Summary

From me and Joan E Greve

  • The FDA authorized the Moderna coronavirus vaccine for emergency use. The government can begin to distribute 5.9m doses of the vaccine across the US.
  • Congress passed a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government funded past midnight. Once Donald Trump signs it, the legislation will fund the government for another two days as lawmakers continue negotiations over appropriations and coronavirus relief. Congress must pass a spending bill by midnight to avoid a government shutdown.
  • Vice-president Mike Pence received the coronavirus vaccine live on television. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, also received the vaccine Friday, and Joe Biden is expected to be vaccinated on Monday in another televised event.
  • The supreme court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count to apportion congressional seats. The court’s six conservative justices dismissed the challenge as premature, given that it is unclear what effect the proposal would have. Voting rights and immigrant rights groups have already pledged to file another lawsuit if Trump attempts to implement the policy.
  • The Pentagon and the Biden transition team provided conflicting explanations for a pause in the president-elect’s briefings. While the acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, cited a “mutually-agreed upon holiday pause” to explain the interruption, Biden’s advisers said they never agreed to such a pause and argued the briefings were more necessary than ever. Axios reported earlier today that Miller had ordered Pentagon officials to stop cooperating with the Biden transition team.

Updated

“I would anticipate that we likely will see shots in the arm by the very early part of next week,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told NBC earlier today.

NIAID worked with Moderna in developing the vaccine. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine deliveries will be managed by the federal government, using funding from Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program to quickly develop and disseminate Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

Updated

Importantly, Moderna’s vaccine holds two distinct advantages over Pfizer’s. First, it does not require ultra-cold storage. That means the vaccine could be less susceptible to wastage and will be easier to transport to rural communities. It also does not require dilution or mixing, like Pfizer’s vaccine.

The second advantage is more subtle – Moderna’s Phase III clinical trial data showed no members of the vaccinated group developed severe Covid-19, where 30 placebo group members did. This means for the 6% of people who do not receive the preventive effects of the vaccine, the vaccine may still reduce severity of symptoms.

The Pfizer vaccine is authorized in children as young as 16, but Moderna’s vaccine can only be used in adults 18 and older.

“With the availability of two vaccines now for the prevention of COVID-19, the FDA has taken another crucial step in the fight against this global pandemic that is causing vast numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the United States each day,” said FDA commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, in a statement.

The Moderna vaccine was found to be more than 94% effective at preventing Covoid-19, in a trial of more than 30,000 patients. Moderna’s scientists said there were two allergic reactions in its trial, one in the placebo arm and another in a vaccine recipient.

In the vaccine arm, the allergic reaction was more than 60 days after the participant received the vaccine, and was found to be related to a separate medical procedure.

Moderna’s vaccine, like Pfizer’s, is be authorized for emergency use with the idea that the company would apply for a full approval in coming months.

The Pfizer vaccine was the first drug authorized by the FDA to prevent Covid-19 in the US. It was earlier authorized by the UK and Canada.

Like Pfizer’s vaccine, the drug developed by Moderna to prevent Covid-19 uses messenger RNA technology. This technology introduces the body to the spike protein coating the surface of the coronavirus.

The vaccine was developed in a joint effort by Moderna Inc and NIAID. It received nearly $2.5bn in US government funding, and the federal government has already purchased 200m doses with an option to buy 300m more.

Emergency approval of the second vaccine will put the US on track to potentially immunize up to 150 million people between now and mid-2021, if the government can effectively roll out the most logistically challenging public health campaign in history.

Both vaccines require two-dose “booster” regimens.

FDA approves Moderna vaccine for distribution

The Food and Drug Administration approved Moderna’s vaccine for emergency use. This is the second coronavirus vaccine to gain approval in the US.

The government can now begin to distribute 5.9m doses of the Moderna vaccine across the US.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said they were optimistic they could reach a deal on a coronavirus stimulus bill this weekend.

The $900bn proposal currently on the table has been held up over an attempt by Republicans to curtail the Federal Reserve’s lending power - limiting its emergency lending efforts amid a deep economic crisis. Democrats said the provision would tie president-elect Joe Biden’s hands as he tries to rein in the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The final proposal will likely include funds for a new round of stimulus payments to Americans - likely $600 for most Americans. Republicans have been trying to use their Federal Reserve provision as leverage, saying they’d agree to double the stimulus check amount if they get their way with the Fed.

Senate approves stopgap measure

The measure has passed hours before the government is headed into a shutdown. Now Trump has to sign the measure.

If the Senate agrees to the stopgap spending bill and Trump signs it, lawmakers will have an additional 48 hours to finalize a coronavirus relief bill.

But the stopgap measure could be held up by even a single senator objecting. Both Republican and Democratic senators weighed whether to do so. On the Republican side, senator Josh Hawley of Missouri expressed frustrations that lawmakers had been left in the dark about aspects of the bill, saying the situation is “beginning to reach the point of absurdity” – but backed off a threat to block the stopgap.

