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Here are the headlines you Need2Know for Thursday, December 23, 2021:


There’s some heartening developments on the Covid front ahead of the holiday. Three separate research teams in South Africa, Scotland and England have found that Omicron inflections result in significantly milder illness than any of the other variants so far. The risk of hospitalization appears to be anywhere from two-thirds to 80% lower with Omicron, based on those separate studies. Still, hospitalizations are expected to increase just by virtue of how incredibly contagious the variant is. Omicron appears to already be the second most infectious virus on the planet, behind only measles. NY TIMES


The FDA has approved the first pill to treat Covid, adding a new and highly effective tool to the national toolbox of vaccines and treatments. Pfizer’s Paxlovid is now authorized for any high-risk patient over the age of 12 who weigh at least 88 lbs. and has tested positive. They can get a 3-pill, twice-a-day, 5-day treatment course via prescription. Antiviral pills are most effective at stopping the worst illness the sooner they are taken after diagnosis, meaning that catching an infection early will be critical. The government has purchased 10 million courses of treatment through next year, though initial supply is going to be extremely tight as Pfizer ramps production. REUTERS


The White House is extending the pause on federal student loan payments until May. Those payments were set to restart on February 1, but President Biden pointed to the new Covid wave as the reason for the extension. Many progressives have been pressuring him to either keep extending the moratorium or cancel the debt altogether. Biden had campaigned on a blanket promise to cancel at least $10,000 of debt per borrower, but has – so far – focused instead on preexisting loan forgiveness programs. NBC NEWS


Seattle and Portland could get a rare White Christmas thanks to another "atmospheric river" weather pattern that’s bringing much-needed precipitation to the West Coast. Most of the country, though, is looking at a mild and pleasant holiday weekend, continuing the oddly warm December weather across much of the U.S. Chicago still hasn’t seen any measurable snow this season and is on pace to break its record for most consecutive days without any snowfall. CNN


More good news, if you’re one of the 100 million Americans hitting the road for the holiday: gas prices are down 10 cents from Thanksgiving, according to the national average. GasBuddy counts 36 cities where a gallon of regular is down 25 cents from a month ago, and 12 states where the average is back below $3/gallon. The decline is not uniform, though. Prices at the pump have barely budged in some West Coast states like California, where the average is still $4.66. GASBUDDY


Amazon Web Services suffered its third outage in a month after a power hit at a Virginia data center took down big swaths of the internet on Wednesday morning (also the reason why this newsletter was three hours late). The latest outage is raising new questions about the backbone of the modern internet, which has gone from being fundamentally decentralized to heavily dependent on a handful of cloud providers, making the digital economy more vulnerable to a single point of failure. ARS TECHNICA


The College Football Playoff is responding to the Omicron surge with a new protocol that will allow a team to advance to the national championship if their opponent in the semifinal has to forfeit. If a team in the title game can’t play and the game can’t be rescheduled within a few days, the opposing team will be declared national champions. If no team can appear in the final, there will be no champion this year. Meanwhile, Texas A&M has pulled out of the Gator Bowl due to Covid issues, leaving Wake Forest momentarily without an opponent. Rutgers is expected to receive an invitation to face Wake in that bowl game, according to one report. ESPN


James Franco is speaking out at length about the #MeToo allegations that were first made against him back in 2018. The actor admitted on a SiriusXM podcast that he slept with students in his acting class and that he’s been in treatment for sex addiction since he got sober. Franco says he decided to address the issue because he doesn’t want his brother, Dave, or his former collaborator, Seth Rogan, to have to keep answering questions about him: WATCH


…Rachel Brosnahan, aka the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, pulling a rat out of her NYC apartment toilet: SEE PIC

…Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford’s model daughter, stepping out with Disney star Austin Butler after she split up with the Australian actor Jacob Elordi: SEE PICS

…Jacob Elordi, grabbing coffee with Olivia Jade, Lori Loughlin’s influencer daughter: SEE PICS


NASA is about to attempt to launch the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built. The James Webb Telescope is intended to be the successor to the Hubble, which has been snapping awe-inspiring pics of the universe since 1990. But the Webb is 100 times more powerful, and will be able to capture images of the outer reaches of the solar system in far greater detail than anything that’s been seen before. First, though, scientists have to get the telescope on its journey to a location one million miles away – all while keeping the delicate instruments cold and protected from the sun’s rays. Because the Webb is headed so far out, tuneups aren’t an option and any glitch could render the $10 billion piece of equipment worthless. WSJ

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