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The impact of the storm in Texas could lead to more cases of the virus, experts say.

More than a week after a powerful winter storm hit Texas, some experts say the conditions – which have forced hundreds of people across the state to huddle in homes, cars and shelters to warm – could lead to an increase in coronavirus cases.

The devastating storm nearly collapsed the state’s electricity grid, leaving millions of people in dark, unheated homes in some of the freezing temperatures in state history.

Reporting of coronavirus cases dropped precipitously for a week in Texas during the storm and then increased sharply again in the week since, so it is still too early to discern a specific growth or decline in the number of cases there. . But experts say conditions created during the storm have raised concerns.

“It’s possible to see a recovery from the Texas storm,” said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. “We had a lot of things against us,” Dr Jetelina said, noting that she, like many others, had to move from house to house when she lost power.

People stood in long queues to buy water and food at grocery stores and food distribution sites, spent the night in warming centers, and crashed with friends and family during that the electricity was going out and that pipes were bursting in their houses.

While it is not known how many people are still displaced by the storm, reports from various cities suggest that thousands of people across Texas may have been forced to seek shelter.

In Fort Worth, nearly 200 people took refuge in a convention center. In Dallas, a convention center housed about 650 people, the Texas Tribune reported, and a site in Houston had nearly 800 people, while 500 people lived in emergency shelters in Austin, officials said. Even in Del Rio, a smaller town, officials reported nearly 40 people were to stay at the city’s warming center.

“There are very real possibilities that the coronavirus had events of wide spread or that it was more easily transmitted because people were congregated inside for long periods of time,” said Dr Jetelina. “It’s a little worrying.”

But cases could also go the other way, she said, as millions of people were forced to stay at home as work and school were largely canceled. With the data reporting delay, it is still too early to tell, she noted, so the full impact of the Texas storm on the number of cases will not be known for at least one. week. Even then, said Dr Jetelina, it will be difficult to say whether an increase in cases is linked to the storm or to new, more contagious variants – or a combination of the two.

Although the average rate of new daily cases reported in Texas has returned to pre-storm levels, it remains about half of what it was in January.

This wider drop reflects the decline in cases nationwide in recent weeks, as the daily average of new cases in the United States hovers around 70,000 – well below its high of 250,000 last month .

Stories of people coming together in desperate search for heat and water were ubiquitous throughout Texas.

In San Antonio, Diana Gaitan had more water and electricity than her relatives. So several of them ended up crashing into her home, she said while waiting in a food distribution line at the San Antonio food bank last weekend. At one point, there were a dozen people spending the night at Ms. Gaitan’s home.

“We were all stuck inside the house,” she said.

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Climate threats could lead to sharp increases in insurance costs this year

Earlier efforts to increase flood insurance rates have been delayed or canceled in the face of public pressure. In 2012, Congress passed a law that would have brought rates in line with all of the risks people face; two years later, lawmakers backed off, replacing those changes with more modest increases.

FEMA’s new flood insurance system has raised similar concerns. The new tariffs were originally supposed to go into effect last October, but members of Congress have warned FEMA about the effect the increases would have on their constituents. The Trump administration has delayed the new rates until this year, partly fearing that the increase in premiums shortly before the election will politically harm President Trump, according to a person familiar with the talks.

According to Roy Wright, who ran the insurance program until 2018, the agency could theoretically find ways to further mitigate those rate increases. For example, FEMA could decide that insurance premiums should be tied to a structure rather than a homeowner, so annual limits on price increases would still be in effect even if the home changed owners.

And experience suggests that home values ​​continue to rise in the most desirable coastal areas despite rising insurance costs, Wright said, as people’s desire to live near water doesn’t is often unaffected by whether it makes financial sense.

“Is that going to drive down property values?” said Wright, who now heads the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a research group. “In attractive real estate markets, we haven’t seen this.”

Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a research organization in Washington that advocates market-based policies, said the government cannot ignore the financial burden faced by people who already live in flood-prone homes. .

But rather than protect these people by keeping insurance rates low, Mr Lehrer argued that Congress should offer direct subsidies, and only for low-income people who would otherwise have difficulty staying at home. Everyone, he said, should bear the full cost of the risk they face.

“We are subsidizing people to live in areas that were dangerous when they moved there and which have become more dangerous,” said Lehrer.

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Why does Louisiana consistently lead the nation in murder?

For 31 consecutive years, Louisiana has reported the highest murder rate in the country.

To solve this puzzle, let’s first consider a larger pattern in the South: a history of violence that goes back even further.

