Breakthrough COVID vaccine tech could help defeat other diseases

By John Miller and Ludwig Burger

ZURICH/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Breakthrough technology that transforms the body into a virus-zapping vaccine factory is poised to revolutionize the fight against COVID-19 but future pandemics and even cancer could be next, scientists say. The initial success of so-called messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines in late-stage trials by Moderna as well as Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech is the first proof the concept works.

Both experimental vaccines had efficacy rates above 90% based on interim findings, which was far higher than expected and well above the 50% threshold U.S. regulators insist upon for vaccines.

Now scientists say the technology, a slow-motion revolution in the making since the discovery of mRNA nearly 60 years ago, could speed up the development of new vaccines.

The traditional method of creating vaccines – introducing a weakened or dead virus, or a piece of one, to stimulate the body’s immune system – takes over a decade on average, according to a 2013 study. One pandemic flu vaccine took over eight years while a hepatitis B vaccine was nearly 18 years in the making.

Moderna’s vaccine went from gene sequencing to the first human injection in 63 days.

With BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 candidate on a similar trajectory, both could win regulatory approval this year, barely 12 months since the coronavirus first emerged.

Other companies are pursuing the technology such as Germany’s CureVac also has an mRNA vaccine candidate, though has yet to start a late-stage trial and is hoping it will get the green light after July 2021. “We’ll look back on the advances made in 2020 and say: ‘That was a moment when science really did make a leap forward’,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, which is backed by the Wellcome Trust.

THE LAST LAUGH

Discovered in 1961, mRNA carries messages from the body’s DNA to its cells, telling them to make the proteins needed for critical functions, such as coordinating biological processes like digestion or fighting disease.

The experimental vaccines from Moderna as well as Pfizer and BioNTech use lab-made mRNA to instruct cells to make the coronavirus’s spike proteins, which spur the immune system into action without replicating like the actual virus. Back in 1990, scientists managed to get mice to generate proteins by injecting mRNA, an early sign of the technology’s potential.

But early proponents such as Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian-born scientist and senior vice president at BioNTech, were hampered by obstacles such as mRNA’s instability in the body and its propensity to cause inflammatory responses.

A breakthrough came around 2005 when Kariko, along with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, figured out how to deliver mRNA without kicking the immune system into overdrive.

Still, it took another 15 years – and a pandemic that brought the world’s economy to its knees – to reach the cusp of success. Kariko said her years of dogged pursuit once made her the butt of jokes for some university colleagues.

“The last time they laughed at me and ridiculed me was when they learned that I was going to join BioNTech seven years ago and they realized this company (didn’t) even have a website,” she told Reuters. “But now, they learn of BioNTech and that we can do good things.”

Kariko said her life’s work could pay dividends, not just against COVID-19, but other diseases.

“It could be easier sailing for the next anti-viral product, a vaccine for influenza and other infectious disease,” said Kariko, whose daughter is a U.S. Olympic gold medalist rower.

CANCER NEXT?

Moderna and BioNTech, for example, are also applying mRNA technology to experimental cancer medicines.

BioNTech is testing an anti-melanoma mRNA with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche in a Phase II trial.

Among Moderna’s most advanced projects, besides its COVID-19 vaccine, are mRNA compounds to treat ovarian cancer or Myocardial ischemia, which are also in the second test phase.

None of the potential mRNA cancer therapies have reached the critical large-scale Phase III trials, however, and Kariko acknowledges that cancer presents a bigger challenge.

While a virus is a foreign intruder, cancer cells, however malignant, come from within the body, making them tougher to seek out and expose so they can be attacked.

“Sometimes cancer is just caused by gene and chromosome duplication and then everything about it looks normal and the cell is just dividing more than it should,” she said.

For vaccines against infectious diseases, the pharmaceutical industry’s traditional approach has been to whip them up in large bioreactors, a time-consuming, expensive process in facilities that can cost up to $700 million to build.

By contrast, Zoltan Kis, an Imperial College London researcher who models vaccine manufacturing, estimates that one five-liter bioreactor inside a $20 million facility could make a billion doses of some kinds of mRNA vaccines a year.

