A WHO expert sent to China to probe the coronavirus hit out at US intelligence on Covid-19 as his team headed home with few answers about the origin of a pandemic that was forcing more clampdowns in some of the hardest-hit parts of the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to seek an extension of strict virus curbs, as the European Commission chief prepared to defend the stumbling vaccination rollout in the continent — which accounts for a third of the 2.3 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide.
The coronavirus has infected close to 107 million people, devastating the global economy, and questions over the handling of the initial outbreak in central China sparked an intense diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.
The WHO mission to the ground zero city of Wuhan wrapped up Tuesday without any concrete answers, with Washington again expressing scepticism about China’s transparency and cooperation.
But WHO team member Peter Daszak tweeted: “Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects.”
He said they worked “flat out under the most politically charged environment possible”.
China had repeatedly delayed the WHO trip, and bristled at accusations of a lack of transparency. Beijing warned Washington not to “politicise” the mission after the White House demanded a “robust” probe.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the United States supports the investigation. But when asked if China had fully cooperated with the WHO, he said: “The jury’s still out.”
The WHO team did not identify which animal transferred the coronavirus to humans, but said there was no indication it was circulating in Wuhan before December 2019, when the first official cases were recorded.
WHO expert Peter Ben Embarek also scotched the controversial theory that the virus may have leaked from a lab in Wuhan.
– Vaccine, surge worries in Europe –
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was due to explain the EU’s vaccine strategy to the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, with the bloc’s leadership under growing pressure.
Vaccine supply issues have already caused a diplomatic row after AstraZeneca said it would not be able to immediately ship the doses it promised to Britain and the EU.
At the same time, the resurgence of infections across the continent is adding to the pressure on its leadership.
A stricter lockdown will be imposed in Greece from Thursday — in particular in the Athens region — as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that his country was facing a third Covid-19 wave.
Wary of infection numbers exploding again, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek to extend strict curbs at least until the end of February as fatigue grows with the partial lockdown in Europe’s top economy.
Immunisation efforts are being ramped in other parts of the world with a number of vaccines.
Peru on Tuesday began administering shots developed by China’s Sinopharm, while Argentina approved the Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
South Korea on Wednesday also authorised the AstraZeneca shot for people aged 18 and above, including over-65s.
A number of European countries have not authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine for the elderly — considered the demographic most vulnerable to Covid-19.
Japan will start vaccinations next week — most likely the Pfizer/BioNTech jab — but it is scrambling to secure suitable syringes so doses won’t go to waste.
– Valentine’s Day worries –
Along with mass vaccinations, researchers and engineers around the world are searching for other ways to help end the pandemic and return life to normal — especially international travel.
Tech-savvy Estonia is working on a pilot project with the WHO on how a globally recognised electronic vaccine certificate might work, including addressing concerns about security and privacy.
A more immediate concern for authorities in many countries this week is Valentine’s Day, with fears that the upcoming celebrations could lead to a surge in infections.
Authorities in Thailand’s capital Bangkok announced the city would not register marriages on Valentine’s Day, a popular day for weddings.
In Brussels, however, where restaurants are closed, some hotels have converted rooms into private dining salons for two.
“We’re over the moon about being here tonight, just like in a restaurant,” said Marine Deroo, a 34-year-old who tried out the concept ahead of Valentine’s Day.
Aides of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said they have pushed the EU to sanction prominent members of President Vladimir Putin’s circle including business tycoons to ramp up pressure on Russia.
The move comes after the tit-for-tat expulsion of several European and Russian diplomats as tensions run high over the Navalny affair.
The head of Navalny’s regional network Leonid Volkov and another associate, Vladimir Ashurkov, made the calls on Monday during a video conference with EU states dedicated to the bloc’s “next steps” on Russia.
The call was hosted by Poland and included envoys from the United States, Canada, Britain and Ukraine, Poland’s mission in the EU wrote on Twitter.
