First Thing: latest objects shot down over US not linked to China, Biden says | US news

Good morning.

Joe Biden has broken his silence on unknown aerial objects shot down over North America during the past week, assessing they were “most likely” operated by private companies or research institutions rather than China.

The president’s tentative conclusion is likely to fuel criticism that his orders to take down the objects were an overreaction amid political pressure over the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon that transited much of the country.

Biden spoke for eight minutes at the Eisenhower executive office building on Thursday after Republicans and some Democrats expressed concerns that his unwillingness to comment on the issue could allow conspiracy theories to thrive.

“We don’t yet know exactly what these three objects were but nothing right now suggests they were related to China’s spy balloon program or that they were surveillance vehicles from any other country,” the president told reporters, against a backdrop of flags and the presidential seal.

  • How will the government decide what poses a risk in the future? The president said the US was developing “sharper rules” around unknown aerial objects. These would help “distinguish between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action and those that do not”.

  • What has China said? China has denied that the balloon was a surveillance airship. Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said the balloon’s entry into US airspace was “an unintended, unexpected and isolated event”, adding: “China has repeatedly communicated this to the US side, yet the US overreacted by abusing the use of force and escalating the situation.”

‘Trust the government’: EPA seeks to reassure Ohio residents near toxic spill

A black plume of smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on 6 February.
A black plume of smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on 6 February. Photograph: Gene J Puskar/AP

In Ohio, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got a first-hand look at the toll left by a freight train derailment, where toxic chemicals spilled or were burned off, leaving the stench of fresh paint nearly two weeks later.

The EPA’s administrator, Michael Regan, walked along a creek that still reeked of chemicals yesterday and sought to reassure skeptical residents that the water was fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe in East Palestine, where almost 5,000 people live near the Pennsylvania state line.

“I’m asking they trust the government. I know that’s hard. We know there’s a lack of trust,” Regan said. “We’re testing for everything that was on that train.”

Since the derailment, local people have complained about headaches and irritated eyes and finding their cars and lawns covered in soot. The hazardous chemicals that spilled from the train killed thousands of fish and residents have talked about finding dying or sick pets and wildlife.

  • What has the White House said? “We understand the residents are concerned – as they should be – and they have questions. That’s all understandable,” said the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre. “And we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

  • What else is happening? At least five lawsuits have been filed against the railroad, which announced this week that it was creating a $1m fund to help the community while continuing to remove spilled contaminants from the ground and streams, and monitoring air quality.

World leaders meet in Munich for security conference as Russia intensifies ground attacks on Ukraine

The US vice-president, Kamala Harris, arrives at Munich airport yesterday.
The US vice-president, Kamala Harris, arrives at Munich airport yesterday. Photograph: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

Senior politicians and military leaders from around the world are meeting today in Germany, with Ukrainian officials expected to address the security conference.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, will be the opening speaker at the three-day Munich security conference as the west faces urgent calls to speed up ammunition production and supplies to Kyiv in the face of mounting fears that Russia is planning a new offensive.

Bolstered by tens of thousands of reservists, Russia has intensified ground attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine, and, as the first anniversary of the invasion nears on 24 February, a new Russian offensive appears to be taking shape.

Russia also rained missiles across Ukraine yesterday and struck its largest oil refinery. Sixteen of at least 36 missiles that Russia fired were shot down, the air force said, a lower rate than normal.

  • Who is attending? The German chancellor Olaf, Scholz, French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, are among many top officials attending the Munich security conference.

  • How big a threat does the hard right pose to US support for Ukraine? “I’ve been sounding the alarms on Republican opposition to Ukraine aid for the last 12 months,” the Democratic senator Chris Murphy said. “I think there’s going to be tremendous pressure on Speaker McCarthy to abandon Ukraine … and it’s possible he could wilt under the pressure. We know the Russians see this as a real opportunity.”

In other news …

Bruce Willis, star of the Die Hard franchise, Pulp Fiction and The Fifth Element.
Bruce Willis, star of the Die Hard franchise, Pulp Fiction and The Fifth Element. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images
  • Bruce Willis, who retired from acting last May as a result of aphasia, has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, his family announced yesterday. Problems with language and memory, which instigated rumors about his cognitive state, were “just one symptom of the disease Bruce faces”, they wrote.

