Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, December 1, 2021

The White House

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:53 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Okay. On popular demand and request of the press corps, I’m joined today by Dr. Fauci, who will give a brief statement and then answer some questions. He does have a hard out a little bit after 2:00, so we’re going to get to as many questions as we possibly can.

With that, I will turn it over to Dr. Fauci.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you very much, Jen.

So, as some of you may have heard, the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health and the CDC have confirmed that a recent case of COVID-19 among an individual in California was caused by the Omicron variant.

Genomic sequencing was conducted at the University of California at San Francisco, and the sequence was confirmed at the CDC as being consistent with the Omicron variant. So, I know there are a lot of questions, but here is what we know right now.

The individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November the 22nd and tested positive on November the 29th. The individual is self-quarantining, and all close contacts have been contacted. And all close contacts, thus far, have tested negative.

The individual was fully vaccinated and experienced mild symptoms, which are improving at this point. So, this is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant detected in the United States.

And as all of you know, because we’ve been discussing this, we knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of Omicron would be detected in the United States.

And as you know, we know — I’ve been saying it and my colleagues on the medical team and others have been saying it: We know what we need to do to protect people: Get vaccinated if you’re not already vaccinated, get boosted if you’ve been vaccinated for more than six months with an mRNA or two months with J&J, and all the other things we’ve been talking about — getting your children vaccinated, masking in indoor congregate settings, et cetera.

Yeah.

Q Dr. Fauci —

MS. PSAKI: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m going to call on people. Go ahead, Zeke.

Q Thanks, Dr. Fauci. At this point, should Americans be changing anything they do in their day-to-day lives? Are you changing what you do? Is the President changing what he does?

DR. FAUCI: No, that’s — that’s a good question and an obvious question. But if you look at the things that we have been recommending, they’re just the same. And we want to keep doing that and make sure we pay close attention to that.

Q And are there other cases that the CDC is investigating as potential Omicron variants in the U.S. right now?

DR. FAUCI: To my knowledge at this point, no.

MS. PSAKI: Mary.

Q What should we take away from the fact that this person’s symptoms appear to be mild at this point? And have all the other travelers on the plane also been contacted?

DR. FAUCI: Well, this is what we call in medicine an “N equals one,” which means that you really can’t take anything away from a single patient. It is very — it’s — we feel good that this patient not only had mild symptoms, but actually the symptoms appear to be improving.

But as we’ve said, there’s a lot of information that is now evolving out of countries like South Africa that have a much larger number of individuals not only who are confirmed but individuals who are “probables,” which means they are going to have a lot of experience which we will benefit from here as the weeks go by.

Some of you have heard me say that in a matter of two weeks — or two and a half, three weeks — we’ll know a lot about transmissibility; about whether or not it essentially eludes some of the protection from things like monoclonal antibodies; whether or not the disease itself, in general, is going to be severe; and what is the difference in an individual who’s been vaccinated versus unvaccinated, boostered versus not boosted. We’re going to get that information.

So, again, I appreciate your question about one individual, but we’re going to get — we’re going to get a lot more information.

MS. PSAKI: Kaitlan.

Q Thanks, Dr. Fauci. Two questions for you. One, you said this person had been fully vaccinated. Had they had a booster shot yet?

DR. FAUCI: To my knowledge, no, Kaitlan.

Q Okay. And under consideration, the CDC is considering having stricter testing requirements to get into the United States — a 24-hour window before taking off — but also is considering having a period of retesting once you get back to the United States. Would that have helped in this case if that was already in place?

DR. FAUCI: You know, I’m not so sure because this person did what we hope other people would do. They got off. And as soon as they became symptomatic, they went and got tested, and it was positive.

Q And so, when do you think those new requirements, when it comes to travelers, are actually going to be implemented, given clearly this is something that is already affecting the United States?

DR. FAUCI: Well, that’s obvious of all things that are being considered and under discussion, Kaitlan. I don’t think I can make any real statement about what — when and if that’s going to happen.

MS. PSAKI: Weijia.

