NEW YORK – The World Health Organisation (WHO) rebuked Chinese officials on Friday for withholding research that may link Covid-19s origin to wild animals, asking why the data had not been made available three years ago and why it is now missing.
Before the Chinese data disappeared, an international team of virus experts downloaded and began analysing the research, which appeared online in January.
They say it supports the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic could have begun when illegally traded raccoon dogs infected humans at a Wuhan seafood market.
But the gene sequences were removed from a scientific database once the experts offered to collaborate on the analysis with their Chinese counterparts.
These data could have and should have been shared three years ago, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
The missing evidence now needs to be shared with the international community immediately, he said.
According to the experts who are reviewing it, the research offers evidence that raccoon dogs fox-like animals known to spread coronaviruses had left behind DNA in the same place in the Wuhan market that genetic signatures of the new coronavirus were also discovered.
To some experts, that finding suggests that the animals may have been infected and may have transmitted the virus to humans.
With huge amounts of genetic information drawn from swabs of animal cages, carts and other surfaces at the Wuhan market in early 2020, the genetic data had been the focus of restless anticipation among virus experts since they learnt of it a year ago in a paper by Chinese scientists.
A French biologist discovered the genetic sequences in the database last week, and she and a team of colleagues began mining them for clues about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That team has not yet released a paper outlining the findings.
But the researchers delivered an analysis of the material to a WHO advisory group studying Covid-19s origins this week in a meeting that also included a presentation by Chinese researchers regarding the same data.
The analysis seemed to clash with earlier contentions by Chinese scientists that samples taken in the market that were positive for the coronavirus had been ferried in by sick people alone, said Dr Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in recent research.
Its just very unlikely to be seeing this much animal DNA, especially raccoon dog DNA, mixed in with viral samples, if its simply mostly human contamination, Dr Cobey said. More On This Topic Covid-19 could have come from raccoon dogs: What are they? Lab leak again? All Covid-19 origin theories carry a major caveat right now Questions remain about how the samples were collected, what precisely they contained and why the evidence had disappeared.
In light of the ambiguities, many scientists reacted cautiously, saying that it was difficult to assess the research without seeing a complete report.
The idea that a lab accident could have accidentally set off the pandemic has become the focus of renewed interest in recent weeks, thanks in part to a fresh intelligence assessment from the US Department of Energy and hearings held by the new Republican House leadership.
But a number of virus experts not involved with the latest analysis said that what was known about the swabs gathered in the market buttressed the case that animals sold there had sparked the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its exactly what youd expect if the virus was emerging from an intermediate or multiple intermediate hosts in the market, Dr Cobey said. I think, ecologically, this is close to a closed case.
Dr Cobey was one of 18 scientists who signed an influential letter in the journal Science in May 2021 urging serious consideration of a scenario in which the virus could have spilled out of a laboratory in Wuhan.
On Friday, she said lab leaks continued to pose enormous risks and that more oversight of research into dangerous pathogens was needed.
But Dr Cobey added that an accumulation of evidence relating to the clustering of human cases around the Wuhan market, the genetic diversity of viruses there and now the raccoon dog data strengthened the case for a market origin.
The new genetic data does not appear to prove that a raccoon dog was infected with the coronavirus.
Even if it had been, the possibility would remain that another animal could have passed that virus to people, or even that someone infected with the virus could have transmitted it to a raccoon dog.
Some scientists stressed those points on Friday, saying that the new genetic data did not appreciably shift the discussion about the pandemics origins.
We know its a promiscuous virus that infects a bunch of species, said Dr David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, who also signed the May 2021 letter in Science. More On This Topic Lab leak in China most likely caused Covid-19 pandemic, US energy department says 'Not afraid of the virus': Wuhan turns page on Covid-19, three years on For all the missing elements, some scientists said the new findings highlighted just how much information scientists had managed to assemble about the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic, including home addresses for early patients and sequence data from the market.
Dr Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at the Rockefeller University, said it was critical that the raw data be released.
But, she said, I think the evidence is overwhelming at the moment towards a market origin.
And the latest data, she said, makes it even more unlikely that this started somewhere else.
Dr Felicia Goodrum, an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona, said that finding the virus in an actual animal would be the strongest evidence of a market origin.
But finding virus and animal material in the same swab was close.
To me, she said, this is the next best thing. NYTIMES
Microsoft Bing now uses OpenAI’s DALL-E A.I. to turn text into images
OpenAI displayed on screen with Microsoft Bing double photo exposure on mobile, seen in this photo illustration.
Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images
Microsoft on Tuesday added a new artificial intelligence-powered capability to its search slate: AI-generated visuals.
The new tool, powered by OpenAI’s DALL-E, will allow users to generate images using their own words, such as asking for a picture of “an astronaut walking through a galaxy of sunflowers,” the company explained in a press release.
The feature, called “Bing Image Creator,” will be available to Bing and Microsoft Edge users in preview. It will first roll out in the search engine’s “Creative Mode.” Eventually, it’ll become fully integrated into the Bing chat experience, the company added.
On Microsoft Edge, the image generator will become available in the browser’s search bar.
Microsoft has bolstered its AI-assisted search functions in recent months, first announcing AI-powered updates to Bing and Edge in early February.
Last week, the tech giant also announced it would add its generative AI technology to some of its most popular business apps, including Word, PowerPoint and Excel.
Excitement around the promise of generative AI has been driven in large part by the runaway success of ChatGPT, which was released by Microsoft-backed OpenAI in November.
