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The Morning Dispatch: How Worried Should We Be About New COVID Strains?
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The Morning Dispatch: How Worried Should We Be About New COVID Strains?

Plus: Russia arrests thousands of protesters gathered in support of Alexei Navalny.

Happy Monday! We here at The Morning Dispatch support Packers coach Matt LaFleur throwing the NFC Championship Game by kicking a field goal down eight with two minutes to go. Way to go Matt! [Editor: No, “we” don’t. But the pain of a loss in the NFC Championship still beats years of futility of a once-great franchise.]

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The House of Representatives will transmit its article of impeachment against former President Trump to the Senate later today, but—per a deal negotiated by congressional leaders—the Senate trial will begin the week of February 8.

  • Russian security forces detained more than 3,500 protesters who took to the streets this weekend in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed last week upon his return to Moscow. 

  • The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the two suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed 32 people in total and wounded at least 75 others last Thursday.

  • The Senate on Friday confirmed retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as President Biden’s secretary of defense, 93-2. Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken—Biden’s nominees for the Treasury and State Departments, respectively—are expected to be confirmed on a bipartisan basis as early as today.

  • President Biden signed an executive order on Friday aimed at “protecting the federal workforce” that undid a handful of President Trump’s last-minute executive actions designed to pare down the D.C. bureaucracy. Biden’s order also directs the Office of Personnel Management chief to “provide a report to the President with recommendations to promote a $15/hour minimum wage for Federal employees.”

  • Science is messy: A recent study published in Science appears to signal that for most people, immunity from COVID-19—either from vaccination or infection—will likely last for years, not months, as previously believed. A trio of preliminary studies out of South Africa, however, seem to indicate that a coronavirus variant present there may be somewhat more resistant to existing vaccines.

  • Officials in Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that Saudi defense systems intercepted what they believed to be a missile or drone attack on its capital city of Riyadh. The U.S. State Department condemned the attack which it said “appears to have been an attempt to target civilians.”

  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and is undergoing medical treatment for mild symptoms.

  • Hall of Fame slugger  Hank Aaron died Friday at the age of 86, and longtime television talk show host Larry King died Saturday at the age of 87.

  • The Super Bowl matchup is set: The Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers will square off against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on February 7.

  • The United States confirmed 132,198 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 7.9 percent of the 1,669,507 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,805 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 419,204. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 110,628 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 41,411,550 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 21,848,655 have been administered.

COVID Variants and Vaccines

In recent weeks, we’ve had a lot of unsettling news about new variants of the coronavirus in various places around the world. A virus that spreads as quickly and extensively as this one has is bound to undergo mutations and develop new strains; some that we’ve seen—like the recent extra-contagious variant from the United Kingdom—have provoked concern that the pandemic is becoming deadlier even than before.

But the first real “break glass in case of emergency” variant concerns a strain out of South Africa, which came out of nowhere late last year to become by far the dominant strain in that country in a matter of three months. Like the U.K. variant, the South African mutation seems to be more contagious than earlier strains—its emergence has been associated with a dramatic spike in cases and excess deaths there since December. Even more alarmingly, there’s some preliminary evidence that suggests this variant might be genetically different enough to circumvent immune defenses trained to shut down the original strain—calling into question whether the vaccines rolling out around the world will provide permanent relief from the pandemic or simply buy us more time.

Don’t get the wrong idea: When we say “preliminary,” we mean preliminary. To this point, all we know for sure are the results from several lab experiments run by South African researchers. In each experiment, scientists introduced a culture of the new virus to antibody-laden plasma from patients who had recovered from COVID; the antibodies from the plasma were not able to eradicate the virus.

This isn’t an encouraging finding; everyone breathed a sigh of relief, for instance, when similar experiments showed plasmawas able to kill the U.K. COVID variant earlier this month. But experts hasten to add that what takes place in a petri dish might not be perfectly predictive of what takes place in the body—and just as importantly, that the disease immunity fostered by natural recovery from disease tends not to be as powerful as the immunity bestowed by vaccines. Even if the South African variant is better at dodging antibodies than the Wuhan “reference strain” is, in other words, that doesn’t necessarily mean the vaccine’s efficacy will be significantly diminished.

“I think the thing that’s getting people most worried are these couple of preliminary studies suggesting that natural antibodies against COVID are not as effective against this new variant,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and professor at Brown University. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine is going to be less effective. … We would be foolish not to take it seriously, but it is too early to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like the beginning of COVID all over again.’”

Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed the South African strain—and its potential effects on vaccinations—in a press briefing Thursday. After delving into something called the “cushion effect” and noting that the South African strain is “a little bit more concerning” than the U.K. one, he got to the upshot. “Right now, from the reports we have … it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them,” he said. “There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine. That is not something that is a very onerous thing. We can do that given the platforms we have.”

He added that these new strains provide yet another reason we should be vaccinating as fast as humanly possible. “Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate,” he said. “And if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you could actually avoid this deleterious effect that you might get from the mutations.”

In the early days of the pandemic, President Trump restricted travel for non-U.S. citizens from Brazil, the U.K., Ireland, and the 26-nation Schengen Area in Europe, but had planned to allow those restrictions to sunset this week. In light of the growing concern over variant strains, however, President Biden will extend those restrictions this week and add South Africa to the list, Reuters reported over the weekend.

Even with variants looming, there’s one piece of very good COVID news that seems to be apparent from the data: We’re starting to get a handle again on the virus that’s already here. New cases, hospitalizations, and even the test positivity rate are all apparently falling speedily. (If you’re wondering why the graphs look so haywire for the past few weeks, it’s likely because of reporting hiccups and delays following the holidays.)  

There are a few possible reasons for this  welcome slump: The slow-but-steady rollout of vaccines to the most vulnerable populations, and the fact that we’re past the holidays, the season when it’s most tempting to cheat social-distancing protocols. Let’s try to keep a good thing going.

Putin Puttin’ Down Protest

Anti-government protests rocked the whole of Russia over the weekend, spanning eight time zones from the European cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the west to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the east. The response by law enforcement was swift and severe, as police in riot gear violently arrested more than 3,700 protesters across the country according to the OVD-Info human rights organization—including 1,455 in Moscow, 557 in St. Petersburg, and 122 in Tatarstan capital of Kazan. 

The renewed fervor against President Vladimir Putin’s regime follows last week’s arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny upon Navalny’s return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a military-grade nerve agent attack believed to be the work of Russian operatives. The protesters in the street over the weekend called for his immediate and unconditional release.

Video coverage from on the ground showed the disturbing acts of police brutality that ensued. Some protesters—including an elderly woman—were beaten by heavily armored forces, while others were violently transported to buses and trucks to be detained. Demonstrators in some parts of the country also faced temperatures as low as minus-50 Celsius as they struggled to regroup.

Among the protesters arrested in Moscow was Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who posted a picture after her arrest captioned: “Forgive the poor photo quality, the lighting is bad in the paddy wagon.” She was released from police custody later in the weekend.

The Biden administration was quick to condemn the violent crackdown, calling for the immediate release of Navalny and for Russia to cooperate with the international investigation into his poisoning. 

“Prior to today’s events, the Russian government sought to suppress the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression by harassing protest organizers, threatening social media platforms, and pre-emptively arresting potential participants,” the State Department said in a statement. “This follows years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition.”

“Alexei Navalny is the face of courage on the planet,” Sen. Mitt Romney said, “as are the thousands of Russians who stand with him.”

Sen. Ben Sasse called Putin a “coward” afraid of the “strength and resilience of the Russian people.” 

“Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets because they’re fed up with Putin and refuse to be silenced by his tyrannical regime. The free world has seen their bravery,” he continued. “The United States should immediately rally an international response to impose Magnitsky sanctions on those leading the crackdown on protesters and invoke the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention to inspect Russian facilities that produced the nerve agents involved in Navalny’s poisoning. It’s time the freedom-loving world cut off all avenues of support for Putin’s corrupt regime.”

The Magnitsky Act—signed into law in 2012 and expanded in 2016—empowers the United States to impose sanctions on those who violate human rights around the world. (The Dispatch ran a piece last week on the possible use of CWC measures to crackdown on Russian mischief making.)

Josep Borrell, the European Union minister for foreign affairs, condemned Putin’s crackdown on his Twitter page. “Following unfolding events in #Russia with concern. I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections,” he said. “We will discuss on Monday next steps with EU Foreign Ministers.”

The weekend’s mass gatherings—and their persistence despite violent suppression by authorities—are evidence of the increasingly strong resolve among Russians in opposition to Putin and his anti-democratic practices.

“It is exciting to see the awakening of society. For many many years the Putin regime has stood not just on its own repression, on its own propaganda machine, on all the coercive apparatuses they’ve built—but also, to be frank, on the passive acquiescence and silence of a significant part of Russian society,” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition candidate, said during press conference urging the the United States to enforce the Magnitsky Act.

