Putin says Nord Stream 2 gas link to be finished as U.S. seeks good European ties

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Katya Golubkova

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) -Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is ready to start pumping gas to Germany and the final stretch will be completed as the new U.S. administration seeks good relations with “key partners in Europe,” President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.

Successive U.S. administrations have imposed sanctions to try to block the project that will ship gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Western ally Ukraine.

Russia’s Gazprom has pressed ahead with building the pipeline after U.S. sanctions left it without a Western pipe-laying company in late 2019, but the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden last month waived some sanctions.

“I think it should be completed especially given that the new U.S. administration speaks of its intention to build up good relations with its key partners in Europe,” Putin told a forum in St Petersburg. “How can you build good relations with your partners and neglect their interests? This is a nonsense.”

Russia has finished laying pipes for the Nord Stream 2 first line and is set to finish the second one within two months, Putin said. Less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) are left to complete the project, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said.

Once Nord Stream 2 is finished, it will double the existing route’s annual volume to 110 billion cubic meters and increase European energy dependency on Russia.

It also competes with shipments of U.S. liquefied natural gas and Biden has described the project as a “bad deal” for Europe.

But he explained the waiving of some sanctions last month by saying the project was nearly complete, and that continuing sanctions could have harmed ties with Europe.

Germany has advocated the project, while Ukraine is a strong opponent and sees it as a means for Moscow to exert political pressure and depriving Kyiv of transit fees.

Gazprom will start filling the first line with gas as soon as Germany grants its approval, Putin said. Gazprom shares rallied after the announcement, adding 0.75% and reaching 274 roubles ($3.76) per share, their highest since mid-2008.

As governments and investors ratchet up the pressure to decarbonize the fuel mix, fossil fuel energy is losing market share to renewable power, but Putin was bullish about demand and said that the Nord Stream 2 was a clean project as it did not involve fracking.

Russian gas supplies to Europe are seen exceeding 200 bcm this year and may rise by as much as 50 bcm in the next decade, Putin said. Ukraine must show good will if it wants Russian gas transit to Europe and the related fees to remain, he said.

($1 = 72.8970 roubles)

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Katya Golubkova; additional reporting by Oksana Kobzeva in Moscow and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Jon Boyle, Jonathan Oatis and Barbara Lewis)

Germany to build up reserve vaccine capacity to fight future pandemics

By Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany plans to pay vaccine manufacturers an annual reservation fee to build up reserve capacity of around 600-700 million doses per year to help it fight future pandemics, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Wednesday.

The government plans to launch a call for tenders for so-called pandemic preparedness contracts with a five-year term so that vaccine doses “can be activated quickly if the worst comes to the worst,” Spahn told a news conference.

Manufacturing setbacks and an over-reliance on European Union approval for supplies slowed Germany’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. It wants to boost domestic production to ensure it is not deprived of shots in future pandemics.

To that end, it set up a vaccine task force in February that aims to reduce bottlenecks by ensuring production of vital products in the supply chain like glass vials and lipids.

The stand-by contracts will help maintain know-how acquired during the COVID-19 crisis so that next time “we don’t have to ramp up production from zero to 100,” Christoph Krupp, head of the vaccine production task force told reporters.

“We want to bet on several companies and several vaccine types and not just one,” Krupp said.

The contract terms include having production capacity in Germany and being able to manufacture active ingredients as well as converting them into drug substance for a fast scale-up of vaccines, he added.

The contracts will be activated if necessary, in which case they will become supply deals, and Germany expects to be able to deliver vaccines to Europe and the rest of the world, he said.

Germany is home to BioNTech and CureVac, two of the leading developers of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, as well as pharmaceutical giants Bayer and Merck and many small-and-medium-sized suppliers.

The German plan is one of more than half a dozen by governments around the world to avert shortages by supporting drug companies’ local production.

Some, including Australia, Brazil, Japan and Thailand, are setting up manufacturing partnerships with drugmaker AstraZeneca PLC.

Elsewhere, Italy has pledged state backing for a public-private vaccine production center, while Austria, Denmark and Israel plan a joint research and development fund and will explore whether to produce their own next-generation vaccines.

(Reporting by Caroline CopleyEditing by Clelia Oziel)

Iran says nuclear talks not at impasse, but difficult issues remain

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran believes that barriers to the revival of its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers are complicated but not insurmountable, a spokesman said on Tuesday, denying that negotiations had stalled.

