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Coronavirus Variants, GameStop, Polar Vortex: Your Weekend Briefing


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Here are the week’s top stories, and a look ahead

Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

1. U.S. health officials are waiting to see if more contagious coronavirus variants upend the country’s progress in its battle against the virus.

Most communities remain at an extremely high risk of contracting the virus, like New York City, above. But transmission seems to be slowing throughout the country, with the number of new average cases 40 percent lower on Jan. 29 than at the U.S. peak three weeks earlier.

Still, the average reported daily death rate over the past seven days was above 3,000, and we are by no means out of the woods yet.

Variants threaten to send case rates to a new high if they take hold, as health officials have warned may be the case by March.

Maryland and South Carolina identified their first cases of the variant from South Africa. A variant from Brazil was detected in Minnesota this week, and one from Britain has been detected in at least 30 states.

“It is a pivotal moment,” one virologist said. “It is a race with the new variants to get a large number of people vaccinated before those variants spread.”

In recent days, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax have each announced that their vaccines provided strong protection against Covid-19 but that their efficacy rate dropped against the South African variant.

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Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

2. Vaccine development exceeded everyone’s expectations. But doctors still have woefully few drugs to treat sick patients.

A handful of therapies — remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies and the steroid dexamethasone — have improved the care of Covid-19 patients, putting doctors in a better position than they were when the virus surged last spring. But the U.S. government invested far less money in drug development than it did in its vaccine program and neglected any promising drugs, called antivirals, that could stop the disease early.

There has been one spot of good news: Britain, a country that botched much of its pandemic response, has managed one of the fastest vaccine distribution processes in the world.


Credit…Seth Herald/Getty Images

3. Former President Donald Trump insisted that the radical left was endangering the country as right-wing extremism was building ominously. Federal law enforcement agencies followed suit.

Key resources and domestic security agencies were diverted away from violent white supremacists to focus on cases involving anarchists or those involved with the antifa movement. Some investigators felt pressured to find evidence, which never materialized, that antifa adherents were terrorists.

The scale and intensity of the threat from the right became stunningly clear on Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol.

Separately, prosecutors announced the first federal conspiracy charges against members of the Proud Boys in connection with the riot.


Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

4. February will test President Biden.

The most daunting challenge will be balancing his stated desire for bipartisanship with his sense of urgency, our chief White House correspondent writes, as he wrestles with contentious legislative negotiations over his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, a slow confirmation process for the rest of his senior team and the Senate impeachment trial of his predecessor.

We fact-checked Mr. Biden’s first week in office. All but three of 20 claims the president made were accurate.

On the right, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, want to take back Republican control of Congress in 2022. First they have to figure out how to handle Donald Trump.


Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

5. Robinhood pitched itself to unsophisticated investors as the antithesis of Wall Street. It didn’t say that it also entirely relies on Wall Street.

Those two realities collided this week when legions of armchair investors on the trading ap who had been buying up options and shares of GameStop banded together to squeeze hedge funds by driving stock prices to dizzying levels.

The frenzy forced Robinhood to find emergency cash to continue to be able to trade. The company also stopped customers from buying a number of heavily traded stocks, which prompted rare bipartisan condemnation and a rush by both parties to side with the young traders disrupting the markets.

The story of Robinhood’s distress followed a similar arc to those of Facebook and Google — Silicon Valley darlings that are now caught in the cross hairs of an angry public and lawmakers. Above, Baiju Bhatt and Vladimir Tenev, the co-founders of Robinhood, in 2016.

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Credit…Tony Dejak/Associated Press

6. The polar vortex is back, and wow, is it cold.

Bitterly frigid air is hitting the Northeast (in some areas dropping well below zero), and snowstorms are expected along the I-95 corridor from Washington to Boston on Monday and Tuesday. Above, ice fishermen in Solon, Ohio, on Friday.

The disturbances in the upper-atmosphere phenomena that can send icy blasts from the Arctic have persisted for an unusually long time this year, and climate change appears to be part of the mix. “The motto for snowstorms in the era of climate change could be ‘go big or go home!’” one climatologist said.

Staying inside this weekend? For the price of $15, watch a Sundance Film Festival screening from the comfort of your couch.


Credit…The New York Times

7. Public smears have been around for centuries. But they are far more effective in the internet age.

Two years ago, Guy Babcock discovered that someone had slandered him online. And also his wife. His sister. His brother-in-law. His aunt. His cousin. And many more. He investigated and discovered a grudge that went back 25 years.

The Babcock family had been targeted by a super-spreader of slander, dragged into an internet cesspool where people’s reputations are held for ransom. Theirs is the cautionary tale of the power of a lone person to destroy countless reputations, aided by platforms like Google, Pinterest and WordPress that rarely intervene.


Credit…Nolan Pelletier

8. And now for a little magic.

One hundred years ago this month, the magician P.T. Selbit ushered his assistant into an upright wooden box, sealed it, laid it flat and got down to business, sawing the box right down the middle. The show, according to magic experts, was the first time a performer ever sawed someone in half.

Why has this trick survived, when so many others haven’t? The six magicians our reporter talked to eventually landed on one answer: the simplicity of it.

As for being the assistant, “when you’re doing it, you’re not a passive person,” one magician said. “It’s claustrophobic, and quite noisy, but such fun.”


Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

9. The orange beef? “Not that good.” The chicken? Don’t bother.

The brutal honesty that the restaurant Cuisine AuntDai uses to describe its dishes has drawn worldwide attention, perhaps striking an evocative chord of humility during the pandemic. The menu at the Montreal eatery also includes a healthy dose of skepticism of North American-style Chinese food.

“We are not 100% satisfied with the flavor now and it will get better really soon,” the menu advises about a cold dish called Mouth-watering chicken, before quickly adding: “PS: I am surprised that some customers still order this plate.”

With traveling largely out of the question, our wine critic selected 20 wines under $20 that can take you on a trip around the globe.


Credit…Marzena Skubatz

10. And finally, a plethora of great reads.

The turtle that reignited hope for its species. Monitoring the weather at the edge of the world, above. An organ recital in Britain — with a coronavirus shot. Catch up on these stories and more in the latest edition of The Weekender.

Our editors also suggest these 10 new books; “The Lady and the Dale,” a twisty new docu-series; new songs from FKA twigs; and more.

Did you follow the news this week? Test your knowledge with our quiz. And here’s the front page of our Sunday paper, the Sunday Review from Opinion and our crossword puzzles.

Only 48 days until the first day of spring. Have a hopeful week.

Your Weekend Briefing is published Sundays at 6:30 a.m. Eastern.

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