As Microsoft’s new capabilities became available to users, some beta testers identified issues, including threats, unhelpful advice and other glitches.
Microsoft says it’s taken steps to curb the misuse of Bing Image Creator by working with OpenAI to develop safety measures for the public.
These safety measures include controls “that aim to limit the generation of harmful or unsafe images,” plus a modified Bing icon that will be added to the bottom left corner of images, with the goal of clarifying the images were created using AI, Microsoft said.
Microsoft’s tiered approach to Bing Image Creator’s rollout is also inspired by the iterative approach the company attempted with past releases.
“People used it in some ways we expected and others we didn’t,” Microsoft said of Bing’s new capabilities. “In this spirit of learning and continuing to build new capabilities responsibly, we’re rolling out Bing Image Creator in a phased approach by flighting with a set of preview users before expanding more broadly.”
Russia says it scrambled fighter jet to intercept two US bombers over Baltic Sea
A Russian Su-35 fighter jet was scrambled to intercept two US strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea, Russia’s defence ministry has said.
“Two air targets flying in the direction of the state border of the Russian Federation” were detected by radar on Monday, it said in a statement on the social media platform Telegram.
The aircraft were identified as two US Air Force B-52 strategic bombers “flying in the direction of the Russian Federation’s state border”.
A Su-35 fighter jet took to the air to prevent a border violation, the ministry continued.
“After the foreign military aircraft moved away from the Russian Federation state border, the Russian fighter returned to its base airfield,” it added.
The National Defense Center of the Russian Federation said: “The flight of the Russian fighter was carried out in strict accordance with the international rules for the use of airspace.
“Violations of the state border of the Russian Federation are not allowed.”
The US has not yet responded to the claim.
It comes after the crash of a US military surveillance drone into the Black Sea on 14 March after it was intercepted by Russian jets.
The US Air Force released a video it said showed a Russian jet intercepting the drone and dumping fuel on it over the Black Sea.
I was a fighter pilot – this is how the US drone crash happened
It said two Russian Su-27 jets flew close to the MQ-9 Reaper before one hit its propeller and forced remote operators to crash it into the ocean.
The incident highlighted the increasing risk of direct confrontation between the superpowers as fighting continues in nearby Ukraine.
American officials accused the Russian pilots of flying in a “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner”.
Moscow denied the jets behaved dangerously and said they didn’t come into contact with the drone, claiming it crashed due to “sharp manoeuvring”.
What happens if Donald Trump is arrested?
Donald Trump has claimed he is set to be arrested over an alleged hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
If right in his assertion, the former US president could be charged by authorities in New York within days.
But what will happen if he is indicted – and how will both sides present their case?
What Trump has said
In a post on his Truth Social platform on Saturday, Mr Trump said he expected to be arrested on Tuesday and urged his supporters to protest against the authorities if he is detained and indicted.
He published a long statement describing the investigation as a “political witch-hunt trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party”.
“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said, before criticising a “corrupt, depraved and weaponised justice system”.
However, it’s worth noting a spokesperson for Mr Trump said he had not been notified of any pending arrest.
The case – that the Republican made a payment to Ms Daniels towards the end of the 2016 presidential campaign in exchange for her silence over an alleged affair – is one of several related to Mr Trump.
Other ongoing cases include a Georgia election interference probe and two federal investigations into his role in the 6 January insurrection in the US Capitol.
What has happened with Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram pages?
Mike Pence won’t commit to supporting Trump in 2024
What Trump will do
Mr Trump has accused Manhattan’s district attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of targeting him for political gain, and may try to argue for the dismissal of the charges on those grounds.
He could also challenge whether the statute of limitations – five years in this instance – should have run out.
But in New York, the statute of limitations can be extended if the defendant has been out of state – Trump may argue that serving as US president should not apply.
Politically, how any possible indictment may affect Mr Trump’s chances in the 2024 presidential election is unclear.
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He could be the first former US president to face criminal prosecution – right as polls show him leading other potential rivals for the Republican nomination, including controversial Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
This could lead to the unprecedented situation in which Mr Trump would stand trial as he campaigns in 2024.
If elected, he would not have the power to pardon himself of criminal charges.
In any case, Mr Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina told CNBC on Friday that he would surrender if charged. If he refused to come voluntarily, prosecutors could seek to have him extradited from Florida, where he currently lives.
In an ironic twist, as governor, Mr DeSantis would typically have to give formal approval for an extradition.
Trump arrest ‘would be politically motivated’
What prosecutors will do
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has spent nearly five years investigating Mr Trump.
It has presented evidence to a New York grand jury that relates to a £114,000 ($130,000) payment to Ms Daniels during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.
It is alleged the payment was given in exchange for Ms Daniels’ silence about an affair between her and Mr Trump.
Mr Trump has denied the affair and accused Ms Daniels of extortion.
Any indictment by the district attorney’s office would require Mr Trump to travel to its New York office to surrender.
But Mr Trump’s lawyers will likely arrange a date and time with authorities, as it is a white-collar case. And then his mugshot and fingerprints would be taken before appearing for arraignment in court.
Mr Trump could also be charged with falsifying business records – typically classed as a misdemeanour – after he reimbursed his former attorney Michael Cohen for the payments, falsely recorded as legal services.
To elevate it to a felony, prosecutors would have to show Mr Trump falsified records to cover up a second crime.
In any case, legal experts have estimated that any trial of the former US president would be more than a year away.
That’s why if it happened, it could coincide with the final months of a 2024 election in which Mr Trump seeks a controversial return to the White House.
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