An expert committee on Tuesday voted to recommend that the Food and Drug Administration authorize a Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron.
The drug, known as molnupiravir, has been shown to modestly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, predominantly from the Delta, Mu and Gamma variants. The expert panel recommended it for Covid patients who are older or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe illness. The pill could be authorized in the United States within days, and available by year’s end.
In the coming weeks, the F.D.A. may also greenlight a similar pill from Pfizer that appears to be significantly more effective than Merck’s.
Health officials around the world have been counting on the new pills to reduce the number of severe cases and save lives. If Omicron causes a surge in severe infections, it could make them even more important.
Scientists have yet to run experiments to see how well the pills block Omicron viruses from replicating. But there are reasons to think they would remain effective even if the variant can sometimes evade vaccines.
Omicron has more than 30 mutations on the so-called spike protein that latches on to human cells. Some of those mutations may make it hard for vaccine-produced antibodies to attack the virus.
But the pills do not target the spike protein. Instead, they weaken two proteins involved in the virus’s replication machinery. Omicron carries only one mutation in each of those proteins, and neither looks as if it would stop the pills from doing their jobs.
In a presentation to the committee members, Daria Hazuda, a Merck executive, said molnupiravir’s activity is similar across known variants and that the drug works in a way that makes it likely to be active against new variants.
Another Merck executive, Dr. Nicholas Kartsonis, told the panel on Tuesday that the company is “feverishly working” to collect samples from people infected with Omicron that it can use in laboratory studies to help determine whether the drug will work against the variant.
Virus cases are rising in many U.S. regions, notably the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Nationwide, cases have increased since the start of November, prompting fears about a winter surge fueled by Omicron, indoor holiday gatherings and the refusal of tens of millions to be vaccinated.
In a clinical trial, molnupiravir was found to reduce by 30 percent the risk of hospitalization or death when given to high-risk, unvaccinated volunteers within five days after they started showing symptoms. It appears to be substantially less effective than Pfizer’s pill, which was found to lower risk by 89 percent, and monoclonal antibody treatments, which have been found to cut it by at least 70 percent.
If molnupiravir is authorized, U.S. supply is expected to be limited at first, though it will be more abundant than Pfizer’s pill. The Biden administration has ordered enough courses of treatment, at about $700 per person, for 3.1 million people. Merck is expected to supply those pills before February.
The treatment is given within five days of the start of symptoms and is taken as 40 pills over five days.
To get the pills, people will likely need to test positive for the virus soon after they start showing symptoms. But it often takes several days to get results from a P.C.R. test, and in some parts of the country it is difficult to find rapid tests that return results within 15 minutes.
The F.D.A. panel discussed safety concerns raised by some scientists about Merck’s pill. The treatment works by inserting errors into the virus’s genes. Some scientists say there is a theoretical risk that it could trigger mutations in cells as well, potentially causing reproductive harm or a long-term risk of cancer.
Representatives from Merck and from the F.D.A. reviewed the results of safety studies in cells, animals, and clinical trials. “The overall risk of mutagenicity in humans is considered low,” Dr. Aimee Hodowanec, a senior medical officer at the F.D.A., said at the meeting, referring to the potential for the drug to induce mutations in the DNA of people taking it.
Children and pregnant women were excluded from the clinical trials of the drug.
Dr. Kartsonis said that the company would start a pregnancy surveillance program to monitor the outcomes of women exposed to molnupiravir during pregnancy, either inadvertently or intentionally.
Britain, which authorized Merck’s pill earlier this month, recommended that it not be given to pregnant or breastfeeding women, and that women who could become pregnant use contraception while taking the drug and for four days after.
In a discussion about whether the pills should ever be given to pregnant women, committee members said they were struggling to weigh whether the potential risk of the drug during pregnancy was too high, given uncertain benefits.
“The efficacy of this product is not overwhelmingly good,” said Dr. David Hardy, an infectious disease physician at Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. “I think we really have to be careful about saying that this is the way to go.”
But several panel members said that in certain cases the pills might be appropriate during pregnancy, such as if a woman has many medical conditions or when antibody treatments are not available.
“I’m not sure you can ethically tell a pregnant woman who has Covid-19 that she can’t have the drug if she decided that’s what she needs,” said Dr. Janet Cragan, a pediatrician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Top federal health officials said on Tuesday that they were expanding a surveillance program at some of the largest U.S. airports as part of a sprawling effort to identify and contain what could be the first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the United States.
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, said at a White House news conference on the pandemic that the agency was “actively looking” for the variant but had not found a case so far among the many positive virus samples sequenced around the nation each week. Cases of the Delta variant, which drove a devastating summer surge, still make up 99.9 percent of those samples.
Four international airports — in New York, Atlanta, Newark and San Francisco — would enhance screening in a search for possible Omicron cases. “This program allows for increased Covid testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with Covid-19 on arrival to the United States,” she said.
When asked whether President Biden planned to consider tightening recently relaxed restrictions on travel between the United States and Canada given the Omicron variant, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters separately on Tuesday that all decisions would be based on the recommendations of the president’s medical advisers. She said those advisers had not recommended new restrictions.
The White House last week announced a ban on travel from eight countries in southern Africa, a move questioned by some global health experts who said it amounted to a kind of punishment of South Africa for its transparency.
The new variant, which carries a startlingly high number of mutations, has caused fears among scientists and health officials across the globe about a more transmissible virus less susceptible to vaccines. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, reiterated at the news conference with Dr. Walensky that it was still too early to truly understand how dangerous the variant might be. Mr. Biden on Monday said the variant was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
It would likely be weeks before scientists studying the new virus were able to determine more about its properties, Dr. Fauci cautioned again on Tuesday. “We are hoping, and I think with good reason to feel good, that there will be some degree of protection,” from available vaccines, Dr. Fauci added. Asked about reports that the variant was causing only mild illness in younger people, he warned: “Be careful about bread crumbs. They may not tell you what kind of loaf of bread you have.”
