FILE - Tourists seated on ski lifts arrive at Plan de Corones ski area, Italy South Tyrol, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) (Luca Bruno/)
The return of stricter covid restrictions to fight the latest variant, omicron, has already left some travelers stranded. For many tourism businesses, it’s also threatening hopes of an upcoming holiday boost this year - especially after last year’s shutdowns emptied out popular destinations from the Colosseum in Rome to the resort island of Bali.
“There was a kind of sunrise on the horizon” earlier this year, said Tobias Warnecke, the German hotel association’s economic adviser. Now, thanks to infections and rule changes roaring back, and fears over omicron, “we have a lot of cancellations, and we’re on our way down.”
With scientists rushing to better understand the variant and its high number of mutations, governments including in the United States have started tightening masking, quarantine or travel rules. Many have closed their borders to the southern region of Africa where scientists first detected the variant, though it has since popped up in more than a dozen countries, from Canada to Japan.
The timing also has the aviation industry worried. The president of Emirates airline has noted that a hit to the peak travel season in December could cause “significant traumas in the business,” which had been seeing a recovery.
The pandemic was already projected to cost the world’s tourism sector a loss of $1.6 trillion in 2021, the U.N. tourism body said, an estimate it made shortly before the discovery of the omicron variant, which the World Health Organization warns poses a “very high” global risk.
Revenue from global tourism and arrivals rebounded this year to some extent from 2020, while remaining below 2019 levels before the pandemic battered the sector, the United Nations World Tourism Organization said in a report published this week. Last year, the direct economic loss in tourism was about $2.0 trillion.
“Uneven vaccination rates around the world and new Covid-19 strains could impact the already slow and fragile recovery,” the U.N. body also warned.
Weeks before the spread of omicron, a wave of coronavirus infections had already prompted closures and curfews in much of Europe. Warnecke, from the German hotel association, described the new variant as “another bad news,” although he added it was too early to predict its full impact on hotels before it is clear how it interacts with existing vaccines.
For Golden Tours, a London tour operator that takes visitors to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour - where fans can see the sets from the Harry Potter films - trips are still going ahead but cancellations have started streaming in, according to office supervisor Frank Jacobs.
Britain’s high vaccination rates and the lifting of restrictions - including a mask mandate that has just come back - led to a rise in bookings since the summer and an expectation of booming business for the Christmas holidays, he added. “We had December completely booked up,” he said. “But now since last week, everything is changing.”
Berlin also saw “massive cancellations” in the last two weeks, according to Thomas Lengfelder, head of the city’s hotel and restaurant association. Employees were “once again very unsettled” about the possibility of a new lockdown cutting back work, he said, and called for the ramping up of vaccinations.
Still, some businesses remain optimistic about their Christmas prospects.
For Le Meurice hotel in Paris, as well as others the Dorchester Collection oversees in Rome, London and Los Angeles, omicron has yet to hit holiday bookings beyond a “slight” uptick in cancellations. “So far, despite news of the new variant, the end of this year is still looking positive for us,” the hotel operator said in an email. “2021 has definitely been a better year than 2020 and should remain so.”
People demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin/)
WASHINGTON — Abortion rights are on the line at the Supreme Court in historic arguments Wednesday over the landmark ruling nearly 50 years ago that declared a nationwide right to end pregnancies and has forged one of the most enduring fault lines in American life and politics.
The stakes for the fate of the Roe v. Wade decision have never been greater as the most conservative court of the past 40 years weighs whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks.
The state is asking the court to explicitly overturn the 1973 ruling. It’s possible the justices just uphold the Mississippi law and says nothing more, but abortion rights supporters say that would still effectively overturn the landmark decision.
Mississippi also is asking the court to overrule the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe. The arguments can be heard on the court’s website.
Supporters of both sides in the abortion debate filled the sidewalk and street in front of the court, their dueling rallies audible even from inside the building. Some carried signs reading “Her Body Her Choice” and “God Hates the Shedding of Innocent Blood.” The court stepped up security measures, including closing off some streets around the building.
The case comes to a court with a 6-3 conservative majority that has been transformed by three appointees of President Donald Trump, who had pledged to appoint justices he said would oppose abortion rights.
The court had never agreed to hear a case over an abortion ban so early in pregnancy until all three Trump appointees — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were on board.
A month ago, the justices also heard arguments over a uniquely designed Texas law that has succeeded in getting around the Roe and Casey decisions and banning abortions in the nation’s second-largest state after about six weeks of pregnancy. The dispute over the Texas law revolves around whether the law can be challenged in federal court, rather than the right to an abortion.
Anti-abortion protesters surround abortion rights advocates as both groups demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/)
Abortion rights advocates hold signs that read "Abortion is Essential" as they demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/)
Despite its unusually quick consideration of the issue, the court has yet to rule on the Texas law, and the justices have refused to put the law on hold while the matter is under legal review.
The Mississippi case poses questions central to the abortion right. Some of the debate Wednesday is likely to be over whether the court should abandon its long-held rule that states cannot ban abortion before the point of viability, at roughly 24 weeks.
More than 90% of abortions are performed in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mississippi argues that viability is an arbitrary standard that doesn’t take sufficient account of the state’s interest in regulating abortion. It also contends that scientific advances have allowed some babies who were born earlier than 24 weeks to survive, though it does not argue that the line is anywhere near 15 weeks.
Only about 100 patients per year get abortions after 15 weeks at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic. The facility does not provide abortions after 16 weeks.
But the clinic argues that the court doesn’t normally assess constitutional rights based on how few people are affected, and that the justices shouldn’t do so in this case.
Joined by the Biden administration, the clinic also says that since Roe, the Supreme Court has consistently held that the “Constitution guarantees ‘the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability.’”
Erasing viability as the line between when abortions may and may not be banned would effectively overrule Roe and Casey, even if the justices do not explicitly do that, the clinic says.
Justice Clarence Thomas is the only member of the court who has openly called for Roe and Casey to be overruled. One question is how many of his conservative colleagues are willing to join him.
Among the questions justices ask when they consider jettisoning a previous ruling is not just whether it is wrong, but egregiously so.
