to issue pardons to WikiLeaks co-founder Assange and National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Snowden, which activists had been pushing for in the president’s final months in office. 

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WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain January 13, 2020. © Reuters / Henry Nicholls
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“You have two sides of it,” Trump said. He described their separate situations as, respectively, a “sort of a spy deal going on” and “somebody that’s exposing real corruption,” but without indicating which description applied to which person, concluding only that he felt “a little bit more strongly about one than the other.”

Media reports earlier this year indicated Trump had been convinced by aides that an Assange or a Snowden pardon would upset Senate Republicans, who were gearing up to vote in his impeachment trial at the time. He also appeared to negatively reference Assange and “spying” at one point, though he did not elaborate.  

“There [were] some spying things, and there [were] some bad things released that really set us back and really hurt us with what they did,” he said, according to the Daily Wire. It was alleged during the opening stages of Assange’s extradition hearing in London last year that the journalist had been offered a pardon in exchange for spinning the origin of hacked Democratic emails sent during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

The White House denied the claim and said the president “barely” knew the Republican congressman through which the deal had allegedly been offered. The congressman, in turn, said he had made the proposal on his own initiative and the White House had not endorsed it.

Trump said he had ultimately decided to let the issue be handled in the courtroom. “I guess the courts are actually doing that,” he said. 

Assange is currently being held in a UK prison, from where it was recently ruled he can be extradited to the US to stand trial on espionage charges for having published documents related to alleged US war crimes during the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. He faces up to 175 years in prison if convicted. His mental and physical health has deteriorated during his 20 months of incarceration, and he recently suffered a stroke. 

Snowden, who has remained a fugitive from the US since whistleblowing on the NSA for unconstitutional spying on the American public in 2013, seemed a more likely candidate for a presidential pardon. The former president said last year he was “looking” at Snowden’s case, noting that many felt he had “not been treated fairly.” This about-face surprised many commentators, given that Trump had previously referred to the former NSA contractor as a “spy who should be executed.”

The average Joe will lose 2 years of life

US life expectancy in 2020 has suffered an almost two-year drop, with the pandemic being one of the main drivers of excess death, newly released official data has shown.

Life expectancy for the US population in 2020 was 77.0 years, a decrease of 1.8 years from 2019,” reads the report from US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Covid-19 became the third leading cause of death in 2020, with heart disease and cancer remaining the top two leading causes. According to CDC figures, coronavirus was “the underlying cause of death” of 350,831 people, the equivalent of 10.4% of the total number of deaths in 2020. Death rates in 2020 increased for all age groups over 15.

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© Getty Images / Marcos del Mazo
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In a separate analysis, based on historical censuses and annual population estimates, the US Census Bureau reported that the country’s population “grew at a slower rate in 2021 than in any other year since the founding of the nation”: by just 392,665, or 0.1%.

The year 2021 is the first time since 1937 that the US population grew by fewer than one million people, featuring the lowest numeric growth since at least 1900, when the Census Bureau began annual population estimates,” reads the report.

According to Census Bureau demographer Kristie Wilder, population growth “has been slowing for years” due to lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, while mortality rates keep rising because of the aging of the population.“Now, with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this combination has resulted in a historically slow pace of growth,” she added.

Billionaire quits church over LGBTQ & women's rights

One of the wealthiest people in the US, the $5.2 billion-worth tech executive Jeff T. Green, has announced his split from the Mormon Church which, in his words, is “actively and currently doing harm in the world”.

In a letter to the church’s president Russell M. Nelson, Green claimed that the Mormon church had “hindered global progress in women’s rights, civil rights and racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, which broke the story, the 44-year-old billionaire and CEO of the Trade Desk advertising platform, had donated $600 000 to Equality Utah, with half of this grant aiming to support LGBTQ students in Utah. In November Green pledged to give at least 90% of his wealth to charities.

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FILE PHOTO: LDS Conference Centre in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., January 11, 2018. © REUTERS/Mike Blake
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While I left the Mormon church more than a decade ago – not believing, attending, or practicing – I have not officially requested the removal of my records, until now,” Green stated in his letter to Nelson.The businessman cited the financial policy of the church as another reason for his increased antipathy.

He claimed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, having accumulated more than $100 billion, “should be doing more to help the world and its members with its wealth” rather than to “build temples, build shopping malls” or to fund investment funds and “own mortgage-backed securities”.

After today, the only contact I want from the church is a single letter of confirmation to let me know that I am no longer listed as a member,” he wrote.

Green is joined in his move by 11 family members and by a friend.There has been no reaction from the church’s President Nelson so far.

The Mormon Church claims to have over 16.5 million members around the world, with almost 31 000 congregations.

Military medics tout new vaccine to end Covid-19 pandemic

A candidate vaccine that uses a novel platform and may be good enough to deal with existing and emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 viruses, will reportedly be announced soon by researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute in the US.

The unveiling may come “within weeks,” according to Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of Walter Reed’s infectious diseases branch, who was interviewed by Defense One. According to the military publication, the candidate vaccine may offer a single-shot, wide-scale immunity from diseases caused by human coronaviruses, including from future mutations.

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US President Joe Biden speaks about the country's fight against Covid-19 at the White House, December 21, 2021.
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The formula uses a novel Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) platform. Ferritins are natural proteins shaped like globular cages that are normally used by an organism to store iron. Its self-assembly properties have made it an interesting tool for nanofabrication applications. 

In the case of vaccination, the protein’s 24 subunits can be fitted with protein spikes similar to those that viruses use to attach to living cells before infecting them. Such nanoparticles may be injected to train the immune system to fight against real viruses. With various kinds of spike proteins included in the same vaccine, it can immunize against a wide range of viruses, past and future, the researchers hope.

Modjarrad’s team says it has good expectations about the efficacy and other properties of their SpFN vaccine-in-waiting, after conducting clinical trials with animals. Their latest publication in Science Translational Medicine details experiments they conducted on rhesus macaques. A separate, Phase 1 human trial has been underway since April.

The challenge with the human trials, Modjarrad told Defense One, was and remains finding people who are still unvaccinated and never caught Covid-19 for the studies to be accurate. He added that his team also wants to evaluate their product “in the real-world setting” with people who were vaccinated or who’ve recovered from the disease.