On 1st overseas trip, Biden to assure allies and meet Putin

WASHINGTON (AP) — Set to embark on the first overseas trip of his term, President Joe Biden is eager to reassert the United States on the world stage, steadying European allies deeply shaken by his predecessor and pushing democracy as the only bulwark to rising forces of authoritarianism.

Biden has set the stakes for his eight-day trip in sweeping terms, believing that the West must publicly demonstrate it can compete economically with China as the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.

Building toward his trip-ending summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden will aim to reassure European capitals that the United States can once again be counted on as a dependable partner to thwart Moscow's aggression both on their eastern front and their internet battlefields. 

The trip will be far more about messaging than specific actions or deals. And the paramount priority for Biden, who leaves Wednesday for his first stop in the United Kingdom, is to convince the world that his Democratic administration is not just a fleeting deviation in the trajectory of an American foreign policy that many allies fear irrevocably drifted toward a more transactional outlook under former President Donald Trump.

"The trip, at its core, will advance the fundamental thrust of Joe Biden's foreign policy," said national security adviser Jake Sullivan, "to rally the world's democracies to tackle the great challenges of our time."

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'This IS INSANE': Africa desperately short of COVID vaccine

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — In the global race to vaccinate people against COVID-19, Africa is tragically at the back of the pack.

In fact, it has barely gotten out of the starting blocks.

In South Africa, which has the continent's most robust economy and its biggest coronavirus caseload, just 0.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a worldwide tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University. And hundreds of thousands of the country's health workers, many of whom come face-to-face with the virus every day, are still waiting for their shots.

In Nigeria, Africa's biggest country with more than 200 million people, only 0.1% are fully protected. Kenya, with 50 million people, is even lower. Uganda has recalled doses from rural areas because it doesn't have nearly enough to fight outbreaks in big cities. 

Chad didn't administer its first vaccine shots until this past weekend. And there are at least five other countries in Africa where not one dose has been put into an arm, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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EXPLAINER: The US investigation into COVID-19 origins

WASHINGTON (AP) — Once dismissed by most public health experts and government officials, the hypothesis that COVID-19 leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab is now receiving scrutiny under a new U.S. investigation.

Experts say the 90-day review ordered on May 26 by President Joe Biden will push American intelligence agencies to collect more information and review what they already have. Former State Department officials under President Donald Trump have publicly pushed for further investigation into virus origins, as have scientists and the World Health Organization. 

Many scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they still believe the virus most likely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to humans. Virus researchers have not publicly identified any key new scientific evidence that might make the lab-leak hypothesis more likely.

Virologists also say it is unlikely that any definitive answer about virus origins will be possible in 90 days. The work to fully confirm origins and pathways of past viruses — such as the first SARS or HIV/AIDS — has taken years or decades.

A look at what is known about the U.S. investigation of the virus.

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Biden ends GOP infrastructure talks, but new group emerges

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden ended talks with a group of Republican senators on a big infrastructure package on Tuesday and started reaching out to senators from both parties in a new effort toward bipartisan compromise, setting a summer deadline for Congress to pass his top legislative priority.

The president is walking away from talks with lead Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito after the two spoke Tuesday, but would welcome her in the new bipartisan group, according to an administrative official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations. 

Shortly after the Biden-Capito talks collapsed, 10 senators huddled late Thursday over pizza — five Republicans, five Democrats — emerging after three hours with some optimism their new effort could create a viable path forward, said a person familiar with the closed-door talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

At the same time, with anxiety running high as time slips by, Democrats are laying the groundwork to pass some or all of the ambitious package on their own. Biden conferred Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about launching the budget resolution process for Senate votes in July, the White House said.

"The President is committed to moving his economic legislation through Congress this summer, and is pursuing multiple paths to get this done," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

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Blunt message, search for answers mark VP's 1st foreign trip

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris came to Latin America to deliver a message rather than clinch some kind of concrete deal.

She bluntly told migrants not to travel to the United States. She spoke of the evils of government corruption that lead to dislocation. She urged nations to increase enforcement at their borders.

She completed the journey without securing any commitments to increase immigration enforcement or expand pathways to legal migration. But she also did so without a significant mistake.

It was her first international trip aboard Air Force Two, and a first step toward establishing herself on a core foreign policy issue — one that has bedeviled American presidents at least since Ronald Reagan.

But as much as the trip offered her a chance to step onto the international stage speaking for the Biden administration on a key issue, it also highlighted the ambiguous nature of the portfolio President Joe Biden has handed her — to address the root causes of the spike in migration at the U.S. border.

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Rights group: Colombian police cause deaths of 20 protesters

BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) — An international monitoring group on Wednesday accused police officers in Colombia of responsibility for the deaths of 20 people and other violent actions against protesters during recent civil unrest, including sexual abuse, beatings and arbitrary detentions.

Human Rights Watch said in a report said it has "credible evidence" indicating police killed at least 16 protesters or bystanders with "live ammunition fired from firearms," while three other people died when police used non-lethal weapons. The report said another person died after being beaten repeatedly.