That’s a formulation Kavanaugh has used in a recent opinion, and Mississippi and many of its allies have devoted considerable space in their court filings to argue that Roe and Casey fit the description of being egregiously wrong.
“The conclusion that abortion is a constitutional right has no basis in text, structure, history, or tradition,” Mississippi says.
The clinic responds by arguing that the very same arguments were considered and rejected by the court nearly 30 years ago in Casey. Only the membership of the court has changed since then, the clinic and its allies argue.
In its earlier rulings, the court has rooted the right to abortion in the section of the 14th Amendment that says states cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Same-sex marriage and other rights, based on the same provision but also not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, could be threatened if Roe and Casey fall, the administration argues. Mississippi and its supporters dispute that those other decisions would be at risk.
Abortion arguments normally would find people camped out in front of the court for days in the hope of snagging some of the few seats available to the public. But with the courthouse closed because of COVID-19, there will be only a sparse audience of reporters, justices’ law clerks and a handful of lawyers inside the courtroom.
A decision is expected by late June, a little more than four months before next year’s congressional elections, and could become a campaign season rallying cry.
Associated Press writer Parker Purifoy contributed from Washington.
Jackson Women's Health Organization In Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 22. Photo by Emily Kask for The Washington Post.
When the abortion doctor lost his medical license in 2004, Nancy Atkins wasn’t sure how she could keep going. Malachy DeHenre had been the only doctor at the clinic Atkins owned in Jackson, Miss. Recruiting OB/GYNs to perform abortions anywhere was difficult, but in Mississippi, Atkins had learned, it was nearly impossible. The state had the toughest regulations and the most ardent antiabortion protesters. One activist even regularly told people that killing an abortion provider might count as “justifiable homicide.”
Seventeen years later, Atkins isn’t surprised that her state is the one that some legal observers believe is poised to overturn or seriously undermine Roe v. Wade. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to Mississippi’s law banning most abortions after 15 weeks. Roe protects a person’s constitutional right to abortion before viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.
Antiabortion protesters outside Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo by Emily Kask for The Washington Post.
For 25 years, lawmakers and antiabortion activists had worked tirelessly to put Atkins’s clinic out of business. When they succeeded in 2004, she knew she’d be leaving the state with just one abortion provider. Thousands of people would have a harder time accessing the procedure, but Atkins felt she’d fought as long as she could. She was tired, and the work had become too difficult.
As lawmakers passed increasingly stringent regulations in the decades after Roe, protesters grew more emboldened, and Mississippi was left with a patchwork of doctors, most of whom wound up in trouble with the law. Activists elsewhere dismissed the state as especially radical or backward, local abortion rights activists say, but the people on the ground knew that what happened in Mississippi could happen anywhere.
Now, the future of abortion access in the country could rest on the outcome of a lawsuit filed against the lone clinic that remains.
Mississippi has always been one of the hardest places to obtain an abortion, but the history of access there tells the larger story of what happened in America after 1973, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade guaranteed a person’s right to abortion. In the early days following the ruling, feminist-minded OB/GYNs rushed to provide the newly legal procedure. Some, like the young gynecologist who opened Mississippi’s first clinic in 1975, said they turned to the practice because they’d treated people who’d had botched abortions before the procedure was legal. Without safe access, they knew, people could fall gravely ill, or even die.
By the mid-1980s, Mississippi had more than a dozen abortion providers, and the country as a whole had close to 3,000. Then, in the mid-1980s, as antiabortion protesters began bombing clinics and threatening doctors, that number abruptly began to dip nationwide. By 1990, nearly 1,000 doctors had quit, and 84% of counties nationwide had no abortion clinic at all, according to surveys conducted then by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights.
Surveys of OB/GYNs from this time reveal a number of reasons doctors declined to offer abortions. Some, particularly younger doctors, were morally opposed or said they hadn’t learned the procedure in medical school. Most said they feared the wave of brash new protesters. And, on top of it all, work at abortion clinics typically didn’t pay as much as other medical jobs did.
The doctors who remained largely had their choice of clinics, and rural states were impacted the most.
By 1992, North Dakota had one provider, and West Virginia was down to five, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The decline was equally precipitous in Mississippi. The number of providers there declined throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, from 13 in 1982 to eight in 1992, Guttmacher reported. (Guttmacher surveyed clinics, hospitals and physicians’ offices.) And in 1993, the state had three registered clinics open, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.
The state also led the way in passing abortion restrictions. In 1992, it became the first to require a 24-hour waiting period, and the following year, after a lengthy court battle, a law began requiring parental consent for patients under the age of 18.
Sidewalk counselors offer an outgoing patient of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, a state-licensed abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., some anti-abortion reading material and information about adoption, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that directly challenges the constitutional right to an abortion established nearly 50 years ago. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (Rogelio V. Solis/)
Between the restrictions and the protesters, Atkins said, clinic owners in Mississippi had no choice but to accept any doctor who wanted to work for them. Because of Mississippi’s particular scarcity, those doctors often came with issues, setting them apart from the vast majority of abortion providers today. Some physicians cut corners; others broke the law or found themselves in malpractice trouble. One of the first abortion doctors Atkins employed was a brilliant man, “so smart you almost couldn’t talk to him,” Atkins said, but a few years after he started working for her, police arrested him on charges of mailing videotapes of child pornography. He pleaded guilty.
Atkins looked for a replacement, but by the early 1990s, abortion doctors “were few and far between,” Atkins said. “And there were no doctors beating down the door to work here.”
By the early 1990s, Mississippi had only a handful of abortion doctors. Just one - Tommy Tucker - performed between 60 and 70% of the procedures, according to news reports at the time. Tucker had started doing abortions in the mid-1980s, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported, after a “rift” with administrators at the hospital where he worked in Birmingham, Ala.
“I don’t want to do abortions, God knows,” Tucker told the paper in 1993. “I do it for the money.”
Tucker was known as a “circuit rider,” hopping between several clinics across Mississippi and Alabama. At the two Mississippi clinics he owned, Mississippi Women’s Medical Clinic in Jackson and Tri-State Women’s Clinic in Southaven, Miss., he was the only regular doctor.
