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US Jobless Benefit Claims Drop But Overall Level Remains High

U.S. unemployment benefit claims fell last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, even as the surging number of coronavirus cases threatens to restrict businesses throughout the world’s biggest economy.A total of 712,000 laid-off workers filed for jobless compensation, down 75,000 from the revised figure of the week before. But the new number remained above the highest pre-pandemic figure in records that date to the 1960s and extends the run of high weekly claim totals that started in mid-March when the coronavirus swept into the United States.The unemployment rate is a marked improvement from the pandemic low point — a 14.7% jobless rate in April. But with tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases being recorded every day in the U.S. for weeks now, state governors and municipal officials have been imposing new restrictions on business activity, after lifting similar curbs months ago, when the virus seemed to ebb.  With new stay-at-home orders being imposed in some places with the worst outbreaks, the new restrictions could portend more U.S. workers being laid off in the coming weeks.Retail stores and restaurants are cutting hours if they are open, while entertainment and arts centers are canceling live shows. The approaching colder winter weather in the U.S. also means that fewer outdoor gatherings are possible.  Lawmakers in Congress, stalemated for months on more coronavirus aid for unemployed workers, businesses and state and local governments, are talking again about approving more assistance beyond the $3 trillion they approved months ago, almost all of which has already been spent.FILE – People walk through a new COVID-19 rapid testing site operated by the Rhode Island Army National Guard, in Providence, Rhode Island, Dec. 1, 2020.President-elect Joe Biden endorsed a $908 billion stimulus proposal by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would include extra $300-a-week payments for jobless workers for four months, down from the $600-a-week stipends that expired at the end of July.Biden said the proposed relief deal “wouldn’t be the answer” to boosting the flagging U.S. economy, but would provide immediate relief for many and called for its approval this month. Biden has vowed to support bigger economic boosts once he is inaugurated January 20.He told a group of workers on Wednesday, “To state the obvious, my ability to get you help immediately does not exist.”Whether an economic stimulus of any size is approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in the last seven weeks of his presidency is an open question.Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also expressed support for the $908 billion package, calling it a “framework” for negotiations with Republicans.  But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports a smaller spending package of about $500 billion that includes only limited aid for jobless workers.The country’s Commerce Department says the economy surged at an annualized 33.1% rate from July to September, after an almost equal plunge from April to June as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country.  
Analysts believe that U.S. economic growth will end up being slower in the last three months of the year, especially if business restrictions are markedly increased, such as renewed limitations on indoor seating at restaurants.    
Government officials have been reluctant to curtail business activity as much as they did in the March-to-June period; but, as the virus spreads, some state governors who refused to impose earlier restrictions now are ordering limitations.   

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Phishing Ploy Targets COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Effort

IBM security researchers say they have detected a cyberespionage effort using targeted phishing emails to try to collect vital information on the World Health Organization’s initiative for distributing COVID-19 vaccine to developing countries.
The researchers said they could not be sure who was behind the campaign, which began in September, or if it was successful. But the precision targeting and careful efforts to leave no tracks bore “the potential hallmarks of nation-state tradecraft,” they said in  a blog post Thursday.
The campaign’s targets, in countries including Germany, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan, are likely associated with the development of the “cold chain”  needed to ensure coronavirus vaccines get the nonstop sterile refrigeration they need to be effective for the nearly 3 billion people who live where temperature-controlled storage is insufficient, IBM said.
“Think of it as the bloodline that will be supplying the most vital vaccines globally,” said Claire Zaboeva, an IBM analyst involved in the detection.  
Whoever is behind the operation could be motivated by a desire to learn how the vaccines are best able to be shipped and stored — the entire refrigeration process — in order to copy it, said Nick Rossmann, the IBM team’s global threat intelligence lead. Or they might want to be able to undermine a vaccine’s legitimacy or launch a disruptive or destructive attack, he added.
In the ploy, executives with groups likely associated with the initiative known as  Covax  — created by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies — were sent spoofed emails appearing to come from an executive of Haier Biomedical, a Chinese company considered the world’s main cold-chain supplier, the analyst said.
The phishing emails had malicious attachments that prompted recipients to enter credentials that could have been used to harvest sensitive information about partners vital to the vaccine-delivery platform.
Targets included the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union and companies that make solar panels for powering portable vaccine refrigerators. Other targets were petrochemical companies, likely because they produce dry ice, which is used in the cold chain, Zaboeva said.
The EU agency has been busy revising new import and export regimes for coronavirus vaccines and would be a gold mine for hackers seeking stepping stones into partnering organizations, she said.
Covax has struggled to raise enough money to compete for vaccine contracts against the world’s wealthiest nations in the race to secure doses as fast as they can be produced. But the UN and Gavi have invested millions in cold-chain equipment across Africa and Asia. The investment, in the works well before the pandemic, was accelerated to prepare for an eventual global rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
Whoever was behind the phishing operation likely sought “advanced insight into the purchase and movement of a vaccine that can impact life and the global economy,” the blog post said. Coronavirus vaccines will be one of the world’s most sought-after products as they are distributed, so theft may also be a danger.
Last month,  Microsoft said  it had detected mostly unsuccessful attempts by state-backed Russian and North Korean hackers to steal data from leading pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers. It gave no information on how many succeeded or how serious those breaches were. Chinese state-backed hackers have also targeted vaccine makers, the U.S. government said in announcing criminal charges in July.
Microsoft said most of the targets — located in Canada, France, India, South Korea and the United States — were researching vaccines and COVID-19 treatments. It did not name the targets.
On Wednesday, Britain became the first to country  to authorize a rigorously tested COVID-19 vaccine, the one developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech.  
Other countries aren’t far behind: Regulators not only in the U.S. but in the European Union and Canada also are vetting the Pfizer vaccine along with a shot made by Moderna Inc. British and Canadian regulators are also considering a vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
The logistical challenges of distributing vaccines globally are huge. The Pfizer-BioNTech one must be stored and shipped at ultra-cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

