Your Friday Briefing

Mixed results from Novavax’s vaccine trials.

By Natasha Frost

Good morning.

We’re covering the latest vaccine trial results, an economic slump in the U.S. and the sneakers preferred by the Taliban.

Novavax’s vaccine is less effective against South Africa variant

The pharmaceutical company Novavax said for the first time yesterday that its Covid-19 vaccine offered robust protection against the coronavirus: An early analysis of a 15,000-person trial in Britain revealed that the two-dose vaccine had an efficacy rate of nearly 90 percent there.

But the vaccine was also found to be less effective against the fast-spreading variant first discovered in South Africa, another setback in the global race to end a pandemic that has already killed more than 2.1 million people. In a relatively small trial in South Africa, the vaccine’s efficacy rate dropped to just under 50 percent.

The South African trial had only 4,400 volunteers and was not designed to come up with a precise estimate of how much protection the vaccine provides. Still, the results were striking enough that the company said it would soon begin testing a new vaccine tailored to protect against the South Africa variant.

Secret vaccine deals: Governments have poured billions of dollars into helping drug companies develop vaccines, then buying doses of those vaccines. But the details of those deals largely remain secret, with governments and public health organizations acquiescing to drug company demands for secrecy.

Related: We have answers to your questions about getting vaccinated.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

A German health committee advised against giving the AstraZeneca shot to people over 65, saying there was not enough evidence to assess its effectiveness in that population.

The W.H.O. and the C.D.C. are providing differing views on whether pregnant women should receive Covid-19 vaccines, which have not been extensively tested on expectant mothers.

The authorities in China have imposed onerous quarantine and testing rules to dissuade roughly 300 million migrant workers from going home to be with their families for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Feb. 12.

Vietnam reported 82 infections on Thursday, the first cases of local transmission in nearly two months. The government said that some might be connected to the new variant that has been spreading rapidly in Britain.

The Times Magazine looked at how the virus’s strangest symptom has opened new doors to understanding our most neglected sense. “People are unaware smell is important until they lose it,” the author of one study said. “And then they’re terrified.”

Aleksei Navalny will stay in jail

A Russian court on Thursday ordered that the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny remain in jail, days after thousands of protesters demanded his release in cities across the country.

The court rejected Mr. Navalny’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling to keep him in custody for 30 days over parole violations, which he has denied.

Mr. Navalny was detained on Jan. 17 after flying back to Moscow from Berlin, where he was recovering after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August. He accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering the poisoning, calling it an attempted political assassination.

Analysis: The court’s decision signaled the Kremlin’s intention to go as far as it can to remove Mr. Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most vociferous and effective opponent, from the Russian political scene.

More from Russia: An investigation accuses the world biathlon federation’s longtime president of accepting gifts from Russians and then doing the country’s bidding, even as a major Russian doping scandal swirled.

A late-year slump for the U.S. economy

Gross domestic product rose 1 percent in the final three months of 2020, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That was a sharp slowdown from the previous quarter, which had a record 7.5 percent growth rate, but the economy has rebounded more quickly than most forecasters expected.

The late-year slump was driven by a slowdown in consumer spending, though other parts of the economy, like the housing market, helped pick up the slack.

Measured against the final quarter of 2019, G.D.P. ended 2020 down 2.5 percent, making it the second-worst calendar year on record, after a 2.8 percent contraction in 2008. An aid package passed by Congress and the rollout of vaccines in the country should help matters.

Airlines: American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways reported steep annual losses in the billions on Thursday, and none of the airlines expect a rebound to materialize soon.

European bankruptcies: France and other European countries are spending enormous sums to keep businesses afloat during the worst recession since World War II. But some worry they’ve gone too far, as bankruptcies plunge to levels not seen in decades.

If you have 10 minutes, this is worth it

Riz Ahmed’s creative process

In 2018, the London-based actor Riz Ahmed uprooted himself to New York to spend eight months preparing for the Amazon drama “Sound of Metal.” Each day, he would spend two hours learning American Sign Language, two hours on drum practice, two hours sculpting his body with a personal trainer, and the rest of the day with his acting coach.

The result is a career-best performance, intimate, persuasive and heartbreaking. And for all of Ahmed’s well-practiced physical verisimilitude — you’ll believe every drum solo and signed exclamation — it’s a performance he ultimately sells with those striking, vulnerable eyes.

Here’s what else is happening

Poland abortion ban: Women’s rights advocates and thousands of their allies vowed to keep fighting a near-total ban on abortions that went into effect on Wednesday.

German far right: A court in Frankfurt convicted a German neo-Nazi of murdering a local politician and sentenced him to life in prison on Thursday. The prosecutor called it the country’s first political assassination by far-right extremists since the end of World War II.

Climate crisis: As part of a broader plan to become carbon neutral by 2040, General Motors said it would sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035, phasing out the gas-guzzling pickup trucks and S.U.V.s that today earn billions for the company.

Terrorism: Pakistan’s highest court ordered the release of Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who had been convicted of being the mastermind behind the 2002 kidnapping and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Snapshot: Above, members of a Taliban unit in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, wearing Cheetahs, sneakers produced by one of the largest shoe companies in Pakistan. The white high-tops have been worn by insurgents for decades, and they have become synonymous with violence.

Overlooked no more: The pioneering Black designer Jay Jaxon, who died in 2006, worked in fashion houses like Jean-Louis Scherrer, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior and dressed Annie Lennox, Thelma Houston and other stars.

What we’re reading: Escape Earth’s gravitational pull with this great read on the “exquisite boredom” of spacewalking, from The Atlantic.

Now, a break from the news

Cook: Make dan dan noodles at home with this recipe from Café China, a beloved Sichuan restaurant in New York City.

Listen: A Tyshawn Sorey premiere and lots of Kurt Weill from Berlin are among the highlights from the flood of streamed classical music concerts coming in February.

Watch: The “History of Swear Words,” a playfully naughty six-part docu-series, is among our top recommendations for what to watch on Netflix right now.

Make the most of your weekend. At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch and do while staying safe at home.

And now for the Back Story on …

The GameStop frenzy

The internet and stock market are aflame over GameStop, a troubled video game retailer whose stock is suddenly the darling of day traders who are putting the squeeze on Wall Street’s big players. The stakes are enormous: The surge in trading drove GameStop’s value up by more $10 billion in one day. Here’s what to know.

A short squeeze is happening — it involves investors betting on which way a stock’s price will go. The investors who bet against the stock, or “shorts,” thought that GameStop’s stock would fall. Shorting a stock is risky, and you can lose big if someone tries to push up the price by buying lots of shares, which is what has happened with GameStop.

This is the squeeze.

The investors have to cover their shorts, and buy the stock at the higher price. This demand kicks the stock higher, and a short who acts too late could be ruined.

The standoffs usually involve sophisticated investors on Wall Street. In this case, tons of day traders using mobile apps are buying shares of GameStop or placing their own options bets, on the opposite side of the shorts. Many congregated on Reddit’s Wall Street betting chat to share tips and analysis, and began to discuss the GameStop short sellers in recent months.

Some of the amateur traders’ motivations vary; while many think it’s just a good value, or are riding the wave, some say they want to squeeze a hedge fund that was shorting GameStop.

That’s it for this briefing. See you next week.

— Natasha

Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at [email protected]

P.S.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about the fate of the filibuster.
• Here’s our Mini Crossword, and a clue: Word after sea, last or turkey (four letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Our video team announced new hires: Muyi Xiao is joining Visual Investigations, and Nailah Morgan becomes weekend live news producer.

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