At his clinics, Tucker had a reputation for cutting corners to make extra cash, multiple people said. By 1994, he was facing a 34-count complaint from the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, which included allegations that he mishandled prescription drugs and allowed unlicensed staff to perform medical procedures. In the hearing before the medical board, a former employee accused him of fudging gestational ages so he could jack up his prices. The family of a woman who died after Tucker performed her abortion also accused him in a civil suit of medical malpractice.
When presented with a detailed list of the allegations in this piece, Tucker said, “75% of what you reported is a lie.” He did not elaborate.
Tucker was not the only abortion doctor in Mississippi to face malpractice claims in the 1990s and early 2000s. Because Mississippi was such a difficult place to be an abortion provider, clinics were often left with doctors “on the bottom rungs of the medical ladder,” said John Jones, who represented several clinics in the state in the early 1990s.
In the 1990s, abortion was considered a “rogue procedure” by much of the medical community, said Eve Espey, a spokeswoman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and chair of the OB/GYN department at the University of New Mexico. Leading professional organizations like ACOG were “completely silent” on the issue, she said, and top-notch abortion training was hard to come by, leading to a scarcity of well-trained providers.
That changed in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Espey said, as ACOG and other organizations began to speak publicly on the importance of quality abortion care. Now, many OB/GYN residencies include abortion training as a standard part of the curriculum, especially in the northeast and on the West Coast, which has yielded a large group of highly qualified and committed abortion doctors, Espey said. While antiabortion activists still talk about the relative dangers of abortion, studies show it’s an extremely safe procedure. Major complications occur in less than a quarter of 1% of abortions, a frequency comparable to colonoscopies.
While abortion rights activists were troubled by the allegations about Tucker’s behavior, they felt they had to stick by him, said Gail Chadwick, the spokeswoman for the abortion rights group Pro-Choice Mississippi in the early 1990s.
“It was either the doctor or a coat hanger, is what it boils down to,” she said.
Allen Siders, an anti-abortion activist, preaches outside of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, a state-licensed abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. A small group of anti-abortion activists stood outside the clinic in an effort to dissuade patients from entering. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that directly challenges the constitutional right to an abortion established nearly 50 years ago. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (Rogelio V. Solis/)
Jones said doctors in Mississippi were also “under a microscope,” with antiabortion protesters stationed outside of their clinics. When protester Doug Lane noticed a distressed-looking couple leaving Tucker’s clinic in the early 1990s, he said he followed them to the hospital, where he introduced himself and, hearing that the woman was experiencing complications, offered to help them contact a lawyer. The couple filed a lawsuit in April 1994, according to news reports. Lane said they won significant damages.
“These doctors were such sleazebags,” Lane said, referring to Tucker and others who practiced around the same time.
The medical board ultimately found Tucker guilty of 32 of the 34 complaints and suspended Tucker’s license for a year, which shuttered his two clinics. Eleven months later, the board permanently barred Tucker from practicing medicine in Mississippi. A judge ordered Tucker to pay $10 million in damages for the death of the patient whose family sued him for medical malpractice.
Lane was thrilled to see Tucker lose his license. Without Tucker’s two clinics, he added, far fewer people could access the procedure. Antiabortion advocates celebrated the “precipitous decline” in the number of Mississippi abortions, he said.
In 1993, 6,002 abortions were performed in Mississippi, according to the state health department. In 1995, the first full year without Tucker, that number fell to 3,563.
The protesters who scrutinized Tucker had always hindered clinic owner Atkins’s ability to attract abortion providers. In the 1980s, before her clinic’s first doctor went to prison, antiabortion activists stalked his neighborhood. Once, they even knocked on the doctor’s front door and presented a small casket and a jar of fetal remains they said they’d taken from outside Atkins’s clinic, according to news accounts and court records. By the time Tucker lost his license, they’d grown especially emboldened.
Jackson’s lead protester was a man named Roy McMillan. McMillan’s wife, Beverly, opened the first abortion clinic in Mississippi in 1975, but she left the business after converting to Christianity, and the couple began speaking out against abortion together. Roy McMillan, who died in 2016, carried graphic signs, and he used a childlike voice to scream at women, “Mommy, mommy, please don’t kill me.” Police arrested him dozens of times for trespassing and blocking the clinic.
An antiabortion protester walks past escorts waiting for patients outside Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo by Emily Kask for The Washington Post.
McMillan made a national name for himself in 1993, after another abortion protester killed a doctor in Pensacola, Fla. McMillan and an activist and minister named Paul Hill began circulating what they called a “Defensive Action Statement.” In it, they declared that murdering an abortion doctor was “justifiable.” The next year, Hill shot and killed another doctor and an escort, and wounded a third person, in Pensacola. The Clarion-Ledger later reported that hours after the crime - for which Hill was executed in 2003 - McMillan went to Atkins’s clinic and confronted Joseph Booker, the lone doctor who worked there.
“Booker,” McMillan said. “You ought to stop this because someone’s going to terminate a terminator.”
Violent attacks occurred in other states, too. Between 1977 and 1994, there were 129 bombings and arson attacks at clinics. But few antiabortion activists were as blatant as McMillan was. The New York Times profiled him. He told Time Magazine in 1995, “It wouldn’t bother me if every abortionist in the country today fell dead from a bullet.”
Michelle Colon, an abortion rights activist who has worked in Mississippi and other southern states since the 1990s, said McMillan alone made doctors reluctant to work there.
“Other states, they didn’t have the name-brand antis,” Colon said. “We had someone who was friends with Paul Hill, who was outside our clinics all of the time, and that was huge. Our people celebrated him.”
The years Booker worked for Atkins were among the most violent in abortion rights history. Antiabortion activists followed Booker to the grocery store, and they huddled in the driveway outside his house. After Hill killed the abortion doctor and his escort, Booker began wearing a bulletproof vest and an Army helmet. Eventually, federal marshals began providing him around-the-clock security.
Atkins hadn’t wanted to hire Booker. The doctor had spent had spent a few years performing abortions on the Gulf Coast. He’d filed bankruptcy, and in the early 1990s, a patient won a lawsuit against him after she claimed that he’d botched her abortion. Still, Atkins hadn’t been able to find anyone else after her previous doctor went to prison for child pornography, she said, so she hired Booker. Eventually, though, his troubles caught up with him. In 2000, he went to prison for tax evasion for five months. (Booker died at home in 2013.)
