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Food, gas prices pinch families as inflation surges globally

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 05:29

Vendor Judit Sos sells eggs in a food market in Budapest, Hungary, Nov. 20, 2021. From appliance stores in the United States to food markets in Hungary and gas stations in Poland, rising consumer prices fueled by high energy costs and supply chain disruptions are putting a pinch on households and businesses worldwide. As economies recover from lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, increased consumer demand has helped lead to rising inflation. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh) (Laszlo Balogh/)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — From appliance stores in the United States to food markets in Hungary and gas stations in Poland, rising consumer prices fueled by high energy costs and supply chain disruptions are putting a pinch on households and businesses worldwide.

Rising inflation is leading to price increases for food, gas and other products and pushing many people to choose between digging deeper into their pockets or tightening their belts. In developing economies, it’s especially dire.

“We’ve noticed that we’re consuming less,” Gabor Pardi, a shopper at an open-air food market in Hungary’s capital, Budapest, said after buying a sack of fresh vegetables recently. “We try to shop for the cheapest and most economical things, even if they don’t look as good.”

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impact of the crisis is still being felt even after countries raced out of debilitating lockdowns and consumer demand rebounded. Now, another surge of infections and a new coronavirus variant, omicron, are leading countries to tighten their borders and impose other restrictions, threatening the global economic recovery.

Omicron has raised new fears that factories, ports and freight yards could be forced to close temporarily, putting more strain on global commerce and sending prices even higher.

“A new round of infections could further aggravate supply chains, putting even more upward pressure on inflation,’’ said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

The economic reverberations are hitting central and Eastern Europe especially hard, where countries have some of the highest inflation rates in the 27-nation European Union and people are struggling to buy food or fill their fuel tanks.

A butcher at the Budapest food market, Ildiko Vardos Serfozo, said she’s seen a drop in business as customers head to multinational grocery chains that can offer discounts by buying in large wholesale quantities.

“Buyers are price sensitive and therefore often leave us behind, even if our products are high quality. Money talks,” she said. “We notice that inflation is not good for us. ... I’m just glad my kids don’t want to continue this family business, I don’t see much future in it.”

In nearby Poland, Barbara Grotowska, a 71-year-old pensioner, said outside a discount supermarket in the capital of Warsaw that she’s been hit hardest by her garbage collection fee nearly tripling to 88 zlotys ($21). She also lamented that the cooking oil she uses has gone up by a third of its price, to 10 zlotys ($2.40).

“That’s a real difference,” she said.

The recent pickup in inflation has caught business leaders and economists around the world by surprise.

In spring 2020, the coronavirus crushed the global economy: governments ordered lockdowns, businesses closed or slashed hours and families stayed home. Companies braced for the worst, canceling orders and putting off investments.

In an attempt to stave off economic catastrophe, wealthy countries — most notably the United States — introduced trillions of dollars worth of government aid, an economic mobilization on a scale unseen since World War II. Central banks also slashed interest rates in a bid to revive economic activity.

But those efforts to jump-start economies have had unintended consequences: as consumers felt more emboldened to spend the money they had received through government assistance or low-interest borrowing, and vaccine rollouts encouraged people to return to restaurants, bars and shops, the surge in demand tested the capacity of suppliers to keep pace.

Ports and freight yards were suddenly clogged with shipments, and prices began to rise as global supply chains seized up — especially as new outbreaks of COVID-19 sometimes shut down factories and ports in Asia.

The rise in prices has been dramatic. The International Monetary Fund predicts that world consumer prices will rise 4.3% this year, the biggest jump since 2011.

It is most pronounced in the developing economies of central and Eastern Europe, with the highest annual rates recorded in Lithuania (8.2%), Estonia (6.8%) and Hungary (6.6%). In Poland, one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies, inflation came in at 6.4% in October, the highest rate in two decades.

Several shoppers at a vegetable stand in Warsaw said they are anxious about rising prices for staples like bread and cooking oil and are expecting the situation to get worse in the new year, when energy prices are set to rise.

Piotr Molak, a 44-year-old vegetable vendor, said he has not yet had to raise prices on the potatoes, apples or carrots he sells but the cherry tomatoes he imports from Spain and Italy, which he buys in euros, have gotten far more expensive as Poland’s currency, the zloty, has weakened.

“We will mostly feel this in the new year when electricity goes up,” Molak said. “We are really going to feel it when we have to spend more on our home than on pleasure.”

The weakening of currencies across central and Eastern Europe against the U.S. dollar and euro is pushing up the price of imports and fuel and exacerbating the pinch from supply backups and other factors.

Hungary’s currency, the forint, has lost around 16% of its value against the dollar in the last six months and slipped to a historic low against the euro last week. That’s part of a strategy by Hungary’s central bank to keep the country competitive and attract foreign companies seeking cheap labor, said Zsolt Balassi, a portfolio manager at Hold Asset Management in Budapest.

But prices on imported goods have skyrocketed, and global oil prices set in U.S. dollars have pushed fuel costs to record levels.

“As the Hungarian forint, and actually all regional currencies, are more or less constantly weakening, this will constantly raise oil prices in our currencies,” Balassi said.

In response to record fuel prices, which peaked this month at 506 forints ($1.59) for gasoline and 512 forints ($1.61) for diesel per liter, Hungary’s government announced a 480-forint ($1.50) cap at filling stations.

While giving some relief, Hungary’s upcoming elections, in which the right-wing governing party faces the most serious challenge since it was elected in 2010, were likely a factor, Balassi said.

“This is obviously a political decision which has huge economic disadvantages, but probably it makes the households happy,” he said.

The political nature of some economic decisions is not limited to Hungary.

Poland’s central bank, also facing a weakening currency, has been accused by critics of allowing inflation to rise too high for too long to encourage economic growth and bolster support for the ruling party.

The bank surprised markets with the timing and size of two base interest rate hikes in October and November in a bid to ease prices, while Hungary’s central bank has raised rates in smaller increments six times this year.

Still, if central banks move too aggressively too soon to control inflation, it could short-circuit the economic recovery, said Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank.