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US Bans Cotton Imports from Chinese Company Over Allegations of Human Rights Violations

The Trump administration has imposed a ban on imports of cotton products manufactured by a Chinese state-controlled firm because of its reliance on the forced labor of detained ethnic minorities.The Customs and Border Protection agency issued an order Wednesday ending shipments from the quasi-military Xinjiang Protection and Construction Corps. The order also requires any U.S. company seeking to import cotton products from China to prove they did not come from the XPCC or were included in the supply chain.Xinjiang is a major source of cotton and textiles used by many of the world’s largest and best-known clothing brands. The XPCC produced as much as 30% of China’s cotton in 2015.Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, which includes the CBP, said in a statement that any apparel attached with a “Made in China” label should be considered “a warning label” as it was made by “slave labor.”Acting CBP head Mark Morgan said “China’s systemic abuse of forced labor in the Xinjiang region should disturb every American business and consumer. Forced labor is a human rights violation that hurts vulnerable workers and introduces unfair competition into global supply chains.”The ban is in reaction to recent studies and news reports documenting how groups of people in Xinjiang, especially the largely Uighur Muslim and Kazakh minorities, have been recruited into programs that assign them to work in factories, cotton farms, textile mills and menial jobs in cities.

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NIH Director: ‘It Is Astounding What’s Been Done’ Regarding COVID-19 Vaccine

VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed the National Institute of Health Director Frances Collins. Among the issues discussed are the COVID-19 vaccine and its development.Here is a transcript of that interview:Greta Van Susteren: Nice to talk to you, sir.Francis Collins: Nice to talk to you, Greta.Van Susteren: Well, we Americans know what NIH is and we’re very proud of it but what is NIH?Collins: The National Institutes of Health, it’s the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. Basically, everything that the U.S. is doing in terms of research and academic institutions Institute’s and our own intramural program is funded by the taxpayers through this budget, and I’m the director that’s supposed to make sure it gets spent wisely everything from basic science to clinical trials. Diabetes, rare diseases, cancer, and of course right now, COVID-19, and that’s what we are all about $42 billion a year.Van Susteren: For you the research you do a lot, a lot of research, all research. What does the FDA do the Food & Drug Administration we hear so much about in terms of the vaccine?Collins: So, FDA is a sister agency we’re both in the Department of Health and Human Services. FDA’s job is to be the regulator and it’s to look at some proposed new approach maybe it’s a diagnostic test. Maybe it’s a therapeutic, maybe it’s a vaccine and to get all the data together and look at it and decide if it’s going to be safe and effective, so we generally do the research trying to stimulate this kind of progress to happen and FDA decides whether it’s safe for the public to start to use it in general way.Van Susteren: All right, so we’re waiting breathlessly for these vaccines and some are farther along like Moderna and Pfizer than others, but once it gets the green light from the FDA, who decides who will get it first?Collins: Well, this is a big day for that, basically the CDC has an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, ACIP, and it’s their job to look at a circumstance where you have a vaccine that FDA has decided is safe and effective at least for emergency use, but there aren’t enough doses for everybody to receive them on day one. So, who gets first in line. That’s a big decision, it will include health care providers because we want them to be safe in their frontline experience and it will include people at high risk, particularly the elderly people with chronic illnesses. And that will get played out over the course of the coming months as more and more doses become available, but of course trying to protect the most vulnerable people first.Van Susteren: I’m old enough to know to remember polio vaccine when it first came out, am is the distance was, how was that distribution decision made? Do you know?Collins: I don’t know the total details — initially there was a big trial to see whether it worked just as we have been doing with COVID-19 with these vaccine trials involving tens of thousands of people. Once it was decided that it was working, then there was an issue about how many doses can be made available and it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took quite a long time, a year or two. In this instance, Operation Warp Speed has invested in doing the manufacturing of vaccine doses, even before we know whether it’s one of these six or more than one of these six vaccines is going to work with the expectation that if one of them didn’t, you’d have to throw those doses away happily now we have two that look as if they’re very likely to win FDA approval in the next couple of weeks. And there are others just a little bit behind that may get approved in January, ideally, we may even have multiple different vaccines, each of which have 10s of millions of doses, and we could really start to reach out and get immunization to happen to lots of us, not just the most vulnerable people.Van Susteren: Well, the vaccines, as I understand, talking to experts, is coming, very quickly. What has been the role of the U.S. government to sort of fast track this have gotten rid of some of the red tape or is it provided more funds or what’s the role of the U.S. government?Collins: It is astounding what’s been done here, Greta, because traditionally it takes eight to 10 years to develop a vaccine against a new pathogen, this has been done in less than a year. The U.S. government pulled all of the resources together to make sure that coordination was happening. operation warp speed made it possible also to get rid of some of those long delays that oftentimes vex the process where you go to phase one and then you have to wait many months before you go to phase two, all of those things were synchronized in an unprecedented way, but not by doing any compromising at all on safety these will probably be amongst the most highly tested vaccines ever in terms of their safety and efficacy and the good news is, the first two that are going to get looked at by FDA. In the coming weeks, look extremely good with efficacy over 90% which is better than most of us had dared to hope and safety record that also looks extremely good so we are in a good place to begin to see how we might get COVID-19 behind us but it’s going to take a lot of months to get there for everybody.Van Susteren: I don’t want to hope or expect as we another virus coming down the road, but I assume that it’s inevitable so –has the U.S. learned something new as government learn something like stripped away some of the red tape so that we can look forward in future times and that will take a shorter time to get a vaccine than eight or nine years?Collins: Absolutely. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve documented all along the way ways that things can be done more efficiently and this. Our accomplishment of having vaccines that are ready to go into individuals in less than a year is certainly going to be the norm in the future and maybe we could even do it a little faster, although it would be pretty hard to go faster than this you just still have to run the trials and wait and see whether the vaccine works and you can only speed that up so much, but I do hope and I’m part of this decision and discussion that’s going on right now that we don’t slip back into complacency. Once we get past COVID-19 because there’s another pandemic out there. I don’t know whether it’s five years from now or 10 years from now or next year, and it probably could be another coronavirus or it might be an influenza virus. And this is just the nature of our world and anybody who thinks over over that look at history, we’re not likely to be.Van Susteren: All right, Moderna, and Pfizer as I understand it, both have something called the sort of a science behind is something called messenger RNA, are they very different vaccines are very similar?Collins: They’re quite similar basically messenger RNA is the part of a nucleic acid that codes for protein. And this is a very clever way to make a vaccine where you basically synthesize that messenger RNA that has the right information in it, inject that into Muscle, Muscle goes, Oh I know what to do with messenger RNA I’ll make a protein. And so it does, and it makes the spike protein, which is the stuff that decorates the coronavirus and those spike proteins, the immune system says oh no you don’t and makes an antibody to them. And it’s very quick. That’s why Pfizer and Moderna are the first two out of the gate because the messenger RNA approach can be started almost immediately upon the time the viruses isolated. So it is a new approach, it looks extremely promising, it is going to be transformational I think for vaccines for all kinds of things because it looks like it’s really worked, and this is the first time it’s been taken all the way through to these Phase Three trials and FDA approval.Van Susteren: One of the issues is gonna be distribution and the Pfizer requires that the vaccine be kept so called which refrigeration incredible refrigeration. What, why is it if they’re so similar the Moderna and the Pfizer one needs to be kept so much colder which is going to inhibit some of its distribution?Collins: Yeah, it’s a great question and all our people puzzled if it’s