Eventually, Atkins found another doctor, DeHenre, a physician who’d studied in New York then moved to Mississippi as part of a loan forgiveness program. Atkins said he was the most talented doctor she ever worked with, but in 2004, he lost his license in Alabama after a patient died. Mississippi officials revoked his license soon after. In 2008, he was convicted of manslaughter in the 1997 shooting death of his ex-wife.
Atkins considered looking for yet another doctor, but by that point, she’d run her clinic for 25 years, and she was tired of dodging McMillan every day on her way to work, she said. She had three kids, including a 4-year-old daughter with special needs, and the work had taken an emotional toll on her. For years, Atkins said, she was in the room for every procedure.
“I felt like I had had so many abortions myself from standing with patients and looking into their eyes and holding their hands,” Atkins said. “I had done my battle, I felt. I was ready to pass the torch.”
Jackson Women’s Health Organization opened in 1995, less than a year after Tucker’s license was suspended. Now known as “the Pink House,” JWHO has been the sole abortion clinic in Mississippi since Atkins closed her doors in 2004.
At the time, JWHO founder Susan Hill owned eight other clinics across the country, many in cities with no other abortion provider. Like Atkins and Brown, Hill struggled to find local physicians “brave enough and willing to provide care,” she said in 1996, according to a Supreme Court filing for the upcoming case. As antiabortion protesters - including McMillan - continued to harass employees at her clinic, she paid to fly in doctors from other states, rotating between seven doctors who worked at her other clinics.
More than two decades later, JWHO still employs no doctors who live in Mississippi. Antiabortion activists have continued to vandalize the clinic and stalk its staff. JWHO representatives meet regularly with members of the FBI to discuss security concerns.
While Hill encountered fewer of the medical licensing issues that plagued many of the other Mississippi clinics, she had to contend with a steady barrage of government restrictions. In 2004, Mississippi passed more antiabortion legislation than any other state in the country.
In a state where abortion was a “political hot potato,” Hill realized she had to be “double careful,” said Ann Rose, who started JWHO with Hill. Their staff couldn’t “cut corners,” as some of the other Mississippi doctors had done, said Betty Thompson, a counselor who worked at the Jackson clinic when it opened and later became its director. From the beginning, Hill required her staff to undergo extensive training on every aspect of clinic operations, Thompson said, including equipment sterilization and waste management.
Betty Thompson, the former director at Jackson Women's Health Organization. Photo by Emily Kask for The Washington Post.
“You followed your protocol,” she said. “You didn’t deviate.”
That attention to detail has protected the clinic, Thompson said. They’ve come close to closing several times, most recently in 2012, when they were faced with new legislation requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. A judge blocked the law the day it was slated to take effect.
The law before the Supreme Court wouldn’t necessarily shutter JWHO. The clinic only offers abortions up to 16 weeks, and the proposed law would ban the procedure after 15. But Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has asked the court to use the case to overturn Roe v. Wade, and a subsequent 1992 endorsement of abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. States should be free even to ban elective abortions so long as they show the prohibition promotes a legitimate government interest, Fitch wrote in her brief.
Lane, the Mississippi antiabortion activist, is hopeful that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe. While he’s glad that just one clinic remains open, he said, “they are still killing babies in Mississippi.” He won’t be satisfied until abortion is illegal in his home state, he said.
In their own amicus brief for the Dobbs case, advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Organization for Women argued that a ruling in favor of Mississippi might reward the tactics that McMillan and others used, ultimately emboldening others to try similar acts of violence and intimidation.
Atkins shares those fears. She assumed, when she closed her clinic in 2004, that Jackson Women’s Health would persist and that Roe would protect it.
“I fought for so many years, and I believed,” Atkins said. “It will be a sad day to me if there are no clinics here. You start unraveling one thing, and you can unravel anything.”
Firefighters, police officers and railway employees stand on a railway site in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Police in Germany say three people have been injured including seriously in an explosion at a construction site next to a busy railway line in Munich. (Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP) (Sven Hoppe/)
BERLIN — A World War II bomb exploded at a construction site next to a busy railway line in Munich on Wednesday, injuring four people, one of them seriously, German authorities said.
A column of smoke was seen rising from the site near the Donnersbergerbruecke station. The construction site for a new commuter train line is located on the approach to Munich’s central station, which is a bit over a kilometer (about a half-mile) to the east.
Trains to and from that station, one of Germany’s busiest, were suspended but service resumed in mid-afternoon. A few local trains were evacuated. The fire service said there was no damage to the tracks.
Unexploded bombs are still found frequently in Germany, even 76 years after the end of the war, and often during work on construction sites. They are usually defused or disposed of in controlled explosions, a process that sometimes entails large-scale evacuations as a precaution.
Bavaria’s state interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said the 250-kilogram (550-pound) bomb was found during drilling work, German news agency dpa reported.
Herrmann said authorities must now investigate why it wasn’t discovered earlier. He noted that such construction sites are usually scanned carefully in advance for possible unexploded bombs.
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Anchorage Police Chief Kenneth McCoy, Jr. speaks during his swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021 at Bartlett High School. McCoy is Anchorage's first Black chief of police. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)
Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy announced Tuesday night that he will retire in February.
McCoy did not provide a reason for the retirement, but said in an online statement that it came “after much reflection and thoughtful consideration.” His retirement comes less than a year after he was named acting chief and just months after he was sworn in as chief under Mayor Dave Bronson.
The announcement came as a surprise to Assembly leaders and was announced at 6 p.m. in a statement through Nixle, a messaging system used by the department for opt-in notifications via an app or email.
McCoy has been with the department for 27 years and is the first Black police chief in its 100-year history.
He stepped into the role of chief temporarily in April of 2020 when former chief Justin Doll retired. He was appointed as police chief in June by Bronson and confirmed to the job by the Anchorage Assembly at the end of July. He served as deputy chief under Doll.
