- At the top of Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing, President Trump announced plans to double U.S military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to ramp up efforts against drug cartels.
- The operation is also viewed as part of increased pushes to add strain on Venezuela’s leader Nicolás Maduro, who the U.S does not recognize as the country’s legitimate president.
- CNN and MSNBC cut away from the briefing during the announcement after considering it off-topic, with some reporters criticizing Trump for abusing the pandemic briefings for other political measures.
President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. is enhancing its focus on drug cartels and counternarcotics operations in an unusual start to the White House’s daily coronavirus press briefings.
“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit this situation for their own gain, and we must not let that happen. We will never let that happen,” the President said.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the U.S. was doubling military resources in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea to combat the flow of illicit drugs.
“Included in the force package are Navy destroyers and combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft and elements of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade,” Esper added.
President Trump explained that the U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption and seizures of drug shipments, and provide other support for eradication efforts. He also said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.
Pressure on Venezuela
The timing of the announcement came as a bit of a surprise since the coronavirus briefings are usually dedicated to the pandemic response efforts, but officials drew a link between the spreading virus and the new military operation.
Esper said criminal organizations are trying to capitalize on the fact that governments are distracted by the outbreak. He suggested that deploying the military vessels and ramping up pressure on cartels is also meant to put added strain on Venezuela’s embattled leader Nicolás Maduro.
The United States and dozens of other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president after considering Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham. Still, Maduro has remained in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, and Cuba.
“Corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power,” Esper said. “The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro’s criminal control over the country.”
But experts say the enhanced mission has been months in the making as the U.S. increases efforts to oust Maduro. Last week, the U.S. indicted him on charges including drug trafficking while offering a $15 million reward for his arrest and conviction. And on Tuesday, the Trump administration even offered to begin lifting sanctions on the country if the opposition and members of Maduro’s Socialist Party form an interim government without him.
After President Trump announced his new anti-drug efforts, Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, said the operation was an attempt to divert attention from the U.S. government’s “erratic handling of the coronavirus crisis.” However, he added, “if it is a serious effort to stop drug trafficking, we are willing to collaborate.”
Networks Turn Away During Announcement
According to Deadline, CNN and MSNBC each turned their broadcasts away as Trump made the announcement. It was reported that the networks found it off-topic, especially as Trump began to talk about the construction of the wall along the southern border.
CNN’s John King seemed annoyed by the timing of the announcement, accusing Trump of abusing the briefings for other measures during a time when American’s are learning that 200,000 could die from the virus.
“When you are an incumbent president, to bring that into a briefing in the middle of a pandemic, the day after the incredibly sobering news the administration rightfully delivered to the American people yesterday, is shameless and it’s political.”
“The president has other opportunities to do this. There are 24 hours in a day. He has all the buildings of the government still at his disposal,” he continued.
MSNBC’s Chuck Todd shared similar criticism, saying “If President Trump had important coronavirus news to tell us, it must not have trumped this.”
Both networks eventually returned to the briefing once the focus shifted solely to the pandemic, however, each broke away again before it ended.
Some networks and journalists have been debating in recent weeks whether or not they should be airing the briefings live. They argue that at times, the President has used rhetoric seen in his campaign rallies and often dispells inaccurate information that is impossible to fact check in real-time.
On the other side, some have said cutting briefings amounts to censorship. The networks have already faced backlash from White House officials and the Republican National Comittee for previous times they have cut away.
See what others are saying: (Deadline) (Bloomberg) (Reuters)
Texas Doctor Says He Violated Abortion Law, Opening Matter Up for Litigation
Under the state’s new law, any citizen could sue the doctor, which would make the matter the first known test case of the restrictive policy.
Dr. Braid’s Op-Ed
A Texas doctor revealed in an op-ed published in The Washington Post Saturday that he performed an abortion in violation of the state’s law that bans the procedure after six weeks, before most people know they are pregnant.
The law, which is the most restrictive in the country and does not have exceptions for rape and incest, also allows civilians to sue anyone who helps someone receive an abortion after six weeks.
In the op-ed, Dr. Alan Braid, who has been practicing as an OB/GYN in Texas for 45 years, said that just days after the law took effect, he gave an abortion to a woman who was still in her first trimester but already beyond the state’s new limit.
“I acted because I had a duty of care to this patient, as I do for all patients, and because she has a fundamental right to receive this care,” he wrote. “I fully understood that there could be legal consequences — but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”
Braid went on to say that he understands he is taking a personal risk but that he believes it is worth it.
“I have daughters, granddaughters and nieces,” he concluded. “I believe abortion is an essential part of health care. I have spent the past 50 years treating and helping patients. I can’t just sit back and watch us return to 1972.”
If someone does opt to sue Braid over this matter, he could potentially be the state’s first test case in playing out the legal process. However, it is unclear if anti-abortion groups will follow through, despite their threats to enforce the law.
A spokesperson for Texas Right to Life, which set up a website to report people suspected of violating the ban, told reporters this weekend that it is looking into Braid’s claims but added, “It definitely seems like a legal stunt and we are looking into whether it is more than that.”
Even if abortion opponents hold off on Braid’s case, there are other legal challenges to the Texas law.
Shortly after the policy took effect, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit attempting to stop it. Last week, the department filed an emergency motion asking a federal judge in the state to temporarily block the ban while that legal battle plays out, with a hearing for that motion set for Oct. 1.
