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Canadian mail likely not source of Beijing Omicron: experts – CTV News

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After the city of Beijing announced its first case of the Omicron variant, Chinese officials alleged that the virus may have travelled to the city through a piece of mail from Canada—a claim experts say doesn’t add up.

“This doesn’t sound credible at all,” Dr. Colin Furness, an expert in infectious disease epidemiology from the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in an email, noting that surface transmission of COVID-19 through international mail is highly improbable.

The Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) said that the city reported one case of the COVID-19 variant on Saturday in a 26-year-old woman. After conducting contact tracing, officials said the woman did not travel outside the capital and had not come in contact with anyone else with the virus.

However, the Beijing CDC says it examined the woman’s mail, which included a letter sent on Jan. 7 from Canada, arriving in Beijing three days later via the United States and Hong Kong.

Officials allege that piece of mail had traces of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This includes samples taken from the paper inside the envelope, even though the woman said she had only touched the outer surface of the package.

“The possibility of contracting the virus through foreign items cannot be ruled out,” the Beijing CDC said in a translated news release.

But Furness says it’s highly unlikely that the virus could survive for that many days in transit.

“COVID’s ability to survive on paper depends partly on the roughness of the paper. But it’s unlikely to persist in an active state for more than a day or two. High friction with other documents in a mailbag makes survival of even a day seem unlikely,” he said.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine also calls the claims “bewildering.”

“I would ask whether the ‘officials’ who claimed this have ruled out all other more plausible exposures to Omicron. Are these supposed viral particles isolated and tested viable? Is there any independent verification?” Muhajarine said in an email to CTVNews.ca.

“For this claim to carry any credibility, so many exceptional things have to line up.”

The Beijing CDC is encouraging residents to wear gloves while handling packages, disinfect packaging with alcohol and avoid buying goods from overseas if possible.

However, Muhajarine says that reports of transmission of COVID-19 through surfaces are “exceedingly rare.”

“We now know that this virus transmits most readily through the air via aerosolized means. Even then, it is likely that Omicron doesn’t maintain its viability to infect days after it is released into the air,” he said.

When asked about the claims from Chinese officials, Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the allegations are “certainly not in accordance with what we have done both internationally and domestically.”

“I would say that the experts can tell us what to think,” he told reporters in French on Monday. “I obviously have my own opinion. But for an opinion to be useful and credible, we need more information and I think the experts should speak.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called the reports “comical.”

“Obviously we’re very concerned with variants within the pandemic, variants that have come from outside of Canada but that we have to deal with here. Stories like this remind us that from the beginning of the pandemic, some of the news and reporting out of China could not be trusted,” he said at a Monday press conference.

The single case in Beijing has been identified at the worst possible time for the city, as it prepares to welcome thousands of athletes for the Olympics — including from countries where Omicron is raging.

Furness also notes that geopolitics may be a part of why Chinese authorities are pointing the finger at Canada.

“Sino-Canadian relations are in poor shape, and China may be very keen to counter accusations that it infected the world, with these sorts of narratives,” he said.

With files from The Associated Press

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Gunman entered Texas school unimpeded, police say as questions swirl about response

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WASHINGTON — Law enforcement officials described in chilling detail Thursday the time it took for tactical officers to finally gun down an 18-year-old attacker after he shot and killed 19 students and two teachers inside a fourth-grade classroom in small-town Texas.

Victor Escalon, the south Texas regional director for the state’s Department of Public Safety, stood before a backdrop of stone-faced police officers, investigators and officials — a news conference that appeared aimed at deflecting mounting concerns about what took so long.

The gunman entered the school at about 11:40 a.m. local time through an apparently unlocked door, and contrary to initial reports, encountered no resistance, Escalon said — the armed school safety officer, normally a fixture at educational facilities around the U.S., was not there.

“He was not confronted by anybody,” he said. “Four minutes later, law enforcement are coming in to solve this problem step by step.”

Those officers who initially arrived on the scene pursued the gunman into the school, but soon after had to take cover when the shooter began opening fire on them, he continued. It would be a full hour before Border Patrol officers wearing tactical gear found their target.

“They don’t make entry initially because of the gunfire they’re receiving,” Escalon said of the officers who arrived on the scene first.

“But we have officers calling for additional resources — everybody that’s in the area, tactical teams. We need equipment — we need specialty equipment. We need body armour; we need precision riflemen; negotiators.”

Students and teachers were also being evacuated from the building at the same time, he added.

