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Two years since Covid was first confirmed in U.S.

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A 35-year-old man returned to the U.S. from Wuhan, China on Jan. 15, 2020 and fell ill with a cough and fever.

He had read an alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan and sought treatment at an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington four days later.

On Jan. 21, the CDC publicly confirmed he had the first known case of coronavirus in the U.S., although the agency would later find the virus had arrived on the West Coast as early as December after testing blood samples for antibodies.

The man said he had not spent time at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, where a cluster of early cases were identified in December. He was admitted to isolation unit at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash. for observation.

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After confirming the Washington state case, the CDC told the public it believed the risk “remains low at this time.” There was growing evidence of person-to-person transmission of the virus, the CDC said, but “it’s unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people.”

Then President Donald Trump told CNBC the U.S. had it “totally under control.”

“It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” Trump told “Squawk Box” co-host Joe Kernen in an interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

However, Dr. Anthony Fauci would confirm the public’s worst fears on Jan. 31: People could carry and spread the virus without showing any symptoms. Dr. Helen Chu’s research team at the Seattle Flu Study started examining genomic data from Wuhan. It became clear early on that person-to-person transmission was happening, Chu said. By using the flu study’s databank of nasal swab samples, the team was able to identify another Covid case in a 15-year-old who hadn’t recently traveled, indicating it was spreading throughout the community.

In late February, a senior CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warned that containing the virus at the nation’s borders was no longer feasible. Community spread would happen in the U.S., she said, and the central was question was “how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

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In the two years since that first confirmed case, the virus has torn through the U.S. with a ferocity and duration few anticipated. The human toll is staggering, with more than 860,000 people dead and more than 69 million total infections. Hospitals around the nation have been pushed to the breaking point with more than 4 million admissions of confirmed Covid patients since August 2020, when the CDC started tracking hospitalizations. The hospital admissions are an undercount because they do not include the wave of cases that first hit the U.S. in the spring 2020 when hospitals were caught flat footed and testing was inadequate.

Though the U.S. now has effective vaccines and therapeutics to fight Covid, the future course of the pandemic remains uncertain as the virus mutates into new variants that are more transmissible and can evade vaccine protection. The highly contagious omicron variant has pushed infections and hospitalizations to record highs across the globe this month, a shock to a weary public that wants a return to normal life after two years of lockdowns, event cancellations, working from home and mask and vaccine mandates.

The rapid evolution of the virus and the dramatic waves of infection that would follow, from alpha to delta and omicron, came as a surprise to many elected leaders, public health officials and scientists. Dr. Michael Osterholm, a top epidemiologist, said the Covid mutations are the big unknown that will determine the future course of the pandemic.

“We don’t yet understand how these variants emerge and what they are capable of doing,” Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minnesota, told CNBC. “Look at how omicron caught us as a global community surprised by the rapid transmission, the immune evasion. Look at delta and all the impact it had on disease severity,” he said.

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U.S. charges two Chinese nationals with obstructing Huawei case, source says

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has unsealed charges against two alleged DPRC spies who are accused of attempting to obstruct a federal prosecution against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

In a criminal complaint dated October 20 and made public on Monday, the U.S. claims that two Chinese intelligence officers, Guochun He (known as “Dong He”) and Zheng Wang (known as “Zen Wang”), attempted to bribe a U.S. law-enforcement official to obtain what they believed was inside information about the U.S. criminal case against a “global telecommunications company based in China.” The complaint doesn’t name the company, but the details match up with the known prosecution of the company. Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint alleges that He and Wang “attempted to direct a person they believed they recruited as an asset” inside a U.S. government law enforcement agency “to obtain confidential information regarding potential new charges to be brought against [Huawei] for the purpose of obstructing justice.”

The government alleges He and Wang first cultivated their relationship with the law enforcement employee, who is not named, in February 2017, but that person “subsequently began working as a double agent for the U.S. government.”

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The men are accused of attempting to extract confidential information about witnesses and trial evidence in the Huawei case and paid the double agent, referred to as “GE-1”, $61,000 in bitcoin, cash and jewelery for what they believed was insider information about the Justice Department’s pending prosecution of the China-based company.

At one point in October 2021, the indictment alleges, the undercover agent passed a single-page document to one of the Chinese intelligence officers, classified as “SECRET”, that detailed U.S. plans to arrest two principals from Huawei living in China. They paid the undercover agent $41,000 just for that single page.

