AMD may have rolled out its second-gen Ryzen processors for desktop PCs last August — and it’s already prepping the third generation — but it’s only recently that its latest CPU technology is starting to appear in new laptops. Acer is the latest manufacturer to add the latest Ryzen chips to its notebooks, updating its Nitro 5 gaming laptop along with the thin-and-light Swift 3.
The current Nitro 5 lineup features models with Ryzen 5 2500U processors, but the refreshed versions can be configured with Ryzen 7 3750H CPUs. Like the Ryzen 5 configurations, the new laptops feature Radeon RX 560 graphics and 15.6-inch 1080p full HD displays. Other gamer friendly specs include Acer’s own CoolBoost tech to provide additional cooling performance as needed, as well as its Network Optimizer to clear networking bottlenecks that hinder efficient streaming during game play.
At 3.2 pounds and 0.71 inches thick, the Swift 3 appeals to an entirely different audience: business people looking to travel lightly. As a result, the latest configurations include Ryzen 3700 processors, which are far less power hungry than the 3750H chip in the Nitro 5. Not surprisingly, they ship with integrated Radeon Vega graphics rather than a discrete card, though Acer says it will offer Radeon 540X as an option. The Swift 3’s exterior has also been upgraded, with the company promising thinner bezels and a 180-degree hinged display.
Acer hasn’t disclosed availability or pricing for the Ryzen 7 Swift 3 and Nitro 5. It’s introducing the laptops in advance of Computex, which begins in Taipei on Tuesday.
Acer Chromebook 714 Though not generating the fanfare that its new ConceptD computers have, Acer …
On Thursday, the US Food and Drug Administration advised vaccine makers to reformulate COVID-19 booster shots for this fall. The boosters would target both the original strain of the pandemic coronavirus plus two new omicron subvariants—BA.4 and BA.5—which became the dominant versions of the virus circulating in the United States this week.
The FDA’s announcement comes two days after its independent expert advisors voted overwhelmingly in favor of updating boosters to include an omicron component. The vote—19 in favor, two against—was simply in favor of including an omicron component generally. But, in their afternoon-long discussion, experts offered opinions that led to the FDA’s more specific guidance.
Specifically, much of the committee expressed support for combination shots—aka bivalent boosters—that would target both the original virus and a version of omicron. There was also broad support for targeting the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 specifically, rather than earlier subvariants, such as the first, BA.1, which is no longer in circulation.
BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants share an identically mutated spike protein, which is critical for infection and the target of COVID-19 vaccines. This similarity is why the two are often lumped together, despite having different mutations elsewhere in their genomes. This week, BA.4 and BA.5 collectively achieved dominance in the US, accounting for an estimated 52 percent of infections, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. BA.5 is ahead, accounting for 36.6 percent, with BA.4 accounting for 15.7 percent.
The pair are significantly different from previous versions of omicron; They have a transmission advantage compared with other subvariants and are even better at evading vaccine- and infection-based immunity. For these reasons, the FDA’s experts felt the next generation of boosters should target BA.4/5 rather than bygone omicron subvariants.
But this is somewhat of a gamble—and a time crunch. So far, leading vaccine makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have focused on updated vaccines that target the original omicron variant, BA.1. The vast majority of data available on next-generation boosters involves BA.1, either in bivalent formulas or alone. There is no clinical data on the efficacy of BA.4/5 vaccines yet.
But, if the FDA waits longer to recommend a reformulation, the doses won’t be ready for fall and winter. And this is critical to the FDA, which sees fall as primetime for a new infection surge. At that time, protection from current vaccine doses will be waning and cold weather will drive people indoors, where the risk of transmission is highest. Even with the FDA recommendation coming today, June 30, vaccine makers will be under pressure to get doses out by October or early November.
That means manufacturing will start while clinical data on BA.4/5 vaccines is still being collected and reviewed. In a statement Thursday, FDA’s top vaccine regulator Peter Marks assured Americans that “any COVID-19 vaccine authorized or approved by the FDA will meet our standards for safety and effectiveness.”
His statement continued:
Vaccine manufacturers have already reported data from clinical trials with modified vaccines containing an omicron BA.1 component and we have advised them that they should submit these data to the FDA for our evaluation prior to any potential authorization of a modified vaccine containing an omicron BA.4/5 component. Manufacturers will also be asked to begin clinical trials with modified vaccines containing an omicron BA.4/5 component, as these data will be of use as the pandemic further evolves.