She worries about higher food prices that primarily hurt the poor in developing countries, where a disproportionate share of family budgets goes toward keeping food on the table.

“Food prices are a barometer for social unrest,’’ Reinhart said, noting that the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010 were caused partly by higher food prices.

Anna Andrzejczak, a 41-year-old who works for an environmental foundation in Poland, was still a child when Communism ended there in 1989 and has only a vague memory of the hyperinflation and other economic “tumult” that came with the transition to a market economy.

But she feels the prices going up “every time I fill my tank,” with fuel costs having risen some 35% in the last year.

“We’ve had a period of stability in past years, so this inflation now is a big shock,” Andrzejczak said. “We don’t have the price increases that we had then, but I think this will cause big stress.”

Wary, weary world slams doors shut, fearing omicron variant

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 05:17

People pass through Waterloo train station, in London, during the morning rush hour, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Matt Dunham/)

BRUSSELS — Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.

Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, while new cases of the variant identified days ago by researchers in South Africa appeared in places such as Hong Kong and Australia. New cases in Portugal and Scotland might already point toward local spread of the variant outside of southern Africa.

“There might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said after Scotland reported its first six cases.

The infections showed the near impossibility of keeping the genie in the bottle in a globalized world of travel and open borders.

Yet, many tried to do just that, even against the urging of the World Health Organization, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines.

The WHO warned, however, that “the likelihood of potential further spread of omicron at the global level is high. Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID‐19, which could have severe consequences.”

While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.

“This time the world showed it is learning,” said European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”

The WHO has praised Botswana as well as South Africa for quickly alerting the world to the presence of the new variant — and many have warned the countries should not be punished for their speed.

But that did not hold von der Leyen back from pushing the 27-nation EU toward imposing an immediate ban on flights from seven southern African nations — similar to measures many countries have taken.

Cases had already been reported in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 cases of omicron among team members of the Belenenses professional soccer club. Authorities reported that one member recently traveled to South Africa. Its game against Benfica over the weekend had be abandoned at halftime for lack of players.

Quarantining also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for Spain.

“Quarantine is not obligatory, but we assume people will act responsibly,” spokeswoman Petra Faber said.

Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin Tuesday.

Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.

Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions of the virus that has killed more than 5 million people.

And in some parts of the world, authorities were moving in the opposite direction.

In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to the city-state of Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that she didn’t anticipate any further restrictions and that bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland can reopen, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.

“We’ve come through the past two years of COVID in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world,” Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, said no data as yet suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous versions.

Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.

The U.S. is banning travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday. “It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” the United States’ top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Fauci said it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of omicron, according to dthe White House.

___

Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

Markets begin to claw back Friday’s losses as variant fears ease

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 05:13

A screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the closing number for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew/)

Global markets were solidly green on Monday as traders took confidence from reports that the omicron variant could be less dangerous than feared.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield jumped as much as 7 basis points to 1.54%. That unwound some of Friday’s 16 basis point plunge -- the steepest since March 2020.

U.S. equity futures climbed, with contracts on the Nasdaq 100 regaining more than half the Nov. 26 losses, while oil rebounded more than 5%.

South African health experts, including the doctor who first sounded the alarm about the omicron variant, indicated that symptoms linked to the coronavirus strain have been mild so far. While the World Health Organization urged caution, steady gains for many risk assets Monday suggested traders were reconsidering their worst-case scenarios for the new mutation.

“The ‘shoot first, question later’ reflex on Friday has abated at the margin,” said Vishnu Varathan, head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank in Singapore. “Essentially, this is the morning after where passions are tempered, although caution is not completely dispensed with.”

Traders retained their slightly diminished expectations for Federal Reserve tightening as the mutation spurred uncertainty about the economic outlook. Futures signal the first rate hike may not happen until July next year, compared with last Wednesday’s pricing which saw traders plump for June.

The 5-year Treasury yield jumped as much as 8 basis points to 1.24%, shrinking the gap to 30-year rates by 2 basis points. U.K. 10-year yields climbed 5 basis points to 0.88%, while their German peers rose three basis points to minus 0.31%.

There was evidence of some dip buying in Asia, where stock benchmarks pared earlier losses. Friday’s turmoil was likely exacerbated by the virus news breaking at an illiquid time in markets thanks to a U.S. holiday.

“The Treasuries rally on Friday may have been a little overdone in thinner than usual conditions post-Thanksgiving,” said Su-Lin Ong, head of Australian economic and fixed-income strategy at Royal Bank of Canada. “It would be premature to assume the absolute worst.”

Monday’s increase in yields also helped push the dollar higher against the yen, euro and Swiss franc. And oil’s rebound helped risk currencies strengthen, especially commodity-linked ones like the Mexican peso, South African rand and Australian dollar.

Frustrated by vaccine inequity, a South African lab is on the cusp of replicating Moderna’s shot

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 05:08

Scientists re-enact the calibration procedure of equipment at an Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines facility in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) (Jerome Delay/)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - In an industrial area of this seaside city, a little-known biotech company is entering a pivotal phase of making Africa’s first coronavirus vaccine by attempting to replicate Moderna’s highly effective mRNA-based shot.

Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is racing to make a vaccine because, despite donation pledges, supply is short and just 6 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people have been inoculated.

Getting Africa - and other parts of the world - vaccinated has gained new urgency with the emergence of a new variant, dubbed omicron, that was first detected by South African scientists. Health officials have warned since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago that the coronavirus will continue to evolve and spread as long as significant populations remained unvaccinated.

With help from the World Health Organization (WHO) and international consultants, including from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Afrigen has become part of the African continent’s first training and technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines, a step toward answering calls from global health officials for Africa to develop its own vaccine-manufacturing capability to avoid supply shortages during a crisis.,

What’s missing is the vaccine formula. Moderna refuses to share its recipe, citing intellectual property, so Afrigen has used publicly available information and help from outside advisers to begin making the vaccine.

If Moderna were to share information, Afrigen managing director Petro Terblanche said, the company could produce a replica within a year. Without it, the time estimate balloons to three years.