Q Thank you. Dr. Fauci, in addition to any new testing requirements, what about new requirements for self-quarantining for travelers returning to the U.S., which, in this case, might have made a difference if he was quarantining for 7 to 14 days?

DR. FAUCI: You know, the recommendation is that — that people, individuals would self-quarantine if they are not vaccinated and would also get tested within a period of three days. That’s the recommendation right now.

Q And can you help us understand why the travel ban is effective right now for those particular eight countries, especially when Omicron has been detected in other countries, including right here in the U.S.?

DR. FAUCI: Well, if you go back and look at when we first found out about these cases that were emerging in South Africa, no one feels — I certainly don’t — that a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States, but we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what’s going on — what is the nature of this infection, what is the nature of the transmissibility.

And we wanted to make sure that we didn’t all of a sudden say, “It’s like anything else, don’t worry about it,” and then, all of a sudden, something unfolds in front of you that you’re really not prepared for. So, we look at this as a temporary measure.

MS. PSAKI: Tyler.

Q Thank you. Dr. Fauci, do you support a vaccine requirement for domestic flights? The President was asked about this earlier this week and said that that had not yet been recommended to him. You’re his chief medical advisor. Do you think that’s something the country should adopt?

DR. FAUCI: You know, I’m not so sure we should say that that would be a requirement. I would say what I’ve been saying all along — that we have 60 million people in this country who are not vaccinated who are eligible to be vaccinated. Let’s get them vaccinated. Let’s get the people who are vaccinated boosted. Let’s get the children vaccinated. That’s where we want to go, as opposed to a requirement.

Q Wouldn’t some people say that, you know, you have extinguished many of your options to, you know, get those people vaccinated and this is one of the ways — as the OSHA mandate has held up in court, this would maybe be a way to push more people to get vaccinated?

DR. FAUCI: You know, that’s a possibility. But I think for the people who are listening to this, we, again, talk about why it’s important to get vaccinated.

I think what’s happening now is another example of why it’s important for people to get vaccinated who’ve not been vaccinated.

But also boosting — boosting is really very important. Because the data that we get on boosting — if you look at the level, for example, of a antibody — a neutralizing antibody peak following the second dose of a two-dose mRNA, it’s like at this level. If you look at the peak following the third shot boost, it goes way up here.

And people ask: Why is that important? Because our experience with variants, such as the Delta variant, is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection even against a variant that the vaccine wasn’t specifically directed at.

And that’s the reason why we feel, even though we don’t have a lot of data on it, there’s every reason to believe that that kind of increase that you get with the boost would be helpful at least in preventing severe disease of a variant like Omicron.

MS. PSAKI: Peter.

Q Dr. Fauci, as you know, a lot of Americans right now are shopping for the best sort of boost or whatever they can get. And given the fact that manufacturers and scientists are racing to learn more about this variant and then to modify a vaccine that would more directly combat it right now — first, for those who already received their boost, how long would it be for them before conceivably they could have a new modified booster that will more directly target this?

And is there any reason those individuals should wait, given the White House has said it will be a couple of months perhaps before we have a more mald- — modified vaccine that more directly targets it?

DR. FAUCI: Great question, because we get asked it a lot and it’s a relevant question.

So, right now, I would not be waiting — people say, “Well, if we’re going to have a va- — a booster-specific [variant-specific] vaccine should we wait?” If you are eligible — namely, six months with a double mRNA dose or two months for the J&J — get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost.

We’re preparing for the possibility that we need a variant-specific boost, and that’s what the companies are doing. We have been — the administration has been in contact with the pharmaceutical companies to go ahead and take the steps in case we need it.

But the mistake people would make is to say, “Let me wait and see if we get one.”

If you’ve eligible for boosting, get boosted right now.

MS. PSAKI: Sabrina.

Q Thank you, Dr. Fauci. A follow-up to Tyler’s question, because there is screening in place for international travel but we see how quickly variants can spread once they reach our shores. Is there — does the science not suggest that there should, at a minimum, be a testing requirement for domestic air travel? And if not, why not?

DR. FAUCI: Well, again, that’s some- — these kinds of things we always talk about and consider. But, right now, I’m not so sure we need a testing for an air travel in this country.

