Current Events in December 2020

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2020

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    BioNTech says it could create vaccine for COVID-19 mutation ‘in six weeks’

    Officials say the proteins in the more contagious version of the coronavirus are 99 percent the same

    German biotech firm BioNTech said Tuesday that it could create a vaccine for the new coronavirus variant in six weeks if necessary. 

    A new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 was recently detected in Britain, prompting dozens of European countries to reinstate lockdowns and impose travel bans. Former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb now says it’s likely that the new coronavirus mutation “is already in the U.S.”

    BioNTech officials say they’re confident that they fend off the new strain with a modified version of the vaccine developed for the prevailing strains that appeared at the beginning of 2020. 

    "Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant," said BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin. He added that he is optimistic that the company can quickly produce an effective vaccine for the new strain since its proteins are 99 percent the same as the original version. 

    “The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high,” he said. However, until more research is carried out over the next few weeks, he said BioNTech doesn’t know “if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant.” 

    Six weeks

    Sahin said the company could make a vaccine to beat the mutated version of SARS-CoV-2 in less than two months, if necessary. 

    "In principle the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation — we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks," he said. 

    BioNTech has worked with drugmaker Pfizer this year to create a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus that began spreading earlier this year. The vaccine has been authorized for use in more than 45 countries and is already being administered to frontline workers and nursing home residents in the U.S. 

    Moderna, another company that created an effective COVID-19 vaccine, says it also believes its vaccine would have similar efficacy against the new strain. 

    "Based on the data to date, we expect that the Moderna vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the UK," Moderna said in a statement adding, "We will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks to confirm this expectation."

    German biotech firm BioNTech said Tuesday that it could create a vaccine for the new coronavirus variant in six weeks if necessary. A new, more contagi...

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      Nissan recalls model year 2002-2006 Sentras

      The front passenger airbag inflators may explode

      Nissan North America is recalling 3,930 model year 2002-2006 Sentras whose passenger airbags were previously inspected and may have been released without replacing the Takata airbag inflator.

      In the event of a crash, Takata front passenger airbag inflators may explode due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to high absolute humidity, high temperatures and high temperature cycling.

      An inflator explosion may result in sharp metal fragments striking occupants, resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will re-inspect the vehicle and -- if necessary -- replace the airbag inflator, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin January 5, 2021.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at (800) 867-7669. Nissan's number for this recall is PM964.

      Nissan North America is recalling 3,930 model year 2002-2006 Sentras whose passenger airbags were previously inspected and may have been released without r...

      Mercedes-Benz Metris right-hand drive vehicles recalled

      The brake hose/brake line connection may leak

      Daimler Vans USA (DVUSA) is recalling 562 model year 2019-2020 Mercedes-Benz Metris right-hand drive vehicles.

      The screwed fittings between the rigid steel brake lines routed through the underbody of the vehicle and the brake hoses in the area of the front and rear axles may not have been correctly installed.

      The connection between the brake line and the brake hose may leak, causing a sudden loss of brake fluids, affecting braking performance and increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      DVUSA will notify owners, and dealers will check the affected fittings at the connection points of the brake lines to the brake hoses, correcting them -- as necessary -- free of charge. 

      The manufacturer has not yet provided a schedule for recall notification.

      Owners may contact DVUSA customer service at (877) 762-8267. DVUSA's number for this recall is VS2BREMPOS.

      Daimler Vans USA (DVUSA) is recalling 562 model year 2019-2020 Mercedes-Benz Metris right-hand drive vehicles. The screwed fittings between the rigid st...

      New COVID-19 variant in U.K. prompts travel bans from European countries

      Officials say the new coronavirus mutation could be up to 70 percent more contagious

      Several European countries have halted travel due to concerns of a new and more contagious strain of the coronavirus that has appeared in the U.K. 

      U.K. government officials announced a renewed lockdown over the weekend and urged people to refrain from interacting with anyone other than immediate household during the Christmas holiday.

      "Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus — the potential risk it poses — it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned," said Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.

