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Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ Dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for Black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television series, has died at the age of 89.

Her son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.

“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and frequented “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.

More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s “Heroes,” playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.

The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.

“I think many people took it into their hearts … that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.

She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.

“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, ‘You cannot do that,'” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.

“‘You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,’ ” she said the civil rights leader told her.

“That foresight Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.

The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man. … In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”

Worried about reaction from Southern television stations, showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used.

Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most “fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on Star Trek for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teen her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle.”

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess,” the first of several small film and TV roles that led up to her “Star Trek” stardom.

Nichols was known as being unafraid to stand up to Shatner on the set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later learned she had a strong supporter in the show’s creator.

In her 1994 book, she said she met Roddenberry when she guest starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a couple of years before “Star Trek” began. The two remained lifelong close friends.

Another fan of Nichols and the show was future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

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‘Warn Everyone’: Spain’s Gay Community Acts as Monkeypox Spreads

Whether it’s abstinence, avoiding nightclubs, limiting sexual partners or pushing for a swift vaccine rollout, Spain’s gay community is on the front line of the monkeypox virus and is taking action. 

“With this monkey thing, I prefer to be careful. … I don’t have sex anymore, I don’t go to parties anymore, and that’s until I’m vaccinated and have some immunity,” said Antonio, a 35-year-old from Madrid who declined to give his last name. 

Antonio, who often went to nightclubs and sometimes to sex parties, decided to act as cases continued to increase. 

Spain on Saturday reported its second monkeypox-related death. 

Outside of Africa, the only other such death has been in Brazil. 

More than 18,000 cases have been detected throughout the world outside of Africa since the beginning of May, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Spain is one of the world’s worst-hit countries. The health ministry’s emergency and alert coordination center put the number of infected people at 4,298. 

As cases increase globally, the WHO has called on the group currently most affected by the virus, men who have sex with men, to limit their sexual partners. 

Lack of vaccines 

“This is not like Covid, the vaccine already exists, there’s no need to invent it. If it wasn’t a queer disease, we would have acted more — and faster,” said Antonio. 

Like other members of the gay community, he believes the authorities have not done enough. 

NGOs have denounced a lack of prevention, a shortage of vaccines and stigmatization linked to the virus.  

This is despite the WHO declaring the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency. 

Early signs of the disease include a high fever, swollen lymph glands and a chickenpox-like rash. 

The disease usually heals by itself after two to three weeks, sometimes taking a month. 

A smallpox vaccine from Danish drug maker Bavarian Nordic, marketed under the name Jynneos in the United States and Imvanex in Europe, has been found to protect against monkeypox. 

It took Antonio three weeks to get an appointment to be vaccinated, after logging on to the official website every day at midnight. 

Appointments “are going as fast as tickets to the next Beyonce concert,” another said. 

So far, Spain has only received 5,300 doses, which arrived in late June. 

The Spanish health ministry declined to comment when contacted by AFP. 

‘Anyone can catch it’ 

Nahum Cabrera of the FELGTBI+ NGO, an umbrella group of more than 50 LGBTQ organizations from all over Spain, insists there is an urgent need to vaccinate those most at risk. 

That means not just gay men, but anyone who has “regular sex with multiple partners, as well as those who frequent swingers’ clubs, LGTBI saunas, etc.,” he said. 

“It risks creating a false sense of security among the general population, and they relax into thinking that they are safe and that it only happens to men who have sex with men,” he said. 

The target age group for vaccination is those ages 18 and 46, he added. 

Older people are vaccinated against smallpox which was eradicated in Europe in the early 1970s. 

“We are facing a health emergency… that affects the LGBTI community, so people think it is insignificant, that it is not serious,” said Ivan Zaro, of the Imagina MAS (Imagine More) NGO. “This is exactly what happened 40 years ago with HIV.” 

Image director Javier spent three days in hospital in early July after becoming infected.   

The 32-year-old, who is in a monogamous relationship, said he still did not know how he had caught it. 

“I warn everyone,” he said. “It’s an infectious disease, anyone can catch it.” 

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New York City Declares Monkeypox Public Health Emergency

New York has declared a public health emergency due to a monkeypox outbreak.  Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan made the announcement Saturday.

The two officials said in a joint statement that “New York City is currently the epicenter of the outbreak, and we estimate that approximately 150,000 New Yorkers may currently be at risk for monkeypox exposure.”

“Over the past few weeks, we have moved as quickly as possible to expand outreach and access to vaccines and treatment to keep people safe,” the officials said.  “We will continue to work with our federal partners to secure more doses as soon as they become available. This outbreak must be met with urgency, action, and resources, both nationally and globally, and this declaration of a public health emergency reflects the seriousness of the moment.”