Drug manufacturer Lonza, enlisted to make ingredients for 400 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine annually at U.S. and Swiss sites, is due to start production this year with manufacturing lines costing $60 million to $70 million each.

“We are producing mRNA at smaller scales and in smaller facilities when compared to traditional larger-scale equipment and facilities,” Andre Goerke, Lonza’s global lead for the Moderna project, told Reuters. “The manufacturing ramp-up is quicker and more economical.”

‘ULTRA-FAST RESPONSE’

Raymond Schiffelers, of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, who heads a European Union program for mRNA therapeutics, said the major advantage of the technology was that vaccine developers could mount an “ultra-fast response”.

“Within weeks, testing can start, a major advantage over conventional vaccines,” he said.

The moment a pathogen’s genomic sequence is known, synthetic mRNAs can be designed that encode key parts of the virus, such as the coronavirus’s potentially lethal spike protein.

Risks and challenges for mRNA remain.

Some candidates must be stored at extremely cold temperatures, making delivery potentially difficult in countries with limited infrastructure. They also may be fragile to transport, Schiffelers said.

BioNTech’s vaccine, for example, must be transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius, though Moderna said on Monday it can ship its candidate in normal refrigerators.

Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded Moderna’s vaccine development, also said mRNA vaccines may not be a silver bullet for flu, since it mutates so swiftly that reaching 90% efficacy is unlikely.

But for COVID-19, Collins said mRNA is likely to be a revolution.

“It’s clearly several months faster than any of the other methods,” Collins said. “In a crisis moment, several months really matter.”

(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Allison Martell in Toronto, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Kate Kelland in London, Michael Erman in New York, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Marton Dunai in Budapest; Editing by Josephine Mason and David Clarke)

Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 talc lawsuits: Bloomberg

Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson will pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 lawsuits that allege the company’s Baby Powder caused cancer, Bloomberg news reported on Monday, citing people with knowledge of the pacts.

J&J faces more than 19,000 lawsuits from consumers and their survivors claiming its talc products caused cancer due to contamination with asbestos, a known carcinogen. The company has maintained that its talc is safe.

The drugmaker declined to comment on the Bloomberg report but reiterated that its talc is safe, does not contain asbestos and does not cause cancer.

“In certain circumstances, we do choose to settle lawsuits, which is done without an admission of liability and in no way changes our position regarding the safety of our products,” the company said in a statement.

In May, J&J said it would stop selling its talc in the United States and Canada after demand had fallen in the wake of what it called “misinformation” about the product’s safety amid a barrage of legal challenges.

J&J has faced scrutiny over the safety of its baby powder following an investigative report by Reuters in 2018 that found the company knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its talc.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Supreme Court’s Ginsburg undergoing treatment for cancer recurrence

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 87 the U.S. Supreme Court’s oldest member, said on Friday she is receiving chemotherapy treatment for a recurrence of cancer – the latest in a series of health issues – but indicated no intention to retire.

In a statement released by the court, Ginsburg said that a periodic scan in February, followed by a biopsy, revealed lesions on her liver. She said she is tolerating the chemotherapy treatment well and that it is yielding positive results. She said she began her chemotherapy on May 19.

“I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam. I remain fully able to do that,” Ginsburg said.

The health of Ginsburg, the court’s senior liberal member, is closely watched because a Supreme Court vacancy could give Republican President Donald Trump the opportunity to appoint a third justice to the nine-member court and move it further to the right. The court currently has a 5-4 conservative majority including two justices appointed by Trump – Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

On Wednesday, Ginsburg was released from a hospital in Baltimore after treatment for a possible infection. She underwent a procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital to clean a bile duct stent that was inserted last August. Ginsburg said recent hospitalizations to remove gall stones and treat an infection were unrelated to this cancer recurrence.

Ginsburg experienced a bout with lung cancer in 2018 and pancreatic cancer in 2019. She had previously been treated for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer in 1999. In May, she underwent non-surgical treatment for a gallstone that had caused an infection.

In this latest cancer fight, Ginsburg said, immunotherapy proved unsuccessful, but with chemotherapy her most recent scan on July 7 indicated “significant reduction of the liver lesions” and no new disease.

