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Griner’s Sentence Renews Pressure on President Biden

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WASHINGTON — Immediately after a Moscow judge handed down Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, calls grew louder for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.

“We call on President Biden and the United States government to redouble their efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement.

U.S. officials and analysts had been resigned to a guilty verdict for Ms. Griner, a basketball star who plays for a Russian team during the W.N.B.A. off-season. But the cold reality of her sentence on a drug charge was a shock and renewed calls for Mr. Biden to secure her release — even as critics fumed that offering to swap prisoners with Moscow rewards Russian hostage-taking.

The result is a painful quandary for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hard line against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia over his war in Ukraine.

“There’s nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert on international conflict resolution at Cardozo School of Law. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized — either that we’re giving too much or we’re not working hard enough.”

Kremlin officials had said that any potential deal could not proceed before her trial was complete, creating a glimmer of hope that the verdict might open the door for an exchange. But analysts called that unlikely anytime soon.

“I don’t think this is going to get resolved quickly,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin has not said yes right away means that he’s looked at the U.S. offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’”

That U.S. offer, first presented to Russia in June, sought the release of Ms. Griner and Paul N. Whelan, a former Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

The Biden administration proposed to trade the two Americans for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is midway through a 25-year federal prison sentence for offering to sell arms to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has already reshaped U.S. diplomacy toward Russia, which had been frozen at senior levels since Mr. Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. A phone call about the matter on July 29 between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the war began. But it appeared to leave the Kremlin unmoved. The White House says Russia has made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that the United States is not taking seriously.

On Friday, Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the two nations would continue discussing the issue through established channels. He repeated the Kremlin’s insistence that the United States not discuss the negotiations in public, though Russian media outlets began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s early this summer.

But the pressure is lopsided. While Mr. Putin has long sought Mr. Bout’s release, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to Russia’s security state, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment costs Mr. Putin little. Time, in other words, is in Mr. Putin’s favor.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, finds himself squeezed from two sides.

On one side are Ms. Griner’s supporters. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has made public pleas for Mr. Biden to cut a deal with Mr. Putin as soon as possible. Those pleas have been echoed by Mr. Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, pro athletes and celebrities on social media. (Mr. Sharpton on Thursday also called for the release of Mr. Whelan.)

“How could she feel like America has her back?” the N.B.A. superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’”

That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout became public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, which was confirmed last week by a person briefed on the talks, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may have also reflected a desire to show Ms. Griner’s backers that Mr. Biden was not sitting on his hands.

“We believe it’s important for the American people to know how hard President Biden is working to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said at the time. “We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we’re working on this.”

After Ms. Griner was sentenced on Thursday, Mr. Biden renewed his commitment to “pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

The White House would not say how Mr. Biden might achieve that goal, however. “I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittany or to Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do,” Mr. Kirby said.

But almost any additional offers would be sure to amplify criticism from Mr. Biden’s other flank — and charges that Mr. Biden was bending to extortion by Mr. Putin, a man he has called a war criminal.

“This is why dictatorships — like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia — take Americans hostage, because they know they’ll get something for it,” Rep. Mike Waltz, Republican of Florida, told Newsmax last week. “They know eventually some administration will pay. And this just puts a target on the back of every American out there.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying that to free Mr. Bout would “likely lead to more” Americans being arrested abroad. And former President Donald J. Trump, who when in office prided himself on freeing detained Americans abroad, slammed the proposed deal in crude terms.

Mr. Bout, he said, was “absolutely one of the worst in the world, and he’s going to be given his freedom because a potentially spoiled person goes into Russia loaded up with drugs.” (Russian officials who detained Ms. Griner at a Moscow-area airport in mid-February found less than one gram of cannabis vape oil in her bags.)

Mr. Genser, the lawyer for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden has an option beyond raising his offer. He could seek new ways to make Mr. Putin suffer.

