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BA.2 Subvariant Nows Makes Up 72% Of New COVID-19 Cases

Another day, another COVID-19 subvariant that could once again send safety protocols back into full effect. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Nowcast, the BA.2 strain made up 72.2% of cases within the U.S. from March 27 to April 4. Other members of the Omicron family include BA.1.1, which made up 25%, and B.1.1.529, making up a miniscule 2.5%.

Of course, the subvariant isn’t just making waves in the States. Across the globe, Omicron accounted for 99.8% of COVID-19 cases within the last week, with BA.2 making up 93.6% of that. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), BA.2 is now dominant within all six of its regions and in 68 countries where data sequencing is available.

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Among the countries that have been most hit by the subvariant include the U.K. — which saw over 225,000 new cases on March 21, the most for them in a single day since early January — Germany, where over 3 million new cases have occured between March 24 to April 6, and Italy, which had close to two million cases in that same span.

As Scientific American notes, BA.2 is vastly different from its predecessors in terms of its genetics. While BA.2 shares many of the 60 mutations BA.1 ended up acquiring that were not in the original SARS-COV-2 virus, BA.2 possesses 28 unique mutations of its own. It also holds the dubious honor of being 30% to 50% more contagious than BA.1.

Still, despite the strong push of the highly-transmissible subvariant in the U.S. and world, health experts like Dr. Christopher Murray maintain that Americans shouldn’t be worried of another possible outbreak that could take improvements two steps back.

Speaking to NBC News, Murray — a University of Washington professor of health metrics sciences — said that he would not be “hugely concerned” with BA.2, and explained he expects it to remain at low levels as the weather warms up over the next few months.

“Right now we’re in this period where immunity is high and we’re heading into the summer and transmission tends to be a bit lower, so the combination should lead in the Northern Hemisphere to pretty low levels after the BA.2 wave.”

Indeed, despite the 72% mark, BA.2 hasn’t made a surge in cases. April 6 saw over 49,000 new cases, but the country has steadily remained around a seven-day average of 29,000 to 30,000 for nearly a month. That’s a significant improvement over the seven-day averages from December to late February, which ranged from 100,000 to 800,000. Meanwhile, the seven-day average for daily deaths has dropped from 1,059 on March 16 to 558 on April 6.

If projections like Murray’s hold true, it would be the first time a COVID-19 subvariant has taken over as the dominant strain in the U.S. without causing an uptick in cases. Of course, there may be several factors at play for why cases haven’t statistically increased just yet, one being that the government is no longer offering free tests for uninsured.

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Another possible reason why is that Americans have built up an immunity, with the latest CDC seroprevalence survey showing that around 95% of the population have some level of combined infection and vaccine-induced seroprevalence. 43% are estimated to have antibodies from just past infections, though attempting to build up protection this way certainly wouldn’t be recommended.

Of course, just because a country-wide outbreak might not occur doesn’t mean specific areas wouldn’t be at risk of severe case rises, some experts told Today. People that live in an area with high population density, along with a low vaccination rate, should be more precautious than those who live in an area with a low population density or higher vaccination rate.

Russian Oligarchs Could See U.S. Real Estate Properties Seized As Part Of Sanctions

On Wednesday, the Biden Administration announced the creation of a new task force — named “KleptoCapture” — that will enforce U.S. sanctions on Russian oligarchs that have helped to fund Putin’s deadly endeavors.

Biden teased the creation Tuesday night during his State of the Union speech, where he stated that the U.S. would begin to seize oligarch assets such as yachts, jets, and apartments. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” the President threatened. In the past decades, dozens of wealthy oligarchs have set up shop with penthouses, mansions, and apartments in America’s major cities in attempts to capitalize on the real estate market trends.

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The Real Deal took a look at some of the more prominent oligarchs that have high-valued properties in the U.S., with the most notable being Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea F.C. who’s also known as “Putin’s banker.” The 55-year-old Abramovich — worth a net worth of $13.8 billion — is tied to more than $90 million of real estate in New York City with three townhouses (that were transferred over to his ex-wife in late 2017), along with a total of $48.2 million in the form of two mansions near Aspen, Colorado.