I always get back to the fact — is that people should wind up getting vaccinated and boosted if they’re eligible for a boost. I keep coming back to that because that’s really the solution to this problem.

MS. PSAKI: Jenny.

Q Two quick ones. Moderna executives have said in the past couple of days that this variant appears threatening and may demand new vaccines. What do you make of those remarks that seem a lot more alarmist than the administration’s view or other vaccine makers?

DR. FAUCI: Well, I think — I think — I know — (laughs) — that we don’t have enough information right now. As you know — and we’ve said this — that the profile of — the molecular profile of the kinds of mutations that you see would suggest, A, that it might be more transmissible and that it might elude some of the protection of vaccines, but we don’t know that now. We don’t know what the — what the constellation of mutations are actually going to be.

We have to be prepared that there’s going to be a diminution in protection, which is the reason why I keep getting back — over and over again — and say why it’s so important to get boosted.

But I think any declaration of what will or will not happen with this variant — it is too early to say. And I think we need to be careful, because I know you’re going to be reading a lot of tweets and a lot of comments about this. We’re really very early in the process.

Q Say —

MS. PSAKI: Steve —

Q Say though this is more — this proves more transmissible but less virulent than Delta. Would there be any public health benefit to furthering its spread by lifting travel restrictions, for example, so it could outcompete the Delta variant?

DR. FAUCI: You’re talking about something really dangerous. You’re talking about, “Let a lot of people get infected to see if in fact you could protect them.” That’s something that I think almost all infectious disease people with any knowledge about infectious disease would not say that’s a good idea.

MS. PSAKI: Steve.

Q Dr. Fauci, we are firmly in the holiday season, and a lot of Americans are wondering whether it’s safe — even if they’ve been vaccinated — to go to a cocktail party without a mask, with a glass of eggnog in their hand. What’s your advice to them?

DR. FAUCI: Well, the advice is — what I follow myself and what I tell people to do is that: Get vaccinated.

I’m going to get to your question. I’m not eluding you.

Get vaccinated, number one. If you need — if you’re eligible for a boost, get boosted.

And in a situation with the — the holiday season, indoor-type settings with family that you know was vaccinated, people that you know, you could feel safe with not wearing a mask and having a dinner or having a reception.

But when you are in a public congregate setting in which you do not know the status of the vaccination of the people involved, it is very prudent to wear a mask. And that’s what I do.

MS. PSAKI: Peter.

Q Despite the eggnog?

Q Thank you —

DR. FAUCI: Well, you know, obviously, you mean — unless you have a special kind of mask that I don’t know about. (Laughter.)

The fact is — sure, when you’re eating and when you’re drinking, take the mask down. But to the — to the extent possible, keep it on when you’re in an indoor congregate setting.

MS. PSAKI: Peter.

Q Dr. Fauci, as you advise the President about the possibility of new testing requirements for people coming into this country, does that include everybody?

DR. FAUCI: The answer is yes. Because you know that the new — the new regulation — if you want to call it that — is that anybody and everybody who’s coming into the country needs to get a test within 24 hours of getting on the plane to come here.

Q But what about people who don’t take a plane and just — these border crossers coming in in huge numbers in a sense?

DR. FAUCI: You know, but that’s a different issue. For example, when you talk — we still have Title 42, with regard to protection at the border. So there are protections at the border — that you don’t have the capability, as you know, of somebody getting on a plane, getting checked, looking at a passport. We don’t have that there. But we can get some degree of mitigation.

Q Is there something to do to test these people somewhere else before they get here?

DR. FAUCI: There — no, there — there is testing at the border under certain circumstances, as you know.

MS. PSAKI: Michael.

Q Free testing for everyone?

MS. PSAKI: Michael.

Q Doctor, two questions. First, for folks in California — I know this is only one case — but what’s your message to them? Should they be particularly concerned?

And secondly, with your emphasis on boosters, why not make a determination that it’s in the interest of public health for the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include that additional dose?