On Friday, New York state Governor Kathy Hochul issued an executive order declaring a state disaster emergency because of the monkeypox outbreak. In her executive order, Hochul said that “More than one in four monkeypox cases in this country are in New York State.”  Her declaration also expanded the number of health care individuals who can administer the monkeypox vaccines.

The World Health Organization has declared the global monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that while 98% of global monkeypox cases “are among men who have sex with men, anyone exposed can get monkeypox, which is why WHO recommends that countries take action to reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups, including children, pregnant women and those who are immunosuppressed.”

Tedros said, “In addition to transmission through sexual contact, monkeypox can be spread in households through close contact between people, such as hugging and kissing, and on contaminated towels or bedding.” 

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In US, Abortion Laws Differ Across the Street  

The bedsheets are big. Some are light pink, others hot pink or purple, connected and stretched taut by people holding wooden poles. Together, the sheets form a barrier across the parking lot. The activists, who are supporting a woman’s right to an abortion, wear bright pink vests with PRO-CHOICE in black emblazoned on the front.

This is the front line of protection for pregnant women who drive to this women’s center for an abortion. The sheeting forms a tunnel for them to leave their cars and enter the center, unseen by anti-abortion protesters trying to stop them.

‘There’s very little conversation’

This is the daily scene at the Bristol Regional Women’s Center.   The abortion-rights activists stay inside the center parking lot; the anti-abortion protesters stand on the sidewalk. They walk next to a busy street with posters reading “Love Your Baby and Yourself” or “Babies are Murdered Here” next to competing pink signs that read, “Honk Twice for Choice.”

A local church organizes the anti-abortion protesters. Natalie, who asked to use only her first name for safety reasons, is 24. She has been coming here weekly for seven years, saying, “This is what the Lord has called us to do.” She says  no patient has ever approached her for help.

Another young protester, Haven, says he’s handed out a few pamphlets but it is difficult to approach the women because of the sheeting. He has not spoken to the doctors or the abortion-rights protesters, adding, “There’s very little conversation that can happen.”

The abortion-rights protesters chose not to speak to VOA about their views and asked us to leave. One shone a flashlight into the lens of our video camera.

Inside the clinic, women are given an ultrasound on the first visit. If no fetal heartbeat is detected, they return for a second ultrasound in 48 hours. Again, if no cardiac activity is heard, they are given counseling before a medical abortion.

That is not the case in the adjacent state.

Legal and illegal separated by a street

Bristol, Tennessee, is a border town.

The state line is marked by numerous 20-centimeter-long brass plaques that run down the center of State Street, separating Tennessee from Virginia and its different laws.

As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down abortion as a constitutional right, some states instituted “trigger laws” outlawing some or all abortions.

Tennessee’s trigger law outlawed surgical abortions and allowed medical abortions, which use medication to end a pregnancy, during the first six weeks of a pregnancy or until a heartbeat can be recognized, which typically occurs near that time limit.

That means abortions remain legal in Virginia but across State Street, they are restricted in Tennessee.

Olivia, who prefers to use only her first name for safety reasons, is a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. She says in the past month, her clinic has had to turn away women in tears, some who had driven many hours to reach the clinic, because an ultrasound found fetal heart activity. The office refers them to Virginia offices if they live nearby. But some drive from eastern Tennessee, and a delay of an extra day to reach another state that’s closer than Virginia can affect the legality of an abortion.

“It becomes a bigger issue,” Olivia says, giving as an example, “North Carolina, [where] you have two separate visits with a 72-hour waiting period.”

Star Eans is a makeup artist on TikTok. The U.S. Supreme Court decision motivated her to become a abortion-rights activist. Eans had a medical abortion less than a year ago when she lived in Tennessee, and complications required a surgical abortion.

“It just makes me angry thinking that, like, if that had happened this year, I would have just died,” Eans says. “If I was still living in Tennessee, and I had to have this baby that I didn’t want, I was very much on the verge of ending myself.”

Doctor looks to move across the border

On Aug. 25, another Tennessee law will prohibit all abortions, surgical and medical.

Because of that, the doctor who runs the Bristol women’s center is considering a satellite office less than a mile away where abortions are legal in Bristol, Virginia.  A GoFundMe page has raised more than $100,000 for the new clinic, and an update on July 29 said it had opened.

But anti-abortion protesters held a rally earlier in July at the Virginia clinic and alerted residents, including Emmitt Russell, whose house is next door. He objects to the anti-abortion protesters and the clinic and says a Virginia ban would motivate him to the polls.