A New York Times article in 1998 pointed to “a discrepancy that has persisted as long as records have been kept” in which “the former slave states of the old Confederation all rank in the top 20 states for murder, led by Louisiana, with a rate of 17.5 murders per 100,000 people in 1996. ”

A study of court records from 1800 to 1860 found that the murder rate in South Carolina was four times that of Massachusetts. Over a century later, in 1996, the ratio was similar. And in 2018, the murder rate was 7.7 per 100,000 in South Carolina and 2.0 in Massachusetts – again, about four times that.

In the 1800s, the South tended to have more “border justice”, in which people took justice into their own hands, as well as more “honor justice”, in which signs of disrespect could evolve towards fatal encounters like duels.

A common theme between this high rate of white violence, and later the high rate of black violence in the same region, seems to be a criminal justice system seen as untrustworthy. People tend not to participate in a system that they don’t trust, fueling retribution cycles outside the law. Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettoside” describes black Americans as both under-controlled (not enough effort to solve the murders) and over-controlled (for minor offenses).

Criminologists exercise caution in inferring causation. For example, there is no consensus on the main reason for the significant drop in crime in the United States over most of the past three decades. And there is no consensus on what caused the large national increase in killings this year.

There are many factors that could help explain Louisiana’s undesirable classification, including disproportionate racial segregation, discrimination in the workplace, and poverty. But neighboring states also have a lot of these problems. So, what could differentiate Louisiana?

New Orleans has had the nation’s highest murder rate for any major city a dozen times since 1993, with 424 murders in 1994 at the height of the city’s bloodshed. The city’s murder rate that year was 86 murders per 100,000 population, the worst ever reported by any major American city.

But even if New Orleans had been removed from Louisiana’s tally, the state would have recorded the nation’s highest or second-highest murder rate in 12 of the past 15 years.

New Orleans reported the city’s fewest murders since 1971 in 2019, but murder rates in other parts of the state have slowly increased. The state capital Baton Rouge recorded its worst three-year period on record between 2017 and 2019, and combined metropolitan parishes (such as Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany) reported more killings in 2019 than New Orleans for the first. recorded time.

“It’s poverty and its twin sister or brother of mass incarceration,” said Marc Morial, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is now president of the National Urban League. “And that’s easy access to guns.”

Louisiana and Mississippi tend to rank among the poorest states in the country. Louisiana has ranked in the bottom five in terms of poverty rates in 37 of the past 40 years, including the last or penultimate 19 times during that time period. Only Mississippi had a higher share of its population below the poverty line in 2019, according to census estimates.

However, there is no clear causal link between poverty rates and murder rates. Factors like high unemployment and poor education contribute to the state’s poverty rate, which could in turn contribute to higher murder rates in Louisiana.

(Mississippi may now have more murders per capita than Louisiana. It is the only state where individual agencies, not the state itself, submit data directly to the FBI. Mississippi had the second-highest murder rate. highest in the country in 2019, but only 29 percent of Mississippi agencies representing 54 percent of the state’s population reported data.)

Louisiana also had the highest or second highest incarceration rate in each of the past 19 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A 2012 Times-Picayune article called Louisiana the “prison capital of the world” and reported that “more than half of state inmates are housed in local prisons run by sheriffs, and the correctional system of the state created financial incentives for these detainees. sheriffs to keep the prisons full.

Louisiana set out to reduce the state’s incarceration rate through a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in 2017. This effort likely contributed to the decline in the state’s incarceration rate. 20% between 2012 and 2019, down from 12.7% nationwide, although the state still has the highest incarceration rate in the country in 2019.

“When you expose people to violent environments, and the most violent environment in the United States per capita is a prison / prison, it’s much more likely that they have adopted violent practices in order to survive,” said Flozell Daniels, the executive director of the Louisiana Foundation, who was appointed by the governor to the 2017 State Justice Reinvestment Task Force. “This argument that public safety and less violence are somehow linked to mass incarceration falls flat. If so, we would be the safest place in the world.

Then there are guns.

A higher share of murders have been committed by guns in Louisiana compared to the national average in each year since at least 1985, with a gun being the weapon used in 84% of murders in Louisiana in 2019 (vs. 74% nationally). Louisiana also has the highest rate of firearms recovered and traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), suggesting a high rate of illegal weapons or stolen in the state.

“Many illegal or stolen weapons, an illegal arms trafficking system, as well as drugs and narcotics, produce this deadly mixture,” said Morial, who lamented the lack of efforts by the government of State to fight armed violence. “Look at the Legislative Assembly to see how many criminal laws there have been in relation to the efforts to tackle homelessness. The response of the state is more the same as that of its motivator. “

There was a reasonably strong correlation between the rate of firearms recovered and traced in a state in 2019 and that state’s murder rate, although traced firearms were not inherently “representative of the universe anymore.” off all the guns used by criminals, ”according to the ATF.

Is Louisiana’s history of violence and corruption really distinct from other states?

