The head of the World Health Organization has again warned rich nations against administering booster shots widely, until people in poor countries have access to vaccines. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday about 20% of the world’s vaccine supply is being used for booster shots.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic rather than ending it, by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved emergency use of the first oral medication against COVID-19. The pill was developed by Pfizer and is marketed as Paxlovid. In a clinical trial, the drug cut the risk of hospitalization or death by nearly 90% in people who received it within five days of the onset of symptoms. The drug is in short supply and will initially only be used to treat people 12 and up who are at high risk of severe disease.
Meanwhile, U.S. hospitals are warning of shortages of monoclonal antibody treatments. If administered soon after infection, monoclonals can dramatically cut the risk of severe illness or death, but two of the three therapies available in the U.S. appear to be useless against the Omicron variant, with only one — produced by GlaxoSmithKline — able to neutralize the virus.
A New York man who joined the far-right Proud Boys organization at the January 6 Capitol insurrection has pleaded guilty to charges of obstructing Congress and conspiring to obstruct law enforcement. As part of a plea deal, 34-year-old Matthew Greene of Syracuse has disavowed the Proud Boys and will help the FBI in its investigation. Greene told investigators he helped program hand-held radios used by the Proud Boys to coordinate their assault on the Capitol. Greene is the first Proud Boys member to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge.
Meanwhile, the House committee investigating the Capitol riot has asked Ohio Republican — and Trump ally — Jim Jordan to appear before the committee. The committee says Jordan spoke to Trump at least once on the day of the insurrection and may have been involved in organizing or planning actions and strategies around January 6.
The New York Times is reporting the FBI sent surveillance teams to infiltrate racial justice and anti-police brutality protests in Portland, Oregon, starting in July 2020. The FBI agents, who were originally deployed to protect Portland’s federal courthouse, quickly widened the scope of their mission. Undercover agents participated in demonstrations, tailed vandalism suspects and secretly recorded video of activists.
The U.S. is relaxing restrictions on sending aid to Afghanistan, where the humanitarian and economic crises are becoming increasingly dire. The U.S. this week backed a U.N. Security Council resolution which exempts most humanitarian assistance from sanctions linked to the Taliban.
Calls are also mounting for the Biden administration to unfreeze billions of dollars of Afghan assets to avert widespread starvation and a “humanitarian collapse.” On Monday, 46 House Democrats wrote in a joint letter to President Biden, “We fear, as aid groups do, that maintaining this policy could cause more civilian deaths in the coming year than were lost in 20 years of war.”
On Tuesday, protesters in Kabul rallied with banners reading “Let us eat” and “Give us our money.”
In Sudan, the U.N. called for an investigation after receiving 13 reports of rape and gang rape by security forces and two deaths linked to Sunday’s massive protest against the military coup. Sudanese people have been taking to the streets since October 25, when the military toppled a power-sharing arrangement between Sudan’s military and civilian leaders.
Greece’s Coast Guard said Wednesday at least three people were confirmed dead and up to 50 remain missing after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. Rescuers were able to pull 12 survivors out of the water; they were hospitalized with hypothermia. The Missing Migrants Project estimates that, since 2014, more than 23,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe.
President Biden said Wednesday his administration will extend a moratorium on student loan payments due to the surging COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the U.S. economy.
President Joe Biden: “Folks, our economic recovery is the strongest in the world. But I know that because of the pandemic, many borrowers need more time to resume payments. For that reason, my administration is extending the pause on student loans repayments for 90 more days, through May 1, 2022.”
Biden had been resisting demands by progressives to extend the payment freeze, which was set to end on February 1, amid heavy lobbying by the companies that manage federal student loans. On Twitter, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applauded Biden’s change of course and added, “Next step: cancellation.”
In Texas, emergency crews responded to reports of an explosion and fire overnight at a Houston-area oil refinery. At least four people were injured in the blast at the ExxonMobil plant in Baytown. So far, local authorities have not ordered residents to shelter in place or evacuate.
The Justice Department said Louisiana-based Taylor Energy has agreed to pay $43 million in damages and turn over a $432 million clean-up trust fund for an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that has been spilling since 2004. The leak started after Hurricane Ivan caused a 40-story oil-drilling platform to collapse. Taylor Energy also agreed to drop legal challenges to government clean-up orders over the longest-running spill in U.S. history, though it will not have to admit liability as part of the settlement. A federal judge still has to approve the deal.
New York City has divested $3 billion of retirement funds from fossil fuels. More city pension funds will be divested from big polluters in the coming months. Outgoing New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, “Today is a major victory for our planet, our children, and our pensioners. [This] is proof-positive that environmental and fiscal responsibility go hand in hand.”
In Alabama, Amazon workers at the Bessemer warehouse are speaking out after two of their colleagues died on the job within hours of each other last month. One of them was denied sick leave before succumbing to a fatal stroke. This is Amazon worker Isaiah Thomas speaking to the outlet More Perfect Union.
Isaiah Thomas: “He had gone to HR and said, ’I’m not feeling so well. Can I please go home?” because, you know, a lot of folks, even myself, we don’t even have enough UPT, which is unpaid time off. Right? And if you go negative, they’ll get rid of you like that. And so a lot of people are terrified of that. And this dude, he didn’t have enough to go home. … And so, they’re effectively telling him, ’It’s either you go home and lose your job or you just stay here and keep working through the pain.’”
Amazon workers told More Perfect Union six people have died at the warehouse this year but that Amazon is trying to stop their stories from being told.
Oscar shortlists were announced this week. Among the documentaries is “Takeover” by Emma Francis-Snyder, which follows the 12 historic hours on July 14, 1970, when members of the Young Lords Party took over the rundown Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx to demand better healthcare. The Young Lords were a radical group founded by Puerto Ricans modeled on the Black Panther Party. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, a co-founder of the Young Lords, helped organize the action. Click here to see our interview with the filmmaker and Juan González.