“I didn’t vote in the last two presidential elections … but I would vote against abortions in Virginia, yes,” he said.

No trigger laws exist in Virginia. But Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is supporting making abortions illegal after 15 weeks. Republicans hold a majority in the state House and could support a ban, but experts think it would be defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.  

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Action on Monkeypox Accelerates in US as Outbreak Expands 

Two of the hardest-hit U.S. regions have raised the alert level over the monkeypox outbreak.

San Francisco declared a public health emergency Thursday. The city accounts for 281 of California’s nearly 800 cases. The declaration gives health officials access to additional resources to deal with the outbreak.

New York, with nearly 1,400 cases statewide, made a similar declaration Thursday.

Worldwide, more than 21,000 cases have been reported in 78 countries, nearly all of them outside West and Central Africa, where the virus is endemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat level to its highest ranking last weekend.

The U.S. case count is nearing 5,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The federal government has not declared an emergency but announced plans Thursday to distribute nearly 800,000 additional doses of monkeypox vaccine.

U.S. health officials said they had already distributed 340,000 doses, but many jurisdictions have reported that they have had to turn away patients because of short supplies.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.

Who gets monkeypox, and how?

The outbreak has been concentrated among men who have sex with men, though anyone can get monkeypox.

The virus spreads through contact with the rash that infected patients develop. It can also pass through bodily fluids, respiratory droplets after prolonged face-to-face contact or contaminated clothing, bedding or towels.

Men who have sex with men should have fewer sex partners in order to curb the spread, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

“This is an outbreak that can be stopped,” Tedros said. “The best way to do that is to reduce the risk of exposure.”

However, he added, intolerance of homosexuality would not help.

“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus, and can fuel the outbreak,” Tedros said.

What are the symptoms? Is it fatal?

The disease causes fever, headache, muscle pain, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes, followed by a rash, usually on the face, palms and soles of the feet. About a third of cases also develop a rash on the genitals.

The strain of monkeypox responsible for the global outbreak is rarely fatal but can be extremely painful, according to the CDC. About 10% of cases have been hospitalized “to manage the pain caused by the disease,” Tedros said.

Five deaths have been reported — three in Nigeria and two in the Central African Republic.

What about vaccines and treatments?

About 16 million doses of vaccine are available worldwide, but most will take several months to be packaged and distributed, according to the WHO, which is recommending vaccination only for people at high risk, including people exposed to an infected person, health workers and people with multiple sex partners.

People vaccinated against smallpox likely have some protection against monkeypox, which is a related virus. Smallpox vaccination ended after the disease was declared eradicated in 1980.

Several antiviral medications have been approved.

How unusual is this outbreak?

The current outbreak is the first time this many cases have occurred in such widely dispersed areas outside the endemic countries in West and Central Africa.

Europe accounts for two-thirds of the cases. Nearly one-fifth are in the United States.

WHO’s advisory committee did not agree on the magnitude of the threat at its meeting last Saturday, but Tedros made the decision to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” the agency’s highest threat assessment.

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Women’s Soccer Energizes England in a League of Their Own

Izzy Short, 13, struggles to pick her favorite England player as she anticipates the team’s appearance in Sunday’s final of the European soccer championships.

There’s forward Ellen White. Defender Lucy Bronze. Midfielder Georgia Stanway. Captain Leah Williamson. The whole team basically.

“I just look up to them really,” the high school player from Manchester said, excitement filling her voice. “They are all very positive … they all, like, appreciated one another and how they are such a good team and all of them just working together really. And they’re just so kind and so good as well.”

The march to Sunday’s final against Germany has energized people throughout England, with the team’s pinpoint passing and flashy goals attracting record crowds, burgeoning TV ratings and adoring coverage. The Lionesses, as the team is known, have been a welcome distraction from the political turmoil and cost-of-living crisis that dominate the headlines.

The final, set to be played before a sellout crowd of more than 87,000 at historic Wembley Stadium, is seen as a watershed moment for women’s sports in England. Although the game, known here as football, is a national passion, female players have often been scoffed at and were once banned from top-level facilities. Now the women’s team has a chance to do something the men haven’t done since 1966: Win a major international tournament.

Hope Powell played 66 times for England and coached the team from 1998 to 2013.

“I think we have to give thanks to the people that worked really hard before us, that went through all of that, being banned, fighting for the right to play,” Powell told the BBC. “I think we have to remember what came before is what got us to the point we are today.”

There were 68,871 people in the stands at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, when England beat Austria 1-0 in its opening game of this year’s European championship. That helped push total tournament attendance so far to 487,683 — more than double the record of 240,055, according to tournament organizer UEFA.

