Shaken by new coronavirus strain, world shuts the door on Britain

By Gerhard Mey and Ben Makori

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Several countries closed their borders to Britain on Monday over fears of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, causing travel chaos and raising the prospect of food shortages just days before the UK is set to leave the European Union.

India, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong suspended travel for Britons after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned a mutated variant of the virus, up to 70% more transmissible, had been identified in the country. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman closed their borders completely.

Several other nations blocked travel from Britain over the weekend, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Canada – although experts said the strain may already be circulating in countries with less advanced detection methods than the United Kingdom.

The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed fresh panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the U.S. government to take steps to prevent the variant entering the country, which has been worst hit by COVID-19 with almost 318,000 deaths.

“It’s high time the federal government takes swift action, because today that variant is getting on a plane and landing in JFK, and all it takes is one person,” he said.

U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir said nothing had yet been decided on any travel ban. As the pandemic accelerates there, Congress was poised to vote on a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package, after months of inaction.

EU officials met via video link to coordinate their response to the new strain of the coronavirus. The bloc is on course to start COVID-19 vaccinations within a week after its medicines regulator approved the use of a shot from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday.

Experts said there was no evidence that vaccines would not protect against this variant, but added they were working around the clock to determine whether the mutations would affect how well the shots guarded against infection.

“Since the three vaccine forerunners target the spike protein, how the variant responds to the vaccines and the protection that the vaccine will offer does still need to be examined in detail,” said Saad Shakir, a professor and director at Britain’s drug safety research unit.

FOOD SHORTAGES WARNING

France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from Britain, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe.

“No driver wants to deliver to the UK now, so the UK is going to see its freight supply dry up,” France’s FNTR national road-haulage federation said.

As families and truck drivers tried to navigate the travel bans to get back home in time for Christmas, British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s said shortages would start to appear within days if transport ties were not quickly restored.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” Sainsbury’s said.

The global alarm was reflected in financial markets.

European shares slumped, with travel and leisure stocks bearing the brunt; British Airways-owner IAG and easyJet dropped about 7%, while Air France KLM lost around 3%.

Wall Street also felt the pain, with losses across the board. The S&P 1500 airlines index slid 3%, while leading cruise operators fell about 4%.

The British pound tumbled 2.5% against the dollar at one point before paring some of the losses, while the yield on two-year UK government bonds hit a record low.

‘SICK MAN OF EUROPE’

Johnson cancelled Christmas plans for millions of British people on Saturday due to the more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.

Britain’s tabloids bemoaned the crisis.

“Sick Man of Europe,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson, while the Sun newspaper said “French show no merci.”

The new variant and restrictions in Britain compound the chaos as the country prepares to finally part ways with the European Union, possibly without a trade deal, when the Brexit transition period at 2300 GMT on Dec. 31.

Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.

The new variant, which scientists said was 40%-70% more transmissible, is rapidly become the dominant strain in parts of southern England, including London.

Experts tracking the new strain said there was some early but unconfirmed evidence that it could transmit as readily among children as among adults, unlike previous dominant strains that appeared to be more easily able to infect adults.

‘2020 NOT DONE WITH US’

Cases of the new strain have also been detected in some other countries, including Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.

Australia said two people who travelled from the United Kingdom to New South Wales, its most populous state, were carrying the mutated virus. It axed dozens of domestic flights while New South Wales locked down more than 250,000 people.

“2020 is not done with us yet,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Some scientists said the prevalence discovered in Britain might be down to detection.

“Britain is simply the country which finds these mutations the most because they are looking for them more. There are countries that hardly search or do not search at all,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it.”

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Toby Melville and James Davey in London, Laurence Frost in Paris, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Sayantani Ghosh in Singapore, Frank McGurty in New York, Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul, Renju Jose in Sydney, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Pravin Char; Editing by Alison Williams and Mike Collett-White)

U.S., EU say they do not recognize Venezuela parliamentary vote

By Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) -The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen Latin American countries said on Monday they would not recognize the results of a parliamentary election in Venezuela, which saw allies of President Nicolas Maduro win a majority.