so similar. Moderna can just be kept in a regular freezer and can even be in a refrigerator for a week and it’ll be fine there too. But the Pfizer one, it’s wrapped in a different kind of envelope, it’s not just the messenger RNA by itself it’s sort of put into an envelope of lipids and the Pfizer liquid envelope is very tense sensitive to warming up, which is why it has to be kept at this minus-94-degrees freezer, which isn’t available a lot of places. Moderna’s envelope is less concerned about temperature issues and so it can be stable in a more forgiving way. Coming along I should say the next set of viruses next set of vaccines bay by Johnson and Johnson, and by AstraZeneca. Those are going to be also much more forgiving as far as the temperature requirements. The so-called cold chain will not be nearly as demanding for those which will be great, especially for places that don’t have a lot of freezer capacity like some of the low- and middle-income countries that are also going to need these vaccines.Van Susteren: Do Astra Zeneca and the Johnson & Johnson have the same messenger RNA approach to a vaccine are they different vaccines?Collins: They’re using a different approach one that has been tried and true and other situations takes a little longer it basically captures the energy of a different virus and adeno virus just as a carrier a delivery truck and uses that also to deliver the coating for this spike protein so it’s making the same kind of response happen in the immune system, but it’s getting it in in a different way. And this is something that’s been done successfully for Ebola so we know this vector system is likely to be safe and effective. The Johnson and Johnson one also is a single dose which will be very much easier to manage whereas Pfizer and Moderna requires two doses one on day one and other one three or four weeks later, it’s a little more complicated to set that up, we’d love it if we had at least one of these that was just one dose and you’re done.Van Susteren: You know I read early on, I’ve been following this virus like everybody else is that there was a possibility or some discussion about six months ago about a bridge vaccine which would be polio or TB, that if you got that vaccine the live vaccine that it would rev up your immune system, essentially, and fight out fight off COVID. Was there ever any sort of thought or did NIH look at that was that just a bridge it’s like health care workers in the short run?Collins: We did look at that, we have a group called active ACTA IV accelerating coronavirus therapeutic interventions and vaccines and they surveyed the entire landscape of opportunities for therapeutics and vaccines and they looked at this, they thought if we had nothing else, there might be a little enhancement of your immune response sort of in a general way by one of these other vaccines, but compared to the specific vaccine that we now see in front of us, the effect would probably not be nearly as powerful so we decided to focus on what really was needed something that would be 95% effective as opposed to a general benefit that might give you a few percentages of improvement but wasn’t really going to change the course of this pandemic in such a big way as what we need right now.Van Susteren: When I get, when I’ve got a tetanus vaccine I’ve since then. Over the years had to get boosters. Do you anticipate that with or can’t you tell now whether if you get this vaccine that at some period, sometime in the future you need a booster.Collins: I wish we knew more about that, because this is a new virus, we really don’t know how durable, your immunity is going to be, we don’t know for people who got the COVID-19 infection naturally, could they get it again if we knew more about that we have some sense about whether the vaccine would last for years and years. It’s going to take some time to tell. it might be that the virus also mutates over time and ultimately new version appears that the vaccine and your natural immunity don’t quite work anymore. So we might have to have not just a booster but a slightly redesigned the vaccine to cover whatever this coronavirus is trying to do to us. Those are all uncertainties in the best of all worlds. This will last a very long time, I’m guessing boosters are probably going to be needed. I just hope they aren’t too frequent tetanus we could live with a 10-year timeline if that’s what it takes, but we just don’t know.Van Susteren: I spoke to Dr. Fauci who works at NIH, several times and very early on and we were talking about vaccines and he said he would be very hopeful with a with a protection of 50, and that he was thrilled with 70. Now we’re reading you know 94,95 ish, is that you know the flu isn’t that good the flu vaccine doesn’t do that well- with this with this new approach messenger RNA can we expect that we’ll relook at like flu vaccines or is it just a completely different category, and that we can sort of up the protection there?Collins: I think it’s not so much the technology for the vaccine. it’s the nature of the actual virus. influenza has this nasty ability to change its coat, every year in a very substantial way. And no matter how clever your vaccine is if the virus is like completely changed its appearance the vaccine won’t give you immunity anymore so I don’t think we’ll be able, through this approach to solve the influence issue there may be other ways to do that by a Universal influenza vaccine. We just seem to be fortunate though that coronavirus is particularly susceptible to the vaccine. I didn’t dare to hope that we’d end up with efficacy over 70%, and to see these first two coming through at 95% is incredibly exciting and provides a great deal of hope that we will be able to get through the next few months and be able to put this in the rearview mirror, but we’ve got a long way to go.Van Susteren: With the influence of changing its code so to speak so often, in looking at the coronavirus with the virus that you saw last February, March is at the same virus you were looking at now or is it likewise trying to change its code.Collins: It’s pretty much the same. It’s an RNA virus, it does change its spelling when it gets copied and there’s lots of bad virus out there that has the chance to change its spelling and we’ve seen two or three instances where there’s a new version that maybe has a little bit of an advantage maybe it’s a bit more infectious and so that new version starts to rise up in its frequency so far nothing that we’re alarmed about in terms of affecting the likelihood that the vaccine is going to work, but we have to watch that closely and again over the course of many years it’s possible, a new a new version might arise that the vaccine doesn’t work very well for and then we’d have to redesign the vaccine.Van Susteren: You know I’m old enough to remember landed on the moon that was such a huge game changer, you know, for the United States, I likewise see this I mean moving so quickly in a vaccine something that is, you know, that is terrorizing the world I mean it really is quite extraordinary isn’t it.Collins: It is, Greta, and you know 2020 has been just a terrible year for so many people with the suffering and death of this terrible pandemic with economic distress it’s caused. And I must say, for science, it has been a challenge like one we’ve really not quite had to deal with before for life science, and it is really wonderful to see the way science has come forward. All of the partners in industry and academia and government, working together in an unprecedented way not worrying too much about who’s going to get the credit to make these things happen at a scale and a timetable that was unimaginable before and I hope that’s being noticed and I hope a lot of young people watching that might have the same reaction they did when we went to the moon saying, That looks like fun. I want to be part of that too because we have a lot more science to do in the future.Van Susteren: Well I guess we could use more help from the people who are watching the science I think it stopped congregating in huge, you know, huge herds of people, because you know this is all hands on deck, sort