But it’s not just the victories that are attracting fans. It is how the team is winning.

With money from sponsorship deals and a new TV contract supporting full-time professional players, there is more flash and polish than many expected. While they don’t play like the men’s team, that’s not a bad thing.

There are fewer players flopping to the ground to draw fouls, less rolling around on the turf dramatically clutching purportedly injured knees or ankles and little shouting at the referees. Instead there is teamwork, artful passes and stunning goals like Stanway’s 20-meter (22-yard) screamer in the quarterfinal victory over Spain and the backheel from Alessia Russo in England’s 4-0 semifinal win against Sweden.

And here’s the thing: People like it.

Naomi Short, Izzy’s mom and the goalie for Longford Park Ladies Football Club, said fans are being treated to a “totally different vibe” at the stadium and on the field — one that’s more welcoming than the lager-fueled tribalism that has put some people off the men’s game.

“It’s not just girls watching it — it’s families, it’s men, women, children. Everybody’s watching it. It’s brought everybody together,” said Short, 44. “Whereas, you know, sometimes when you go to a men’s game, there is sometimes (a) slightly different atmosphere.”

There is also less distance between fans and the players, who know they have a responsibility to build a game their mothers and grandmothers were excluded from. The players stay after games and sign autographs. They take selfies. There is time for a chat. They know that little kids look up to them.

Coach Sarina Wiegman has made a point of noting that there’s more at stake than victory alone.

“We want to inspire the nation,” Wiegman said after the team’s semifinal victory. “I think that’s what we’re doing and we want to make a difference — and we hope that we will get everyone so enthusiastic and proud of us and that even more girls and boys start playing football.”

The groundswell of support for the team is also being fueled by the country’s dismal record in international competition and hopes that they can bring a European championship home to England, which prides itself as the place where modern football was invented.

England’s last major international championship, men’s or women’s, came at the 1966 World Cup — a lifetime ago for most fans. The men’s team disappointed fans again last year when they lost to Italy in the final of their European championship.

That leaves it to the women to end the drought.

Women’s football has a long and sometimes controversial history in England.

The women’s game flourished during and for a few years after World War I, when teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club filled the sporting gap created as top men’s players went off to the trenches to fight. Women’s teams, many organized at munitions plants, attracted large crowds and raised money for charity. One match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity triggered a backlash from the men who ran the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. In 1921, the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

Women organized their own football association in 1969, and soon after the FA ended its ban on women. The FA took over responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities.

Things accelerated after the 2012 London Olympics, when authorities began to recognize there was a global audience for the women’s game, said Gail Newsham, author of “In a League of Their Own!” that tells the story of Dick, Kerr Ladies.

Last year, the FA signed a three-year deal for broadcast rights to the Women’s Super League, increasing funding and exposure for the game. Sky Sports will broadcast a minimum of 35 games a year on its pay TV channels, and the BBC will carry another 22 on its free-to-view network.

“It’s not that long ago that girls, you know, top players, were paying for their own travel to get to matches and then having to get up to go to work the next day. So all of this is helping,” Newsham said of the funding. “You can see the difference now in the professionalism of the girls playing football.”

The excitement about Sunday’s final has triggered a scramble for tickets.

Tickets that originally sold for 15-50 pounds ($18-$61) are now selling for 100-1,000 pounds ($122-$1,216) on resale sites.

The Short family has decided to watch the game at the local pub, making an afternoon of it, like fans around the country.

“I don’t think it will matter if it’s men or women,” Naomi Short said. “It’s England now. It’s coming home. You know, I’d like to think that’s what people are getting excited about.”

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US, Japan to Set Up Research Center for Next Semiconductors

The United States and Japan launched a new high-level economic dialogue Friday aimed at pushing back against China and countering the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two longtime allies agreed to establish a new joint research center for next-generation semiconductors during the so-called economic “two-plus-two” ministerial meeting in Washington, Japanese Trade Minister Koichi Hagiuda said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Hagiuda also discussed energy and food security, the officials said in a news briefing.

“As the world’s first- and third-largest economies, it is critical that we work together to defend the rules-based economic order, one in which all countries can participate, compete and prosper,” Blinken told the opening session.

Hagiuda said “Japan will quickly move to action” on next-generation semiconductor research and said Washington and Tokyo had agreed to launch a “new R&D organization” to establish a secure source of the vital components.

The research hub would be open for other “like-minded” countries to participate in, he said.

