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CDC Says Studies Show Boosters Offer Increased Protection Against Omicron 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has evidence COVID-19 vaccines work against the omicron variant. 

Citing three studies, the CDC said the vaccines appear to work particularly well for those who received booster shots. The U.S. studies are the first to examine the effectiveness of the vaccines on the omicron variant. 

One study said it found that vaccines were effective in lowering hospitalizations and urgent care center visits after three doses of Pfizer or Moderna.  

The study said three shots were 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations during both the delta and omicron surges.  

It said protection against urgent care center visits fell from 94% during the delta wave to 82% during the omicron wave. 

Another study focused on deaths and found those who had received boosters had the highest protection against infection from both delta and omicron. 

The third study looked at those who had been vaccinated and then tested positive with COVID-19. It said three shots of Pfizer or Moderna were 67% effective against symptomatic cases of omicron compared with unvaccinated people.  

Two of the studies found the protection offered by the vaccines wanes to varying degrees as time goes on. 

“If you are eligible for a booster and you haven’t gotten it, you are not up to date and you need to get your booster,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Friday. 

Also during the briefing, Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days.  

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections.  

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and [we] may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.”  ​

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Biden Pushes Expansion of Domestic Semiconductor Manufacturing

U.S. President Joe Biden touted a $20 billion investment by American technology company Intel to build a semiconductor factory in Ohio to address a global shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war.

In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden said the Intel factory, part of the administration’s effort to work with the private sector, would create thousands of jobs. He urged Congress to pass legislation to further expand domestic chip manufacturing, framing it in the context of strategic competition with China.

“Today 75% of the production takes place in East Asia; 90% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan,” Biden said. “China is doing everything it can to take over the global market so they can try to outcompete the rest of us.”

Semiconductor chips function as the brains of cars, medical equipment, household appliances and electronic devices.

The $20 billion factory is an initial investment, said Patrick Gelsinger, chief executive officer of Intel, at the White House event.

“This site alone could grow to as much as $100 billion of total investment over the decade,” he said.

The White House pointed to other investments in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States earlier this year by Samsung, Texas Instruments and Micron.

“Congress can accelerate this progress by passing the U.S. Investment and Competition Act, also known as USICA, which the president has long championed and which he called for action on today,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, referring to legislation that aims to strengthen research, development and manufacturing for critical supply chains to address semiconductor shortages.

Driven by Washington’s desire to retain an edge over China’s technological ambitions, USICA was passed with rare bipartisan Senate support in June but still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives. It includes full funding for the CHIPS for America Act, which provides $52 billion to catalyze more private sector investments in the semiconductor industry.

“The Chinese have been really clear. They want an indigenous chip industry. They want to be globally dominant, and that means displacing the U.S. and others,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor production has fallen from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, according to government data.

Pandemic impact

The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme changes in consumer demand during lockdowns have exacerbated fragility in the global semiconductor supply chain.

“Consumer demand increased rapidly for items such as home computers, while supply could not keep up and many Chinese manufacturers were locked down,” Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, told VOA.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tariff war that began under the Trump administration and geopolitical conflicts between the two global rivals have made the environment even less conducive for cooperation, Sanders said.

The Intel factory will not be operational until 2025, but analysts say the initiative will still be effective to secure the supply of chips in the long run.

“You cannot underestimate demand for this stuff. It grows at about 10% a year,” Lewis said.

As the U.S. expands its domestic chip manufacturing capacity, analysts say a key component is working with international partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, to fill in the supply gap.

Earlier Friday, Biden discussed semiconductor supply chain resilience in his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The leaders did discuss the importance of cooperation on supply chain security, including semiconductors, and the president described what we are doing at home and underscored the importance of working together on it,” a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA.

The spokesperson added that the two countries have been working closely in this area bilaterally through the Quad, a security dialogue forum involving the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

“The new ministerial-level Economic Policy Consultative Committee (the Economic ‘2+2’) established by the leaders today will also cover this important issue,” the spokesperson said.

Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and the leading producer of advanced chips in the world, is another key partner.

