In Brief: September 23, 2021

FDA backs Pfizer COVID-19 boosters for seniors, high-risk

The U.S. moved a step closer Wednesday to offering booster doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to senior citizens and others at high risk from the virus as the Food and Drug Administration signed off on the targeted use of extra shots.

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The FDA authorized booster doses for Americans who are 65 and older, younger adults with underlying health conditions and those in jobs that put them at high risk for COVID-19. The ruling represents a drastically scaled back version of the Biden administration’s sweeping plan to give third doses to nearly all American adults to shore up their protection amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

However, more regulatory hurdles lie ahead before the dispensing of boosters can begin.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened a two-day meeting Wednesday to make their own, more specific recommendations about who should get the extra shots and when. And in their first day of discussions, some experts were so perplexed by the questions surrounding the rationale for boosters that they suggested putting off a decision for a month in hopes of more evidence.

The uncertainties were yet another reminder that the science surrounding boosters is more complicated than the Biden administration suggested when the president and his top aides rolled out their plan at the White House last month.

Ukraine’s leader takes UN to task as ‘retired superhero’

UNITED NATIONS — Leaders who are “playing” at unity and stuffing pressing problems into an overflowing bag of woe. A world that’s in the same boat, but first-class passengers get the lifeboats. A United Nations that resembles “a retired superhero” that has lost sight of what it used to be.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy certainly wasn’t the only world leader at this week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting to paint a dire picture of international relations. But the former actor and comedian may well have painted the most colorful one.

In a speech Wednesday, he called out failures in areas from sharing coronavirus vaccines to halting climate change to turning back Russia’s annexation of part of his country. He floated a proposal for the U.N. to head to global hotspots to hold its meetings — and offered to host one.

“I’m not being ironic. I’m not trolling anyone,” he said. “It’s time to wake up.”

A political novice when elected in 2019, the 43-year-old president was addressing global diplomacy’s biggest annual gathering for the third time. His first appearance, in 2019, was fraught with a U.S. political firestorm over a phone call between him and then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump was eventually impeached over the call, in which he prodded Zelenskyy to investigate now-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

From wire sources

Many migrants staying in US even as expulsion flights rise

DEL RIO, Texas — Three hours after being freed from a giant migrant camp under an international bridge, Mackenson Veillard stood outside a gas station and took stock of his sudden good fortune as he and his pregnant wife waited for a Greyhound bus to take them to a cousin in San Antonio.

The couple camped with thousands for a week under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, sleeping on concrete and getting by on bread and bottled water.

“I felt so stressed,” Veillard, 25, said this week. “But now, I feel better. It’s like I’m starting a new life.”

Many Haitian migrants in Del Rio are being released in the United States, according to two U.S. officials, undercutting the Biden administration’s public statements that the thousands in the camp faced immediate expulsion to Haiti.

Haitians have been freed on a “very, very large scale” in recent days, one official said Tuesday. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and thus spoke on condition of anonymity, put the figure in the thousands.

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EXPLAINER: Why the debt limit is again roiling Washington

WASHINGTON — The idea of the U.S. government breaching its “debt limit” sounds scary. But what, exactly, are lawmakers in Washington fighting about?

The debt limit is a nearly century-old artificial cap that Congress placed on the U.S. government’s ability to borrow. Lawmakers have raised or suspended it nearly 80 times since 1960, but there is a deepening partisan standoff this time, underscoring how the debt limit has evolved into a political weapon.

House Democrats voted Tuesday to suspend the debt limit through the end of 2022. That proposal is likely to meet fierce resistance in the evenly-split Senate, where Republican lawmakers say President Joe Biden and the Democrats in power should go it alone as they also try to move on a multitrillion-dollar package of tax increases on the wealthy and new spending on children, health care, infrastructure and the environment.

The Biden administration insists on bipartisanship on the issue.

“It is not a partisan issue to want to protect the full faith and credit of the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday aboard Air Force One.

As Texas draws its maps, Latinos push for political power

AUSTIN, Texas — As a Dallas County commissioner, Elba Garcia represents some 670,000 people — nearly the population of a congressional district. The majority of her constituents are Latino and live in the fast-growing suburbs west of Dallas, where they share worries about managing growth, schools and access to health care.

Garcia is the area’s voice on the commission, but her constituents don’t have such neat representation in Congress. The area is divvied up among three House members, according to boundaries drawn by Republican legislators 10 years ago. None is Latino.

Garcia says the impact of the divisions is clear: “Everyone gets cut up and scattered around,” she said. “They dilute the Latino vote.”

Texas this week will begin redrawing those congressional lines, and Latino advocates and officeholders say it’s time to correct past wrongs. The state’s explosive population growth over the past decade — half of which comes from Latinos — has earned it two new congressional seats. At least one should be a Latino-majority congressional seat in the Dallas area, they argue.

The push is part of a national campaign ramping up as states dive into a once-a-decade redistricting fight that could determine control of the House of Representatives. Although the battle is expected to be sharpest in Texas, Latino advocacy groups are already fanning out across the country, working in Arizona, Colorado and Texas with one clear message: Latinos accounted for slightly more than half of all U.S. population growth in the last decade, and it’s time for the political system to pay attention.

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Afghan Taliban’s new UN envoy urges quick recognition

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s newly appointed envoy to the United Nations on Wednesday urged quick world recognition of Afghanistan’s new rulers even as the World Health Organization raised the alarm of an impending health care disaster in the war-wracked country.

The humanitarian crisis is one of the many challenges the Taliban face since their takeover of Afghanistan last month, including renewed threats from the militant Islamic State group, which recently stepped up its attacks, targeting members of the Taliban in its stronghold in the country’s east.

In an emergency measure, the U.N. aid coordinator Martin Griffiths released $45 million in life-saving support Wednesday for Afghanistan from the world body’s emergency fund.

The World Health Organization said Afghanistan’s health system is on the brink of collapse and that urgent action is needed. The statement followed a recent visit to Kabul by a WHO team led by the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who also met with Taliban leaders and others.

“The country faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe,” WHO said, adding that thousands of health facilities are without funding for medical supplies and salaries for health staff.

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Former US defense secretary testifies in Holmes fraud trial

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified Wednesday in the trial of fallen tech star Elizabeth Holmes, saying the entrepreneur misled him into believing she was on the verge of rolling out a blood-testing breakthrough that he hoped would help save lives of troops in battle.

Mattis’ appearance came during the sixth day of a high-profile trial in San Jose, California. The U.S. government alleges that Holmes duped sophisticated investors, patients and customers into believing that her startup, Theranos, had developed a technology hat could scan for an array of potential health problems with just a few drops of blood. Existing tests generally each require a vial of blood.

During more than three hours of maskless testimony delivered behind plexiglass, Mattis recalled how impressed he was with Holmes when he first met her in 2011 while still serving a four-star general in the Marine Corps, where he oversaw U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few months after retiring from the military in 2013, Mattis joined the Theranos board and also invested some of his own savings in the startup. In 2017, Mattis joined the cabinet of President Donald Trump.

Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” while he was in the military, testified that Holmes initially struck him as a “sharp, articulate, committed” CEO who drew his interest when she described the compact blood-testing machine called Edison that Theranos was developing.

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Melvin Van Peebles, godfather of Black cinema, dies at 89

NEW YORK — Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work ushered in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.

In statement, his family said that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.

“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”

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Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market.

But he was best known for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” one of the most influential movies of its time. The low-budget, art-house film, which he wrote, produced, directed, starred in and scored, was the frenzied, hyper-sexual and violent tale of a Black street hustler on the run from police after killing white officers who were beating a Black revolutionary.

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