Readiness and wariness
In a tweet Thursday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company and its partner, BioNTech, are following the FDA’s guidance to “develop a bivalent Omicron BA.4/BA.5 subvariant vaccine booster to help protect people, subject to regulatory authorization, as we enter the next chapter of the #COVID19 pandemic.” Bourla added that the mRNA-based vaccine platform allows for relatively fast adjustments and that the company is “ready to immediately implement this process.”
Still, some experts are wary of the FDA’s approach, including pediatrician Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a member of the FDA’s expert advisor panel—one of the two members who voted against updating the booster doses with an omicron component.
In an opinion piece published in Stat News on Wednesday, Offit and John Moore, a microbiology and immunology professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, argued that the FDA should wait for more data on omicron-focused boosters before making the recommendation it made today. They argue that a BA.4/5 booster may not end up being significantly better than current vaccines against BA.4/5 and may not offer strong protection against whatever comes next.
“A multibillion-dollar decision to launch a vaccine based wholly or in part on the BA.1, BA.4, or BA.5 sequence that would affect more than 100 million people need not be unduly rushed,” Offit and Moore wrote Wednesday, before the FDA’s recommendation. The FDA’s decision, they say, was made “without fully weighing what the exact composition of the new vaccine should be, and assessing whether it confers significant advantages over the current vaccine.”
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision regarding the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants comes down to two specific issues: Should the Supreme Court take the case at all; and did Congress delegate sufficient authority to the EPA for it to implement a specific regulatory scheme first proposed during the Obama administration? But the case was decided against a backdrop of conflict between the court’s conservative and liberal justices, and some of that conflict spills into this decision.
We’ll tackle each issue below and discuss what this means for US climate policy. But one thing that should be clear is that this is a fairly minimalist decision since it applies only to the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from existing facilities and not to environmental regulations more broadly. While it doesn’t leave the EPA with an obvious next step, it leaves avenues for regulating new power plant construction.
As described in our immediate coverage, the decision is focused on the Clean Power Plan, a set of EPA rules formulated during the Obama years that immediately faced lawsuits that put it on hold, where it remained until the Trump administration rescinded it. With yet another new administration in place, the EPA is now formulating replacement rules. As such, the EPA saw no reason for the Supreme Court to intervene at this point.
The decision from Chief Justice John Roberts lays out the logic for the court to do so. The Trump administration formally rescinded the Clean Power Plan through the same executive action that proposed a replacement: the Affordable Clean Energy rule. That rule, however, was rejected by courts immediately before Biden’s inauguration, with the court indicating that Trump’s EPA had fundamentally misunderstood the Clean Air Act. In the process, the court incidentally rejected Trump’s rejection of the Clean Power Plan, technically returning it to force.
While Biden’s EPA asked for (and received) an injunction preventing that, it could, in theory, ask for the injunction to be lifted at any point and attempt to enforce the Clean Power Plan. Therefore, Roberts concludes, it’s perfectly appropriate for the court to resolve the arguments made in the lawsuits that the Clean Power Plan faced when it was first proposed.
The dissent by the court’s three liberal justices, written by Elena Kagan, notes that there was no reason to make this choice. “[T]he Court’s docket is discretionary, and because no one is now subject to the Clean Power Plan’s terms, there was no reason to reach out to decide this case,” she wrote. Not only is it not being enforced, she notes, but reality has made it irrelevant.
Roberts argues that the Clean Power Plan is significant partly because it was expected to cause coal to drop from nearly 40 percent of the US’s energy generation to 27 percent in 2030. But Kagan notes we were already far past that target (coal supplied 22 percent of the US’s electricity last year and is still falling). This gives the EPA even less reason to want to do anything with the Clean Power Plan and thus less reason for the court to intervene. The dissent concludes that the majority tactfully chose the case to further an anti-regulatory agenda.
What’s a “system”?
As for the case itself, the decision hinges on precisely what the EPA was authorized to do when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. That act can be viewed as two components: a set of rules for pollutants that were known to be hazardous when the act passed, and a flexible mechanism that the EPA could identify and regulate additional threats that became apparent later. The recognition that carbon dioxide presented a threat triggered this latter mechanism, which has two parts.
One part involves the regulation of newly built generating facilities, which weren’t an issue in this case. So, should the EPA ever formulate rules that limit the construction of fossil fuel plants, this decision will do nothing to keep them from going into effect. The second, which is in contention, involves crafting rules for existing sources.