On the other side, Bernie Sanders – who has been vocal in criticizing legislators who’ve dragged their feet on sending out another round of stimulus checks – has been non-committal when asked whether he’ll approve a stopgap.

Updated

House approves stopgap spending bill

The House approved a stopgap spending bill to fund government through Sunday, averting a shutdown for two days.

The bill passed 380-60. It’s now up to the Senate to approve it.

Officials closed the Washington Monument today after interior secretary David Bernhardt, who tested positive for Covid-19 this week, led a private tour of the DC site.

At least two staff working at the moment are in quarantine following exposure, according to the interior department. The Washington Post first reported the story.

The Washington Monument, as the sun rises.
The Washington Monument, as the sun rises. Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters

“As we do in all circumstances when an employee attests to having COVID-19, we work with our public health officials to ensure all guidance from the CDC is followed, such as identifying close contacts and cleaning areas as appropriate,” said interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin in a statement to media. “The Secretary was recently at the Washington Monument. In working with our public officials and out of an abundance of caution, a couple of employees have quarantined resulting in a temporary workforce reduction at the monument and its temporary closure.”

Updated

Covid-fatigued Texans shrug off mandates for holiday fun

Alexandra Villarreal reports from Fredericksburg, Texas:

Tucked away in the hills of central Texas, the small city of Fredericksburg still feels like a bustling Christmas village this year, mostly unchanged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, a soft pink sunset descended over Marktplatz square, soundtracked by holiday music and children laughing. Tiny tots climbed aboard gingerbread train cutouts as older kids zoomed around a makeshift ice skating rink, their required “face coverings” dangling well below their mouths like scarves.

Along Main Street, where crowds popped in and out of boutiques, one woman savored samples at the specialty food store. A punny T-shirt urging “SOCIALism DISTANCING” hung prominently in one of the shop windows, and at dusk, onlookers from around the state – many of them maskless – gathered close to see the city’s elaborate holiday lights flicker on.

“It looks like we asked more people to come into town, instead of less people,” said Catherine Kuhlmann, the infectious disease control officer for Gillespie county, which includes Fredericksburg. “It’s like ants on a sugar cube.”

Between an influx of Covid-fatigued vacationers taking advantage of touristy holiday attractions and misinformed residents adamantly opposed to wearing masks, Gillespie county has inevitably fallen prey to the same uptick in coronavirus cases that has gripped much of Texas in recent weeks. At least one in 23 members of the rural community has been infected since January, according to the New York Times, and free testing earlier this month yielded a nearly 18% positivity rate.

“I am very concerned for the Hill Country at this point,” Kuhlmann said. “I would like to say that we’ve hit our worst, but I don’t think we have.”

Across Texas, more than 9,500 Covid-19 patients are languishing in hospitals and roughly 264,000 infections remain active, relegating the state to a dangerous “red zone” that merits an aggressive response, the White House coronavirus task force suggested in a report earlier this month.

But even as people continue to pile inside restaurants and bars, getting together with friends and discarding their face coverings, Texas’ Republican leaders have avoided the politically controversial tactics used elsewhere to save lives.

Read more:

In order to protect a waning Democratic majority in the House, Joe Biden may stagger the confirmation of representatives he has chosen to serve in his cabinet, giving congressional Democrats to pass their 100-day agenda.

The AP repoorts:

President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to tap several House Democrats for administrative positions is putting Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a politically tough spot, having chiseled away at the party’s already slimming majority and leaving her potentially without enough votes to pass his legislative agenda.

Democrats already were heading into the new Congress with a razor-thin margin over Republicans. But Biden’s overture to a third lawmaker, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., as the history-making first Native American interior secretary, set off a fresh round of pained conversations on what to do. Pelosi will start the Biden era with a narrow majority, 222-211, with a few races still undecided.

But Pelosi’s leadership team has a plan.

“We need to manage something like this,” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip and a top Biden ally, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.

According to Clyburn, an emerging strategy is to stagger the confirmations: Biden would hold off on formally submitting the nominations all at once so the House numbers don’t immediately drop.

Under the plan, timing would unfold over the first several months of the new Congress, ample time for the House to pass the 100-days agenda, a typically important but symbolic, legislative sprint that takes on new importance aligned with Biden’s presidency.

Biden’s first pick from the House, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., would join the administration quickly once the president-elect is inaugurated Jan. 20, Clyburn said. Richmond is poised to become a senior adviser, a position that doesn’t require confirmation by the Senate.

Biden would then wait to submit the other two nominees, Haaland and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who was tapped as housing secretary, until after the March special election in Louisiana to fill Richmond’s seat.

The lawmakers can remain in the House, voting as members, until they are Senate confirmed. Their nominations could be sent one after the other, in the months that follow.

“Just manage it,” Clyburn said.

The three House seats are in Democratic strongholds and expected to be off-limits to Republicans. But special elections can throw curveballs, and the staggered timing would also give the campaigns ample running room to shore up the candidates and races.