Volkov wrote on the Telegram messenger late Monday that he and Ashurkov had discussed “personal sanctions” against billionaires Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and Alisher Usmanov.
He said they also named the head of Russian state bank VTB Andrey Kostin and television executive Konstantin Ernst, among others.
Any new sanctions on Russia imposed by the West would add to a wave of penalties slapped on Moscow by Washington and Brussels following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Navalny and his team say that for the Kremlin to change its course, the West should introduce targeted sanctions against oligarchs close to Putin.
Volkov did not disclose whether the meeting resulted in concrete agreements, but said Navalny’s team will promote personal sanctions “in the coming weeks and months”.
He said that the proposed sanctions were in the interests of ordinary Russians.
– Valentine’s Day protest –
“It is hard to come up with something more patriotic; something that would be even more in the interests of Russia,” Volkov added.
The video call took place at a time of heightened tensions between the European Union and Russia, exacerbated by the arrest and jailing of Navalny.
Moscow on Friday expelled three European diplomats during a visit to Russia by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, accusing them of taking part in protests in support of Navalny.
On Monday Germany, Sweden and Poland each ordered the removal of a Russian diplomat in retaliation.
EU foreign ministers have said they will debate punitive measures and possible sanctions against the Kremlin when they meet on February 22.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday called Navalny’s team “traitors” for holding talks with people “who see Russia either an adversary or an enemy or an aggressor”.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of parliament’s lower house, has said that Moscow may introduce legislation holding criminally liable those calling for new sanctions against Russia.
Navalny was arrested on his arrival in Moscow in mid-January after recovering in Germany from a Novichok poisoning attack the West believes was ordered by the Kremlin.
He was jailed for nearly three years last week for violating parole conditions while in Germany.
Volkov on Tuesday called on Navalny’s sympathisers to show support Sunday evening by lighting phone flashlights outside their homes for 15 minutes.
“Love is stronger than fear,” he said on Facebook.
Just 48 hours before becoming president, Joe Biden pressed Monday for unity, while President Donald Trump remained secluded in the White House at the center of a capital inundated with troops and security barriers.
Biden was marking the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday with a trip from his home in Delaware to Philadelphia to perform community service — a gesture symbolizing his call for Americans to come together after four divisive years.
“Service is a fitting way to start to heal, unite, and rebuild this country we love,” Biden said in a video marking the occasion.
But the 78-year-old Democrat’s fervent appeals for optimism and healing — which are also set to dominate his inauguration ceremony at noon on Wednesday — are running up against the hard reality of multiple crises.
Covid-19 is out of control, vaccine distribution is stumbling, and economic recovery remains in the balance.
And after Trump refused for more than two months to accept the results of November’s presidential election the country is seething with division and anger. When Biden takes the oath of office at noon on Wednesday, he will face a city under the protection of 20,000 National Guard soldiers.
Checkpoints and large zones closed to ordinary citizens mean there will be only a smattering of guests. Similar lockdowns have been imposed at state capitol buildings around the country where local authorities fear provocations from right-wing groups ahead of the inauguration.
A brief security scare on Monday near Congress sparked an evacuation of the site where Biden will take the oath.
– Trump mulls pardons –
Trump, who has still not congratulated Biden or invited him for the traditional tea visit in the Oval Office, has been largely out of the public eye since his supporters rampaged through Congress on January 6, triggering his historic second impeachment a week later.
According to US media, one of Trump’s final actions could be announced Tuesday at the latest: scores of pardons for convicted criminals.
Speculation is mounting over whether Trump will take the unprecedented and legally murky step of issuing himself and his children, who work as campaign and White House advisors, preemptive pardons.
According to CNN and other outlets, Trump has a list of about 100 people he will grant clemency.
After what The New York Times reports has been an intense lobbying effort, these are expected to be a mix of white collar criminals and people whose cases have been championed by criminal justice activists.