“Satisfied that my treatment course is now clear, I am providing this information,” Ginsburg added.

Ginsburg said she has been able to keep up with her work at the court, including writing opinions in cases, throughout the treatment course. “I will continue bi-weekly chemotherapy to keep my cancer at bay, and am able to maintain an active daily routine,” she added.

Ginsburg is the second-longest serving among the current nine justices behind Clarence Thomas, having been appointed to a lifetime post on the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She was the second woman ever named to the court, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed 12 years earlier.

A trail-blazing lawyer who won gender equality cases at the Supreme Court in the 1970’s, as a justice she has provided key votes in landmark rulings securing equal rights for women, expanding gay rights and safeguarding abortion rights.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

New U.S. health crisis looms as patients without COVID-19 delay care

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – A Texas man who waited until his brain tumor was softball-sized; a baby who suffered an ear infection for six days; a heart patient who died: The resurgence of COVID-19 is creating another health crisis as hospitals fill and patients are fearful or unable to get non-emergency care.

With U.S. coronavirus infections reaching new heights, doctors and hospitals say they are also seeing sharp declines in patients seeking routine medical care and screenings – and a rise in those who have delayed care for so long they are far sicker than they otherwise would be.

“I had one lady who had delayed for five days coming in with abdominal pain that was getting worse and worse,” said Dr. Diana Fite, who practices emergency medicine in Houston. “When she finally came in, she had a ruptured appendix.”

After the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March, many states banned non-essential medical procedures, and the number of patients seeking care for other ailments took a nosedive. Hospitals and medical practices were hit hard financially.

Emergency department use dropped by 42% during the first 10 weeks of the pandemic despite a rise in patients presenting with symptoms of the coronavirus, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. In the same period, patients seeking care for heart attacks dropped by 23% and stroke care by 20%.

As the initial outbreak leveled off in the weeks that followed, healthcare experts planned to handle primary care differently should infections rise again, making sure minor procedures like cancer screenings were still allowed and assuring patients that hospitals and clinics were safe.

But the recent surge in cases has swamped hospitals in many states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida and parts of California.

CANCER MORTALITY RATES

Texas has again banned many non-emergency procedures, though cancer surgeries are still allowed, and a hospital in California’s San Joaquin Valley for several days admitted only COVID-19 patients.

Patients without COVID-19 – either out of fear, confusion or because of difficulty in obtaining the care they need – are again staying home.

The result is a healthcare crisis in the making, said Austin oncologist Dr. Debra Patt, who said she expects mortality rates from cancer to skyrocket in the years after the pandemic because patients have delayed their care.

“They’re scared to go in the hospital unless they absolutely have to,” said Patt. “And even when the patients are willing, it’s hard to get things done.”

Patt in recent days treated a man who waited to come in for headaches and dizziness until he had lost 35 pounds and had a softball-sized tumor in his head.

Fite, who is president of the Texas Medical Association, cared for a baby whose parents waited six days before bringing him in with a severe ear infection.

Patt said screening mammograms are down by 90% in Austin, where she specializes in breast cancer and serves as executive vice president of Texas Oncology. That means some tumors will be missed, and women who develop aggressive cancers might not know about it until the disease is more advanced and more likely to be deadly.

“It’s an impact we will see on cancer survival for years to come,” she said.

Dr. David Fleeger, a colorectal surgeon in Austin and a past president of the Texas Medical Association, said he has had numerous patients cancel colonoscopies in recent days.

“The delays in colonoscopies that are occurring right now ultimately will lead to more cancers and more deaths,” he said.

‘IN A HOLDING PATTERN’

Patt’s patient Helen Knost had to put off surgery for breast cancer in early spring because it was considered non-emergency in Texas and barred at the time, and she was treated instead with the medication Tamoxifen.

“It’s very strange to know you have cancer and you’re just hanging out with it, just in a holding pattern,” said Knost, who did ultimately undergo successful surgery.