Just 31% of 20 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s election, the electoral council said early on Monday, less than half the turnout rate in the previous congressional elections in 2015. The opposition had boycotted the vote, calling it a farce meant to consolidate a dictatorship.

The results nonetheless return the congress to Maduro’s control, despite an economy in tatters, an aggressive U.S. sanctions program, and a mass migration exodus. An alliance of parties called the Great Patriotic Pole that backs Maduro won 68.9% of the votes cast, according to figures published on Monday.

“The United States, along with numerous other democracies around the world, condemns this charade which failed to meet any minimum standard of credibility,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said the election “failed to comply with the minimum international standards,” while a group of Latin American countries including Brazil and Colombia issued a statement saying the vote “lacks legality and legitimacy.”

Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court had put several opposition parties in the hands of politicians expelled from those same parties for alleged links to Maduro – one of the major reasons the opposition had called the vote a sham.

The elections council was also named without the opposition’s participation, and Maduro refused to allow meaningful electoral observation. Maduro allies have said the electoral conditions were the same as a 2015 parliamentary vote the opposition won, and the government paid no heed to foreign criticism.

“Venezuela already has a new National Assembly,” Maduro said early on Monday, in televised remarks that were muted in comparison with his frequent triumphalism. “A great victory, without a doubt.”

The opposition in 2015 won control of the National Assembly in a landslide, but the pro-Maduro Supreme Court blocked even the most basic legislation. In 2017, Maduro supplanted parliament with the creation of an all-powerful parallel body known as the National Constituent Assembly.

Opposition legislators nonetheless used the platform to denounce Maduro around the world for human rights abuses, corruption, and economic mismanagement, proving a constant thorn in the side of the Socialist Party.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last year also used his role as speaker of the National Assembly to stake a claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate president, on the basis Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rigged, earning the recognition of more than 50 countries including the United States.

Pompeo said on Monday that Washington “will continue to recognize Interim President Guaidó and the legitimate National Assembly.”

Retaking control of the congress will give Maduro few meaningful tools to restart an economy where a monthly salary or pension is often less than the cost of a kilo of meat or a carton of eggs.

It may lend his government more legitimacy to offer oil industry deals to companies willing to risk U.S. sanctions to tap the OPEC nation’s huge oil reserves.

But even traditional allies such as Russia and China, typically the most likely to challenge U.S. sanctions, have shown scant interest in an oil industry hollowed out by years of decay and the emigration of its most talented professionals.

The opposition is calling on sympathizers to participate in a Dec. 12 consultation that will ask citizens whether they reject the results and want a change of government.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago, Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Rosalba O’Brien and Chris Reese)

Foreign donors make Afghan aid pledges with tougher conditions

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States pledged $600 million in civilian aid to Afghanistan next year at a key donor conference on Tuesday, but made half of it conditional on progress in U.S.-brokered peace talks underway with the Taliban.

Dozens of nations, international institutions and the European Union combined to pledge billions in aid for Afghanistan at the conference in Geneva. But many, including the United States and Germany, slapped strict conditions on future funding and some committed for just the next year – departing from four-year pledges made in the past.

Diplomats said keeping financing for Afghanistan on a tight leash could provide foreign governments with some leverage to inject a greater sense of urgency into a halting peace process.

“We’re pleased to pledge today $300 million…with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process,” U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a virtual address to the conference.

The United States has contributed roughly $800 million a year in civilian aid in recent years.

Another top donor, Germany, pledged 430 million euros ($510.88 million) in 2021 and signaled it would keep contributing until 2024 but also stressed that progress towards ending almost 20 years of war was needed.

Talks in the Qatari capital Doha between the Afghan government and Islamist Taliban insurgents began in September but have been mired in procedural wrangling as violence has resurged around the country.

But Hale said “significant progress” had recently been made, including a tentative agreement on ground rules that could allow negotiators to proceed to the next stage of forming an agenda.

As the donors conference proceeded, two explosions rocked an outdoor market in the central province of Bamyan, usually considered one of Afghanistan’s safest areas, killing at least 14 people and wounding almost 45, mostly civilians.