More controversial possible pardons that have been the subject of speculation for months would be for the likes of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Trump’s influential advisor Stephen Bannon.
If Trump gave himself or his children a pardon — something currently not expected, according to latest US reports — that would ensure a politically explosive finale to one of the most polarizing presidencies in US history.
A self pardon might also harden anger at Trump among Republicans in the Senate, which is expected to start an impeachment trial soon.
– Inauguration snub –
Trump, the first president to lose reelection since George H.W. Bush was replaced by Bill Clinton, is skipping Biden’s inauguration — the first ex-president to snub his successor in a century and a half.
On Wednesday, he’ll travel to his Mar-a-Lago golf club residence in Florida, departing the White House early in order to benefit from full presidential travel privileges up to the last minute.
Marine One will take him from the White House to Joint Base Andrews to catch Air Force One — the presidential plane that will no longer be his to use from noon.
According to a Bloomberg report, Trump is organizing a military style sendoff for himself at Andrews.
US Democrats began the process Monday of impeaching President Donald Trump for a historic second time, accusing him of “incitement of insurrection” over his supporters’ deadly storming of the US Capitol.
The move — which threatens to torpedo the single-term president’s future political ambitions — could make for a frenetic culmination of four years of controversy ahead of Joe Biden’s January 20 inauguration.
Democrats introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for Vice President Mike Pence and the cabinet to remove Trump — who has been absent from the public spotlight for days — as unfit for office under the Constitution’s 25th amendment.
But Republicans blocked an immediate adoption of the resolution, forcing a vote, and Democrats followed up by introducing an article of impeachment of Trump for “incitement of insurrection”.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi hit out at House Republicans, accusing them of enabling Trump’s “unhinged, unstable and deranged acts of sedition to continue.”
“Their complicity endangers America, erodes our Democracy, and it must end,” she said in a statement.
Pelosi said the House would vote Tuesday on the demand for Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, and would give him 24 hours to respond.
After that, she said, Democrats would move forward with bringing impeachment legislation to the floor.
Trump has been largely silent in recent days — making few statements and holding no news conferences. Twitter, his favored public platform, has banned him for language that could incite violence.
He plans to travel to Texas on Tuesday in one of his final trips as president, reportedly to claim success in delivering on his pledge to build a border wall to keep immigrants from Mexico out of the US.
As Democrats began to act, the US Capitol building was open to lawmakers and staff but under tight security and ringed by a metal fence after Wednesday’s assault by Trump supporters that left five people dead.
– Historic second impeachment –
Inside, some windows and doors that were broken and breached by rioters remained boarded up with plywood, while reinforced glass on the outside doors near the Rotunda bore cracks from repeated battering.
The attack on Congress shook the core of American democracy and drew international condemnation. It has ignited a new effort to remove Trump, who is accused of whipping up the mob into storming the capitol where lawmakers were certifying Biden’s November 3 win.
Trump was already impeached once by the Democratic-controlled House in December 2019 for pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up political dirt on Biden.
He was acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate.
If the House again votes to impeach, Trump would be the first US leader to be formally charged for a second time with “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Even with time running short, Democrats likely have the votes in the House to impeach Trump again and Congressman David Cicilline, who introduced the resolution, told reporters afterward he expects it will find Republican backing.
“This was an attempted coup, to overthrow the government, and we have a responsibility as Congress to respond to that,” said Cicilline.
But although two Republican Senators — Pat Toomey and Lisa Murkowski — have urged Trump to resign, Democrats are unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict Trump in the 100-member Senate and remove him from office.
– ‘Attempted coup’ –
The impeachment effort is nevertheless seen by Democrats as worthwhile.
Although any conviction would likely occur after Trump has already left office, it would lead to a secondary vote on banning Trump, who is thought to be considering a run in 2024, from holding federal public office again.
Authorities are still seeking to arrest more Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol following a rally by the president repeating false claims that he had lost the election to Biden due to fraud.