Elsewhere in New York, Billionaire Eugene Shvidler, a Russian-American gold mining investor and oil tycoon, purchased a $24.5 million 5,000-square-unit in the city in 2018 while Len Blavatnik has spent a whopping $279.75 million on five properties since 2005, the majority of them located in the Lenox Hill neighborhood of the upper east side.

Meanwhile, Oleg Deripaska, the founder of Rusal, purchased two homes worth $47 million — which he has since transferred to relatives — though that doesn’t beat billionaire Alexei Kuzmichev’s $57.5 million worth of properties. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine had previously pleaded for the U.S. to take action against the moguls.

“For years Manhattan has been one of the most popular safe harbors for Russian oligarchs to park their cash, especially via ultra-high-end apartments. It’s time to start seizing their properties.”

Of course, it’s not just New York that has attracted hefty purchases. A 2017 Reuters report found that 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses invested nearly $100 million into seven luxury Trump-branded towers in Southern Florida. The buyers were politically connected businessmen, though Reuters found none to be in Putin’s inner circle.

NBC News also noted that Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky — who became a Russia propogandia supporter during the Trump administration — developed a financial stranglehold in Ohio, becoming the “biggest landlord in downtown Cleveland” in his scheme to move illicit money from Ukrainian banks to the U.S. to buy skyscrapers and steel mills.

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Despite the high notoriety and bountiful assets, most of the oligarchs mentioned — apart from some like Deripaska, who’s been linked to Russian organized crime — have not been put on the sanctions list yet by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Experts believe it might also be difficult to seize properties due to major disclosure loopholes in private equity and luxury goods that were utilized by the oligarchs, such as in the cases of transferring ownership.

“There’s this misunderstanding that you can just go out and seize these mansions, seize these yachts. For so many of them, it’s a complete black box,” author Casey Michel told NBC News. “The U.S. provided all the tools of anonymity the oligarchs needed.”

With seizes and sanctions threatening their holdings, oligarchs have — perhaps reluctantly — slowly started to speak out against Russia’s actions. Deripaska commented that “the world is very important,” and negotiations for peace should “start as soon as possible.” Abramovich is also set to sell Chelsea following immense pressure.

Amid Inflation, Retail Sales Rise 3.8% In January

Despite continuing Omicron concerns, retail sales last month rose to 3.8% — a total of $649.8 billion — the U.S. Department of Commerce reported Wednesday morning. Those numbers come after December saw a tough 2.5% slide during the typically-busy holiday season.

Inflation, which quickly rose to 7% in 2021 (the fastest pace since 1982) and 7.5% in January, helped to pump the numbers up. The monthly sales are also up 13% from a year prior, while sales from November to January 2021 were up 16% from that same period in 2020.

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Furniture and home furnishing stores saw a 7.2% change, while online retailers led the way with a 14.5% rise. Rounding out the top producers is motor vehicle dealers with 5.7%. Meanwhile, electronic and appliances stores registered a 1.9% rise, while food and restaurants saw a 0.9% decline due to rising fears and increased precautions over the spreading COVID-19 variants.

Bankrate.com senior industry analyst Ted Rossman explained to ABC News that Omicron cases — along with the cost — could be the culprit for falling gasoline prices as well, which declined 1.3%. However, gasoline stations saw the biggest year-over-year jump with 33.4%. According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of gas currently sits at around $3.5 dollars, up from $2.5 dollars a year ago.

This economic resilience in the face of a new COVID wave is certainly one to be admired. Omicron looked to be more dangerous and contagious than the Delta variant, and the U.S. endured a pandemic-high 1.4 million new cases on Jan. 10. With workers out sick, a shortage began, forcing many stores to cut hours.

