Your Thursday Briefing

Vaccinations in Hemmingen, Germany.Credit…Thomas Kienzle/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pfizer-BioNTech boosters protect against Omicron

Booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine offer significant protection against the Omicron variant, according to new laboratory tests, the pharmaceutical companies announced yesterday.

Blood samples obtained from people one month after their booster shot showed neutralizing antibodies against Omicron of comparable levels to those offered against a previous version of the virus after two doses, the companies said. Those who had received only two doses had much lower antibody levels against the variant compared with an earlier version of the virus.

The laboratory tests cannot determine for sure how the vaccines will perform in the real world, but the results seem to underscore the importance of booster shots. Pfizer’s chairman said that the company started developing a version of its vaccine targeting Omicron last month, and that it could be produced within 95 days. Moderna is on a similar path.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • People in England face new restrictions as the Omicron variant gains pace. Critics say Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is trying to deflect attention from a growing outcry over reports that his staff flouted Covid rules last year.

  • The coronavirus infects both fat cells and immune cells within body fat, according to a study, perhaps explaining why overweight people have been at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

  • Coronavirus cases are rising in children’s wards in South African hospitals, pointing to increased community transmission.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, addressing a meeting of foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia, last month.Credit…Gints Ivuskans/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NATO’s long dilemma over Ukraine

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is a partner — but not a member — of NATO, an American-led alliance explicitly created to counter the Soviet Union. Through that partnership, Ukraine has sent troops to fight in NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as it does not benefit from actual membership and from NATO’s commitment to collective defense.

True membership has been pending since 2008, when NATO promised membership to Ukraine and to Georgia without specifying when or how. (That promise may never be fulfilled.) Russia lashed out against the offer, seeing it as a potential threat on its borders and a serious encroachment into the heart of its sphere of influence.

As thousands of Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s borders, NATO is, therefore, not bound by treaty to protect Ukraine militarily, nor is it likely to try. Asked on Wednesday about the possibility of dispatching U.S. forces to Ukraine, President Biden flatly ruled it out, telling reporters at the White House, “That is not on the table.”

Russian perspective: Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, regards Ukraine as a fake country and an “inalienable part of Russia.” The promise of membership is to him a sign of a still-expansionist NATO that is committed to ripping Ukraine away from the Russian zone of influence.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the newly elected one, Olaf Scholz.Credit…Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

A farewell to Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel handed over the chancellery of Germany to Olaf Scholz yesterday, beginning a new chapter for Europe’s largest democracy. Scholz will lead the first center-left government in 16 years while trying to live up to the high expectations set by Merkel.

At the swearing-in, Scholz omitted the “so help me God” phrase in the traditional oath. The transition was harmonious, with kind words from Merkel and Scholz to each other. In her farewell remarks, Merkel called the chancellorship “one of the most beautiful duties there are.”

Several crises demand Scholz’s immediate attention, chief among them the coronavirus pandemic and a possible Russian military invasion of Ukraine. He will also have to maintain European cohesion in the continuing wake of Britain’s departure from the E.U. and contend with Washington, an ally that has become less dependable in recent years.

End of an era: Under Merkel, Germany became Europe’s leading power for the first time in modern history. Look back at her tenure in photos.


Other Big Stories

Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
  • Britain, Australia and Canada joined the U.S. in pulling their top officials from attendance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Their athletes will still be allowed to compete.

  • The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to ban imports of goods produced through forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China.

  • The head of Instagram testified at a U.S. congressional hearing about leaked research that showed the platform was harming young users.

Around the World

Credit…Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
  • The Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who founded the clothing retailer Zozo, will spend 12 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station with a production assistant who will document his stay.

  • A former air traffic controller in Minsk has been telling Polish investigators what he knows about the diversion of a Ryanair plane that landed in the Belarusian capital in May carrying a Belarus dissident.

  • The French authorities released a Saudi man who shared the name and age of a suspect in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.

  • Florida’s manatees, which are already threatened with extinction, have had catastrophic losses over the past year.

A Morning Read

When inconvenient news erupts on the Chinese internet, the censors jump into action. They took just 20 minutes to mobilize after Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault.

But after her subsequent disappearance caught the world’s attention, China has scrambled to control the narrative, leaning on the state news media, friendly foreigners and an army of bots.


Credit…Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

A very, very large Christmas sweater

At the Natural History Museum in London, the enormous, ferocious-looking replica T. rex often startles visitors with its animatronic moves and roaring sound effects. On Monday, that predatory edge was somewhat softened by a giant blue, red and green holiday sweater, Maria Cramer reports for The Times.

The turtleneck, which was made by the British knitwear company Jack Masters, fits snugly around the T. rex’s wide upper body and neck, then is tapered into sleeves short enough to encircle the dinosaur’s diminutive arms.

The process of making the sweater included around 100 hours of knitting time, fittings involving large step ladders and extra-long measuring tape, and a redesign after the sweater proved impossible to get over the dinosaur’s head. The final item measures nearly four feet around the neck, nine and a half feet around the shoulders and just over 10 feet around the body.

“There is nothing more funny than a jumper fitted for a dinosaur that has the tiniest arms in the world,” said Carla Treasure, a buyer at the museum. “I think it makes it slightly less scary.” (That said, a few children were still surprised into tears.)

Read more about the Christmas sweater.


What to Cook

Credit…Con Poulos for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.

Find inspiration among The Times’s most popular recipes, including this vibrant one-pot soup.

What to Read

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the “Mr. Men Little Miss” series, which now includes nearly 100 silly, messy, topsy-turvy characters.

Tech Tip

How to use your phone’s privacy protection tools.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” speaker (five letters).

And here is the Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.

That’s it for today’s briefing. See you tomorrow. — Natasha

P.S. A hidden haiku from the Times critic Maya Phillips: “It’s a great time to / be a nerd — take it from me, / a lifelong fangirl.”

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about Ukraine.

You can reach Natasha and the team at [email protected].

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