“It will be an interesting debate when we get to Phase 3, and we have a vaccine ready for low-income countries,” she said, “and Moderna says, ‘No, you can’t proceed.’”

Moderna, for its part, announced last month that it would spend up to $500 million to build its own vaccine plant in Africa - with Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa as possible sites - to make up to 500 million doses of mRNA vaccines each year. Moderna spokeswoman Colleen Hussey did not respond to a request for comment.

Afrigen’s team of scientists hopes, ultimately, to transfer the technology to other manufacturers in developing regions, in an effort to avoid a repeat of the global coronavirus vaccine inequity that has left poorer countries scrambling for supplies during the worst pandemic in a century.

Now, with the genetic sequence for the vaccine in hand, the Afrigen team is preparing to develop the first complete lab sample, which they will then compare to Moderna’s version.

The challenge for Afrigen is to ensure the vaccine can be developed at scale and that its quality is always the same, said Martin Friede, coordinator of the WHO’s Initiative for Vaccine Research, which is leading the technology transfer effort in Africa.

“It’s like saying you know how to make a loaf of bread but you are now asked to set up a process to make 100,000 loaves per day,” Friede said.

Afrigen is working toward creating a vaccine that is less expensive than Moderna’s and will not require freezing in storage - both essential for widespread distribution in poorer countries.

“All eyes are on us,” said Caryn Fenner, Afrigen’s technical director. “If one really thinks about the bigness of it and its significance, it almost cripples you.”

At the World Trade Organization, trade ministers had been scheduled to begin meetings Tuesday over a contentious proposal by South Africa and India to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on coronavirus vaccines and therapies or find a way to allow developing countries to access the technologies. The meeting has been postponed because of the omicron variant. No new date has been set.

The novel mRNA process uses the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus and is thought to trigger a better immune response than other vaccines. Scientists believe the technology could be used to make drugs that tackle other ailments, such as cancer or malaria.

African countries have historically depended on Western donors and U.N.-backed programs such as the vaccine alliance known as Gavi, a partnership of donors and pharmaceutical companies that buys vaccines at lower prices and makes them available to countries that need them. Covax, a vaccine marketplace that was meant to secure coronavirus inoculations for developing countries, has struggled to access enough supplies during the pandemic.

The solution, said Friede of the WHO, is for African countries to make the vaccines themselves.

“Our objective is to make something as close as possible to Moderna’s without pretending it is a 100 percent carbon copy,” he said. “Unless Moderna tells us and shares all of their procedures - which probably they won’t - we can’t make a pure copy. Even without Moderna telling us how to make their vaccine, we will be able to make something which is close to their vaccine.”

The head of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, speaking before the meeting was postponed, said reaching an agreement that gave poorer countries access to drugmakers’ technology would be difficult. It would require a “reasonable compromise” by all sides, she said, not just to agree on sharing intellectual property rights but also on lowering trade restrictions on vaccine supply chains, and improving transparency of vaccine production, distribution and contracts.

“Right now the process isn’t moving,” Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview. “This is a pandemic. If we can’t come to a meeting of minds now, then we will miss the timing.”

Moderna has said it will not prosecute those found to be infringing on its covid-related patents during the pandemic, which amounts to an informal waiver, said Marie-Paule Kieny, a French virologist who chairs the U.N.-backed Medicine Patent Pool, which is part of the WHO’s efforts in Africa.

The concern with a waiver, Kieny said, is what happens once the pandemic ends. Any broader waiver agreed on at the WTO talks would likely have a time limit, she said, without a commitment from the drugmakers to enter into licensing agreements.

She said companies should negotiate now with drugmakers such as Moderna to reach formal licensing agreements before the pandemic is over.

Friede acknowledged that any company that takes the Afrigen vaccine to commercial production may need a license from Moderna once the U.S. drugmaker’s waiver expires.

“It would depend on whether the production occurred during the pandemic and the Moderna waiver was still applicable, and whether Moderna has granted patents in countries of manufacture,” he said. “If this indeed happens during the pandemic, we assume the Moderna waiver would still be valid. In this case, there will be no clear role for the WTO unless it is for a mechanism that goes beyond the pandemic.”

Even if there is a deal at the WTO meeting, Okonjo-Iweala said it would take several years for manufacturers in Africa and elsewhere to build capacity to make their own vaccines.

“When we are talking about manufacturing in Africa, we are really thinking of the medium to longer term - for the next pandemic, that is,” she said.

South Africa argues that a temporary waiver would allow vaccine manufacturing to start sooner than waiting for licensing agreements and open the way for further collaboration, including technology transfers. Large Western manufacturers, however, argue that a waiver would stifle innovation when it is needed the most. They also say there will be enough vaccines on the world market by mid-2022 to meet supply demands.

Fatima Hassan, a human rights lawyer who heads the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa, accused Moderna of “deliberate divide and rule strategies” by not supporting the technology hub that Afrigen is part of and then announcing it would build its own vaccine plant in Africa.

“It’s quite incredible that given the public funding and the public investment that there isn’t a single manufacturing license for the global South. It’s all fill and finish,” she said, referring to an existing contract with Johnson & Johnson in which South African facilities put the final touches on vaccines but don’t have access to their recipe. “These companies are playing God.”

Richard Hatchett, who heads the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations that is managing the supply of vaccines to poor countries through Covax, acknowledged that the concentration of vaccine manufacturing in just a handful of countries - the United States, Europe, India and China - has led to global supply inequities.

“The pandemic has revealed that the system we had and the way we had vaccine manufacturing configured was unable to produce an equitable outcome for the world or even an efficient outcome for the world,” Hatchett said. “It is a debate that the world needs to have.”

Matthew McConaughey says he will not run for Texas governor

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 04:59

Actor Matthew McConaughey said Sunday evening that he has decided not to run for Texas governor after considering the idea for several months.

In a three-minute video posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts, McConaughey said he was humbled to be regarded as a possible candidate but that it is a path he is “choosing not to take at this moment.”

