. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

BRUSSELS (AP) — Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fueled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.

A World Health Organization panel named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

___

Biden sets out oil, gas leasing reform, stops short of ban

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Friday recommended an overhaul of the nation’s oil and gas leasing program to limit areas available for energy development and raise costs for oil and gas companies to drill on public land and water.

The long-awaited report by the Interior Department stops short of recommending an end to oil and gas leasing on public lands, as many environmental groups have urged. But officials said the report would lead to a more responsible leasing process that provides a better return to U.S. taxpayers.

“Our nation faces a profound climate crisis that is impacting every American,″ Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement, adding that the new report’s recommendations will mitigate worsening climate change impacts “while staying steadfast in the pursuit of environmental justice.″

The report completes a review ordered in January by President Joe Biden, who directed a pause in federal oil and gas lease sales in his first days in office, citing worries about climate change.

The moratorium drew sharp criticism from congressional Republicans and the oil industry, even as many environmentalists and Democrats said Biden should make the leasing pause permanent.

___

Towering musical theater master Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century with his intelligent, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unusual subjects, has died. He was 91.

Sondheim’s death was announced by Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M. Sondheim’s Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, told The New York Times the composer died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theater songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” which are considered among his best work. His most famous ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in such diverse subjects as an Ingmar Bergman movie (“A Little Night Music”), the opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), French painter Georges Seurat (“Sunday in the Park With George”), Grimm’s fairy tales (“Into the Woods”) and even the killers of American presidents (“Assassins”), among others.

Tributes quickly flooded social media as performers and writers alike saluted a giant of the theater. “We shall be singing your songs forever,” wrote Lea Salonga. Aaron Tveit wrote: “We are so lucky to have what you’ve given the world.”

___

FDA: Merck COVID pill effective, experts will review safety

Federal health regulators say an experimental COVID-19 pill from Merck is effective against the virus, but they will seek input from outside experts on risks of birth defects and other potential problems during pregnancy.

The Food and Drug Administration posted its analysis of the pill ahead of a public meeting next week where academic and other experts will weigh in on its safety and effectiveness. The agency isn’t required to follow the group’s advice.

The FDA scientists said their review identified several potential risks, including possible toxicity to developing fetuses and birth defects that were identified in studies of the pill in animals.

Given those risks the FDA will ask its advisers next Tuesday whether the drug should never be given during pregnancy or whether it could be made available in certain cases.

Under that scenario, the FDA said the drug would carry warnings about risks during pregnancy, but doctors would still have the option to prescribe it in certain cases where its benefits could outweigh its risks for patients.

___

Big flotilla of illegal gold miners splits up in Brazil

ON THE RIO MADEIRA, Brazil (AP) — Hundreds of barges of illegal miners dredging for gold were navigating along the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon on Friday, and researchers said they posed a threat of pollution — including toxic mercury — for the broader environment.

The barges were spotted this week by the municipality of Autazes, some 120 kilometers (70 miles) from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

Smaller gatherings of barges are common along rivers in the region, but the latest collection drew international attention this week when Greenpeace and news media published images of several rows of rafts.

Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced an imminent police operation in the area, prompting the miners to depart early Friday and head elsewhere along the river.

Miner Thiago Bitencourt Gomes, wearing just a pair of shorts and some flip flops, told The Associated Press on Friday that about 400 barges – some 3,000 people – congregated in the area after one miner found gold there and alerted the others.

___

Black Friday is back but it’s not what it used to be

NEW YORK (AP) — On this year’s Black Friday, things almost seem normal.

Malls and stores report decent-sized crowds, if not the floods of people that used to fight over the latest toys and electronics — online shopping is much too common for that now, and discounts are both more subdued and spread out over the weeks leading up to Christmas, on both websites and in stores.

Out-of-stock items due to supply crunches, higher prices for gas and food, and labor shortages that make it more difficult to respond to customers are also causing frustrations for shoppers.

Christian MacDonald, the first person in a line of about 75 people waiting for a Costa Mesa, California Target store to open, came away empty-handed.

“I came here because I figured since it was Black Friday, they’d have the new Switch OLED in stock, but they didn’t,” said MacDonald, who waited an hour and a half to get in for the sought-after Nintendo video game console. “So I’m just going to go home, I guess.”

___

Ukraine leader alleges Russia-backed coup planned next week

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday claimed that his country’s intelligence service has uncovered plans for a Russia-backed coup d’etat in the country set for next week that allegedly involves one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs.

Both the oligarch and the Russian government rejected the allegations. In Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he is spending a holiday weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed concern at the coup talk and renewed U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-government.

At a news conference in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Zelenskyy said he received information that a coup was being planned for next Wednesday or Thursday. He did not give many details to back up his allegation, but pointed to a suspected role of Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov.

The president said that Ukrainian intelligence has audio recordings of an alleged meeting between Russian and Ukrainian officials discussing a plan for a coup allegedly funded by Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated at $7.5 billion.

Zelenskyy refused to disclose further details about the alleged coup, saying only that he doesn’t plan to flee the country.

___

Stocks sink on new COVID variant; Dow loses 905 points

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks sank Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly falling more than 1,000 points, as a new coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa appeared to be spreading across the globe. Investors were uncertain whether the variant could potentially reverse months of progress at getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

The S&P 500 index dropped 106.84 points, or 2.3%, to close at 4,594.62. It was the worst day for Wall Street’s benchmark index since February.

The index was dragged lower by everything from banks, travel companies and energy companies as investors tried to reposition to protect themselves financially from the new variant. The World Health Organization called the variant “highly transmissible.”

The price of oil fell about 13%, the biggest decline since early in the pandemic, amid worries of another slowdown in the global economy. That in turn dragged down energy stocks. Exxon shares fell 3.5% while Chevron fell 2.3%.

The blue chips closed down 905.04 points to end the day at 34,899.34. The Nasdaq Composite lost 353.57 points, or 2.2%, to 15,491.66.

___

EXPLAINER: What is this new COVID variant in South Africa?

LONDON (AP) — WHAT IS THIS NEW COVID-19 VARIANT?

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It’s unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the World Health Organization and it has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days, although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant is actually responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

In a statement on Friday, the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

___

In Nantucket, Biden shops, attends Christmas tree lighting

NANTUCKET, Mass. (AP) — President Joe Biden appeared on the loose Friday in Nantucket.

Biden spent more than an hour walking around downtown Nantucket’s cobblestone streets, popping unannounced into quaint mom-and-pop shops, appearing to make purchases and posing for photos with surprised business owners.

He was accompanied by some of his grandchildren. Biden and his entire family are spending the Thanksgiving holiday on the Massachusetts island, renting a sprawling compound that belongs to his friend and billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein.

“Hey, Joe,” “We love you, Joe,” some people shouted as Biden passed by on a cold and rainy day. One man was heard telling the 79-year-old president that he looked younger in person.

It’s those kinds of interactions with everyday people that Biden, a back-slapping politician for nearly five decades, absolutely relishes but hasn’t done as much because of COVID-19.