of, so to speak.Collins: Yeah. And that is something to really keep in mind even though we are seeing this promise of a vaccine that’s going to get us through this, it will be many months before we have enough people in the community immunized that we could stop worrying about transmission. So for the coming months. People need to double down on those careful measures — wearing your mask watching your distance washing your hands those three W’s more important than ever, and nobody should imagine that this is about somebody else and not about them even a young person who imagines that they’re pretty immortal and even if they get this virus, they’re going to be fine and they could be the next super spreader. and if you care about the people around you, your neighbors your parents, your grandparents, then it’s got to be up to you to all of us to take that responsibility seriously. We have holidays coming where the risks are going to go up, if people relax their guard. I’m not going to have Christmas with my family this year first time didn’t have Thanksgiving with my family this year either first time, but it’s the way that we all have to wrap our arms around responsibility for 2020, as a year of, we got to get through this. And we got to get through it together.Van Susteren: And I suspect that NIH is also working on treatments, new therapies to to fight this to the for the person who does get COVID.Collins: We are indeed and that’s an intense part of how I’m spending my time and we’ve made some real progress there. We have the drug remdesivir, which is an antiviral that helps people who are quite sick in the hospital. We have dexamethasone a steroid that also helps people who are the sickest of the sick in the ICU. And we have monoclonal antibodies developed from people who’ve survived COVID-19 basically purifying their antibodies that help them recover and giving them to other people, showing real promises, especially if you give those early to high risk individuals, and we have other trials that are going on right now that may very well yield up other immunosuppressives or antivirals that can add to this compared to where we were back in February and March where we didn’t have much of anything we’ve now got quite a menu of therapeutics and survival has certainly improved for people who get very sick with this but it’s still a very serious disease we’ve lost 275,000 people. And this is a scary few months that we’re looking at with wintertime, and with the vaccine not yet as widely available as it will be by the summer.Van Susteren: you talked about Remdesivir the other antiviral is to reduce the viral load, you get those when you get to the hospital, and you’re very sick. When I get the flu. I call the doctor calls in a prescription for something called Tamiflu and I get a pill and could just go to the drugstore sir I headed off at the past before I get so sick to the hospital is are there efforts being made to make these antivirals, not when you get real sick and end up in hospital but to back it up when you first get sick?Collins: Yes, there are efforts of that sort, so far, none of those antivirals have yet been approved for outpatients. remdesivir is an intravenous drug which makes it not so convenient for people who are not in the hospital, what is approved for outpatients what I mentioned a minute ago. these monoclonal antibodies from Lilly and from regeneron, which while they’re in somewhat limited supply can absolutely greatly help people who are at high risk, just got diagnosed get the monoclonal in the first three days after symptoms, and you can greatly reduce the likelihood that person ends up in the hospital.Van Susteren: Is dexamethasone so the last question I have is dexamethasone, which is the steroid, which is what you get in the hospital and when when you’ve really been when you’ve got a huge problem -would prednisone which is a steroid that is prescribed by pill. Would that be at all helpful in in minimizing the risk of how sick you get or not?Collins: It’s all about timing, Greta, and these steroids are basically keeping your immune system from overreacting and causing more damage than help and that is often what seems to happen with the sickest people in the ICU, who’ve developed really bad lung disease and other systemic problems. At that point the virus is almost gone but the immune system is going crazy. And by dialing it back sort of turning down the thermostat for your immune system you can help people survive. On the other hand, you need your immune system early in the course of a viral infection you want it to be out there cracking down that virus and taking care of it so it’s probably a bad idea to give prednisone or dexamethasone to somebody who’s early in the course save that for the people who are laid in the course and are still really sick, and you may help them.Van Susteren: Because under the theory that your immune system you don’t want to tell your immune system not to work. What you want to do is what, when you get to the point where the virus is gone is you don’t want your immune system to overwork and give you another problem and that’s when the steroid comes in to tell your immune system stop. Right?Collins: Exactly, exactly. And we’re looking at some other immune suppressive that might be even more specific than dexamethasone, which is a pretty broad acting anti-inflammatory drug. Maybe there’s a more subtle directed way to do this that would even be better and that’s under study right now, several trials. Also, one more thing here in that space. We know that those people who are really sick also developed a problem with too many blood clots in the lungs, clots in small vessels. And so using an anticoagulant to actually thin the blood may also help people survive and that’s another big study that’s underway right now it looks pretty promising.Van Susteren: Which is so interesting because older people tend to be on those types of drugs for heart, you know, medication so that they some of them are already on that.Collins: That’s right, they may be somewhat protected ironically against the worst aspects of COVID-19 if they’re already in the blood thinner, but a lot of people aren’t, and those folks may need one if they’re in that very serious circumstance where blood clotting is starting to be part of the problem.Van Susteren: Well, as Dr. Birx told me is you can’t get the virus if you don’t go near it. So, you know, keep your hands clean masks and stay out of groups, you know, that’s, you know, stay away from people.Collins: Absolutely, especially indoors where we know the spread is so easy and unfortunately that means a lot of family gatherings which tend to be indoors with people eating and not wearing masks and I’m fearful that with this holiday season upon us. People will be too careless about that. We are not out of the woods here, we have a very challenging few months ahead, and the best things we can do while cheering for the science and waiting for our turn to get the vaccine is to practice those three W’s absolutely wear your mask, watch your distance wash your hands.Van Susteren: What about surfaces boxes that come to the house, you know people who come into your house and we may not be near, but they touch the surface.Collins: You know, we worried more about that early on, I am there is some possibility of viral spread there, but it does not seem to be a major effect so at my house we stopped wiping off all the boxes that came to the front door. After seeing some of the data that’s probably a very low risk, compared to all of the other things which is basically these droplets, that are being expressed by all of us when we speak. Certainly, when we sing. All of those things where that’s the most likely place to catch this illness.Van Susteren: Doctor thank you very much and thanks to NIH and you know for, you know, I think the world’s very grateful for all the work that all of you do.Collins: Well, it’s a privilege to be able to be the guy trying to manage this effort with such an amazing team of dedicated scientists and we are going to get through this and science is going to be a big reason why.Van Susteren: Thank you, sir.