“You need to dramatically elevate the cost to Vladimir Putin of keeping them detained,” Mr. Genser said. “It’s not only about giving Putin what he wants. It’s about simultaneously raising the pain for him.”

That is no easy task, however. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to devise ways to incur enough pain on Mr. Putin to make him cease his invasion of Ukraine. Like the freedom of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, that goal, too, remains elusive.

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Air Force to unveil its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber Friday

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The U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman plan to unveil the latest stealth aircraft called the B-21 Raider at the company’s facility in Palmdale, California, this Friday.

“The B-21 is the most advanced military aircraft ever built and is a product of pioneering innovation and technological excellence,” Dough Young, sector vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems said in a press release. “The Raider showcases the dedication and skills of the thousands of people working every day to deliver this aircraft.”

Northrop was awarded a contract in 2015 to design and build the world’s most advanced strike aircraft.

The B-21 was made using advanced manufacturing techniques and breakthrough stealth technology. It is a sixth-generation aircraft, which Northrop Corporate President Tom Jones said is “optimized for operations in highly contested environments.”

The plane, according to Northrop’s website, is designed to perform long-range conventional and nuclear missions.

The estimated cost to develop, purchase and operate 100 aircraft is estimated at $203 billion, or about $2 billion per plane.

Currently, the company has six aircraft being assembled in Palmdale and the first B-21 is set to take flight sometime in 2023, depending on ground test results.

The unveiling on Friday is by invitation only.

Northrop Grumman Corp develops and manufactures advanced aircraft systems. The Aeronautics Systems segment engages in the design, development, production, integration, sustainment, and modernization of advanced management systems, weapons systems and aircraft, and mission systems.

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One Step Closer to a Universal Flu Vaccine?

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Imagine a single dose of vaccine that prepares your body to fight every known strain of influenza — a so-called universal flu vaccine that scientists have been trying to create for decades.

A new study describes successful animal tests of just such a vaccine, offering hope that the country can be protected against future flu pandemics. Like the Covid vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the experimental flu vaccine relies on mRNA.

It is in early stages — tested only in mice and ferrets — but the vaccine provides important proof that a single shot could be used against an entire family of viruses. If the vaccine succeeds in people, the approach could be used against other virus families, perhaps including the coronavirus.

The vaccine would not replace annual flu shots but would provide a shield against severe disease and death from potential pandemic threats.

“There’s a real need for new influenza vaccines to provide protection against pandemic threats that are out there,” said Scott Hensley, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania who led the work.

“If there’s a new influenza pandemic tomorrow, if we had a vaccine like this that was widely employed before that pandemic, we might not have to shut everything down,” he said. He and his colleagues described the vaccine last week in the journal Science.

By the age of 5, most children have been infected with the flu multiple times and have gained some immunity — but only against the strains they have encountered.

“Our childhood exposures to influenza lay down long-lived immune memory that can be recalled later in life,” Dr. Hensley. But “we’re sort of living the rest of our life dependent on the random chance of whatever we got infected with as a kid.”

Current influenza vaccines protect against seasonal flu but would provide little protection against a new strain that may emerge as a pandemic threat. During the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, for example, the conventional vaccine offered little defense against the virus. But older adults who had been exposed to H1N1 strains in childhood developed only mild symptoms.

Scientists have long tried to create a vaccine that would introduce children to every possible strain of flu they may encounter later in life. But researchers have been constrained by technical hurdles and by the diversity of the flu virus.

Broadly speaking, there are 20 subgroups of influenza that each represent thousands of viruses. Current vaccines can target four subgroups at most. But the experimental vaccine contains all 20, and it would be faster to produce.

The vaccine elicited high levels of antibodies to all 20 flu subtypes in ferrets and mice, the researchers found — a finding that several experts said was unexpected and promising.

If the vaccine behaves similarly in people, “we’ll have a more broad coverage of influenza viruses — not only those that are circulating, but those that might spill over from the animal reservoir that might cause the next pandemic,” Alyson Kelvin, a vaccinologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said.