In California, doctors at the 150-bed Adventist Lodi Memorial Hospital in the San Joaquin Valley were determined that a second surge in coronavirus cases would not bring a repeat of the pandemic’s early days, when emergency room visits dropped in half. Emergency medical technicians also reported a 45% rise in the number of heart patients who died before they could be brought to the hospital.

Hospital CEO Daniel Wolcott led a campaign to inform the community that the medical center was open and safe, even speaking to people about it in the grocery store.

But with new COVID-19 cases swamping the hospital, sickening nearly 30 staff members and forcing it to divert non-coronavirus cases to other facilities for several days, Wolcott fears that again patients with heart conditions and other illnesses will stay away.

“We won’t know for years how many people lost their lives or lost good years of their lives for fear of coronavirus,” he said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Bayer puts part of Roundup settlement on hold

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Bayer <BAYGn.DE> has agreed to delay part of a proposed settlement of allegations that its widely used weedkiller Roundup caused cancer after a U.S. judge questioned its plan to deal with future claims.

The German company said on Wednesday that lawyers representing those preparing a class action had withdrawn a request for court approval of the $1.25 billion scheme, part of a broader $10.9 billion agreement to settle close to 100,000 U.S. lawsuits related to Roundup.

The move would give the parties more time to address questions raised by Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria of the Northern District of California who presides over the federal Roundup litigation, Bayer said in a statement.

“Bayer remains strongly committed to a resolution that simultaneously addresses both the current litigation on reasonable terms and a viable solution to manage and resolve potential future litigation”, it added.

It declined to comment on the impact of the withdrawal on the timetable for the rest of the settlement.

Bayer is seeking to end legal disputes it inherited with its $63 billion takeover of Monsanto in 2018.

Bayer shares were down 1.2% by 1307 GMT.

On Tuesday, Bayer shares had fallen more than 6% after Chhabria said that the court was inclined to oppose the part of the proposed settlement that deals with future claims. The case was due to be considered again on July 24.

Bayer had planned to create an independent panel of scientific experts to help assess whether glyphosate caused cancer.

But in a filing published on July 6, Chhabria had questioned the idea of delegating the decision from judges and juries to a panel of scientists.

Chhabria also questioned whether potential claimants would want to remain bound by a ruling reached by the proposed scientific panel if research is still ongoing.

Regulators including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Chemicals Agency, have determined glyphosate to be non-carcinogenic, supporting Bayer’s claim that the active ingredient in its Roundup product is safe for agricultural use.

However, in 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm determined the herbicide to be a “probable carcinogen”, and since 2018, three consecutive U.S. juries, who listened to scientific evidence from both sides during trials, found that Roundup causes cancer.

(Reporting by Arno Schuetze; Editing by Keith Weir)

9/11 We will not forget!

By Kami Klein

On September 11th, 2001, we witnessed the worst of humanity; an evil we could not imagine. Over 3000 lost their lives that day when a group of terrorists shook our nation to its core. The loss of so many rippled throughout the world.  Families were torn apart within a few hours. The grief was unimaginable and America’s heart was broken. 

 After the attacks, countless stories unfolded revealing extraordinary acts of courage, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center in New York City alone over 16.000 people performed rescue, recovery, demolition and debris cleanup.  These amazing men and women did not know or care about the dangers of their task but rose up in tremendous courage to show the best of what America stands for. 

Ground zero contained toxic dust that held heavy metals and asbestos and other dangerous chemicals.  We are seeing the aftermath years later as countless of these heroes of 9/11 have died or are very sick from illnesses related to this tragedy.  Scarring in the lungs has effected hundreds of responders and experts say this is only the beginning.   

So far, 156 New York City police officers have died from 9/11 related illnesses. 182 in the Fire Department. Countless others are facing debilitating lung disease and aggressive cancers. 

We cannot forget those who lost their lives on 9/11.  We cannot forget now, those that are still giving their lives for our country because of that day and the days following 9/11.  

Eighteen years ago, the nation turned to God.  The churches were filled and prayers were said all over the world. We embraced each other no matter what political belief or religious faith. We were not offended by each other because together we were at war with evil. 

We are still at war but somehow we have turned on one another. 