Capitol security has been stepped up and Trump supporters have threatened new action in coming days both in Washington and state capitol buildings.
Senate rules mean the upper chamber would likely be unable to open an impeachment trial before January 19.
Some Democrats, for their part, have expressed concern that a Senate trial would overshadow and hamper Biden’s efforts to quickly lay out his agenda, starting with the fight against the coronavirus and the need to support the economy.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades told a UN envoy Monday he is ready to attend an informal conference involving Britain, Greece and Turkey to end a deadlock in peace talks, officials said.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey occupied its northern third in response to a coup orchestrated by the military junta then in power in Athens aimed at annexing the island to Greece.
There have been no official UN-sponsored negotiations on the island’s future since a conference in Switzerland –- also involving Britain, Greece, and Turkey –- collapsed in July 2017.
UN envoy Jane Holl Lute, on her second visit to Cyprus since December, held talks on Monday with Anastasiades before crossing the UN-patrolled ceasefire line to meet Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Wednesday he would be the first person in the country to be vaccinated for Covid-19 as he unveiled a campaign promising free inoculations for everyone in world’s fourth most-populous nation.
Widodo’s announcement comes as Indonesia battles misinformation over the virus in order to stave off a fresh wave of infections, with some 630,000 recorded by Wednesday and more than 19,000 deaths.
“The Covid-19 vaccine for all citizens will be FREE,” Widodo said in a video on his Twitter account.
The government originally said only health workers, the elderly and other key personnel would be given the vaccine for free.
Widodo did not say when he would take the vaccine, or when the national inoculation program would start.
But said he was happy to be the first to be inoculated in order to prove it was safe.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa faces a no-confidence motion next week, a parliament official said Thursday, his first since taking power nearly three years ago.
A small opposition party, the African Transformation Movement (ATM), which has just two seats in the 400-member National Assembly, filed a request with the speaker in February for a no-confidence debate.
“The speaker has approved that request, and our recommendation is that it be dealt with next Thursday,” Masibulele Xaso, secretary to the National Assembly, told the parliament’s programming committee.
The ATM, which was formed in 2018 after ex-president Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation, submitted a motion alleging that Ramaphosa was unfit to hold office.
When the party requested the debate, its leader, Vuyolwethu Zungula, said many people believed South Africa “has been on a slippery slope ever since President Ramaphosa occupied the highest office in the land.”
A no-confidence vote requires a simple majority of 201 votes to pass, but Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) holds 230 seats, and the motion stands little chance of success.
Ramaphosa became president in February 2018 after Zuma was forced to step down amid growing corruption scandals. The following year he won a popular mandate following general elections.
Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabore has won a second term after gaining an outright majority in the first round of elections, the country’s electoral board announced Thursday.
“Mr Kabore… with 57.87 percent of the vote, is provisionally elected president of (Burkina) Faso in the first round,” said Newton Ahmed Barry, head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI).
Eddie Komboigo, the candidate of a once-ruling party, came second in Sunday’s vote with 15.48 percent of the ballot, followed by Zephirin Diabre, considered by pundits to be the best-placed opposition hopeful, with 12.46 percent.
Kabore, 63, has been under fire for his response to a five-year-old jihadist insurgency that has rolled in from Mali.
But he was the favourite and by winning an overall majority in the first round he avoids a runoff vote in which he would have had to stand against a single candidate backed by a united opposition.
The elections on Sunday were for Burkina’s legislature as well as its presidency, where executive power in the former French colony is concentrated.
The paramount court, the Constitutional Council, has a week in which to confirm the outcome.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso is struggling with a jihadist campaign that has claimed at least 1,200 lives since 2015 and forced around a million people to flee their homes.
Opposition parties say the vote was marked by fraud and flawed procedures, threatening to reject “results stained by irregularities.”
Their complaints include polling stations that either did not open or opened late, insecure handling of ballot boxes and arbitrary changes to voting areas.