The researchers noted that slaves working in Louisiana’s sugar plantations worked under more barbaric conditions (with higher death rates) than those working in cotton fields elsewhere in the South.

“Even before the Civil War, Louisiana was infamous for its frequent quarrels, street fights, duels, whiskey brawls, vigilance committees and explosions of violence,” wrote historian Gilles Vandal.

The period of post-civil war reconstruction was particularly brutal. Historian Eric Foner described the Colfax, Louisiana massacre in 1873 as the worst example of racial violence during reconstruction, with up to 150 black deaths.

Two years ago, the mayor of New Orleans formally apologized for the 1891 lynching of 11 Italian-Americans – one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. (The lynch mob was enraged by the not guilty verdicts following the assassination of the town’s police chief.)

Author AJ Liebling said in 1960 that Louisiana’s angry political factions were matched only by those in Lebanon. Louisiana was home to the populist Huey Long (considered by many to be a demagogue, he was assassinated in 1935); David Duke, who ran for governor in 1991 after serving as leader of the Ku Klux Klan; Edwin Edwards, who won this race against Mr. Duke despite a reputation for corruption (“Vote for the crook. It’s important.” Was a popular bumper sticker supporting Mr. Edwards, who served four terms in as governor and also served federal prison time on racketeering charges.)

In Dennis Rousey’s book, “Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889,” he wrote that New Orleans’ murder rate was about 10 times that of Philadelphia from 1857 to 1859, and that only about one-fifth of the New Orleans murders led to conviction because witnesses and prospective jurors were too petrified to participate.

Samuel Hyde Jr.’s 1998 book, “Pistols and Politics,” recounted the lawlessness associated with the feud in parishes in Florida in Louisiana from 1810 to 1935 which brought the Hatfields and McCoys to shame (parishes include East Baton Rouge and St. Tammany). The region had one of the highest rural murder rates in the country and no strong government authority, “so a level of desperation in which people could not get justice through the courts,” he said in a statement. interview.

“People are proud of the antics of their fathers and grandfathers, passed down from generation to generation,” said Hyde, professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University.

The code of honor of “keeping your respect” and “he brought it in” endures, he said, adding that it is possible to “risk your life just by insulting the LSU Tigers”.

“I’m more concerned now than when I wrote the book,” he says. “The people are armed to the teeth.”

It’s unclear whether Louisiana’s official streak as the state with the highest murder rate will continue into a 32nd year – the official FBI tally will be released in September. But once the patterns are established, they seem hard to break.


Jeff Asher and Benjamin Horwitz are New Orleans-based crime analysts and co-founders of AH Datalytics. You can follow them on Twitter at @Crimealytics and @ IT4Policy.

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Covid restrictions could lead to avalanche deaths, experts say

Avalanche deaths tend to occur at the crossroads of science and human nature.

The conditions are mostly dictated by the snowpack, the danger often hidden far beneath the fresh powder – out of sight and, at times, out of mind. Humans are drawn to the promise of fresh air and fluffy snow.

This winter, however, an additional factor could be contributing to a sudden increase in the number of deaths: Covid-19.

At least 14 people died in seven avalanches during the first week of February. It was the highest number of recreation-related deaths in avalanches in the United States for at least a century, experts said.

The death toll rose in Washington on Monday, when a 51-year-old man who cycled on snow was buried in an avalanche and later found dead.

“The snowpack is the main reason – people die because it’s very dangerous,” said Simon Trautman, avalanche specialist for the National Avalanche Center of the US Forest Service. “The question is the effect of the second or third order. I don’t know, but what I do know is that there are more people this year because of Covid. There is no doubt about it.

Avalanche experts say this season would be dangerous without a pandemic. Early snow followed by a dry spell over much of the west created a weak first layer of snow. Recent storms have dumped huge, heavy loads on top of this weak layer – snow that attracts people outside, but also threatens to shatter the support below, sending it all downhill in a battle of physics between gravity and friction.

A single misstep on a slope silently ready to give way can be the narrow line between thrill and tragedy.

An average of about 25 people have died in avalanches in the United States each winter for the past decade. This season, through Sunday, 21 have died, according to reports compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Deadly avalanches are almost always triggered by humans. The people captured there are usually among those who inadvertently set the snow in motion.

Eight backcountry skiers were caught in an avalanche in Utah on Saturday; four died. That same day, a group of Montana snowmobilers were trapped in a slide that killed one of them.

Earlier last week, three Colorado skiers were killed in an avalanche. The next day, an avalanche killed three hikers in Alaska. A day later, two people in California were buried and one died.

Experts are analyzing the anecdotal evidence, looking for answers beyond the scientific danger of this winter’s snowpack.

