In Brief: November 18, 2020

FDA allows 1st rapid virus test that gives results at home

WASHINGTON — U.S. regulators on Tuesday allowed emergency use of the first rapid coronavirus test that can be performed and developed entirely at home.

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The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration represents an important step in U.S. efforts to expand testing options for COVID-19 beyond health care facilities and testing sites. However, the test will require a prescription, likely limiting its initial use.

The FDA granted emergency authorization to the 30-minute test kit from Lucira Health, a California manufacturer.

The company’s test allows users to swab themselves to collect a nasal sample. The sample is then swirled in a vial that plugs into a portable device, that interprets the results and displays whether the person tested positive or negative for coronavirus.

To date, the agency has authorized nearly 300 tests for coronavirus. The vast majority require a nasal swab performed by a health professional and must be processed at laboratories using high-tech testing equipment. A handful allow people to collect their own sample at home — a nasal swab or saliva — that’s then shipped to a lab, which usually means waiting days for results.

Biden’s DIY transition proceeds without Trump assistance

WILMINGTON, Del. — President Donald Trump’s refusal to cooperate with his successor is forcing President-elect Joe Biden to seek unusual workarounds to prepare for the exploding public health threat and evolving national security challenges he will inherit in just nine weeks.

Blocked from the official intelligence briefing traditionally afforded to incoming presidents, Biden gathered virtually on Tuesday with a collection of intelligence, defense and diplomatic experts. None of the experts are currently affiliated with the U.S. government, raising questions about whether Biden is being provided the most up-to-date information about dangers facing the nation.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris received a more formal briefing on Tuesday as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, though still has relatively limited information about the specific threats Biden will inherit.

And as the worst pandemic in a century bears down on the U.S. with renewed ferocity, the current administration is blocking Biden from collaborating with its response team. Biden’s representatives instead plan to meet directly with pharmaceutical companies this week to determine how best to distribute at least two promising vaccines to hundreds of millions of Americans, the biggest logistical challenge to face a new president in generations.

The moves reflect how Biden is adjusting to a historically tense transition. With no sign that Trump is prepared to facilitate soon a peaceful transfer of power, Biden and his team are instead working through a series of backup options to do the best they can to prepare for the challenges he will face as soon as he takes office in January.

Pentagon to cut troop levels to 2,500 in Iraq, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Tuesday the U.S. will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfills President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring forces home from America’s long wars even as Republicans and U.S. allies warn of the dangers of withdrawing before conditions are right.

The plan will accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in Trump’s final days in office, despite arguments from senior military officials in favor of a slower, more methodical pullout to preserve hard-fought gains. Trump has refused to concede his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, just five days after the troop withdrawals are to finish.

Miller, who refused to take questions from reporters after reading a prepared statement before TV cameras at the Pentagon, said the U.S. will reduce troop levels in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500.

Speaking a week after taking over for former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was fired by Trump, Miller notably did not say that the drawdown plan had been recommended or endorsed by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or by other senior military officers. He said only that military commanders had agreed to execute it.

Miller said the U.S. remains ready to respond if conditions in Afghanistan or Iraq deteriorate.

From wire sources

Hurricane Iota roars onto Nicaragua as 2nd blow in 2 weeks

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Hurricane Iota battered Nicaragua with screeching winds and pounding surf Tuesday, chasing tens of thousands of people from their homes along the same stretch of the Caribbean coast that was devastated by an equally powerful hurricane just two weeks ago.

The extent of the damage was unclear because much of the affected region was without electricity and phone and internet service, and strong winds hampered radio transmissions.

Preliminary reports from the coast included toppled trees and electric poles and roofs stripped from homes and businesses, said Guillermo González, director of Nicaragua’s emergency management agency. More than 40,000 people were in shelters.

Later, Nicaragua Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo said that a brother and sister, ages 11 and 8, had drowned in the community of La Pinuela trying to cross the swollen Solera River. There were reports of others missing in the same area.

A day earlier, Iota intensified into a Category 5 storm, but it weakened as it neared the coast and made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (250 kph). The system came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane about 30 miles (45 kilometers) south of the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas, also known as Bilwi. That was just 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall Nov. 3, also as a Category 4 storm.

Toilet paper limits, empty shelves are back as virus surges

NEW YORK (AP) — Looking for toilet paper? Good luck.

A surge of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is sending people back to stores to stockpile again, leaving shelves bare and forcing retailers to put limits on purchases.

Walmart said Tuesday it’s having trouble keeping up with demand for cleaning supplies in some stores. Supermarket chains Kroger and Publix are limiting how much toilet paper and paper towels shoppers can buy after demand spiked recently. And Amazon is sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels.

A similar scene played out back in March, when the pandemic first hit and people hunkered down in their homes.

But Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said he doesn’t expect things to be as bad this go-around since lockdowns are being handled on a regional basis and everyone is better prepared.

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Historic deal revives plan for largest US dam demolition

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An agreement announced Tuesday paves the way for the largest dam demolition in U.S. history, a project that promises to reopen hundreds of miles of waterway along the Oregon-California border to salmon that are critical to tribes but have dwindled to almost nothing in recent years.

If approved, the deal would revive plans to remove four massive hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River, creating the foundation for the most ambitious salmon restoration effort in history. The project on California’s second-largest river would be at the vanguard of a trend toward dam demolitions in the U.S. as the structures age and become less economically viable amid growing environmental concerns about the health of native fish.

Previous efforts to address problems in the Klamath Basin have fallen apart amid years of legal sparring that generated distrust among tribes, fishing groups, farmers and environmentalists, and the new agreement could face more legal challenges. Some state and federal lawmakers criticized it as a financially irresponsible overreach by leaders in Oregon and California.

“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and a new era,” Yurok Tribe chairman Joseph James said. “To me, this is who we are, to have a free-flowing river just as those who have come before us. … Our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.”

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A half-dozen tribes across Oregon and California, fishing groups and environmentalists had hoped to see demolition work begin as soon as 2022. But those plans stalled in July, when U.S. regulators questioned whether the nonprofit entity formed to oversee the project could adequately respond to any cost overruns or accidents.

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