French labs show how global supply bottlenecks thwart effort to ramp up testing

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – Mass testing was meant to be the answer to the second wave. Politicians promised that with enough tests, conducted quickly enough, they could keep the coronavirus in check, without having to resort to lockdowns that crippled economies six months ago.

But so far, with a surge sweeping Europe just as students return to school and university, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There aren’t enough tests, and they are taking too long.

Pierre-Adrien Bihl, who runs four labs that together conduct 800 tests a day in eastern France, has one explanation for what has gone wrong: a global supply chain that can’t keep up.

“I spend my days checking orders have been made and received and hassling my supplier to deliver, deliver, deliver,” he said. “But all their clients demand the same thing.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, like other European leaders, has pressed for a swift increase in tests. His government promises that anyone who needs a test can get one.

But five companies that operate laboratories in Paris and eastern France told Reuters there was simply no way they could work any faster, as long as they are struggling to obtain chemicals and test kits that are mainly produced abroad.

This week, Bihl said, he had to take his diagnostic machine offline for nearly 24 hours, after a four-day delay in the delivery of some single-use parts.

The shutdown forced Bihl to reduce testing appointments until the backlog could be made up, he said, adding that such shutdowns were taking place three or four times a month.

Arthur Clement, who runs four laboratories, said the U.S. manufacturer of his diagnostic machine, Cepheid, was sending him just 300 test kits per month at the end of the summer, as cases surged.

With his labs performing 25,000 tests per month, Clement had to send nearly all of them out to a third party, where they were taking up to 7-10 days to get results. Cepheid did not respond to a request for comment.

Clement ordered a new diagnostic machine from a South Korean manufacturer two months ago, which finally arrived last Friday, and now he says he can perform all tests in-house and deliver results in a day.

GLOBAL MARKET

In Paris, queues snake out of testing centers each day, with lines forming before sunrise at some. People with COVID symptoms are waiting on average three days for their results, according to official data, though for some the wait can be double.

France is now conducting more than 1.2 million polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per week in response to the epidemic, which has killed more than 31,000 people in the country and infected nearly half a million.

The French health ministry denies that there is a nationwide shortage of chemicals. It says there have been localized shortages in some parts of the country, but the overall supply is adequate. Health Minister Olivier Veran has said France has access to supplies of reagents equivalent to double the actual demand for tests.

But laboratories can’t just order chemicals from anywhere: testing machines typically require proprietary chemical kits and tools, some of which can be obtained only from the manufacturer.

The ministry recommends laboratories diversify their suppliers of testing machines, to mitigate the risk of one supply chain becoming blocked. But that means buying extra machines to duplicate capacity, which costs more money and can take months.

Suppliers of the machines to French labs include Cepheid and Becton Dickinson in the United States, Switzerland’s Roche, and France’s Biomerieux and Eurobio Scientific.

Cepheid, Roche and Eurobio Scientific did not respond to requests for comment on the supply of COVID equipment and reagents.

Becton Dickinson told Reuters in an email it was delivering more than 1 million tests per month globally. It acknowledged that this has fallen short of demand, but said it aims to scale up to 1.9 million per month by late 2020.

Biomerieux said its sites in France had spare capacity.

Lionel Barrand, one of the five laboratory operators who spoke to Reuters, said the supply-chain crunch was partly rooted in France’s reliance on imported reagents. He estimated 90% of COVID-19 reagents used in France were sourced overseas.

“We depend heavily on the global market,” said Barrand, who heads a laboratory industry group, the Syndicat National des Jeunes Biologistes.

Some of the French laboratories worry that U.S. suppliers such as Cepheid and Becton Dickinson are prioritizing labs in the United States, where healthcare costs are higher and profit margins bigger.

Becton Dickinson said it allocates test kits using quotas, which are set on the basis of the number of its testing machines in a country and the severity of outbreaks.