Escalon also suggested that even if tactical officers had been able to breach the classroom sooner, it might have already been too late for the children and teachers inside.

“According to the information we have, the majority of the gunfire was in the beginning — in the beginning,” he said. “I say numerous, more than 25 (rounds) — I repeat, it was a lot of gunfire in the beginning.”

Media reports Thursday, coupled with cellphone video of the civilian pandemonium outside, detailed how parents and bystanders, well aware of the imminent threat inside the building, were frantically trying to get officers to go into the school to confront the gunman.

A Wall Street Journal report detailed how one of the parents on the scene was handcuffed by federal marshals who accused her of interfering with a police investigation. After local officers convinced their colleagues to set her free, she ran into the school and emerged with her two kids, the paper reported.

Escalon did not directly answer questions about why it took so long for tactical officers to get into the classroom, but promised more details would be forthcoming.

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Uvalde on Sunday to “offer comfort” to the families of the victims and meet with community leaders, said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre as she urged Congress to take meaningful steps toward tougher gun restrictions.

“We need the help of Congress … we cannot do this alone,” she said. “We need them to step in and to deal with this gun violence that we’re seeing, that’s tearing up not just families but communities across the country.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he’s asked Texas Sen. John Cornyn to meet with Democrats to talk about legislation, but offered no details about what he hopes to see, beyond “an outcome that can actually pass and become law.”

That’s a tall order: Congress remains in a state of gridlock, in part because the Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but also because so many U.S. lawmakers support the rights of gun owners and enjoy the generous financial backing of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA, easily one of the most powerful political groups in the U.S., is meanwhile pressing ahead with its annual meeting in Houston despite the tragedy that unfolded Tuesday just a four-hour drive away.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the families and victims involved in this horrific and evil crime,” the association said in a statement that described the gunman as a “lone, deranged criminal.”

“As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

Texas Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz have come under withering criticism for their planned appearances at the convention, which begins Friday. Former president Donald Trump has already confirmed he’ll be there to deliver a speech.

“They are contributing to the problem of gun violence, not trying to solve it,” Jean-Pierre said of the NRA.

“They don’t represent gun owners who know that we need to take action. And it’s shameful that the NRA and their allies have stood in the way of every attempt to advance measures that we all know will save lives.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.

 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

 

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version contained an incorrect spelling of Uvalde, Tex.

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Canada’s transport minister detects ‘shift’ in U.S. outlook after meetings in D.C.

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WASHINGTON — The latest federal cabinet minister to press Canada’s case with President Joe Biden’s administration says he is detecting a positive “shift” in U.S. thinking when it comes to the question of tax incentives for electric vehicles.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra spent Tuesday in Washington, D.C., for meetings with officials including U.S. counterpart Pete Buttigieg and senior White House adviser Mitch Landrieu.

It was just the latest in a series of cabinet-level visits — Defence Minister Anita Anand, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Trade Minister Mary Ng have been in town in recent weeks — where the ministerial marching orders included voicing opposition to the tax-credit scheme.

Biden’s original vision was a sliding scale of tax incentives, with the richest ones reserved for electric vehicles assembled in the U.S. with union labour — a proposal Ottawa feared would be devastating for Canada’s auto sector.

It died back in December when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a vital vote in the evenly divided Senate, refused to support Biden’s $2-trillion environmental and social spending package, known as Build Back Better. 

Ever since, Canada has maintained a strict defensive footing against the tax credits coming back to life.

“I don’t know if the old incarnation is going to come back exactly as it was or not. But I can say that what I am sensing today is that there is now a shift in strategic outlook,” Alghabra said.

The war in Ukraine, and the way NATO members and allies have made common cause with each other in pushing back against Russia, is putting a “new frame” around how the U.S. deals with its allies, he noted.

The world, including the U.S., better understands that trustworthy trading partners and consistent, reliable supply chains that are impervious to unexpected geopolitical shocks have long been taken for granted.

“There is, I think, a new frame for the conversations that are taking place in the U.S. And while I don’t know what the future of the previous EV tax credit is, I am hopeful that I think now we’re entering into a new type of discussion.”

The White House has acknowledged that it’s working on a scaled-down version of Build Back Better, but has so far refused to say publicly whether the tax credits would return in their original form.

Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., said discussions are underway for legislation that would resurrect some of the environmental provisions of Build Back Better, including its “energy transition-related elements.”

Canada would welcome and support any effort on the part of the U.S. to fight climate change, she said.

“But we never miss an opportunity to re-emphasize with them that, in so doing, it’s imperative that as the staunchest of environmental allies, we do it together in a way that supports each other and doesn’t make this path that we’re on together harder for either of us,” Hillman said.

