Anatomy of a conspiracy: With COVID, China took leading role

BRUSSELS (AP) — The rumours began almost as soon as the disease itself. Claims that a foreign adversary had unleashed a bioweapon emerged at the fringes of Chinese social media the same day China first reported the outbreak of a mysterious virus.

“Watch out for Americans!” a Weibo user wrote on Dec. 31, 2019. Today, a year after the World Health Organization warned of an epidemic of COVID-19 misinformation, that conspiracy theory lives on, pushed by Chinese officials eager to cast doubt on the origins of a pandemic that has claimed more than 2 million lives globally.

From Beijing and Washington to Moscow and Tehran, political leaders and allied media effectively functioned as superspreaders, using their stature to amplify politically expedient conspiracies already in circulation. But it was China — not Russia – that took the lead in spreading foreign disinformation about COVID-19’s origins, as it came under attack for its early handling of the outbreak.

A nine-month Associated Press investigation of state-sponsored disinformation conducted in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, shows how a rumour that the U.S. created the virus that causes COVID-19 was weaponized by the Chinese government, spreading from the dark corners of the Internet to millions across the globe. The analysis was based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms.

Chinese officials were reacting to a powerful narrative, nursed by QAnon groups, Fox News, former President Donald Trump and leading Republicans, that the virus was instead manufactured by China.

Pelosi says independent commission will examine Capitol riot

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that Congress will establish an independent, Sept. 11-style commission to look into the deadly insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol.

Pelosi said the commission will “investigate and report on the facts and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex … and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said the House will also put forth supplemental spending to boost security at the Capitol.

After former President Donald Trump’s acquittal at his second Senate impeachment trial, bipartisan support appeared to be growing for an independent commission to examine the deadly insurrection.

Investigations into the riot were already planned, with Senate hearings scheduled later this month in the Senate Rules Committee. Pelosi, D-Calif., asked retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to lead an immediate review of the Capitol’s security process.

Officials: 2 dead in Texas as subfreezing cold sweeps US

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A sprawling blast of winter weather across the U.S. is likely to blame for the deaths of two people in Texas, where an unusually snowy emergency Monday knocked out power for more than four million people, shut down grocery stores and air travel and closed schools ahead of frigid days still to come.

As nightfall threatened to plummet temperatures again into single digits, officials warned that homes still without power would likely not have heat until at least Tuesday, as frustration mounted and the state’s electric grid came under growing demand and criticism.

“Things will likely get worse before they get better,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in the county of nearly 5 million people around Houston.

Law enforcement reported two men were found dead along Houston-area roadways. Causes of death were pending, but officials said the subfreezing temperatures were likely to blame.

The toll of the worsening conditions included the delivery of new COVID-19 vaccine shipments, which were expected to be delayed until at least midweek. Massive power outages across Houston included a facility storing 8,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, leaving health officials scrambling to find takers at the same time authorities were pleading for people to stay home.

COVID-19 shots might be tweaked if variants get worse

The makers of COVID-19 vaccines are figuring out how to tweak their recipes against worrisome virus mutations — and regulators are looking to flu as a blueprint if and when the shots need an update.

“It’s not really something you can sort of flip a switch, do overnight,” cautioned Richard Webby, who directs a World Health Organization flu centre from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Viruses mutate constantly and it takes just the right combination of particular mutations to escape vaccination. But studies are raising concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines don’t work as well against a mutant that first emerged in South Africa as they do against other versions circulating around the world.

The good news: Many of the new COVID-19 vaccines are made with new, flexible technology that’s easy to upgrade. What’s harder: Deciding if the virus has mutated enough that it’s time to modify vaccines — and what changes to make.

“When do you pull the trigger?” asked Norman Baylor, a former Food and Drug Administration vaccine chief. “This is a moving target right now.”

Biden faces pressure as US sets new course on immigration

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — After a weeklong bus ride from Honduras, Isabel Osorio Medina arrived in northern Mexico with the hope President Joe Biden would make it easier for people like him to get into the United States.

“It seems the new president wants to help migrants,” Osorio said as he got ready to check in to a cheap hotel in downtown Tijuana before heading to the U.S. “They’re saying he is going to help, but I don’t know for sure how much is true or not.”

The 63-year-old is among thousands of people who have come to the U.S.-Mexico border with the hope they will be able to ask for asylum and make their way into the U.S. now that former President Donald Trump is no longer in office.

While Biden has taken some major steps in his first weeks in office to reverse Trump’s hardline immigration policies, his administration hasn’t lifted some of the most significant barriers to asylum-seekers.

In fact, it’s discouraging people from coming to the country, hoping to avoid what happened under both Trump and former President Barack Obama — border agents getting overwhelmed by migrants, including many Central Americans with children.

