The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s developments as they unfolded.
A top Health Ministry official says the government should have ordered stores to close last week to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis’s comments in a radio interview come after Israel logged nearly 3,000 new cases on Tuesday, a two-month high.
“The data is clear. We are on our way to ‘tightened restraint’ [the government restrictions to close down commercial activity, which fall short of a lockdown]. We should have started last week. Commerce must be shut down. In the markets, airports and other places, the… rules aren’t being kept,” she tells the Kan public broadcaster.
She also predicts that the effect of vaccination campaign won’t be felt until March.
“Until March, we won’t see a nationwide effect from the vaccines. I believe that people who are afraid will be convinced to get vaccinated. We ordered a lot of shots and there won’t be shortages,” she says.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz is asking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene the so-called coronavirus cabinet as the infection rate climbs.
There’s no immediate response from Netanyahu.
The World Health Organization in Europe warns of a “further resurgence” of Covid-19 in early 2021, as it urged families to wear face masks during this year’s Christmas gatherings.
The UN health organization says in a statement that while some “fragile progress” had been made, “Covid-19 transmission across the European region remains widespread and intense.”
“There is a high risk of further resurgence in the first weeks and months of 2021, and we will need to work together if we are to succeed in preventing it,” WHO Europe says.
It urged the public “not (to) underestimate the importance of your decisions” and take extra precautions as many prepare to gather for the holidays.
If possible, the WHO said celebrations should be held outdoors and “participants should wear masks and maintain physical distancing.”
For indoor festivities, the WHO said limiting the number of guests and ensuring good ventilation were key to reducing the risk of infection.
“It may feel awkward to wear masks and practice physical distancing when around friends and family, but doing so contributes significantly to ensuring that everyone remains safe and healthy,” the health agency says.
The WHO’s European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, a region that has registered more than 22 million cases of the new coronavirus and close to 500,000 deaths.
Around 4.7 million people in Spain, which amounts to one in 10 people, have contracted the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to a new government-led antibody study.
The figure is significantly higher than the health ministry official tally, which now sits at 1.76 million. It is higher too than the estimate of over three million Covid-19 cases announced by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in October.
The sero-prevalence study, presented late on Tuesday, is now in its fourth round. Its work involved carrying out rapid antibody tests on 51,409 people across the country of some 47 million people between November 16 and 29.
The results of the previous round of the study, published in July, found a prevalence rate of just over 5.0 percent.
The infection rate in Madrid was the highest of all Spanish regions, with around 18 percent of the population testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, against the national rate of 9.9 percent.
In contrast, regions such as the Canary Islands and Valencia in the east had a prevalence rate below 5.0 percent.
As coronavirus cases mount in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave saw 44.8% of coronavirus tests come back positive in the past 24 hours, the Hamas Health Ministry announces.
According to Health Ministry figures, the Gaza Strip currently has 8,851 active coronavirus infections, and 220 Gazans have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic.
Hamas health officials have warned that Gaza’s medical system could collapse under the strain of the outbreak. Designated coronavirus wards have overflowed, and critical coronavirus patients are now being placed beside regular patients in the hospitals, the Hamas Health Ministry said yesterday in a statement.
The number of identified infections has dropped over the past week, likely due to extremely low testing — occasionally no more than several hundred tests a day. The enclave’s central laboratory also stopped processing new tests for two consecutive days last week due to a temporary shortage of test kits.
— Aaron Boxerman
Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who announced yesterday she was joining Gideon Sa’ar’s new party, is under fire for casting doubt on the safety of the coronavirus vaccine.
“I will get vaccinated after the public receives all the information on the vaccine’s credibility and efficacy,” she says. “We will have a discussion in the [Knesset’s Coronavirus] Committee on vaccines, and we will present a plan that will enable antibody tests to be conducted… so as not to vaccinate those who don’t need it.”
She is criticized by healthcare professionals, who say she’s stoking suspicion around the vaccine.
“When things like this, which have no scientific or professional basis, it confuses the public,” says Dr. Anat Ekka Zohar of the Maccabi health maintenance organization, according to the Ynet news site.