McCoy said when appointed to the role that he aimed to improve community trust in the department. He hoped to expand investigation techniques into non-fatal shootings and prioritize how police handle lower-level drug crimes to better address overall community concerns.
Since he was appointed, McCoy has led the department’s efforts to implement body cameras and craft policy for use. Anchorage voters approved a property tax increase in April that would fund body cameras and a technology overhaul for the department.
“Thank you to the men and women of the Anchorage Police Department for their professionalism and unwavering dedication to service,” McCoy said in the statement. “I could not have achieved success on my own, it’s always been a team effort and I’ve been blessed to work alongside some of the finest professionals in law enforcement. As I close this chapter, I’m overcome with pride for this department and what we’ve accomplished together.”
McCoy will retire Feb. 1, the statement said.
Neither McCoy nor representatives of the mayor’s office could be immediately reached for comment.
McCoy’s announcement comes after a wave of officials from the Bronson Administration have been either fired or left their jobs. Assembly member Chris Constant said McCoy’s announcement was “not expected but understandable.”
“I just know the compromises people are having to make generally to work under for Dave Bronson,” he said by text on Tuesday. “The gate keeping at the highest levels of government and the churn of executive employees points to a systemic problem with the leadership of this administration.”
This month, planning department director Michelle McNulty announced her resignation effective Dec. 8, citing personal reasons. Bronson’s appointed library director, Judy Norton Eledge, resigned in November, although she is staying on as the library’s deputy director.
In October, four other officials resigned, including Craig Campbell, director of policy and programs and Bronson’s former chief of staff. Bob Doehl, director of development services, Dr. John Morris, homelessness coordinator, and Stephanie Williams, boards and commissions director also resigned.
Bronson’s former real estate department director is suing the city for what she says is a wrongful firing, and Anchorage’s former chief equity officer is also suing the city after being fired by Bronson.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said Tuesday that McCoy’s departure “is a loss for our community.”
“His integrity, calm demeanor, and skills gained from his service in the military all contributed to his exceptional tenure as the Deputy Chief and Chief of Police,” she said.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson read a statement statement during the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on Tuesday vetoed almost all of the Anchorage Assembly’s changes to his proposed $550 million city budget.
The Assembly unanimously approved the city’s 2022 operating budget last week after making more than a dozen changes to it. Bronson had proposed cutting $7.4 million from the budget, and the Assembly’s changes restored funding to many of the cuts, including for the Mobile Crisis Team, the School Resource Officer program in the school district, grants for prevention of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence and funding for early childhood education, among other changes.
Bronson on Tuesday reversed many of those changes. The vetoes will keep next year’s budget in line with his administration’s priorities of “public safety, an economically prosperous and business-friendly community, compassionately resolving the homelessness crises, minimizing service impacts to the public while seeking savings, re-organizing for more efficient and effective government, and aligning costs to better represent cost causer/cost payer,” Bronson said in a statement.
The vetoes also will put the city’s budget under the tax cap by $110,000, according to the mayor’s office.
The Assembly can vote to override Bronson’s vetoes with a supermajority of 8 votes. Assembly leadership said a meeting would be scheduled to consider overriding the vetoes.
Changes under the mayor’s vetoes include:
• Keeping $1 million in funding for health department staff from the alcohol tax budget. The Assembly had moved it to the health department budget.
• The Assembly had restored full funding to the Mayor’s Community Grants program. Bronson reversed that in order to keep the budget under the tax cap, according to the veto.
• Bronson vetoed $1.2 million in funding for the School Resource Officers program in the Anchorage School District. He wants the school district to reimburse the city for the program, rather than have the city pay for the police officers. The Assembly had reinstated city funding for the program for five months, through the end of the school year.
• The mayor vetoed the Assembly’s restoration of more than $1.5 million in funding to the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team. Bronson wants the funding cut in half and moved to the police department because the police have a similar program. The Assembly wants to keep the program fully funded and in the fire department. (The Mobile Crisis Team at the fire department sends a mental health clinician with a paramedic to respond to behavioral health calls.)
• The mayor vetoed the Assembly’s decrease of alcohol tax funds for a homeless shelter, day center and treatment center, citing an immediate need for the homeless population.
• Bronson vetoed several other items in the city budget, including the Assembly’s increase of alcohol tax funds for grants to prevent child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence and a portion of the increase to early childhood education grants.
• Bronson vetoed several items in the city’s utilities and capital improvements budgets, including $2.3 million in bonds in the 2022 Parks and Recreation capital improvement budget.
Last week, several Assembly members said that the Bronson administration had underestimated city tax revenue sources, including the bed tax and alcohol tax, and used increased revenue estimates to justify some of their budget changes.
In a statement justifying the vetoes, Bronson cited his concern with a recent drop in the city’s bond rating as a reason for some of the vetoes. Assembly members have questioned why the drop occurred, and whether the Bronson administration had accurately characterized the city’s financial situation in its presentation. The mayor also said that the new omicron coronavirus variant could affect the city’s future revenues.
“Without a valid funding source and with the new COVID variant and bond rating concerns, my administration cannot validate or certify the funding source increases that the Assembly attempted to provide for in their amendments,” Bronson said.
Take-home COVID-19 rapid tests will be available to incoming travelers at Anchorage International Airport starting this week
Signs advertising free COVID-19 vaccinations near the baggage claim at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)
Travelers who arrive at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport this week will be able to pick up an at-home COVID-19 test between deplaning and grabbing their luggage.
Free, over-the-counter, rapid antigen tests will be given away through a pilot program in Anchorage, with the expectation that it will expand to other airports around the state, according to state pharmacist Coleman Cutchins.
At the moment, travelers can get tested through a PCR test at the airport, with results from a commercial lab returning in about a day. That testing location will still be at the airport, but is being moved behind security, where the rapid tests kits will also be available, Cutchins said.
The rapid tests can be completed at home and results show up in under 20 minutes, Cutchins said. But, he cautioned that if negative results appear, the second test in the kit should be used 36 to 48 hours later to confirm lack of virus since false negatives can show up in rapid tests.
“We’re at this stage in the pandemic where these over-the-counter tests that make access and equity and easier,” Cutchins said. “You don’t need to have a health care provider and it’s a good tool to have available at our disposal.”