The two countries did not immediately release additional details of the plan, but Japan’s Nikkei Shimbun newspaper earlier said it would be set up in Japan by the end of this year to research 2-nanometer semiconductor chips. It will include a prototype production line and should begin producing semiconductors by 2025, the newspaper said.

“As we discussed today, semiconductors are the linchpin of our economic and national security,” said Raimondo, adding that the officials had discussed collaboration on semiconductors, “especially with respect to advanced semiconductors.”

Taiwan now makes the vast majority of semiconductors under 10 nanometers, which are used in products such as smart phones, and there is concern about the stability of supply should trouble arise involving Taiwan and China, which views the island as part of its territory.

The United States and Japan said in a joint statement they would work together “to foster supply chain resilience in strategic sectors, including, in particular, semiconductors, batteries, and critical minerals.” They vowed to “build a strong battery supply chain to lead collaboration between like-minded countries.”

On ties with Russia, Hagiuda said he gained U.S. understanding about Japan’s intention to keep its stake in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project despite sanctions against Moscow by Washington, Tokyo and others following the Ukraine invasion.

“There are voices calling for withdrawal. But it would mean our stake goes to a third country and Russia earns an enormous profit. We explained how keeping our stake is in line with sanctions, and I believe we gained U.S. understanding,” he said.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui & Co and Mitsubishi Corp hold a combined 22.5% stake in the project.

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US Rules Out Summer COVID Boosters for Adults Under 50 to Focus on Fall

U.S. regulators said Friday they are no longer considering authorizing a second COVID-19 booster shot for all adults under 50 this summer, focusing instead on revamped vaccines for the fall that will target the newest viral subvariants.

Pfizer and Moderna expect to have updated versions of their shots available as early as September, the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement. That would set the stage for a fall booster campaign to strengthen protection against the latest versions of omicron.

The announcement means the U.S. won’t pursue a summer round of boosters using the current vaccines for adults under 50, as some Biden administration officials and outside experts previously suggested. They had argued that another round of shots now could help head off rising cases and hospitalizations caused by the highly transmissible omicron strains.

Currently, all Americans ages 5 and over are eligible for a booster shot five months after their initial primary series. Fourth doses of the Pfizer or Moderna shots — a second booster — are recommended for Americans 50 and older and for younger people with serious health issues that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The FDA urged eligible adults who haven’t been boosted to get their extra shot now: “You can still benefit from existing booster options and leave time to receive an updated booster in the fall,” the agency said in a statement.

The White House has also emphasized that getting a fourth dose now won’t impact anyone’s ability to get omicron-targeted shots once they’re made available — although how long it’s been since their last dose will play a role in how soon they’re eligible.

Two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are even more contagious than their predecessors and have pushed new daily cases above 125,000 and hospitalizations to 6,300. Those are the highest levels since February, though deaths have remained low at about 360 per day, thanks to widespread immunity and improved treatments against the virus.

The subvariants are offshoots of the strain responsible for nearly all of the virus spread in the U.S. this year.

All the COVID-19 vaccines given in the U.S. until now have been based on the original version of the virus that began spreading across the country in early 2020.

In June, the FDA told the vaccine makers that any boosters for the fall would have to combine protection against omicron BA.4 and BA.5 and the original coronavirus strain. Both manufacturers have been speeding their production and data gathering to have those so-called bivalent vaccines ready for the fall.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to sign off on revamped shots before their launch.

The U.S. has a contract to buy 105 million doses of the Pfizer combination shots once they’re ready, and 66 million of Moderna’s version. But how soon large amounts would become available isn’t clear. The government contracts include options to purchase 300 million doses each but reaching that total will require more funding from Congress, the Biden administration said.

As for timing, getting a booster too soon after the previous dose means missing out on its full benefit — something policymakers will have to take into consideration when rolling out revamped shots.

The White House has at times been frustrated by the pace of decision-making at the FDA and CDC, most notably last summer, when the regulators took weeks to decide whether to authorize the first booster dose for U.S. adults. Privately, West Wing officials believe the delay cost lives, preventing optimum protection amid the delta and omicron surges, and also fed into doubts about vaccine and booster effectiveness that affected their uptake.

In recent weeks, some of those frustrations have bubbled up again, as regulators considered whether to recommend a fourth shot for all adults, not just those at highest risk from the virus. Some in the White House believe that the additional dose would have helped somewhat with the rapidly spreading BA.5 subvariant, and also lift the confidence of anyone worried that their protection had waned.

Still, officials across the government have acknowledged the risks of vaccine fatigue among Americans, including tens of millions who still haven’t received their first booster. Government figures show less than half of those eligible for a booster have gotten that third shot.

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