Omicron, Instagram, Great Performers: Your Wednesday Evening Briefing – The New York Times

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Good evening. Here’s the latest at the end of Wednesday.
1. Pfizer and BioNTech said booster shots of their vaccine offer significant protection against the Omicron variant.
Blood tests from people who received two doses had much lower antibody levels against the coronavirus variant compared with an earlier version of the virus, and “may not be sufficient to protect against infection,” the companies said.
Blood samples obtained from people one month after they received a booster shot showed neutralizing antibodies against Omicron, comparable to the levels of antibodies against a previous version of the virus after two doses, the companies said.
The laboratory tests cannot determine for sure how the vaccines will perform in the real world, but the results seem to underscore the importance of booster shots. A study out of South Africa suggested that Omicron might cause more breakthrough infections but not necessarily more severe illness.
Separately, a new study found that the virus infects fat cells and immune cells within body fat, which may help explain why people who are overweight have been at higher risk of severe illness from Covid.
2. President Biden ordered that federal vehicles and buildings use renewable energy, with the goal of making the government carbon neutral by 2050.
In a series of executive orders, Biden directed the government to power its 300,000 buildings by wind, solar or other carbon-free electricity by 2050 and stop buying gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. The government currently operates 600,000 cars and trucks.
The move is just one piece of Biden’s climate plan, which now has the backing of unions representing electricians and steelworkers. But at least one group of workers appears less enthusiastic: coal workers, who continue to regard clean-energy jobs as a major risk to their standard of living.
3. Lawmakers grilled the head of Instagram over the social media app’s reported harms to young users.
Adam Mosseri was the highest-ranking executive from Meta, the parent company of Instagram, to testify before Congress after a whistle-blower leaked internal research that said Instagram had a toxic effect on some teenagers. Mosseri said Instagram has a positive role in the lives of teenagers, helping young users establish connections during a difficult time. Lawmakers didn’t buy it.
“Parents are asking, what is Congress doing to protect our kids and the resounding bipartisan message from this committee is that legislation is coming,” Senator Richard Blumental said. “We can’t rely on self-policing.”
Also on Capitol Hill, the chief executives of six cryptocurrency companies testified before the House Financial Services Committee about the promises and perils of crypto.
4. The Merkel era is over.
Angela Merkel handed over the chancellery to Olaf Scholz, beginning a new chapter for Germany. Scholz will lead the first center-left government in 16 years and will be in the difficult position of living up to the high expectations set by Merkel.
Several crises demand his immediate attention, chief among them the pandemic and a possible Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Scholz is also working to win back a working-class base.
Under Merkel, Germany became Europe’s leading power for the first time in modern history. We looked at Merkel’s tenure in photos. In her farewell remarks, Merkel called the chancellorship “one of the most beautiful duties there are.”
5. A group of lawyers defending rioters in the Jan. 6 attack is planning to make an audacious legal claim: self-defense.
With the first trials connected to the riot set to begin early next year, some lawyers intend to argue that police officers used excessive force while defending the Capitol from a group of Trump supporters and that their clients merely responded. The approach has gathered steam in recent weeks as defense lawyers reviewed thousands of hours of videos of the attack.
A House panel investigating the attack will move forward with a criminal contempt of Congress referral against Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, after he refused to appear for a scheduled deposition.
6. China silenced the tennis star Peng Shuai in minutes. But Beijing’s top-down strategy has stumbled.
Twenty minutes was all it took to mobilize China’s censors after Peng accused a former vice premier of sexual assault. They got help from a familiar resource: a big network of bots.
A joint investigation from The Times and ProPublica found 97 fake accounts that amplified Chinese state media’s messaging about Peng, who had disappeared from public life. Some footage showing Peng came across as heavily scripted, and failed to convince Beijing’s critics.
Separately, Britain, Australia and Canada were the latest countries to join the U.S. in pulling their top officials from the 2022 Beijing Olympics to protest human rights abuses.
7. Manatees, threatened with extinction, will get some help: food.
As manatee deaths spike and Florida rescue centers fill up with manatees so malnourished that they need medical intervention, federal and state wildlife officials are trying something new: They will provide food for hundreds of manatees at a location on the state’s east coast in an urgent effort to help the mammals survive the winter.
Scientists have found that feeding wild animals can sometimes do more harm than good, but in this case, an “unprecedented event is worth unprecedented actions,” one official said. Statewide, more than 1,000 manatees have died this year — a record. The deaths have been linked to the loss of sea grass, killed off by algae blooms fueled largely by human waste and fertilizer runoff.
8. This year’s best actors showed us why Hollywood still matters.
That’s the conclusion from our film critic A.O. Scott after making the selection for the Great Performers, an annual celebration of movie stars whose presence he couldn’t shake. “The illusion they create isn’t that they really are who they are playing,” Scott writes, “but rather that, whoever they are, we know them.”
Among this year’s 14 greats are Kristen Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ruth Negga, Denzel Washington and Will Smith. See the full list.
Scott also reviewed Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” in which the director and his team rediscovered the “breathing, thrilling essence” of a classic.
9. Roger Hargreaves’s 8-year-old son once asked him what a tickle looked like. “Mr. Tickle” and nearly 100 silly, messy, topsy-turvy characters followed suit.
The beloved children’s series, Mr. Men Little Miss, stands the test of time 50 years later. Book experts say that the key to its longevity is the straightforward way the characters personify emotion and behavior, and their Pop Art visual appeal. We looked back at the series.
Also from Books: We have reviews of “Accidental Gods” by Anna Della Subin, about “men unwittingly turned divine,” including Julius Caesar, Gandhi and Douglas MacArthur, and Amanda Gorman’s poetry collection, “Call Us What We Carry,” with references ranging from “Ghostbusters” to Shakespeare.
10. And finally, an extra, extra, extra large Christmas sweater.
The replica Tyrannosaurus rex at the Natural History Museum in London often startles visitors with its roaring sound effects. But the animatronic dinosaur was in merrier spirits this week: A British company made a giant holiday sweater for the T. rex, replete with Christmas trees and snowflakes.
It took about 100 hours to knit the dinosaur-sized turtleneck, which fits snuggly around its wide upper body and tapers into sleeves short enough to encircle the dinosaur’s wee arms. Pulling the turtleneck over its head proved difficult and designers had to add a zipper to the sweater’s back.
Have a festive night.
Bryan Denton compiled photos for this briefing.
Your Evening Briefing is posted at 6 p.m. Eastern.
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