Dr. Walensky said that the C.D.C. was examining ways to make international travel safer, possibly by testing for the virus closer to a traveler’s flight and “additional post-arrival testing and quarantine.” She said the C.D.C. was working with airlines to collect information on passengers that can be used for contact tracing if a case of Omicron is discovered.
Dr. Walensky also described an ongoing domestic effort to identify initial cases of the variant, saying that the C.D.C. was holding regular calls with local health officials, public health organizations and state laboratories, which help to sequence samples.
The United States had already made substantial progress this year in scaling up the number of virus samples examined for possible worrisome variants, she said, sequencing roughly 80,000 samples each week and one in seven positive P.C.R. test samples, a volume that suggests it might not be long before scientists find the virus.
Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky continued to urge people to get their boosters, which they said would provide more protection in the face of the new variant. Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, said that over 100 million fully vaccinated American adults were eligible for the doses but had not yet received one.
A surge of protective antibodies after a booster shot would likely still be formidable against Omicron, helping to prevent severe illness, Dr. Fauci said, even though the vaccine was developed to fight off the original form of the coronavirus.
Mr. Zients said that the federal government was already thinking about what a vaccination campaign with a newly formulated shot might look like, as pharmaceutical companies studied the possibility. “This includes conversations about the most appropriate regulatory pathway for review and authorizations,” he said.
A preliminary review by federal regulators determined that virus tests used in the U.S. would be able to detect the variant, Mr. Zients added.
Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said in a statement Tuesday that the agency was monitoring the new variant, citing guidance regulators released earlier this year about how it would evaluate new variant-specific vaccines on an expedited timeline.
Two top federal vaccine regulators who recently departed the agency argued in a Washington Post opinion column this week that younger, healthier people with a less urgent need for a booster dose might be better off waiting for a retooled vaccine that more precisely targets a worrisome new variant.
Maggie Astor contributed reporting.
The timing is significant because it suggests that the variant was already present in the country for at least a week before the arrival of two flights from South Africa on Friday, and before the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” the step that prompted countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa, where researchers first identified the variant.
“We have found the Omicron coronavirus variant in two test samples that were taken on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23,” the Dutch health ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa.”
The two samples were taken by municipal health services at public testing sites, and health authorities have started contact tracing in those areas, Dutch health officials said.
Although little is known yet about how transmissible Omicron is, or whether it can evade existing vaccines, its detection in Botswana and South Africa has created the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant emerged in the spring.
The announcement from the Netherlands also highlighted that scientists still cannot say with certainty where or when the variant originated. So far, the first known sample of the Omicron variant was collected on Nov. 9 in South Africa, according to Gisaid, an international database for disease variants.
Officials across Europe fear that Omicron will add pressure on countries that are already in the grip of some of the worst coronavirus surges they have seen. Among them was France, which on Tuesday reported about 47,000 new cases over the past 24 hours and sharply rising hospitalizations — mostly thought to be driven by the Delta variant.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Tuesday that so far, 44 cases of the new variant have been confirmed in 11 European countries. And in Britain, health officials announced at least 22 confirmed cases involving Omicron, including 13 in England and 9 in Scotland, bringing a new wave of tightened public health restrictions.
Andrea Ammon, the agency’s director, told an online news conference that all the confirmed cases in Europe have exhibited mild symptoms or none at all, and that authorities were analyzing six further “probable” cases. She said that health officials were conducting additional tests on people who have recovered from illness brought on by Omicron to help assess how the variant behaves in vaccinated people, and that more information was expected in a “couple of weeks.”
Countries across the European Union have scrambled to reinforce travel restrictions in the hope of curbing the spread of the heavily mutated variant, as the W.H.O. warned that the risk it posed was “very high.”
But the W.H.O.’s top official on Tuesday cautioned countries that their responses were “not evidence-based.”
“We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.
The Dutch officials’ announcement about the two Omicron cases came after a chaotic series of closures in Amsterdam, which left some 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa stranded for a time on Friday. Some 61 passengers on those flights tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 14 of them were found to be carrying the Omicron variant.
The Netherlands imposed tighter restrictions starting on Sunday in response to a Covid wave that began before Omicron was identified, ordering many businesses, including bars, restaurants and theaters, to close from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Dutch health officials reported more than 22,000 new coronavirus cases on Monday, one of the country’s highest daily totals since the pandemic began.
Reporting was contributed by Carl Zimmer, Adeel Hassan, Megan Specia and Aurelien Breeden.
Thirteen cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in England, the British government confirmed on Tuesday. Britain has announced an extension of its vaccination program, mask mandates and travel restrictions in an attempt to stem the spread of the variant.
Sajid Javid, Britain’s health secretary, confirmed the increase in cases during a news conference and said officials did not yet know whether all of the cases were linked to travel to southern Africa, raising concerns about potential community transmission.
“Is there likely to be community transmission? I think we have to be realistic there is likely to be, as we are seeing in other European countries,” Mr. Javid said. “We would expect cases to rise as we now actively look for cases.”
Hours earlier, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed that nine cases of the new variant had been identified in Scotland, all linked to a single private event. That brings the total number of known cases in Britain to 22.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking during the same news conference as Mr. Javid, said it was vital that Britons do their part by getting booster shots.
“I know the frustration that we all feel with this Omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through this all again,” Mr. Johnson said. But “that is the wrong thing to feel,” he added, because the country is in a much better position than this time last year thanks to high vaccination rates.
At almost every step of the pandemic, Britain has been an outlier. It locked down later than its European neighbors in March 2020, rolled out vaccines faster than almost any other country, and threw off virtually all restrictions over the summer in an audacious bid to return life to normal.