Read more here.

Updated

Pence – Space Force members will be known as 'Guardians'

Members of the new United States Space Force will be known as “Guardians”, Vice-President Mike Pence announced on Friday, at a ceremony to mark the first birthday of one of Donald Trump’s signature policy initiatives.

“It is my honor,” Pence said, “on behalf of the president of the United States, to announce that henceforth the men and women of the United States Space Force will be known as guardians.

“Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and guardians will be defending our nation for generations to come.”

On Twitter, the Space Force added: “The opportunity to name a force is a momentous responsibility. Guardians is a name with a long history in space operations, tracing back to the original command motto of Air Force Space Command in 1983, ‘Guardians of the High Frontier.’

“The name Guardians connects our proud heritage and culture to the important mission we execute 24/7, protecting the people and interest of the US and its allies.

“Guardians. #SemperSupra!”

The force’s Latin motto, adopted in July, means: “Always above.”

Pence’s announcement came on the same day a US astronaut aboard the International Space Station transferred from the air force into the space force, but nonetheless it prompted familiar mirth on social media.

As Military.com put it, “space enthusiasts and military members were quick to point out the name Guardians evokes the Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise, about a motley crew of superheroes in space”.

With the Trump administration on its way out of power, the future of the space force seems uncertain. As the Associated Press put it, delicately: “President-elect Joe Biden has yet to reveal his plans for the space force in the next administration.”

Updated

Kaiser Family Foundation Poll: Americans feel the worst is yet to come

About 72% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans said the worst of the pandemic is yet to come, per a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Among independents, half said the worst lies ahead. The majority of people from all three political leanings said they wore masks when leaving the house.

As coronavirus cases surge across the US, enacting a disproportionate toll on people of color, about three in four Black adults (75%) and Hispanic adults (77%) said they were worried they or a family member would fall ill with Covid-19. About 64% of white adults expressed the same concern.

Read the full findings of the December poll here.

Pinterest's $22m settlement with executive is a 'slap in the face', Black former workers say

Kari Paul reports:

Pinterest announced this week it would pay more than $20m to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by a female executive. But to two Black former employees who had previously lodged similar complaints, the settlement represents a “slap in the face”.

Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks had become public figureheads for Pinterest after spearheading widely-heralded policy changes, including adding factchecking features to vaccination content, that predated those from tech rivals like YouTube and Facebook. But internally, both former employees said, they faced pushback.

In June 2020, after quitting their jobs at Pinterest’s policy team, they went public with claims they had to fight to be paid fairly and were retaliated against for advocating for change. Ozoma also said the company failed to protect her when a colleague shared her personal information with hate sites.

Ozoma and Banks ended up leaving the company with half a year of severance pay. But their public comments laid the groundwork for other women and people of color at the company to come forward with similar experiences.

Two months after their departure , the former Pinterest COO Françoise Brougher sued the company for gender discrimination – the case that resulted in the $22m settlement this week.

Read more:

Today so far

That’s it from me today. My west coast colleague, Maanvi Singh, will take over the blog for the next few hours.

Here’s where the day stands so far:

  • Congress is attempting to pass a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government funded past midnight. If enacted, the legislation would fund the government for another two days as lawmakers continue negotiations over appropriations and coronavirus relief. Congress must pass a spending bill by midnight to avoid a government shutdown.
  • Vice-president Mike Pence received the coronavirus vaccine live on television. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell also received the vaccine today, and Joe Biden is expected to be vaccinated on Monday in another televised event.
  • The supreme court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count to apportion congressional seats. The court’s six conservative justices dismissed the challenge as premature, given that it’s unclear what effect the proposal would have. Voting rights and immigrant rights groups have already pledged to file another lawsuit if Trump attempts to implement the policy.
  • The FDA’s emergency use authorization of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine may come later today. The agency’s vaccine advisory panel recommended the vaccine for emergency use yesterday, clearing the way for authorization.
  • The Pentagon and the Biden transition team provided conflicting explanations for a pause in the president-elect’s briefings. While the acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, cited a “mutually-agreed upon holiday pause” to explain the interruption, Biden’s advisers said they never agreed to such a pause and argued the briefings were more necessary than ever. Axios reported earlier today that Miller had ordered Pentagon officials to stop cooperating with the Biden transition team.

Maanvi will have more coming up, so stay tuned.

The House just sent a notice that the chamber will take up the stop-gap spending bill when it reconvenes in about 15 minutes.

And here’s the notice that just went out on stopgap funding bill: pic.twitter.com/MA1LGUC6pa

— Heather Caygle (@heatherscope) December 18, 2020

The advisory noted that the legislation is expected to pass the House, but it’s still unclear whether the bill can make it through the Senate, where just one objection could kill the proposal.

Time-check: the government will shut down in about seven hours unless Congress can approve a spending bill by midnight.

House Democrats file two-day spending bill

House Democrats have officially filed their bill to fund the government for another two days as negotiations over coronavirus relief and government spending continue.