Regardless of what side the federal judge rules for, the other is all but ensured to sue, and that fight could take the question to the Supreme Court in a matter of months.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Texas Tribune) (The Wall Street Journal)
Pfizer Says Low Dose of COVID-19 Vaccine Is Safe and Effective in Kids 5 to 11
Pfizer Says Kids’ Vaccine Works
Pfizer announced Monday morning that its joint COVID-19 vaccine with BioNTech is safe and effective in kids ages 5 to 11.
While Pfizer’s vaccine candidate for younger children is the same version the FDA has already approved for people 12 and older, the children’s dose is only one-third of the amount given to adults and teens. Still, Pfizer said the antibody response they’ve seen in kids has been comparable to the response seen in older participants.
Similarly, the company said side effects in children have been similar to those witnessed in adults.
Pfizer said it expects to finish submitting data, which still needs to be peer-reviewed and then published, to the FDA by the end of the month. From there, the agency will ensure that Pfizer’s findings are accurate and that the vaccine will be able to elicit a strong immune response in kids at its current one-third dosage.
That process could take weeks or even all of October, but it does open the possibility that the vaccine candidate could be approved around Halloween.
While experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have called Pfizer’s announcement largely predictable, they’ve also urged people to let the research run its course.
With cases among children skyrocketing in recent months, some parents have begun urging pediatricians to give their children the jab early. Those kinds of requests are likely to increase with Pfizer’s announcement; however, officials have warned parents about acting too quickly.
“No one should really be freelancing — they should wait for the appropriate approval and recommendations to decide how best to manage their own children’s circumstances,” Bill Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of vaccine clinical research and development, said according to The Washington Post.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Axios)
Contradicting Studies Leave Biden’s COVID-19 Booster Plan Up in the Air
While some studies show that the effectiveness of Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccines decrease over time, other publications argue the decline is not substantial and a full-flung booster campaign is premature.
Booster Rollout in Flux
President Joe Biden’s plan to offer COVID-19 booster shots is facing serious hurdles just a week before it is set to roll out. Issues with the plan stem from growing divisions among the scientific community over the necessity of a third jab.
The timing of booster shots administration has been a point of contention for months, but the debate intensified in August when Biden announced that, pending regulatory approval, the government would start offering boosters on Sept. 20 to adults eight months after they received their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna.
The announcement was backed by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others.
However, many scientists and other health experts both inside and outside of the government have continually criticized the plan. They have claimed the data supporting boosters was not compelling and argued that, while the FDA approved third doses for immunocompromised Americans, the push to give them to the general public was premature.
The plan also drew international backlash from those who argued the U.S. should not launch a booster campaign when billions of people around the world have not gotten their first dose yet. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) extended its request that wealthy countries hold off on giving boosters until at least the end of the year.
Those arguments appeared to be bolstered when federal health regulators said earlier this month that they needed more time to review Moderna’s application for booster shots, forcing the Biden Administration to delay offering third shots to those who received that vaccine.
Now, Pfizer recipients will be the only people who may be eligible for boosters by the initial deadline, though that depends on a forthcoming decision from an FDA expert advisory committee that is set to vote Friday on whether or not to recommend approval.
Debate Continues in Crucial Week
More contradictory information has been coming out in the days leading up to the highly anticipated decision.
On Monday, an international group of 18 scientists, including some at the FDA and the WHO, published a review in The Lancet arguing that there is no credible data to show the vaccines’ ability to prevent severe disease declined substantially over time, so boosters are not yet needed for the general, non-immunocompromised public.
The experts claimed that any advantage boosters may provide does not outweigh the benefit of giving the extra doses to all those who are unvaccinated worldwide.
On the other side, a study released Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who received a third shot of Pfizer in Israel were much less likely to develop severe COVID than those who just had the first two jabs.
The same day, both Pfizer and Moderna published data backing that up as well. Pfizer released an analysis that said data on boosters and the Delta variant from both Israel and the U.S. suggested “that vaccine protection against COVID-19 infection wanes approximately 6 to 8 months following the second dose.”
Moderna also published data, that has not yet been peer-reviewed, which also found its jab provided less immunity and protection against severe disease as time went on.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the FDA additionally released its report on Pfizer’s analysis of the need for a booster shortly after Pfizer’s publication. Normally, those findings would shine a light on the agency’s stance on the issue, but the regulator did not take a clear stand.
“Some observational studies have suggested declining efficacy of [Pfizer] over time […] while others have not,” the agency wrote. “Overall, data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death.”
It remains unclear what the FDA panel will determine when they meet Friday, or what a similar CDC expert panel that is expected to meet next week will decide regarding vaccination policies.
Notably, officials at the two agencies are not required to follow the recommendations of their expert panels, though they usually do.
Even if the FDA approves Pfizer’s application as it stands to give boosters to those 16 and older, people familiar with the matter said the CDC might recommend the third jabs only for people 65 and older or those who are especially at risk.
Regardless of what is decided, experts have said that it is absolutely essential for the agency to stand firm in its decision and clearly explain its reasoning to the public in order to combat further confusion and misinformation.
“F.D.A. does the best in situations when there are strongly held but conflicting views, when they’re forthcoming with the data and really explain decisions,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told The New York Times. “It’s important for the F.D.A. not to say, ‘Here’s our decision, mic drop. It’s much better for them to say, ‘Here’s how we looked at the data, here are the conclusions we made from the data, and here’s why we’re making the conclusions.’”