      Countries in Europe -- including Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands -- quickly imposed travel bans to and from the U.K. in a bid to preemptively stop the new strain from spreading. Canada also announced it was suspending flights from the U.K. for a 72-hour period. 

      More contagious

      Early evidence suggests that the new variant of the coronavirus could be around 70 percent more contagious than strains already circulating, but there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s more deadly. 

      The new coronavirus variant hasn’t yet been identified in the United States, and U.S. officials haven’t suggested a ban on U.K. travel. 

      “I really don’t believe we need to do that yet,” Adm. Brett Giroir told ABC News on Sunday. “We have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine.”

      The new coronavirus variant isn’t believed to react differently to vaccines than the strain that appeared in early 2020, meaning vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer could help mitigate its spread. 

      However, if the virus changes and “dodges the full effect of the vaccine,” then “vaccine escape” could happen, wrote James Gallagher, BBC News health and science correspondent. “This may be the most concerning element,” he said. 

      Several European countries have halted travel due to concerns of a new and more contagious strain of the coronavirus that has appeared in the U.K. U.K....

      Coronavirus update: Moderna vaccine rolls out, Congress to vote on aid package

      A new virus strain appears in the U.K.

      Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)

      Total U.S. confirmed cases: 17,860,634 (17,269,542)

      Total U.S. deaths: 317,729 (311,230)

      Total global cases: 76,975,940 (75,179,482)

      Total global deaths: 1,697,062 (1,668,030  )

      Moderna vaccine begins distribution

      The first shipments of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine produced by Moderna are making their way across the country, joining supplies of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. The Moderna vaccine won temporary clearance late Friday, the Pfizer vaccine a week earlier.

      The first shots are expected to be administered later today. As with the previous vaccine, the first in line will be front line health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

      Officials say the general public may not receive the vaccine until spring. Next in line will likely be “essential workers,” bus drivers, grocery store clerks, and others who can’t work from home and who are getting infected at a higher rate.

      Congress finally agrees on aid package

      Working right down to the wire, congressional negotiators have finally agreed on a $900 billion aid package to help individuals and businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Final action is expected later today.

      The measure sends up to $600 per adult and child to Americans, based on their income. It also adds $300 to unemployment benefits for 10 weeks and extends the rental eviction moratorium that was set to expire at the end of the month..

      In the end, it took the elimination of two provisions that caused the standoff. Democrats’ insistence on billions of dollars for state and local government and the GOP’s demand for immunity from lawsuits for businesses were dropped from the measure.

      New, highly contagious virus strain appears in the U.K.

      Despite hopes produced by emerging vaccines, there’s a new coronavirus fear because of a new strain of the virus that has appeared in the U.K. Over the weekend, the British government announced a renewed lockdown, saying the new strain appears to be much more contagious than the strain that appeared in early 2020.

      Countries in Europe reacted quickly, banning travel to and from the U.K. So far, the new strain has yet to be identified in the U.S. U.S. officials have not suggested a ban on U.K. travel.

      “I really don’t believe we need to do that yet,” Adm. Brett Giroir told ABC News on Sunday. “We have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine.”

      Survey suggests Americans will travel this week

      Health officials are increasingly worried that Christmas week and the New Year’s holiday will be a repeat of Thanksgiving -- family and friends gathering for celebrations in spite of pleas not to.

      A new survey from Cars.com shows nearly half of Americans -- 46 percent -- plan to travel for December holidays. That’s about the same number that said they would travel during last month’s Thanksgiving holiday but far fewer than during a normal year, and researchers say that, at least, is a bright spot.

      Jenni Newman, Cars.com’s editor-in-chief, says the survey also shows most people plan to travel by car, not because of cost or convenience but because they believe it will keep them safer from COVID-19.

      The riskiest states for holiday travel

      People traveling by car over the holidays face two risks -- coming in contact with COVID-19 and the chances of a serious auto accident. QuoteWizard, an online insurance marketplace, has analyzed the two risks and picked the riskiest states to travel in during the holidays.

      According to the findings, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama have the most at-risk seniors with underlying health conditions. North Dakota, Rhode Island, and South Dakota have the highest COVID-19 cases and death rates per 100,000 in the last seven days.

