BBC 2024-03-08 01:01:55

State of the Union: Joe Biden to give high-stakes speech to Congress

Sam Cabral

Reporting from Capitol Hill

Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is wearing a pin on her red jacket that says the name Laken Riley, the teenage girl allegedly murdered in her state by an undocumented immigrant.

Greene’s t-shirt reads: “Say Her Name.” I ask her if she has a message for Joe Biden, to which she says it is to “say Laken Riley’s name”.

She claims he should “apologise to the nation” for border policies that have left him with “blood on his hands”.

US to set up temporary port on Gaza coast for aid delivery

President Joe Biden is to announce that the US military will construct a port in Gaza to get more humanitarian aid into the territory by sea, senior US officials say.

The temporary port will increase the amount of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians by “hundreds of additional truckloads” per day, officials say.

However, it will not include US troops on the ground in Gaza, they said.

The UN warns that a quarter of the population is on the brink of famine.

The port will take “a number of weeks” to set up, the officials said, and will be able to receive large ships carrying food, water medicine, and temporary shelters. Initial shipments will arrive via Cyprus, where Israeli security inspections will take place.

Mr Biden is due to make the announcement during his State of the Union address later.

Israel’s military launched an air and ground campaign in Gaza after Hamas’s attacks on Israel on 7 October, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 253 others were taken hostage.

More than 30,800 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.

In his speech to Congress, President Biden will say the US military is to establish a port in Gaza, involving a temporary pier to transport supplies from ships at sea to the shore.

It is not clear who will build the causeway or secure the aid on land, meaning crucial questions about whether the operation can succeed remain unanswered.

Gaza has no deep water port and so the US has for weeks been looking at ways to get shiploads of aid in urgently, while the administration has publicly ramped up its pressure and increasingly shown in public its impatience with Israel over the desperate situation on the ground.

US officials told the BBC’s US partner CBS that there are plans for the pier to be installed by an army unit called the 7th Transportation Brigade, based at Fort Story, Virginia.

The brigade is designed for rapid deployment, but the military ships have not yet left the US, the officials said.

Vice Adm Kevin Donegan, who was formerly Commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet – the most senior US naval commander in the Middle East – told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme that the port plan was “absolutely executable”.

However, he said delivering aid by land was still the most effective in terms of being able to get as many goods in as possible.

Speed is essential, with the World Health Organization (WHO) warning this week that children were dying of starvation in northern Gaza, where an estimated 300,000 Palestinians are living with little food or clean water.

Vice Adm Donegan also cautioned that having “security and a good distribution network” would be critical for the safe delivery of aid from the port, referencing the more than 100 people who were killed trying to reach an aid convoy. last week, amid the growing desperation.

Palestinians said most were shot by Israeli troops. The Israeli military, which was overseeing the private aid deliveries, said most were killed in a stampede.

  • ‘My son Ali has already died’: Father’s plea for Gaza’s starving children

Aid lorries have been entering the south of Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing and the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom. But the north, which was the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive, has been largely cut off from assistance in recent months.

On 20 February, the World Food Programme (WFP) said it was suspending food deliveries to northern Gaza because its first aid convoys in three weeks had endured “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”, including violent looting.

The US and other nations have resorted to dropping aid in by air – but humanitarian organisations say that method is a last resort and can’t meet the soaring need.

An independent UN expert on Thursday accused Israel of mounting “a starvation campaign against the Palestinian people in Gaza”.

“The images of starvation in Gaza are unbearable and you are doing nothing,” Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council.

Yeela Cytrin, a legal adviser at the Israeli mission to the UN, said “Israel utterly rejects allegations that it is using starvation as a tool of war”, before walking out in protest.

Meanwhile a Hamas delegation has left talks in Cairo without a deal for a ceasefire in Gaza, but the armed group says indirect negotiations with Israel are not over.

It had been hoped that a 40-day truce could be in place for the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan next week.

But Egyptian and Qatari mediators have struggled to seal a deal that would see Hamas free Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

  • Why food airdrops into Gaza are controversial
  • Israel-Gaza briefings: Biden treading carefully through political minefield

Sweden formally joins Nato military alliance

Sweden has officially become the 32nd member of Nato after it completed its accession process in Washington.