“If China was to take over Taiwan, and use TSMC as a leverage point, that would be hugely disruptive,” Lewis said. “Taiwan and its proximity to China and China’s hostility drives a lot of the concern.”

The global chip shortage has pushed up inflation rates and hamstrung the administration’s economic recovery efforts. It contributed to the sharp increases in the price of new and used automobiles, which account for one-third of the annual price increases in the consumer price index.

Biden’s approval in the polls has been lagging recently, partly driven by inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history.

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White House Says COVID-19 Tests Being Shipped 

The White House says some of the at-home, free COVID-19 tests it is offering to Americans have begun shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. 

During a Friday press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said shipping started Thursday. 

He said demand has been high and added that there had already been millions of orders through the government website that was launched earlier this week. 

He would not provide specific numbers when asked, saying the White House was waiting on data. 

Americans are allowed to order four of the tests per household.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for a lack of tests during the omicron surge. 

During the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days. 

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections. 

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Judge Blocks Vaccine Mandate for US Federal Workers 

A federal judge on Friday issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the enforcement of U.S. President Joe Biden’s requirement that federal workers be vaccinated. 

Biden announced the mandate, which required 3.5 million federal workers to be vaccinated or ask for a medical or religious exemption, in September. There was no option to be regularly tested instead. 

When the mandate went into effect in November, the White House said 95% of federal workers had either been vaccinated or applied for medical or religious exemptions. 

Those not conforming to the mandate could lose their jobs. 

Judge Jeffrey Brown of Texas, writing in the injunction, questioned if a president “can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment.”

He called the mandate a “bridge too far,” citing a recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a mandate on private employers. 

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden vaccine mandate requiring companies with more than 100 workers to be fully vaccinated. The court allowed a mandate requiring certain healthcare workers to be vaccinated. 

Brown said public health could be adequately protected using masks and social distancing. 

The plaintiff in the suit is a group called Feds for Medical Freedom.

The U.S. Department of Justice said it will appeal the injunction. 

COVID-19 has killed more than 861,000 Americans. 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

 

 

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Israel Probes Allegations Police Cyber-Spied on Citizens

Israel on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations police used the controversial Pegasus spyware on the country’s citizens.

In a letter sent to police commander Koby Shabtai, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asked to receive all wiretapping and computer spying orders from 2020 and 2021 in order to “verify allegations made in the media.”

The Israeli business daily Calcalist reported Thursday that Israeli police used Pegasus software to spy on an Israeli they considered a potential threat and attempt to gather evidence that could be used as leverage in future investigations.

According to the newspaper, which did not cite any sources, the police action represents a “danger to democracy.”

Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, reacting to the story, said that “the police have not found any evidence to support this information.”

“The Israeli police are fighting crime with all the legal means at their disposal,” Shabtai added in a statement.

Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within Israel with judicial approval.

On Wednesday, Israel’s justice ministry pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has remained a source of global controversy following revelations last year it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Once installed in a mobile phone, Pegasus allows access to the user’s messaging and data, as well as remote activation of the device for sound and image capture.

NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” it said in a statement sent to AFP.

Israel’s defense ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defense industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas. 

 

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China Exports Its Traditional Medicine to Africa

Hing Pal Singh is among dozens of patients with daily appointments at the Oriental Chinese Herbal Clinic in Nairobi.

Singh, 85, has been suffering from spinal problems for five years and is now trying herbal remedies.

“There is a slight difference,” Singh said. ” … It’s only a week now. It will take at least another 12 to 15 sessions. Then we see how it goes.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is becoming more popular in Africa, according to a 2020 study by Development Reimagined, a Beijing international consulting firm.

A February 2020 op-ed written by a Beijing think tank researcher and published in the state-run China Daily said such traditional medicine would “boost the Chinese economy, contribute to global health and prove to be a shot in the arm for China’s soft power.”

Potential harm

Conventional medical doctors such as Sultan Mantendechere, though, say patients are overlooking the potential harm that some herbal remedies can cause, especially if used too frequently or at too high a dosage.