But with worries about Omicron flaring across the world, Britain has fallen in line with its neighbors. The government quickly banned travel from 10 African countries, made face masks compulsory in shops and on public transportation, and on Monday announced a huge acceleration of its vaccine program — including expanding eligibility for booster shots to anyone 18 or older.
Britain’s approach is still looser than that of countries like Austria, which imposed a lockdown on unvaccinated people, and Greece, which announced on Tuesday that it would make vaccination mandatory for people 60 or older. In Britain, people can still gather in pubs without masks, for example, and officials keep promising weary Britons a normal Christmas.
But Mr. Javid said the government was prepared to shelve its laissez-faire approach, at least for the moment, to stave off another wave of infections.
“Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it’s best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat,” Mr. Javid said in Parliament on Monday. “If it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the Delta variant, then we won’t keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary.”
The State Department’s coronavirus vaccine envoy is leaving her post after less than a year, at a time when the new Omicron variant is showing the peril of failing to protect large areas of the world from the virus.
The envoy, Gayle E. Smith, took a leave of absence from her job as chief executive for the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization that seeks to eradicate poverty and preventable disease, to join the Biden administration in April. It was not clear on Tuesday why she was leaving the envoy post now, and she did not respond to a request for comment. People close to her said she stayed longer than the six months she had initially committed to the government position.
“She leaves behind a phenomenal set of accomplishments, a robust team and network who are prepared to carry our important work forward, and a comprehensive set of next steps to build on our progress,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement on Tuesday announcing Ms. Smith’s departure.
He added that, “as Gayle has said many times, our work to defeat this pandemic and prevent future health threats is not over.”
The United States has donated more coronavirus vaccine doses to Covax, the global distribution program, than any other single country. During Ms. Smith’s tenure, the United States gave a total of 260 million vaccine doses to more than 110 countries and economic blocs, and Mr. Blinken said the United States was “well on our way” to the 1.2 billion doses that President Biden promised to deliver.
Still, only about 5 percent of people living in low-income countries have received even one vaccine dose, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health organization that is tracking coronavirus infections and vaccine distribution.
Across Africa, about 8 percent of people have received one dose, leaving hundreds of millions of people vulnerable to new variants that might otherwise be repelled by vaccines. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last week, is an example of what experts have warned for more than a year would happen if vaccines were not made readily available worldwide, rather than just in wealthy nations.
“We’re really far behind in achieving any level of equity” in vaccine distribution, said Jen Kates, the director of global health and H.I.V. policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We’re far from it at this point.”
Ms. Kates said the Biden administration deserved some credit for trying to motivate other donors to deliver more doses to poorer countries, even as Mr. Biden made vaccinating Americans a top priority.
She noted that in many lower-income countries, vast hurdles remain in providing the cold storage and transportation necessary to “get shots in arms” after vaccine doses arrive.
“That’s going to take more financial resources and a more herculean effort than what has come so far,” Ms. Kates said.
Ms. Smith will be replaced for now by Mary Beth Goodman, a senior member of the State Department’s vaccine diplomacy office who has worked for years on global health, anti-corruption and economic programs during Democratic administrations. A permanent envoy will be named in coming weeks, officials said.
As Africa grapples with the new Omicron coronavirus variant, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has pledged to deliver another billion doses of vaccines to countries on the world’s least vaccinated continent.
The announcement from Mr. Xi is part of China’s continuing effort to burnish its image as a responsible global power helping to fight the pandemic, and it comes at a crucial time for countries in Africa, especially the southern region, where Omicron was first documented. Scientists fear that Omicron could already be spreading rapidly there, but they cautioned that much about the variant remains unknown, including where it originated.
Health officials in South Africa said on Monday that Omicron appeared to be driving a new wave there. The daily average of new cases in the country has increased by more than 1,500 percent over the past two weeks, according to data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, although the case numbers remain far below the year’s earlier peaks.
Still, officials urged the public not to panic over the variant, and said it was still too soon to accurately assess whether it has a higher rate of transmission or causes more hospitalizations or severe illness.
With wealthy nations hoarding most of the global vaccine supply, Africa has the lowest vaccination levels of any continent, with just 10.3 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, compared with rates of at least 60 percent to over 80 percent in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States and Canada.
But in recent weeks, vaccine doses have started to flow into parts of Africa, and countries including South Africa — where nearly one-quarter of people are fully inoculated, one of the highest rates on the continent — are now dealing with the challenge of how to rapidly administer them. Shabir Mahdi, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said that where doses are available, “countries are struggling to scale up.”
Mr. Xi’s announcement, made in a speech late Monday via video link at the opening of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, also appeared to be part of an effort to shift attention away from Beijing’s missteps in its early handling of the coronavirus crisis.
He said that 600 million of the one billion vaccine doses would be donated, and that the rest would be provided through other means, like joint production between Chinese companies and African countries. He also said that China would send 1,500 medics and public health experts to Africa.
China aims to help the African Union achieve its goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, Mr. Xi said.
Chinese officials had previously said that Beijing would make its vaccines affordable and give priority to Africa, where it has rapidly increased its investments in recent years. The new pledge of one billion doses comes after the more than 155 million shots that China had previously pledged to the continent. Of those, about 107 million have been delivered to 46 African countries so far, according to Bridge Beijing, a consultancy that tracks China’s impact on global health.
After Omicron emerged, The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting the transmission of the coronavirus, and said the West was paying the price for its selfish policies.
“Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” the piece read. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”
Questions remain, however, about the efficacy of the Chinese-made vaccines. Several countries that had relied heavily on them to inoculate large parts of their populations were spooked by subsequent outbreaks this year.