If the government fails to pass a state budget, the Knesset will automatically dissolve at midnight on Tuesday night.
Legal officials were apparently locked in a discussion on whether the dissolution would happen at midnight Tuesday or midnight Wednesday, before agreeing on the former, according to Hebrew media reports.
The head of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, says all Israelis should get vaccinated, after appearing to question the safety of the shot.
“Contrary to the reports, I would like to clarify that from the moment the FDA gave its approval, I recommend that everyone get vaccinated,” she tweets. “The first to get vaccinated must be medical staff and high-risk populations and I would of course be happy to be vaccinated myself.
“In any case, my position is against forcing the vaccine, but rather through persuasion and public advocacy,” she adds.
The remaining parties to the faltering 2015 Iran nuclear accord meet after Tehran announces plans for a new breach of the deal, and as uncertainty reigns ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden’s January inauguration.
The meeting of the so-called “joint commission” includes China, France, Russia, Iran, Germany and Britain and is chaired by senior EU foreign affairs official Helga Schmid.
The meeting, which started at 11 am (1000 GMT), is being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the start of Wednesday’s talks, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweets that the focus would be on how to “preserve the nuclear deal and ensure its full and balanced implementation.”
“The role of (the) US in this regard will inevitably be discussed,” he adds.
Another diplomat says the meeting would rather be “an opportunity to say to the Iranians face to face to stop the breaches of the deal” and not to ruin the chances of a return to diplomacy under Biden.
The meeting “is not coming at the best moment,” the diplomat admits, given the uncertainty over possible developments between now and Biden’s January 20 inauguration.
Tensions between Tehran and the West have also been worsened in recent days by the execution in Iran last week of France-based dissident Ruhollah Zam, which provoked a global outcry.
The Likud and Blue and White parties are no longer holding negotiations to prevent a fourth round of elections in two years, officials tell Channel 12.
The officials say there is “zero chance” elections will be avoided at this point.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that US “enmities” toward Iran will not cease with the looming departure from office of US President Donald Trump.
He reiterates his position that Iran should bolster itself to “nullify” sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, but should “not delay” in the event they can be lifted.
“You witnessed what Trump’s America and Obama’s America did to you,” he is quoted as saying on his official website.
“Enmities are not limited to Trump’s America and will not end just because he has left office,” Khamenei adds, addressing the family of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a January US airstrike in neighboring Iraq.
“Do not trust the enemy, this is my explicit advice.”
A Dutch court rejects a restitution case brought by heirs of a Jewish family that originally owned a painting by Wassily Kandinsky that was bought by the city of Amsterdam at an auction in 1940.
Amsterdam District Court upholds a 2018 ruling by the Netherlands’ restitution committee that the artwork titled “Painting With Houses,” which is the collection of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, does not have to be returned to the family.
James Palmer, who represents the heirs, calls the decision unacceptable. Lawyers for the heirs said they will appeal.
“If this court decision is left unchallenged then Dutch restitution policy will effectively be nonexistent, and important looted art in The Netherlands will likely never be restituted,” he says.
“After many years of struggles, the Lewenstein family is very disappointed that the Amsterdam District Court did not recognize the Lewenstein family’s rights to the restitution of its property, which was misappropriated during the Holocaust,” defense lawyers say in a statement.
The 2018 ruling said the painting was not stolen or confiscated before it was auctioned, but also stated that the sale “cannot on the one hand be considered in isolation from the Nazi regime, but on the other hand has to have been caused to an extent by the deteriorating financial circumstances” of the original owners before Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands during World War II.
Lawyers for the heirs argued that the restitution committee included members “who apparently have a strong bias in favor of the Museum” and ignored other legal issues linked to the restitution of art sold by Jewish families before and during the war.
The court rejected the arguments.
In a written response, the City of Amsterdam, which owns the Stedelijk, says the court had ruled that the 2018 restitution committee decision “is not unacceptable by standards or reasonableness and fairness and therefore should not be set aside.”