“As a simple kid born in the little town of Uvalde, Texas, it never occurred to me that I would one day be considered for political leadership,” he said. “It’s a humbling and inspiring path to ponder.”

Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers finally get to see someone face a trial: Ghislaine Maxwell

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 04:54

Ghislaine Maxwell, founder of the TerraMar Project, attends a press conference on the Issue of Oceans in Sustainable Development Goals, at United Nations headquarters, June 25, 2013. (United Nations Photo/Rick Bajornas via AP, File) (Rick Bajornas/)

NEW YORK — Victims of sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein are finally getting their day in court. The long-awaited trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell begins Monday in Manhattan.

Prosecutors allege that Maxwell, 59, was a central figure in Epstein’s sex criminal enterprise, helping him recruit and sexually abuse girls in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Epstein, 66, was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell in August 2019 while awaiting trial on similar federal charges. His death was ruled a suicide, although his brother has said he doesn’t believe Epstein killed himself.

For Epstein’s accusers — many of whom were in Palm Beach, Florida, where he maintained a mansion — the trial of Maxwell is the culmination of a decadelong crusade to force federal prosecutors to first arrest Epstein and now hold one of his top associates accountable.

While Epstein and Maxwell have been universally vilified on social media, the case is not a slam-dunk for prosecutors, who face several obstacles in proving guilt. Maxwell’s family contends that she, too, was a victim who was exploited by Epstein and is now being unjustly tried for crimes that he committed.

One of the biggest challenges for prosecutors is time: More than two decades have passed since the alleged abuse occurred. Maxwell, whose wealth has been assessed at more than $20 million, has marshaled her considerable resources in an effort to destroy their case.

Defense lawyers have lined up a team of high-priced experts to testify about the psychological aspects of victimization and such topics as the science of memory, grooming, post-traumatic stress disorder and the “halo effect” — a tendency for positive impressions of a person in one area to positively influence one’s opinion or feelings in other areas — all intended to cast doubt in the minds of the jurors.

The daughter of the late British media baron Robert Maxwell, Ghislaine Maxwell was once a fixture on the New York social scene who possessed a Rolodex of names and direct phone numbers to former presidents, world leaders, billionaires and celebrities. In addition to being his girlfriend, Maxwell functioned as as one of Epstein’s recruiters, victims say, luring women and underage girls to his opulent homes around the world, including in Palm Beach, Manhattan, the Virgin Islands and New Mexico, to engage in massages that turned into sex acts. Sometimes she joined in the sex, the accusers allege.

Four women have been cited as victims in the indictment, two of whom were 14 when they were allegedly sexually abused. The judge has yet to decide whether evidence will be introduced at trial about other accusers.

At least two other women (who are not part of this case) have publicly claimed that they were trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell to powerful and wealthy men, including Prince Andrew and Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Both men have denied the allegations, and it’s not clear whether those women will testify.

It also remains to be seen whether any names of other powerful men will be revealed during the case. At least one of Epstein’s alleged co-conspirators is scheduled to testify. Prosecutors have made clear that the case will not focus on people who were a part of Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking enterprise — other than Maxwell.

Epstein’s so-called “black book” of famous people, which prosecutors say was compiled by Maxwell, will be presented as evidence against her, although U.S. Circuit Court Judge Alison Nathan has said she will not allow the case to turn into an exercise in naming individuals not directly connected to the charges in the indictment.

Maxwell’s legal team has filed a flurry of legal motions in recent weeks focused on undermining the credibility of the accusers and portraying them as consenting to sex in exchange for money.

“Depending on the age of the accusers during the time frame of the conspiracy, consent may be an appropriate and viable defense,’’ Maxwell’s attorneys said in one motion, noting that in Florida at the time the crimes were allegedly committed, “individuals under the age of 18 could be charged with commission of the crime of prostitution.”

Maxwell’s team has succeeded in convincing Nathan to instruct jurors to narrowly consider the testimony of two of the accusers, who were above the age of consent in the jurisdictions where the alleged crimes occurred: London and New Mexico.

They have also argued that the four accusers had a financial incentive to accuse Maxwell — to improve their payouts from a compensation fund for victims of Epstein. They have subpoenaed the administrator of the fund for information about the women over the objection of prosecutors.

Maxwell’s attorneys, however, were unsuccessful in persuading the judge to block prosecutors from calling the women “victims.”

The judge also rejected Maxwell’s bid to call psychiatrist Ryan C.W. Hall as an expert witness. While portions of his expected testimony were heavily redacted from court filings, Hall was one of the psychiatrists hired by Epstein in 2009 to evaluate a number of accusers who sued him in civil court. Hall conducted an interview with “victim No. 4″ over a decade ago, and Maxwell’s attorneys had hoped to use his evaluation to discredit that accuser.

Maxwell’s trial comes almost three years to the day after the publication of “Perversion of Justice,” a Miami Herald investigation that detailed how Epstein and his team of high-profile attorneys manipulated the criminal justice system, allowing him to escape federal prosecution. Despite the FBI having evidence that he sexually assaulted at least 34 girls, Epstein served just 13 months in the Palm Beach county jail on charges that he solicited one minor.

The Herald’s series led federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York to take a new look at the case, and Epstein was arrested in July 2019. In the ensuing fallout from the Herald series, the prosecutor in charge of the 2005 case, Alexander Acosta, resigned as secretary of labor under then-President Donald Trump. Several CEOs who associated with Epstein have retired or other otherwise stepped down from their leadership roles.

Despite Epstein’s death, the federal probe into his alleged crimes continued, and in July 2020, Maxwell was arrested at her home on a 156-property in rural New Hampshire that had been purchased months earlier through an anonymous shell company. Maxwell had toured the home under a pseudonym.

Maxwell has been denied bail four times as prosecutors successfully argued that her wealth and British citizenship make her a flight risk. She has been closely monitored during the 15 months she has been behind bars at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Brooklyn. She and her attorneys have repeatedly complained that conditions in the jail are inhumane, including a practice by staff of shining flashlights at her at night, disturbing her sleep.

