AP News in Brief at 6:04 a.m. EST

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South African scientists brace for wave propelled by omicron

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — As the world grapples with the emergence of the new highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, worried scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its lightning spread across the country.

In the space of two weeks, the omicron variant has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to rapid growth of new confirmed cases. The country’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded Friday, but omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.

“We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing.

“Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65% are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,” said Mathivha. “I’m worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed.”

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potential large influx of patients needing intensive care.

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61 arrivals from South Africa test positive for COVID-19

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A total of 61 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for the coronavirus and were in isolation on Saturday as the world anxiously sought to contain a highly transmissible new coronavirus variant.

Further tests are now underway on the travelers who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to establish if any of them have the new omicron variant of COVID-19 that was first discovered in southern Africa.

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals. In just two weeks, omicron has turned a period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.

Two planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government, along with other nations around the world, on Friday imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations following discovery of the new omicron variant.

The Kennermerland local health authority, which is responsible for the testing and isolation operation, said in an update Saturday that the people who tested positive must quarantine for seven days if they have symptoms and five days if they are symptom-free.

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Towering musical theater master Stephen Sondheim dies at 91

NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century with his intelligent, intricately rhymed lyrics, his use of evocative melodies and his willingness to tackle unusual subjects, has died. He was 91.

Sondheim's death was announced by Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M. Sondheim's Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, told The New York Times the composer died Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Sondheim influenced several generations of theater songwriters, particularly with such landmark musicals as “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” which are considered among his best work. His most famous ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The artist refused to repeat himself, finding inspiration for his shows in such diverse subjects as an Ingmar Bergman movie (“A Little Night Music”), the opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), French painter Georges Seurat (“Sunday in the Park With George”), Grimm’s fairy tales (“Into the Woods”) and even the killers of American presidents (“Assassins”), among others.

Tributes quickly flooded social media as performers and writers alike saluted a giant of the theater. “We shall be singing your songs forever,” wrote Lea Salonga. Aaron Tveit wrote: "We are so lucky to have what you’ve given the world.”

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FDA: Merck COVID pill effective, experts will review safety

Federal health regulators say an experimental COVID-19 pill from Merck is effective against the virus, but they will seek input from outside experts on risks of birth defects and other potential problems during pregnancy.

The Food and Drug Administration posted its analysis of the pill ahead of a public meeting next week where academic and other experts will weigh in on its safety and effectiveness. The agency isn’t required to follow the group’s advice.

The FDA scientists said their review identified several potential risks, including possible toxicity to developing fetuses and birth defects that were identified in studies of the pill in animals.

Given those risks the FDA will ask its advisers next Tuesday whether the drug should never be given during pregnancy or whether it could be made available in certain cases.

Under that scenario, the FDA said the drug would carry warnings about risks during pregnancy, but doctors would still have the option to prescribe it in certain cases where its benefits could outweigh its risks for patients.

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Can Biden find the right balance on immigration?

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats wielded demands to fix the nation’s broken immigration system as a cudgel against Republicans in the 2020 campaign. Elect us, went the argument, and we’ll stop the cruel treatment of migrants at the border, and put in place lasting and humane policies that work.

A year into Joe Biden’s presidency, though, action on the issue has been hard to find and there is growing consternation privately among some in the party that the Biden administration can’t find the right balance on immigration.

Publicly, it’s another story. Most Washington lawmakers are largely holding their tongues, unwilling to criticize their leader on a polarizing topic that has created divisions within the party — especially as concerns mount over whether Democrats can hold on to power come next year.

It's a hard balancing act to pull off, said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for America’s Voice, an immigration reform group. Especially when Republicans are unrelenting in their negativity toward the president, even a little friendly fire can be a challenge.

“It’s hard but they've got to do it,” he said. “They’re going to face voters next year, all the people on the Hill. Biden isn’t, they are. And they have to be clear they’re pushing Biden to be the Democratic president we elected, rather than being scared of the issues because the politics are difficult.”

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Big flotilla of illegal gold miners splits up in Brazil

ON THE RIO MADEIRA, Brazil (AP) — Hundreds of barges of illegal miners dredging for gold were navigating along the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon on Friday, and researchers said they posed a threat of pollution — including toxic mercury — for the broader environment.

The barges were spotted this week by the municipality of Autazes, some 120 kilometers (70 miles) from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

Smaller gatherings of barges are common along rivers in the region, but the latest collection drew international attention this week when Greenpeace and news media published images of several rows of rafts.

Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced an imminent police operation in the area, prompting the miners to depart early Friday and head elsewhere along the river.

Miner Thiago Bitencourt Gomes, wearing just a pair of shorts and some flip flops, told The Associated Press on Friday that about 400 barges – some 3,000 people – congregated in the area after one miner found gold there and alerted the others.

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Black Friday is back but it's not what it used to be

NEW YORK (AP) — On this year's Black Friday, things almost seem normal.

Malls and stores report decent-sized crowds, if not the floods of people that used to fight over the latest toys and electronics — online shopping is much too common for that now, and discounts are both more subdued and spread out over the weeks leading up to Christmas, on both websites and in stores.

Out-of-stock items due to supply crunches, higher prices for gas and food, and labor shortages that make it more difficult to respond to customers are also causing frustrations for shoppers.

Christian MacDonald, the first person in a line of about 75 people waiting for a Costa Mesa, California Target store to open, came away empty-handed.

“I came here because I figured since it was Black Friday, they’d have the new Switch OLED in stock, but they didn’t,” said MacDonald, who waited an hour and a half to get in for the sought-after Nintendo video game console. “So I’m just going to go home, I guess.”

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Solomon Islands police find 3 bodies after violent protests

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Solomon Islands police found three bodies in a burned-out building and arrested more than 100 people in this week's violence sparked by concerns about the Pacific nation's increasing links with China.

Australian media reported the bodies were recovered late Friday after riots and protests subsided. No other details were given.

Authorities imposed a curfew in the capital Honiara, after a 36-hour lockdown ordered by the embattled Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare ended Friday.

Sogavare blamed outside interference for stirring up the protests calling for his resignation, with a thinly veiled reference to Taiwan and the United States.

Sogavare has been widely criticized by leaders of the country’s most populous island of Malaita for a 2019 decision to drop diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of mainland China. Beijing claims the self-ruled island of Taiwan as part of its territory.

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EXPLAINER: What is this new COVID variant in South Africa?

LONDON (AP) — WHAT IS THIS NEW COVID-19 VARIANT?

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It's unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the World Health Organization and it has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days, although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant is actually responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

In a statement on Friday, the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

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In Nantucket, Biden shops, attends Christmas tree lighting

NANTUCKET, Mass. (AP) — President Joe Biden appeared on the loose Friday in Nantucket.

Biden spent more than an hour walking around downtown Nantucket's cobblestone streets, popping unannounced into quaint mom-and-pop shops, appearing to make purchases and posing for photos with surprised business owners.

He was accompanied by some of his grandchildren. Biden and his entire family are spending the Thanksgiving holiday on the Massachusetts island, renting a sprawling compound that belongs to his friend and billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein.

“Hey, Joe," “We love you, Joe,” some people shouted as Biden passed by on a cold and rainy day. One man was heard telling the 79-year-old president that he looked younger in person.

It's those kinds of interactions with everyday people that Biden, a back-slapping politician for nearly five decades, absolutely relishes but hasn't done as much because of COVID-19.