The handover of documents took place at a ceremony two years after Sweden applied to join the military alliance following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that “unity and solidarity” would be Sweden’s “guiding lights”.

Nato today “is stronger than ever,” US President Joe Biden said.

“Nato stands more united, determined, and dynamic” the US leader said, adding that “together with our newest ally Sweden – Nato will continue to stand for freedom and democracy for generations to come.”

“This has been a little bit of a road but we’ve known from day one that we would be here one day,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on X that Sweden brings with it “capable armed forces and a first-class defence industry” and that the alliance had become “stronger and safer”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also welcomed Sweden’s accession to Nato, saying “one more country in Europe has become more protected from Russian evil.”

Russia has vowed to take unspecified political and military measures in response to Sweden’s move.

Sweden applied to join the defence alliance after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – but its request was blocked by two members.

Turkey initially withheld approval in a row over what it called Sweden’s support to Kurdish separatists. It eventually lifted its veto in January of this year.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban accused Sweden of being hostile to it and delayed its approval until last week, when the Hungarian parliament eventually voted to ratify the bid.

All Nato members are expected to help an ally which comes under attack.

  • What is Nato and why is Sweden joining now?
  • How Sweden and Finland went from neutral to Nato

Mr Blinken recalled Sweden’s 200-year policy of non-alignment which lasted until Russia invaded Ukraine, saying that Nato expansion was not “foreordained” or “foreseeable”.

Mr Kristersson said: “We are humble, but we are also proud. We will live up to all expectations.”

“We share burdens, responsibilities and risk with other allies.”

He added that security situation in the region had not been this serious since World War Two, and added that Sweden was joining Nato both to provide and to gain security.

Finland formally joined in April last year, doubling the length of the alliance’s border with Russia.

On Monday a flag-raising ceremony to mark Sweden’s accession will take place at the Nato headquarters in Brussels.

Why some people are resistant to norovirus

The winter vomiting bug is highly infectious and fast to evolve, but can we learn anything from groups of people who are unusually immune to the virus?

When it comes to surviving in the environment, few pathogens are more resilient than norovirus. This gastrointestinal bug induces nasty bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting in around 685 million people globally every year, often in hospitals, nursing homes, jails, schools and cruise ships. 

The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the germ is spreading rapidly once again across the US, with cases climbing particularly quickly since October 2023 in the northeast of the US.

But to understand why norovirus is so hard to stop once an outbreak gets going, you first have to appreciate just how much it can endure. “It’s a very tough little virus,” says Patricia Foster, professor emerita of biology at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied norovirus. The virus is able, for example, to survive intact within food up to temperatures of 70C (158F). “It can survive heat, freezing cold, extreme dryness, and so it just sits on surfaces for days,” says Foster.

Much of this toughness comes down to the surface of the virus, a protein coat which acts a little like armour, shielding its inner genetic material. Foster points out that while a lot of viruses acquire a membrane coat as they pass from cell to cell, facilitating their ability to spread within the body, this also makes them susceptible to alcohol and detergents. 

“Norovirus doesn’t do that,” she says. “It’s just a little protein bomb, and so things like hand sanitiser can’t kill it, while it’s still able to move from cell to cell.”

The surface proteins that make up the outer coat of norovirus act like a suit of armour, meaning it can be tough to kill (Credit: Alamy)

We still understand relatively little about exactly how norovirus spreads within the body, but we do know that it spreads between people remarkably quickly. It is thought to take as little as 10 norovirus particles for an infection to take hold, while in comparison, it has been estimated that the so-called infective dose for Covid-19 is in the region of 100-400 units of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

However, in recent decades virologists have begun to discover that there are some of us who carry innate biological factors which protect us from the illness.

So-called “challenge studies” where paid volunteers agree to be deliberately infected with a norovirus strain, have helped determine that as many as one in five people of European descent carry a mutation in a gene called FUT2. This inactivates an enzyme that protects them against GII-4, the most common of the 29 norovirus strains currently known to be capable of infecting humans and responsible for causing 50 to 70% of all norovirus outbreaks in the world.