NEW: To allow additional time to complete negotiations on coronavirus relief, @AppropsDems Chairwoman @NitaLowey has introduced a Continuing Resolution extending government funding through Sunday.

Learn more: https://t.co/dwu8QXBIdC

— House Appropriations (@AppropsDems) December 18, 2020

“The American people urgently need coronavirus relief and this short stopgap bill will allow bipartisan, bicameral negotiators to complete their work on this important issue,” said Nita Lowey, the Democratic chairwoman of the House appropriations committee.

“I look forward to swiftly passing omnibus appropriations and coronavirus relief legislation through the House as soon as possible.”

It’s unclear whether the bill can pass the Senate, as only one senator would have to object to block the legislation’s passage.

The government will shut down in seven and a half hours if Congress cannot pass a spending bill by midnight.

The House and the Senate will attempt to pass a two-day spending bill this evening, in order to avert a government shutdown.

This just went out to lawmakers pic.twitter.com/Pd8e64Zskx

— Marianne LeVine (@marianne_levine) December 18, 2020

The bill is being hotlined, which means any single senator can block the legislation’s passage by raising an objection.

Earlier today, Republican Josh Hawley signaled he would not allow a stop-gap spending bill to pass before senators received clarity on the details of a potential coronavirus relief package.

If Congress cannot pass a spending bill in the next eight hours, the US government will shut down at midnight.

More members of the House of Representatives are receiving their coronavirus vaccine, after speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell were vaccinated earlier today.

Multiple lawmakers heralded the safety and efficacy of the vaccine to encourage their constituents to get vaccinated as well when the treatment becomes more widely available.

Today, at the recommendation of the House attending physician, I received the Covid-19 vaccine. The #CovidVaccine is safe and effective, and I am confident in the science. Thank you to all of the doctors, researchers and medical professionals who made this possible. pic.twitter.com/R9zIGwThtM

— Congressman Denver Riggleman (@RepRiggleman) December 18, 2020

Following the Capitol Physician's guidance, I took the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine earlier today.

I want the American people to know this vaccine is safe and I am confident in its efficacy. We must do all we can to ensure our friends and neighbors know the same. pic.twitter.com/PsvlTpKDyN

— Rep. Gerry Connolly (@GerryConnolly) December 18, 2020

The #COVID19 vaccine is a medical miracle that marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Thankful for all of the scientists, doctors, and frontline heroes who made this possible. Getting vaccinated today so I can continue to do my job representing you in Congress. pic.twitter.com/94fkrhslwV

— Congressman Charlie Crist (@RepCharlieCrist) December 18, 2020

Donald Trump spoke with Emmanuel Macron yesterday, as the French president continues to quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus.

“President Trump wished President Macron a speedy recovery and quick return to his full duties,” the White House said in a readout of the call.

“President Trump also extended his best wishes for a Merry Christmas to President Macron, his family, and the People of France.”

The French government announced yesterday that Macron had tested positive for coronavirus, forcing several foreign leaders who had recently been in contact with him into quarantine.

Asked whether he believed a deal on government spending and coronavirus relief was possible today, Senate majority whip John Thune replied, “That would be a triumph of hope over experience.”

The Republican senator added, “Best-case scenario of getting something voted on was probably going to be Sunday, but it may be later.”

Government funding is set to expire in less than nine hours. If a spending bill is not passed, the US government will shut down.

Thune said a major sticking point in negotiations remains the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority, after Republican Pat Toomey introduced a provision to wind down a key lending program established by the Cares Act passed in March.

Democrats criticized the proposal as an attempt to limit Joe Biden’s power before he takes office next month.

Updated

It is looking increasingly unlikely that Congress will reach a deal on a spending bill and a coronavirus relief package by midnight, when government funding runs out.

After meeting with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, majority whip John Thune said it would be difficult to fund the government past tonight because any single senator can block a stop-gap funding bill, and Republican Josh Hawley has already signaled a willingness to do so to force action on stimulus checks.

Downbeat vibes at 2:45 pm. Majority Whip Thune after meeting with McConnell says it’ll be hard to announce a deal today on stimulus and a heavy lift to fund the government past midnight since any one senator can object and some want short shutdown to force action

— Burgess Everett (@burgessev) December 18, 2020

Congressman Don Beyer, a Democrat of Virginia, said he received the coronavirus vaccine today as well.

Upon medical advice of the Attending Physician, I just received a coronavirus vaccine.

Millions of Americans are waiting for shots, many of whom are workers on the front lines of this pandemic. I am not more important than they are, but national leaders must lead by example. pic.twitter.com/MZ7hGRTqtF

— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) December 18, 2020

“Upon medical advice of the Attending Physician, I just received a coronavirus vaccine,” Beyer said in a tweet.

“Millions of Americans are waiting for shots, many of whom are workers on the front lines of this pandemic. I am not more important than they are, but national leaders must lead by example.”