The test kits, which can be purchased at pharmacies and grocery stores as well, will be much more readily available by early January, after the holidays, Cutchins said.
Recently, the Matanuska Susitna Borough and the Mat-Su Health Foundation rolled out a similar program, said Rene Dillow, public health nurse manager at the Mat-Su Public Health Center. Roughly 25,000 at-home rapid tests were distributed through the borough last week.
The tests were meant for more remote parts of the Mat-Su and for people who lacked transportation to get tested. They were given away through libraries, schools, food banks and by public health workers.
“People snapped them up within a week,” Dillow said.
Some people have already said they were able to isolate immediately after testing positive, Dillow said.
Juneau is also distributing at-home COVID-19 tests starting this Wednesday, according to a release from the City and Borough of Juneau. Test kits will be available at libraries and other public facilities, limited to test per family.
A customer pays for a purchase at Herbal Outfitters in Valdez in 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Alaska Dispatch News/)
Five years ago, when Alaska’s first legal cannabis shops started opening, there was a lot of money to be made.
“We had three fabulous, great years,” said Sue Nowland, whose Alaska Fireweed was among the first cannabis stores to open its doors in Anchorage.
Those days are over.
Cannabis businesses across the state are confronting a daunting set of issues that owners and advocates say are making it nearly impossible to survive. Some Alaskans who poured their life savings or retirement accounts into starting companies are scrambling to find someone to buy them out. Operations are failing, others are in the red and behind on taxes owed to the state.
One measure of the industry’s problems is tax delinquency: according to an August memo from the Department of Revenue, by the end of June, 56 businesses owed $1,785,751 in back taxes. Nine of the delinquent businesses have closed, though collectively they still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.
The most salient problems, according to people within the industry, are the flat excise tax structure placed on cultivators, an over-saturation of retailers and the rigidity to which licenses are tied to real estate.
Some say the industry’s current woes are normal growing pains to be expected as a new sector of the economy finds equilibrium. But others, including many business owners and the industry’s chief trade group, are debating potential reforms that could stave off looming business defaults as more license applications work their way through the pipeline.
The Alaska Fireweed cannabis retail store in 2018. (Annie Zak / ADN)
“They got dug in a hole”
In October, the Marijuana Control Board did something novel: for the first time, the panel effectively closed a cannabis business because of the taxes it owed.
The company, Alaskan Blooms, runs a cultivation facility and retail shop in Fairbanks. It owes the state around $700,000 in back taxes.
“This is a hard one,” said Jana Weltzin, the company’s attorney.
She was speaking to the board members during a meeting at the end of October. She described the accumulated tax debt as the fault of a former business partner who has since been removed from the license. Almost $200,000 of the amount owed was from interest and penalties on the overdue balance.
“They got dug in a hole,” Weltzin told board members.
Her attorney asked the board to give the business until January to pay back 50% of the taxes owed.
“If this tax burden wasn’t in the picture, we would be profitable,” said Karen Lowry, one of the Alaskan Blooms owners.
“Everything is going to this tax bill,” Weltzin added.
One member was skeptical that the business would be able to catch up with all the money owed.
Weltzin told the board the cultivation business employed around 20 people. Lowry, she said, had made efforts to stay current with the taxes. Cannabis businesses can’t use banks, and even if Alaskan Blooms could find an entity to loan them money it would likely come at an exorbitant interest rate. And, Weltzin argued, if the board denied the license renewal, there might be no mechanism for the state to recover the money owed.
But the board was unswayed.
“This is an egregious violation,” said member Christopher Jaime.
Board members voted unanimously not to renew Alaskan Blooms’s cultivation license, though did opt to let the business keep its retail license. It was the first time the board denied a license renewal to a business because of an outstanding tax liability.
Lowry declined a request for an interview.
Monkey Grass Farms employees clip buds from leaves and stems of marijuana plants in 2014, in East Wenatchee, Washington. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)
Alaska is unique in how it taxes cannabis relative to other states. Instead of charging at the point of sale, like a tax on groceries collected at the cash register, growers pay the state a flat rate of $800 per pound on cannabis buds. “Trim,” the plant leaves and byproduct manufactured into edible and concentrated products, is taxed at $240 a pound.
The problem with the flat-tax structure, growers say, is that unlike any other agricultural products, they are responsible for the same amount of money regardless of whether the crop turns out highly potent or ends up an impotent bust.
According to multiple owners, cannabis bud, or “flower,” remains the mostly popular product in retail shops, and accounts for the majority of the state’s tax revenues. To the consternation of growers and cannabis connoisseurs in Alaska, consumers have continued favoring high-THC flower strains, almost like beer-drinkers seeking out the most alcoholic IPA’s because they equate “stronger” with “better.” A brewer, on the other hand, might emphasize qualities like flavor, mouthfeel and complexity in quality determinations.
According to Lacy Wilcox, president of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, while high-THC crops could sell for around $4,000 a pound, the $3,000-range is more typical. But if a crop sample sent off for a potency test comes back from a lab with a THC level of, for example, 16% — “Which isn’t a high test,” Wilcox said — then the cultivator might only be able to get a $2,000 price for wholesale. After the state taxes are paid, that leaves the cultivator with $1,200 to cover the labor, rent, supplies, and energy costs that went into that crop.
“Which is not enough in Alaska,” Wilcox said.
The flat tax on weight, Wilcox said, means growers are constantly struggling to produce more potent flower because it is the only way for them to earn a profit on a crop.
But if buds turn out mild, cultivators face a choice of either selling them at a loss, or destroying them to avoid a tax liability.
“The amount of waste hurts my heart a little bit,” Wilcox said.
(Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
The $1.8 million in unpaid taxes is a small share of the total money cultivators pay the state. In fiscal year 2021, the State of Alaska collected just under $29 million. Of that, $19 million was brought into state coffers from 11.8 tons of flower, an amount that works out to a little more than half an ounce per Alaskan. And that is not counting trim.
Wilcox called tax delinquency in the industry “probably topic number one,” in part because there is still a lingering stigma around cannabis.
“We don’t want to look bad as an industry,” Wilcox said. “Taxes are a part of that.”