The reason for this is because norovirus largely prefers to enter the cells in the small intestine via antigens, molecular gateways called oligosaccharides, which are made from an assortment of different sugars. Both GII-4 and many other norovirus strains require one particular oligosaccharide, called the H1-antigen, in order to infect a person.

But people carrying a mutation in the FUT2 gene lack an enzyme that is involved in a vital step in the formation of the H1-antigen in mucous producing cells in the mouth, throat, gut and lungs. Without these antigens on their cells, the GII-4 virus is unable to cause an infection. As people who carry this mutation don’t produce the FUT2 enzyme in mucous-producing cells, they are known to virologists as non-sectors.  

For the same reason, your blood type, something which is determined by your genetic makeup, also plays a large role in resistance and susceptibility to different norovirus strains. People with B blood type tend to be more resistant as fewer strains have evolved to attach to those particular oligosaccharides, whereas those with A, AB or O blood types are far more likely to become sick.

It means you’re somewhat resistant but not completely, as norovirus evolves extremely rapidly – Patricia Foster

According to Robert Atmar, a virus expert and professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, this information could in future aid the development of better antivirals against norovirus strains. “There are studies being done to see if taking advantage of the interaction between noroviruses and the antigens on cells might be targeted for the development of a therapeutic,” he says. 

However, this work is complex because of the speed with which noroviruses adapt and change their genetic material, meaning that some strains have still found a pathway to infect individuals who are relatively resistant. 

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“I’m a non-secretor myself,” says Foster. “It means you’re somewhat resistant but not completely, as norovirus evolves extremely rapidly.”

She predicts that even non-secretors may become more susceptible to variants of GII-4 with time, as this strain of norovirus figures out different pathways into the body.

“I was reading about the evolution of GII-4 and all the variants that have appeared over the last 20 years or so, mostly in China,” she says. “They find that it’s getting better and better at interacting with different binding sites on our cells. So that’s the evolution game.” 

While norovirus doesn’t tend to kill its host, it can prove lethal to anyone with a weakened immune system, children, and the elderly. It results in around 200,000 deaths every year, particularly in low-income countries, but also 70,000 hospitalisations in the US. As a result, virologists are now trying to utilise our growing knowledge about the virus to help design vaccines.

Norovirus outbreaks can be particularly serious on cruise ships, where infections can spread rapidly (Credit: Getty Images)

The vaccine scourge

For decades, norovirus has been devilishly difficult to even contemplate vaccinating against. One of the most problematic reasons is that the noroviruses evolve so rapidly, it means any vaccines are quickly out of date. Human norovirus is also notoriously difficult to grow in the laboratory, making it difficult to study.

However, in the last few years, researchers have begun to devise ways of growing the virus within human gut cells in a petri dish, something which could prove invaluable in testing the best way to induce a suitably powerful antibody response from the immune system.

“These cell culture models may be helpful in vaccine efforts by demonstrating that immune responses generated after vaccination kill or inactivate the virus by neutralising its infectivity,” says Atmar.

But because there are so many norovirus strains and a seemingly continuous flow of new variants, a vaccine will need to induce a very broad immune response. Ming Tan, an associate professor in infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Ohio, says that a so-called bivalent or multivalent vaccine, which contains multiple immune-driving particles from various points in the virus’ genetic code, will almost certainly be necessary to achieve any chance of durable immunity.

Having such a vaccine is likely to be particularly important if it is rolled out in young children to prevent a phenomenon known as “immune imprinting”. This is the tendency of the immune system to misidentify a new viral variant as one it has already encountered, thus mounting an ineffective antibody response. Researchers at the University of North Carolina believe that if a suitably broad norovirus vaccine is administered to children who are around six months old, the jab could then guide the antibody response to any further variants.

Developing a broad vaccine is not an easy task, but multiple companies and research groups have taken on the challenge, each choosing to utilise different technological platforms. Moderna have launched a clinical trial of a messenger RNA (mRNA) norovirus vaccine initially in 18-49 year olds and 60-80 year olds. Meanwhile, Boston-based biotech HilleVax is conducting trials of its vaccine candidate in five-month-old infants, children aged two to nine, adults aged 18-59 and over 60s. HilleVax’s approach is to use virus-like particles (VLPs), molecules which mimic norovirus strains and so trigger an immune response, without actually being infectious.