COVID-19 UNCERTAINTIES

During the lead-up to the quadrennial international donors conference, diplomats reckoned Afghanistan could receive 15-20% less funding than the roughly $15.2 billion pledged at the last conference in Brussels in 2016 due to uncertainties over the peace process and difficulties securing commitments from governments financially strapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Uncertainty over whether the compromises needed for peace might lead to backsliding on human and women’s rights has also made some countries wary about making long-term commitments to an Afghan administration, which needs foreign money to cover about three-quarters of its spending.

The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion)over four years on Tuesday but emphasized aid was conditional.

“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards to women and children’s rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

“Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” he added, referring to the Taliban’s previous hardline Islamist rule between 1996 and 2001.

Conference organizers have said curbing corruption was another wish on the part of countries considering donations.

Some such as Britain announced pledges covering only one year.

Britain said it would pledge $227 million in annual civilian and food aid. France pledged 88 million euros ($104.20 million) and Canada 270 million Canadian dollars ($206.66 million).

($1 = 0.8413 euros)

($1 = 1.3065 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Writing by Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

WHO chief looks forward to working ‘very closely’ with Biden team

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization chief welcomed efforts on Monday to strengthen the Geneva-based body through reform and said that it was looking forward to working closely with the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

WHO’s funding must become more flexible and predictable to end a “major misalignment” between expectations and available resources, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, citing reform efforts by France, Germany and the European Union.

“We still have a lot of work left to do, but we believe that we’re on the right track,” Tedros told health ministers as the annual meeting resumed of the WHO, which groups 194 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump has frozen U.S. funding to the WHO and begun a process that would see the United States withdraw from the body next July, drawing wide international criticism amid the COVID-19 crisis. He accuses the WHO of being “China-centric” in its handling of the pandemic, which Tedros has repeatedly denied.

Biden, who will convene a national coronavirus task force on Monday, said during campaigning he would rescind Trump’s decision to abandon the WHO on his first day in office.

Tedros urged the international community to recapture a sense of common purpose, adding: “In that spirit we congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and we look forward to working with this administration very closely.

“We need to reimagine leadership, build on mutual trust and mutual accountability to end the pandemic and address the fundamental inequalities that lie at the root of so many of the world’s problems,” he said.

An oversight panel called last week for reforms at the WHO including “predictable and flexible” funding and setting up a multi-tiered system to warn countries earlier about disease outbreaks before they escalate.

Tedros, speaking from quarantine after being in contact with an individual with COVID-19 more than a week ago, began with a minute’s silence, noting that COVID-19 cases approached 50 million with 1.2 million deaths.

Speaking shortly before Pfizer Inc said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective, Tedros said vaccines being developed to curb the pandemic should be allocated fairly as “global public goods, not private commodities”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Catherine Evans)

‘Great day for humanity’: Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine over 90% effective

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)

EU set to impose tariffs on $4 billion U.S. goods next week

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union is likely to impose tariffs on $4 billion of U.S. imports including planes and plane parts next week in retaliation over U.S. subsidies for aircraft maker Boeing, EU diplomats said on Friday.

A majority of EU governments have already backed the tariffs, which are expected to be put in place after a meeting of EU trade ministers on Monday.

“I would expect the tariffs to be imposed next Tuesday or Wednesday,” an EU diplomat said.

The move will echo U.S. tariffs on European goods over subsidies for Boeing’s rival Airbus. Combined, the two cases represent the world’s largest ever corporate trade dispute.

The World Trade Organization gave the European Union the right to impose counter-measures, but the United States said that there was no legal basis this and that, if the bloc chose to impose measures, it “will force a U.S. response”.

The move puts the long-running transatlantic trade dispute on the radar of the next U.S. administration, whoever wins the closely fought election.

The European Union could have acted at the end of October, just days before the U.S. election, but chose to delay in order to avoid potentially impacting the outcome. EU governments formally cleared the move on Tuesday, election day.

Tariffs are due to be placed on U.S. planes and parts, fruits, nuts and other farm produce, processed products such as orange juice, certain spirits and a range of other goods, from construction equipment to casino tables, diplomats said.

The European Commission said it was finalizing the process to exercise its retaliation rights in case no agreed solution could be found with Washington, including the immediate suspension of U.S. measures.