Okonjo-Iweala is 1st woman, African to lead world trade body

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Monday to head the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman and first African to take on the role amid rising protectionism and disagreement over how the body decides cases involving billions in sales and thousands of jobs.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was named director-general by representatives of the 164 countries that make up the WTO, which deals with the rules of trade between nations based on negotiated agreements.

She said during an online news conference that she was taking over at a time when the WTO “is facing so many challenges, and it’s clear to me that deep and wide-ranging reforms are needed… it cannot be business as usual.”

Her first priority would be quickly addressing the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as by lifting export restrictions on supplies and vaccines and encouraging the manufacturing of vaccines in more countries. Other big tasks include reforming the organization’s dispute resolution process and finding ways for trade rules to deal with change such as digitalization and e-commerce.

She takes over after four turbulent years in which U.S. President Donald Trump used new tariffs, or import taxes, against China and the European Union to push his America first trade agenda.

Deaths highlight once-in-a-decade Rockies avalanche danger

DENVER (AP) — The deaths of two Colorado men caught in avalanches and a third in Montana over the frigid Presidents Day weekend show how backcountry skiers and others in the Rocky Mountain wilderness risk triggering weak layers of snow that have created the most hazardous conditions in a decade, forecasters say.

At least 25 people have been killed in avalanches in the United States so far this year — more than the 23 who died last winter. Typically, 27 people die in avalanches in the U.S. annually.

Avalanche forecasters say they have rarely seen the danger as high as it is now — and it will grow as more snow moves into the Rockies, adding weight and stress on a weak, granular base layer of snow that’s susceptible to breaking apart and triggering especially wide slides on steep slopes.

The main culprit is that ground layer of snow that dropped in October. A dry November weakened it, which is anywhere from several inches (centimetres) to several feet (meters) thick, and despite more snow falling, it’s stayed the consistency of granular sugar, said Dave Zinn, an avalanche forecaster for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in southwestern Montana.

“That layer consists of large, sugary crystals that don’t bond together well. It’s impossible to make a snowball from it. And when it becomes weighted down, it becomes fragile and breaks,” bringing down the heavier layers on top of it, Zinn said.

Right-wing friendly Parler announces re-launch

BOSTON (AP) — The right-wing friendly social network Parler, which was forced offline following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, says it is re-launching.

The Twitter alternative has been struggling to return online since Amazon stripped it of web-hosting service on Jan. 11 over its unwillingness to remove posts inciting violence. Google and Apple removed Parler’s app from their online stores for the same reason.

Parler said in an emailed statement Monday that it would be led by an interim CEO, Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots movement. It said the service would be brought back online for current users this week with new users being able to sign up next week — and would not be reliant on “Big Tech.”

The site’s homepage, however, was a single, static page whose lead post reminded viewers of “technical difficulties.” But it was possible to log in via a different variation of that URL. The iPhone app, however, did not work, yielding a “networking error” when an Associated Press reporter tried it. Among new posters was Fox News personality Sean Hannity.

Guidelines accessible on the site, dated Feb. 14, said Parler would use technology and human review to remove “threatening or inciting content.” They said a “community jury” headed by a Parler employee would hear appeals.

Luxury car brand Jaguar to go all-electric by 2025

LONDON (AP) — Struggling luxury car brand Jaguar will be fully electric by 2025, the British company said Monday as it outlined a plan to phase out internal combustion engines.

Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by Indian conglomerate Tata Motors, hopes the move will help turn around the fortunes of the 86-year-old Jaguar brand, which for many epitomizes class but has struggled in recent years.

The switch to an electric future will involve moving car production from JLR’s Castle Bromwich factory east of the central England city of Birmingham to nearby Solihull.

Chief Executive Thierry Bollore said the firm is “exploring opportunities to repurpose” the Castle Bromwich plant, leading to speculation it could be used for battery production.

Jaguar Land Rover also said that the far more profitable Land Rover brand will produce its first all-electric model in 2024 as it, too, phases out internal combustion engines.

Former NFL receiver Vincent Jackson found dead in hotel room

BRANDON, Fla. (AP) — Former NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson was found dead Monday at a Florida hotel room, days after authorities spoke with him as part of a welfare check, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

A housekeeper discovered the 38-year-old’s body at around 11:30 a.m. Monday, official said.

There were no signs of trauma and the medical examiner’s office was looking into a cause of death at the Homewood Suites in Brandon, near Tampa.

Sheriff’s officials said his family initially reported Jackson missing on Wednesday. Deputies tracked him down to the hotel two days later, spoke with him and cancelled the missing persons case.

Sheriff Chad Chronister said his department has opened an investigation.