“Nobody’s getting rich”
Even though there is a consensus in the industry that the current tax structure is a problem, there is no clear policy fix at hand.
“The current tax is not sustainable, so there’s agreement there,” Wilcox said.
A more vexing problem, though, is whether or not there should be a cap on licenses. Unlike some other states, Alaska has no limit on the number of cannabis licenses it will issue, provided applicants meet the qualifications. As more and more people have jumped into the industry, it has led to what many call an over-saturated market, especially among retail operations. In October, Politco reported that Alaska has more licensed cannabis stores per resident than any of the other western states that have legal sales.
Feedback to the MCB on the issue of license caps tends to be evenly split between those for and against.
“We need to do something to protect our industry in the state,” said Lisa Coates, an owner of Herban Extracts in Kenai, at the October meeting.
“I strongly oppose license caps,” Anchorage resident Chelsea Foster testified, saying a cap would create a barrier to entry for newcomers to the industry, with the potential to bring out-of-state investors to eventually buy up licenses.
Wilcox’s group sent out a survey earlier this year to 349 license-holders. She said about a third of them responded, and among those who did, 70% supported a cap. AMIA is officially neutral on the issue of caps, and is considering asking an outside group for an economic analysis of the potential impacts.
“Maybe even the state will help us do a better analysis of how the market is doing,” Wilcox said.
The issue of over-saturation is most acute in Anchorage. In certain neighborhoods, it seems like there every other block has a pot shop on it.
This is because of zoning.
Peace of Mind Cannabis, Denali Dispensaries and Tip Top are all cannabis retailers on 5th Avenue near Cordova Street in Anchorage. Photographed November 30, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)
After Alaskans voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2014, it was left to local jurisdictions to develop their own rules for how the new industry would be implemented at the very nuts-and-bolts level of zoning regulations. The Anchorage Assembly adopted relatively strict rules for cannabis businesses, effectively relegating them to just a handful of neighborhoods.
“The municipality put them all in a couple different pockets,” Wilcox said.
That’s been convenient for consumers who, if they don’t like the prices or inventory at one shop, can walk a few doors down or drive one strip mall over and potentially pay a little less. But for retailers its meant constantly shaving down prices in the hopes of whittling out a profit.
“They’re feeling the competition of having so many neighbors,” Wilcox said.
If there were to be a cap on licenses, it could take different shapes, according to Wilcox. Maybe its a temporary moratorium on new licenses. Maybe a mechanism for local control, allowing communities to decide for themselves how many businesses to permit. Maybe its a cap just inside Anchorage.
“Nobody’s getting rich, and no one’s having a ton of fun,” Wilcox said.
“We’re eating the young”
“I’m one of the victims of an oversaturated market in downtown Anchorage,” Susan Nowland told the MCB.
When she opened Alaska Fireweed in 2016, the prominent space on Fourth Avenue was expensive, and Nowland said she and her partners had been “immature in negotiating leases.” For the first few years, though, the business was making enough money they could afford the spendy rent.
But the combination of more competition in the area and COVID-19 driving much of their customer base away from downtown gobbled mightily into profits. When it came time to renew the lease, Nowland said she couldn’t come to a workable new rate with the landlord, which meant the end of the store.
“Your license basically has no value unless you have a lease or own your building,” Nowland said. “And so the property owner has basically complete control over you.”
Because cannabis licenses are bound to properties, owners cannot transfer them to different locations, even if rent is suddenly increased or a bank calls in the note on a building.
“If you don’t structure a good lease, the landlords think they have a gold mine. Which they do,” Nowland said.
At first, Nowland looked around Anchorage for a new location to set up a retail store. But with all the other shops that have opened in the city, the costs of setting up a new operation and all the zoning hurdles to jump through with the municipality, she said she couldn’t make the math pencil out.
The companies that are doing well, Nowland said, are the handful of vertically integrated businesses that are able to exercise more control over their inventories, pricing, and taxation. Newcomers face an uphill slog to survive.
“We’re eating the young. And the verticals are going to be able to control the pricing, and it’s going to be really hard for the independents to keep up with that,” Nowland said.
Sugar wax cannabis concentrate extract ready to be packaged for retail sale at the Enlighten Alaska cultivation facility in Midtown Anchorage on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
In 2019, she opened Denali Grass Company in Healy. Though the customer base is much smaller, and the summer tourism season in the area less reliable during the pandemic, the business is doing well.
“It’s just so much easier and more cost-effective to set up anywhere outside of the municipality,” she said.
Nowland was sad to close her first store, but sounded relieved to be done watching a moneymaking venture slide gradually further into unprofitability.
“My motto is, if you’re not making any money, get out of it,” she said.
Barriers to separate activists are set up outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, ahead of arguments on abortion at the court in Washington.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/)
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s new conservative majority on Wednesday will weigh the fate of a famous liberal precedent: the Roe vs. Wade decision and the right of pregnant women to choose abortion.
Lawyers for Mississippi will defend a law that bans abortions after 15 weeks, and they will urge the court to go further and overrule the right to abortion set in 1973.
The nine justices and the attorneys will gather in a nearly empty courtroom, but the audio will be livestreamed on the court’s website beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern.
By midday the court will also post a transcript of the arguments in the case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Here’s what to listen for during the argument:
Do justices focus on the 15-week limit or on the validity of Roe itself?
The biggest question is whether five conservative justices are ready to overturn the right to abortion now and boldly declare the Constitution offers no such protection to women.
Last year, when Mississippi filed its appeal petition, its lawyers asked the court to rule on whether the state could forbid abortions after 15 weeks. Even if upheld, this limit would not affect 95% of abortions.
But once the court voted to hear the appeal, the state changed course and called on the court to strike down Roe vs. Wade. Do any of the justices on the right sound troubled by the state’s bait-and-switch tactics? Or do some take the opportunity to question whether the 1973 ruling should be overturned?
FILE - In this April 23, 2021, file photo, members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, while standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool) (Erin Schaff/)
Does Justice Barrett ask about the role of precedent?
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the newest to the bench, could decide how far and how fast the court goes to restrict abortion. She is a former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, a fierce critic of Roe vs. Wade.