The attack of 9/11 is not over.  Our heroes from that day are the victims now. We must remember those who are still suffering and fill our churches with faith and prayer. We the people of the United States must feel called upon to honor these brave men and women.  May we come together again, as we did on that day when Love won over hate, Good over evil, and all of us remembered that we are Americans and were willing to sacrifice for each other.

The Lord worked through the very best of us that day and continued doing so during the months and years that have passed. In our prayers, in our memories, and in the stories that we must pass on, these are the people and heroes we cannot afford to ever forget!   

 

U.S. trial tests claims Roundup weed killer caused cancer

By Jim Christie

(Reuters) – Bayer AG on Monday faced a second U.S. jury over allegations that its popular glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup causes cancer, six months after the company’s share price was rocked by a $289 million verdict in California state court.

The lawsuit by California resident Edwin Hardeman against the company began on Monday morning in federal rather than state court. The trial is also a test case for a larger litigation. More than 760 of the 9,300 Roundup cases nationwide are consolidated in the federal court in San Francisco that is hearing Hardeman’s case.

Bayer denies all allegations that Roundup or glyphosate cause cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, saying decades of independent studies have shown the world’s most widely used weed killer to be safe for human use and noting that regulators around the world have approved the product.

During the first phase in the trial, the nine-person jury is asked to weigh scientific evidence to determine whether Roundup caused Hardeman’s lymphoma.

Aimee Wagstaff, a lawyer for Hardeman, told a packed courtroom during her opening statement on Monday that chemicals in Roundup made the weed killer more toxic than glyphosate alone, causing the man’s cancer.

But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who presides over the federal litigation, repeatedly scolded her for “crossing the line” by referring to internal corporate communications the judge has said have no bearing on the science in the case.

“You completely disregarded the limitations,” Chhabria said.

In a January ruling, Chhabria called evidence by plaintiffs that the company allegedly attempted to influence regulators and manipulate public opinion “a distraction” from the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes cancer.

If the jury determines Roundup caused Hardeman’s cancer, the judge said such evidence could be presented in a second trial phase.

Plaintiffs criticized Chhabria’s order dividing the trial and restricting evidence as “unfair,” saying their scientific evidence allegedly showing glyphosate causes cancer is inextricably linked to Monsanto’s alleged wrongful conduct.

Evidence of corporate misconduct was seen as playing a key role in the finding by a California state court jury in August that Roundup caused another man’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that Bayer’s Monsanto unit failed to warn consumers about the weed killer’s cancer risks. That jury’s $289 million damages award was later reduced to $78 million.

Bayer’s share price dropped 10 percent following the verdict and has remained volatile.

Brian Stekloff, a lawyer for Bayer, in his opening statement attacked the idea of a link between Roundup and cancer. He noted U.S. rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have remained steady over time, even when Roundup use began to soar in the 1990s.

Hardeman began using the Roundup brand herbicide with glyphosate in the 1980s to control poison oak and weeds on his property and sprayed “large volumes” of the chemical for many years on a regular basis, according to court documents. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 66 in February 2015 and filed his lawsuit a year later. Hardeman is currently in remission.

But Stekloff on Monday said Hardeman’s age and his history of chronic hepatitis C were known risk factors for developing lymphoma. The lawyer also said the majority of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma incidents are idiopathic, or have no known cause.

(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco, Writing by Tina Bellon; editing by Anthony Lin, Lisa Shumamker and Tom Brown)

U.S. Justice Ginsburg released from hospital after cancer surgery

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen during a group portrait session for the new full court at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, has been released from the hospital after undergoing cancer surgery, a court spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

“Justice Ginsburg was discharged from the hospital yesterday and is recuperating at home,” spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in a statement.

The liberal justice underwent surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York on Friday to remove two cancerous nodules in her left lung.

There was no evidence of any remaining disease after the removal of the two nodules, both of which were found to be cancerous, Arberg said on Friday, citing the thoracic surgeon, Dr. Valerie Rusch. No further treatment was planned, she said.

Ginsburg, one of the court’s nine justices, broke three ribs in a fall last month. The nodules were found as part of the tests the justice underwent after the fall, Arberg said.