Jill Steinberg, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Justice Department official who handled cases of child exploitation, said the trial will be a test of how jurors weigh evidence involving sexual abuse in the “Me Too” era.

“There is more of an awareness of victimization and why people become victims,” said Steinberg, who is now in private practice.

She said a defense strategy that hinges on maligning the minor victims or portraying them as consenting to the sexual activities in exchange for money may backfire.

“The fact is that they are minors and it doesn’t matter whether they consented or not,” she said.

The trial is expected to last six weeks. Unlike other high-profile trials, it will not be televised because cameras are generally not permitted in U.S. federal courtrooms.

THE MAXWELL CHARGES

— Enticement and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.

— Enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts.

— Conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sex activity.

— Transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sex activity.

— Sex trafficking.

— Two counts of perjury (these charges will be tried separately and are not part of the current case).

Omicron coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ global risk, WHO warns

Alaska News - Mon, 2021-11-29 04:45

Commuters walk through ticket barriers in Waterloo train station, London, after disembarking from a train, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Matt Dunham/)

The World Health Organization is warning countries that the omicron coronavirus variant poses “very high” global risk - and is likely to spread internationally.

“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO said Sunday in a preliminary technical brief. It recommended that governments worldwide enhance their ability to sequence coronavirus variants, report any local cases of omicron to the global health body and speed up their vaccination drives.

The newly identified omicron variant has 26 to 32 spike mutations, the WHO brief states, “some of which are concerning” in that they could make it more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune defenses.

“Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place,” the report says. “The overall global risk related to [omicron] is assessed as very high.” It added that “evidence for this assessment contains considerable uncertainty” and is subject to change.

The WHO recommends several actions that its member states should immediately take. Some are new, such as guidance on the marker that can be used to detect the newest variant. Some are consistent with well-known measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as advice for governments to encourage people to wear masks, keep a safe distance from one another and avoid crowds to limit the spread of the virus.

As some governments have shut down borders and others are reinforcing public health rules, officials around the world stressed that the measures are designed to buy time to learn more about how the omicron variant spreads, what symptoms it causes and how it reacts to existing coronavirus vaccines. The Biden administration is encouraging more people to seek out booster doses to bolster their immunity to the coronavirus as the world awaits answers.

UAA men’s basketball beats 19th-ranked Hawaii Hilo 100-97 in overtime

Alaska News - Sun, 2021-11-28 19:59

Oggie Pantovic had a team-high 28 points and career-high five blocks for the University of Alaska Anchorage in a 100-97 overtime win over 19th-ranked Hawaii Hilo on Sunday in the Seawolf Thanksgiving Classic at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The Seawolves also got standout play from David Rowlands, who hit 4 of 7 shots from long range and finished with 22 points; Tobin Karlberg, who scored 19 points to go with eight rebounds and seven assists; and Hunter Sweet, who produced 16 points and five rebounds.

The win was the fourth straight for UAA (5-2), which begins Great Northwest Athletic Conference play Thursday on the road against St. Martin’s.

Hawaii Hilo’s Darren Williams led all scorers with 29 points, and he also had five assists and six rebounds. Donald McHenry had 18 points for the Vulcans (4-3) while Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones had a strong all-around game with 12 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

Quincy 83, UAF 76

Malik Hardmon scored 23 points and collected 10 rebounds to lead Quincy (Illinois) to victory despite a huge game from University of Alaska Fairbanks guard Shadeed Shabazz.

A balanced attack helped Quincy (4-2) bounced back from Saturday’s loss to UAA. Adam Moore scored 15 points and Charles Callier added 13 for the Rams.

Shabazz, who set the Great Northwest Athletic Conference single-season scoring record in 2019-20, poured in 37 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out six assists for the Nanooks (3-3). Abdullahi Mohamed, the only other UAF player to reach double figures, finished with 18 points.

Seawolf Thanksgiving Classic All-Tournament Team

Malik Hardmon, Quincy

Tobin Karlberg, Alaska Anchorage

Shadeed Shabazz, Alaska Fairbanks

Coleman Sparling, Alaska Fairbanks

Hunter Sweet, Alaska Anchorage

Most Outstanding Player: Oggie Pantovic, Alaska Anchorage

Firefighters battle blaze at home in Anchorage’s Bear Valley neighborhood

Alaska News - Sun, 2021-11-28 18:24

Anchorage firefighters douse hot spots at a structure fire in Bear Valley on Sunday afternoon. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Anchorage firefighters were called to a home in the Bear Valley neighborhood early Sunday and worked into the afternoon to control the blaze, a fire official said.

Crews were called to a large home on the 7900 block of Hazel Court at 7:10 a.m. and arrived about nine minutes later, Assistant Chief Alex Boyd said.

“Very early in the fire, they called it what we would consider a defensive fire, meaning the fire had escalated so much that they can’t get inside to knock it down,” he said.

There were people inside the home when the fire began, but they were able to get out safely and Boyd said no injuries were reported. The residents will likely be displaced but were able to find shelter without the help of the American Red Cross, he said.

In total, 17 units responded to the fire and Boyd said about three or four water tenders remained at the scene through most of the day, shuttling water to the area because there are no nearby hydrants.

It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, but Boyd said an investigator had been notified Sunday.


Smoke rises from a structure fire in Bear Valley on Sunday. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

A North Pole farm family, a struggling Palmer slaughterhouse and a step toward Alaska’s food security

Alaska News - Sun, 2021-11-28 16:31

Joseph Hartman moves a half beef out of a large cooler, in preparation for processing at the Alaska Meat Packers slaughterhouse on Monday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Palmer. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

PALMER — Todd Elsberry didn’t set out to buy a long-struggling slaughterhouse.

Elsberry, a former police officer who’s the largest hog producer in the state, was left scrambling to butcher hundreds of animals after the Mt. McKinley Meats & Sausages plant closed earlier this year.

The slaughterhouse is the only U.S. Department of Agriculture certified processing facility in Southcentral. Any red meat headed to commercial markets — grocery coolers, farmers markets, wholesale distribution — needs that federal stamp.