“We no longer see that fear,” Kara-Murza said of the younger generation, who in their lifetimes have only known the existing regime. “Every dictatorship has an expiration date and it seems that Vladimir Putin’s is beginning to approach its own.” 

Impeachment Updates

The Senate has been busy the past week: Participating in the inauguration, swearing in three new members, holding hearings for and confirming the first few members of President Biden’s Cabinet, negotiating on additional coronavirus relief. But the upper chamber has another item on its to-do list, one that nobody in that body seems all that thrilled about: Holding an impeachment trial for ex-President Trump.

On Friday, the Senate did what any patriotic American would when faced with a nagging obligation: It kicked the can a few weeks down the road. In a note to her colleagues on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will “sadly” transmit its recently passed article of impeachment to the Senate on Monday (today). The trial, however, will not begin until the week of February 8—two weeks from tomorrow—after Majority LeaderChuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hammered out a deal that would allow President Biden time to get his agenda off the ground and ex-President Trump time to prepare his legal defense.

“Especially given the fast and minimal process in the House, Republicans set out to ensure the Senate’s next steps will respect former President Trump’s rights and due process, the institution of the Senate, and the office of the presidency,” McConnell spokesman Doug Andres said. “That goal has been achieved. This is a win for due process and fairness.”

The Biden White House doesn’t appear to be shedding too many tears about the delay, either. “He’s going to leave the timeline up to them,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said when asked if Biden was concerned about a Senate trial stretching into February. “But what is important … is that they are continuing to move forward with getting the relief to the American people because that certainly can’t wait and be delayed until March, April, or May. We can’t afford that.”

Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Katie Benner broke a story that is sure to come up in the trial, whenever it starts. President Trump, in recent weeks, seriously weighed firing Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replacing him with another Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to use the DOJ’s power to “force Georgia state lawmakers to overturn its presidential election results.” Trump was reportedly only talked out of the plan when a group of senior leaders at the DOJ told the president they would resign en masse if he went through with it. The Wall Street Journalreported that separately, Trump pushed the Justice Department to go directly to the Supreme Court and invalidate Biden’s victory.

These men could now very well be called as witnesses in the impending impeachment trial. But even if they aren’t—or they refuse to show up—the president’s actions detailed in the stories barely differ from what we all heard him say—in public, on Twitter, or on the phone—for months leading up to the violence on January 6.

Still, amassing the 17 Republican votes necessary to convict Trump is going to be an uphill climb, if not an insurmountable one. “I think the trial is stupid,” Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News yesterday. “We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire.”

Rubio conceded that Trump “bears responsibility for some of what happened,” but that an impeachment trial is not the venue to hold him accountable. “The stories are still going to be written. There’s criminal justice investigations that are going to continue to move forward. All these things are still going to happen,” he said. “The first chance I get to vote to end this trial, I’ll do it because I think it’s really bad for America.”

Other GOP senators, after having argued against a trial immediately after the House voted to impeach on the grounds that doing so would have been too hasty, are moving toward another safe harbor argument: That it’s too late to convict Trump because he’s now a former president. “Our members, irrespective of what they might think about the merits, just believe that this is an exercise that really isn’t grounded constitutionally,” Sen. John Thune said last week. But many constitutional scholars disagree with that conclusion.

“Declining to try Mr. Trump would set a dangerous new precedent,” recent Remnant guest and Federalist Society member Keith Whittington writes, “denying future presidents and other officials the opportunity to clear their names if they leave office, and allowing them to escape accountability by resigning—or saving their worst acts for the end of their term.”

“The preponderance of the legal opinion is that an impeachment trial after someone’s left office is constitutional,” Sen. Mitt Romney told CNN yesterday. “I believe that’s the case.”

In a second interview—with Fox News—Romney appeared to tip his hand as to which way he was leaning, although he was sure to condition that he hasn’t yet heard the case from the prosecution or defense. “To have unity in our country,” he said, “I think it’s important to recognize the need for accountability. For truth and justice.”

Republican sources have told The Dispatch there’s still a very narrow path to 17 votes—barring Trump from holding office in the future—if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell votes to convict and rallies his conference to do the same. Although McConnell has expressed openness to doing the former, he has reportedly been telling other senators to vote their conscience. And the fact that two other GOP leaders have been pushing the dubious “unconstitutional” argument — Thune and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — suggests there will be no GOP leadership effort to hold Trump accountable.