“It’s difficult to make a direct connection with Covid, but I think we can make an indirect connection,” said Karl Birkeland, director of the National Avalanche Center. “Across the country, we have seen a continuation of what we saw this summer, that more and more people are coming to our public lands. This winter we have seen more and more people heading out into the backcountry, whether on skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles. And with more people, you have a greater potential for people to get involved in avalanches. “

Most of the victims were lived in the hinterland, experts said, shattering any presumption that they are new adventurers, ill-equipped and desperate for socially remote outdoor pursuits. Most were men in their 40s and 50s, though the victims Saturday in Utah were all in their 20s and included two women. The victims had the recommended safety equipment of beacons, probes and shovels, according to avalanche investigations.

The eight victims in Colorado this winter were men over 40. All but one had considerable backcountry experience, according to Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

And while a few accidents have occurred just outside ski areas, where chair lifts and loose boundaries allow quick access to enticing powder runs (called ‘sidecountry’), most have occurred in remote areas requiring hikes or climbs.

This has led some experts to speculate that experienced backcountry skiers, looking to get away from this season’s unusual crowds, are sinking deeper into unfamiliar terrain, all in extremely dangerous conditions.

“It’s a lot of guesswork, but it’s really part of the discussion we’re having around this stuff,” Birkeland said.

There is also speculation that nearly a year of restrictions linked to the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19 disease, could make people more apt to take risks. On January 30, a 57-year-old expert skier died in an avalanche outside the boundaries of Park City Mountain Resort.

His ski partner, who witnessed the slide and was unable to save it, said the coronavirus pandemic “has had an impact”.

“I now realize that I am exhausted after more than 10 months of almost constant stress that Covid brings to me worrying about my family, friends, job, etc.,” said the partner, who did not been identified in the accident report. “In addition to financial stress, school closures, lack of physical contact with family members / friends etc. As a result, my typical training, motivation and mental thinking were much lower than a normal fall / winter.

Such correlations are imprecise. In Europe, where an average of 100 people die in avalanches each winter, 56 have died this season. This is one more than all last winter, but well below the 128 deaths in 2017-2018.

The head of the Swiss Association of Mountain Guides told reporters last month that Covid could bore the decision-making process of backcountry skiers, who may be too eager to get out and tired of limited free time by virus rules.

Greene, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, thinks there may be something to this, exacerbating what he calls the unique conditions of this year’s snowpack.

“The environment we are all in is stressful,” said Greene. “It affects your interactions with people at the grocery store, and it also affects the way you make decisions when you’re in avalanche terrain.”

Mistakes in the backcountry don’t have to be serious to be fatal.

Normally, the difference from season to season is almost entirely based on the snowpack, which can vary widely from slope to slope, depending on complex combinations of slope angle, sunlight. , wind, temperature and other factors. (A common factor: Most avalanches occur on slopes with slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Steeper snowfall and snowfall usually does not accumulate in the necessary amounts. Any shallower snow and snow often does not move under gravity.)

Avalanche forecasting is done locally – by about 65 full-time forecasters, most of whom work for the US Forest Service or the State of Colorado.

Conditions in the Colorado Rockies could be completely different from, say, the Washington Cascades or California’s Sierra Nevada.

But this season was unusual in that a huge swath of the West received a similar dump of early snow that was left exposed to the elements for weeks. This created, in general terms, a thin layer of fragile, sweet crystals.

Like a house built on a bad foundation, the rest of this season’s snowpack sits precariously above this layer.

The National Avalanche Center compiles the latest forecasts in an interactive map on its home page.

“The past week has been fascinating, because as the storms rolled on you could just see different parts of the country light up and turn red, or even black, which is the highest level of danger. higher, ”Trautman said. “You can see this wave of instability and danger spreading through the central part of the West. It’s not that it doesn’t happen at other times, but the way this one happened was very dramatic.

And deadly. As the bigger storms have passed, for now, the light snow cover will likely last all season. This is the science.

The human nature part of the equation is the variable that will determine how many more lives will be lost.

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Strong Trump supporters chosen to lead Michigan Republican Party

Also elected to leadership positions were two women, Marian Sheridan and Diane Shindlbeck, who along with Ms. Maddock formed the Michigan Republicans Trump after he was elected in 2016. The group has held rallies, caravans and forums across the State to generate support for its re-selection.

“The Republican Party has evolved into the Trump Party, and from Weiser’s perspective, it has brought a lot of new people into the party, and it’s his job to keep them there,” said Tom Shields, political consultant. Republican based in Lansing. with Marketing Resource Group. “And using Meshawn as a conduit to the base is smart.”

The Michigan Republican leadership race was rocked this week when Ms. Cox, the current president, targeted Mr. Weiser for what she called a “shady payment” to a party official for the drop the race for Secretary of State in 2018.