DR. FAUCI: Okay, so for the people in California — we’ve been in contact with the public health officials in California. I’m not sure exactly what they’re going to say but I’m pretty sure they’re going to say, “Just do all of the mitigation, all of the things that we have been talking about up to now.”

For those who have not been doing that, start doing that. For those who have been, continue doing that.

Q And then, in terms of making a determination that —

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I mean —

Q — “fully vaccinated”?

DR. FAUCI: Again, there is the official determination of what something is for a variety of reasons. For example, employment and getting vaccinated — what is the definition? That will stay that way.

For optimal protection — I’m talking about what — your personal effort to be optimally protected. That’s why I say we should all get boosters.

Q But what about in terms of the mandate? Like, you have a vaccine mandate.

DR. FAUCI: Right.

Q At what point does the booster become part of the mandate?

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I can’t answer that right now. But I know that, for the time being, the official definition of “fully vaccinated” is two.

Q But do you see that changing? We keep having these variants. We’re concerned about them.

DR. FAUCI: It — it could change.

Q Are you concerned — it could change?

DR. FAUCI: It could change. It could change, yes.

Q Would you recommend a change?

DR. FAUCI: Well, I don’t know. Let’s see what rolls out now. I mean, I know if I say it’s going to change, it’s going to get spread out — that that’s it. We don’t know right now whether it should change, but it might.

MS. PSAKI: Chris.

Q Question on quarantining for international visitors: Do you think international visitors — that when they arrive in the U.S. should quarantine for seven days, regardless of vaccination status?

DR. FAUCI: Well, you know, there are certain requirements for people who — you’re talking about foreign visitors?

Q Yes.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah —

Q Going forward. Should it be a new requirement?

DR. FAUCI: Obviously, if they are, they have to — they have to get tested within 24 hours. And when they come back, if they’re not vaccinated, they have to be in quaran- — they’re recommended for quarantine and recommended to get a test within three days.

Q Even if they are vaccinated —

DR. FAUCI: Yes.

Q I’m sorry. If they are vaccinated —

DR. FAUCI: No —

Q — should they quarantine?

DR. FAUCI: Well, again — we’re going to get confused here. Are you’re talking about United States citizens or are you talking about anybody that comes into the country —

Q Anybody.

DR. FAUCI: — from anywhere?

I’m not sure what that’s going to be. I think we’ll have to just check with the CDC.

MS. PSAKI: Karen.

Q Thanks, Jen. Dr. Fauci, there are reports that — in a new book, former President Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows says that the President — then-President tested positive for COVID three days before the debate with President Biden. Were you aware of that positive test at the time?

And do you think, given what Meadows says, that he put then-candidate Biden at risk at that debate?

DR. FAUCI: Well, I certainly was not aware of his test positivity or negativity.

Q And do you think he put President Biden at risk?

DR. FAUCI: I’m not going to specifically talk about who put who at risk.

But I would say — as I’ve said not only for an individual but for everybody — that if you test positive, you should be quarantining yourself.

Q Dr. Fauci, just to follow on that quickly, if I may, President Trump’s doctor — who you worked with at the time, Dr. Sean Conley — was aware of that, according to Mark Meadows, who you also worked with during that time. And yet, former President Trump continued to go out in public events.

Based on your medical advice, is that something that you would have recommended if he had tested positive?

DR. FAUCI: Well, I would recommend to anyone, whether it’s the President or any of my patients or any of the people that I deal with, that if you test positive, you should be prudent and quarantine yourself.

MS. PSAKI: Christian.

Q Dr. Fauci —

MS. PSAKI: Christian. In the back. Go ahead.

Q Dr. Fauci, with all due respect, there’s zero case of COVID — of Omicron case in Zimbabwe, in Namibia, in Lesotho, in Mozambique. What justified imposing a travel ban on countries that have zero case of the Omicron variant?

DR. FAUCI: You know, that’s a very good question and important question, and we did struggle with that. But we wanted to see if we could bide time temporarily. So, I do hope that this gets sorted out and lifted before it has any significant impact on your country.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. I think we got to —

Q (Inaudible) from countries that have zero cases —

MS. PSAKI: We have to keep going so we can get more people.