As a law professor at Notre Dame, she wrote often about precedent and argued for overturning past court rulings that were not based on a correct reading of the Constitution.
If she asks about precedent, it may signal she has already concluded Roe vs. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled.
In her first year, however, Barrett avoided broad constitutional rulings when cases could be decided narrowly. If she continues that pattern, she could focus on the justification for a 15-week limit.
Does Justice Kavanaugh focus on a narrow ruling?
Along with Barrett, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh will be key to whether the court rules narrowly on whether states may put tighter time limits on legal abortions or broadly on whether abortions may be outlawed entirely.
In his three years on the court, he has been a reliable but moderate-sounding conservative. He usually asks probing questions of both sides, leaving some doubt as to how he will rule. If he seems interested in only the 15-week limit, it may signal he’s not ready to overturn Roe.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch may be ready to overturn Roe vs. Wade now, but they would need Kavanaugh and Barrett to have a majority.
Where does Chief Justice Roberts try to steer the court?
John G. Roberts Jr. is a conservative and skeptical of abortion rights, but as the chief justice, he often seeks incremental rulings that do not make dramatic changes in the law.
He can take control of the court’s opinion if he is in the majority. Will he try to convince his colleagues to focus narrowly on the 15-week limit?
Roberts had reliably joined conservatives in the past to uphold abortion restrictions, but more recently, he switched sides and cited precedent.
Last year, he cast a deciding fifth vote to strike down a Louisiana abortion law on the grounds it was nearly identical to a Texas law the court had struck down a few years before.
The abortion-rights lawyers in the Mississippi case are stressing the importance of precedent, since Roe vs. Wade said women could choose abortion until the 24th week of a pregnancy when the fetus may be capable of living on its own.
Do the liberal justices sound angry?
Sometimes, the best clue on where the court is headed comes from the three liberals.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer do not have votes to decide the outcome, but they often join in to voice agreement when their conservative colleagues explore a middle-ground position.
If they sound frustrated and angry as the argument proceeds, however, it may mean they have given up on salvaging anything from the decision.
FILE - This undated file image provided by Merck & Co. shows their new antiviral medication molnupiravir. An experimental COVID-19 drug that could soon become the first U.S.-authorized pill to treat the coronavirus faces one final hurdle Tuesday: A panel of government experts will scrutinize data on the medication from drugmaker Merck. (Merck & Co. via AP, File)
WASHINGTON — A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorization of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus.
The Food and Drug Administration panel voted 13-10 that the antiviral drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy.
“I see this as an incredibly difficult decision with many more questions than answers,” said panel chair Dr. Lindsey Baden of Harvard Medical School, who voted in favor of the drug. He said FDA would have to carefully tailor the drug’s use for patients who stand to benefit most.
The recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug’s modest benefits and potential safety issues. Most experts backing the treatment stressed that it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant and called on FDA to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, such as pregnancy tests for women of child-bearing age.
The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn’t be used in vaccinated people, who weren’t part of Merck’s research and haven’t been shown to benefit.
The FDA isn’t bound by the panel’s recommendation and is expected to make its own decision before year’s end. The antiviral is already authorized in the U.K.
The drug, molnupiravir, could provide a much-needed weapon against the virus as colder weather pushes case counts higher and U.S. officials brace for the arrival of the new omicron variant.
Merck hasn’t specifically tested its drug against the new variant but said it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other strains of coronavirus.
That uncertainty frustrated many panelists as they grappled with whether to back the treatment for millions of Americans.
“With no data saying it works with new variants, I really think we need to be careful about saying that this is the way to go,” said Dr. David Hardy of Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science, who ultimately voted to back the drug.
On Friday, Merck released updated data that paint a less compelling picture of the drug’s effectiveness than just a few weeks earlier.
Merck said final study results showed molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and death by 30% among adults infected with the coronavirus, when compared with adults taking a placebo. That effect was significantly less than the 50% reduction it first announced based on incomplete results.
For many panelists, the modest effect wasn’t enough to outweigh the drug’s potential toxicity to human fetuses.
“Given the large potential population affected, the risk of widespread effects on potential birth defects has not been adequately studied,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan of the University of Utah School of Medicine, who voted against the drug.
FDA scientists told the panelists earlier Tuesday that company studies in rats showed the drug caused birth defects when given at very high doses. FDA staffers concluded the data “suggest that molnupiravir may cause fetal harm when administered to pregnant individuals.”
The agency is weighing a blanket restriction against any use in pregnant women or allowing doctors to use the drug in rare cases. Some panelists said that option should be left open for pregnant mothers who have high-risk COVID-19 and may have few other treatment options.
Dr. Janet Cragan, who backed the drug, said that even with tight restrictions some pregnant women would inevitably take the antiviral.
“I don’t think you can ethically tell a woman with COVID-19 that she can’t have the drug if she’s decided that’s what she needs,” said Cragan, a panel member and staffer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think the final decision has to come down to the individual woman and her provider.”
Merck’s drug uses a novel approach to fight COVID-19: It inserts tiny errors into the coronavirus’ genetic code to stop it from reproducing. That genetic effect has raised concerns that the drug could spur more virulent strains of the virus. FDA regulators said Tuesday that risk is theoretical but many panelists said it should be carefully tracked in follow-up studies.
Antiviral pills have long been seen as a key advance beyond currently used antibody drugs, which must be injected or infused by health professionals. But given the shortcomings of Merck’s data, several experts said they would prioritize patients to receive the older drugs.
While Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were the first to submit their COVID-19 pill to the FDA, rival drugmaker Pfizer is close behind with its own pill under review.
Pfizer’s drug is part of a decades-old family of antiviral pills known as protease inhibitors, a standard treatment for HIV and hepatitis C. They work differently than Merck’s pill and haven’t been linked to the kind of mutation concerns raised with Merck’s drug.
Pfizer said this week that its drug shouldn’t be affected by the omicron variant’s mutations.
Both drugs require patients to take multiple pills, twice a day for five days.
The U.S. government has agreed to purchase 10 million treatment courses of Pfizer’s drug, if it’s authorized. That’s more than three times the government’s purchase agreement with Merck for 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir.