Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: January 26, 2022

U.S. explores boosting Europe fuel supply if Russia cuts off gas, Pfizer starts testing of Omicron vaccine version, and more

1

Biden discussing gas alternatives for Europe if Russia cuts off fuel

The Biden administration is exploring ways to boost liquefied natural gas deliveries to Europe if Russia cuts off fuel over the Ukraine crisis, CNN reported Tuesday, citing multiple U.S. officials familiar with the discussions. The United States has been talking for weeks to governments and companies in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia to work out a global strategy to replace any lost gas exports from Russia. The discussions have reached a "fairly advanced stage," one senior U.S. official said. European allies are concerned Russia could withhold gas exports, weaponizing them to discourage a harsh response if it invades Ukraine. Ukraine's leaders said a Russian invasion isn't imminent but the threat is real.

2

Pfizer starts trial for Omicron vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech announced Tuesday that they had started a trial to assess the effectiveness of the version of their coronavirus vaccine adjusted to target the Omicron variant. The drugmakers said they were enrolling adults ages 18 to 55 in the U.S. and South Africa to test safety and protection of the new version against COVID-19 when given as an initial vaccination or a booster shot. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said the company could seek authorization to begin distribution in March, if the trial shows it is safe and effective. Trial results are expected in the first half of the year. The companies said they could make four billion doses this year. Laboratory studies have shown that Omicron is more resistant to currently available vaccines than previous variants.

3

College Board says SAT is going digital

The College Board announced Tuesday that the SAT soon will go completely digital, with students filling it out on tablets and laptops instead of on paper with No. 2 pencils. The exam also will be shortened from three hours to two hours, starting in 2024 in the United States and in 2023 in other countries. The changes come after years of questions about whether the high-pressure college entrance exam is fair and necessary. The coronavirus pandemic has sped up the trend toward test-optional college admissions. The number of high school students taking the test fell from 2.2 million in 2020 to 1.5 million in the class of 2021, but has rebounded to 1.7 million so far for this year's seniors, according to the College Board.

4

N.Y. appeals judge temporarily restores state mask mandate

A New York appeals court judge on Tuesday temporarily restored the state's mask mandate, a day after a lower court judge ruled that Gov. Kathy Hochul needed approval from lawmakers to make people wear face coverings to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Appellate Division Justice Robert Miller granted the state's request to continue enforcing the policy while it appeals. The lower court's ruling had sparked confusion as school districts, primarily in heavily Republican parts of the state, hurried to make masks optional, and state education officials told districts to keep mask requirements in place. Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, said her office would defend the mandate because "we know that wearing a mask saves lives."

5

Biden administration pulls vaccine mandate for big companies

The Biden administration is withdrawing its vaccine-or-test mandate for large companies, the Labor Department announced Tuesday. The Supreme Court blocked the policy earlier this month, and the decision to pull it suggested the administration sees no way to restore it. "It's their admitting what everyone had been saying, which is that the rule is dead," Brett Coburn, a lawyer at Alston & Bird, said to The New York Times. The Supreme Court's newly expanded conservative majority ruled that the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, overstepped its authority by imposing the rule, which would have required about 80 million workers to show they had been vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests.

6

CDC report says Omicron results in less severe COVID-19

The Omicron coronavirus variant causes less severe cases of COVID-19 among people needing hospitalization than previous strains, researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday. People hospitalized after Omicron infections were admitted less frequently to intensive care, and had shorter hospital stays overall than patients sickened by previous variants. The report confirmed earlier signs that Omicron resulted in milder COVID-19 cases. Still, Omicron is so highly contagious that it has caused record numbers of infections, and the volume of the cases has pushed daily deaths to more than 2,200 on average, among the highest death tolls since early 2021.

7

U.K. police investigate Downing Street lockdown parties

British police said Tuesday that they were investigating lockdown parties held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street official residence in what critics have said were violations of the government's own coronavirus restrictions. The allegations have left Johnson fighting calls for his resignation. Reports of copious amounts of alcohol and jokes by staff about how to explain the revelry to reporters have left Johnson's reputation badly tarnished and his ratings in a free fall. ITV reported Monday that Johnson and his now-wife Carrie went to a 30-person surprise party on his birthday in the Cabinet Room in June 2020, when his government had banned indoor gatherings. Johnson's office has said he spent "less than 10 minutes" at the birthday celebration, and that he didn't believe he had broken any laws.

8

Alex Jones says he pleaded the Fifth 'almost 100 times' during Jan. 6 testimony

Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said Tuesday on his radio show that he used his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination "almost 100 times" on Monday during his testimony before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Jones said he wanted to answer the questions, but "at the same time, it's a good thing I didn't, because I'm the type that tries to answer things correctly, even if I don't know all the answers, and they can then kind of claim that's perjury." The committee's chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), sent Jones a letter last month that stated the panel had evidence Jones helped plan and fund the "Stop the Steal" rally that was held immediately before the Capitol attack.

9

RFK Jr. apologizes for Anne Frank anti-vax remark

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. apologized Tuesday for invoking the name of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp, to suggest that Jews had freedoms during the Holocaust that unvaccinated Americans don't. RFK Jr. tweeted that he was "truly and deeply sorry" for the pain his remarks caused. "My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the perils from new technologies of control," wrote Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and nephew of President John F. Kennedy. RFK Jr. has faced sharp criticism for his comments. The Auschwitz Memorial said that "exploiting" those "humiliated, tortured & murdered" by the Nazis "in a debate about vaccines & limitations during global pandemic is a sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay."

10

David Ortiz is lone player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame

Former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was the only player to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. "I am truly honored and blessed," Ortiz said in a statement Tuesday. Ortiz, a.k.a. Big Papi, hit 541 career home runs, plus 17 in the postseason, and was a World Series champ three times. He was the second player from the curse-breaking Red Sox to be admitted to the Hall of Fame, joining former pitcher and fellow Dominican Republic native Pedro Martinez. Ortiz was named on 77.9 percent of ballots, surpassing the 75-percent threshold in his first year of eligibility. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, tarnished by suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use, were passed over in their 10th and final year of eligibility.

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