Q Thank you, Dr. Fauci.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.

Q Last week, the governor of New York signed an executive order to postpone elective hospital surgeries to prepare for the Omicron variant.

I know that you and your team are being proactive as we try to learn more about this, but do you believe that some states might be going too far too quickly before we know too much?

DR. FAUCI: You know, I really don’t want to comment on the situation in individual states because there are so many factors from state to state that are different. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment whether a state should or should not postpone elective surgeries.

Q And then the President said that we will defeat this variant of the coronavirus not with lockdowns or shutdowns but based off of, you know, the tools that we have now. Is there anything that we are, you know, taking into this new variant experience based off of some of the adverse effects of some of those lockdowns? I mean, we just passed, I think, 100,000 overdose deaths for the first time ever.

DR. FAUCI: Yeah, I mean, first of all, we always discuss things that we might do to better our preparation, better our response. That’s something we discuss every single day.

But, right now, what I’ve always said and I’ll continue to say: Let’s utilize and implement the tools that we have. Because if we had done that — if we had the overwhelming majority of people in this country vaccinated and those who needed to be boosted, boosted — our vulnerability would be much less than it is right now.

Q Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Brian, last one. And then we got to let him go.

Q Dr. Fauci, what do you see as an endgame? In the ’17 — 1917, 1918 flu pandemic, it eventually evolved until it was less lethal. But there are those who are saying that we’re never going to get that far with this virus because we need more people vaccinated. What do you see as the endgame?

DR. FAUCI: I mean, the endgame — which we hope and I think will occur — is that as we get more people vaccinated — not only in this country but globally — we will see a situation where viruses will not have the opportunity — what they have right now is to essentially freely distribute and freely circulate in society, both domestic society and global society.

The more protection you get with vaccines, the less likelihood a virus has to do that, the less likelihood a virus has to mutate, the less likely you’re going to get a variant.

So, one of the things that we need to do about our long endgame is to do the things we’ve been saying every single day, not only for ourselves but internationally.

And, you know, we have done a lot and we’ll continue to do a lot to get low- and middle-income countries vaccinated.

Q Do you think it will evolve into something less lethal?

DR. FAUCI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah — I mean, there’s no doubt that this will end. I promise you that: This will end.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, Dr. Fauci.

(Cross-talk)

MS. PSAKI: Sorry, we have to let Dr. Fauci go. I appreciate you.

DR. FAUCI: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you for coming. Appreciate it.

Q Can you guys say if it’s a man or woman, Jen? Are you able to tell us if it’s a man or a woman?

MS. PSAKI: Not additional details, but they’re going to be doing a press conference in California where they may have additional details to share.

I know we have a bit of a crowded day today, so we’ll get to as many people as possible and we’ll let people know when they need to gather.

So, just a couple of light things at the — a couple of — not light, but a couple — few things at the top.

I’m sure everyone saw the red ribbon on the North Portico marking World AIDS Day, honoring the 36 million people, including 700,000 Americans who’ve lost their lives due to HIV/AIDS.

Earlier today, we released an updated national strategy for ending the HIV epidemic in the United States by 2030. This is a national plan to reenergize a whole-of-society response to the epidemic while reducing the terrible toll of this disease and supporting those living with HIV.

The President remains deeply committed to ensuring that those with HIV are treated with equity and dignity. And I know he’ll have more to say soon.

I also wanted to note a little bit of supply chain news. We announced, in October, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach worked with our administration and our Port Envoy, John Porcari, and announced a plan to cut down the number of days containers sit on the docks by charging ocean carriers a fee that escalates the longer a container sits on the dock.

The good news is the result of the fee announcement alone, which hasn’t even been implemented yet, has been pretty remarkable.

The average time a container sits on the dock is back down — is on track to be back down to where it was when the President took office in January and lower than it was in November of last year.

This means we’re getting goods faster to delivery trucks; faster to shelves; faster, of course, to people’s homes. The fee has not even been implemented yet, so it is the — the fear of the fee, I suppose, that has prompted these steps.