However, cases have since seen a decline, with the current seven-day average laying around 141,000. In addition to retail sales, jobs also prevailed despite the surge – nonfarm payrolls rose by 467,000 last month, 150,00 more than Wall Street’s estimate, while the unemployment rate increased by 0.1% to 4%. Wages increased 0.7% on the month and 5.7% for the year, the biggest yearly move since May 2020. Even with inflation, consumers were able to spend more freely with the extra cash.

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“Even taking into account the December decline, retail sales in recent months have been increasing much faster than prices, so households are purchasing larger volumes of goods and services, not just paying higher prices,” PNC chief economist Gus Faucher told CNBC.

Among other monthly declines include sports, music, and book stores (-3.0%, the highest decline endured by any retailer), health and personal stores (-0.7%), and miscellaneous store retailers (-0.1%). The only retailer that saw a year-over-year decline was electronics with -2.9%.

While clothing retailers had a meager 0.7% rise, they finished third overall in year-over-year change with +21.9%, behind gas and food and restaurants (+27%). The overall rate greatly outperformed economists’ predictions, which expected the final total to fall around a 2% rise. The report covers only a third of overall consumer spending, and doesn’t include services like plane tickets.

Despite Cases Falling, WHO Director-General Warns That “COVID Isn’t Finished”

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized that despite falling cases, “COVID isn’t finished with us” – a phrase that may sound like a broken record to many.

“Depending on where you live, it might feel like the COVID-19 pandemic is almost over, or, it might feel like it is at its worst. But wherever you live, COVID isn’t finished with us,” Tedros said, adding that while the pandemic’s trends can change at any moment, we have the vaccines and resources necessary to combat it.

“Diseases know no borders, and as we all know from Omicron, any feeling of safety can change in a moment. We know this virus will continue to evolve. But we are not defenceless. We have the tools to prevent this disease, to test for it, and to treat it.”

The world has seen a very positive decrease in recent weeks after hitting the worst high since the pandemic began. On Jan. 25, 3,774,458 COVID-19 cases were recorded globally, bringing the seven-day average to 3,371,138. Since then, the numbers have slowly but surely dropped, with Feb. 8’s seven-day average hitting 2,660,107.

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The Associated Press noted that in the WHO’s weekly epidemiological report, released Tuesday, showed cases fell 17% worldwide over the last week, while deaths rose 7%. In the U.S. — the world’s leading country in total cases and deaths — cases dropped 50%

However, the U.S. was still the top country with 1,874,006 new cases in the report. Among other countries with the highest COVID-19 cases recorded include France (1,738,189 cases, 26% decrease), Germany (1,285,375 cases, 22% increase) and Brazil, which didn’t see any significant increases or decreases.

“Where people have access to those tools, this virus can be brought under control,” the director-general explained, while saying that in places that don’t have access to resources, COVID-19 continues “to spread, to evolve, and to kill.” Tedros gave his remarks at the launch of the WHO’s ACT-Accelerator campaign for global equity in COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and equipment.

The ACT-Accelerator campaign is currently asking 55 countries for $23 billion in funding to accomplish those goals of further resources globally. The WHO insisted that with every month of delay, the world stands to lose “four times” the investment the campaign needs.

According to the organization, 4.7 billion COVID-19 tests have been administered since the beginning of the pandemic, though just 22 million have been given in low-income countries, 0.4% of the global total. Meanwhile, 10% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dosage.

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Tedros explained that the emergence of Omicron — which has a new subvariant, Omicron BA.2 — makes securing treatments and aid globally that much more crucial. WHO’s regional director Dr. Dorit Nitzan, explained that BA.2, which currently only accounts for 4% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., will likely become dominant due to its high tramissionability.

However, some officials appear more optimistic than others regarding the lull. The director of WHO’s Europe office, Dr. Hans Kluge, stated that the continent is facing a “plausible endgame” in regards to the pandemic. “This period of higher protection should be seen as a cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace,” Kluge said.