Ms Cox claimed that Mr Weiser sent $ 200,000 to Stan Grot, the clerk of Shelby Township in Macomb County, so that Mary Treder Lang would face no opposition for the Republican nomination for secretary of State, Ms Cox said. She said it was not only unethical, but could be a violation of state campaign finance laws. She turned her complaint over to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, who may open an investigation into the State Republican Party.

“If you think what Ron has done is OK, then vote for him,” Ms. Cox wrote in an email to party delegates Thursday. “If you don’t want backstage deals and secret rewards, vote for me.”

In a social media post, Mr Weiser called Ms Cox’s accusations a ‘shameful attempt to destroy our party with unfounded and reckless conspiracy theories so that she can get back in the presidential race and save her salary. . “

He said the money paid to Mr Grot was used to organize work he did in Macomb County, a key Republican stronghold, during the 2018 election cycle.

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Veteran CIA officer who previously briefed George W. Bush to lead Biden intelligence sessions

For now, Ms Sanner has been deeply involved in briefing Ms Haines on the efforts of the National Intelligence Office and on the White House’s requests for further intelligence assessments.

“Beth Sanner is an extraordinary professional intelligence officer who served as Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration with great distinction,” Ms. Schoch said.

For nearly two years, Ms. Sanner, a career analyst at the CIA, briefed Mr. Trump, a mission in which she had to endure the president’s digressions, rants and conspiracy theories over the 2016 and 2020 elections. After serving for 20 months as a presidential briefer and senior adviser to five different directors of national intelligence, Ms Sanner is ready to end her current assignment, according to an intelligence official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Ms Sanner could retire, but it is also possible that she will be offered another high-level intelligence post. Some presidential briefers have held senior positions within the CIA and others have headed other intelligence agencies.

Ms Sanner, like most intelligence operatives would be, was uncomfortable with media attention to her role during the Trump administration, which she told her colleagues was not good for the intelligence community.

As Mr Trump was under attack for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, he blamed Ms Sanner, but no name, for an intelligence briefing that he said downplayed the dangers of the virus, an account his supporters considered with great skepticism.

While all presidents are known to create bad days for senior intelligence officials, no member of the presidential committee has had a more difficult job than Ms Sanner, according to intelligence officials. Until the final months before the election, when he frequently turned to his director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, for briefings, Ms Sanner held sessions twice a week for Mr Trump.

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New California variant could lead to virus surge there, study finds

At the end of December, scientists in California began to search for coronavirus samples for a new, rapidly spreading variant that had just been identified in Britain.

They found it, but in relatively few samples. But in the process, scientists made another unwelcome discovery: California had produced its own variant.

This mutant, which belongs to a line known as CAL.20C, appears to have arisen in July but remained low until November. Then it started to spread rapidly.

CAL.20C made up more than half of viral genome samples collected from Los Angeles labs on January 13, according to a new study that has yet to be released.

“We had our own problem that didn’t cross Europe,” said Jasmine Plummer, a researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, who worked on the new study. “He was really born here, and he was lucky enough to start emerging and soaring during the holidays.”

There is no evidence that CAL.20C is more lethal than the other variants. And scientists need to do more research to determine if CAL.20C is in fact more contagious than other forms of the virus.

But Eric Vail, director of molecular pathology at Cedars-Sinai, said it was possible that CAL.20C could play a significant role in the outbreak of cases that overwhelmed hospitals in Southern California. “I have no doubts that this is a more contagious strain of the virus,” said Dr. Vail.

Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said statewide, he and his colleagues find the variant in about 20-30% of the samples sequenced. “It just appeared under our noses, and now it is increasing in several counties,” he said. “Overall, it’s safe to say this is going to spread outside of California.

Researchers are also looking for CAL.20C in other states, Dr Plummer said, and so far have found it in Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia. It is not yet clear how common this is outside of California.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a formal warning about the variant flooding Britain. Although this mutant, called B.1.1.7, is still relatively rare in the United States, accounting for less than half a percent of infections, the agency said it could be responsible for the majority of cases in the countries by March.

A spokesperson for the agency said the CDC is working with California to learn more about the new variant. “Currently, it is not known if this variant is different from other SARS-CoV-2 viruses, if these differences may have contributed to its emergence, or if this emergence was simply a random event,” he said.

“I will say this particular variant is one to watch out for,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute who discovered one of the first samples of B.1.1.7 in the United States. But he warned that it’s still unclear whether CAL.C20 is becoming more common because it has a biological benefit, or just by chance.

