AP News in Brief at 12:04 a.m. EST News Staff

Virus variant from South Africa detected in US for 1st time

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A new variant of the coronavirus emerged Thursday in the United States, posing yet another public health challenge in a country already losing more than 3,000 people to COVID-19 every day.

The mutated version of the virus, first identified in South Africa, was found in two cases in South Carolina. Public health officials said it’s almost certain that there are more infections that have not been identified yet. They are also concerned that this version spreads more easily and that vaccines could be less effective against it.

The two cases were discovered in adults in different regions of the state and do not appear to be connected. Neither of the people infected has travelled recently, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said Thursday.

“That’s frightening,” because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “It’s probably more widespread.”

The arrival of the variant shows that “the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” Dr. Brannon Traxler, South Carolina’s interim public health director, said in a statement. “While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

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Democrats to ‘act big’ on $1.9T aid; GOP wants plan split

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats in Congress and the White House rejected a Republican pitch to split President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan into smaller chunks on Thursday, with lawmakers appearing primed to muscle the sweeping economic and virus aid forward without GOP help.

Despite Biden’s calls for unity, Democrats said the stubbornly high unemployment numbers and battered U.S. economy leave them unwilling to waste time courting Republican support that might not materialize. They also don’t want to curb the size and scope of a package that they say will provide desperately needed money to distribute the vaccine, reopen schools and send cash to American households and businesses.

Biden has been appealing directly to Republican and Democratic lawmakers while signalling his priority to press ahead.

“We’ve got a lot to do, and the first thing we’ve got to do is get this COVID package passed,” Biden said Thursday in the Oval Office.

The standoff over Biden’s first legislative priority is turning the new rescue plan into a political test — of his new administration, of Democratic control of Congress and of the role of Republicans in a post-Trump political landscape.

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WHO team to begin face-to-face meetings with China experts

WUHAN, China (AP) — World Health Organization experts are to begin face-to-face meetings with their Chinese counterparts Friday in the central city of Wuhan at the start of the team’s long-awaited fact-finding mission into the origins of the coronavirus.

Those meetings should be followed by the first field visits in and around the industrial and transport hub on Friday, WHO said on Twitter but did not give further details about the team’s agenda.

It said the team had already requested “detailed underlying data” and planned to speak with early responders and some of the first COVID-19 patients.

“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID19 virus,” WHO tweeted. “As members start their field visits on Friday, they should receive the support, access and the data they need.”

The team members had spent the past two weeks in a required quarantine, during which they had been communicating with Chinese officials by videoconferences to lay the groundwork for field visits.

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Novavax COVID-19 vaccine works, but less so against variants

Novavax Inc. said Thursday that its COVID-19 vaccine appears 89% effective based on early findings from a British study and that it also seems to work — though not as well — against new mutated versions of the virus circulating in that country and South Africa.

The announcement comes amid worry about whether a variety of vaccines being rolled out around the world will be strong enough to protect against worrisome new variants – and as the world desperately needs new types of shots to boost scarce supplies.

The study of 15,000 people in Britain is still underway. But an interim analysis found 62 participants so far have been diagnosed with COVID-19 – only six of them in the group that got vaccine and the rest who received dummy shots.

The infections occurred at a time when Britain was experiencing a jump in COVID-19 caused by a more contagious variant. A preliminary analysis found over half of the trial participants who became infected had the mutated version. The numbers are very small, but Novavax said they suggest the vaccine is nearly 96% effective against the older coronavirus and nearly 86% effective against the new variant. The findings are based on cases that occurred at least a week after the second dose.

“Both those numbers are dramatic demonstrations of the ability of our vaccine to develop a very potent immune response,” Novavax CEO Stanley Erck said in a call with investors late Thursday.

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Biden opens ‘Obamacare’ window for uninsured as COVID rages

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered government health insurance markets to reopen for a special sign-up window, offering uninsured Americans a haven as the spread of COVID-19 remains dangerously high and vaccines aren’t yet widely available.

Biden signed an executive order directing the HealthCare.gov insurance markets to take new applications for subsidized benefits, something Donald Trump’s administration had refused to do. He also instructed his administration to consider reversing other Trump health care policies, including curbs on abortion counselling and the imposition of work requirements for low-income people getting Medicaid.

“There’s nothing new that we’re doing here other than restoring the Affordable Care Act and restoring Medicaid to the way it was before Trump became president,” Biden said as he signed the directives in the Oval Office. He declared he was reversing “my predecessor’s attack on women’s health.”