Packing 20 targets into one vaccine does have a downside: Antibody levels in the test animals were lower than when they were given vaccines aimed at individual strains. But the levels were still high enough to be effective against influenza.

Because a new pandemic strain of influenza might differ from the 20 targets included in the experimental vaccine, the researchers also tested it against viruses that were imperfectly matched. The vaccine still provided strong protection, suggesting that it would prevent at least severe illness, if not infection, from a novel pandemic flu virus.

This phenomenon is akin to that with the current Covid vaccines: Although the latest Omicron variants are so different from the ancestral virus that the original vaccine does not prevent infections, it continues to help safeguard most people against severe illness.

This quality may be a particular advantage of mRNA vaccines, Dr. Kelvin said. Conventional flu vaccines target only the specific viruses they are designed for. But mRNA vaccines seem to produce antibodies that defend the body against a broader range of viruses than those included.

The experts noted some important caveats and questions that must be answered before the vaccine becomes a viable candidate.

The animals in the study built defenses against all 20 flu strains equally. But “these animals have not seen flu before,” said Richard J. Webby, an expert in influenza viruses at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Such a complete lack of immunity against flu is only true of very young children, Dr. Webby noted. Older people are exposed to many different strains over their lifetimes, and it’s not clear whether their immune responses to a universal vaccine would be quite so uniform.

“The proof of the pudding will be what happens when it goes into humans and how going into a preimmune population skews the response to it,” Dr. Webby said.

Designing universal vaccines for varying age groups, if necessary, would be a challenge. It would also be important to see how long protection from such a vaccine lasts, some experts said.

“The biggest issue about universal flu is what you need to target and how long you can continue to use the same vaccine,” Ted Ross, director of Global Vaccine Development at the Cleveland Clinic, said. “If you have to keep updating it, it may not increase the advantage of how we do vaccines today.”

The next step for the vaccine would be to test it in monkeys and in people. But proving its effectiveness might be challenging. “How do you evaluate and regulate a vaccine where their targets aren’t circulating, and so you can’t really show effectiveness?” Dr. Kelvin said.

Perhaps the vaccine could be tested in small sporadic outbreaks, or in poultry workers who are at risk of becoming infected with an avian flu virus, she said: “Those are questions that I think we need to answer before we have our next pandemic.”

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With Federal Aid on the Table, Utilities Shift to Embrace Climate Goals

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“I’ve spent too much time this last year flying in helicopters over areas of scorched earth,” Mr. Biden told them, referring to a rash of wildfires, blamed in part on climate change. “More territory is burned to the ground in the West Coast than the entire state of New Jersey in terms of square miles,” he added. “It’s just stunning. Absolutely stunning.”

Mr. Biden also let the assembled group know that he was well aware that many of them in the past were hardly ready to rally behind him, alluding to when he served as vice president during the Obama administration and also pushed, often in the face of industry opposition, for ambitious climate change measures.

During that period, utilities were secretly sending millions of dollars to a law firm that filed litigation on their behalf to block the Clean Power Plan, enacted during the Obama administration. They also made large donations to Republican attorneys general who filed their own lawsuits to overturn air pollution and climate rules.

E.E.I. members, in some cases, even organized their own sophisticated, but covert, political operations to try to block renewable energy mandates.

The owner of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility, secretly donated more than $10 million to help elect state regulators who would sabotage renewable energy requirements it opposed.

The company denied for several years that it had played a role in the scheme, until the F.B.I. opened an investigation. The company was subpoenaed and then confessed in 2019 that it had bankrolled the dark-money push.

But despite that history of opposition to clean-air regulations, the industry in recent years has been abandoning coal, largely for economic reasons. Southern Company, which serves 4.4 million electric utility customers Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, has long had one of the largest fleets of coal-burning power plants, and it waged an intense fight to protect them, including donations to climate change skeptics.

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