Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 23, 2021

The FDA authorizes Pfizer's pill to treat COVID-19, South Africa says Omicron cases are dropping as fast as they rose, and more

1

FDA authorizes Pfizer's pill to treat COVID-19

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Pfizer's antiviral pill Paxlovid to treat early COVID-19 cases, making it the first drug approved for people to take at home to prevent severe symptoms. The milestone came as infections and hospitalizations rise and authorities warn of a potential flood of new cases from the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Another antiviral pill, developed by Merck, is expected to receive authorization soon. Health experts have high expectations for Pfizer's drug due to its mild side effects and tests showing it reduces hospitalizations and deaths by nearly 90 percent among patients at risk for severe disease. "The efficacy is high, the side effects are low, and it's oral. It checks all the boxes," said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic.

2

South Africa says Omicron surge easing as fast as it started

South Africa's surge of Omicron coronavirus cases is now plummeting as fast as it rose, the country's top infectious-disease scientist, Salim Abdool Karim, said Wednesday. After a near-vertical rise, he said in an interview, "we're going down, right back down." The news fueled hopes that the tidal waves of infections in the United States and other countries could peak and subside just as quickly. In the U.S., the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases hit 168,981 on Wednesday, surpassing the summertime peak of the Delta variant surge. Also on Wednesday, South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases released a study that, although it hasn't been peer reviewed, reinforced evidence that Omicron is causing milder COVID-19 cases than previous variants.

3

Biden extends student loan payment relief

President Biden announced Wednesday that he would extend a suspension of student loan payments until May 1 to help people facing financial problems due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The pause had been scheduled to expire Feb. 1. The change comes as the Biden administration and local public health officials rush to address the new COVID-19 surge fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. "Given these considerations, today my administration is extending the pause on federal student loan repayments for an additional 90 days — through May 1, 2022 — as we manage the ongoing pandemic and further strengthen our economic recovery," Biden said in a statement. Biden also said the Education Department was working to help borrowers "transition smoothly" back into making payments when the time comes.

4

U.S. eases sanctions on Taliban as Afghanistan faces humanitarian crisis

The Biden administration on Wednesday said it was relaxing sanctions on the Taliban to help Afghanistan manage a humanitarian crisis blamed on damage from the coronavirus pandemic, a severe drought, and the loss of foreign aid and access to currency reserves. The Biden administration tried to use the financial pressure as leverage against the Taliban when it returned to power three months ago as the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan. The freezing of $9.5 billion of Afghanistan's foreign reserves and other measures left the country with a severe cash shortage that hurt banks and other businesses, and triggered high inflation. The Treasury Department said Wednesday it would issue "general licenses" to make it easier for aid to flow through international aid organizations and the U.S. government to provide relief to Afghans.

5

Supreme Court sets emergency hearing on Biden vaccine mandates

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it would consider legal challenges seeking to block President Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandates for health-care workers and employees at large companies, with oral arguments set for a special emergency session on Jan. 7. The court said it would defer requests to place a hold on the mandates until it can review the matter. There are two challenges pending, and the high court will consider both at the same time. The cases have not yet worked their way through lower courts. The Supreme Court will decide whether the Biden administration can put the rules into effect for the time being, although the high court's ruling is expected to indicate whether the mandates will survive.

6

House Jan. 6 committee requests information from Rep. Jim Jordan

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack sent a letter Wednesday to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an ally of former President Donald Trump, requesting details about his communication with Trump on the day of the riot. In the letter, the committee chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said panel members believe Jordan "had at least one and possibly multiple communications with President Trump on Jan. 6," and wished to discuss the contacts in detail. Thompson said that public reports indicated Jordan might "have information about meetings with White House officials and the then-president … about strategies for overturning the results of the 2020 election." Jordan, one of 147 lawmakers who raised objections to certifying Trump's Electoral College loss, said he had "real concerns" about the panel.

7

Hong Kong university removes Tiananmen massacre monument

The University of Hong Kong, the city's oldest university, on Thursday removed a statue commemorating the victims of China's Tiananmen Square massacre. The "Pillar of Shame" depicted 50 contorted bodies, some in mid-scream. It was one of the most prominent Tiananmen monuments on Chinese soil. The Council of the University of Hong Kong said it decided to take down the statue, which had stood on campus for more than two decades, "based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university." The university said the statue was being placed in storage. The move came more than a year after China imposed a new national-security law that has been followed by a crackdown on civic freedoms in Hong Kong.

8

Madagascar minister swims 12 hours and is rescued after helicopter crash

Madagascar Police Minister Serge Gelle was rescued after surviving a rescue-helicopter crash and swimming 12 hours before being saved by fishermen. "My turn to die has not yet come, thank God," Gelle said in a video posted on Twitter by Madagascar's Defense Ministry. In the video, the veteran police general, still wearing his camouflage uniform, relaxes in a lounge chair in the seaside town of Mahambo, his hands visibly wrinkled from the time he spent in the water. The Maritime and River Port Agency reports a mechanic, a pilot, and colonel were also on board the helicopter when it crashed; the mechanic was found alive and rescued Tuesday, while the colonel's body was recovered and a search for the pilot is ongoing. Gelle was part of a team searching for people who had been aboard a cargo ship that sank with 138 people on board off the country's northeast coast. At least 64 people were killed.

9

Ex-Proud Boy pleads guilty to Jan. 6 conspiracy charges

Matthew Greene, a former member of the Proud Boys from Syracuse, New York, pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstructing Congress and conspiring to obstruct law enforcement during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Greene, 34, admitted coordinating fellow New York members of the far-right group at the front of the mob, although there is no evidence he entered the Capitol. Greene is the first person who acknowledges membership in the Proud Boys to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with prosecutors in a felony conspiracy case related to the insurrection. Greene will be sentenced in March and could get four years in prison according to nonbinding sentencing guidelines, although prosecutors say he is likely to get credit for cooperating.

10

Virginia experts open 1887 time capsule found in Robert E. Lee statue pedestal

Virginia officials on Wednesday opened an 1887 time capsule that workers found in the pedestal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Workers found the capsule on Dec. 17 while they were dismantling the 40-foot pedestal in Richmond. The statue was taken down after becoming the focus of racial justice protests. Inside the capsule, experts found an 1875 almanac, two books, a coin, and a cloth envelope. Many of the items were wet due to water that had accumulated inside the corroded lead box that contained them. "Given that the artifacts are wet, they will be put in the freezer to prevent any further deterioration," Katherine Ridgway, a conservator at Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told WTVR. One of the withered books had "love" written on it.

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