“We do not use pricing, margins or profit as a factor in our allocations,” the company said.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Peter Graff)

Severe COVID-19 riskier than heart attack for young adults; antibiotic shows no benefit

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

More young adults survive heart attacks than severe COVID-19

Among COVID-19 patients treated at 419 U.S. hospitals from April through June, only about 5% were ages 18 to 34. But that group had “substantial rates of adverse outcomes,” according to a report on Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine. Roughly one in five needed intensive care, one in 10 needed mechanical ventilation, and nearly 3% died. While the mortality rate is lower than in older adults, it is roughly double the death rate of young adults from heart attacks, the authors say. Obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes were tied to higher risk for adverse events. For young adults with more than one of these conditions, the risk of a bad outcome was similar to middle-aged adults without the risk factors. More than half of hospitalized young adults were Black or Hispanic, “consistent with prior findings of disproportionate illness severity in these demographic groups,” the authors said. “Given the sharply rising rates of COVID-19 infection in young adults, these findings underscore the importance of infection prevention measures in this age group,” the concluded.

Antibiotic fails to help hospitalized COVID-19 patients

The antibiotic azithromycin did not appear to provide any benefit to hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were having trouble breathing, according to a study in Brazil. At 57 hospitals, 243 COVID-19 patients who needed oxygen or mechanical ventilation were randomly assigned to receive azithromycin, while 183 similar patients did not get the antibiotic. All received other standard treatment, which in Brazil included hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that other studies have shown provides little or no benefit. While azithromycin did not appear to do any harm, after 15 days it was not associated with any patient improvement nor did it reduce their risk of death. In an April survey of more than 6,000 physicians in 30 countries, azithromycin was the second most commonly prescribed treatment for COVID-19, the study investigators wrote in The Lancet medical journal. The absence of any benefit in this new study “suggests that the routine use of this strategy should be avoided,” they said.

Risk of catching COVID-19 while hospitalized can be low

Among nearly 8,500 patients admitted to a large Boston hospital between early March and the end of May, only two became sick with coronavirus infections that may have been acquired while they were hospitalized, doctors report. One likely was infected by a spouse who initially appeared well during daily visits but who developed symptoms while the patient was still hospitalized. That was before visitor restrictions and universal masking rules had been implemented. The other patient developed symptoms four days after leaving the hospital. The source of the infection is not known. According to a paper published on Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, infection control efforts at the hospital included dedicated COVID-19 units with airborne infection isolation rooms, personal protective equipment for staff and monitoring to make sure those were used correctly, universal masking, visitor restriction, and liberal COVID-19 testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. These “robust and rigorous infection control practices may be associated with minimized risk” of COVID-19 spreading through hospitals, the authors conclude. Their findings, if replicated at other U.S. hospitals, “should provide reassurance to patients,” they said.

Longer-term COVID-19 lung damage can improve over time

COVID-19 lung damage persists long term but tends to improve, researchers reported on Monday at the European Respiratory Society International Virtual Congress. Researchers studied 86 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 48% of whom had a smoking history and 21% of whom required intensive care. At 6 weeks after discharge, 47% of patients still reported feeling short of breath. By 12 weeks, that dropped to 39%. CT scans still showed lung damage in 88% of patients at six weeks, dropping to 56% at 12 weeks. “Overall, this study shows that COVID-19 survivors have persisting pulmonary impairment weeks after recovery. Yet, overtime, a moderate improvement is detectable,” lead researcher Dr. Sabina Sahanic, from University Clinic of Internal Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, said during a press briefing. A related study featured at the meeting stressed the importance of early pulmonary rehabilitation after COVID-19 patients come off a ventilator. This should include balance and walking, muscle strengthening, respiratory exercises and endurance training. “The sooner rehabilitation started and the longer it lasted, the faster and better was the improvement in patients’ walking and breathing capacities and muscle gain,” coauthor Yara Al Chikhanie, from Grenoble Alps University in France, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Steroids cut death rates among critically ill COVID-19 patients, major study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Treating critically ill COVID-19 patients with corticosteroid drugs reduces the risk of death by 20%, an analysis of seven international trials found on Wednesday, prompting the World Health Organisation to update its advice on treatment.

The analysis – which pooled data from separate trials of low dose hydrocortisone, dexamethasone and methylprednisolone – found that steroids improve survival rates of COVID-19 patients sick enough to be in intensive care in hospital.

“This is equivalent to around 68% of (the sickest COVID-19) patients surviving after treatment with corticosteroids, compared to around 60% surviving in the absence of corticosteroids,” the researchers said in a statement.