While B.1.1.7 and CAL.C20 are both more contagious than the other variants, it is not known how a competition between the two will settle. “CAL.C20 is way ahead,” said Dr. Vail. “Even though B.1.1.7 is more infectious overall, we may never see a big increase here in LA”

Since scientists first identified the novel coronavirus a year ago in China, they have been tracking the emergence of new mutations, which occur at random and are transmitted to new generations of viruses as they replicate. in our body.

Many mutations are harmful to the virus and worsen its replication. Many others are neutral. But researchers have now found several that are worrying because they seem to help the virus infect people more effectively.

In the first few months of the pandemic, a mutation appeared in a lineage which then became dominant in much of the world. Known as D614G, the mutation is now believed to make the virus easier to pass from person to person, compared to variants without it.

In December, British researchers discovered B.1.1.7, which is around 50% more transmissible than previous versions of the virus. The variant is a major factor in the surge in cases and hospitalizations out there now.

B.1.1.7 was in the United States in early November, according to a study published online Tuesday by University of Arizona biologists Brendan Larsen and Michael Worobey. This would mean that the variant had circulated for two months before being detected.

In California, researchers looking for B.1.1.7 began to notice an unusual mutation in their samples. The mutation, called L452R, changes the shape of a protein, called a peak, which decorates the surface of the coronavirus.

“We stumbled upon this truly unexpected discovery and took it from there,” Dr. Vail said.

The mutation has appeared in different viral lineages over the past year. Scientists have studied L452R because it could help coronaviruses stick to our cells and infect them.

In California, Dr Vail, Dr Plummer and their colleagues discovered that whenever they encountered a variant with the L452 mutation, it also carried four other distinctive mutations. This combination, they said, indicated that this was a single lineage that had emerged at some point in California. The researchers named any virus carrying the five CAL.C20 mutations.

The California Department of Health held a press conference on Sunday evening to announce that the L452 mutation is becoming more common in California. On Monday evening, Cedars-Sinai released a press release on their study, which will soon be posted on the MedRxiv pre-print website.

The Cedars-Sinai team is part of a statewide network of researchers who have been tracking mutations in the coronavirus. They randomly selected nasal swabs from patients who tested positive for Covid-19 and then collected genetic material from the swabs.

The researchers pieced together the fragments to reconstruct the virus’s entire genome, then looked for distinctive mutations. They then compared their own findings to other viral genomes sequenced across the state and country.

Researchers found the first CAL.C20 sample in July in Los Angeles. They couldn’t find another sample until October. The variant became more common in November, reaching 36% of Cedars-Sinai samples in December and 50% last week.

Outside scientists are concerned about the new findings, but say it’s still not clear whether the California variant’s mutations give it an advantage – or if it happens so much by chance.

There may be a bias in the samples that scientists examine, for example. It’s also possible that CAL.C20 has become more mainstream thanks to some large super-spreader events.

“I think we need to be careful before concluding that a particular lineage is spreading because of a transmission benefit rather than because it has been riding a wave caused by human behaviors,” Dr Worobey said.

If it turns out to be more contagious, Dr Plummer said, then CAL.C20 could be partially responsible for the recent crippling outbreak of cases in Southern California hospitals.

As the total number of cases increased, Dr Plummer and his colleague found that the percentage of CAL.C20 also increased. This would be consistent with the idea that this is a more contagious variant. “I mean, the numbers speak for themselves,” she said.

Dr Chiu also noted that the variant was involved in a number of outbreaks where large numbers of people have been infected. “There are worrying signs that this variant may be highly transmissible,” he said.

Dr. Chiu and his colleagues are now growing the variant in cells to see how quickly they multiply compared to other variants. The researchers will also observe the effectiveness of the antibodies produced by the vaccines against CAL.C20.

Other scientists are also studying more closely the increased frequency of the variant in California. They are looking for evidence that could determine whether biology or chance is behind its rise.

“This is the job that needs to be done,” Dr. Vail said. “We just don’t have that information.”

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Biden chooses ex-FDA chief to lead federal vaccination efforts

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has selected Dr David Kessler to help lead Operation Warp Speed, the program to accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, according to transition officials.

Dr Kessler, a pediatrician and lawyer who headed the Food and Drug Administration during the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton, has been a key adviser to Mr Biden on Covid-19 policy and is co-chair of the Covid transition team – 19 working group.

He will replace Dr Moncef Slaoui, researcher and former head of a pharmaceutical company, who will become a consultant for Operation Warp Speed. Dr Kessler will share key responsibilities for the initiative with Gen. Gustav F. Perna, who will remain chief operating officer, according to a Biden transition spokesperson. Dr. Kessler’s responsibilities will cover the manufacture, distribution, and safety and efficacy of vaccines and therapeutic products.

“Dr. Kessler became a trusted advisor to the Biden campaign and President-elect Biden at the start of the pandemic, and has probably briefed Biden 50 or 60 times since March, ”said Anita Dunn, co-chair of the transition team. “When you ask staff, ‘What are the doctors saying? “We know David Kessler is one of the doctors President-elect Biden expects us to see.”

Dr. Kessler will join Operation Warp Speed ​​at a critical time. While the program is widely credited with making possible the development of two highly effective coronavirus vaccines in record time, it has been far less successful in delivering the vaccines to the public – a complex task it shares with many federal authorities. state and local.

The Trump administration had promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020, but as of Thursday, just over 11 million vaccines had been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At some vaccination sites, long lines of elderly people lined up for hours waiting for a vaccine; in others, the lack of willing recipients forces providers to offer injections to random passers-by before doses expire.

In late fall, Dr. Kessler warned Mr. Biden that Operation Warp Speed ​​was not prepared to send the shots into people’s arms. The transition team said last week that the president-elect intends to create vaccination sites in high school gymnasiums, convention centers and mobile units to reach high-risk populations. Details of the plans are expected Friday.

In addition to working to speed up vaccine delivery across the country, Dr Kessler is expected to put more emphasis on treatment development and he plans to launch a major antiviral development program for the treatment of Covid-19, according to reports. responsible for the transition. He also wants to strengthen the US capacity to manufacture vaccines against the coronavirus as well as the main known pathogens.

Dr Kessler is close to Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease physician who has emerged as the main government voice on the coronavirus pandemic. The two worked closely to accelerate the development and approval of drugs that changed the course of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s.

When George Bush appointed him to the head of the FDA in 1990, AIDS was raging in the United States. During Dr. Kessler’s tenure, the FDA released new rules to speed up drug approval. The pharmaceutical industry has developed a class of antiviral drugs to treat AIDS / HIV called protease inhibitors, some of which were approved within 40 days.

“Each of these drugs that I took with Tony,” Dr. Kessler said of Dr. Fauci in an interview. “We did it together. We have approved over a dozen antivirals and antibiotics. We accelerated the approval, but we did it the right way. “

As commissioner, Dr Kessler was also known for his fight against the tobacco industry, which until then had been considered sacrosanct in American politics.

Under his leadership and with the significant help of investigator Jack Mitchell, the FDA has proven that the tobacco industry has known for 50 years that nicotine is an addictive drug and that cigarette manufacturers can control the levels of nicotine in the drug. their products.

This work paved the way for the landmark settlement framework agreement in 1998, which forced the tobacco industry to pay damages estimated at $ 206 billion to states and change the way they advertised. and the sale of tobacco products. It also led to the passage in 2009 of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which ultimately gave the FDA the power to regulate tobacco products.

Dr. Kessler’s other big priority in government was to improve the American diet. As commissioner of the FDA, he developed modern nutrition facts labels that are easy to read and include basic nutritional information often previously omitted.

After leaving the FDA, Dr. Kessler served as dean of the Yale School of Medicine, followed by a stint as dean and vice-chancellor of the faculty of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. After exposing financial irregularities at the university, he was dismissed as dean, but after an independent auditor concluded he was right, the university apologized and he remained a professor.

In 2018, Dr. Kessler became chairman of the board of directors of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a diet and health watchdog group that often criticizes federal health policy.

He served on the board of directors of Immucor, a supplier of diagnostic transfusion and transplant products, for several years. In 2020, he joined the board of directors of Ellodi Pharmaceuticals, a spin-off of Adare Pharmaceuticals, specializing in gastroenterology-focused drugs.

This week, he resigned from all three boards of directors and is divesting his shares in companies. He said he did not own any shares in pharmaceutical or vaccine-related companies.

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Person appointed by Trump will temporarily lead Pentagon until Biden’s choice is confirmed

WASHINGTON – A low-profile Deputy Secretary of Defense will be Trump’s only vestige as head of the Pentagon until President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice of Defense Secretary is confirmed. Mr Biden also plans to install John F. Kirby – the former spokesperson for John Kerry when he was Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel when he was Secretary of Defense and Mike Mullen when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – as the next Pentagon Press Secretary.

David L. Norquist, who is now the No. 2 civilian in the Pentagon, will be Mr Biden Acting Defense Secretary – if only for a few days – said transition officials.

The transition team lobbied for Mr Biden to be selected for the first post, a retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin III confirmed as soon as possible. But unlike Team Biden’s other top national security contenders, Mr. Austin will have to go through three Congressional hoops first. The Senate and House must approve a waiver for him to rule the Pentagon since he has not been removed from military service for at least seven years, and then he must be confirmed by the Senate.