At Elsberry Farm, Todd and his wife, Sherrie, wondered if it was time to leave the business. Elsberry said he considered a mobile slaughterhouse or even building a small plant at the farm.

He asked the director of Alaska’s state agriculture division, who provided advice throughout his decision, if anybody else was filling the void and setting up some kind of butchering option.

Nope.

“It kind of boiled down to us,” Elsberry said in a recent interview. “It was kind of spooky. We could not get out of business. I just could not stop. That’s how fragile this is here.”

So now the slaughterhouse is in new hands: the self-described “elected by default” farmers from North Pole.

Earlier this month, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the killing floor, the Elsberrys joined state officials and the real estate agent who’s a minority partner in their new company, Alaska Meat Packers Inc.

The sale is “very exciting news” for food security in the state, Department of Natural Resources commissioner Corri Feige said during the event. “Alaska is at the far bitter end of the supply chain.”

Livestock producers in Alaska face a long list of challenges, including finding affordable feed, hauling animals to the Palmer slaughterhouse from far-flung farms and finding enough large tracts of agricultural land to support a true boom in meat production.

[The last days of the Havemeister Dairy: Alaska’s oldest commercial milk producer shuts down]


The Alaska Meat Packers slaughterhouse, photographed on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Palmer. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

But getting the Alaska Meat Packers facility up and running is a crucial step, industry members say. Right now, there isn’t enough local red meat to meet current demand.

Mat Valley Meats near Wasilla sells everything from sides of beef to house-made bratwurst and dry-cured bacon.

“We cannot even get in a quarter of the Alaska-grown beef that we can sell,” said manager and co-owner Bailey Stamper.

Elsberry, a farmer who knows what the industry needs, is a promising pick to bring the slaughterhouse into a new era, Stamper said. It’s also a good time to boost Alaska-grown meat markets: Surging meat prices in the Lower 48 have normally pricey local products looking more affordable.

“It feels like this is something Alaska needs to jump on, get our agriculture up to where it needs to be,” she said. “There’s plenty of opportunity for farming, not enough for selling.”

The plant started processing meat this month under manager Chris Miller, to cheers from small livestock producers who say they were scrambling to find butchering services this year.


Rick Melton, left, and Carl Jones talk with Alaska Meat Packers manager Chris Miller after they dropped off their animals for slaughter on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Palmer. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Rick Melton, a general contractor from Willow, raises cows — his farm offers dairy shares — and hogs. He was in the midst of building a new hog house when he learned the plant, formerly known as Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage, was closing.

Melton was so excited the slaughterhouse was in new hands that he watched a live stream of the ribbon-cutting. The Meltons own 40 acres and the younger generation hopes to expand the operation.

“It all depends on these guys being here,” he said. “You guys aren’t here and USDA isn’t here, I’m telling you, we’re hosed. The whole thing is hosed ... Alaska needs this.”

Elsberry came to Alaska from Idaho, where he was raised on a dairy farm then worked as a police officer and deputy sheriff before moving to the North Slope Borough to work as a village officer in the late 1990s. He and Sherrie bought the farm in 2000 — a full 640-acre section purchased in a state land sale.

“We have been fighting the battle ever since,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle thing.”

He brings several strengths to the role of running a facility that for decades struggled under state ownership to turn a profit, others say.

For one, he has enough animals to cover operating costs already: 500 or so, with plans to increase production to 4,000 a year, Elsberry said. He’ll be making weekly runs from the 640-acre farm in North Pole to a barn in Delta to the plant in Palmer.

But there are many other farmers who’ll be making use of the plant, he said. “They may be smaller producers, but nevertheless you start totaling up animals, there’s a lot of animals out there. Definitely, that’s what’s going to make this work.”


Joseph Hartman directs a hog to a holding area at the Alaska Meat Packers slaughterhouse on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Palmer. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Elsberry is a businessman with good instincts, said Arthur Keyes, a former agriculture director under Gov. Bill Walker who inherited the slaughterhouse when it was still in state hands.

There is no state or federal money going toward the plant now.

But over a period of decades starting in 1986, the state pumped millions into the slaughterhouse — and it ran in the red, averaging a deficit of about $100,000 a year since 2008.

As of 2015, the plant was staffed by three state employees making a total of more than $360,000 between them. Thirteen prison inmates provided labor. The Legislature had approved just over $2 million to run the plant for a year. Expenses totaled just over $1.7 million and revenues came in $155,000 short of that, costs covered by the state’s Agriculture Revolving Loan Fund.

The plant did run in the black for the last eight or 10 months it remained in state hands, Keyes said. Records at the time showed $42,448 in profit.

The problem through most of the duration of state operations was the intentionally slow pace of processing to allow prisoners to train instead of focusing on butchering, he said. “For 30 years, the plant was being operated as a DOC training facility. So they were limiting the number of animals, limiting processing.”

The state attempted to move the plant into the private sector several times since taking over operations in 1986 when the original owners defaulted on a loan. However, attempts to sell or lease the plant in both 2000 and 2002 were unsuccessful.

The Alaska Board of Agriculture and Conservation in December 2016 voted unanimously to sell the plant to Mike’s Quality Meats owner Greg Giannulis for $300,000, less than its assessed value.

Giannulis decided to sell the slaughterhouse this year because it wasn’t a long-term prospect, he said.

Real estate broker Bill Borden handled the sale. Borden, who was raised on a farm, said he worked with Giannulis and state Division of Agriculture director David Schade once the property was put on the market.

“They were all like, ‘We’ve got to keep this a slaughterhouse,’ ” Borden said.


Joseph Hartman uses a bandsaw to process a half beef at the Alaska Meat Packers slaughterhouse on Monday, Nov. 19, 2021 in Palmer. The meat, from an old dairy cow, was being turned into ground beef. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

The people involved are not disclosing the purchase price. Giannulis said he got another offer for more money but wanted to keep the facility as a slaughterhouse.