Economy Stock Market

U.S. Economy Rose 5.7% In 2021, Marking Fastest Growth Since 1984

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) — a measure of all goods and services produced — rose by 5.7% in 2021, not only rebounding from a brief recession from March 2020 but also marking the fastest growth since 1984’s 7.2% growth.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, thanks to increased consumer spending, real GDP increased by 6.9%. That’s a solid step up from the third quarter, which saw a disappointing GDP rise of 2.3% – the slowest mark since the second quarter of 2020. As CNN Business notes, that fourth quarter final was much better than many economists had predicted.

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All told, it’s a 9.1% swing when looking at the yearly change. In 2020, with COVID-19 sending businesses and people into lockdown, GDP decreased by 3.4% — the lowest since 1946 — with the second quarter hitting a minus 31.4%. During that time, over 22 million saw their jobs lost.

Meanwhile, the price index for GDP increased by 3.9% this year (compared to 2020’s 1.2% raise). Exports — along with inventories, investments, and PCE — were a crucial factor in the growth for both goods and services, with consumer goods, industrial supplies and materials, and food being the leading export contributors.

That export number also helps to offset the rise in imports, which subtracts from the GDP. According to BEA’s goods and services deficit report, the U.S. had accumulated $224.2 billion in exports and $304.4 billion in imports in November.

President Joe Biden commented on the rise in a White House press release, pointing out that for the first time in 20 years, the U.S. economy grew faster than China’s (which saw a 2021 GDP growth of 8.1% and a fourth quarter growth of 4%).

“This is no accident. My economic strategy is creating good jobs for Americans, rebuilding our manufacturing, and strengthening our supply chains here at home to help make our companies more competitive.”

Biden also stated that small businesses have grown by more than 30% since 2019, and that he plans to urge Congress to pass legislation that would keep the U.S. competitive while bolstering supply chains — which have seen continual pandemic issues — and investmenting in families and clean energy.

Speaking to NBC News, Bankrate chief financial analyst Greg McBride explained that the fourth quarter surge can be contributed to rising inventories, which accounted for 71% of fourth quarter growth. However, while degression should be expected early on in the new year due to COVID-19 variants, McBride sees the overall growth continuing in the coming months.

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“Omicron will put a dent in first quarter economic growth — we’re already seeing some of this with increased jobless claims — but demand remains strong, the labor market is tight, and the economy is poised for another year of solid, above-trend growth,” McBride said.

The final quarter of 2021 was able to avoid any potential variant hits due to Omicron first appearing in late November/early December. Consumer activity ramped up late into the year, with holiday sales rising 8.5%, the highest growth in 17 years.

That surge sent businesses spiraling into shortages of both supplies and workers, which in turn affected prices. While the GDP rose, so did inflation, which hit 7% in 2021 (the highest since 1982).

Russia Could Invade Ukraine “At Any Point” As U.S. Attempts To Resolve Standoff

As Russia continues to build up troops — which now range near an estimated 127,000 — at the Ukraine border, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has stated that while the country doesn’t intend to invade like the West fears, the Kremlin will need guarantees that forbid Ukraine joining NATO.

“For us, it’s absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO,” Ryabkov stated on Monday following an eight hour-long meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Geneva, Switzerland.

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Sherman countered Ryabkov’s wishes by emphasizing that the U.S. will “never allow anyone” to close NATO’s open-door policy, and that Russia will not be able to dictate how the U.S. works with foreign countries. “We will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Sherman said.

Despite Ryabkov’s claims that Russia doesn’t intend on invading, the White House believes an attack could be imminent, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling the situation extremely dangerous and more stark than previously during her briefing Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Russia has been reducing its embassy staff in Ukraine, with the New York Times reporting 48 workers have left the country since Jan. 5 –  another sign that a head to this conflict could be coming soon. However, Moscow has denied these actions while assuring the embassy is operating normally.