Mr Biden has decided that instead of bypassing Mr Norquist and plucking Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy to lead the Pentagon until there is a confirmed defense secretary, he will follow the tradition. . Under federal law, a deputy secretary confirmed by the Senate automatically assumes the functions of secretary in the event of absence. The decision to keep Mr. Norquist until a Secretary of Defense is confirmed was reported earlier by Politico.

Mr. Kirby, for his part, is a former government public affairs officer and a respected figure in the Pentagon. A retired Navy Rear Admiral, he moved from the Pentagon to the State Department in 2015 and worked closely with Mr. Kerry during the Iran nuclear negotiations and during the last two years of the Obama administration. .

Mr. Kirby worked with Mr. Austin when they were both on the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Mullen, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also spent a year as a Pentagon spokesperson under Mr. Hagel, and served as a spokesperson for the Navy as well as Mr. Mullen. Mr. Kirby declined to comment for this article.

Much of his job will be to convince the new Secretary of Defense to communicate better with the media. Mr. Austin was famous for avoiding press interviews when he was head of the US Central Command.

Critics in Congress on Mr. Biden’s decision to appoint Mr. Austin say they don’t like the idea of ​​granting defense secretaries waivers in two consecutive administrations. Jim Mattis, who was President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, needed it too.

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the subject Tuesday, Mr Austin’s prospects were clouded as a majority of lawmakers on both sides argued that the exception that had been made for Mr Mattis , a retired four-star naval general, shouldn’t be repeated.

As Mr. Austin enjoys greater support in the House, the Republican Study Committee, a House caucus that advocates for conservative causes, released a statement on Thursday opposing Mr. Austin’s waiver.

“General Lloyd Austin has not been in uniform for the required seven years,” the statement said. “Based on the lessons learned after the House made the unprecedented decision to grant a waiver four years ago, the Republican Study Committee will oppose granting a waiver to General Austin.

In a note to members of the House, the group accused Mr. Mattis of “often pushing back civilian leaders” and complained that in many cases he “was out of step with the commander’s political vision. elected chief, creating tensions ”.

But it was Mr Mattis’ ability to overrule some of Mr Trump’s directives that reassured administration critics who feared the president would view the military as his own personal militia ready to act on his political whims. . Mr. Mattis resigned in December 2018.

Mr Austin’s Senate hearing for his appointment is scheduled for Jan. 19, the day before Mr Biden’s inauguration.

Eric Schmitt and Jennifer steinhauer contribution to reports.

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Pelosi appoints nine Democrats who will lead the impeachment effort.

President Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday named nine Democrats responsible for President Trump’s impeachment trial for instigating a violent mob of her supporters to storm the Capitol, where rioters ransacked the U.S. government headquarters and killed a police officer from the Capitol.

The nine directors, all lawyers, have expertise in constitutional law, civil rights and law enforcement. They will serve as new faces of the impeachment campaign after Americans got used last year to see Representatives Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Judicial Commission, as leaders of Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial.

The managers come from across the country and represent different ideological wings of the party. Of the nine, seven are people of color, LGBTQ or women.

With Democrats in control of the House, Mr. Trump is likely to become the first US president to be impeached twice.

“It is their constitutional and patriotic duty to present the case for the impeachment and impeachment of the president,” Pelosi said of those responsible for the impeachment. “They will do so guided by their great love for the country, their determination to protect our democracy and their loyalty to our oath to the Constitution.”

Ms Pelosi has appointed Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland constitutional attorney who drafted the impeachment article, as senior director of Mr Trump’s trial. Mr. Raskin, who lost his 25-year-old son to suicide on New Year’s Eve and then survived the mob attack, is a professor of constitutional law at the Washington College of Law at the American University.

“I am honored to be part of a team of extremely distinguished lawyers and representatives,” said Mr. Raskin. “We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders right now.”

Others responsible for the indictment are: Representatives Diana DeGette of Colorado, a civil rights lawyer; David Cicilline of Rhode Island, former public defender; Joaquin Castro of Texas, a lawyer; Eric Swalwell of California, a former prosecutor; Ted Lieu of California, former Air Force officer and prosecutor; Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, a former prosecutor; Joe Neguse of Colorado, a lawyer; and Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, also a lawyer.

Most Democrats are expected to back Mr. Trump’s impeachment after spending weeks spreading unfounded lies about widespread electoral fraud, then staging a large rally where he encouraged a crowd to march on Capitol Hill as he sought to pressure lawmakers to overturn the results of a democratic election. Four Republicans have announced that they too will vote to impeach the president.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the 3rd House Republican, said on Tuesday that she would vote to impeach Mr. Trump, adding that there has “never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States. United States “as Mr. Trump’s incitement to the Mafia.

“Good for her for having honored her oath of office,” Pelosi said of Cheney, adding that she wished “more Republicans to honor their oaths.”