Feb 20, 2021

Axios AM

💧 Hello, Saturday —be grateful for plentiful water if you have it.

  • Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 970 words ... < 4 minutes.

🎥 Tomorrow on "Axios on HBO" (6 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms): NIH director Francis Collins talks to Axios editor in chief Nicholas Johnston about mask emotionalism — and what it's like to be Dr. Fauci's boss. See a clip.

1 big thing: Race for at-home COVID tests

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

At-home COVID tests were ready fast but regulatory approval has been slow, Bryan Walsh writes in Axios Future.

  • Why it matters: At-home COVID-19 tests could make a vital contribution to stemming the pandemic. But old assumptions about self-diagnostics are holding them back.

Most of the approved tests employ highly accurate but often labor-intensive PCR methods that require people to travel to clinics.

  • Pasadena-based Innova produces COVID-19 tests that cost less than $5 and work with the ease of an at-home pregnancy test, yielding results in 15–30 minutes.
  • An at-home rapid test developed by Gauss and Cellex uses your phone to interpret results.

For months, Innova has been sending millions of tests to the U.K., where they have been used as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "moonshot" mass testing program.

  • Innova's rapid testsubmitted for FDA approval in August — has yet to receive emergency use authorization.

How it works: Antigen tests like Innova's are less accurate than PCR.

  • But advocates of rapid testing say the tests are especially good at identifying people who are at the contagious state of their illness.
  • That, combined with superior capacity to test large groups frequently, makes them a "public health tool to suppress the outbreaks," says Michael Mina of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The bottom line: COVID testing is one area where fast and cheap may be smart in a true emergency.

2. Biden's confirmation calculus

Neera Tanden greets Sen. Lindsey Graham, top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, before a hearing Feb. 10. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) imperils the nomination of Neera Tanden as President Biden's budget director but could help two other nominees, Axios' Hans Nichols reports.

  • Xavier Becerra for HHS and Deb Haaland for Interior have better chances if the confirmation gods get their sacrifice elsewhere.
  • The insiders' refrain: "Someone always goes down."

Between the lines: Democrats have been afraid to jinx it by saying it out loud. But they've been pleasantly surprised to see so many Biden nominees sail through.

  • Twelve years ago, President Obama saw three nominees for Commerce withdraw before facing a committee.
  • In the past month, Secretary of State Tony Blinken was confirmed 78-22, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ran up the score, 93-2.

What's next: The HHS and Interior hearings, scheduled for next week, will be proxy battles for two of the biggest ideological fights of the Biden presidency — adding a public option to Obamacare, and curtailing oil and gas extraction on federal lands.

  • The White House orchestrated campaigns for the two nominees, working with outside groups and sympathetic senators.
  • Becerra has met with some 40 senators from both parties; Haaland has met about 35.
3. America in line: Now, it's water

City workers and volunteers distribute bottled water at Delmar Stadium in Houston. Photo: Zach Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Delmar Stadium in Houston (above) had been a drive-thru COVID vaccine site, but now is a drive-thru water site for desperate residents enduring blackouts.

  • 7 million Texans — a quarter of the population of the nation’s second-largest state — were under orders to boil tap water before drinking it, because low water pressure could have allowed bacteria to seep in.
  • Griddy, which sells unusual electric plans with prices tied to the spot price on the Texas grid, was charging customers as much as $5,000 for five freezing days, the Dallas Morning News reports (subscription).

🗞️ Grim headline above the fold in today's N.Y. Times (subscription): "Surprised Texas Died in Beds, Homes and Cars."

  • At least 69 Americans have died in this week's extreme weather, including in Tennessee and Ohio.
4. Pics du jour: Human wheels on Mars
Photo: NASA via AP

The Perseverance rover is lowered to the surface of Mars.

  • Scientists could see red dust kicked up by the rocket engines.
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP

One of six wheels on the rover, which has 25 cameras and two mikes.

  • Systems are being checked. So it'll be at least a week before the rover starts driving.
5. Biden to Europe: "America is back"
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden, speaking from the East Room yesterday to the Virtual Munich Security Conference in Germany:

[T]wo years ago, ... when I last spoke at Munich, I was a private citizen; I was a professor, not an elected official. But I said at that time, "We will be back." And I’m a man of my word. America is back.
6. Biden @ 1 month: Purging "the former guy"

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Today is one month since President Biden was inaugurated.

  • "The subtext under every one of the images we are seeing from the White House is the banner: 'Under new management,'" says Robert Gibbs, press secretary for President Obama.

On policy, symbolism and style — from climate to what's not on his desk (Trump's button to summon a Diet Coke) — Biden is busily purging Trumpism, AP's Jonathan Lemire and Cal Woodward write.

  • "Nobody who observed Joe Biden as a candidate should be surprised by any of this," says senior adviser Anita Dunn. "He had no learning curve in terms of the issues, but also in how to be president."
7. Scoop: Sequoia was hacked

Sand Hill Road HQ where so many dreams have been pitched. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

Sequoia Capital told investors that some of their personal and financial info may have been accessed by a third party, after a Sequoia employee's email was phished, Axios Kia Kokalitcheva learned.

  • Why it matters: Sequoia is one of the largest and most successful venture capital firms in the world. Sequoia investors include university endowments, tech executives and charitable foundations.

Sequoia told investors that it's been monitoring the dark web, and has not yet seen any compromised information being exploited.

8. Parting shots: Louvre in shutdown

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa hangs in a deserted Louvre. Photo: Thibault Camus/AP

The 518-year-old Mona Lisa has seen many things in her life on a wall, but rarely this: four months with no visitors, AP reports.

  • She stares through bulletproof glass into the silent Salle des Etats in the Louvre in Paris, long the world's most-visited museum.

It's uncertain when the Paris museum will reopen, after closing Oct. 30 in line with the French government's virus containment measures.

  • The museum is normally blighted by its own success: Before the pandemic, staff walked out complaining they couldn't handle the overcrowding, with up to 30,000-40,000 visitors a day.
Louvre workers transport "Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors," by Spanish painter El Greco, as it returns from a Chicago Institute exhibit. Photo: Thibault Camus/AP

A major restoration of the ancient Egyptian tomb chapel of Akhethotep from 2400 BC is underway.

  • "When the museum reopens, everything will be perfect for its visitors — this Sleeping Beauty will have had the time to powder her nose," said Elisabeth Antoine-Konig, Artifacts Department curator.

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