The United States Trade Representative had no immediate comment.

The United States already has tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU and British goods in relation to a parallel case over subsidies for European plane maker Airbus.

Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., said any tariffs on spirits would further devastate an industry that has already seen a 41% drop in U.S. whisky exports to Europe due to previous EU tariffs.

The tariffs also hand Britain, which left the EU this year, a delicate decision about whether to join its neighbors in imposing tariffs at a time when it is in the midst of trade negotiations with both the United States and European Union.

Britain’s trade minister said last week it would “keep all options open” to ensure it can respond to U.S. tariffs on Scotch whisky and other industries. Britain is one of four Airbus partner nations alongside France, Germany and Spain.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington, Editing by Tim Hepher)

Germans fear Trump more than coronavirus, survey shows

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germans are more afraid of the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump than of the coronavirus which has wreaked havoc on Europe’s biggest economy, an annual survey of German attitudes showed on Thursday.

Fears that Trump’s policies would make the world a more dangerous place eclipsed economic worries, with 53% of those asked putting him top of their list, according to the survey conducted in June and July for the R+V Insurance Group.

Rising living costs, the economic situation and the cost to taxpayers of European Union debt came second, third and fourth for traditionally cautious Germans.

The coronavirus took 17th spot and only around a third of those asked said they were concerned that they or someone they knew well would get COVID-19.

Germany has kept the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths relatively low compared with some of its European neighbors, but new infections are rising again.

The survey did not give details on which aspects of Trump’s policies worried Germans but R+V quoted political scientist Manfred Schmidt of the Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg as blaming his foreign policy.

“Particularly notable are the trade-war-like conflicts with China and trade and security policy attacks against allies, including Germany. In addition, the withdrawal of the United States from international cooperation and the confrontation with Iran,” said Schmidt who advises R+V on the annual survey.

Some 2,400 people were questioned for the “Fears of Germans” survey, which has been conducted since 1992.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by Emma Thomasson and Catherine Evans)

Exclusive: Vaccine group says 76 rich countries now committed to ‘COVAX’ access plan

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Seventy-six wealthy nations are now committed to joining a global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that aims to help buy and fairly distribute the shots, the project’s co-lead said on Wednesday.

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance, said the plan, known as COVAX, now has Japan, Germany, Norway and more than 70 other nations signed up, agreeing in principle to procure COVID-19 vaccines through the facility for their populations.

“We have, as of right now, 76 upper middle income and high income countries that have submitted confirmations of intent to participate – and we expect that number to go up,” Berkley told Reuters in an interview.

“This is good news. It shows that the COVAX facility is open for business and is attracting the type of interest across the world we had hoped it would.”. COVAX coordinators are in talks with China about whether it might also join, Berkley said.

“We had a discussion yesterday with the (Chinese) government. We don’t have any signed agreement with them yet,” but Beijing had given “a positive signal”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing on Wednesday that China “supports COVAX and has been in communication with WHO and other parties” about it.

COVAX is co-led by GAVI, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). It is designed to discourage national governments from hoarding COVID-19 vaccines and to focus on first vaccinating the most high-risk people in every country.

Its backers say this strategy should lead to lower vaccine costs for everyone and a swifter end to the pandemic that has claimed some 860,000 lives globally.

Wealthy countries that join COVAX will finance the vaccine purchases from their national budgets, and will partner with 92 poorer nations supported through voluntary donations to the plan to ensure vaccines are delivered equitably, Berkley said.

Participating wealthy countries are also free to procure vaccines through bilateral deals and other plans.

The United States said on Tuesday it would not join COVAX due to the Trump administration’s objection to WHO involvement, a move described by some critics as “disappointing.” Berkley said he was not surprised by the U.S. decision, but would seek to continue talks with Washington.

In what appeared to be a change of position on Wednesday, the European Union said its member states could buy potential COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX.

COVAX coordinators sought to add flexibility to joining agreements to encourage greater participation, Berkley said.

The WHO describes COVAX as an “invaluable insurance policy” for all countries to secure access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are developed and approved. The plan’s coordinators have set a deadline of Sept. 18 for countries signing up to make binding commitments.