The WHO’s clinical care lead, Janet Diaz, said the agency had updated its advice to include a “strong recommendation” for use of steroids in patients with severe and critical COVID-19.

“The evidence shows that if you give corticosteroids …(there are) 87 fewer deaths per 1,000 patients,” she told a WHO social media live event. “Those are lives … saved.”

“Steroids are a cheap and readily available medication, and our analysis has confirmed that they are effective in reducing deaths amongst the people most severely affected by COVID-19,” Jonathan Sterne, a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Britain’s Bristol University who worked on the analysis, told the briefing.

He said the trials – conducted by researchers in Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Spain, and the United States – gave a consistent message throughout, showing the drugs were beneficial in the sickest patients regardless of age or sex or how long patients had been ill.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reinforce results that were hailed as a major breakthrough and announced in June, when dexamethasone became the first drug shown to be able to reduce death rates among severely sick COVID-19 patients.

Dexamethasone has been in widespread use in intensive care wards treating COVID-19 patients in some countries since then.

Martin Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford who worked on the dexamethasone trial that was a key part of the pooled analysis published on Wednesday, said the results mean doctors in hospitals across the world can safely switch to using the drugs to save lives.

CLEAR BENEFITS

“These results are clear, and instantly usable in clinical practice,” he told reporters. “Among critically ill patients with COVID-19, low-dose corticosteroids … significantly reduce the risk of death.”

Researchers said the benefit was shown regardless of whether patients were on ventilation at the time they started treatment. They said the WHO would update its guidelines immediately to reflect the fresh results.

Until the June findings on dexamethasone, no effective treatment had been shown to reduce death rates in patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

More than 25 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and 856,876​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Gilead Sciences Inc’s remdesivir was authorized by United States regulators in May for use in patients with severe COVID-19 after trial data showed the antiviral drug helped shorten hospital recovery time.

Anthony Gordon, an Imperial College London professor who also worked on the analysis, said its results were good news for patients who become critically ill with COVID-19, but would not be enough to end outbreaks or ease infection control measures.

“Impressive as these results are, this is not a cure. We now have something that will help, but it is not a cure, so it’s vital that we keep up all the prevention strategies.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans)

Exclusive: Germany, France want more funding, power for WHO as part of sweeping reforms

By Andreas Rinke and Stephanie Nebehay

BERLIN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Germany and France want to give more money and power to the World Health Organisation after the COVID-19 pandemic underscored long-standing financial and legal weaknesses at the U.N. agency, an internal document seen by Reuters shows.

The proposed reforms could already be discussed at the WHO in mid-September, three officials familiar with the talks told Reuters, in a fast timeline that would confirm the two European powers’ growing concerns about the organisation, which they also see as excessively subject to external influences.

In a joint paper circulated among diplomats involved in the reform talks, Berlin and Paris said the WHO’s mandate, which includes preventing outbreaks across the world and helping governments tackle them, was not backed up by sufficient financial resources and legal powers.

“Not only during the current pandemic, it has become clear that the WHO partly lacks the abilities to fulfill this mandate,” the document seen by Reuters said.

A Western diplomat in Geneva, referring to member states’ contributions based on their GDP, said: “The key point is the mismatch between WHO mandate and financing. It’s very much pro-WHO, it should have more money and (they are) asking for an increase in assessed contributions.”

France and Germany are seeking consensus “from Washington to Beijing” around the document, a source close to the talks said.

The move shows the two countries’ keen interest in an overhaul aimed at strengthening the WHO, despite talks on the matter with the United States collapsing earlier in August at G7 level over differing views about the reform.

France and Germany, whose health ministers pledged new funds after talks with WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in June, have not hidden their criticism of the WHO.

But their approach is very different from that of the Trump administration which has cut funding, announced its withdrawal from next July, and accused Tedros of being a puppet of China.

The Franco-German reform plan is focused on strengthening the WHO, in part to empower it to be able to be more critical of member states if they do not honor global rules on transparency in reporting health and disease issues.

A German government official, asked to comment on the document, said: “Germany together with others wants a reform, talks are under way on different levels.”

The French health ministry was not available for comment.

A WHO spokeswoman was unable to provide any information.

UNDERFUNDED

The seven-page document lists 10 reforms aimed at boosting the WHO’s legal powers and funding.