“We are well aware that this is disappointing for the claimants,” the municipality adds. “This painting will forever be linked to a painful history. The relationship of our collection with the Second World War will always be important, we will continue to show information about this to the public, online and also in the gallery.”
More than 300 religious leaders from 35 countries call for a ban on “conversion therapies,” which attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The call for an end to the practice, often done in the name of a religious faith, was issued in a statement by the British Ozanne Foundation before a London conference.
Among the signatories were representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh faiths, including Nobel Peace Prize winner and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“We call for all attempts to change, suppress or erase a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression — commonly known as ‘conversion therapy’ — to end, and for these harmful practices to be banned,” they say.
The practice is sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy” but experts widely regard it as pseudo-scientific, ineffective and dangerous.
It has drawn particular attention in the United States, where it has affected hundreds of thousands of individuals.
The Knesset advances a bill that would connect illegal outposts in the West Bank to electricity and water infrastructure.
The bill is approved in its preliminary reading 60-40, after winning the support of some Blue and White lawmakers.
It would need three more votes to become law.
The State-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Company, whose oil pipeline between the Red Sea port of Eilat and the Mediterranean city of Ashkelon leaked several cubic meters of light crude oil at the end of October, is again in the Environmental Protection Ministry’s crosshairs, following complaints about strong fuel smells by Ashkelon residents.
The ministry announces its intention to hold a hearing for the company and its managers, after discovering above permitted levels of benzene emissions during two days in November due to a fault in a crude oil container.
— Sue Surkes
President Reuven Rivlin, 82, will get the coronavirus vaccine on Sunday, his office says.
He will get the shot at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein are expected to receive the vaccine on Saturday night.
More than 137,000 people in Britain have received a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine in the week since inoculations began, the government announces.
The Department for Health and Social Care says 137,897 people had received the shot since December 8. Of those, 108,000 were in England, the most populous of the UK’s four nations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tells lawmakers he is “very pleased” with the “good start with the roll-out of the vaccination.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first coronavirus shot to be authorized for use by the UK’s independent medicine regulator. Patients require two doses, 21 days apart.
Britain has ordered 40 million doses — enough to vaccinate 20 million people — with 800,000 in the first batch.
First in line are people aged 80 and above, and frontline health and social care workers.
The vaccination program was this week expanded into doctors’ surgeries in England, and in care homes in Scotland.
The bulk of Britain’s vaccine requirements are expected to be met by a shot developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which is awaiting regulatory approval.
Some 100 million doses have been ordered. The government has also ordered seven million of vaccine developed by Moderna.
Sudan has revoked the citizenship of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and some 3,000 other foreign nationals, according to Arabic media reports.
The move comes after the US earlier this week removed Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism blacklist and declared a “fundamental change” in relations, less than two months after the Arab nation pledged to normalize ties with Israel.
— with agencies
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has entered quarantine after his son tests positive for COVID-19.
He will remain in isolation until Friday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shin Bet security chief Nadav Argaman are also in isolation after they were exposed to virus carriers in their respective offices.
United Airlines announces a program to collect customer contact data on all flights to assist health officials in contact tracing in the effort to contain COVID-19.
The program, which will cover both domestic and international flights, follows a similar announcement earlier this month by rival Delta Air Lines, but the Delta program only pertains to international flights.
The program, which is supported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be voluntary for passengers.
Consumers who opt in will be asked at check-in for contact details such as an email address, phone number and address where they can be reached once they arrive.
Such details “were previously difficult for the CDC to obtain in real-time,” United says in a press release.
“Contact tracing is a fundamental component of the nation’s public health response strategy for controlling the spread of communicable diseases of public health concern,” says CDC Director Robert Redfield in the press release.
“Collection of contact information from air travelers will greatly improve the timeliness and completeness of information for COVID-19 public health follow-up and contact tracing.”
A Health Ministry document on the upcoming vaccination drive details how the shot will be administered. The vaccination drive is set to begin next week.