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Benton-Banai, Co-Founder of American Indian Movement, Dies at 89

Eddie Benton-Banai, who helped found the American Indian Movement partly in response to alleged police brutality against Indigenous people, has died. He was 89.Benton-Banai died Monday at a care center in Hayward, Wisconsin, where he had been staying for months, according to family friend Dorene Day. Day said Benton-Banai had several health issues and had been hospitalized multiple times in recent years.Benton-Banai, who was Anishinaabe Ojibwe, was born and raised on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in northern Wisconsin. He made a life of connecting American Indians with their spirituality and promoting sovereignty, and was the grand chief, or spiritual leader, of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. Day said he was someone people looked to for guidance in the religious practice of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe people — and he gave countless babies their traditional names.Benton-Banai’s place in the American Indian Movement, a grassroots group formed in 1968, can be traced to his launch of a cultural program in a Minnesota prison, said co-founder Clyde Bellecourt.’It started because I met Eddie in jail’Bellecourt was in solitary confinement when he heard someone whistling You are My Sunshine, and he looked through a tiny hole in his cell and saw Benton-Banai, a fellow inmate, recognizing him as an Indigenous man.Bellecourt said Benton-Banai approached him about helping incarcerated Indigenous people, and they started the prison’s cultural program to teach American Indians about their history and encourage them to learn a trade or seek higher education. Bellecourt said that Benton-Banai thought they could do the same work in the streets, and the program morphed into the American Indian Movement, an organization that persists today with various chapters.”It started because I met Eddie in jail,” Bellecourt said. “Our whole Indian way of life came back because of him. … My whole life just changed. I started reading books about history of the Ojibwe nation… dreaming about how beautiful it must have been at one time in our history.”One of the group’s first acts was to organize a patrol to monitor allegations of police harassment and brutality against Native Americans in Minneapolis, where it’s based. Its work included job training, efforts to seek better housing and education for Indigenous people, provide legal assistance and question government policies.At times, the American Indian Movement’s tactics were militant. In one of its most well-known actions, the group took over Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to protest U.S. and tribal governments. The 71-day occupation turned violent, and two people died in a shootout.Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University in Maryland, said Benton-Banai’s roots in the group often got overshadowed by more powerful personalities in the movement, including Russell Means, Dennis Banks and John Trudell.”It’s a shame, because clearly when we listen to the people who were there, they all mention him,” said Reinhardt, who has written broadly about the movement.International Indian Treaty CouncilLisa Bellanger, executive director of the National American Indian Movement and Benton-Banai’s former assistant, said he was instrumental in the group’s work using treaties to protect the rights of Indigenous people. He was also part of a team that pushed for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, she said, as government policies stifled or outlawed religious practices. The law safeguarded the rights of American Indians to practice their religion and access sacred sites.Bellanger said Benton-Banai also helped launch the International Indian Treaty Council, which advocates for the rights of Indigenous nations to govern themselves, and for the protection of tradition, culture and sacred land.But in addition to his activism work, Benton-Banai was also a father figure.”We could always go to him with questions,” Bellanger said. “We could run crying to him if we needed to. We had that personal faith and trust and love in him, at a time that was crucial for young girls.”Day said Benton-Banai was raised by his grandparents and grew up speaking Ojibwe.”He had a very solid spiritual foundation to his traditional and Indigenous learning, and that’s what made him, I believe, who he was,” she said.His book, The Mishomis Book, is touted as the first of its kind to offer Anishinaabe families an understanding of spiritual teachings.Benton-Banai also founded a school in St. Paul in 1972, called the Red School House, which — along with its sister school in Minneapolis — fueled a broader movement to provide alternative education for Indigenous children so they could learn while maintaining their spiritual and cultural practices, Day said.Bellecourt said American Indian Movement’s philosophy of using the sovereignty and spirituality of Indigenous people as a strength can be attributed to Benton-Banai’s leadership.”I considered him our holy man,” he said.

