Lloyd Austin confirmed, vaccine trials halted, Russian protests

Lots of news over the weekend. Here are three stories you’ll want to know about:

Historic appointment – On Friday, the former U.S. Central Command leader, Lloyd Austin was confirmed, becoming the first Black defense secretary in U.S. history. The vote of 93-2 was a strong show of bipartisan support, with only Utah Senator Mike Lee and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri voting no.

“It’s an extraordinary, historic moment,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “A significant portion of our armed forces today are African-Americans or Latinos, and now they can see themselves at the very top of the Department of Defense, which makes real the notion of opportunity.” Congress granted the retired 4-star Army general a special waiver to hold the post as he has been out of active-duty service since 2016, less than the required seven years. They approved a similar waiver four years ago for Mr. Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, a retired 4-star Marine officer, on a vote of 98-1. Senator Gillibrand of New York was the only no vote. (New York Times, Military Times)

Not all vaccine trials are successful – Merck is halting development of the two COVID-19 vaccines it had been working on after early clinical trials showed “disappointing immune responses.” The vaccines, while “generally well tolerated” by recipients, just did not confer a high enough level of immunity. According to “Stat,” it’s a “shocking setback for one of the most storied vaccine makers, and will raise tensions around readouts expected soon from other companies, including Johnson & Johnson and NovaVax.” Merck will continue to work on two therapeutic drugs. (NPR, Wall Street Journal, Fox Business)

Meanwhile in Russia – Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets across the country in support of Alexei Navalny on Saturday. Navalny, the opposition leader who spent five months in Germany recovering from a military-grade nerve agent attack was promptly arrested on his return to Russia last week. He used social media to galvanize supporters and just on TikTok, videos with the hash tags #FreeNavalny and #23January had more than 200 million views in just a few days.  Russian police in riot gear arrested more than 3700 protestors and were seen beating, kicking and dragging protestors as they hauled them away. The dead of winter in Russia is not a great time to be outdoors – temperatures at some protests dropped as low as -50 Celcius. Senator Mitt Romney said “Alexei Navalny is the face of courage on the planet, as are the thousands of Russians who stand with him. Every champion of truth and freedom salutes them.” Senator Ben Sasse called Putin a “coward who fears the strength and resilience of the Russian people.” The Kremlin was not impressed with comments from the West.  (New York Times, NPR, BBC, Reuters)