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In our news wrap Wednesday, the U.S. Secret Service says nearly $100 billion has been stolen from pandemic relief funds intended to help struggling businesses and unemployed workers. A record number of Americans are signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces. New COVID infections in South Africa are falling, indicating the latest wave may be past its peak.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the first pill today for an at-home COVID treatment to prevent hospitalizations.
High-risk patients who are 12 or older and weigh at least 88 pounds will be eligible for the medication from Pfizer if prescribed by a doctor. The company says it cut the risk of hospitalization by almost 90 percent if it's taken within a few days of initial symptoms.
White House officials said today the initial supply of the pill, known as Paxlovid, will be limited.
Jeffrey Zients, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator:
We will have 265,000 treatment courses of Pfizer available in January, with monthly totals of pills ramping up across the year, and all 10 million treatment courses delivered by late summer.
Just as we have done with vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments, we will ensure equity is at the center of antiviral distribution.
We'll have more on the pandemic after the news summary.
In the day's other news: The Biden administration extended its student loan moratorium until May 1. The pause has allowed tens of millions of Americans to put off their debt payments during the pandemic and was set to expire at the end of January.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained what factored into the decision.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:
Millions of people across the country are still struggling with the ongoing threat of the pandemic. Many of them are student loan borrowers.
This is something the president's thought a lot about over the last several days, in coordination and, of course, conjunction and discussions with the vice president. And it led to the decision to extend until May.
And we will have more on this later in the program.
The U.S. Secret Service says nearly $100 billion have been stolen from pandemic relief funds that were intended to help struggling businesses and unemployed workers. The agency is investigating more than 900 cases of possible pandemic fraud. The lost sum is less than 3 percent of the total funds across pandemic benefit programs.
As the pandemic rages on, a record number of Americans are signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports 13.6 million Americans signed up for coverage between November 1 and December 15 alone. Enrollment remains open until January 15.
Overseas, new COVID infections in South Africa are falling, a sign that the country's Omicron-driven surge might be past its peak. Last week, the country reached a high of nearly 27,000 new infections, but, by yesterday, that had fallen to around 15,000. Medical experts said that the drop could be due to how quickly the highly contagious Omicron variant spread early on.
Dr. Marta Nunes, University of the Witwatersrand: We had a lot of infections, so people really start creating immunity in the community, and so there are not that many susceptible individuals that will be infected.
More than 44 percent of South Africa's adult population is fully vaccinated.
Libya's presidential election, scheduled for Friday, is now being postponed. That comes amid ongoing disputes and the election commission's failure to put forth a final list of candidates. It's a major setback to ending the violence and division that's plagued the North African country since 2011, when its dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, was killed in an uprising.
In Madagascar, at least 83 people were confirmed dead today after an illegally overcrowded cargo ship sank in the Indian Ocean. The incident happened early Monday morning off the country's northeastern coast. Fifty passengers were rescued, but five others are still missing.
Back in this country, the U.S. House committee investigating the Capitol siege now wants to interview Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of former President Trump's staunchest allies. The committee is seeking details on his communications with Mr. Trump on January 6. He is the second sitting member of Congress to receive an interview request from the panel this week.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into Tesla vehicles over a function that lets drivers play video games while the vehicle is moving. The probe covers about 580,000 electric cars and SUVs. The agency says the feature, called Passenger Play, could distract drivers and increase the risk of crashing.
The nation's economy grew 2.3 percent in the third quarter. The Commerce Department said that's up slightly from last month's 2.1 percent estimate. It attributed that rise to stronger consumer spending and replenished inventories.
And stocks rallied on Wall Street today, boosted by gains in the technology and the retail sectors. The Dow Jones industrial average surged 261 points to close at 35754. The Nasdaq gained 181 points. The S&P 500 added 47.
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