Asked to comment on the U.S. decision not to join COVAX, and on talks with China, a WHO spokesperson said: “Countries have until Sept. 18 to sign binding agreements…, so we’ll have more to say on countries that have joined then.”

COVAX’s objective is to procure and deliver 2 billion doses of approved vaccines by the end of 2021. It currently has nine COVID-19 vaccine candidates in its portfolio employing a range of different technologies and scientific approaches.

A handful are already in late-stage clinical trials and could have data available by year end.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Mark Heinrich)

Kremlin tells West not to rush to judge it on Navalny as sanctions talk starts

By Andrew Osborn and Madeline Chambers

MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday the West should not rush to judge it over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and that there were no grounds to accuse it of the crime, as talk in the West of punishing Moscow intensified.

The Kremlin was speaking a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Navalny had been poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent in an attempt to murder him and that she would consult NATO allies about how to respond.

Navalny, 44, is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has specialized in high-impact investigations into official corruption. He was airlifted to Germany last month after collapsing on a domestic Russian flight after drinking a cup of tea that his allies said was poisoned.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, which is treating Navalny, has said he remains in a serious condition in an intensive care unit connected to an artificial lung ventilator even though some of his symptoms are receding.

Novichok is the same substance that Britain said was used against a Russian double agent and his daughter in an attack in England in 2018. The deadly group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow rejected any suggestion that Russia had been behind the attack on Navalny and warned other countries against jumping to conclusions without knowing the full facts.

“There are no grounds to accuse the Russian state. And we are not inclined to accept any accusations in this respect,” Peskov told reporters.

“Of course we would not want our partners in Germany and other European countries to hurry with their assessments.”

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, said Moscow could not rule out Western intelligence agencies had orchestrated the poisoning to stir up trouble, the RIA news agency reported.

Russian prosecutors have said they see no reason to launch a criminal investigation because they say they have found no sign a crime was committed, though pre-investigation checks are continuing.

Peskov said Russia was eager to know what had happened to Navalny, but couldn’t do so without receiving information from Germany about the tests that had led to Berlin’s conclusions about Novichok.

SANCTIONS PRESSURE

OPCW, the global chemical weapons agency, said the poisoning of any individual with a toxic nerve agent would be considered use of a banned chemical weapon.

The European Commission said the bloc could only slap new sanctions on Russia after an investigation revealed who was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning. Lithuania said it would ask EU leaders to discuss the poisoning at their next summit.

Merkel said that any German or European response would depend on whether Russia helped clear up the case.

After her strong statement on Wednesday, she is under pressure at home to reconsider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take gas from Russia to Germany.

“We must pursue hard politics, we must respond with the only language (Russian President Vladimir) Putin understands – that is gas sales,” Norbert Roettgen, head of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told German radio.

“If the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed now, it would be the maximum confirmation and encouragement for Putin to continue this kind of politics,” Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s conservatives, told German television separately.

Nord Stream 2 is set to double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline in carrying gas directly from Russia to Germany. Led by Russian company Gazprom with Western partners, the project is more than 90% finished and due to operate from early 2021. This may complicate efforts to stop it.

It is fiercely opposed by Washington and has divided the European Union, with some countries warning it will undermine the traditional gas transit state, Ukraine, and increase the bloc’s reliance on Russia.

Peskov said the Kremlin regarded talk of trying to thwart Nord Stream 2 as being based on emotions. He said the project was a commercial one which benefited Russia, Germany and Europe.

“We don’t understand what the reason for any sanctions could be,” said Peskov.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and by Thomas Seythal and Vera Eckert in Berlin and by Gabriela Baczynska, John Chalmers, and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by William Maclean)

It’s not for me: speed of COVID-19 vaccine race raises safety concerns

By Francesco Guarascio and Josephine Mason

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – The frenetic race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has intensified safety concerns about an inoculation, prompting governments and drugmakers to raise awareness to ensure their efforts to beat the coronavirus aren’t derailed by public distrust.

There are more than 200 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development globally, including more than 20 in human clinical trials. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to have a shot ready before year’s end, although they typically take 10 years or longer to develop and test for safety and effectiveness.