      Around the nation

      • New York: Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the new, highly contagious strain of the coronavirus in the U.K. is coming into New York unchecked. Cuomo said he wants the federal government to begin requiring tests for travelers or bans on visitors traveling through the U.K.

      • Mississippi: State officials say 128,000 people received the Pfizer BioNTech coronavirus vaccine last week, but they are concerned about the growing skepticism among some people who say they aren’t going to take it. Doctors are trying to allay fears by being among the first to receive the vaccine.

      • Kentucky: Gov. Andy Beshear said he plans to use $51.5 million in federal coronavirus funding to provide relief from unemployment costs for more than 1,500 employers. The aid will be mostly directed at schools and non-profit organizations.

      Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)Total U.S. confirmed cases: 17,860,634 (17,269,...

      Expanded tax benefits can help individuals who give to charity during 2020, IRS says

      There are additional forms to fill out, but the upsides are good for itemizers and charitable donors

      While the coronavirus hasn’t given Americans much in the way of something nice, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants taxpayers to know it actually does have something worth checking out.

      Within the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act -- the government legislation that made the first round of stimulus checks possible -- the IRS is offering expanded tax benefits that can help individuals who want to make a charitable donation before 2020 ends.

      Tax changes to lessen some of the economic impact of COVID-19

      The CARES Act includes temporary tax modifications that can lessen at least some of the pain when it comes to paying the 2020 tax bill next year. All told, there are two changes for individual taxpayers:

      New deduction for people who don't itemize. Heading the list is a change that the IRS says nearly 90 percent of taxpayers potentially qualify for. Typically, taxpayers who opt to take the standard deduction can’t claim a deduction for their charitable contributions. However, those individuals can claim a limited deduction on their 2020 federal income tax returns if they make a cash contribution* to a charity and still claim the standard deduction. 

      *Note: A cash contribution includes those made by check, credit, or debit card; or amounts incurred by an individual for unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses in connection with the individual's volunteer services to a qualifying charitable organization. Cash contributions do not include the value of things like volunteer services or contributions of household items like you would take to an organization like Goodwill.

      The all-important caveat in this deduction says that individuals can claim an "above-the-line" deduction of up to $300 for cash contributions made to “qualifying charities” during 2020. The maximum above-the-line deduction is $150 for married individuals filing separate returns. 

      Itemizers can get as high as a 100 percent limit on cash contributions. Although there are certain limits, taxpayers who itemize have the OK to claim a deduction for charitable contributions if they’re made to qualifying charitable organizations. These limits run from 20-60 percent of an individual's adjusted gross income ("AGI") and vary by the type of contribution and type of charitable organization the money is donated to. 

      Where this change really comes in handy is the clause in the CARES Act that permits individuals to apply for an increased limit, up to 100 percent of their AGI, for qualified contributions. That election is made on a contribution-by-contribution basis and has to be a “cash” contribution made during the calendar year 2020 to a qualifying charitable organization.

      Like any change from the IRS, there are fine points to consider. The agency offers a complete list of those on its website.

      Keep good records

      Despite the upsides of these changes, the IRS reminds taxpayers that there are forms to be filled out and special recordkeeping to provide if a taxpayer wants to claim a charitable contribution deduction. 

      “Usually, this includes obtaining a receipt or acknowledgment letter from the charity before filing a return and retaining a cancelled check or credit card receipt. For donations of property, additional recordkeeping rules may apply, including filing a Form 8283 and obtaining a qualified appraisal,” the IRS says.

      Does this apply to the new round of stimulus checks?

      With Congress preparing to provide another round of stimulus checks, it’s unknown if any of the original CARES Act tax benefits will be expanded upon, but anything’s possible. 

      To keep up-to-date on everything that may impact coronavirus-related tax changes, be sure to check in at IRS.gov/Coronavirus before going headlong into filling out forms and organizing copies of things like charitable contributions.

      While the coronavirus hasn’t given Americans much in the way of something nice, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants taxpayers to know it actually does...