It says the vaccine will first be distributed in the following order among healthcare workers and high-risk groups:
- Hospital staff
- Health maintenance organization staff, private medical clinic staff, dentists
- Staff at geriatric and psychiatric hospitals
- Medical and nursing students who are in the clinical stage of their training
- Nursing home residents and staff
- Israelis over 60, at the discretion of HMOs
- It gives special dispensation to elderly Israelis who aren’t in nursing homes, and their caregivers
- People with particular high-risk conditions, including lung transplant recipients
In the second stage, Israel will vaccinate patients with diabetes, morbid obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), high blood pressure, and other immunocompromised Israelis. Others with great potential exposure to the virus, including teachers, prison guards, prisoners, social workers, first responders, would also be eligible to get the shot at this point.
Then — the general population, with some exceptions: pregnant women, nursing women, women seeking to get pregnant, children and teenagers under 16, people with a history of serious allergic reactions, and those who have recovered from COVID-19.
The couple killed in collision with a truck on Route 90 in the Jordan Valley earlier today are identified as Moshe Nizri, 75, and Simcha Nizri, 63, of Midgal HaEmek, according to Hebrew media reports.
They were en route to the Dead Sea for a vacation, according to Ynet. The Nizris are survived by six children.
משה ומימי ניזרי ממגדל העמק הם ההרוגים בתאונה הקטלנית בכביש הבקעה
(אורלי אלקלעי) pic.twitter.com/3voBmO0eYF
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) December 16, 2020
The Health Ministry is seeking to reinstate mandatory quarantine for all Israelis returning to the country from abroad, including from countries with low infection rates, according to Channel 12.
Currently, only those entering Israel from “red” or high infection areas are required to self-isolate.
The recommendation came during a meeting on the issue, the network says. A decision on the matter is expected tomorrow.
America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo is in quarantine after being exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, the State Department says.
The US secretary of state “has been tested and is negative. In accordance with CDC guidelines, he will be in quarantine. He is being closely monitored by the Department’s medical team,” a State Department spokesperson says, adding that for privacy reasons they could not identify the person he came into contact with.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says other countries have been asking Israel to help them obtain coronavirus vaccines.
“Countries are contacting us and asking for Israel’s help in obtaining vaccines,” Edelstein tells Army Radio, and not “exotic countries you haven’t heard of either.”
He laments widespread health violations by Israelis who have traveled to Dubai, accusing them of flouting local regulations. Edelstein says the Emiratis, who recently forged diplomatic ties with Israel, are turning a blind eye so as not to cause a rift with Jerusalem.
The health minister also blasts Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who has announced he won’t get vaccinated.
“A public official who calls for not getting the vaccine, this has the potential to kill someone,” Edelstein says. “It’s terrible.”
Avidar earlier on Wednesday accused the government and Health Ministry of fanning “hysteria” and said he would not get the shot.
“It’s in the interest of Netanyahu and the Health Ministry to make us all hysterical,” he told 103 FM.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms he’ll get the coronavirus vaccine on Saturday night, becoming the first Israeli to get inoculated.
He confirms the news in a tweet.
“On Saturday night, I will get the vaccine for the coronavirus. I asked to be first to serve as an example and to persuade you to get vaccinated. By the end of January, we will bring millions of vaccines to Israel. I worked hard to bring them and I ask you — please use them,” he tweets.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn signs an extradition order for accused child sex abuser Malka Leifer to Australia.
“After many years, after a shameful attempt to present herself as mentally ill, and in light of the Supreme Court ruling, it is our moral obligation to allow for Leifer to stand trial,” tweets the justice minister.
Israel now has 60 days to place Leifer on a plane to Australia.
An official in the State Prosecutor’s Office told The Times of Israel that while the defense is technically allowed to file an appeal once more following the justice minister’s decision, it is unclear whether the High Court of Justice would agree to hear the case given the latest rulings in favor of Leifer’s extradition.
Leifer is the former headmistress of Melbourne’s Adass Israel ultra-Orthodox girls’ high school, in Australia, where she is wanted on 74 charges of child sex abuse.
Leifer left Israel to take a job at Adass Israel in Melbourne in 2000. When allegations of sexual abuse against her began to surface eight years later, members of the school board purchased the mother of eight a plane ticket back to Israel, allowing her to escape before charges were filed.