Along with Elsberry and his wife, the company is partly owned by Borden and the real estate company he owns, High Caliber Realty. Borden has a 1% share and the company has a 13% share, according to state records.

Borden said the minority partnership is basically “delayed compensation” connected to the property sale — rather than getting total payment up front — given the importance of keeping the plant up and running.

“We often talk about Alaska food sustainability,” he said during last week’s ribbon cutting. “It gets overshadowed by the 630-pound cabbages and the 65-pound cantaloupes. We forget about how we need to feed Alaska.”

Daily News photographer Loren Holmes contributed reporting for this story.

Josephine Baker — performer, spy, activist — will make history joining other luminaries in French Pantheon

Alaska News - Sun, 2021-11-28 16:26

In this file photo dated March 6, 1961, singer Josephine Baker poses in her dressing room at the Strand Theater in New York City, USA. (AP Photo)

PARIS — France is inducting Josephine Baker — Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil rights activist — into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France’s most revered luminaries.

On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soils from the U.S., France and Monaco — places where Baker made her mark — will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris. Her body will stay in Monaco, at the request of her family.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided on her entry into the Pantheon, responding to a petition. In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French connections.

“She embodies, before anything, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, the author of the petition for the move, told The Associated Press.

Baker was born in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19, having already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and started a performing career, she moved to France following a job opportunity.

“She arrives in France in 1925, she’s an emancipated woman, taking her life in her hands, in a country of which she doesn’t even speak the language,” Kupferman said.

She met immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time’s racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration.

“She was that kind of fantasy: not the Black body of an American woman but of an African woman,” Theatre des Champs-Elysees spokesperson Ophélie Lachaux told the AP. “And that’s why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal,’ ‘savage,’ ‘African’-like.”

Baker’s career took a more serious turn after that, as she learned to speak five languages and toured internationally. She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.


FILE - Charlie Chaplin congratulates entertainer Josephine Baker after her performance at the charity gala "Le Bal des Petits Lits Blancs," at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, on May 20, 1953. France is inducting Josephine Baker – Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French Resistance fighter and civil rights leader – into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France's most revered luminaries. (AP Photo, File)
Josephine Baker's son Brian Bouillon-Baker shows a picture of Josephine Baker displayed in her former house, the Chateau des Milandes, in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, central France, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Yohan Bonnet) (Yohan Bonnet/)

In September 1939, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets, according to French military archives.

Researcher and historian Géraud Létang said Baker lived “a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent.”

After France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.

That year, she notably brought into her troupe several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal. “She risks the death penalty or, at least, the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant,” Letang said.

The next year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where she gathered intelligence for Gen. Charles De Gaulle, including spying on the British and the Americans — who didn’t fully trust him and didn’t share all information.

She also raised funds, including from her personal money. It is estimated she brought the equivalent of 10 million euros ($11.2 million) to support the French Resistance.


Performer Josephine Baker strikes a pose during her Ziegfeld Follies performance of "The Conga" on the Winter Garden Theater stage in New York, Feb. 11, 1936. (AP Photo, File)

In 1944, Baker joined a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army as a second lieutenant. The group’s logbook notably mentions a 1944 incident off the coast of Corsica, when Senegalese soldiers from colonial troops fighting in the French Liberation Army helped Baker out of the sea. After her plane had to make an emergency landing, they brought “the shipwrecked to the shores, on their large shoulders, Josephine Baker in the front,” the logbook writes.

Baker also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near combat zones. After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees freed from the camps.

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individual and atypical,” said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading scholar on Baker’s life and a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

After the war, Baker got involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the U.S., causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade. The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal fraternity.” She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, where she tried to build a city embodying her values.

“My mother saw the success of the rainbow tribe, because when we caused trouble as kids, she would never know who had done it because we never ratted on each other, risking collective punishment,” one of Baker’s sons, Brian Bouillon Baker, told the AP. “I heard her say to some friends ‘I’m mad to never know who causes trouble, but I’m happy and proud that my kids stand united.’”

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial trouble, was evicted and lost her properties. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker a place for her and her children to live.

She rebuilt her career but in 1975, four days after the triumphant opening of a comeback tour, she fell into a coma and passed away from a brain hemorrhage. She was buried in Monaco.


The funeral procession for entertainer Josephine Baker passes in front of the Bobino Theatre, April 15, 1975, where the American-born singer gave her last show shortly before she died at age 69. (AP Photo, File)

While Baker is widely appreciated in France, some critics of Macron question why he chose an American-born figure as the first Black woman in the Pantheon, instead of someone who rose up against racism and colonialism in France itself.

The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. She joins two other Black figures in the mausoleum: Gaullist resister Felix Eboué and famed writer Alexandre Dumas.

“These are people who have committed themselves, especially to others,” Pantheon administrator David Medec told the AP. “It is not only excellence in a field of competence, it is really the question of commitment, commitment to others.”

___

Jamey Keaten contributed from Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France.

Biden administration focuses on booster shots as best strategy against new coronavirus variant

Alaska News - Sun, 2021-11-28 15:41

A patient waits to be called for a COVID-19 vaccination booster shot outside a pharmacy in a grocery store, on Nov. 3, 2021, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) (David Zalubowski/)

The Biden administration is focusing on booster shots as a key weapon in efforts to protect the nation against a potentially dangerous coronavirus variant even as the extent of the threat remains unclear, according to three senior administration officials familiar with the plans.

A group of senior health officials had a call with South African scientists Sunday to understand the latest about the new variant and to help inform next steps, according to two of the senior administration officials, who, like the third official, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

In an update on Sunday, the World Health Organization said it is still too early to know whether the new variant, dubbed omicron, is more transmissible than the delta variant. There remains little understanding about the severity of illness caused by the variant and the rate of hospitalization. Scientists in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, said they expect more breakthrough cases in people vaccinated against the coronavirus.

[More omicron cases pop up as world scrambles to learn more about COVID-19 variant]

In about a week, researchers could have a better indication of how well vaccines protect against the new variant. But the Biden administration is already moving to urge as many Americans as possible to receive booster shots in coming days as the best means to protect against omicron.

