Feb 24, 2021: Coronavirus Variant Bedevils Scientists
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First, the bad news: A new variant of the coronavirus has emerged in California, and doctors are warning that it’s both fast-spreading and deadly. The good news is, drug companies say they are ready and able to boost vaccine production.
Meanwhile, the most populous county in Texas is opening an investigation into who’s responsible for the infrastructure crisis that followed last week’s storms. And the Bidens are planning to visit Houston later this week.
And lastly, in Minneapolis, a new federal grand jury has been impaneled to hear evidence against Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed George Floyd. The city is calling in outside police and National Guard forces ahead of Chauvin’s state trial early next month.
THESE ARE THE STORIES YOU NEED TO KNOW:
A coronavirus variant that emerged in mid-2020 and surged to become the dominant strain in California not only spreads more readily than its predecessors, but also evades antibodies generated by Covid-19 vaccines or prior infection, researchers told the Los Angeles Times. This California variant is associated with severe illness and death. In a study that helps explain the state’s dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths – and portends further trouble ahead – scientists at UC San Francisco said the mutations that characterize the strain mark it as a variant of concern on par with those from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. Doctor Charles Chiu, who led the UCSF team, said QUOTE The devil is already here ENDQUOTE.
According to the Times, they call the new variant B-1-427 slash B-1-429. It will probably account for ninety percent of California’s infections by the end of next month. The new evidence that the California variant could make people sicker, and vaccines less effective, should spur more intensive efforts to drive down infections, Chiu said. He added that those should include both public health measures, such as masking and limits on public activities, and a campaign of rapid vaccinations.
About those vaccines: Drug companies told lawmakers yesterday that they project a major increase in vaccine deliveries that will result in one hundred and forty million more doses over the next five weeks, the Washington Post reports. The companies say they have solved manufacturing challenges and are in a position to overcome scarcity that has hampered the nation’s fight against the coronavirus. But achieving a surge on that scale remains daunting. Pfizer and Moderna will need to deliver twenty-eight million doses each week by March 31st, far greater than their performance so far. Come on, Big Pharma, you can do this.
Biden's Will Visit Houston
After the storm comes the search for accountability. According to the Texas Tribune, Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to Texas’ recent electricity disaster. They will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission. Dozens of Texans died because of last week’s winter storm, which caused damages throughout the state that experts say could cost billions. Governor Greg Abbott blasted the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for its handling of the emergency. He declared reform of the organization an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee will request authorization to take legal action from county comissioners on Friday, the Tribune reports. He said that operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system. Menefee said there was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, but QUOTE the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action ENDQUOTE. State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, Democrat of San Antonio, sent a letter to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office urging it to launch its own investigation.
Meanwhile, the Tribune reports, President Joe Biden plans visit Texas on Friday. The president and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Houston – that’s the Harris County seat. Biden has engaged from afar with state and local officials but stated a reluctance to come to Texas too soon because he didn't want his traveling entourage to pull resources from the crisis at hand. Over the weekend, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for more than one hundred Texas counties. Impacted individuals and business owners in those counties can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.
New Floyd Grand Jury
Some updates on the quest for justice, thanks to the New York Times. A new federal grand jury has been empaneled in Minneapolis and the Justice Department has called new witnesses as part of its investigation of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who will go on trial in state court next month on a murder charge for the death of George Floyd. The fresh slate of witnesses subpoenaed to give testimony about Chauvin is an early sign that the federal investigation into the death of Floyd, which began last year and then languished, is being reinvigorated under the Biden administration.
It is unlikely that the Justice Department is hoping for a quick indictment of Chauvin before his state trial, which is scheduled to begin March 8, the Times reports. But if there was an acquittal or a mistrial, attention would immediately shift to the federal investigation. As Chauvin’s trial looms, Minneapolis is consumed with fears about more unrest. The National Guard has been activated, and law enforcement agencies from around the state are descending upon the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, the Times reports, a man whose skull was fractured after he was shoved to the ground by police officers at a protest in Buffalo, New York last year has filed a lawsuit against the city and members of its police force. The man, Martin Gugino, claims in the lawsuit that he was forcibly assaulted by the police, and that officers walked by as he lay unconscious on the sidewalk, blood pouring from his fractured skull. The suit, filed on Monday in federal court, also alleges that officials tried to conceal the assault. The Buffalo Police Department said at the time that he tripped and fell during a skirmish after an 8 PM curfew. Likely story.
AND NOW FOR SOME QUICKER QUICKIES:
Steven Mnuchin, who was treasury secretary in the Trump administration, is planning to start an investment fund that is expected to raise money from sovereign wealth funds in the Persian Gulf region, the Washington Post reports. His planned investment effort, coming so soon after leaving office, raises concerns over whether government policy was influenced by Mnuchin’s future pursuits. Of course, the whole administration worked that way.
Politico reports that Al Jazeera is launching Rightly, a new digital platform aiming to serve conservative audiences. According to the Guardian, some Al Jazeera staff have privately expressed dismay at the launch of Rightly, wondering how it squared with the network’s previously stated commitments to giving voice to marginalized communities. But nobody’s more marginalized that American conservatives – just ask them!
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon yesterday introduced a bill that would sanction Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, the Associated Press reports. Hernández in recent years has leaned on his support within the US government when facing domestic opposition and allegations of connections to drug traffickers. Merkley’s bill also seeks to prohibit the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets that Honduran security forces have deployed against protesters.
Officials in charge of security for the US Capitol on January 6th blamed poor intelligence for the deadly riot that threatened the peace…