According to the text of the Clean Air Act, this involves the EPA identifying the “best system of emission reduction… that has been adequately demonstrated,” using that to identify feasible reductions and setting a policy that would achieve those reductions. Currently, we don’t have any systems to remove carbon dioxide from combustion gasses that qualify as “adequately demonstrated,” which severely limits what we can achieve through changes to fossil fuel plants. So instead, the EPA devised a system that would encourage grid operators to shift production to cleaner power plants, like wind and solar farms.
Nearly every aspect of this was a point of contention in this decision. The majority calls the existence of this regulatory mechanism a “little-used backwater” in arguing that it shouldn’t be relied on to drive major changes. The dissent argues that Congress crafted it as a fallback for cases where more specific regulations don’t apply, and it doesn’t make sense to criticize it for functioning as intended. While the majority feel that the term “system” to describe emissions controls is vague, the dissent thinks that it was designed to be a broad term to give the EPA flexibility in devising solutions.
In the end, the majority agreed with the arguments put forward by states and coal companies: The Clean Power Plan would result in significant changes to the country’s energy economy, so it shouldn’t be allowed without specific direction from Congress. Roberts cites the costs and losses of jobs at fossil fuel facilities predicted by the EPA to emphasize the plan’s significance. Again, the dissent points out that this is ironic, given that the country has already undergone larger change without significant disruption. (Roberts also conveniently ignores the offsetting benefits that the EPA enumerated in the Clean Power Plan.)
From the dissent’s perspective, Congress already indicated its intention to allow this in the Clean Air Act, which called for “The ‘best system’ full stop—no ifs, ands, or buts of any kind relevant here. The parties do not dispute that generation shifting [to renewables] is indeed the ‘best system.'”
On Thursday, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case that will severely hamper the ability of the US to limit its carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. In an unusual move, the court kept a case alive that was focused on an emissions plan formulated by the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency—even though that plan was discarded and replaced by both the Trump and Biden administrations.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the EPA has only been granted the power to control emissions from existing facilities—it cannot force utilities to shift to different, cleaner-generating technologies. This will make it extremely difficult to use the Clean Air Act to compel a shift from coal to renewables, and it raises questions about whether the Clean Air Act can be used to set effective climate policy at all.
Twists and turns
The case is a product of a legal back-and-forth that started nearly two decades ago. During the Bush Administration, the EPA decided that the Clean Air Act did not give the agency the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. A number of states sued, and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the EPA’s claim was incorrect: the Clean Air Act required it to determine whether greenhouse gas emissions posed a threat to the US public.
Bush’s EPA was forced to rely on the science and crafted a document called an “endangerment finding” that concluded that greenhouse gasses do, in fact, pose a threat. But the administration ran out the clock on its second term without issuing the finding, leaving it to the Obama administration to issue one and begin the process of releasing regulations. It did so, only to end up in court long enough to have the Trump administration rescind the regulations and issue a plan that would “address” carbon dioxide emissions without requiring any emissions cuts.
That non-plan also ended up in court long enough to allow Biden to be elected, at which point the new EPA withdrew it. Normally, this would be where courts would declare the suits against the Trump plan moot since the plan had been withdrawn, and the EPA would begin the process of formulating new regulations. And in fact, a District-level court vacated the suit against the EPA. But in an unusual move, the US Supreme Court kept the case alive to address questions brought by a coalition of states and coal companies regarding the plan formulated by the Obama-era EPA.
The issue there concerned which methods the EPA could use to lower national carbon emissions. The Clean Air Act directs the agency to identify the “best system of emission reduction… that has been adequately demonstrated.” This rules out the use of carbon capture on fossil fuel plants, as that technology has not been anywhere close to adequately demonstrated. In its absence, there’s no way to bring coal plant emissions down significantly; as such, the Obama-era EPA devised regulations that encouraged a shift to cleaner generating sources.
This convoluted history ultimately resulted in West Virginia vs. EPA, which asked the courts to keep use cases that were otherwise moot to serve as a vehicle to determine whether the EPA has the power to formulate regulations that would result in changes to the generating technologies used on the power grid.
In a decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by his fellow conservative court members, the Supreme Court has now formally revived the case and sent it back to a lower court. The Supreme Court has also determined that the EPA overstepped the powers it had been granted by the Clean Air Act. This means that the EPA can only address carbon emissions by establishing limits on existing generators that can be met via established technology. This will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to bring emissions from coal plants down and thus harms a key component of the Biden climate policy.
We’re currently reading the decision and will update this story with details shortly.