It took until 2014 for her to be arrested as part of an Interpol operation, but hearings were postponed due to claims by Leifer’s defense team of sudden bouts of a debilitating condition. A Jerusalem court suspended proceedings in 2016, deeming her mentally unfit to stand trial. She was rearrested in 2018 after being filmed appearing to lead a fully functional life and after a drawn-out legal saga, Israel approved her extradition.
— with Jacob Magid
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer says he hasn’t seen the attorney general’s authorization to open a police investigation into the premier, which yielded the charges for which Netanyahu now stands trial.
Boaz Ben-Tzur makes the claim in an interview with Army Radio.
Citing precedents, the defense lawyer says that if the document showing Avichai Mandelblit granted permission to open the probe doesn’t surface, there’s a chance the charges could be canceled. Netanyahu’s lawyers have asked the court to order the prosecution to disclose Mandelblit’s order.
A French court jails for 30 years the main defendant who was present for the trial over the 2015 killings at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and a Jewish supermarket, stopping short of the life term demanded by the prosecution.
Ali Riza Polat is convicted of complicity by the court, which also gave a 30-year jail sentence in absentia to Hayat Boumeddiene, the partner of one of the attackers. She fled to Syria in the wake of the killings.
All the attackers were killed in the wake of the killings. A total of 14 suspected accomplices went on trial, three of them in absentia.
The Israel Defense Forces says it will begin vaccinating soldiers against the coronavirus by the end of next month according to level of necessity.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi will receive the military’s first dose of the vaccine on Sunday in order to set a “personal example” to the rest of the troops, the military says.
Once large quantities of the coronavirus vaccine arrive in Israel over the coming weeks, the military will begin vaccinating troops on a larger scale. The order of priority was set by the IDF Operations Directorate, according to a statement from the military.
The first recipients will be medical professionals who are most exposed to the virus, followed by servicemembers at risk of the disease because of health issues, then select combat units, then all combat troops, critical support staff and top officers, the IDF says.
— Judah Ari Gross
Lawyers representing accused child sex abuser Malka Leifer say they won’t appeal the extradition order signed by the justice minister earlier today.
“I am not surprised by the minister of justice’s hasty signature which is completely in keeping with his inappropriate remarks of yesterday and a few months earlier. The minister of justice was meant to exercise his discretion in a considered manner after hearing submissions from the defense and not impetuously in a flagrant attempt to appeal to popular sentiment,” Leifer’s attorney Nick Kaufman tells The Times of Israel.
“Mrs. Leifer will not be seeking judicial review of this administrative act. Should Mrs Leifer not be acquitted in Australia, we will, in due course, be seeking that she serve any prison term imposed on her in Israel. By then, we can only hope to deal with a new minister of justice who will adopt a different attitude to the basic principles of due process and look favorably on such a request.”
Sixteen nursing home residents and five staff members have contracted the coronavirus in an outbreak at the Ganei Ye’elim facility in the southern city of Beersheba, Channel 13 reports.
The coronavirus cabinet votes to allow public libraries to reopen, despite a sharp spike in virus cases.
The decision is effective immediately.
The Health Ministry records another 1,476 virus cases since midnight, with the number of serious COVID-19 cases nearing 400.
It says 2,888 new infections were diagnosed on Tuesday, a two-month high.
Of the 20,255 active cases, 393 are in serious condition, 152 of them on ventilators. Another 168 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.
The death toll stands at 3,031.
The Shin Bet security service will stop its using its controversial phone surveillance measures to help track down potential coronavirus carriers from January 20, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
The agency will continue to use the measure on those who refuse to cooperate with contact tracing efforts, the report says.
Health officials are worried that the renewed outbreak of the virus could affect the vaccination campaign, according to Channel 13.
Officials are concerned that people will be reluctant to get the shot due to exposure to other people and long lines. They also express concern that people who receive one dose and go on to contract the virus will not be able to complete the inoculation three weeks later.
The network also quotes a health official warning that with the current rate of infection, some of the proposed restrictions to shutter stores, and schools in high infection areas, will not suffice.