Iran and six powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Tehran and Washington to take, respectively, on nuclear activities and sanctions, for the pact to resume.

“There is no impasse in the Vienna talks,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a news conference streamed live by a state-run website.

“Negotiations have reached a stage where a few key issues need to be decided, and these issues require the proper attention, perfectionism and time.”

Since former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter-measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.

“It is natural that due to the complexities created by the Trump administration’s numerous sanctions and Iran’s measures … Many details need to be considered, but none of these obstacles are insurmountable,” Rabiei added.

On Monday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator expressed doubt that the current round of talks would be the final one.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said Washington will return to the pact if Tehran first resumes compliance with its strict limits on uranium enrichment.

Separately, France, one of the signatories to the deal, voiced concern after a report from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which showed on Monday that Iran had failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll, asked whether Paris wanted to resurrect a resolution criticizing Iran at the IAEA watchdog for not clarifying the uranium issue, said: “We strongly call on Iran to provide such responses as quickly as possible.”

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a U.S.-backed plan for the watchdog’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles. The three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, and John Irish in Paris; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)

First foreign tourists in more than a year land in Israel

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first group of foreign tourists in more than a year touched down in Israel on Thursday after the government began opening its borders following a steep drop in COVID-19 infections.

Small groups of vaccinated foreign tourists – up to 30 people – have been allowed to enter as of last Sunday and the Tourism Ministry expects 20 such groups to come from countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, under a pilot program until June 15.

The ministry then hopes to expand the number of groups and, in July, allow individual tourists.

Shortly after 4 pm (1300 GMT), United Airlines flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey landed with 12 Christian pilgrims, men and women of varying ages, studying theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. They were welcomed by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hakohen, who said: “You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists returning to the Holy Land.”

Led by Pastor Tom Zelt of the Prince of Peace Church, the group plans to visit Jerusalem, Nazareth, national parks and Christian sites, the Tourism Ministry said.

“Israel is … healthy and vaccinated. Everything is now safely open,” Farkash-Hakohen told the group.

The country had closed its borders to foreigners at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. A rapid vaccine roll-out that has vaccinated most adults has brought the number of active COVID cases to just 428 nationwide.

This has paved the way for Israel to allow vaccinated foreigners to enter the country and revive its tourism sector, although officials remain cautious over potential new variants.

Tourists are required to show negative PCR tests before flying and to take another test at Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Tel Aviv.

Groups will also need to take serological tests at their hotel to prove they have COVID-19 antibodies. They will need to quarantine until results come back, usually in a few hours.

Tourism in 2019 hit a record high of 4.55 million visitors, contributing 23 billion shekels ($7.1 billion) to Israel’s economy, mainly via small and mid-sized businesses.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer. Editing by Jane Merriman)

Europe dares to reopen as 200 millionth vaccine dose delivered

By Michael Gore and Estelle Shirbon

MADRID/LONDON (Reuters) – As its vaccination drive reaches a third of adults and COVID-19 infections ease, Europe is starting to reopen cities and beaches, raising hopes that this summer’s holiday season can be saved before it is too late.

Exhilarated Spaniards chanting “freedom” danced in the streets as a COVID-19 curfew ended in most of the country at the weekend, while Greece reopened public beaches – with deckchairs safely spaced.

With 200 million vaccine doses delivered, the European Union is on track to achieve its goal of inoculating 70% of its adult population by summer, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday.

And, in Germany, a first weekend of summer sun lifted spirits after Health Minister Jens Spahn declared the third wave of the pandemic finally broken.

Yet, Spahn warned: “The mood is better than the reality.”

The national seven-day incidence of COVID-19 cases remains high at 119 per 100,000 people, he said. “That makes it all the more important to keep up the speed of the vaccination campaign.”

Across the EU, the seven-day incidence of COVID-19 is 185, according to Our World in Data. That is far higher than in countries such as Israel with 6, Britain (31), or the United States (123), all of which made quicker early progress in their vaccination drives.

HEAD START

In Britain, early orders and approval of vaccines and a decision to give first doses to as many people as possible have driven down infections and fatalities far more quickly.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to set out the next phase of lockdown easing in England, giving the green light to “cautious hugging” and allowing pubs to serve customers pints inside after months of strict measures.

“The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us,” Johnson said ahead of an official announcement later on Monday.

