April 28, 2020

No experts are remotely advocating for people to take up smoking to prevent COVID-19, but some researchers have theorized nicotine may be playing some role in keeping the virus at bay, Vice reports. That's because there's a surprisingly low rate of smokers among coronavirus hospitalizations.

In France, for example, 25 percent of the population smokes, but only 5.3 percent of coronavirus patients have been recorded as smokers, and studies have found low rates in China and New York City, as well.

Greek cardiologist and tobacco harm-reduction specialist Konstantinos Farsalinos thinks nicotine (crucially, not tobacco) might be lessening the intensity of cytokine storms, an overreaction of the body's immune system which seems to be the cause of the most severe coronavirus symptoms. French researchers have a slightly altered theory that nicotine prevents the virus from entering cells (the difference lies in the type of receptors the virus latches onto), and they're hoping to test out nicotine patches on patients to see if they help fight off COVID-19. The French government suspended the online sale of patches to make sure people don't buy in bulk and try to treat themselves that way.

The seemingly out-there theory has piqued the interest of scientists across the world, though many are urging caution. The lower rates could be a result of some other chemical in tobacco producing a protective effect, or it could be that the number of smokers is being underreported.

"Smokers who have developed chronic disease have likely quit because of their disease," Michael Siegel, a community health sciences professor at Boston University, said. "Many of the smokers who are continuing to smoke are doing so because they don't have disease yet. So this would be expected to skew the sample of hospitalized patients toward people who do not smoke." Read more at Vice. Tim O'Donnell

4:07 p.m.

It seems just one Game of Thrones prequel still won't be enough for HBO.

The network already has a prequel of the hit series in the works for 2022 called House of the Dragon, but Entertainment Weekly reports HBO wants to order "several" more.

Among them may be a series based on George R.R. Martin's Tales of Dunk and Egg, as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter report an adaptation of these novellas, which follow Ser Duncan the Tall and Aegon V Targaryen nine decades before A Song of Ice and Fire, is in early development.

That would be the second Thrones prequel after House of the Dragon, an upcoming series about the Targaryens. But that may not be all, as Entertainment Weekly writes "the idea is for HBO to go big on Thrones for HBO and HBO Max, not entirely unlike how Disney has done with Star Wars and Disney+." At a recent investor presentation, Disney laid out an avalanche of new Star Wars shows coming to its streaming service, including spinoffs of The Mandalorian.

A Thrones prequel about Robert's Rebellion, a war frequently referred to in Thrones, is one concept being explored, EW says, adding that all of the ideas currently being considered would be prequels rather than sequels or direct spinoffs. At one point, there were five Thrones scripts at "various stages of development" at HBO, as Martin revealed in 2017, though it wasn't clear whether more than one of them would actually end up on the air. House of the Dragon ended up moving forward, but another Thrones spinoff was scrapped in 2019 after already filming a pilot episode.

But it sounds like HBO is still interested in the idea of multiple Thrones series, as it evidently looks to go all in on the franchise and bet viewers disappointed by the original show's finale will return. Brendan Morrow

3:21 p.m.

It's the end of a very caffeinated era.

When former President Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office, he quite literally had a button on his desk that ordered a Diet Coke to the room whenever it was pressed. But as a glimpse at President Biden's desk just hours after his inauguration shows, the soda-summoning button is gone.

While it may have sounded just too weird to be true, Trump's Diet Coke obsession and his button to match were absolutely real. No word on if Biden will install some kind of ice cream-ordering alternative. Kathryn Krawczyk

2:13 p.m.

Facebook's oversight board has taken on a major case, as it's set to review the company's decision to boot the president of the United States from its platform.

Facebook announced Thursday it has referred its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Donald Trump's account to the Facebook independent Oversight Board, which has accepted the case.

"We believe our decision was necessary and right," Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications, said. "Given its significance, we think it is important for the board to review it and reach an independent judgment on whether it should be upheld. While we await the board's decision, Mr. Trump's access will remain suspended indefinitely."

Facebook suspended Trump's account in the wake of the deadly riot at the Capitol building by his supporters, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying the "risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great" as he attempted to "undermine the peaceful and lawful transfer of power." Facebook said the suspension would continue "indefinitely" and "at least" until he was out of office.

The oversight board pledged to offer a "thorough and independent assessment" of the case and provide "policy recommendations from the board on suspensions when the user is a political leader." Facebook noted that whatever decision the board reaches will be binding and can't be overruled by the company's executives. A decision will come within 90 days.

Twitter also took action against Trump over the Capitol riot by permanently banning his account. But NBC News' Dylan Byers notes that referring the case to the oversight board allows Facebook to "outsource" this final decision. Brendan Morrow

2:05 p.m.

The evenly split Senate is having a hard time agreeing who's in charge.

