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News brief: Omicron variant, Maxwell trial, renowned fashion designer dies

NOEL KING, HOST:

Infectious disease experts have said this again and again - the pandemic isn't over.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Now they say the omicron variant is proof of exactly that.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey is following this story closely. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Where has omicron spread at this point?

AUBREY: Well, South Africa was the first to identify it. The variant has now been found in the U.K., Israel, Hong Kong, several European countries and also now in Canada - two cases in Ontario as of last night. And though lots of travel restrictions are being put in place, it's very difficult to stop the spread, Noel. It will likely be detected in the U.S. in the coming days, experts say. Right now, the concern is that this new variant has many mutations, and it could spread very easily. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking on NBC yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The profile of the mutation strongly suggests that it's going to have an advantage in transmissibility. And that, together with the fact that it just kind of exploded in the sense that when you look in South Africa, you are having a low level of infection. And then, all of a sudden, there was this big spike. And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, oh, my goodness, this is a different virus than we've been dealing with.

AUBREY: So concerns about the new variant are layered on top of the current surge of cases in Europe, here in the U.S., also, where new cases have been rising for weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.

KING: Are vaccinated people protected?

AUBREY: You know, right now, it's not clear. I mean, to figure this out, scientists will take plasma from vaccinated people and test to see if the antibodies in the plasma neutralize or, you know, fend off the new variant. And doctors will also be tracking the cases to get a sense of severity. There is some expectation that fully vaccinated people would be somewhat protected. Here's former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who's on the board of Pfizer. He spoke on CBS yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual, someone who's had three doses of vaccine, has good protection against this variant. And right now, if you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a boosted vaccine - so three full doses of vaccine - is going to be fairly protective against this new variant.

AUBREY: Even if there is some decrease in protection, the vaccines have been shown to work against the other variants. But again, omicron has a lot of mutations that complicate this, so there's still a lot to figure out. But I should say vaccine-makers are already working on developing an omicron-specific booster if it turns out to be needed.

KING: Oh, they are moving quickly. That's interesting.

Let me ask you about what you mentioned earlier - cases caused by delta were rising before Thanksgiving. Then we had the holiday. Are public health experts expecting a surge because all the people who traveled?

AUBREY: You know, just before Thanksgiving, the U.S. was averaging about 94,000 new cases a day. All the holiday travel, all the gatherings are likely to accelerate this. The modelers I spoke to yesterday said they expect to see a substantial transmission over the next several weeks. Right now, the most notable increases are in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, but certainly not limited to these areas.

KING: And for people who are traveling over Thanksgiving and start to notice what they think may be symptoms, what should they do?

AUBREY: Well, you should get tested. I mean, one option is to go to your pharmacy or a testing site or a doctor's office that offers a PCR test, a lab test. Or you can buy one of the over-the-counter rapid antigen tests, such as the Abbott BinaxNOW tests. These come in two packs. They should be done twice for best accuracy. They don't pick up very early infections. That's the point of doing it multiple times.

KING: OK. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Ghislaine Maxwell will go on trial today in a Manhattan federal court.

MARTINEZ: She faces six federal charges of sex trafficking. She's accused of grooming underage girls for the financier Jeffrey Epstein to abuse. She is also accused in some instances of participating. Epstein died in a federal detention center in 2019. His death was ruled a suicide. Maxwell could face up to 70 years in prison if she's convicted.

KING: NPR's Jasmine Garsd is going to be following the trial. Good morning, Jas.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Remind us how Ghislaine Maxwell got here.

GARSD: Maxwell is the daughter of the late media mogul Robert Maxwell. And in the '90s, she was in a romantic relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. She's charged with multiple counts of trafficking minors for Epstein between the mid-'90s and early 2000s. She maintains that she's innocent.

KING: And so what is her defense expected to be?

