The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine faces one final hurdle as it races to become the first shot greenlighted in the U.S.: a panel of experts who will scrutinize the company's data for any red flags.

Thursday's meeting of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory panel is likely the last step before a U.S. decision to begin shipping millions of doses of the shot, which has shown strong protection against the coronavirus.

The FDA panel functions like a science court that will pick apart the data and debate — in public and live-streamed — whether the shot is safe and effective enough to be cleared for emergency use. The non-government experts specialize in vaccine development, infectious diseases and medical statistics. The FDA is expected to follow the committee's advice, although it is not required to do so.

The FDA's decision comes as the coronavirus continues surging across much of the world, claiming more than 1.5 million lives, including more than 289,000 in the U.S.

Hanging over the meeting is a warning from U.K. officials that people with a history of serious allergic reactions shouldn't get the vaccine. Government officials there are investigating two reports of reactions that occurred when the country began mass vaccinations.

President-elect? GOP may wait for January to say Biden won

WASHINGTON — Americans waiting for Republicans in Congress to acknowledge Joe Biden as the president-elect may have to keep waiting until January as GOP leaders stick with President Donald Trump's litany of legal challenges and unproven claims of fraud.

Tuesday's deadline for states to certify their elections — once viewed as a pivot point for Republicans to mark Biden's win — came and went without much comment. Next week's Dec. 14 Electoral College deadline may produce just a few more congratulatory GOP calls to Biden.

Increasingly, GOP lawmakers say the Jan. 6 vote in Congress to accept the Electoral College outcome may be when the presidential winner becomes official. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled Jan. 20 as the certain date when the country is "going to have the swearing-in of the next president." 

The result is a risky standoff like none other in U.S. history. The refusal to agree upon the facts of the election threatens to undermine voter confidence, chisel away at the legitimacy of Biden's presidency and restack civic norms in still-unknowable ways. 

Trump sent his party down this unprecedented path by claiming the election was "rigged," but Republican officials enabled doubts to swell through their past four weeks of silence. He personally called on some local elected officials to reconsider the results. Now, the disputed election has taken on a political life of its own that the party's leadership may not be able to squash, even as Trump's legal challenges crumble.

Republicans say it makes little political sense at this point for them to counter Trump's views lest they risk a backlash from his supporters — their own constituents — back home. They're relying on Trump voters to power the Georgia runoff elections Jan. 5 that will determine control of the Senate. And while some GOP lawmakers have acknowledged Biden's victory, most prefer to keep quiet, letting the process play out "organically," as one aide put it, into January.

Edward Foley, an elections expert and constitutional law professor at Ohio State University, said it's true that the election winner is not officially the president-elect until the Congress declares it so with its vote on Jan. 6 to accept the Electoral College results.

"I'm less concerned about the timing, but that it happens," he said.

For Americans to "have faith" in the elections, the losing side has to accept defeat. "It's very, very dangerous if the losing side can't get to that," he said. 

"It's essential for the parties to play by that ethos — even if one individual, Mr. Trump, can't do it, the party has to do it," he said.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Republicans' bid to reverse Pennsylvania's certification of Biden's victory.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., is delivering daily House floor speeches ahead of his planned formal protest during the Jan. 6 voting that he believes will show Trump was reelected.

"Others are joining me," he said in an interview. And back home, "I have had a lot of pats on the back." 

Even the Republicans, led by McConnell, on the bipartisan inauguration committee refused to allow a Democratic motion Tuesday to publicly announce that planning was underway. The committee that has organized every inauguration since 1901 is planning COVID-19 health and safety protocols for the traditional Jan. 20 swearing-in ceremony next year.

Committee chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, "It is not the job of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies to get ahead of the electoral process and decide who we are inaugurating."

Tensions rise over masks as virus grips smaller US cities

MISSION, Kan. — Arguments over mask requirements and other restrictions have turned ugly in recent days as the deadly coronavirus surge across the U.S. engulfs small and medium-size cities that once seemed safely removed from the outbreak.

In Boise, Idaho, public health officials about to vote on a four-county mask mandate abruptly ended a meeting Tuesday evening because of fears for their safety amid anti-mask protests outside the building and at some of their homes. 

One health board member tearfully announced she had to rush home to be with her child because of the protesters, who were seen on video banging on buckets, blaring air horns and sirens, and blasting a sound clip of gunfire from the violence-drenched movie "Scarface" outside her front door. 

"I am sad. I am tired. I fear that, in my choosing to hold public office, my family has too often paid the price," said the board member, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo. "I increasingly don't recognize this place. There is an ugliness and cruelty in our national rhetoric that is reaching a fevered pitch here at home, and that should worry us all."

Boise police said three arrest warrants were issued in connection with the demonstrations at board members' homes.

'Under the rug:' Sexual misconduct shakes FBI's senior ranks

WASHINGTON — An assistant FBI director retired after he was accused of drunkenly groping a female subordinate in a stairwell. Another senior FBI official left after he was found to have sexually harassed eight employees. Yet another high-ranking FBI agent retired after he was accused of blackmailing a young employee into sexual encounters.

An Associated Press investigation has identified at least six sexual misconduct allegations involving senior FBI officials over the past five years, including two new claims brought this week by women who say they were sexually assaulted by ranking agents.

Each of the accused FBI officials appears to have avoided discipline, the AP found, and several were quietly transferred or retired, keeping their full pensions and benefits even when probes substantiated the sexual misconduct claims against them.

Beyond that, federal law enforcement officials are afforded anonymity even after the disciplinary process runs its course, allowing them to land on their feet in the private sector or even remain in law enforcement. 