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Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic Decathlon Champion, Dies at 86 

Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.He died at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, according to family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.Johnson was among the world’s greatest athletes from 1955 through his Olympic triumph in 1960, winning a national decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics that same year.His Olympic career included carrying the U.S. flag at the 1960 Games and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games. Johnson set world records in the decathlon three different times amid a fierce rivalry with his UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the former Soviet Union.Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 while competing in just his fourth decathlon. At a welcome home meet afterward in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record, breaking the mark of his childhood hero, two-time Olympic champion Bob Mathias.Devoted to KennedyOn June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton in apprehending Sirhan Sirhan moments after he shot Kennedy, who died the next day.”I knew he did everything he could to take care of Uncle Bobby at his most vulnerable moment,” Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, said by phone. “His devotion to Uncle Bobby was pure and real. He had protected his friend. Even after Uncle Bobby’s death he stayed close.”Johnson later called the assassination “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on August 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family, including his brother Jim, a future NFL Hall of Fame inductee. Although some sources cite Johnson’s birth year as 1935, the family has said that is incorrect.They eventually settled in Kingsburg, near Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. It was less than 25 miles from Tulare, the hometown of Mathias, who would win the decathlon at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and prove an early inspiration to Johnson.Johnson was a standout student and played football, basketball, baseball and track and field at Kingsburg Joint Union High. At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than a track and field athlete.FILE – This Sept. 6, 1960, photo shows the top three finishers in the decathlon of the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics at Olympic Stadium in Rome: Rafer Johnson, Yang Chuan and Vasili Kuznetsov.During his junior year of high school, Johnson’s coach took him to Tulare to watch Mathias compete in a decathlon, an experience Johnson later said spurred him to take up the grueling 10-event sport.As a freshman at UCLA, where he received academic and athletic scholarships, Johnson won gold at the 1955 Pan Am Games and set a world record of 7,985 points.After winning the national decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favorite for the Olympics in Melbourne but pulled a stomach muscle and strained a knee while training. He was forced to withdraw from the long jump, for which he had also qualified, but tried to gut out the decathlon.Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell, a virtual unknown, gave the performance of his life, finishing with 7,937 points to win gold, 350 ahead of Johnson.It was the last time Johnson would ever come in second.Johnson, Yang and Kuznetzov dominated the record books between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.Kuznetzov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist whom the Soviets called their “man of steel,” broke Johnson’s world record in May 1958 with 8,016 points.Later that year at a U.S.-Soviet dual meet in Moscow, Johnson beat Kuznetzov by 405 points and reclaimed the world record with 8,302 points. Johnson won over the Soviet audience with his gutsy performance in front of what had been a hostile crowd.A car accident and subsequent back injury kept Johnson out of competition during 1959, but he was healthy again for the Olympics in 1960.Final event dramaYang was his primary competition in Rome. Yang won six of the first nine events, but Johnson led by 66 points going into the 1,500 meters, the decathlon’s final event.Johnson had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang, which was no small feat as Yang was much stronger running at distance than Johnson.Johnson finished just 1.2 seconds and six yards behind Yang to win the gold. Yang earned silver and Kuznetsov took bronze.At UCLA, Johnson played basketball for coach John Wooden, becoming a starter on the 1958-59 team. In 1958, he was elected student body president, the third Black to hold the office in school history.”He stood for what he believed in and he did it in a very classy way with grace and dignity,” Olympic champion swimmer Janet Evans said by phone.Evans last saw Johnson, who attended her 2004 wedding, at a luncheon in his honor in May 2019.”We were all there to fete him and he just didn’t want to be in the spotlight,” she said. “That was one of the things I loved about him. He didn’t want credit.”Johnson retired from competition after the Rome Olympics. He began acting in movies, including appearances in “Wild in the Country” with Elvis Presley, “None But the Brave” with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond film “License to Kill.” He worked briefly as a TV sportscaster before becoming a vice president at Continental Telephone in 1971.FILE – Rafer Johnson joins thousands at Piedmont Park to support the fight against HIV/AIDS at the 28th annual Atlanta AIDS Walk & 5K Run, Oct. 21, 2018, in Atlanta.In 1984, Johnson lit the Olympic flame for the Los Angeles Games. He took the torch from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Olympic great Jesse Owens, who ran it into the Coliseum.”Standing there and looking out, I remember thinking, ‘I wish I had a camera,’ ” Johnson said. “My hair was standing straight up on my arm. Words really seem inadequate.”Throughout his life, Johnson was widely known for his humanitarian efforts.He served on the organizing committee of the first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, working with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Johnson founded California Special Olympics the following year at a time when positive role models for the intellectually and physically disabled were rare.”Rafer really paved the path for many of us to understand the responsibilities that come with being a successful athlete and the number of lives you can impact and change,” Evans said.’An extraordinary man’Maria Shriver recalled meeting Johnson for the first time at age 10 or 11 through her mother, Eunice.”He and I joked that I’ve been in love with him ever since,” she said. “He really was an extraordinary man, such a loving, gracious, elegant, humble man who handled his success in such a beautiful way and stayed so true to himself throughout his life.”Peter Ueberroth, who chose Johnson to light the Olympic torch in 1984, called him “just one great person, a marvelous human being.”Johnson worked for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association and American Red Cross. In 2016, he received the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest award for extraordinary accomplishments. The school’s track is named for Johnson and his wife, Betsy.His children, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, were athletes themselves. Jenny was a beach volleyball player who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is on the coaching staff of UCLA’s beach volleyball team. Josh competed in javelin at UCLA, where he was an All-American.Besides his wife of 49 years and children, he is survived by son-in-law Kevin Jordan and four grandchildren.