      Walmart offers pickup option for returning online orders

      Customers can schedule a time for FedEx to pick up their return

      Walmart has announced that it’s giving consumers the option of returning orders without having to leave their home. In a blog post on Monday, the company said it’s teamed up with FedEx for a new service designed to make returning items a “hassle-free” experience. 

      “Now, customers can schedule a return through our new service, Carrier Pickup by FedEx, which is an incredibly convenient way to make that unwanted gift *magically* disappear,” Walmart said. “Even more magical, this new return option is not only super-easy but also free, and here to stay beyond the holiday season.” 

      To use Carrier Pickup by FedEx, customers can print out a shipping label from Walmart’s website, then schedule a time for FedEx to pick up the unwanted item. 

      The service is free for items shipped and sold via Walmart.com. The retailer noted that the service is available to “all customers where FedEx provides Small Parcel Pickup service.” Walmart customers can still choose to drop off their returns at FedEx locations instead of using the pickup service. 

      Changes to in-store return process 

      Walmart said it’s made several changes to its normal in-store returns process in order to keep customers safe and maintain social distancing during the pandemic. 

      Customers can start their return online via the Walmart app or website to cut down on time spent in line. At many stores, Walmart said it will open alternative return locations to help keep customers distanced from others in the store. 

      “Top that off with more good news for customers: No matter how customers choose to return the item, we’ve worked hard to speed up the time frame for which customers get their money back,” Walmart added. “For many online returns, refunds will be credited to customers’ payment account sometimes as soon as the next day, and same day for in-store returns.” 

      Walmart has announced that it’s giving consumers the option of returning orders without having to leave their home. In a blog post on Monday, the company s...

      Airlines to receive $15 billion in additional aid under new stimulus package

      Tens of thousands of furloughed employees should be called back to work

      Under the $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus agreement reached Sunday, U.S. airlines are scheduled to receive $15 billion in additional federal aid. The deal will also require airlines to call back more than 32,000 workers who were furloughed due to the financial strain of the pandemic. 

      The nation’s passenger airlines were given $25 billion in aid under the CARES Act passed in March. Once that aid ran out and it became clear that additional federal support wouldn’t be approved fast enough, airlines made the decision to start furloughing employees.

      The funds set aside for airlines in the second stimulus package would help keep airline workers employed until the end of March. The bill would also see that other struggling transportation sectors receive additional funding. It includes: 

      • $1 billion for airline contractors;

      • $2 billion for airports and concessionaires;

      • $14 billion for transit;

      • $10 billion for state highways;

      • $1 billion for Amtrak; and

      • $2 billion for private bus, school bus and ferry companies.

      Travelers still not flying

      Although many Americans are expected to travel this week, the airline industry has said it’s still feeling the effects of the pandemic. Flight bookings have declined due to the increase in new infections during the fall and winter, and new travel restrictions haven’t helped either.

      A survey found that 66 percent of people who plan to travel this week plan to do so using their own vehicle so they can avoid crowded airports.

      Under the $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus agreement reached Sunday, U.S. airlines are scheduled to receive $15 billion in additional federal aid. The deal w...

      Free news sites step up pleas for consumers to disable adblocking software

      One tech expert says consumers might want to ignore those requests

      If your web browser has recently updated, or you’ve loaded some new browser extensions, you may be seeing a message when you visit certain free content sites.

      “Please support journalism by allowing ads,” one of the pop-up messages reads. 

      In the message, there is a large link that will disable the adblocker extension in your browser. There is a smaller link that will allow you to proceed to the site while continuing to block ads.

      Dominic Chorafakis, with the cybersecurity consulting firm Akouto, says adblocking extensions aren’t exactly new, but it’s possible browsers have strengthened them in recent updates.

      “Sites that rely on ad revenue, of course, don’t like this at all, and there is quite a bit of effort being put in from their side to detect when a visitor has adblocking in place and either ask them politely to disable adblocking or outright prevent them from viewing their content unless they disable it,” Chorafakis told ConsumerAffairs.

      Not all ads are harmless

      Should consumers oblige and disable their adblocker? It’s one thing to support certain websites, but it is quite another to open devices to ads that might be more than simply annoying.