"They're sweeping it under the rug," said a former FBI analyst who alleges in a new federal lawsuit that a supervisory special agent licked her face and groped her at a colleague's farewell party in 2017. She ended up leaving the FBI and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Hunter Biden tax probe examining Chinese business dealings

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating the finances of President-elect Joe Biden's son, including scrutinizing some of his Chinese business dealings and other transactions, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.

The revelations put a renewed spotlight on questions about Hunter Biden's financial history, which dogged his father's successful White House campaign and were a frequent target of President Donald Trump and his allies. They also come at a politically delicate time for the president-elect, who is weighing his choice to lead an agency that is actively investigating his son.

The tax investigation was launched in 2018, the year before the elder Biden announced his candidacy for president. Hunter Biden confirmed the existence of the investigation on Wednesday, saying he learned about it for the first time the previous day.

"I take this matter very seriously but I am confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors," he said in a statement.

It is unclear which entities or business dealings might be tied up in the probe, though the person with knowledge of the matter said at least some of focus was on his past work in China. Federal investigators served a round of subpoenas on Tuesday, including one for Hunter Biden, according to another person familiar with the investigation.

Investigators did not reach out until recently because of Justice Department practice against taking overt investigative actions in the run-up to an election, one of the people said. The people familiar with the investigation insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe.

Hunter Biden has a history of international affairs and business dealings in a number of countries. Trump and his allies have accused him of profiting off his political connections and have raised unsubstantiated charges of corruption related to his work in Ukraine at the time his father was vice president and leading the Obama administration's dealings with the Eastern European nation.

Late Wednesday, Trump tweeted a quote from New York Post columnist Miranda Devine claiming, "10% of voters would have changed their vote if they knew about Hunter Biden."

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US antitrust siege of tech widens with lawsuits vs Facebook

WASHINGTON — The giant tech companies whose services are woven into the fabric of social life are now the targets of a widening assault by government competition enforcers. Regulators filed landmark antitrust lawsuits Wednesday against Facebook, the second major government offensive this year against once seemingly untouchable tech behemoths.

The Federal Trade Commission and 48 states and districts sued the social network giant, accusing it of abusing its market power to squash smaller competitors and seeking remedies that could include a forced spinoff of Facebook's prized Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services. The company's conduct has crimped consumers' choices and harmed their data privacy, the regulators charged. 

Once lionized as innovators and job creators — and largely left alone by Washington for nearly two decades — Big Tech companies have seen their political fortunes plummet. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have come under scrutiny from Congress, federal regulators, state attorneys general and European authorities. Their once-considerable political support in Congress has eroded.

Lawmakers of both major parties are championing stronger oversight of the industry, arguing that its massive market power is out of control, crushing smaller competitors and endangering consumer privacy. 

There's little likelihood the pressure will ease up. President-elect Joe Biden has said the breakup of Big Tech giants should be seriously considered.

Minneapolis approves cuts to police budget, not staffing

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a budget early Thursday that will shift about $8 million from the police department toward violence prevention and other programs — but will keep the mayor's targeted staffing levels for sworn officers intact, averting a possible veto. 

Mayor Jacob Frey, who had threatened to veto the entire budget if the council went ahead with its plan to cap police staffing, said the vote was a defining moment for the city, which has experienced soaring crime rates amid calls to defund the police since the May 25 death of George Floyd. 

"We all share a deep and abiding reverence for the role our local government plays in service of the people of our city," Frey said. "And today, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future in Minneapolis."

The City Council had initially approved a proposal to cut the city's authorized police force to 750 officers, down from the current 888, beginning in 2022. But they changed course late Wednesday after the mayor called the move "irresponsible." The council voted 7-6 on Wednesday to keep the cap at 888. 

"Tonight the City Council passed a budget that represents a compromise, and also a big step forward into a more compassionate and effective public safety future," said City Council member Steve Fletcher, co-author of the proposal to lower the cap on staffing. He said the City Council has more work to do and "we cannot afford to remain stuck in the past any longer."

Trump virus coordinator Birx seeks role in Biden government

WASHINGTON — When Dr. Deborah Birx was brought into President Donald Trump's orbit to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, she had a sterling reputation as a former U.S. Army physician, a globally recognized AIDS researcher and a rare Obama administration holdover.

Less than 10 months later, as Trump's time in office nears its end, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator's reputation is frayed. And after serving every president since Ronald Reagan, her future in the incoming Joe Biden administration is uncertain.

Over the course of the pandemic, Birx drew criticism from public health experts and Democratic lawmakers for not speaking out forcefully against the Republican president when he contradicted advice from medical advisers and scientists about how to fight the virus. 

On everything from Trump's aversion to masks to his dangerous suggestion that ingesting bleach might ward off the virus, critics and backers say Birx stepped carefully to try to maintain her influence in hopes of pushing the president to listen to the scientists.

"The president's departure from reality become so extreme that it put her and others on the task force in an untenable position," said Michael Weinstein, who heads the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and got to know Birx professionally after she was named the global AIDS coordinator in 2014.

Can I stop wearing a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

Can I stop wearing a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

No. For a couple reasons, masks and social distancing will still be recommended for some time after people are vaccinated.

To start, the first coronavirus vaccines require two shots; Pfizer's second dose comes three weeks after the first and Moderna's comes after four weeks. And the effect of vaccinations generally aren't immediate.

People are expected to get some level of protection within a couple of weeks after the first shot. But full protection may not happen until a couple weeks after the second shot.

It's also not yet known whether the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines protect people from infection entirely, or just from symptoms. That means vaccinated people might still be able to get infected and pass the virus on, although it would likely be at a much lower rate, said Deborah Fuller, a vaccine expert at the University of Washington.