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New Covid-19 variant found in eight US states: Official data

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WASHINGTON: A new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus has now spread to at least eight US states, official data showed Friday, as the country logged a record new daily virus caseload.
The B117 coronavirus strain, which emerged in Britain late last year, has been shown to be between 40 and 70 percent more contagious than variants which have spread previously.
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed Friday that the strain — first reported in the US last week — has been detected in eight states, with California and Florida the worst affected.
The strain has also been found in Colorado, Texas, New York, Georgia, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, in a total of 63 cases.
Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told Newsweek on Wednesday that the variant may be “more widespread in the United States than we are currently detecting it to be”.
“I’m certain it’s here, we just haven’t detected it yet. And I think it’s pretty clear that if it’s in places like California, and New York and Colorado… that pretty soon it’s going to be in several more states,” he said.
The spread of B117 and another more infectious variant from South Africa, known as B1351, has sparked fears of a similar new strain emerging in the US.
But US officials on Friday denied reports that one had been detected so far.
“Researchers have been monitoring US strains since the pandemic began, including 5,700 samples collected in November and December,” CDC spokesman Jason McDonald told CNBC.
“To date, neither researchers nor analysts at CDC have seen the emergence of a particular variant in the United States as has been seen with the emergence of B.1.1.7 in the United Kingdom or B.1.351 in South Africa.”
Almost 290,000 new coronavirus infections were reported in the US within 24 hours Friday according to Johns Hopkins University, a day after the world’s worst-hit country recorded a daily high of nearly 4,000 deaths.
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After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un starts over with Biden

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SEOUL: Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.
Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
While Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches, he also tried to give Biden an opening by saying that the fate of their relations depends on whether Washington discards what he calls hostile US policies.
It’s unclear how patient Kim will be. North Korea has a history of testing new USadministrations with missile launches and other provocations aimed at forcing the Americans back to the negotiating table.
In recent military parades in Pyongyang, Kim showcased new weapons he may test, including solid-fuel ballistic systems designed to be fired from vehicles and submarines, and the North’s biggest intercontinental ballistic missile.
A revival of tensions would force the USand South Korea to reckon more deeply with the possibility that Kim may never voluntarily deal away the weapons he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Kim’s arsenal emerged as a major threat to the United States and its Asian allies following tests in 2017 that included a detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight tests of ICBMs that demonstrated the potential to reach deep into the American homeland.
A year later, Kim initiated diplomacy with South Korea and the U.S., but it derailed in 2019 when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a piecemeal deal partially surrendering its nuclear capabilities.
North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favour of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.
The Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen USalliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
But North Korea never likes to be ignored.
Although Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama, whose policy was to wait out North Korea while gradually increasing sanctions, that method might not work because the North’s weapons capabilities have grown significantly in the years since.
While sanctions, border closures and crop-killing natural disasters have created the toughest challenges of Kim’s nine-year rule, he won’t be in a hurry to offer concessions, Easley said. Kim’s government has a high tolerance for domestic suffering and could expect extensive help from China, its only major ally.
North Korea’s first provocation under the Biden administration could possibly be related to submarine-launched ballistic systems, which Kim showcased in recent parades.
Kim’s ambitions for longer-range ICBMs and reconnaissance satellites that he expressed during the ruling party congress this month could lead to a space launch that would double as a test of long-range missile technology. That would be reminiscent of a 2009 launch that took place weeks into Obama’s first term.
(The North) is capable of conducting tests that the USand its allies cannot ignore,” Easley said. “Kim is likely to exploit this.”
The North Korean leader is trying to move the diplomacy toward an arms reduction negotiation between nuclear states, rather than talks that would culminate in a full surrender of his weapons, according to Shin Beomchul, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
But North Korea probably won’t test weapons until after Biden’s State of the Union address in February, where he could set the tone of his policy toward the North, Shin said. Kim may also want to see whether the United States and South Korea proceed with a major joint military exercise expected in March.
Although the allies have described their annual exercises as defensive in nature and downsized much of their combined training activity under Trump to make space for diplomacy, North Korea has called for a full stoppage of the drills, describing them as invasion rehearsals and proof of US hostility.
“The North during the party congress has made clear it has no intentions of budging first, but it is also interested in hearing what the United States has to say,” said Shin, who served as a South Korean diplomat during the Obama years.
“Biden will not inherit Trump’s top-down diplomacy, but you could expect him to be more flexible about working-level negotiations, offering to talk with the North Koreans at any time and place and about anything,” he said.
Shin expects Biden to eventually pursue a deal with North Korea that resembles the agreement with Iran that Trump pulled out of in 2018. It could provide North Korea some level of compensation for freezing its nuclear and missile capabilities at their current level.
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Facebook's oversight board to decide on Trump's ban

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WASHINGTON: Facebook has asked its independent experts to take a decision on continuation of its ban on former US President Donald Trump.
Facebook and its photo and video sharing social networking service, Instagram, suspended Trump after his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6 that left five people dead and led to his second impeachment.
The Oversight Board, an independent body created by Facebook three years ago, on Thursday said it has accepted a case referral from the social media giant to examine its decision to indefinitely suspend Trump’s access to post content on Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook has also requested policy recommendations from the board on suspensions when the user is a political leader.
Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump’s access to post on Facebook and Instagram has driven intense global interest. The Oversight Board has been closely following events in the US and Facebook’s response to them, and the board is ready to provide a thorough and independent assessment of the company’s decision, it said.
“A decision by the Board on this case will be binding on Facebook, and determine whether Mr Trump’s suspension from access to Facebook and Instagram for an indefinite amount of time is overturned,” the board said in a press release.
Facebook has committed not to restore access to its platforms unless directed by a decision of the Oversight Board. Facebook must consider any accompanying policy recommendations from the board and publicly respond to them, it said.
According to the Oversight Board, in the coming days, the case will be assigned to a five-member case review panel. After the panel reaches a decision, its findings are shared with the entire board. Sign-off by a majority of the board is required for a case decision to be issued.
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Biden has no plans to call Trump: White House

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WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden has no plans to call his predecessor Donald Trump, the White House has said.
“There’s no call planned,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
She was responding to questions on the remarks made by Biden a day earlier when he said that Trump has left him a “very generous” letter in the Oval Office, and he plans to talk to him.
Trump did not attend his inauguration, a rare for an outgoing president.
“What he was conveying is that he didn’t want to release a private note without having agreement from the former president. But I wouldn’t say he’s seeking it through a phone call, he was just trying to be respectful in that moment of a private letter that was sent,” Psaki said.
It is customary for outgoing presidents to write their successors a letter and leave it for them on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
However, given that the former president broke several of the past traditions, including skipping Biden’s inauguration ceremony and never formally congratulated him on his election win, it was unclear until Wednesday whether Trump would maintain the tradition of outgoing presidents leaving notes for their successors.
“The president wrote a very generous letter. Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous,” Biden had told reporters in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday.
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