Sherman wasn’t the only U.S. official making diplomatic efforts this week. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and is scheduled to meet with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

Blinken gave Zelenskyy a warning similar to Psaki’s, saying an invasion could come at “short notice.” Blinken also acknowledged that Ukraine is facing an “unprecedented threat” and repeated his sentiments from back in early December, saying Russia still faces severe economic consequences should they go through with their attack.

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France President Emmanuel Macron has urged for a European “collective security” pact. This would include principles that allow the “rejection of use of force or coercion,” giving countries the choice to reject spheres of influence and join alliances or bodies as they wish.

Macron added that “frank and demanding dialogue” between the EU and Russia would be necessary for a collective security pact, and that relying on talks between Moscow and D.C. is simply not enough. Macron expressed hopes of revitalizing a four-way talk between Germany, Russia, France, and Ukraine in order to find a solution.

Experts anticipate Russia which touts an will accuse Ukraine of a provocation before moving forward with any operations. NBC News detailed a number of possible options Russian President Vladimir Putin could take, ranging from blocking off Ukraine’s army and ports to seizing the eastern half of the country.

According to Ukrainian officials, Russia could utilize ally Belarus — which shares a border with Ukraine — as a launching stage for a multi-headed invasion. Moscow has started moving troops to Belarus for joint military drills, where they’ll rehearse repelling attacks. The two countries previously held a Zapad (West) military exercise in September, which consisted of 200,000 troops.

According to CNN, in addition to sanctions that would be thrown down should Russia attack, the Biden administration is also considering providing Ukraine forces with further ammunition, mortars, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and anti-aircraft missile systems through NATO allies.

Other methods of U.S. assistance include additional arms sales and advice in order to stay in the right against a superior and formidable Russian force, an administration official told CNN.

World Health Organization

WHO Director-General Worries COVID-19 ‘Tsunami Of Cases’ Could Drive Health Systems Towards Collapse

With COVID-19 cases once again rising — while breaking daily records — in countries like the United States, France, and Britain, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in a press conference that an uptick could put a strain on health systems globally.

“I’m highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” Tedros stated, adding that the COVID-19 surges could force “immense pressure on exhausted health workers.”

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Additionally, Tedros voiced his concerns that the new variants could grow further and become more resistant to the vaccines in place, putting greater importance on boosters. “As this pandemic drags on, it’s possible that new variants could evade our countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.”

Tedros critiqued the failure of his goal for UN member states to reach 40% population immunization — only 102 out of 194 reached the mark — which he said was due to limited supply to low-income countries. “40% was doable. It’s not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate.”

Tedros — who wants to reach 70% immunization in every country by July — encouraged nations to support each other in faster manufacturing and rollouts of vaccines, while also welcoming innovative solutions for reaching at-risk communities. Right now, only 48.3% of the entire world is fully vaccinated, while 57.5% have received at least one dose.

Despite the Director-General’s worrisome remarks, he expressed hope that 2022 could be the year that not only ends the “acute stage” of the pandemic, but puts the world on track for better health security while stating that “it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

As NBC News notes, 1.8 million COVID-19 cases were reported last week in the U.S., a 69.3% increase from the week prior. Dec. 27 saw 441,278 new cases, the highest total recorded since the pandemic hit the country in March 2020. Holiday travel played an obvious part in the rise, and continues a trend – Dec. 2020 and Jan. of this year saw high U.S. daily case increases as well.

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According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the week ending on Dec. 25, Omicron made up 58.6% of total COVID-19 cases in the U.S., while Delta made up 41.1%. Omicron is up 36.1% from Dec. 18, while Delta is down 35.9%.

Meanwhile, Britain saw over 128,000 new cases on Dec. 27 — their highest ever recorded — while France saw over 104,000 on Dec. 25. Across the globe, over 2.5 million cases have been recorded since Monday, while the seven-day average is at 946,035.