Trump, for his part, has reportedly been mulling how best to use his grip on the Republican base as leverage to keep the Senate from convicting him. Two such options? Creating a third party that would siphon votes away from the GOP, and/or using his campaign infrastructure and fundraising prowess to stand up 2022 primary challengers to those who cross him. Both endeavors, however, would require a level of concentration and commitment that Trump has thus far failed to demonstrate he possesses.

Worth Your Time

  • Can the GOP get up off the mat and repair itself in a post-Trump era? Will Hurd, the recently retired representative from Texas, says yes. But, the party must dispense with its addiction to conspiracy theories and restore its loyalty to conservative values as opposed to Donald Trump. “If Islamist terrorism was the existential challenge of the early 2000s,” Hurd, a former CIA analyst, writes in the Washington Post, “then the environment of disinformation, misinformation and lies fueling domestic terrorism is the challenge of our current generation.”Garry Kasparov, chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative, tackled a similar subject in a Wall Street Journal essay. “The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was the rock-bottom moment that asked if the Republican Party wants to go through the pain of rehabilitation and live, or die in ignominy,” he writes. “There can be no pretending it didn’t happen. Conservatives must get through the whole 12-step recovery program in record time.”

  • You’re not going to see many calls to get rid of the filibuster in the pages of The Dispatch—and President Biden remains against the idea as well—but it’s still worth engaging with those making a well-argued case for the filibuster’s abolition. In the New York Times last week, Ezra Klein essentially argued the Democrats’ only hope for hanging onto their slim congressional majorities in 2022 is to go nuclear. “None of these bills will pass a Senate in which the filibuster forces 60-vote supermajorities on routine legislation,” Klein writes of key planks in Biden’s platform. “And that clarifies the real question Democrats face. They have plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy. But they have, repeatedly, proved themselves more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than fulfilling their promises to voters. They have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it.”

  • The Major League Baseball community—and the world—lost a great man over the weekend in Hank Aaron, who died just weeks before his 87th birthday. Aaron is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974—and he might have been the league’s most consistent hitter. And he did it all while facing intense adversity. As Aaron approached Ruth’s 714 home runs, the racist vitriol he experienced echoed—if not exceeded—what Jackie Robinson faced breaking baseball’s color barrier nearly three decades earlier. According to the Post Office, Aaron received more mail in the early 1970s than any non-politician in the country, and too many of those letters included death threats, requiring him and his family to retain security forces. “If you come close to Babe Ruth’s 714 homers,” one letter read, “I have a contract out on you. Over 700, and you can consider yourself punctured with a .22 shell.” This stuck with Aaron the rest of his life. “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst,” he later wrote. “I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people. It’s something I’m still trying to get over, and maybe I never will.” Take a moment today to watch legendary broadcaster Vin Scully’s call of home run number 715.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Earlier this month, Hunter Baker, the dean of arts and sciences at Union University, penned an apology to the Never Trumpers he had spent years ridiculing. “In our present environment, it takes guts to write an apology,” David writes in his Sunday French Press. “More Christians can demonstrate his humility and courage. And when or if they do, it’s important for even those who suffered profoundly for their anti-Trump stands to grant forgiveness immediately and without hesitation.”

  • “It occurred to me yesterday that I never had my chance to gloat about, you know, being proven right about Donald Trump.” In his latest G-File, Jonah takes a bit of a  victory lap—or, he would, but the events of the last few weeks have made it a little difficult. “It’s one thing to dance in the end zone and celebrate a win,” he writes. “But when the losing team and its fans call the scoreboard ‘fake news’ and just keep bleating about how they didn’t really lose, or that the game was rigged, or that they did nothing wrong when they told their fans to storm the field and wreck the place, gloating is robbed of some of its luster.” He expands on all this, and more, in Saturday’s solo Ruminant podcast. And erstwhile assistant Jack Butler makes his glorious return to celebrate the 300th episode of The Remnant!

  • Will President Biden’s governing strategy be effective? Is he really a centrist? What role will Vice President Harris play in this administration? NBC’s Chuck Todd dives into all of these questions—and more—with Sarah and Steve on Friday’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast. Stick around for their thoughts on the Democrats’ $15 minimum wage proposal, the future of immigration reform, Biden’s relationship with Congress, and the evolution of cable news over the years.

  • We’ve saved the best for last: Sarah and her husband recently had their first weekend away from their baby, and they spent it … eating fried chicken sandwiches and ranking fast food restaurants. Do you agree with her final verdict?

Let Us Know

What aspects of the Trump administration’s foreign policy do you hope the Biden team keeps, and what planks do you hope they do away with?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).