“We’re still learning a lot about norovirus vaccines and how they might protect,” says Atmar. “We know that administration of virus-like particle (VLP)-based vaccines via the nose or by intramuscular injection can lead to protection from illness. mRNA vaccines may allow increased numbers of strains to be included. I think all will likely be effective, and the relative effectiveness will depend on other factors we are still learning about, including breadth of the immune response after vaccination, duration of immune response, and role of past infection and genetic makeup on an individual’s response and protection.”

Advances in mRNA vaccines are raising hopes of being able to inoculate against noroviruses (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet for all these efforts, success will also likely depend on how swiftly the vaccine needs to be updated and re-administered as a booster jab. Tan, who recently published a study on his own laboratory’s approach to a norovirus vaccine, admits that this could be a hurdle.

“Vaccines produced using our approach will need regular updates to address the challenges of rapid virus evolution and the potential emergence of new norovirus genotypes as predominant strains in the future,” he says.

However, Atmar remains more optimistic, saying that we need to wait until the results of much larger trials before any firm conclusions can be made on potential vaccine durability.

“The results of one of the studies for the VLP vaccine being pursued by HilleVax suggests that it can also protect against disease caused by the GII-2 strain when the vaccine contained GI-1 and GII-4 strains,” he says. “So, we don’t know whether it’ll be like influenza or Covid [where regular boosters are required], or that it might be more like RSV where strain updates are not needed.”

But if we can develop at least one vaccine in the years to come, it will represent a major step forward in humanity’s ongoing battle with norovirus.

“We’ve been evolving in parallel with this virus for hundreds of thousands of years,” says Foster. “And it can be a killer, particularly for babies and people who are immunocompromised because they can’t rid themselves of the virus, so any vaccine would be progress.”

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‘Quality coming out of his ears’ – Klopp hails Nunez

Darwin Nunez has “quality coming out of his ears”, says Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after the player warmed up for Manchester City with two more goals.

Nunez’s double came in a 5-1 Europa League win over Sparta Prague.

The Uruguay forward has scored 16 club goals this season and provided a further 11 assists despite derogatory chants from opposition fans.

“He is not bothered by it and just keeps going,” added Klopp, who lost defender Ibrahima Konate to injury.

Leaders Liverpool host Manchester City, who are one point behind in second, at Anfield on Sunday (15:45 GMT) in a game of huge significance to the Premier League title race.

  • Nunez hits double as Liverpool cruise to victory

Nunez, 24, is enjoying one of his best spells in a Liverpool shirt with his two goals in Prague taking his tally to five in four games.

Klopp believes his £64m signing from Benfica in June 2022 is thriving before a crucial run of games, which also includes an FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United on 17 March.

“He had absolutely more than an OK first season but he had to adapt, that’s done, and he is settled in the middle of the team,” added the German boss.

“He loves to play for this team together with these boys and has quality coming out of his ears, to be honest.

“Is he at his absolute peak in general? Not now for us. But can he develop? Yes. Is he a threat all the time? Yes.”

Nunez is turning into a “world-class” forward, according to Spanish football expert Guillem Balague.

“People have focused on a supposed lack of quality in his finishing, but his mentality was ignored and that is what has taken him to where he is,” he added on the BBC Euro Leagues podcast.

“He is not the Benfica player, he is becoming a world-class player.”

The only negative on an otherwise positive night for Liverpool in their last-16 first-leg tie was an injury scare to centre-back Konate, who was taken off as a precaution.

Klopp added: “Ibou said when he passed me in that moment, ‘I thought if I do another sprint then it could be bad’. So he said he should be fine, but we don’t know.”

Liverpool also replaced fellow defender Joe Gomez at half-time with Conor Bradley, but Klopp allayed fears of an injury for the Englishman.

“Joey is fine,” he added. “We took him off, he played a lot of games so that was more rotation, precaution.”


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