That campaign is likely to involve messages urging people to get boosters and efforts to make sure the shots are available in as many locations as possible.

“The vaccinated people, the thing that we know for sure is that when you boost someone who’s been vaccinated with two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, you increase the level of neutralizing antibodies extraordinarily high - many fold higher than even the peak following the first two doses,” Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Fauci said that “it is quite conceivable if not likely” that booster shots will provide at least a partial shield of protection against the new variant.

Omicron has a high number of mutations that could make it more easily transmissible, though that remains unclear. In South Africa, cases are rising but it is not yet clear whether the rise is fueled by omicron or other factors, according to WHO.

Experts, including Fauci, have said it is highly unlikely that the vaccines offer no protection against the new variant. WHO said it was working with “a large number of researchers around the world” to understand the impact omicron would have on existing vaccines and antivirals. Even if there is diminished protection compared with other variants, there is a benefit to increasing the number of virus neutralizing antibodies by getting a booster shot, senior health officials and experts said.

“If you’re worried about omicron, do the same things as if you’re worried about delta. Get your boost and get fully vaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased communication with state public health officials in recent days as federal disease trackers learned more from South African counterparts, according to a U.S. Health and Human Services official. That has included daily calls with state-level officials, including epidemiologists, lab directors and city and county authorities.

The White House is also organizing meetings with state health officials, members of Congress and governors during the coming days, a White House official said.

While experts said boosters could be helpful in protecting against the omicron variant, some cautioned against using the additional shots at the expense of providing doses to countries where vaccination rates remain low.

Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases specialist who advised the Biden administration’s transition team on covid-19 response, said boosters should be part of the response to the omicron variant if it is “truly immune-evading” because the additional shots significantly boost antibody levels.

But Gounder said the downside to a booster-heavy approach is that it could mean much of the developing world remains unvaccinated, creating conditions for other variants to emerge.

“You have one approach that has a likely short-term benefit versus another approach that has a very likely long-term benefit, and how do you weigh one versus the other?” Gounder said.

But Fauci and others said millions of vaccine doses shipped to lower-income nations have gone unused, demonstrating the complexity of the global challenge. South African officials recently asked vaccine manufacturers to slow shipments so the country could maximize its existing stock.

U.S. officials asked South African officials over the weekend whether they needed more doses but were told vaccine uptake, and not supply, was the issue, a senior administration official said.

There was more blowback on the international front for the United States and European countries after nations closed their borders to travelers from southern African as a shield against omicron. They also faced words of caution from experts that the travel bans may be too late, with confirmed and suspected cases emerging as far away as Asia and Australia.

“By the time we have enough information to institute a travel ban, the cat’s already out of the bag, so to speak,” Nicole Errett, a professor at the University of Washington who has done research on public health emergency preparedness, said in an email. “Omicron has already been detected in other continents. A travel ban could in theory buy some time by reducing the spread of new seed cases, but we are talking on the order of days to weeks.”

Confirmed and suspected covid-19 cases caused by the new variant have been detected in a growing number of regions, including Britain, Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Israel and the Czech Republic. Most of the cases outside of Africa appear to involve people who had traveled to the continent.

Austria also joined the growing list of countries where the variant has been reported, detecting its first suspected case in the Tirol region, Reuters reported Sunday, citing Austrian officials.

[What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus]

Two planes carrying about 600 passengers from South Africa landed Saturday in the Netherlands with 61 people infected with the coronavirus - including 13 cases of the new omicron variant - Dutch health authorities said Sunday.

Health officials in Australia on Sunday confirmed two fully vaccinated, asymptomatic passengers on a flight into Sydney tested positive for the new variant and are in government isolation.

“This clearly demonstrates the pandemic is not over,” Dominic Perrottet, the premier of New South Wales state, home to Sydney, told reporters on Sunday. “There are limits to what the state and federal government can do: These variants will get into the country. It is inevitable.”

The emergence of a new and potentially more menacing variant raises questions about what lessons officials have learned in the two years since the novel coronavirus emerged, and whether they’re prepared for worrisome mutations that could evade vaccines.

On Sunday, Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, said vaccines may be less effective against omicron, acknowledging “we just don’t know enough” about the new variant to understand the risk.

Starting Tuesday, face masks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport in England. The U.K. will also require all international travelers to take a PCR test, which can detect the new variant, and to self-quarantine until results are returned.

Europe is in the grips of an increasingly deadly outbreak of the fast-spreading delta variant that has prompted officials in some countries to revert to measures such as shutdowns used to control the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

White House officials said the world’s failure to contain the rapid spread of delta this spring demonstrated the need to be vigilant in staving off omicron, which public health experts fear could sicken vaccinated people and spread more rapidly than delta.

In designating omicron a “variant of concern,” WHO said Friday that preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant for people who have previously had the virus, compared with other variants. However, there are high rates of people living with HIV and AIDS in southern Africa, which experts said makes it harder to interpret the effectiveness of vaccine-induced or natural immunity against infection.

Only about 24% of South Africans are fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University data, compared with nearly 60% of Americans.

[South Africa health official: Variants ‘haunt’ world with vaccine imbalance between rich and poor nations]

U.S. officials said they jumped into action after learning that the new variant contained long-feared mutations and appeared to descend from a different genetic lineage than delta. Senior officials such as Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and others began discussions with government scientists, South African officials and vaccine manufacturers that intensified on Thanksgiving Day.

The world’s major manufacturers of coronavirus vaccines, including Pfizer and BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac said they are working to investigate the new variant and adapt their shots if needed.

Experts cautioned that the flurry of activity to fight omicron may turn out to be largely unnecessary, as researchers learn in the coming days whether current vaccines can ward off the variant or successfully limit symptoms.

“Not all covid-19 variants cause trouble. For example, lambda and mu have not taken off globally. So it is possible that the new variant, omicron, could hopefully fizzle out,” said Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University.

- - -

The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, Dan Diamond, Chico Harlan, Jennifer Hassan, María Luisa Paúl and Lesley Wroughton contributed to this report.

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