Briefs: First step for emergency vaccine

This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Pfizer and BioNTech say they've won permission Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, for emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, the world’s first coronavirus shot that’s backed by rigorous science -- and a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

Associated Press

"Help is on its way,'' British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC, adding that the situation would start to improve in the spring

The Associated Press

British officials authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Wednesday, greenlighting the world's first shot against the virus that's backed by rigorous science and taking a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic.

The go-ahead for the vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech comes as the virus surges again in the United States and Europe, putting pressure on hospitals and morgues in some places and forcing new rounds of restrictions that have devastated economies.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which licenses drugs in the U.K., recommended the vaccine could be used after it reviewed the results of clinical trials that showed the vaccine was 95% effective overall — and that it also offered significant protection for older people, among those most at risk of dying from the disease. But the vaccine remains experimental while final testing is done. 

"Help is on its way,'' British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC, adding that the situation would start to improve in the spring.

"We now have a vaccine. We're the first country in the world to have one formally clinically authorized but, between now and then, we've got to hold on, we've got to hold our resolve," he said.

Disputing Trump, Barr says no widespread election fraud

WASHINGTON — Disputing President Donald Trump's persistent, baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared the U.S. Justice Department has uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election. 

Barr's comments, in an interview Tuesday with the The Associated Press, contradict the concerted effort by Trump, his boss, to subvert the results of last month's voting and block President-elect Joe Biden from taking his place in the White House.

Barr told the AP that U.S. attorneys and FBI agents have been working to follow up specific complaints and information they've received, but "to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election."

The comments, which drew immediate criticism from Trump attorneys, were especially notable coming from Barr, who has been one of the president's most ardent allies. Before the election, he had repeatedly raised the notion that mail-in voting could be especially vulnerable to fraud during the coronavirus pandemic as Americans feared going to polls and instead chose to vote by mail.

More to Trump's liking, Barr revealed in the AP interview that in October he had appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham as a special counsel, giving the prosecutor the authority to continue to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe after Biden takes over and making it difficult to fire him. Biden hasn't said what he might do with the investigation, and his transition team didn't comment Tuesday. 

'Very dark couple of weeks': Morgues and hospitals overflow

Nearly 37,000 Americans died of COVID-19 in November, the most in any month since the dark early days of the pandemic, engulfing families in grief, filling newspaper obituary pages and testing the capacity of morgues, funeral homes and hospitals.

Amid the resurgence, states have begun reopening field hospitals to handle an influx of patients that is pushing health care systems — and their workers — to the breaking point. Hospitals are bringing in mobile morgues. And funerals are being livestreamed or performed as drive-by affairs.

Health officials fear the crisis will be even worse in coming weeks, after many Americans ignored pleas to stay home over Thanksgiving and avoid people who don't live with them.

"I have no doubt that we're going to see a climbing death toll ... and that's a horrific and tragic place to be," said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "It's going to be a very dark couple of weeks."

November's toll was far lower than the 60,699 recorded in April but perilously close to the next-highest total of almost 42,000 in May, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Deaths had dropped to just over 20,000 in June after states closed many businesses and ordered people to stay at home.

US probing potential bribery, lobbying scheme for pardon

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating whether there was a secret scheme to lobby White House officials for a pardon as well as a related plot to offer a hefty political contribution in exchange for clemency, according to a court document unsealed Tuesday.

Most of the information in the 18-page court order is redacted, including the identity of the people whom prosecutors are investigating and whom the proposed pardon might be intended for. 

But the document from August does reveal that certain individuals are suspected of having acted to secretly lobby White House officials to secure a pardon or sentence commutation and that, in a related scheme, a substantial political contribution was floated in exchange for a pardon or "reprieve of sentence."

A Justice Department official said Tuesday night that no government official was or is a subject or target of the investigation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday night: "Pardon investigation is Fake News!"

Klain to lead Biden White House in return of professionals

WASHINGTON — Ron Klain has checked all the boxes of a classic Washington striver: Georgetown, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk and Capitol Hill staffer, White House adviser and, along the way, of course, lobbyist and lawyer.

Now Klain is preparing to serve as President-elect Joe Biden's chief of staff, a job often referred to as the nation's chief operating officer.