Despite the increases and rapid transmissions, standard procedures continue to be relaxed. On Monday, the CDC lowered their recommended isolation time from 10 days to five days for both asymptomatic vaccinated and unvaccinated. The CDC also recommended the wearing of masks around people for five days after isolation time.

Similarly, the U.K. reduced their isolation period for those who have tested positive from 10 days to seven days, assuming they’ve received negative lateral flow tests. WHO has not given a firm opinion on the isolation changes, with emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan only saying that “these are judgement calls countries make.”

USA China Trade War 2

Harvard Professor Found Guilty Of Lying About Ties With China Government

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Tuesday in a release that Dr. Charles Leiber, a professor and former Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biological Department, has been found guilty of lying to federal authorities about his connection with the People’s Republic of China’s Thousand Talents Program and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).

Leiber was also found guilty of failing to report the income he received from WUT. Leiber was originally charged on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign and financial accounts (FBAR) with the IRS. Leiber, 62, previously pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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After five days of testimonies, the trial ended with the jury deliberating for two hours and 45 minutes. Leiber’s — who was arrested in January of 2020 — sentencing will come later at a yet-to-be-scheduled date. Leiber is currently facing up to 13 years in prison, 7 years of supervised release, and fines over $500k.

According to the Justice Department, Leiber became a “strategic scientist” at WUT and a contractual participant for Thousand Talents — a recruitment program for scientific talent to further the country’s scientific, economic, and security endeavors — from 2012 to 2015, which Havard was unaware of. Per Leiber’s Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Leiber a salary of $50,000 per month, living expenses up to $150,000, and awarded him over $1.5 million to establish a nanoscience research lab at WUT.

Leiber additionally opened a bank account with WUT officials at a Wuhan Bank during a trip in 2012, where he deposited parts of his salary from 2013 to 2015. The DOJ states that U.S. taxpayers are required to report any existence of foreign accounts that hold more than $10,000 at a time, which Leiber failed to do in 2014 and 2015.

Leiber’s defense attorney had priorly stated that prosecutors would be unable to prove Leiber “knowingly, witfully, or intentionally” made false statements regarding his connections to WUT and Thousand Talents, while adding Leiber hadn’t been charged with handing over information or technology to China.

Acting U.S. attorney Nathaniel Mendell said in a statement that there is no question Leiber lied to authorities and Harvard about his involvement, adding that “the jury followed the evidence and the law to a just verdict.”

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As the Associated Press notes, Leiber’s trial is one of the highest-profile cases in the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which began back in 2018 under the Trump administration. According to the DOJ, “the initiative focuses on protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises, as well as combatting covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency.”

However, the initiative has received backlash for potential harm to academic research, the direction and definition of the program, and racially profiling Chinese researchers. MIT Technology Review reported that 90% of all defendants are of Chinese heritage, while also claiming many of the initiative cases “have little or no obvious connection to national security or the theft of trade secrets.”

Travel Ban

Omicron Variant Forces New Travel Restrictions and Protocols Across Globe

In what has seemingly become an ever-expected piece saying, the travel industry will once again be heading towards new restrictions – this time due to the rise of the Omicron variant.

In order to curb the spread of the variant, the Biden Administration initiated travel bans on Nov. 29 against South Africa — where the strain was first identified back in late November — Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and Eswatini. The State Department also issued a “do not travel” advisory for citizens.

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This past Monday, new requirements were introduced for inbound travelers, which includes U.S. citizens. Air travelers are required to present airlines with proof of a negative COVID test that was taken one day before departure. This is lowered from the previous three days.

Meanwhile, tests that are accepted still include antigen and nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT). Travelers are not required to take an additional COVID test upon landing. So far, general tests have been able to detect Omicron, and should “remain adequate.” Currently, 19 states have detected an Omicron variant, as have 50 countries.

The United Kingdom has instituted similar testing protocol, along with banning travel to multiple African countries – Nigeria just became the 11th country added to their red list.