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell were both vaccinated today, but Beyer appears to be the first rank-and-file member of Congress to receive the vaccine.

House majority leader Steny Hoyer just announced the chamber would recess until 5 pm ET, as the clock ticks down the hours until government funding expires.

“We are hoping that in the next three hours, we’ll have a clearer picture of where we are,” Hoyer said.

The Maryland Democrat added, “Keep tonight free, tomorrow free, Sunday free and such days whereafter that we might need – and I hope we do not need any of those days.”

Time-check: government funding expires in less than 10 hours. If Congress does not pass a spending bill by midnight, the US government will shut down.

Updated

The Guardian’s Daniel Strauss reports:

Officials for president-elect Joe Biden’s transition team stressed that there was no agreement between them and Pentagon leaders to pause transition briefings for a holiday break.

“Let me be clear there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break. In fact, we think it’s important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period, as there’s no time to spare and that’s particularly true in the aftermath of the ascertainment of delay,” Yohannes Abraham, the executive director of the transition team said, during a briefing with reporters on Friday.

“In terms of when meetings will resume, meetings and requests for information which are substantively interchangeable, it’s our hope and expectation that that will happen immediately.”

Abraham’s comments come after Axios reported on Friday that Pentagon officials had paused coordinating with Biden officials following an order from acting defense secretary Chris Miller. Biden officials were initially made aware of the pause on Thursday. They were taken by surprise.

The pause comes after it seemed like Donald Trump’s administration had finally decided to follow the normal protocol for working with an incoming administration.

But in response to being asked whether the Pentagon was the only department where a surprise pause to coordination was happening Abraham said, “There have been many agencies and departments that have facilitated the exchange of information in meetings over the past few weeks since ascertainment. There have been pockets of recalcitrants and [the department of defense] is one of them.”

Abraham declined to say which other departments were being difficult.

Updated

McConnell receives coronavirus vaccine

Mitch McConnell announced he also received the coronavirus vaccine today, praising the treatment as the means to end the pandemic.

Just received the safe, effective COVID vaccine following continuity-of-government protocols. Vaccines are how we beat this virus.

Now back to continue fighting for a rescue package including a lot more money for distribution so more Americans can receive it as fast as possible. pic.twitter.com/kSBhI3EzzM

— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) December 18, 2020

“Just received the safe, effective COVID vaccine following continuity-of-government protocols. Vaccines are how we beat this virus,” the Senate majority leader said in a tweet.

“Now back to continue fighting for a rescue package including a lot more money for distribution so more Americans can receive it as fast as possible.”

Vice-president Mike Pence and House speaker Nancy Pelosi received the vaccine today as well. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to be vaccinated on Monday.

Bidens to receive coronavirus vaccine on Monday

Joe and Jill Biden will receive the coronavirus vaccine on Monday, the president-elect’s transition team announced in a press call today.

Joe Biden arrives with wife Jill Biden to deliver remarks on the Electoral college certification on Monday.
Joe Biden arrives with wife Jill Biden to deliver remarks on the Electoral college certification on Monday. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

The vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, and her husband, Doug Emhoff, are expected to get the vaccine a week later.

Biden previously announced he would get vaccinated live on camera to help boost public confidence in the vaccine.

Vice-president Mike Pence received the Pfizer vaccine in a televised event earlier today, and Donald Trump is expected to soon follow suit.

Updated

Nancy Pelosi confirmed in a tweet that she received the coronavirus vaccine today.

The Speaker of the House said she did so with “confidence in science”:

Today, with confidence in science & at the direction of the Office of the Attending Physician, I received the COVID-19 vaccine. As the vaccine is being distributed, we must all continue mask wearing, social distancing & other science-based steps to save lives & crush the virus. pic.twitter.com/tijVCSnJd7

— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 18, 2020

Updated

Today so far

Here’s where the day stands so far:

  • Vice-president Mike Pence received the coronavirus vaccine live on television. The event came one day after an FDA vaccine advisory panel recommended the Moderna vaccine for emergency use, clearing the way for the agency to authorize a second vaccine.
  • The supreme court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count to apportion congressional seats. The court’s six conservative justices dismissed the challenge as premature, given that it’s unclear what effect the proposal would have. Voting rights and immigrant rights groups have already pledged to file another lawsuit if Trump attempts to implement the policy.
  • Mitch McConnell said he was “even more optimistic” about reaching a deal on coronavirus relief. The Senate majority leader voiced confidence about passing a coronavirus relief bill and a government spending bill as negotiations continue between Democrats and Republicans. As a reminder, government funding runs out at midnight.

The blog will have more coming up, so stay tuned.

The acting secretary of defense is pushing back against an Axios report that he has halted Pentagon briefings to Joe Biden.

The Department of Defense will continue to provide all required support to the Agency Review Team (ART) to keep our nation and her citizens safe,” Christopher Miller said in a statement. “At no time has the Department cancelled or declined any interview.”

Miller added, “After the mutually-agreed upon holiday pause, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings from today.