Omicron adds to the uncertainty, as scientists around the world race to find out whether the current vaccines protect against it. Sinovac Biotech, one of China’s main vaccine producers, told The Global Times that it was also studying its vaccine’s effectiveness against Omicron.
The prime minister of Greece announced on Tuesday that Covid shots would be obligatory for people ages 60 or older, and that those who failed to book a first shot by Jan. 16 would face monthly fines of 100 euros ($113).
About 500,000 people in Greece ages 60 or older have yet to be vaccinated, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a cabinet meeting, adding that the revenue from the fines would go to state hospitals that have been stretched by the pandemic.
Describing the policy as “an act of justice for the vaccinated,” Mr. Mitsotakis said he had worried about penalizing people but hoped they would see the move as an act of “encouragement, not repression.”
“I felt a duty to stand by the most vulnerable, even if it might temporarily displease them,” he said.
Greece is averaging more than 6,400 new cases a day, among its highest numbers since the start of the pandemic, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. With concerns that the winter holidays will lead to further spread, Mr. Mitsotakis said more free testing kits would be made available over the next two months.
More than 60 percent of Greece’s population is fully vaccinated. This month, Greece barred unvaccinated people from cinemas, theaters, museums and gymnasiums, joining a growing number of European nations imposing new restrictions on those who have not had Covid shots.
Here are other developments from around the world.
Thirteen cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in England and nine in Scotland, the British and Scottish governments confirmed on Tuesday, bringing the total number of known cases in Britain to 22. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the nine cases there were all linked to a single private event. Sajid Javid, Britain’s health secretary, said officials did not yet know whether all of the cases in England were linked to travel to southern Africa, raising concerns about potential community transmission.
Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, announced on Tuesday that it had allocated more than 4.7 million doses to North Korea, which is not believed to have administered any shots yet. The reclusive government has reported no coronavirus cases and has turned down several previous offers of doses, including from Covax, China and Russia. But in June, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that lapses in his country’s anti-pandemic campaign had caused a “great crisis,” according to state media.
Cholendra Shumsher Rana, the chief justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday evening and has pneumonia, but is in stable condition, said Dr. Prabin Nepal, a spokesman for the Armed Police Force Hospital outside the capital, Kathmandu. Mr. Rana — a central figure in recent political turmoil in Nepal, a Himalayan country hit hard economically by the coronavirus — has been facing growing pressure to resign over corruption accusations, and court watchers in Nepal said there was a good chance he would not return to the bench.
Megan Specia, Mark Landler, Jin Yu Young and Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting.
Regeneron said on Tuesday that its Covid-19 antibody treatment might be less effective against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, an indication that the popular and widely beneficial monoclonal antibody drugs may need to be updated in case the new variant spreads aggressively.
The company said that previous laboratory analyses and computer modeling of certain mutations in the Omicron variant suggest that they may weaken the effect of the treatment. But studies using the variant’s full sequences have not been completed, it said.
The company said it had already been testing future antibody drug candidates, and that preliminary analyses indicated that some of those “may have the potential to retain activity against the Omicron variant.” More data is expected in the coming month, it said.
“What we have to admit is, in the course of the past six days, our urgency has increased,” Dr. George Yancopoulos, Regeneron’s president and chief scientific officer, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “What started out as a backup plan has now been made a lot more urgent.”
The Omicron variant has caused alarm among scientists because it contains mutations in the spike protein, the target of the government-supplied monoclonal antibody treatments made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly.
Scientists have also been scrambling to gather data on how effective the current vaccines will be against Omicron. Antiviral pills, including drugs from Merck and Pfizer that federal regulators are considering authorizing soon, are expected to hold up well against the variant because they target a different site of the virus from where Omicron’s mutations are clustered.
Monoclonal antibody treatments, given in a single infusion, use lab-made copies of the antibodies that people generate naturally when fighting an infection. They have been shown to significantly shorten patients’ symptoms. Regeneron’s cocktail reduces the risk of hospitalization by 70 percent.
The company said the treatment was effective against the Delta variant, which remains the dominant form of the virus in the United States.
Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, announced on Tuesday that it had allocated more than 4.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to North Korea, which is not believed to have administered any shots yet.
North Korean officials did not immediately respond to the announcement.
The reclusive government has not reported any coronavirus cases, and has turned down several previous offers of doses, including from Covax, China and Russia. But in June, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that lapses in his country’s anti-pandemic campaign had caused a “great crisis” that threatened “grave consequences,” according to state media. He did not clarify whether he was referring to an outbreak in the country.
Though it claims to be Covid-free, North Korea has taken measures to respond to the coronavirus crisis, sealing its borders in January 2020 and skipping the Tokyo Olympics this year.
The World Health Organization said its shipments of medical goods, along with other international supplies destined for North Korea, had been stranded in China when Pyongyang closed its borders. Last month, the agency said it had resumed shipments of medical supplies to North Korea, in what appeared to signal a relaxation of the closed-border policies enforced by Pyongyang early in the pandemic.
Europe is once again at the epicenter of the pandemic. More cases are being reported each day than at any previous point in the pandemic. And governments have been forced to reimpose the types of strict restrictions that most Europeans thought were behind them.
The discovery of the Omicron variant has added urgency to European leaders’ efforts to curtail the surge. Cases of the new variant have so far been detected in travelers to more than 10 European countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain.
European leaders have tried to strike a balance between increasing caution and avoiding panic in responding to the new threat. But the winter surge has highlighted the disparities in vaccination rates across the continent. Although cases are rising in many countries, only those with the lowest vaccination rates are seeing deaths from Covid-19 reaching the levels that came after similar surges last winter.
Here is a closer look at where cases are rising in Europe:
The likelihood that the Federal Reserve will hasten the reduction of its support for the economy — just as a worrying new variant of the coronavirus has begun to spread — sent a shudder through Wall Street on Tuesday, driving down stocks as investors suddenly face growing uncertainty.
The Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, told a Senate committee that inflation was likely to persist well into next year and that the Fed would consider tapering off its purchases of government bonds “perhaps a few months sooner” than previously expected.
The Fed’s bond-buying program has been a crucial factor in the swift rise of stocks since the start of the pandemic — the S&P 500 index has more than doubled since March 2020 — and the market’s response to Mr. Powell’s comments was immediate. Stocks, which had already opened lower amid growing concern about the Omicron variant, tumbled further after Mr. Powell spoke and closed down 1.9 percent, pushing the benchmark index negative for the month.
“I think it’s a major moment,” said Nathan Koppikar, a portfolio manager at the San Francisco hedge fund Orso Partners, which often places bets that certain stocks will fall. “The Fed is finally sort of putting their stake in the ground and saying that the bubble has gone on long enough.”
As the S&P 500 struck bottom in March 2020, the Fed was restarting the type of money-printing program it put in place in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 known as quantitative easing. It allowed the central bank to pump trillions of dollars into the financial system by purchasing assets such as Treasury bonds with newly created dollars — a key source of momentum for the seemingly relentless rally in share prices.
That program was never going to last forever, however, and earlier this year the Fed began to discuss dialing back its bond purchases. After some jitters this fall, investors seemed to have come to grips with the Fed’s plans. But Mr. Powell’s statements about possibly responding to persistent inflation — which the central bank had long described as “transitory” — with more aggressive tapering amounts to a significant milestone.
“The retiring of ‘transitory’ means we’re also retiring quantitative easing, which has overstayed its welcome,” said Rick Rieder, the head of the global allocation investment team at the money management firm BlackRock in New York.
Without a regular influx of newly created dollars into capital markets, stocks could be in for a rockier run than they’ve seen in more than a year. “Volatility will be higher,” Mr. Rieder said.
An earlier end to the Fed’s bond-buying program would be a tacit signal of an increase in interest rates arriving sooner. Short-term bond yields, which are heavily influenced by expectations for Fed rate hikes, spiked on Tuesday. The yield on the two-year Treasury note rose to 0.56 percent from roughly 0.43 percent in relatively short order, as investors interpreted Mr. Powell’s statements as an acknowledgment that inflation would force the Fed toward favoring higher interest rates. Some of that surge melted away through the afternoon, as the yield on the two-year note ended the day at roughly 0.52 percent.
Stock prices were falling around the world before Mr. Powell’s testimony as investors struggled to understand the danger posed by the Omicron variant, which began roiling markets last week. The Stoxx Europe 600 closed down 0.9 percent; in Asia, the Nikkei 225 in Japan and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong each dropped more than 1.5 percent.
Concerns about potential economic damage from the variant, such as restrictions on travel, hammered crude oil prices again on Tuesday. Futures prices for benchmark American crude tumbled more than 4 percent and were down roughly 20 percent since the start of November.
Taken at face value, such a sell-off implies that investors see growing risks that the Omicron variant sets off a global economic slowdown. But some investors think the prices will likely reverse.
“Is there really a reason for oil to be trading down to 66 bucks a barrel when we were up north of $80? Are we literally locking down the entire global economy?” said Jack Janasiewicz, a portfolio manager with Natixis Investment Managers. “It’s an overreaction.”
Investors remain particularly attuned to the effectiveness of vaccines against it. The chief executive of Moderna, a vaccine maker, said in an interview on Tuesday that there could be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of current vaccines to the new variant. The executive, Stéphane Bancel, told The Financial Times that it might be months before an Omicron-specific vaccine could be produced at scale, and he added that it would be risky to shift the company’s entire vaccine production while other variants are still prevalent.
Financial markets have been unsteady since the identification of the Omicron variant in southern Africa late last week. The S&P 500 had its worst day since February on Friday, dropping 2.3 percent. On Monday, it began to recover as politicians around the world cautioned against panic, but Tuesday’s fall more than wiped out those gains.
Despite the swings of recent days, investors continue to sit on solid gains this year. The S&P 500 is up more than 21 percent in 2021 — and that could be reason for the sell-off to worsen next month, as investors try to preserve their gains for the year in the face of growing concerns about what lies ahead.
“You have uncertainty around Covid. You’ve got uncertainty around inflation, uncertainty around global central bank policy,” said Daniel Ivascyn, the group chief investment officer at PIMCO, a large fund manager based in Newport Beach, Calif. “Any one of these things may not be enough to derail the rally, but all of these issues combined with bad year-end liquidity certainly can lead to some significant downside.”
Still, investors say it’s unlikely that the Omicron variant would trigger the same kind of response from governments, business or individuals as the virus did when it first emerged. Even if Omicron is a greater threat than the Delta variant before it, investors expect its effect on the market to be less severe than the nearly 34 percent crash in share prices between February 2020 and the following month.
“The worst case is not March 2020 again,” said Jeb Breece, a principal at Spears Abacus, an independent money management firm in Manhattan. “Fear and unknowns were such a big component of that. I don’t see us doing that again.”
Coral Murphy Marcos contributed reporting.
Covid-19 has thrown the already turbulent political scene in Nepal into further disarray, as the embattled top judge of its highest court has been hospitalized to treat an infection.
Cholendra Shumsher Rana, chief justice of Nepal’s Supreme Court, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday evening, said Dr. Prabin Nepal, a spokesman for the Armed Police Force Hospital outside the capital, Kathmandu. The chief justice also had pneumonia but was in stable condition, Dr. Nepal said.
Mr. Rana has been hospitalized just as he faces growing pressure to resign over corruption accusations. He has denied any wrongdoing and has said he would not resign.