As the oldest justice, Ginsburg is closely watched for any signs of deteriorating health. Ginsburg, appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993, also is the senior liberal member of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority.

If she were unable to continue serving, Republican President Donald Trump could replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right. Trump already has put two conservatives on the court since becoming president in January 2017 and a potentially dominant 6-3 conservative majority would have major consequences for issues including abortion, the death penalty, voting rights, gay rights and religious liberty.

Ginsburg has recovered from previous medical issues. She was treated in 1999 for colon cancer and again in 2009 for pancreatic cancer but did not miss any argument sessions either time. In 2014, doctors placed a stent in her right coronary artery to improve blood flow after she reported discomfort following routine exercise. She was released from a hospital the next day.

The justices are scheduled to hear their next round of arguments on Jan. 7.

In recent years she has become something of a cult figure for liberals and known by the nickname “Notorious RBG,” after the late rapper Notorious BIG.

A documentary film, “RBG,” was released earlier this year and a feature film about her life, “On the Basis of Sex,” made its debut in theaters this week.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Bill Trott)

U.S. judge affirms Monsanto weed-killer verdict, slashes damages

Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop near Brussels, Belgium November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Tina Bellon

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Monday affirmed a verdict against Bayer AG unit Monsanto that found its glyphosate-based weed-killers responsible for a man’s terminal cancer, sending the German company’s shares down 8 percent.

In a ruling by San Francisco’s Superior Court of California, Judge Suzanne Bolanos said she would slash the punitive damages award to $39 million from $250 million if lawyers for school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson agreed.

Bayer said in a statement the decision to reduce the damages was a step in the right direction, but it would still file an appeal with the California Court of Appeal because the verdict was not supported by the evidence presented at the trial.

“According to an earlier hearing, the judge toyed with the idea of dropping the damages altogether,” brokerage alpha said in a note to clients. “Now, however, the judge made a U-turn and confirmed the jury’s previous verdict.”

Monsanto, which denies the allegations, had asked the judge to throw out the entire original $289 million verdict or order a new trial on the punitive damages portion.

A jury on Aug. 10 found the company’s glyphosate-based weed-killers, including RoundUp and Ranger Pro, had caused Johnson’s cancer and that the company failed to warn consumers about the risks.

The verdict wiped 10 percent off the value of the company and marked the first such decision against Monsanto, which faces more than 8,000 similar lawsuits in the United States.

Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson leaves the courtroom following a post-trial hearing at the Superior Court in San Francisco, California, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Christie

Plaintiff Dewayne Johnson leaves the courtroom following a post-trial hearing at the Superior Court in San Francisco, California, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Christie

The German company, which bought Monsanto this year for $63 billion, says decades of scientific studies and real-world use have shown glyphosate to be safe for human use.

Lawyers for Johnson in a statement on Monday said they were still reviewing whether to accept the reduced award or retry the punitive damages portion.

“The evidence presented to this jury was, quite frankly, overwhelming,” the lawyers said.

The amount of punitive damages is limited by law, and Bolanos said California’s constitution did not permit a higher award. If Johnson accepts the reduced damages, the final verdict would order Monsanto to pay a total of $78 million, split equally between compensatory and punitive damages.

Bolanos’ Monday decision is a turnaround from a previous tentative ruling she issued on Oct. 10.

In that preliminary order, Bolanos said she was considering ordering a new trial on punitive damages, saying Johnson had failed to meet his burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression by Monsanto, a requirement for allowing a jury to award punitive damages.

But following that tentative ruling, at least five of the jurors who delivered the Aug. 10 verdict sent letters to the judge, urging her to uphold their decision. Bolanos did not directly refer to the jurors’ letters in her Monday ruling but said the jury was entitled to its findings.

In September 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded a decades-long assessment of glyphosate risks and found that the chemical was not a likely carcinogen to humans.

However, in 2015, the cancer unit of the World Health Organisation classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Johnson’s case, filed in 2016, was fast-tracked for trial due to the severity of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, that he alleged was caused by years of glyphosate exposure.

(Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru and Arno Schuetze in Frankfurt; editing by Robert Birsel)