“Again, I remain committed to a full and transparent transition – this is what our nation expects and the DoD will deliver AS IT ALWAYS HAS.”

Miller is scheduled to meet with Donald Trump at the White House today. It’s unclear whether the president might have ordered Miller to stop cooperating with the Biden transition team.

Pelosi receives coronavirus vaccine – reports

House speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly received the coronavirus vaccine from Dr Brian Monahan, the attending physician of the Capitol.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been given the coronavirus vaccination in her office by the Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan.

— Kristin Wilson (@kristin__wilson) December 18, 2020

The Democratic speaker issued a statement yesterday indicating that she would receive the Pfizer vaccine in the next few days.

“According to government continuity guidelines, congressional leadership has been informed by the Office of the Attending Physician that members of the House and Senate are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine.

“The attending physician further stated to members, ‘My recommendation to you is absolutely unequivocal: there is no reason why you should defer receiving this vaccine.’ With confidence in the vaccine and at the direction of the attending physician, I plan to receive the vaccine in the next few days.”

Pelosi emphasized that she would continue observing public health guidelines, such as wearing a mask and socially distancing, for the coming months.

Updated

Josh Hawley is threatening to block a stopgap funding bill if his proposal for $1,200 stimulus checks is defeated.

The Missouri senator requested unanimous consent for his bill that would approve another round of direct payments to Americans, which were included in the Cares Act that passed in March.

CLIP: Sen. @HawleyMO makes unanimous consent request for Senate to pass bill for $1,200 for individuals, $2,400 for couples, $500 for kids in direct COVID-19 relief payments.

Sen. @RonJohnsonWI objects.

Full video --> https://t.co/k3fJxjsaQt pic.twitter.com/Ozm1X8DU7s

— CSPAN (@cspan) December 18, 2020

But fellow Republican Ron Johnson objected to Hawley’s proposal, citing concerns about the national debt.

After Johnson blocked the bill, Hawley threatened that he would not let a stopgap spending measure pass the Senate until his call for direct payments is met.

As a reminder, government funding expires at midnight. If Congress cannot pass a spending bill by then, the government will shut down.

Updated

The EU is paying less than the US for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

The Post reports:

The costs to the EU had been confidential until a Belgian official tweeted – and then deleted – a list late Thursday.

Comparing that list to calculations by Bernstein Research, an analysis and investment firm, it appears the 27-nation union has a 24% discount on the Pfizer vaccine compared to the United States, paying $14.76 per dose compared to $19.50 in the United States. Some of that difference may reflect that the EU subsidized that vaccine’s development.

The bloc will pay 45% less than the United States for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine currently under development. But it will pay 20% more than the United States for the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to be approved for US use on Friday.

The FDA’s vaccine advisory panel recommended the Moderna vaccine for emergency use yesterday, and the agency is expected to grant Moderna an emergency authorization later today.

The Moderna vaccine also has a couple distinct advantages over the Pfizer vaccine, namely that it does not require ultra-cold storage (as the Pfizer vaccine does) and it appears to help prevent severe illness in those who contract coronavirus.

Updated

The Covid-19 death toll in the US will rise to nearly 562,000 by 1 April 2021, a global health research center is estimating – a 60,000 increase in predicted deaths compared to the estimation it made last week.

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) based at the University of Washington predicts that 262,000 more Americans will die from Covid-19 between 14 December and 1 April. The institute cited increasing infection and death numbers, particularly in California.

Last week, the average of daily reported cases jumped to 194,900 a day, up from 164,700 the week before. Average number of deaths per day went from 2,070 to 2,350 last week. The institute estimates that 17% of the US population has had Covid-19 as of 14 December.

IHME took into consideration the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, saying vaccinations are expected to save 34,500 lives by the beginning of April, according to the model. But if 95% of Americans were wearing masks by next week, 55,000 lives would be saved by the end of April, the institute predicts. It says about 73% of Americans are wearing masks whenever they leave their homes.

IHME predictions have been controversial in the past, but public health experts agree the US is facing a grim winter as it heads into the heart of the holiday season, when tens of millions of people are expected to travel to see family despite pleas to stay home. AAA estimates that 85 million people will be traveling, most by car, between 23 December and 3 January.

Updated

After the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast was sent an interesting question by a listener, Jonathan Freedland asked Samantha Power, a former US ambassador to the UN, whether the world could become less dependent on US leadership – and thus more resilient?

Dr Jill Biden: attacks on doctorate were 'such a surprise'

Dr Jill Biden has said her doctorate, the subject of a controversial opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, is one the achievements of which she is most proud.

“That was such a surprise,” Dr Biden told CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert on Thursday night, seated next to her husband, President-elect Joe Biden. “It was really the tone of it ... He called me ‘kiddo.’ One of the things that I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I mean, I worked so hard for it.”

Writing for the Journal, Joseph Epstein, a former adjunct professor at Northwestern University, suggested Biden’s doctorate in education from the University of Delaware did not entitle her to use the honorific “Dr”, as she was not medically qualified. Her use of “Dr” therefore “feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic”, he wrote.