“That message is heard loud and clear by lawmakers on the Hill, by the White House, and they have expressed an understanding of our concerns, and more than that, a desire to make sure that it works for us in our partnership.”

Manchin, the mercurial moderate Democrat whose support has become essential for any White House measure on Capitol Hill, recently suggested he would not support any proposal that would harm Canada’s auto industry.

Manchin, who heads the Senate’s energy and natural resources committee, hosted Jason Kenney when the Alberta premier testified in person on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

The pair have become cross-border allies as the U.S. looks for ways to both combat inflation while reducing its dependence on fossil fuels from hostile regimes, while Kenney continues to prod the Biden administration to depend more on Canada for its short-term energy needs.

After the May 17 hearing, Manchin said he expects the White House is still working on some sort of a program to encourage American consumers to buy more electric vehicles and ease U.S. dependence on gasoline.

But he insisted that he wouldn’t support any measure that would hurt automakers north of the border.

“There’s no way in the world that we’re going to put that type of harm and allow that to happen,” Manchin said. “My vote would never support that at all.”

It was not abundantly clear whether Manchin was talking specifically about the tax credits or more broadly about Canada’s own efforts to develop its reserves of critical minerals, a key component in the production of electric vehicles.

That ambiguity is part of why Canada remains so guarded on the subject, Hillman said.

“Until we see what is actually on the table and how it’s going to be implemented, we cannot rest.”

Manchin and Kenney both voiced support for the idea of a more closely integrated Canada-U.S. energy “alliance.” It would focus on the need for traditional energy in the short term, as well as reliable bilateral supply chains for critical minerals.

Alghabra said the role Canada could play in buttressing U.S. supply chains for those minerals is also generating increased interest south of the border.

“We have more of those critical minerals, and some types of the critical minerals that the U.S. doesn’t have,” he said. “There’s a new sense of interest and intrigue about this new frame that I think maybe did not exist last year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.

 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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‘Extremely serious’: Calgary man involved in terrorism activity sentenced to 12 years

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CALGARY — A man who admitted to terrorism-related acts with the militant group Islamic State has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Hussein Borhot, 36, appeared Thursday before Court of Queen’s Bench Justice David Labrenz for a sentencing hearing in Calgary.

“Quite clearly, you intended to assist or facilitate the activities of a terrorist group. You carried that plan into action,” Labrenz told Borhot as the judge accepted a joint sentencing recommendation from the Crown and the defence.

“This was an extremely serious and grave crime.”

Borhot pleaded guilty last month to one count of participating in terrorism group activity between May 9, 2013, and June 7, 2014, as well as to kidnapping for a terrorist group while in Syria.

The joint submission recommended eight years on the first count and another four years for the kidnapping.

Labrenz also imposed a lifetime firearms ban and ordered Borhot’s DNA be submitted to a national database.

RCMP arrested Borhot in July 2020 after a seven-year investigation.

An agreed statement of facts read in court in April said he travelled to Syria through Turkey to join the Islamic State.

The statement said he signed up as a fighter, received substantial training and excelled as a sniper, but did not tell his wife or father before the trip.

Court heard that Borhot revealed much of the information to an undercover officer after he returned to Canada.

Before the judge’s decision, Crown prosecutor Kent Brown said it was important to keep in mind that Borhot participated in acts of terrorism.

“Once he decided to join up with ISIS, virtually all his activities were terrorist activities,” he told Labrenz.

Borhot’s lawyer, Rame Katrib, said he and his client agreed to the sentence after lengthy discussions with the Crown.

“Mr. Borhot has tendered a plea of guilty, when there were a lot of issues that could have been litigated, but he has taken responsibility,” Katrib said.

Twelve years in prison isn’t a lenient sentence, the defence lawyer said.

“He’s been back in Canada since these offences occurred,” he said. “He’s been here many years and in that time period he has built a family, he’s worked, he’s led a quiet life.”

Borhot, he noted, was free on bail with strict conditions that included wearing an ankle-tracking device, complying with all laws and checking in regularly with authorities.

“When he goes to jail, he is leaving behind a family. He has four children.”

Katrib said the prison term not only takes into account a fit sentence but rehabilitation as a possibility.

“Mr. Borhot left the organization of his own volition and returned to Canada,” he said.

“The entirety of the family was never supportive of this type of thing and even now are very ashamed of what’s happened, as is Mr. Borhot.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 26, 2022.

 

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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