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Even Trump-Appointed Judges Balk at President’s Efforts to Overturn Election

Federal judge Stephanos Bibas pulled no punches when he issued a scathing opinion last Saturday rejecting the Trump campaign’s latest attempt to overturn the outcome of the November 3 presidential election.“Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so,” Bibas wrote in a FILE – Election workers, right, verify ballots as recount observers, left, watch during a Milwaukee hand recount of presidential votes at the Wisconsin Center, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 20, 2020.But Bibas, 51, is not just another judge on another court. He is a Trump appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, with jurisdiction over Pennsylvania and two other states. A former member of the conservative Federalist Society, Bibas was appointed in 2017, one of 53 appellate judges the president has put on the federal bench since he took office, more than any other president since Jimmy Carter.   Bibas is not the only Republican-appointed federal judge to dismiss Trump’s claims of rampant voting fraud and tabulation irregularities. Steven Grimberg of the Northern District of Georgia and several other Republican-appointed judges, have ruled against the president.   Judicial independence To skeptics who view judges as little more than politicians in robes prone to issuing politically motivated opinions, the notion that a Trump-appointed judge would weigh against the president’s interests may be hard to fathom.   But that is a misconception, said Joseph R. Grodin, a former associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Despite the country’s deep political and ideological divisions, “judicial independence is alive and well,” he said in an interview with VOA.  Grodin said most judges simply follow the law and decide cases on their merits, so it was no surprise that Bibas found the evidence-free Trump lawsuit without merit.  Jonathan Turley, a conservative law professor at George Washington University, noted that federal judges are given life tenures designed to protect them from political influence.  “The federal courts have worked precisely as designed in the last four years, but particularly in the last four weeks,” he said. “Federal judges, including Trump appointees, have consistently ruled against the president’s challenges to the election. They have stated that the president has not submitted sufficient evidence to justify the type of sweeping relief that he has requested.”  FILE – A canvas observer photographs Lehigh County provisional ballots during vote counting in Allentown, Pennsylvania, November 6, 2020.Republican-appointed judges did not always side with the Democrats on important election issues throughout the 2020 campaign cycle, particularly regarding mail-in voting during the pandemic, a concept Trump and Republicans vigorously attacked as prone to corruption. In the months leading up to the general election, while a number of federal district courts upheld efforts by states to accommodate voting by mail, Trump-appointed appellate judges often cast the deciding vote to block them, according to Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky.   Justin Levitt, a former Justice Department official and a professor at Loyola Law School, said that while Trump’s appointments have made the federal judiciary clearly more conservative, courts have been acting as they were designed to perform.   “That hasn’t changed in the post-election period, and there’s no reason to expect that it would,” Levitt said.   Levitt said the courts have afforded the Trump campaign and other Republican plaintiffs ample opportunity to make their case that the election was marred by widespread fraud.  “And at every stage, the litigants have failed to come forward with any reliable evidence that anything improper happened,” Levitt said in an interview with VOA.   FILE – The Maricopa County Elections Department officials conduct a post-election logic and accuracy test for the general election as observers watch the test, November 18, 2020, in Phoenix, Arizona.Bibas’ opinion on behalf of the 3rd Circuit came in response to a major lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign on November 9, two days after Biden was declared the presidential winner after securing Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.   The FILE – Ghana Goodwin-Dye signals to motorists participating in a drive-by rally to certify the presidential election results near the Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, November 14, 2020.And in Georgia, another state Trump lost, Grimberg, who was appointed by Trump in 2019, threw out a lawsuit seeking to stop the certification of the state’s election results.  “To interfere with the result of an election that has already concluded would be unprecedented and harm the public in countless ways,” he wrote. “Granting injunctive relief here would breed confusion, undermine the public’s trust in the election, and potentially disenfranchise over one million Georgia voters.” Supreme Court While Trump wants the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his cause, experts say the high court is all but certain to shun a case that has been repeatedly dismissed by the lower courts.   Turley said Republicans have raised legitimate concerns about voting irregularities but that Trump’s “reckless rhetoric” about fraud has undermined his legal prospects before the high court.    “I cannot imagine a worse approach to seeking relief before the United States Supreme Court,” Turley said.  Even if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, it is far from certain that the justices will rule in Trump’s favor. Turley noted that two of Trump’s three Supreme Court picks — Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — have voted against Trump and his administration on key issues.  With his court losses mounting, Trump appears increasingly resigned to the fact that he may not be able to get the Supreme Court to rule in his favor.   

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Georgia Republicans Show Party Is Not a Monolithic Group

President Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud have put doubt in the minds of many Republicans. One state that has seen recounts after the election is Georgia, a state that has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1992. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee shows the diversity of opinions among Republicans on the outcome of the presidential election.Producer: Barry Unger. Camera: Joel Brewer, Michael Catron.

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