The column met with widespread outrage and accusations of sexism, as well as delight in the apparent hypocrisy of many attendant rightwing attacks.

🥴 pic.twitter.com/hzVNZ9jKmq

— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) December 15, 2020

Dr Biden’s thesis was on maximising student retention in community colleges. She also has two Masters degrees. She has said she will continue to work in education while she is first lady.

“I taught all eight years while I was second lady, right,” she told Colbert, referring to the eight years in which her husband was vice-president to Barack Obama.

“I’m really looking forward to being first lady and doing the things that I did as second lady. Carrying on with military families and education and free community college, cancer [research] that, you know, Joe and I have both worked on. And then I’m going to teach as well.”

She also said her husband had attended when she defended her doctoral thesis – “I got to hand her her doctorate on the stage, University of Delaware,” he said – and expressed thanks to those who defended her against Epstein’s attack.

“Look at all the people who came out in support of me,” she said. “I mean, I am so grateful and I was, you know, I was just overwhelmed by how gracious people were.”

The Bidens speak to Stephen Colbert.

Colbert asked President-elect Biden if the column had made him want to stand up for his wife, “to like get out the pool chain and go full Corn Pop on these people.”

That was a reference to remarks for which Biden was criticised in the Democratic primary, when he reminisced about facing down a bully at a pool in the Delaware of his youth.

Biden seemed tempted to say he was, but Dr Biden said: “The answer is no.”

Biden said: “I’ve been suppressing my Irishness for a long time.”

Biden was also asked if he will be willing to work with Republicans who have attacked him and particularly his son, Hunter Biden.

“If it benefits the country, yes, I really mean it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I wasn’t angry. This doesn’t mean if I were back in the days in high school, I wouldn’t say, ‘Come here, you know, and go a round.”

Perhaps sensing a relapse – Biden began his presidential run saying he wanted to fight Donald Trump – Dr Biden interjected again.

“But you have to take the high road,” she said.

Acting defense secretary orders halt to Biden transition briefings – report

Acting defense secretary Chris Miller has reportedly ordered Pentagon officials to stop cooperating with Joe Biden’s transition team.

Axios reports:

Behind the scenes: A top Biden official was unaware of the directive. Administration officials left open the possibility cooperation would resume after a holiday pause. The officials were unsure what prompted Miller’s action, or whether President Trump approved.

Why it matters: Miller’s move, which stunned officials throughout the Pentagon, was the biggest eruption yet of animus and mistrust toward the Biden team from the top level of the Trump administration.

What happened: Meetings between President Trump’s team and the Biden team are going on throughout the government, after a delayed start as the administration dragged its feet on officially recognizing Biden as president-elect

Then on Thursday night, Miller – who was appointed Nov. 9, when Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper right after the election — ordered officials throughout the building to cancel scheduled transition meetings.

Pentagon official response: A senior Defense Department official sought to downplay the move, calling it ‘a simple delay of the last few scheduled meetings until after the new year.’

The president, who has consistently refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory in the election, is scheduled to meet with Miller at 3.30pm ET today.

Updated

The supreme court has dismissed as premature a challenge to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude undocumented immigrants from a census count to determine apportionment of congressional seats.

The court’s conservative justices ruled in a 6-3 decision that the case was “riddled with contingencies and speculation that impede judicial review”.

Although it’s possible that Trump will no longer be in office by the time apportionment numbers are finalized, immigrants rights and voting rights activists warned that they would file another lawsuit if the administration attempted to carry out the president’s proposal.

From Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project:

If the Administration actually tries to implement this policy, we'll sue. Again. And we'll win. https://t.co/vny890YGYT

— Dale Ho (@dale_e_ho) December 18, 2020

Updated

McConnell: 'I'm even more optimistic now' about coronavirus relief deal

Mitch McConnell projected confidence about the state of negotiations over coronavirus relief, with just hours to go until government funding expires.

“I’m even more optimistic now than I was last night that a bipartisan, bicameral framework for a major rescue package is very close at hand,” the Senate majority leader said in a floor speech.

McConnell said he and Democratic congressional leaders were “working around the clock” to reach an agreement on coronavirus relief and government funding.

If Congress does not pass a spending bill today, the US government will shut down at midnight.

“The Senate will be right here until an agreement is passed, whenever that may be,” McConnell said.

Supreme court dismisses challenge to Trump's census proposal

The US supreme court has dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s proposal to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count to determine how congressional seats are apportioned.

The AP reports:

But the court’s decision Friday is not a final ruling on the matter and it’s not clear whether Trump will receive final numbers from the Census Bureau before he leaves office next month.

The high court said it was too soon to rule on the legality of Trump’s plan because it’s not yet clear how many people he would seek to exclude and whether the division of House seats would be affected.