“There is no choice but to head to lockdown,” the official says.
Israeli health officials met with their Palestinian counterparts on Tuesday and urged them to quickly buy vaccines to inoculate West Bank residents, the Kan public broadcaster reports, describing it as the first high-level meeting between the sides since security ties were reestablished.
According to the report, the Palestinian Authority is in talks with Russia to acquire its vaccine and is expected to receive donated shots from international organizations for 20 percent of its population. The donation, however, hinges on approval from the WHO, which likely will not happen before January.
The PA plans to vaccinate 60% of Palestinians, since much of its population is young, according to the report. It remains unclear whether Israel will supply vaccines to the Palestinians, but Israeli officials were pushing the PA not to wait and to seek out a deal with international companies.
Dutch prosecutors say a man had cracked US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account in October, despite denials from Washington and the company, but adds that the so-called “ethical hacker” would not face charges.
The man, named as Victor Gevers in Dutch media, reportedly hacked into Trump’s account @realDonaldTrump by guessing his password on October 16, Dutch media reports say.
Both the White House and Twitter have strenuously denied reports that the account had been hacked.
Gevers, 44, disclosed the hack immediately, saying the password he guessed was “maga2020!” — referring to the Trump slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“We believe the hacker has actually penetrated Trump’s Twitter account, but has met the criteria that have been developed in case law to go free as an ethical hacker,” the public prosecutor’s office (OM) says.
It added that hacking was a criminal offense in the Netherlands.
But “special circumstances, also referred to in practice as ‘responsible disclosure,'” could stop prosecutors from taking steps, the OM adds.
Dutch prosecutors made their findings based on an investigation by police’s specialist cyber unit called Team High-tech Crime.
“Both the hacker and the American authorities have been informed of the outcome of the investigation,” prosecutors say.
An unmanned Chinese spacecraft carrying rocks and soil from the Moon returned safely to Earth early Thursday in the first mission in four decades to collect lunar samples, the Xinhua news agency says.
The return module of the space probe known as Chang’e-5 landed in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region, Xinhua says, quoting the China National Space Administration.
Beijing is looking to catch up with the US and Russia after taking decades to match its rivals’ achievements and has poured billions into its military-run space program.
The spacecraft, named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess, landed on the Moon on December 1 and began its return voyage two days later. While on the Moon, it raised the Chinese flag, China’s space agency has said.
Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
With this mission, China became only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
This was the first such attempt since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
The spacecraft’s mission was to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in an area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or “Ocean of Storms” — a vast, previously unexplored lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.
China hopes to have a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the Moon.
Joe Biden boasts of a “cabinet of barrier breakers” as the US president-elect introduces his transportation secretary pick, Pete Buttigieg, who, if confirmed, would become the first openly gay head of a cabinet-level department.
Buttigieg, whom Biden called “a policy wonk with a big heart,” is one of several trailblazing picks by the veteran Democrat, who appears to be following through on his pledge to name the most diverse US cabinet ever.
“A cabinet that looks like America” is how Biden, 78, described the inner circle that he is putting together.
“We’ll have a cabinet of barrier breakers, a cabinet of firsts,” he tells reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, noting that eight “precedent-busting appointments” were already made.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is among the historic picks, being the first woman and first person of color elected to the post.
Others include retired general Lloyd Austin, who would be the first Black secretary of defense, and Janet Yellen, the first woman to lead the Treasury Department.
US officials say that they are actively negotiating for additional purchases of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, after passing up a chance to lock in a contract this past summer, since it was then unclear how well the shots would work.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and special adviser Dr. Moncef Slaoui also tells reporters on Wednesday that Pfizer has been unable to commit to a firm delivery date. Azar calls that “the core issue.”
There is no immediate comment from the company, whose CEO, Albert Bourla, told CNN this week that it is “working very collaboratively” with the government to deliver additional vaccine through the federal Operation Warp Speed. That is a White House-backed, taxpayer-funded effort to quickly develop coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
The Trump administration has come under scathing criticism from congressional Democrats after news leaked out last week about the foregone vaccine opportunity.
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