In the drive to find a potential COVID-19 vaccine “fast is good for politicians,” said Heidi Larson, who leads the Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), a global surveillance program on vaccine trust. “But from the public perspective, the general sentiment is: ‘too fast can’t be safe'”, she told Reuters.

Regulators around the world have repeatedly said speed will not compromise safety, as quicker results would stem from conducting in parallel trials that are usually done in sequence.

However, these reassurances have failed to convince many, including in Western countries where skepticism about vaccinations was already growing before the pandemic.

Preliminary results of a survey conducted over the last three months in 19 countries showed that only about 70% of British and U.S. respondents would take a COVID-19 vaccine if available, Scott Ratzan, co-leader of ‘Business Partners to CONVINCE’, told Reuters.

Business Partners to CONVINCE, a U.S./UK initiative that is partly government funded, conducted the survey jointly with VCP and the results were broadly in line with a Reuters/Ipsos poll of the U.S. public in May.

“We just see this distrust growing against science and government,” said Ratzan.

“We need to address legitimate concerns about the rapid pace of development, political over-promises and the risks of vaccination.”

The VCP/Business Partners’ survey, expected to be published in a few weeks, will also show that Chinese participants were the most trusting of vaccines, while Russians were the least so, Ratzan said.

Drugmakers and governments had hoped the scale of the COVID-19 crisis would allay concerns about vaccines, which they see as crucial to defeating the pandemic and enabling economies to fully recover from its impact.

Vaccine hesitancy – or the reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated – is also known as “anti-vax,” a term that is sometimes associated with conspiracy theories when often it simply reflects many people’s concerns about side-effects or industry ethics.

In January 2019 the World Health Organisation named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats for that year.

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In Europe, skepticism among the public was high before the pandemic due to a range of factors including negative coverage of pharmaceutical companies as well as false theories including suggested links between childhood immunizations and autism.

Only 70% of French people considered vaccines safe in a 2018 survey commissioned by the European Union executive. The EU average was 82%, but trust fell to 68% for the shot against seasonal flu.

The VCP project on vaccine trust, funded by the European Commission and pharmaceutical companies among others, aims to identify early signs and causes of public mistrust and tackle them with information campaigns before it is too late.

Larson said headlines referring to Warp Speed – the name of the U.S. operation aimed at delivering a COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. population by next year – could increase vaccine hesitancy even more than perceptions that the disease could become less lethal.

“One of the most frequent things that comes up in people’s conversations is concerns about how quick it is. If I have to pick one theme that is more recurrent than others it is this one,” Larson said.

Data collected by VCP from social media show that by the end of June about 40% of Britons’ posts concerning a COVID-19 vaccine, for example, were negative, with many distrusting any coronavirus vaccine and the medical establishment.

Announcements about fast progress in COVID vaccines in Russia and China in particular could also contribute to rising skepticism. “We don’t have transparency and don’t know how accurate or valid their data are,” Ratzan said, adding that errors there could boost skepticism elsewhere.

Key for any information campaign to be successful is to tailor it to different audiences as there is no uniform profile of anti-vaxxers, said Kate Elder of Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organisation.

“They go from the highly educated to those who don’t believe in science,” she said, urging politicians to be more careful in their messages on vaccines and to better explain the reasons behind potentially fast results against COVID-19.

“We are exploring the idea of a chatbot that will speak in different languages,” said Ratzan, adding it could be something similar to Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service’s campaign to educate about preventing wildfires.

“Different parts of the world will require different strategies. We know we need to tailor it and to be specific,” he said.

Risks are high if hesitancy is not addressed quickly.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, growing skepticism about the vaccine led to a failure of the vaccination campaign in France, where only 8% of the population got a shot against the virus which is estimated to have killed around 280,000 people across the world.

A study published in May in the Lancet by a group of French scientists warned of similar risks now in the country where vaccine hesitancy went up from 18% in mid-March when a lockdown was imposed on the French to 26% by the end of that month.

“Distrust is likely to become an issue when the vaccine will be made available,” the scientists concluded.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio in Brussels and Josephine Mason in London; Editing by Susan Fenton)