“WHO’s overall budget with roughly $5 billion per biennium equals the funding of a larger sub-regional hospital,” the joint paper said, urging larger and more reliable funding.

Only a fifth of the agency’s budget comes from member states’ payments without strings attached. The remainder is raised through “short-term, unpredictable and largely highly specified voluntary contributions”, the document said, in an apparent reference to the role of individual philanthropic funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A stronger budget is needed in particular for handling emergencies, the document said, to avoid the WHO needing to raise funds in the midst of outbreaks, which could further reduce its independence.

WHO experts should be able to “independently investigate and assess (potential) outbreaks as early as possible”, the paper says. China has been accused in this pandemic and in past epidemics of being slow or reluctant to share data and to grant swift access to WHO teams.

The WHO should also be subject to a stronger oversight in emergencies to quickly assess its operations, the document said, proposing the creation of a group of national experts who could monitor crises.

To make sure that the proposed reforms have a proper follow-up, the document recommends the establishment of a panel of experts for this purpose, similar to the one that is currently assessing the handling of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Tangi Salaun in Paris and Kate Kelland in London; writing by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; editing by Nick Macfie)

Britons rush home from France to beat new quarantine rules

By Alistair Smout and Tangi Salaün

LONDON/CALAIS, France (Reuters) – British travelers rushed home from summer holidays in France on Friday, booking planes, trains, boats and even private jets to get home before a 14-day quarantine comes into force in response to rising coronavirus infections there.

The government announced late on Thursday that it would impose a quarantine from 0300 GMT on Saturday on arrivals from France, giving an estimated 160,000 UK holidaymakers there just over 24 hours to get home or face self-isolation on return.

The sudden rule change dealt a fresh blow to tourists, airlines and tour operators. The pandemic has left many travel groups cash-strapped and fighting for survival.

Many British tourists headed towards the French port of Calais hoping to catch a ferry or a shuttle train home in time.

“We’ve changed our plans when we heard the news last night. We decided to head back home a day early to miss the quarantine,” one British woman at a service station on the motorway to Calais said after her week in southern France.

Queues of cars built up in Calais through Friday afternoon. Ferry companies were adding extra crossings to help more people get home, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the Port of Calais, told Reuters.

PrivateFly, a British-based jet provider, said it had seen three times the normal number of enquiries and bookings.

The new quarantine rules apply to France, the second-most popular holiday destination for Britons, as well as to the Netherlands and the Mediterranean island of Malta.

Spain, Britons’ favorite holiday destination, came under British government quarantine rules on July 26.

“We’ve also had a number of enquiries from clients booked to travel to these destinations in the coming weeks to change their travel plans in order to avoid quarantine zones,” PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell said.

France warned it would reciprocate, dealing a further blow to airlines’ hopes of an August recovery given they may have to cancel yet more flights.

Airline and travel shares tumbled. British Airways-owner IAG was down 6% and easyJet, which said it would operate its full schedule for the coming days, fell 7%.

TIGHTENING QUARANTINE

When Europe first went into lockdown in March, Britain was criticized for not restricting arrivals from abroad. But since June, it has introduced strict quarantine rules for arrivals from countries with infection rates above a certain level.

This contrasts with an easing of rules at home, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered the gradual reopening of the economy to resume, weeks after pausing it.

Transport minister Grant Shapps said the government needed to balance the need to open the economy and to contain the virus. The UK recorded 1,441 COVID-19 cases, the highest daily tally since June 14, official data showed on Friday.

Shapps told BBC Radio he sympathized with travelers but that they should not be entirely surprised, given the fluid situation around the pandemic.

“Where we see countries breach a certain level of cases … then we have no real choice but to act,” he told Sky News.

Airlines UK, an industry body representing BA, easyJet and Ryanair, called on Britain to implement more targeted quarantines on the regions with the highest infection rates and to bring in a testing regime.

An EU study showed that imported cases of COVID typically only account for a small share of infections when a pandemic is at its peak, but are more significant once a country has the disease under control.

(Writing by Sarah Young; Additional reporting by Kate Holton; David Milliken and Richard Lough; Editing by Nick Macfie, Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

Putin proposes seven-way online summit to avoid ‘confrontation’ over Iran: Kremlin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday proposed holding a seven-way online summit of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council together with Germany and Iran, to outline steps aimed at avoiding a confrontation over the Iran arms embargo.