      “Malicious ads are a very real thing, and the companies that are making massive profits from internet ads are not doing enough to stop hackers from posting them,” Chorafakis said. “As a result, many legitimate sites end up serving malicious ads to unsuspecting visitors.”

      Chorafakis said he makes it a point to keep adblocking enabled on his devices until he sees publishers do more to control the kinds of ads they display.

      “I would rather not see a site’s content than take the risk of being served up a malicious ad if that’s how they want to behave,” he said. “If there is something that I absolutely must see but am being prevented by blocker detection, then I will temporarily use a different browser without adblocking that I have specifically for those very rare instances.”

      Two business models

      The issue highlights a growing dichotomy of the internet. There are companies that earn their revenue from services and subscriptions and those that earn money by showing ads and collecting data. 

      Many news sites have erected a paywall that prevents consumers from reading their content unless they subscribe. Most TV stations and TV networks continue to allow viewing for free but show ads to produce revenue.

      This split in the internet burst into the open last week when Apple changed its privacy policy and Facebook angrily responded with full-page ads in newspapers denouncing the move.  

      Apple’s newly announced  iOS14 privacy changes will require app developers like Facebook to “provide information about some of your app’s data collection practices on your product page.” The change will also require Facebook to “ask users for their permission to track them across apps and websites owned by other companies.”

      In the ad, Facebook maintained that Apple’s changes will be “devastating to small businesses” that rely on its ad network to leverage clicks and sales. 

      It also highlights the internet’s divide between consumers who value privacy and are willing and able to pay for the content they view and consumers who are willing to accept some limits on privacy in exchange for free content.

      If your web browser has recently updated, or you’ve loaded some new browser extensions, you may be seeing a message when you visit certain free content sit...

      Audi recalls RS5 Sportbacks, S5 Sportbacks and A5 Sportbacks

      The rear light wiring harness may be missing scuff protection

      Audi is recalling 5,426 model year 2021 RS5 Sportbacks, S5 Sportbacks and model year 2020-2021 Audi A5 Sportbacks

      The wiring harness for the rear lights could be missing the anti-abrasion protection in the area of the spare wheel well.

      Without the scuff protection, the wires may become damaged in a rear crash, disabling the doors from being opened from the outside, causing a loss of hazard lights, and increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Audi will notify owners, and dealers will apply scuff protection free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin January 22, 2021.

      Owners may contact Audi customer service at (800) 253-2834. Audi's number for this recall is 97EU.

      Audi is recalling 5,426 model year 2021 RS5 Sportbacks, S5 Sportbacks and model year 2020-2021 Audi A5 Sportbacks The wiring harness for the rear lights...

      CVS, Walgreens begin administering COVID-19 shots at nursing homes

      The shots are expected to be available to the general public in a few months

      CVS and Walgreens are starting to send teams of pharmacists to nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country to administer COVID-19 vaccinations. 

      Walgreens said its pharmacists will first go to care facilities in Ohio, Connecticut, and Florida to administer shots. CVS will provide the vaccines at facilities in Ohio and Connecticut. Both drugstore chains plan to provide the vaccinations at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in other states next week. 

      Walgreens said it expects to give the shots to nearly 3 million residents and staff at 35,000 long-term care facilities. Over 40,000 long-term care facilities have chosen to have pharmacists and technicians from CVS come and provide the vaccinations.

      Hard-hit group

      Long-term care facility residents and staff were included in phase one of the vaccination distribution plan, along with health care workers. 

      Nursing homes and long-term care facilities were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Residents of these facilities account for nearly 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the country, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project.

      Phase two of the vaccination plan includes the general population. Experts expect the general public to start receiving shots in just a few months, after essential workers and those with chronic medical problems are inoculated. 

      If all goes according to plan, the vaccines will eventually be available at drugstores and grocery stores. Walgreens and CVS have said they expect to have the shots ready to administer to the general public at their stores in the early spring.

      The vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech requires two doses, as does the Moderna vaccine. The latter is poised to receive FDA approval for distribution and use as early as today. 

      CVS and Walgreens are starting to send teams of pharmacists to nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country to administer COVID-19 vaccin...