Also, just wanted to note the Vice President is convening the Biden-Harris administration’s inaugural Space Council meeting today. She will be announcing five new members of the Council, including the Secretaries of Education, Labor, Agriculture, and the Interior, as well as the Climate Advisor; and will also be announcing the release of the Space Priorities Framework.

With that, Zeke, go ahead.

Q Thank you, Jen. And, first of all, happy birthday.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Q Happy birthday!

MS. PSAKI: Twenty-five feels really good guys — (laughter) — as you all know, so I appreciate it.

Q On the topic of COVID, can you tell us when is the last time the President was tested for the virus and if there’s been any change to the protocols surrounding his testing?

And then, just a request on behalf of all of us for some more regular updates on how frequently the President is tested and the outcome of those tests.

MS. PSAKI: Absolutely. The President was tested on Monday. His test was negative. We can venture to provide you regular updates on that. Nothing has changed on the protocols.

Q Thanks. Secretary of State Blinken, earlier today, said that the U.S. was willing to impose new sanctions on Russia — that it hasn’t been willing to impose before — if it were to invade more of Ukraine.

What are those additional sanctions that the U.S. is considering? And, sort of, have there been other messages that you’ve been communicating to Moscow to prevent that action from happening?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Secretary Blinken made those comments. He’s in Europe now, and meeting with European counterparts and our NATO partners and Allies. He noted — in his remarks, he detailed his concerns and conveyed that the United States, as you noted, Zeke, has been engaging intensely on this issue with our Allies and partners, including, of course, on this trip.

We’ve also been in touch directly with the Ukrainians, as well as the Russians.

In terms of what the tools would be: We have demonstrated from the beginning of this administration that we are willing to use a number of tools — economic tools and other tools — to address harmful Russian actions.

The Secretary made clear today that we would not hesitate for making use of those tools, but we’re going to do that in coordination — in close coordination with our partners and Allies.

So, I don’t have anything else to preview for you today.

Q And then, finally, the President said he hadn’t seen the Supreme Court arguments today in the abortion case. Has — is he going to get a briefing from somebody on how arguments went? And given that some — a majority of Justices seemed inclined to let that Mississippi law stay in place, what step is the White House taking to act in case that law stays in place and if Roe itself is overturned?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, I would note, as I think many of you have experienced, the President has had quite a busy schedule today. And of course, he will be updated and briefed by his team on those arguments. I know we were all impressed by the strong argument in defense of — for the protection of Roe v. Wade and the woman’s right to choose made by the Solicitor General during the hearings this morning.

I would note that the President believes — since you gave me the opportunity — that the Mississippi law blatantly violates women’s constitutional rights to safe and legal abortions. This case presents a grave threat to women’s fundamental rights, to all of our rights — as protected under Roe v. Wade for nearly half a century. Every woman — every American deserves access to healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, and the President is deeply committed to the constitutional right.

As we’ve outlined before and as he’s mentioned before, he’s committed to working with Congress to codify the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, as protected by Roe and subsequent Supreme Court precedent.

He’s announced his strong support for passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act and urges Congress to pass it.

So we will continue to advocate for that, Zeke.

Go ahead.

Q Thank you, Jen. A quick question on — and a follow- up on what Dr. Fauci said. He said especially the African countries where the variant has been found — or hasn’t been found, you know, those — the restrictions hopefully should come off.

At the same time, there are all these other countries, you know — I mean, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, Germany — where the variant has been found. Is the administration actually planning to go ahead to include these countries in its travel restrictions? Or is the idea to sort of pause, wait for more data, and then sort of wait and see what the next step is?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Nandita, the President is briefed every day by his COVID team. And we’ll continue to assess, based on their recommendations, any additional steps that need to be taken.

As the — as Dr. Fauci noted, there’s a lot we don’t know. So putting in place these travel restrictions was intended to give us more time to do the necessary evaluation, data, and testing required that our health experts are working around the clock to do. And they made this assessment and recommendation about the countries in this — in — where we would put in place these travel restrictions in order to give us that time.

But whether additional countries could be added, we will continue to assess.

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