The chief justice has been a central figure in the political turmoil within the top government ranks in Nepal, a Himalayan country hit hard economically by the coronavirus. Lockdowns and other restrictions have cut into remittances from Nepalis working abroad, while tourism revenue from climbers seeking to scale Mount Everest and other peaks has come back only slowly.
Officially, more than 11,520 people have died from Covid-19 in Nepal.
Mr. Rana was once considered an ally of former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. But twice this year, in February and July, the Supreme Court under Mr. Rana overturned efforts by Mr. Oli to dissolve the Parliament and hold early elections. The second time, the court installed the opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.
Mr. Rana’s ties with the new government have since come under scrutiny. Court lawyers and other judges have accused him of maneuvering to get loyalists appointed to key constitutional bodies and to the cabinet. One of his relatives, Gajendra Hamal, resigned within a few days of his appointment as a minister in the face of a public outcry, although he denied any impropriety.
Mr. Rana’s critics also accused him of steering certain cases toward judges inclined to make rulings in line with his own preferences. Members of Nepal’s bar association boycotted the court, and after pressure from frustrated members of Nepal’s ruling coalition, Mr. Rana agreed to support a lottery system to assign judges to cases.
Court watchers in Nepal said there was a good chance that Mr. Rana would not return to the bench.
“Given the context, I don’t think he will be back to court,” said Dinesh Tripathi, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court. “Instead, corona could be a way of his graceful exit.”
Israel’s swift response to the discovery of the Omicron variant — including closing its borders to nonresident foreigners — was influenced in part by a government-wide “war game” held earlier in November, officials said.
In that exercise, senior officials simulated how they would respond to a fictional scenario that bore striking similarities to what is happening now.
In a daylong drill on Nov. 11, Israeli officials had to respond to a hypothetical new “Omega” virus strain that would be more resistant to vaccines and would spread to Israel from two foreign countries during the second half of November.
In the simulation, officials including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decided to keep Israel’s borders open to tourists into December, only to find that by the later stages of the exercise, the country’s hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. The correct decision, the participants concluded afterward, would have been to close Israel’s borders to most foreigners immediately, according to Yaacov Ayish, a retired general who helped plan the drill.
“It was one of the lessons,” Mr. Ayish said. “Suddenly, all the government agencies and the military had to analyze it as an option.”
The outcome was one of the factors that influenced Israel’s real-life decision on Saturday night to bar all foreign visitors, a move it made before any other country, said Keren Hajioff, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bennett.
Throughout the drill, participants were shown fictional television news reports to help set the scene for the next stage of the simulation. The participants in the drill drew at least one more conclusion that is reflected in Israel’s response: Officials realized that the stock of P.C.R. tests on hand at that time might not be advanced enough to detect future variants of the virus.
That helped prompt the Israeli government to order millions of higher quality P.C.R. tests, which are now being used to screen for Omicron, Ms. Hajioff said.
Israel’s cabinet on Sunday also granted Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, temporary permission to access the phone data of people with confirmed cases of Omicron in order to trace who those people met recently. The agency was given similar powers during earlier waves of the pandemic.
The Omicron variant gained world attention a week ago, when researchers in southern Africa detected a version of the coronavirus that carried 50 mutations.
Thirty of these mutations are on the spike protein — arguably the most important part of the virus — and of those, 26 were unique mutations we hadn’t seen before. By contrast, the Delta variant had 10 unique mutations and Beta had 6.
When scientists look at coronavirus mutations, they worry about three things: Is the new variant more contagious? Is it going to cause people to get sicker? And how will the vaccines work against it?
This episode of “The Daily” explores when there will be answers to these three questions, and looks at the discovery of the variant and the international response to it. Listen below:
Among the many unknowns surrounding the new coronavirus variant called Omicron, named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, one has stood out to many English speakers: How is it pronounced?
There is no single, agreed-on English pronunciation, experts say.
One pronunciation, according to Merriam Webster, is “OH-muh-kraan,” with a stress on the first syllable.
A World Health Organization official, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, recently said it that way when announcing that the variant was of concern.
In the United States, it is often pronounced “AH-muh-kraan,” Merriam Webster says. Less common are “OH-mee-kraan,” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain pronounced it this week, or “OH-my-kraan.”
On the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” Apoorva Mandavilli, who reports on the coronavirus and its variants, said she was going with “AH-muh-kraan.”
“I don’t think it really matters that much, honestly,” she said.
The New Oxford English Dictionary gives a pronunciation that differs from those in Merriam-Webster, according to Dr. Andreas Willi, a comparative linguistics professor at Oxford University. “Namely rather like an English phrase “o-MIKE-Ron,” he said.
The word is a compound from the Greek “o mikron,” meaning “small o.” In classical Greek, the word was pronounced with the second syllable sounding like an English “me,” Dr. Willi said.
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam Webster, said that because the Greek word is transliterated for pronunciation into English, sounding much as the word “omnipotent” is different from its Latin “omni-potent” origin, then the “AH-muh-kraan“ pronunciation “makes perfect sense.”
But, he added, “There isn’t a wrong answer.”
“The question of British versus American pronunciation of the first syllable isn’t really specific to this particular word,” Dr. Willi said. “Compare the British versus American pronunciation of “god.”
The divergences are to do with the name having been adopted as a loanword and used by English speakers in different places at different times, Dr. Willi said.
“When we speak of ‘Paris’ in English, that is also very different from the ‘proper’ French way of pronouncing the same name,” he said. “But it is hardly wrong in a strict sense.”
The Omicron variant has stirred alarm in India, which was hit hard this year by a devastating Covid wave fueled in part by another variant.
The new variant has forced the Indian government to review its decision to resume scheduled international flights beginning on Dec. 15. The flights had been stopped when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, though some resumed after it established air travel bubbles with several nations.
