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Your Monday Briefing: Omicron Evades Many Vaccines

Good morning. We’re covering the latest Omicron news, the Hong Kong elections and a Times investigation into civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes.

People waiting in line for AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines in Dhaka, Bangladesh.Credit…Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Omicron outstrips many vaccines

A growing body of preliminary research suggests most Covid vaccines offer almost no defense against infection from the highly contagious Omicron variant. The only vaccines that appear to be effective against infections are those made by Pfizer and Moderna, reinforced by a booster, which are not widely available around the world.

Other vaccines — including those from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and vaccines manufactured in China and Russia — do little to nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, early research shows. Because most countries have built their inoculation programs around these vaccines, the gap could have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic.

Still, most vaccines used worldwide do seem to offer significant protection against severe illness. And early Omicron data suggests South Africa’s hospitalizations are significantly lower in this wave.

U.S.: A fourth wave has arrived, just days before Christmas. More than 125,000 Americans are testing positive every day, and hospitalizations have increased nearly 20 percent in two weeks. Only one in six Americans has received a booster shot.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • Some Southeast Asian tourism spots have reopened, but few foreigners are making the trip.

  • Two lawyers and a civil rights activist are on trial in Iran after trying to sue the country’s leaders over their disastrous handling of the pandemic.

  • The U.K. is considering a lockdown as cases skyrocket.


National security organizations vetted candidates running in Sunday’s legislative elections. Credit…Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times

Beijing steers Hong Kong’s vote

Hong Kong held legislative elections this weekend, the first since Beijing imposed a drastic “patriots only” overhaul of the political system, leaving many opposition leaders in jail or in exile.

Understand the Hong Kong Elections

Hong Kong’s legislative election on Dec. 19 will be the first since Beijing imposed a drastic overhaul of the island’s political system.

  • What to Know: New electoral rules and the crackdown on the opposition have eliminated even the slightest uncertainty of previous elections.
  • An Unpopular Leader: Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, appears to relish the new state of affairs.
  • Seeking Legitimacy: The outcome is already determined, but the government is pressuring opposition parties to participate. 
  • A Waning Opposition: Fearing retaliation, pro-democracy politicians who had triumphed in the 2019 local elections have quit in droves.

Under the overhaul, only 20 seats were directly elected by residents; the rest were chosen by industry groups or Beijing loyalists. The establishment’s near-total control of the legislature is now guaranteed, reports my colleague Austin Ramzy.

Analysis: Even though the government has effectively determined the outcome of the elections, it is pressuring voters and opposition parties to participate in order to lend the vote legitimacy.

Profile: Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is the territory’s most unpopular leader ever, polls show. But Lam appears reinvigorated and is poised to seek a second term — if Beijing allows it.


A 2016 airstrike aimed at an Islamic State recruiter in Iraq hit Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan, now 16 and in a wheelchair.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

A pattern of failures

A five-year Times investigation found that the American air wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been plagued by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, thousands of civilian deaths — with scant accountability.

The military’s own confidential assessments, obtained by The Times, document more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties since 2014, many of them children. The findings are a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.

The documents show, too, that despite the Pentagon’s highly codified system for examining civilian casualties, pledges of transparency and accountability have given way to opacity and impunity.

Details: Here are key takeaways from the first part of the investigation. The second installment will be published in the coming days.

Records: The Times obtained the records through Freedom of Information requests and lawsuits filed against the Defense Department and the U.S. Central Command. Click here to access the full trove.

THE LATEST NEWS

Asia

A child recovered belongings from his home, which was severely damaged by Super Typhoon Rai.Credit…Jay Labra/Associated Press
  • Officials now believe that more than 140 people died after a powerful typhoon struck the Philippines last week.

  • Police in Japan identified a suspect in the Friday arson fire that killed 24 people in an office building in Osaka.

  • U.S. Olympic leaders criticized China’s response to allegations of sexual assault from one of its star athletes, while trying not to jeopardize American athletes headed to Beijing.

  • Marja, a district in Afghanistan, was once the center of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban. Now residents there are increasingly desperate for foreign humanitarian aid.

  • “In my mind, I was dead,” said Ko Aung Kyaw, a journalist in Myanmar who said he was tortured by the military junta, adding: “I didn’t look like a human.”

World News

Russian troops participated in drills at a firing range last week.Credit…Associated Press
  • Russia laid out demands for a Cold War-like security arrangement in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which were immediately rejected by NATO.

  • Chileans began voting for president on Sunday after one of the most polarizing and acrimonious election campaigns in the country’s history.

  • Israel is threatening to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but experts and officials say that is beyond the capabilities of its military.

  • The Baghdad International Book Fair drew readers from across Iraq eager to connect with the outside world through literature.

What Else Is Happening

  • Legal and military experts are considering whether to seek a ban on killer robots, which are technically called “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

  • Senator Joe Manchin said he would not support President Biden’s expansive social spending bill, all but dooming the Democrats’ drive to pass it as written.

  • Asian and Black activists in the U.S. are struggling to find common ground over policing and safety.

  • Lawyers for Britney Spears are questioning whether her manager improperly enriched herself during the conservatorship.

A Morning Read

“I wanted to perform rakugo the exact same way that men do,” Niyo Katsura, right, said after winning a top award.Credit…Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Rakugo, one of Japan’s oldest and raunchiest comedic arts, has long been dominated by men. But a woman artist, Niyo Katsura, is now winning acclaim for her uncanny ability to portray a range of drunks and fools — male and female alike.

ARTS AND IDEAS

Credit…Clockwise from top left: Reuters, The New York Times, AFP, The New York Times, AFP, Reuters

The faces of 2021

The New York Times Faces Quiz offers a chance to see how well you know some of the defining personalities of 2021. We have chosen 52. When we show you each face, you need to tell us the name. (And yes, we’re lenient on spelling.)

Play it here, and see how well you do compared with other Times readers.

PLAY, WATCH, EAT

What to Cook

Credit…Christopher Simpson for The New York Times

Pernil, a pork shoulder roast from Puerto Rico that is often made for holidays or special occasions, is slow-roasted on high heat to achieve a crisp skin known as chicharrón.

What to Read

Here are nine new books to peruse, which include a cultural history of seven immigrant cooks, reflections on suicide and a biography of H.G. Wells.

What to Watch

An experimental Canadian drama, an Egyptian weight lifting documentary and a Chilean buddy comedy are three of five international movies available to stream this month.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

And here is today’s Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.


That’s it for today’s briefing. See you next time. — Amelia

P.S. Carlos Tejada, The Times’s deputy Asia editor and a fierce advocate for our journalism, died on Friday of a heart attack. We will miss him.

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about the next phase of the pandemic.

You can reach Amelia and the team at briefing@nytimes.com.

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