  • The US scores surprisingly badly in a new ranking system charting abuses of power by nation states. The US comes close to the median of 163 countries ranked in the Index of Impunity, reflecting a poor record on discrimination, inequality and access to democracy.

  • A top Pentagon official will visit Taiwan in the coming days, according to reports, as attempts between the US and China to repair relations continue to backslide after the US shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon in its airspace. The Pentagon declined to comment on the report of Michael Chase’s trip.

  • Protesters in Iran have marched through the streets of multiple cities in the most widespread demonstrations in weeks, online videos purported to show today. The demonstrations overnight marked 40 days since Iran executed two men on charges related to protests.

  • Alabama is close to completing a protocol that will use nitrogen gas as a new form of execution in the state, officials have said, amid warnings from advocacy groups that it is an experimental move after botched lethal injections. For years, the state has said it is developing nitrogen hypoxia as a new execution method.

Stat of the day: letter lost in 1916 delivered in London more than 100 years later

The envelope, which has a Bath postmark and a George V stamp
The envelope, which has a Bath postmark and a George V stamp. Photograph: Finlay Glen

A letter lost in the post in 1916 was finally delivered to a property in London, UK, more than a century after being sent from the English city of Bath. Bearing a penny George V stamp and Bath and Sydenham, south London, postmarks, it dropped through the letterbox of the theatre director Finlay Glen’s Crystal Palace apartment in the capital in 2021. It was addressed to Katie Marsh, who was married to the stamp dealer Oswald Marsh, and was sent by her friend Christabel Mennell, who was holidaying in Bath, according to research by Stephen Oxford, the editor of The Norwood Review, a local history magazine. It begins: “My dear Katie, will you lend me your aid – I am feeling quite ashamed of myself after saying what I did at the circle.”

Don’t miss this: humans ‘may need more sleep in winter’, study finds

Man and his dog sleeping.
While the researchers acknowledge the results would need to be validated in people with no sleep difficulties, the seasonal changes may be even greater in a healthy population. Photograph: WebSubstance/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For those of us who struggle to leave our beds in the winter, taunts of “lazy” could well be misplaced. Research suggests that while humans do not hibernate, we may need more sleep during the colder months. Analysis of people undergoing sleep studies found that they got more REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in the winter. While total sleep time appeared to be about an hour longer in the winter than the summer, this result was not considered statistically significant. However, REM sleep – known to be directly linked to the circadian clock, which is affected by changing light – was 30 minutes longer in the winter. “In general, societies need to adjust sleep habits including length and timing to season, or adjust school and working schedules to seasonal sleep needs,” said the researcher, Dr Dieter Kunz.

Climate check: why resignation of World Bank boss is good news for climate crisis fight

David Malpass
David Malpass’s decision to quit has delighted frustrated developing countries, donors, experts and campaigners. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The resignation of David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, was greeted with relief and joy on Wednesday evening by climate experts and campaigners, who said it should open up a new era for financing the global shift to a low-carbon economy. Malpass, who was appointed to the role by the then US president Donald Trump in 2019, had been facing mounting calls to step down after a series of missteps, including lacklustre plans for green investment and appearing to deny climate science when confronted by a journalist. Al Gore, a former US vice-president, said: “Humankind needs the head of the World Bank to fully recognise and creatively respond to the civilisation-threatening danger posed by the climate crisis.”

Last thing: US cancer patient developed ‘uncontrollable’ Irish accent, doctors say

Sunrise in Howth, Ireland.
Howth, Ireland. Photograph: Rafal Rozalski/Alamy

A cancer patient in the US developed what researchers say was an “uncontrollable Irish accent” during treatment, despite never having been to Ireland nor having immediate relatives from the country. While still rare, cases of foreign accent syndrome are more common in patients after strokes or head trauma, or who have psychiatric disorders, according to the experts. Some details of the man’s case, including his nationality, were not revealed. But researchers said he maintained the Irish accent through about 20 months of treatment, and a gradual onset of paralysis, until his death. “His accent was uncontrollable, present in all settings and gradually became persistent,” the report says.

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