In a Kremlin statement, Putin said discussions were becoming increasingly tense over the Iranian issue at the Security Council, which began voting on Thursday on a U.S. proposal to extend an arms embargo on Iran, which is opposed by veto-wielding Russia and China.

“The situation is escalating. Unfounded accusations against Iran are being put forward,” said Putin, adding that Russia remained fully committed to the Iran nuclear deal.

The 13-year-old arms embargo is due to expire in October under a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, Germany, Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States that prevents Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief.

Russia suggested an online video conference to avoid aggravating the situation at the U.N. Security Council.

Putin described the matter as urgent and urged the other nations to carefully consider Russia’s offer, saying the alternative was further escalation of tensions and a growing risk of conflict.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson)

UK will be ‘ruthless’ over quarantine, Johnson says when asked about France

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was prepared to be ruthless with even its closest partners over COVID-19 quarantine rules, after he was asked whether France would be removed from the government’s safe-travel list.

Britain has in recent weeks imposed a 14-day quarantine period for arrivals from countries like Spain and Belgium, responding to rising infections and fears of a second wave of the virus, having initially declared them safe for travel.

“We’ve got to be absolutely ruthless about this, even with our closest and dearest friends and partners around the world,” Johnson told reporters on a visit to Northern Ireland.

“We will be looking at the data a bit later on this afternoon … looking at exactly where France and other countries are getting to, and you know we can’t be remotely complacent about our own situation.”

The French health ministry reported 2,524 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday – the highest since its lockdown restrictions.

That has prompted speculation it could be the next European country added to Britain’s list – a move that would affect the large number of British tourists travelling there during English school holidays.

For UK holidaymakers, France is the second most-visited country behind first-choice destination Spain. Almost 13 million Britons traveled to France in 2017, data from Statista showed.

Britain usually welcomes about 3.5 million visitors from France each year according to the same data, making France the second biggest market for tourists coming into the UK behind the United States.

(Reporting by William James; editing by David Milliken and Stephen Addison)

Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)

Exclusive: More than 40 countries accuse North Korea of breaching U.N. sanctions

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than 40 countries accused North Korea on Friday of illicitly breaching a United Nations cap on refined petroleum imports and called for an immediate halt to deliveries until the end of the year, according to a complaint seen by Reuters.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council imposed an annual cap of 500,000 barrels in December 2017 in a bid to cut off fuel for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But in a complaint to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee, 43 countries – including the United States, Britain and France – said they estimated that in the first five months of this year Pyongyang had imported more than 1.6 million barrels of refined petroleum via 56 illicit tanker deliveries.

The complaint said North Korean vessels continue to conduct ship-to-ship transfers at sea “on a regular basis as the DPRK’s primary means of importing refined petroleum.” North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The countries asked the Security Council sanctions committee to make an official determination that North Korea had exceeded the cap and “inform member states that they must immediately cease selling, supplying, or transferring refined petroleum products to the DPRK for the remainder of the year.”

Similar requests to the committee in 2018 and 2019 were blocked by North Korean allies Russia and China. They are also the only two countries to have formally reported deliveries of refined petroleum to the Security Council sanctions committee.

“China and Russia collectively have reported 106,094.17 barrels of refined petroleum product transfers … January through May,” the complaint said. “The official accounting of the DPRK’s imports vastly under represents the volume of refined petroleum products that actually enter the DPRK.”

The 43 countries also urged the committee to call on states to “immediately exercise enhanced vigilance regarding the DPRK attempting to procure additional refined petroleum products and to prevent illicit ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products to vessels owned, controlled, or acting on behalf of or working in cooperation with the DPRK.”

North Korea has been subjected to U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. While the Security Council has steadily strengthened sanctions, U.N. monitors reported this year that North Korea continued to enhance its programs last year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have met three times since 2018, but failed to make progress on U.S. calls for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and North Korea’s demands for an end to sanctions.

The complaint to the Security Council committee said: “If the DPRK is able to flagrantly evade international sanctions, it will have little incentive to engage in serious negotiations.”

The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Gregorio)