While experts say it will most likely be weeks before more is known about Omicron’s transmissibility and the severity of the illness it produces, countries have scrambled to introduce new travel restrictions to halt its spread.
On Monday, Mr. Modi held an emergency meeting to review India’s travel rules. The country had only recently resumed issuing tourist visas as it reported the lowest daily cases since the pandemic began. India has also restarted exports of vaccines manufactured domestically.
Hospitals in New Delhi, the capital, where the earlier wave driven in part by the Delta variant shook the health care system, have been asked to remain on high alert. New Delhi’s top elected official, Arvind Kejriwal, asked Mr. Modi’s government to halt all flights from countries where the new variant had been found.
Instead, the Indian authorities reissued guidelines on Monday for travelers arriving from countries where cases of the Omicron variant have been reported. Passengers arriving from Europe, South Africa and other affected countries now face mandatory testing on arrival. They must quarantine at home for seven days after testing negative, and take another test on the eighth day.
Starting on Wednesday, the authorities said, they will require passengers to produce their travel history over the previous 14 days, along with results of a negative P.C.R. test before boarding any plane flying to India. Government officials said they had designated a hospital to treat and isolate any individual who tests positive for Omicron.
Officials in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, said that over the past 15 days, at least 1,000 travelers have landed in the city from African countries where Omicron has been detected.
Pfizer and BioNTech are expected this week to apply for regulatory approval for a booster shot of their coronavirus vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. If approved, the shot would be the first booster available to people under 18.
The Food and Drug Administration could authorize extra shots within roughly a week, the people said.
The move would come as President Biden seeks to reassure the nation about Omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus. On Monday, he called the variant “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
“I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.
The news of Pfizer’s plans was first reported by The Washington Post.
The new variant has yet to be detected in the United States, and scientists have not determined how much of a threat it will pose. Vaccine manufacturers are racing to figure out whether their existing products will work against it or whether modified vaccines will be required.
About 10 days ago, federal health agencies authorized booster shots of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for everyone 18 and older. That opened up eligibility for extra injections to tens of millions more fully vaccinated adults. All adults who were vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a single shot, were already eligible for a booster.
Last month’s regulatory moves simplified eligibility and formally allowed a practice already in place in numerous states. Multiple governors had already offered boosters to everyone 18 and older ahead of the holidays.
Asked about the plan to request broader access, a Pfizer spokeswoman said the company would provide an update when available.
The South African drug maker Aspen Pharmacare said on Tuesday that it was finalizing the first agreement to control production of a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa.
The deal would allow Aspen to bottle and market the Johnson & Johnson vaccine across Africa under the brand name Aspenovax. Aspen would have the right to determine to whom the vaccine would be sold, in what quantities and at what price — but not to produce the actual contents of the vaccine. Instead, Johnson & Johnson would direct other facilities to make the ingredients to send to Aspen for the company to blend into vaccine doses.
Control over the intellectual property of Covid vaccines has become a point of increasing contention in the debate over how best to address the huge gap in vaccine access across African nations.
Aspen already bottles the Johnson & Johnson vaccine under a previous agreement, but as a contract manufacturer, it has had no say on where to ship the doses. Earlier this year, millions of doses bottled at Aspen’s plant in the city of Gqeberha were exported to other parts of the world at a time when many African countries had vaccinated fewer than 5 percent of their citizens. The arrangement generated harsh criticism after it was revealed by The New York Times, and the new agreement could avert a similar situation in the future.
Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union’s special envoy for Covid, said that getting to 70 percent vaccination coverage in Africa would require 900 million doses of vaccines.
A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power
CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.
But then the lyrics take a radical turn.
“If you leave me,” blasts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”
The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.
The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.
The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as mahraganat, of normalizing, and thus encouraging, decadent behavior, of misrepresenting Egypt and of spoiling public taste.
“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the syndicate, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform onstage and that while technically not an arm of the state, is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we’re confronting right now is the face of depravity and regression.”
The barred singers have been iced out of clubs, concerts and weddings. Some have continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but they have had to say no to advertising deals and other income opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also cast a pall over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still toe restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outmoded entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture that is smashing against an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.
“They can’t get themselves to be convinced that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say someone like Shakosh misrepresents Egypt when his songs are being heard and shared by the entire country?”
Fans were incensed. One meme depicted the leader of the syndicate, a pop singer of love classics from the 1970s, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.
The battle mirrors cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.
But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.
Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.
Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.
The raw, straight-talking genre — with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty — mirrors the experience and culture of a broad section of the disenfranchised youth who live in those districts set to a danceable, throbbing beat.
But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly went mainstream and now echo from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in directing our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper called “Alkahera” issued by the Ministry of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does it mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”
They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.
“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishing or beautifying, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.
Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior on the internet.
The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.
And government authorities have reinforced the message.
In 2017, a special division of the police that targets moral crimes arrested the makers of a mahraganat song, and promised to continue searching for work that “presents offensive content for the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual insinuations.”
In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” spread of songs that incite “bad behavior.”
A short time later, the minister of youth and sports vowed to “combat depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.
The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a late-night television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”
So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the fight.
“We have in fact stopped them because they can’t get onstage in Egypt,” said Mr. Mortada, the organization’s spokesman, adding that it went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.
But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.
The syndicate’s very structure smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform onstage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.
While the syndicate’s efforts may be keeping mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.
Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have exceeded two billion views on YouTube.
He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.
“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”
Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.
They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.
Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.
Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.
“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”
In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War
“He did say something about the wedding,” Volodymyr said. “But we didn’t talk about finishing our service.”
“Well, he spoke of it just with us,” Yaroslav’s father said. “He didn’t talk about it with the guys yet. He’d bought a house, renovated it. All with his own hands, all how they wanted it. He said, ‘My contract will finish, and we’ll live like humans.’ If anyone would have told us. …”
He didn’t finish the sentence.