“They do work in quite a number of circumstances,” Mantendechere said. “Having said that, our main worry as practitioners, the medical practitioners, is that the use of herbal medicine is not as regulated as we would want it to

Although the safety and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine is still debated worldwide, herbal practitioners such as Li Chuan continue to gain popularity among those seeking alternative medication.

Li said some of his patients were benefiting from purported COVID-19 remedies, although there is scant scientific evidence that they can help against the disease.

“Many people buy our herbal tea to counter COVID-19,” Li said. “The results are good.” 

Environmentalists fear the growth of traditional Chinese medicine will encourage poachers to go after endangered wildlife such as rhinos and some types of snakes used in making the potions.

Daniel Wanjuki, an environmentalist and the lead expert at Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, said that “with people saying that the rhino horn may actually be used as an aphrodisiac, this has led to almost the complete eradication of the rhino species in Kenya and in Africa in general.” 

Economical — if effective 

Kenya spends an estimated $2.7 billion each year on health care, according to national statistics.

Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga said herbal medicine could significantly lower African medical expenses if proven effective.

“Africans spend quite a lot of money traveling to countries such as India and the UAE to get treatment” and would benefit if herbal medicine “can provide more natural, cost-effective health care,” he said.

In 2021, Kenya’s national drug regulator, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, approved the sale of Chinese herbal health products in the country. Practitioners such as Li hope that more nations will give approval to Chinese herbal medicine in the future.

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Austria Set to Make COVID Shots Compulsory After Bill Clears Parliament

Austria’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Thursday making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for adults as of Feb. 1, bringing Austria closer to introducing the first such sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate in the European Union.

Faced with a stubbornly high number of vaccine holdouts and a surge in infections, the government said in November it was planning the mandate. Since then it has raised the age as of which the mandate will apply, to 18 from 14.

The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities.

Roughly 72% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

After a fourth national lockdown ended last month, the extremely contagious omicron variant has pushed infections to record levels, but the government wants to avoid another lockdown.

“Making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is an emergency exit … out of the constant restrictions on our personal and fundamental rights like the ones we have had to endure in the past two years,” the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who is also a doctor, told parliament.

Many lawmakers from her party and the liberal Neos backed the bill, joining the government coalition of conservatives and Greens, meaning it cleared its main hurdle easily with 137 votes for to 33 against.

The bill imposes fines of up to $680 on holdouts once checks begin on March 15. Those who challenge that initial fine unsuccessfully face a maximum fine of $4,080.

Italy has made COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for those 50 and older, while Greece has done the same for over-60s, and various European countries have done so for some professions like medical staff.

“This vaccine mandate strips people of their rights. In one move, millions of Austrians will be downgraded,” said Herbert Kickl, leader of the far-right and anti-vaccine Freedom Party.

He added that the mandate would make holdouts “second-class citizens” and his party would challenge it in the courts.

 

 

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Senate Panel Moves Forward With Bill Targeting Big Tech

Legislation that would bar technology companies from favoring their own products in a way that undermines competitiveness moved forward Thursday after a Senate panel voted to move the bill to the Senate floor. 

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act received bipartisan support in a 16-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The bill targets Amazon; Alphabet, the parent company of Google; Apple; and Meta, which was formerly called Facebook. 

The companies had worked strenuously to sink the bill, arguing it could disrupt their services. 

Smaller tech companies that supported the bill argued it will benefit consumers through adding competition. 

“This bill is not meant to break up Big Tech or destroy the products and services they offer,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the judiciary panel. “The goal of the bill is to prevent conduct that stifles competition.” 

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, was critical of the bill and said he thought it would not pass the full Senate. 

“Antitrust policy should aim to promote consumer welfare — not punish specific companies,” he said in a statement. 

Another bill aimed at Big Tech, which has bipartisan sponsorship, is also working its way through Congress. The Open App Markets Act would prevent the Apple and Google app stores from requiring app makers to use their payment systems. 

The House of Representatives is also considering versions of both bills. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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