‘Consistent with our determination that standing has not been shown and that the case is not ripe, we express no view on the merits of the constitutional and related statutory claims presented. We hold only that they are not suitable for adjudication at this time,’ the court said in an unsigned opinion.

The three liberal justices dissented, saying the effort to exclude people in the country from the population for divvying up House seats is unlawful.

‘I believe this Court should say so,’ Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

It’s unclear whether Trump’s policy will ever take effect, given that the apportionment numbers likely won’t be ready until after Joe Biden takes office, but many legal experts have attacked the proposal as unconstitutional.

Kamala Harris will visit Georgia on Monday, Joe Biden’s transition team just confirmed.

The vice-president-elect will travel to Suwanee and Columbus to campaign for Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Georgia, can’t wait to be back next Monday to rally voters ahead of the Senate runoffs! Let’s flip the Senate.

— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 18, 2020

Ossoff and Warnock are running against Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the January 5 runoff races in Georgia, which will determine control of the Senate.

Biden traveled to Georgia earlier this week to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock, and the president-elect urged Georgians to vote by emphasizing the need for a Democratic-controlled Senate.

“Tell your friends, your family, just like you did in November,” Biden said in Atlanta. “Turn out the vote so that it’s not even close.”

Biden won Georgia last month by just 13,000 votes, making him the first Democrat since 1992 to carry the state, and that victory has given Democrats hope that they can flip both Senate seats with next month’s runoff races.

It is Joe Biden’s biggest foreign policy headache. As well as confronting the Covid pandemic, the president-elect has to deal with a more familiar problem: Russia. Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election cast a shadow over US politics for four long years.

And now the Kremlin appears to have struck again. This week details emerged of an unprecedented cyber-attack against US government departments. Beginning in March, suspected Russian hackers penetrated Washington’s signature institutions.

They include the commerce and treasury departments, homeland security, nuclear laboratories and the Pentagon, as well as leading Fortune companies. For months the Russian spies roamed at will, apparently undetected. Only now are aghast officials scoping the damage.

The hacking is a brutal reminder of how Vladimir Putin and the KGB agents around him view the world. They regard the US as the glavniy protivnik or main enemy. This adversarial cold war mindset endures, regardless of whether a Trump or a Biden sits in the White House.

An early Christmas present for Rudy Giuliani? Donald Trump is expected to issue a wave of pardons today, according to a new report.

Axios reports:

Trump has been considering pardons for friends and allies, as Axios reported, interrupting conversations with associates to spontaneously suggest he add them to his pardon list. He already pardoned his former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

It was unclear who will be included in this batch.

Sen. Rand Paul called on Trump to pardon Edward Snowden in an article for The Federalist on Thursday. A source with direct knowledge of the planning said they did not expect Trump to follow through with a Snowden pardon.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump was considering preemptive pardons for Giuliani, who has served as his personal attorney, and members of his own family.

Preemptive pardons have been issued before, as in the case of Richard Nixon after he resigned due to the Watergate scandal, but legal experts say Trump would likely have to specify what crimes he was pardoning.

Vice-president Mike Pence received the coronavirus vaccine alongside his wife Karen Pence, and surgeon general Jerome Adams.

Adams shared a video of his vaccination on Twitter, along with the message, “I’ve never been more excited or proud to #SleeveUp.”

I’ve never been more excited or proud to #SleeveUp💪🏾 #covid19 pic.twitter.com/dpaET8dSNK

— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) December 18, 2020

Adams is one of several high-profile black healthcare officials who have received the vaccine in recent days, as polls show lower levels of confidence in the vaccine among African Americans.

One of the first people to receive the Pfizer vaccine in the US was Sandra Lindsay, the director of critical care nursing at the Long Island Jewish medical center in New York, and her vaccine was administered by Dr Michelle Chester, director of employee services for Northwell Health. Both women are black.

Speaking last week about the need to recognize the history of racism in medicine, Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, noted that a black woman was one of the leading scientists who developed the Moderna vaccine.

“So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African American woman,” Fauci said. “And that is just a fact.”

Updated

Pence receives Pfizer vaccine as FDA panel recommends Moderna vaccine

Greetings from Washington, live blog readers.

Mike Pence received the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine live on camera this morning, becoming the highest-ranking US official to get the treatment so far.

“Confidence in the vaccine is what brings us here this morning,” the vice-president said after his vaccination. “I didn’t feel a thing. Well done.”

The historic televised event came a day after the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel recommended the Moderna vaccine for emergency use.

The recommendation clears the way for the FDA to issue an emergency authorization for the Moderna vaccine, a decision that could come as soon as today.

If the Moderna treatment is approved, the US will have two coronavirus vaccines in circulation, allowing even more Americans to get vaccinated in the coming weeks and months.

The two news events underscore what public health experts have been saying about the pandemic for months: the end is in sight, which is why vigilance about social distancing and mask-wearing is so necessary until the vaccine is widely available.

The blog will have more coming up, so stay tuned.

Updated

Contributors

Maanvi Singh and Joan E Greve

The GuardianTramp

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