The actions were only the first steps by Biden, who has promised to build out former President Barack Obama’s health care law to achieve a goal of coverage for all. While Biden rejects the idea of a government-run system that Sen. Bernie Sanders has pushed for in his “Medicare for All” proposal, his more centrist approach will require congressional buy-in. But opposition to “Obamacare” runs deep among Republicans.

The most concrete short-term impact of Biden’s orders will come from reopening HealthCare.gov insurance markets as coverage has shrunk in the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s an executive action and no legislation is required.

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Navalny defiant as Russian court rejects his bid for freedom

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Thursday rejected an appeal by opposition leader Alexei Navalny for his release from jail, while authorities detained several of his allies and warned social media companies about promoting more protests after tens of thousands rallied across the country last weekend demanding his freedom.

Appearing in court by video link from jail, Navalny denounced the criminal proceedings against him as part of a government campaign to intimidate the opposition.

“You won’t succeed in scaring tens of millions of people who have been robbed by that government,” he said. “Yes, you have the power now to put me in handcuffs, but it’s not going to last forever.”

The 44-year-old Navalny, the best-known critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.

Navalny was arrested and jailed for 30 days after Russia’s prison service alleged he had violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as politically motivated. He also faces accusations in two separate criminal probes.

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NY data show nursing home deaths undercounted by thousands

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration confirmed Thursday that thousands more nursing home residents died of COVID-19 than the state’s official tallies had previously acknowledged, dealing a potential blow to his image as a pandemic hero.

The surprise development, after months of the state refusing to divulge its true numbers, showed that at least 12,743 long-term care residents died of the virus as of Jan. 19, far greater than the official tally of 8,505 on that day, cementing New York’s toll as one of the highest in the nation.

Those numbers are consistent with a report released just hours earlier by Attorney General Letitia James charging that the nursing home death count could be off by about 50%, largely because New York is one of the only states to count just those who died on facility grounds, not those who later died in the hospital.

“While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves,” James said in a statement.

The 76-page report from a fellow Democratic official undercut Cuomo’s frequent argument that the criticism of his handling of the virus in nursing homes was part of a political “blame game,” and it was a vindication for thousands of families who believed their loved ones were being omitted from counts to advance the governor’s image as a pandemic hero.

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Christianity on display at Capitol riot sparks new debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during this month’s Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism.

The rioters who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, leading to federal charges against more than 130 people so far, included several people carrying signs with Christian messages, and video showed one man in a fur hat and horns leading others in a prayer inside the Senate chamber. They also included multiple current or former members of the U.S. military or law enforcement, as well as a West Virginia state lawmaker.

The rise of what’s often called Christian nationalism has long prompted pushback from leaders in multiple denominations, with the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty forming the Christians Against Christian Nationalism coalition in 2019. But in the immediate wake of the insurrection, other Christian leaders spoke out to denounce what they saw as the misuse of their faith to justify a violent attack on a seat of government.

Russell Moore, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that when he saw a “Jesus Saves” sign displayed near a gallows built by rioters, “I was enraged to a degree that I haven’t been enraged in memory. This is not only dangerous and unpatriotic but also blasphemous, presenting a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ that isn’t the gospel and is instead its exact reverse.”

Dwight McKissic, a leading Black Southern Baptist pastor who has publicly criticized the denomination’s leaders’ handling of racial justice, urged them in a tweet to also “denounce this flagrant display of White Christian Nationalism” by insurrectionists.

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Cicely Tyson, groundbreaking award-winning actor, dead at 96

NEW YORK (AP) — Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday at age 96.

Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.

A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. Tyson refused to take parts simply for the paycheque, remaining choosey.

“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.

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EXPLAINER: Why GameStop’s stock surge is shaking Wall Street

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s not just you. What’s going on with GameStop’s stock doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.

The struggling video game retailer’s stock has been making stupefying moves this month, wild enough to raise concerns from professional investors on Wall Street to the hallways of regulators and the White House in Washington.

The frenzy hit new heights Thursday when several trading platforms limited their customers from making certain trades with GameStop.

It’s all forcing hard questions about whether the stock market is in a dangerous bubble and whether a new generation of traders should be allowed to take full advantage of all the tools and free trades available on their phones, regardless of how reckless they may seem to outsiders. At the same time, champions of the 99% are cheering louder from the sidelines, saying the moves mean that hedge funds, Wall Street and the 1% are finally getting their comeuppance.

Here’s a look at how we got here:

The Associated Press

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