Georgia's two new Democratic senators were sworn in Wednesday, giving Republicans and Democrats 50 senators each, with Vice President Kamala Harris as a Democratic tiebreaker. The two parties are now working out a power-sharing agreement, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) commitment to the filibuster is standing in the way.

McConnell on Thursday formally acknowledged Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the chamber's new majority leader. But as he has been for days, McConnell again implored Democrats to preserve the filibuster that lets a senator extend debate and block a timely vote on a bill if there aren't 60 votes to stop it. Democrats "have no plans to gut the filibuster further, but argue it would be a mistake to take one of their tools off the table just as they're about to govern," Politico reports; More progressive senators do want to remove the option completely.

If his filibuster demands aren't met, McConnell has threatened to block the Senate power-sharing agreement that would put Democrats in charge of the body's committees. But Democrats already seem confident in their newfound power, with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) telling Politico that "Chuck Schumer is the majority leader and he should be treated like majority leader." Giving in to McConnell "would be exactly the wrong way to begin,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) echoed.

Other Democrats shared their resistance to McConnell's demands in tweets. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:01 p.m.

In the latest news story that's improbably not a 30 Rock episode description, Jenna Maroney actress Jane Krakowski has denied secretly dating the MyPillow guy for nine months.

A report from the Daily Mail on Thursday claimed controversial MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has recently made headlines for his false election fraud claims in support of former President Donald Trump, had a "secret nine month romance" with Krakowski until the "passionate" relationship ended last summer.

Lindell, the report claimed, supposedly "wooed the actress for close to a year, showering her with gifts and flowers." An anonymous source told the outlet, "She said she had known him for about eight years and that they had been friends but then they started a relationship about a year ago." The source also claimed, "They would fight and Jane would throw all of the gifts that he had given her away. Then they would make up and there would be more gifts again." The alleged romance reportedly baffled Krakowski's friends just as much as it did social media on Thursday when the article was published.

Both Krakowski and Lindell are denying the report — and claiming they never even met at all. "I've never met the man," Krakowski told the Daily Mail, while Lindell went a step further, saying, "I have never even heard of Jane Krakowski???"

Still, should NBC ever decide to reboot 30 Rock, we've got some good news for Tina Fey: the Daily Mail has already provided the first script. Brendan Morrow

12:43 p.m.

Congress' new Democratic majority is ready to press forward with impeachment charges against former President Donald Trump.

Last week, a bipartisan House majority voted to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month. Trump has since left office with the inauguration of President Biden, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she doesn't believe that's any reason to drop Trump's charges.

Pelosi said she wasn't convinced by arguments that an impeachment trial could further stoke partisan division. "I don't think it's very unifying to say, 'Oh, let's just forget it and move on.' That's not how you unify," she explained. Pelosi then said it's Congress' "responsibility" to "protect and defend the Constitution," because you can't just "say to a president, 'Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration.'"

Pelosi wouldn't give a specific timeframe for when the House impeachment managers would bring the articles to the Senate. Initially there was a delay because the Senate went on a recess, but it returned Tuesday and has since sworn in three new Democratic senators. Kathryn Krawczyk

Opinion
11:47 a.m.

When walking around the neighborhoods and grocery stores in Philadelphia, virtually everyone I see is wearing a mask. That's great news — we should all be happy to endure a little discomfort to fight the pandemic. Unfortunately, nearly all the masks are simple cloth varieties. While these are better than nothing, there are better masks available. President Biden and his administration should be pointing this out, and doing what they can to get those masks into the hands of the American people.

There have been multiple studies on whether masks work to slow the spread of coronavirus, and the general consensus is that they do — but the better the mask, the more they help. Cloth masks are good, 3-ply surgical masks are better, and medical-grade N95 or N100 respirators are better still. Yet so far public health authorities, and Biden himself, have typically just recommended the use of masks in general without any quality distinctions.

The CDC website is confusing on this point. It recommends that people do not use medical-grade N95s, as apparently there is still a global shortage and they should be reserved for medical workers. But it also recommends against surgical masks, which are widely available, for the same reason, and does not mention KN95s, which are probably only a bit worse than normal N95s. (Alas, there are reportedly a slew of counterfeit or low-quality masks out there.)

The Biden administration could upgrade its pandemic-fighting strategy by clearly explaining what kinds of masks are good and appropriate for normal citizens. It could further certify which manufacturers are trustworthy, so people aren't tricked by sleazy ripoff artists on Amazon. Best of all, as part of Biden's invocation of the Defense Production Act, he could send every household in the United States a free weekly supply of the best masks that can be produced (as Taiwan is doing). I would wager that within a month or two, every American could be using KN95s at least, and the spread of coronavirus would be slowed markedly, saving many thousands of lives. Ryan Cooper

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