GARSD: There are a few things. First, they are likely going to argue that there is no way Maxwell can get a fair trial - that she's in essence has being tried for Jeffrey Epstein's crimes. The other argument is that she's already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. I was at the jury selection a few weeks ago, and this was the question that kept coming up for potential jurors. How much time do you spend on social media? How do you - how much do you know about this case? How much do you follow tabloid news?

KING: Right. There's been a lot of coverage of this one. And what do we know about witnesses for the prosecution?

GARSD: Well, at least four women who say they were underage and preyed upon by Maxwell will be testifying. What has been raising some eyebrows is that another woman, Virginia Giuffre, will not be participating. She's one of the most famous accusers who says she was 17 when Epstein and Maxwell started flying her around the world for sex with very high-profile politicians, royals, billionaires. She's the one who has named names, like Britain's Prince Andrew, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as some of the most - some of the important men she was forced to have sex with. She's also accused former President Bill Clinton of partying on Epstein's island.

KING: It is worth noting that those men - all of those men have denied these accusations. Will any of them be testifying?

GARSD: There is a lot of mystery around who the witnesses will be for this case. And what also remains to be seen is whether or not Maxwell had co-conspirators. And if so, will they be called in? How much we find out about that remains to be seen because there's a possibility that the government is investigating these people separately.

KING: OK. NPR's Jasmine Garsd in New York. Thanks, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: Virgil Abloh is often credited with bringing streetwear to the world of high fashion.

MARTINEZ: Abloh was the first Black artistic director of the French fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton. He also founded his own brand, Off-White. He died yesterday after a long battle with a rare heart cancer. He was 41.

KING: Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for NPR's Code Switch podcast. She's been following this story. Good morning, Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: So he was quite different from many fashion designers, wasn't he?

BATES: He was. I talked with Booth Moore. She's the West Coast executive editor of the fashion industry bible Women's Wear Daily. And she pointed out Abloh was a trailblazer. She says his entry into fashion was unique.

BOOTH MOORE: He, you know, came up through pop culture, not through sort of traditional design channels. And he was very good at sort of bridging the gaps between different disciplines. He himself was a DJ and, you know, had a huge social media following before coming to fashion. And so he really kind of changed the image of what a fashion designer should be.

BATES: He also had degrees in civil engineering and architecture. And Moore said because of this nonlinear entry into fashion, Abloh was a huge inspiration to younger creatives.

KING: And what did that look like?

BATES: Well, with his company Off-White, Virgil Abloh was one of the early adopters of streetwear and the crossover of streetwear into fashion. Others would eventually follow, but he was way ahead of them. Here's Booth Moore again.

MOORE: He had this sort of clever way of labeling things in his line where, you know, it would be the actual name of the thing, like shoe or hoodie. And so, you know, that kind of created this mystique around the items.

KING: He also had very close professional relationships with Kanye West and Jay-Z, and those collaborations were incredibly important. Tell us about why.

BATES: Yeah. Collaboration really was one of the throughlines in his work. He melded pop culture with haute couture, and he took a lot of his influences from what young people were wearing and interested in. Abloh's collaborated not only with celebrities, but with companies like Nike, Evian, the fancy outerwear company Moncler. He designed furniture for IKEA and had a big show at the Gagosian Gallery in London with artist Takashi Murakami, whose own work is saturated with pop culture references. I mean, he was everywhere.

KING: He was everywhere. Ikea - I had no idea.

BATES: Yep.

KING: What do you think, ultimately, Mr. Abloh will be remembered for?

BATES: I asked Booth more about this, and she responded immediately.

MOORE: Virgil was a catalyst for a lot of what is now expected of the industry and that it's slowly coming around to.

BATES: And you know, Noel, The New York Times says Virgil Abloh's role at LVMH, quote, "made him the most powerful Black executive in the most powerful luxury group in the world." In an industry that's still grappling with race and diversity, his death is going to leave a huge hole that'll be really hard to fill.

KING: OK. Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent with NPR's Code Switch podcast. Thank you, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "ANGELS AND BROTHERLY LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.