Like every other governmental action during the pandemic, the South Africa ban has had controversial aspects. The New Yorker pointed out that before the restrictions went into effect, strains were also detected in the U.K., Germany, and the Czech Republic – yet,  travelers are still currently free to enter and leave those countries.

Meanwhile, South Africans have expressed displeasure. “I think the government’s decision is wicked, unfair and a heavy financial burden,” a Nigerian man living in the U.K. told the BBC in regards to the government’s restrictions that force a paid-quarantine for residents returning to the country.

Despite numerous countries’ efforts, it might not be any good in the long run. Speaking with NPR, Yale Institute of Global Health director Saad Omer said these bans have “very little utility.” “From what we know about the epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of this variant, the horse has probably left the barn,” Omer said, while also agreeing with the belief that variant-identified countries should not be exempted from restrictions.

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Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like you may have to worry about your own holiday travel plans being flushed down the drain just yet. Appearing on a CNN Global Town Hall, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained that “if you have a vaccinated situation, your family is vaccinated, enjoy the holidays indoors with your family.”

While Fauci did say that traveling always opens up the risk of infection, travelers can help to further protect themselves by continuing to wear masks and getting booster shots that are becoming available to more and more people.

It seems travelers share these sentiments to an extent. According to MarketWatch, a survey found that 87% of travelers are still planning on following through with their Christmas trips, while 10% have cancelled their trips and 3% ended up changing their destination. 79% of the survey respondents expressed concern about Omicron, however.

U.S. Warns Russia Of “Serious Consequences” If Troops Initiate Conflict At Ukraine Border

On the Ukraine border, a storm is brewing in the form of Kremlin fighters, rifles, and tanks. Around 100,000 troops have gathered at the border, and while this is happened before — Russia gathered and eventually pulled back forces in April — many experts believe this movement is more serious, and could drag Europe and the U.S. into a military conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Stockholm that if “Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.” Blinken added that diplomacy is the best way to avoid any pending conflicts, and called for Russia to pull back its troops.

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While the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov did not produce any solutions, the two have agreed to continue diplomatic conversations, according to State Department officials. Blinken also stated that the two will relay their talks to Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, and the two Presidents could “speak directly in the near future.”

Moscow has continued to deny any plans for an invasion, and accused Ukraine and its allies of making up claims in order to cover up their own aggressive actions and military build-ups. Russia also stated on Thursday that it arrested three suspected Ukrainian security service agents.

Speaking to NBC News, former U.S. ambassador and Atlantic Council senior director John Herbst explained that if the Kremlin wanted to quickly conduct an invasion, nothing would hold them back from doing just that.

“Moscow is so positioned that they can move with very little warning. They’re certainly threatening. And they’re in a position that if they want to, they can do it.”

Prior to the OSCE meeting, Blinken explained that they were deeply concerned by evidence that Russia had made plans for “significant aggressive” moves, and that they don’t know what Putin has decided in regards to an invasion.

In a speech, Lavrov claimed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was refusing to consider proposals that would help to deescalate the situation, and warned NATO against turning countries neighboring Russia into “bridgeheads of confrontation.”

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Russia has also been accused of playing a hand in the continuing Belarus-Poland border crisis, which Euronews reports Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said is “absolutely connected” to the Kremlin’s military build-up.

These [are] all absolutely connected factors which lead to the aggression from Russia side, which lead to the using of energy [supplies] against Europe and against Ukraine’s European inspirations.”

Russia and Belarus held a week-long open Zapad (“West”) military exercise on NATO’s border in September. The exercise consisted of 200,000 troops and came after an effort to integrate the two countries while creating a “single defense space.”

Ukraine and Russia have a long history of tensions since Ukraine broke away following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2014, Russia seized control of the Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula where citizens are ethnically Russian. Russia proceeded to hold a referendum and annexed Crimea.

Putin published a paper in July, arguing that Ukraine is part of historical Russia. Putin also claimed that the two countries’ spiritual unity has been attacked, and that Russia has never been — and will never be — “anti-Ukraine.”