The U.S. recorded over 3,200 deaths from COVID-19 Wednesday, even as new cases and hospitalizations remained on the decline. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are taking part in a White House event today to mark the 50 millionth shot of a coronavirus vaccine under their administration — the halfway point in Biden’s promise to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days. Nearly 14% of the U.S. population has now received at least one dose.
The Food and Drug Administration took another step toward granting emergency use authorization to a third COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, announcing that a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine showed 86% efficacy against severe cases of disease in a U.S. trial. An advisory panel of vaccine experts meets Friday to discuss the findings, with the FDA set to authorize the vaccine as early as Saturday. This is White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients.
Jeffrey Zients: “Johnson & Johnson has announced it aims to deliver a total of 20 million doses by the end of March. We’re working with the company to accelerate the pace and time frame by which they deliver the full hundred million doses, which is required by contract by the end of June.”
Moderna says it has produced a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine that offers better protection against a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. The modified vaccine will be tested as both a booster shot and as a primary vaccine, with further plans to test a “mutlivalent” booster that could protect people against multiple variants of coronavirus.
This comes as researchers have identified a new variant in New York City and other parts of the northeastern U.S. that appears to have mutations similar to those seen in South Africa and elsewhere.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Wednesday he will vote to confirm interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland. The move by the pro-fossil fuels Democrat could help Haaland overcome overwhelming Republican opposition to her confirmation as the first-ever Native American cabinet member.
Another Biden nominee — Neera Tanden — appears unlikely to be confirmed to lead the Office of Management and Budget, after Senator Manchin and several key Republicans said they would vote against her. Democratic leaders of three Senate committees have delayed votes on Tanden’s confirmation, without announcing plans to reschedule them.
The Biden administration is releasing the declassified intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The report is based largely on findings by the CIA. Reuters is reporting it will assert Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved and likely ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The White House said Wednesday President Biden would be speaking with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman — rather than the crown prince — about the report.
The Guardian reports more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup. That’s an average of 12 migrant worker deaths per week. Many of the dead were employed on construction sites for the World Cup’s seven new soccer stadiums and massive public works projects tied to the upcoming tournament.
Qatar’s government claims most of the deaths were due to “natural causes,” but workers’ advocates have tied many of them to heat stress from scorching temperatures at worksites, as well as workplace accidents, crowded and unsanitary conditions in labor camps and deaths by suicide.
In 2012, Democracy Now! traveled to Qatar’s capital, Doha, where we spoke with Nepalese labor journalist Devendra Dhungana.
Devendra Dhungana: “They are living in very squalid conditions you couldn’t just believe — 17 people living in one room, 50 people sharing one small kitchen, and there’s no fire extinguisher service there, no running water, and 50 people have to queue up in the morning to use one toilet. … They felt they were under captivity and a kind of modern slavery was there in Qatar, because their passports were seized by the company, and they will not have the right to return home, even in emergency situations, because they are not easily issued the exit papers.”
At least 41 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean after their ship capsized en route from Libya to European shores. The boat had at least 120 people on board. An estimated 17,000 people have died while attempting the treacherous journey since 2014, described by the U.N. as the most dangerous migration route in the world.
Back in the United States, prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola have gone on hunger strike after they were kept in solitary confinement past the end of their disciplinary sentences. The prisoners are being held in unheated 9-by-6-foot cells with only a jumpsuit and a sheet, despite record low temperatures this month. They’re allowed just one hour of outside access per day. United Nations human rights experts have repeatedly said solitary confinement practices in the U.S. amount to torture.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has signed legislation making Illinois the first state to end cash bail payments for people seeking release from jail as they await their day in court. It’s part of a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms signed into law Monday. Illinois state Representative Justin Slaughter called the legislation progress against a “criminal justice system rooted in racism,” in a state where Black people make up 14% of the population but more than half of all prisoners.
Rep. Justin Slaughter: “With this bill, we take aim at our overly punitive sentencing policies. We provide more judicial discretion for mandatory minimums. We offer alternatives to custody. And, of course — and we’re going to be saying it over and over again — we end our unfair cash bail system, a system that relies on one’s financial ability or inability to post bond.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the states of New York, Massachusetts and Virginia are suing the bail bond company Libre by Nexus for predatory practices against jailed immigrants. Libre’s business model consists of paying prisoners’ bonds, then charging exorbitant fees while forcing people to wear electronic tracking bracelets, which New York Attorney General Letitia James called “shackles.” Libre would then recoup the bond when trials started. Libre also threatened borrowers who were not able to repay with deportation or reimprisonment, even though they had no power to do so.
Federal prosecutors have charged former New York City police officer Thomas Webster for assault with a deadly weapon during the January 6 insurrection. Prosecutors say Webster went after a Capitol Police officer “like a junkyard dog — teeth clenched and fists clenched,” beating him with a metal pole and trying to gouge out his eye. Webster is a former U.S. marine and a 20-year veteran of the NYPD who once helped guard City Hall and the mayor’s mansion.
President Biden has reversed the Trump administration’s ban on green cards issued outside the United States. The move paves the way for certain family members to reunify in the U.S. with relatives who are citizens or permanent residents. Biden’s executive order also restores temporary visas to some categories of foreign workers, including highly skilled workers, managers and au pairs.
In more immigration news, lawyers say they have recently found the parents of 105 migrant children who were ripped from their families by the Trump administration. The parents of over 500 separated children still have not been found, and over half of them were likely deported, according to the lawyers.
In Missouri, Honduran immigrant Alex García left a church in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood Wednesday, after spending more than 1,200 days living in sanctuary. The Trump administration had scheduled the married father of five to be deported in 2017. García emerged from sanctuary after freshman Missouri Congressmember Cori Bush introduced a “private bill” to grant him permanent residency.
Here in New York, longtime immigration activist Marco Saavedra has won political asylum, setting a legal precedent for undocumented activists seeking refugee status in the United States. Saavedra was born to an Indigenous family in Oaxaca, Mexico, and brought to the U.S. as a child. He has been involved in several high-profile immigration actions. In 2012, Saavedra purposely got arrested by federal authorities to infiltrate the privately owned Broward Transitional Center in Florida, where he helped organize imprisoned asylum seekers. Marco Saavedra spoke to Democracy Now! in 2019 about his appeal for asylum.
Marco Saavedra: “I would be, for the first time, looking, you know, and being able to plan my life 10 years down the road, and for the first time, actually, feel fully accepted in the only country that I’ve known for most of my life. So I think that it would be monumental. And then I think, more significantly, it would be monumental for the immigrant rights movement that someone with my track history could benefit from this protection and set precedent for other human rights activists that could also benefit from this very severe war that exists in my country with organized crime and drug trafficking, and could hopefully also be seen as worthy of asylum.”