"These brutal abuses are not isolated incidents by rogue officers, but rather the result of systemic shortcomings of the Colombian police," said José Miguel Vivanco, the group's director for the Americas. "Comprehensive reform that clearly separates the police from the military and ensures adequate oversight and accountability is needed to ensure that these violations don't occur again."

The report presents a panorama of more widespread violence than what Colombian authorities have acknowledged. It says Human Rights Watch has received "credible information" reporting a total of 68 deaths during the protests, 34 of which it was able to confirm, including two police officers. 

Colombia's government has reported 18 deaths related to the protests and says an additional nine are under investigation. The country's human rights ombudsman, meanwhile, reported late Monday that it had confirmed 58 deaths related to the protests.

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EU lawmakers OK virus pass, boosting summer travel hopes

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed a new travel certificate that will allow people to move between European countries without having to quarantine or undergo extra coronavirus tests, paving the way for the pass to start in time for summer.

The widely awaited certificate is aimed at saving Europe's travel industry and prime tourist sites from another disastrous vacation season. Key travel destinations like Greece have led the drive to have the certificate, which will have both paper and digital forms, rapidly introduced.

Several EU countries have already begun using the system, including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece and Poland.

Right now, traveling in the EU's 27 nations is a trial for tourists and airlines alike. Countries have various COVID-19 traffic-light systems, where those in green are considered safe and those in red to be avoided. But each nation is applying different rules and standards, making travel confusing for all.

The new regulations governing the vaccine certificates were adopted in two votes at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Rules for EU citizens were passed 546 to 93, with 51 abstentions. Those for people from outside the bloc passed 553 to 91, with 46 abstentions.

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Hostage advocates concerned by US pullout from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Advocates for Americans held hostage overseas are raising concerns that the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will make it harder to bring home captives from the country.

An annual report from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, released Wednesday, examines the status of U.S. government efforts to secure the release of hostages and unlawful detainees in foreign countries. The report's findings are based on interviews with former hostages and detainees or their representatives and relatives, as well as current and former government and military officials.

The report shows general satisfaction with changes instituted as part of a 2015 hostage policy overhaul, which included the creation of an FBI-led hostage recovery fusion cell and the appointment of a State Department envoy for hostage affairs. But it also raises potential areas for improvement, including more mental health and financial support for hostages and detainees who return from captivity. And it says more may need to be done to make hostage recovery a greater priority.

Among the concerns raised by hostage advocates interviewed for the report is that once American troops leave Afghanistan — a process the Biden administration has said will be completed by Sept. 11 — "it will become more difficult to generate the intelligence needed to find Americans and conduct rescue operations for current hostages held in the area."

They include Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Lombard, Illinois, who vanished in January 2020 and is believed held by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, and Paul Overby, an American writer who disappeared in Afghanistan in 2014.

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In Lebanon, a search for medicine and a stranger's help

To all the struggles of life in Lebanon — the pandemic, the power outages, the inflation, the punishing financial and political crises — add one more: shortages of crucial medications.

But as residents struggle to find the medicines they need, some are finding that their fellow Lebanese are doing what they can to help.

Christiane Massoud, a 41-year-old nurse, scoured pharmacies for an elusive drug to manage her Crohn's disease, had friends around the country search on her behalf and asked her doctor if there was a substitute. She also appealed to strangers online for pointers to track it down.

Nada Waked responded to one of those online pleas: She had a small amount that her mom no longer needed. Massoud offered to pay; Waked and her mom declined the money. Instead, Waked asked for a prayer. 

In this bleak landscape, Massoud found in Waked's gesture a bright spot.

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Gucci digitally outfits Gen-Z in metaverse foray with Roblox

MILAN (AP) — Anyone whose virtual alter ego is wandering around the Roblox online game platform these days might run into other avatars sporting Gucci handbags, sunglasses or hats. 

The digital-only items were part of a limited Gucci collection for Roblox, a step by the fashion house that prides itself on Italian craftsmanship to enter an expanding virtual space where many of its youngest admirers already are at home.

Players in the metaverse — where virtual worlds, augmented reality and the internet meet — say the big-name fashion collaboration represents a new era of virtual-real world interplay, a space in which smart product placement meets the desire of consumers to express their personalities in the virtual world.

While the Gucci Garden space on Roblox was open for two weeks last month, the platform's 42 million users could spend from $1.20 to $9 on collectible and limited-edition Gucci accessories. Items were hidden in the virtual Gucci Garden, which echoed real-world Gucci Garden exhibitions in Florence and other global cities. Some items were offered for free, and the exclusivity was underlined with limited time releases.

The experience allowed Roblox's core demographic — roughly ages 9 to 15 — a digital entrée to the rarified world of luxury goods that few can dream of in the real world. Now that the space is closed, the limited edition items have even greater cachet. According to the developer, more than 4.5 million items were "won."

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