“Far more than an effort to collect information or intelligence, the actions of the PRC intelligence officers charged in this case must be called out for what they are: an extraordinary intervention by agents of a foreign government to interfere with the integrity of the U.S. criminal justice system, compromise a U.S. government employee and obstruct the enforcement of U.S. law to benefit a PRC-based commercial enterprise,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen. “The Department of Justice will not abide nation-state actors meddling in U.S. criminal process and investigations, and will not tolerate foreign interference with the fair administration of justice.”

If convicted, He and Wang face up to 60 years and 20 years in prison, respectively.

The case was one of three unsealed on Monday relating to alleged Chinese interference in the U.S. justice system. One in New Jersey charges three Chinese intelligence agents with conspiring to act in the U.S. as illegal agents on behalf of a foreign government, while another in the Eastern District of New York accuses several people working on behalf of the Chinese government of “engaging in a multi-year campaign of threats and harassment to force a U.S. resident to return to China,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday.

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Pelosi to visit Taiwan despite China warning military action

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Several Taiwan media outlets reported late on Monday that US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan on Tuesday and spend the night in Taipei though China has repeatedly warned that its military will take action if she does.

The Chinese Army “won’t sit idly by” if Pelosi visited Taiwan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday during a regular press briefing in Beijing.

Despite China’s threats over a possible Taiwan visit by Nancy Pelosi, “US military preparation” is still underway, Politico has reported.

The Liberty Times newspaper said Pelosi was scheduled to visit Taiwan’s parliament on Wednesday morning before continuing her Asia trip.

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The United Daily News, also citing unnamed sources, said “related officials” were told to receive Pelosi, who is set to arrive in the capital Taipei on Tuesday evening at the soonest and spend the night there.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it has no comment on reports on Pelosi’s travel plan and no further information to share with media.

It would be a landmark move by a US official and raise the risk of a military confrontation given China views Taiwan as its territory. Pelosi would become the first sitting speaker since Newt Gingrich to go to the democratically-ruled island in 25 years. The Liberty Times is one of Taiwan’s pro-ruling party newspapers. 

Earlier on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it would be “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs” if Pelosi visits Taiwan, and warned that it would lead to “very serious developments and consequences.”

Nancy Pelosi might visit Taiwan during her Asia tour, according to a senior Taiwanese government official and a US official, despite warnings from Biden administration officials, who are worried about China’s response to such a high-profile visit amid intense speculation that she may risk the wrath of Beijing by visiting Taiwan.

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Pelosi left Taiwan out of the itinerary in a statement on Sunday announcing the Asia trip, which will also includes stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be the most-senior US official to visit Taiwan since 1997.

US officials say China may be confusing Pelosi’s visit with an official administration visit, since she and Biden are both Democrats. Administration officials are concerned that China doesn’t separate Pelosi from Biden much, if at all.

Biden said last month that the US military opposed Pelosi visiting Taiwan, though since then has refused to elaborate on the warnings. The White House has said it is up to the House speaker where she travels, and that they have little say in her decision.

Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress said it was Pelosi’s right to travel to Taiwan. Other members appeared to be more cautious about the diplomatically sensitive trip, reports CNN. 

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The administration takes extra care for Pelosi’s security when she travels overseas because she is in the presidential line of succession. Defense department officials are working around the clock on monitoring any Chinese movements in the region and securing a plan to keep her safe.

The Chinese embassy to the United States has objected to her expected trip, which was planned for April before Pelosi tested positive for Covid-19, urging members of Congress to tell the speaker not to make it.

Pelosi has long been a critic of the Chinese Communist Party. In recent years, she voiced support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Administration officials are concerned Pelosi’s trip comes at a particularly tense moment, as President Xi Jinping is expected to seek an unprecedented third term at the upcoming Chinese Communist Party congress, increasing the political stakes.

The timing means Xi can’t afford to look weak in response to what Beijing views as foreign interference in its affairs, reports Bloomberg. 

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Pelosi is accompanied by five fellow House Democrats, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York.

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Russia warns West against long-range weapons for Ukraine

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Moscow warned Monday that it would respond to Western supplies of long-range weapons to Ukraine by stepping up efforts to push Kyiv’s forces further from its border.

“The more long-range weapons you supply, the further we will push away from our territory” the line of Ukrainian forces, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Moscow would hit new targets if the West supplies Ukraine with long-range missiles.

Washington and London have defied Putin’s warnings against supplying Kyiv with advanced weapons, saying they would send long-range missile systems to Ukraine.

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The US last week announced it would give Kyiv its high mobility artillery rocket system, known as HIMARS, which can simultaneously launch multiple precision-guided missiles and is superior in range and precision to existing systems Ukraine has.

Britain said Monday it will mirror the United States and send long-range missile systems to Ukraine too.

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