His gilded resume, deep knowledge of the gears and levers of power in the capital and decadeslong association with Biden have also done something unusual in today's Washington: drawn praise from both sides of the ideological divide.

The 59-year-old father of three has a reputation among Democrats and, strikingly, even some Republicans for competence — a notable attribute after an administration that rewarded and dismissed people based on their loyalty to President Donald Trump.

In his new job, Klain will be asked to enforce the president's wishes, catch the spears thrown at him and oversee dozens of other top staffers whose outsize ambition may match his own.

GOP objects to Biden nominees, a sign of what's to come

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks are quickly running into the political reality of a narrowly controlled Senate that will leave the new Democratic administration dependent on rival Republicans to get anything done. 

Under leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican senators will hold great sway in confirming Biden's nominees regardless of which party holds the majority after runoff elections in January. Biden will have little room to maneuver and few votes to spare.

As Biden rolled out his economic team Tuesday — after introducing his national security team last week — he asked the Senate to give his nominees prompt review, saying they "deserve and expect nothing less."

But that seems unlikely. Republicans are swiftly signaling that they're eager to set the terms of debate and exact a price for their votes. Biden's choice for budget chief, Neera Tanden, was instantly rejected as "radioactive." His secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, quickly ran into resistance from GOP senators blasting his record amid their own potential 2024 White House campaigns.

Even as most Republican senators still refuse to publicly acknowledge President Donald Trump's defeat, they are launching new battles for the Biden era. The GOP is suspended between an outgoing president it needs to keep close — Trump can still make or break careers with a single tweet — and the new one they are unsure how to approach. Almost one month since the Nov. 3 election, McConnell and Biden have not yet spoken.

Rage and hope fuel women's revolt over abortion in Poland

WARSAW, Poland — Karolina Micula had used her bare chest in political protest once before.

When Poland's right-wing government first tried to restrict abortion rights, the actress and singer delivered an intense performance onstage in Wroclaw in 2017 that included her spreading paint in the national colors — white and red — onto her breasts and face, ending with a fist raised high.

When the authorities tried again to impose a near-total ban on abortion in October this year, Micula, along with a friend, again stripped to her waist and stood on top of a car at a busy Warsaw intersection during a protest, holding a flare high and giving the middle finger.

"A woman's body is a place of political battle," the 32-year-old said from her Warsaw apartment in an interview. "My gesture meant that I will do with my body whatever I want to do with it. If I want to stand naked in front of people, I will do it, because it's my choice."

Micula's friend had just come from physiotherapy following a double mastectomy and wanted to encourage other protesters by showing her tattooed chest. Theirs is among many taboo-breaking acts by furious women in Poland in the past weeks.

China's space ambitions: robot on Mars, a human on the moon

BEIJING — China's landing of its third probe on the moon is part of an increasingly ambitious space program that has a robot rover en route to Mars, is developing a reusable space plane and is planning to put humans back on the lunar surface.

The Chang'e 5, the first effort to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s, collected samples on Wednesday, the Chinese space agency announced. The probe landed Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon's near side.

Space exploration is a political trophy for the ruling Communist Party, which wants global influence to match China's economic success.

China is a generation behind the United States and Russia, but its secretive, military-linked program is developing rapidly. It is creating distinctive missions that, if successful, could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight. 

The coming decade will be "quite critical" in space exploration, said Kathleen Campbell, an astrobiologist and geologist at The University of Auckland. 

Years after coming out, gay athletes upset by lack of change

BRISBANE, Australia — David Kopay and Ian Roberts live on different sides of the Pacific Ocean. Both took giant leaps of faith when they came out.

And at a time when it had never been done in their sports.

Kopay is a 78-year-old former National Football League running back living in Palm Springs, California and known as the first professional athlete to reveal he was gay. He came out in 1975 after his NFL career ended.

In 1995, Roberts became the first high-profile Australian sports person and first professional rugby player in the world to come out as gay.

Some 45 years after Kopay's open disclosure, and 25 after Roberts', both men are united in their disappointment that a higher proportion of gay athletes haven't come out, and that homophobic language on the sporting fields is still rife.

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