By that point, Yaroslav had been buried, in his hometown, Pidlypne, three hours northwest of Kyiv. In the morning, mourners began gathering outside Yaroslav’s house, its wood siding freshly painted a vibrant green. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, fellow soldiers and local veterans carried flowers, many of them in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, all of them held upside down, a local custom. Some, like Yaroslav’s commander, had traveled from across the country to attend. By midday there was a crowd of several hundred.
At noon, a police car, siren flashing, pulled in front of the house, and the crowd parted to let it through. Behind it was a Humvee with an open rear. A coffin was draped in blue-and-yellow wreaths. An honor guard of cadets carried the coffin into the garden. A quartet of priests and army chaplains in olive drab surplices sang hymns. Yaroslav’s fiancée fainted and was carried into the house. As the coffin was carried back out to the Humvee, a cadet yelled, “Heroes never die!” The other cadets echoed, “Heroes never die!” A brass band struck up a dirge and started toward the church, the Humvee and crowd following behind.
I fell in with a man in his 60s walking with a single crutch. He was wearing an old telnyashka, the traditional striped undershirt of the Russian military, beneath a great coat. The medals hanging from it clattered.
He had been a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan, he told me, and was proud of it. But he was also a Ukrainian, from Donetsk, and when the war in Donbas started, he helped organize the volunteers from Pidlypne. He had been going to funerals like this one ever since. If this had been a few years ago, he said, the whole city would have turned out. There would have been thousands of mourners, not hundreds.
“Now everyone is tired of the war,” he said.
Though Ukrainian, he, too, longed for the days of the Soviet Union, he confided. Life was dependable then. The leaders might have been cruel, but they were honest. Now it was a mess. He didn’t know what to expect.
Netanyahu’s Lawyers Discuss a Plea Bargain to End His Graft Trial
JERUSALEM — The lawyers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli former prime minister, are in negotiations with state prosecutors to reach a plea bargain in his long-running corruption case, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry and two people involved in the negotiations.
The talks are expected to finish by the end of the month and, if successful, would help conclude a legal process that contributed to years of political instability in Israel and, ultimately, to the end last June of Mr. Netanyahu’s record tenure as prime minister.
The proposed bargain includes Mr. Netanyahu’s admitting to some of the charges, all of which he still formally denies in court, in exchange for the prosecution’s downgrading the seriousness of one charge, dropping another entirely and allowing Mr. Netanyahu to avoid serving a jail sentence by instead performing community service, the two negotiators said.
The talks are currently stuck, however, because Mr. Netanyahu does not want to accept the charge of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s biggest right-wing party, from public office for seven years, the negotiators said.
The details, first reported in Maariv, a centrist Israeli newspaper, were confirmed to The New York Times by one of the main mediators, Aharon Barak, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and a second person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations openly. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry confirmed that talks were taking place, but declined to confirm any further details. The office of Boaz Ben Tzur, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.
The talks are the latest twist in a legal process that began in 2016 with a police inquiry into claims that Mr. Netanyahu had accepted gifts from benefactors in exchange for political favors.
The investigation expanded after Mr. Netanyahu was accused of offering the owners of two media companies inducements in exchange for positive news coverage. The charges quickly divided Israelis between those who believed that Mr. Netanyahu should step down to avoid tainting the office of the prime minister, and those who thought that he was the victim of a judicial conspiracy.
The argument deepened a longstanding national debate about the power of the judiciary, and drew comparisons with the furor surrounding American efforts to impeach President Donald J. Trump.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu framed himself as the victim of a biased justice system, describing the process as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted administrative coup” when his trial began in 2020.
Both Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to engage in negotiations and his engagement with Mr. Barak, a former judge considered a doyen of the Israeli legal establishment, have therefore surprised some Israelis.
Mr. Barak said that he had agreed to play a role because Mr. Netanyahu, in cases that did not affect him personally, had historically helped to protect judicial independence and because a partial confession by Mr. Netanyahu might help heal social divisions and restore trust in the judiciary.
“It’s of national importance that this thing should result in the accused himself saying, ‘I admit that I have done it,’” Mr. Barak said in a phone interview.
The case caused two years of political stagnation, largely because it splintered Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as well as his right-wing allies in the Israeli Parliament — a fissure that led to four inconclusive elections from 2019 to 2021. After the first three votes, Mr. Netanyahu’s remaining allies won enough seats to stay in power, but not enough to form a stable coalition government or pass key legislation like a national budget.
The impasse ended after a fourth election last year, when three small right-wing parties agreed to form a grand coalition with ideological opponents from leftist, centrist and Islamist parties to create a parliamentary majority large enough to force Mr. Netanyahu to leave office.
If Mr. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, does agree to the deal and leave politics, analysts said that the decision would destabilize, though not necessarily completely collapse, the fragile current coalition government. The logic that glues the alliance together would weaken if he were forced to abandon representative politics because it might tempt right-wing members of the current government to form a different coalition with the new leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.
But Likud will take time to elect a chairman. And once elected, the new leader might still be too closely tied to Mr. Netanyahu to be a viable partner for his right-wing opponents, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.
“Likud will remain Bibi’s tribute band until they have a strong new leader, and I can’t see any candidate for that job,” Mr. Pfeffer said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.
The office of the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads a right-wing faction, declined to comment. But in a speech to the cabinet on Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett said that the government was continuing to work as normal.
“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” Mr. Bennett said. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”
Most analysts believe that if a plea bargain is to happen, it will need to be agreed to by the end of January. The state official overseeing the case, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, is retiring in early February and his successor is unlikely to focus on such a divisive issue early on.
Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu protested outside Mr. Mandelblit’s home on Saturday evening, urging him to allow the case to be decided in court.