Because of the unrest, the election was not held across at least one-fifth of the territory, denying up to 350,000 people the right to vote, according to CENI’s figures.
Pro-Kabore parties on Tuesday argued that all candidates were equally affected by the problems and that in any case these were not on a scale to have any major impact on the result.
President Muhammadu Buhari has asked Nigerian youths to keep the peace, saying that it is in their own interest to do so.
The President made the call on Monday while receiving the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and ex-Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed at the State House in Abuja, the nation’s capital.
“It is in the interest of the youths to keep the peace. They want jobs, infrastructure and development,” President Buhari said.
“I have sent a team led by the Chief of Staff (Professor Ibrahim Gambari) to go round the country, talk to traditional rulers, who will then talk to the youths. The views of the youths have been heard.”
Reacting to the recent #EndSARS protest that led to the destruction of lives and properties in the country, President Buhari said: “Our own generation is on the last lap, we are exiting.”
While noting that the current administration inherited severe infrastructural deficits, Buhari explained that the Federal Government is doing its best within the available limited resources on the ground.
He also lamented the devastating effect of COVID-19 on the global economy, adding that the pandemic has destroyed lives and livelihoods around the world.
On climate change, President Buhari said Nigeria was concerned about the recharge of the Lake Chad, which has great implications on security, irregular migration, and livelihoods.
On her part, the Deputy Secretary-General said she was on a courtesy call with her team over challenges that concern the UN, particularly COVID-19, climate change, security, and humanitarian responses to the diverse challenges.
Josep Maria Bartomeu on Tuesday announced his resignation as Barcelona president.
He disclosed this during a press conference in Barcelona, Spain.
“Good evening members of the club, I am here today to say that I resign, and also the board members,” he said.
“That’s the decision I’ve been thinking a lot and we are all in the same direction and we have decided that should resign after a lot of years of confidence.
“This morning we received the answer of the Catalan government after the letter we sent to them yesterday, the answer has been clear.”
Bartomeu’s departure comes following mounting pressure from fans and his public falling out with Lionel Messi.
His resignation could even affect the future of Messi, who will now be given a new project after the Argentinian tried to leave in August, citing a lack of direction at the club.
“I want to communicate my resignation along with the rest of the board,” said Bartomeu in a official announcement. “It’s a composed and relaxed decision, agreed with all my fellow directors.”
However, it was his revelation about a Super League which seems certain to make the biggest waves beyond Catalonia.
Bartomeu said he accepted a proposal on Monday for Barcelona to play in “a future European Super League” which “would guarantee the financial stability of the club”.
An election for Bartomeu’s successor will take place within the next three months, although it is expected to happen sooner, while an interim board will be put in charge in the meantime.
Bartomeu will go down as arguably the worst president in Barcelona’s history. His six-year tenure saw a dramatic decline in the performances of the team and he oversaw Messi, the club’s greatest ever player, trying to leave the club for free.
His resignation means avoiding a vote of no confidence, which had been triggered after more than 20,000 Barcelona members signed a petition for him to be removed following a nightmare period on and off the pitch.
Attempts to delay the vote, including citing an investigation into false signatures and problems caused by coronavirus, were rejected by the local government in Catalonia, with Bartomeu finally quitting on Tuesday night following a board meeting.
A series of political blunders had long caused a rift between the board and senior players, before Barca ended last season with a humiliating 8-2 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Messi then shocked the world of football by informing the club he wanted to depart and while he was forced to admit defeat, he did so by making clear his anger towards Bartomeu, in an explosive interview with Goal.
“He didn’t end up keeping his word”, said Messi, who added: “It has been a long time since there has been a project or anything at all. They are always juggling and plugging gaps.”
Victor Font and Joan Laporta are among the candidates expected to run to be Bartomeu’s successor.
Font has attached his campaign to the appointment of former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez as coach while Laporta was previously president during the golden era under Pep Guardiola.