The first cases of a coronavirus variant that may better elude existing vaccines were reported in South Carolina yesterday. The two patients had no recent travel history, suggesting the strain has already achieved community spread in the US.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has undergone thousands of mutations during its global spread (see visualization)—most emerge and quickly fade—though scientists remain concerned about three in particular. These strains, from the UK, Brazil, and South Africa, do not appear more lethal but have been observed to spread more quickly. See an overview of the major variants here.
A COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna showed a sixfold reduction in the levels of neutralizing antibodies produced in the presence of the South African strain; Pfizer said early data suggested a slight decrease in the efficacy of its
vaccine. In both cases, the vaccines remained overall effective in fighting the virus.
Both vaccines currently available in the US use messenger RNA technology—essentially using small pieces of genetic code to mimic the virus and stimulate the immune system. This approach is adept at fighting mutations, as scientists can effectively update the genetic code to reflect new strains. Moderna has begun clinical trials of booster shots to fight the emerging variants.
data yesterday showing its vaccine was almost 90% effective in protecting against COVID-19—except against the South African strain, against which the efficacy dropped to under 50%. The Novavax vaccine uses proteins, not mRNA (see how it works).
The US has reported 433,195 total COVID-19 deaths, with 4,000 deaths reported yesterday. A total of 48 million vaccine doses have been distributed, with 26 million doses administered as of
this morning. In positive news, the rate of new cases continues to fall, down almost 40% from mid-January.
Omar Sheikh Released
Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the release of Omar Sheikh yesterday, overturning an 18-year-old conviction for the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The decision upholds a lower court's ruling, which said it found insufficient evidence Sheikh was involved in carrying out the murder itself. The release also comes despite Sheikh claiming, without elaboration, to have played a minor role in the plot.
Pearl's murder while investigating al-Qaeda in
Pakistan—one of the first instances of extremists disseminating footage—sparked international outrage. Sheikh is widely believed to have masterminded the plot, though Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks, confessed to Pearl's killing in 2007. US intelligence has corroborated Mohammed's role in the actual killing.
Read a deep-dive investigation into Pearl's murder here.
General Motors Goes Electric
General Motors announced yesterday it would transition much of its fleet to vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. The target, which would shift the vast majority of GM's fleet to all-electric within 15 years, is one of the most aggressive plans announced by traditional auto manufacturers to date.
Electric vehicles represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of the auto industry, but still represent just 3% of the total cars sold each year worldwide. Some estimates have the market penetration of electric vehicles passing 40% by 2035, and GM's announcement follows heavy investment into its Ultium battery technology.
Zero tailpipe emissions only refer to air pollutants and greenhouse gases arising from the operation of the car itself. Well-to-wheel emissions include the production and processing of the fuel, while lifecycle emissions include contributions from the manufacture of the whole car. GM further pledged to be wholly carbon neutral as a company by 2040.
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IN THE KNOW
Sports, Entertainment, & Culture
>Cicely Tyson, Emmy- and Tony-winning actress whose career spanned more than 60 years, dies at 96(More) | Longtime host of children’s show “Wonderama” Sonny Fox dies at 95(More)
>Naomi Osaka, tennis superstar and 2020’s highest-paid female athlete, purchases ownership stake in the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League(More)
>Sandro Botticelli portrait sells for $92.2M at Sotheby’s auction; previous record sale for a Botticelli painting was $10.4M (More)
Science & Technology
>Drugmaker Roche to partner with Cambridge Quantum Computing to use quantum computing for simulating molecular-level interactions; ultimate goal is to discover previously unknown combinations for drugs (More)
>MIT researchers develop "liquid" neural network, capable of changing its underlying equations in real
time; has use in developing intelligent AI systems that process real-world data (More)
>Analyzing the eye lenses of freshwater fish reveals details of the animal's life history, including what it ate over time (More)
>GameStop (GME) stock adventure continues as Robinhood and other trading platforms restrict transactions in GME and other recently surging stocks; GME closes down 44% to $193, but is up over 50% in after-hours trading (More) | Read letter from Robinhood to customers explaining decision (More)
>US economy declined 3.5% in 2020, the first annual contraction since 1946, but grew at 4% annualized rate in Q4 (More) | Initial unemploymentclaims decrease to 847,000 filed during the previous week (More)
>American and Southwest Airlines announce record losses as airlines lose a total of $34B in 2020, Southwest sees first loss since 1972 (More)
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Politics & World Affairs
>President Joe Biden signs executive orders scaling back Trump administration abortion restrictions (More) | March for Life, the anti-abortion rally that typically draws hundreds of thousands to Washington, DC, to be held virtually today (More) | Near-total abortion ban goes into effect in Poland (More)
>German court in Frankfurt sentences neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst to life in prison for 2019 murder of regional governor; case was the first political assassination by extremists in Germany since World War II (More)
>Six dead, 11 injured after liquid nitrogen leak causes an explosion at a Georgia poultry plant (More)
How America Gets Its Vaccines
MIT Tech Review | Cat Ferguson, Karen Hao. The five-step process that brings vaccines from the manufacturing line into your arm. (Read)
Editor's note: Also something to ponder—if you squeeze the coronavirus, does it shatter?
The Margins | Ranjan Roy. A fascinating look at the forces beyond r/WallStreetBets that gave rise to the GameStop short squeeze phenomenon. (Read)
The True Story of Jessica Krug
Washingtonian | Marisa M. Kashino. On the implosion of the once well-regarded academic who revealed last fall she was not, in fact, a Black woman. (Read)
Building at the Megascale
BBC Future | Anders Sandberg. Exploring some of the most ambitious megascale structures ever dreamed up, and why they might not be as improbable as they seem (Read)
Kettle & Fire’s bone broth makes it easier than ever to get all your protein, essential amino acids, and more in one easy-to-sip place. With 19 flavors, you’ll definitely find something you like—for us, it's their Mushroom Chicken Bone Broth and flavorful keto soups—ready in just two minutes.
Historybook: President William McKinley born (1843); Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" first published (1845); Baseball Hall of Fame announces first inductees (1936); HBD Oprah Winfrey (1954); RIP Robert Frost (1963).
"Freedom lies in being bold."
- Robert Frost
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