Vaccine deliveries were slower initially in the EU under its centralized procurement strategy.

Now, with shots from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna relatively plentiful, vaccinations as a share of the population in Europe are growing while countries that made early advances see slowdowns as they encounter hesitancy among the unvaccinated.

Some 31.6% of adults in 30 European countries have received a first dose and 12% a full two-shot regime, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker showed.

France expects to give 20 million first injections by mid-May, and hit 30 million by mid-June.

With infection rates falling and occupancy in hospital intensive care units declining, France plans to start relaxing its curfew and allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer outdoor service from May 19.

PICKING AND CHOOSING

Improving supply has given countries greater freedom to adapt their strategies following reports of very rare, but sometimes fatal, blood clotting in people who received shots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Germany has decided to make the two vaccines available to anyone who wants them, as long as they have been advised by a doctor – an offer aimed at younger adults who would have to wait their turn otherwise.

Norway’s vaccine commission made a similar call on Monday, saying the AstraZeneca and J&J shots should be made available to volunteers. Some Italian regions are also offering both shots to people under 60.

With some governments shortening the gaps between doses, and plans for an EU digital “green pass” scheme in June for travelers to provide proof of vaccination or immunity, people cooped up for months are finally daring to make holiday plans.

“We’re pinning our hopes on tourism,” said Nikos Venieris, who manages a beach in Alimos, an Athens suburb.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece’s economy and jobs, and the country can ill afford another lost summer. Greece is lifting restrictions on vaccinated foreigners from May 15.

(Writing by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Jordi Rubio, Terje Solsvik, Gwladys Fouche, Matthias Blamont, Emilio Parodi, John Miller, Alan Charlish and Phoebe Fronista; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Germany’s top court upholds night curfews in COVID-19 fight

By Michael Nienaber

BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany’s constitutional court on Wednesday dismissed emergency appeals against the government’s decision to impose night curfews in areas with high COVID-19 infections as some regions are eyeing a loosening of lockdown restrictions.

Germany last month passed a law giving Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government more powers to fight a third wave of the coronavirus, including curfews between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. in regions with high infection rates.

The constitutional court said in its ruling the rejection of the emergency appeals did not mean that the curfew was in line with Germany’s Basic Law, adding that the judges would take a closer look at the issue during the main hearing.

Merkel drew up the stricter rules after some of Germany’s 16 federal states refused to impose tough measures despite a surge in cases.

The court ruling came as data suggested that the stricter measures seemed to have helped to break the third wave of cases and push down infections.

Confirmed new coronavirus cases in Germany rose on Wednesday by 18,034 to 3,451,550, but that 24-hour figure was 4,000 lower than a week ago, and the seven-day incidence per 100,000 people dropped to 132 from 141 on Tuesday, the lowest in three weeks.

Legislation passed last month enabled the federal government to impose night-time curfews in areas where cases exceed 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days, and even stricter curbs where cases go above 165 per 100,000.

Three of Germany’s states are now under the key threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 – Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein – while three others are getting close – Berlin, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The southern state of Bavaria said on Tuesday it would allow outdoor dining to resume from May 10 in areas where the incidence is under 100, and allow the tourism sector to reopen from May 21, when that part of the country has school holidays.

The state of Lower Saxony has also agreed to ease the rules for restaurants, tourism and retail for areas under 100.

Health Minister Jens Spahn called on the states to give priority to opening outdoor activities so as not to risk a new wave of infections.

On Tuesday, Germany’s cabinet agreed to ease restrictions on people who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, a decree which could come into effect at the weekend.

After a sluggish start, the pace of vaccinations has been picking up in Germany and the number of people with coronavirus needing intensive care treatment in hospital has begun to fall.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber, additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, editing by Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood)

German officials hope COVID-19 third wave has crested

By Emma Thomasson and Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) -A third wave of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have peaked in Germany and a record number of vaccinations should help turn the tide, although it is too soon to sound the all-clear as hospitals remain overloaded, health officials said on Thursday.

“The figures must not only stagnate, they must go down,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference, adding that a sustainable fall was a prerequisite for the lockdown to ease.

“Two to three days is not a trend. It is a good signal but what is decisive is to make a trend out of it,” he said, adding nearly 1.1 million people were vaccinated on Wednesday, more than 1% of the population and more than on any other day so far.

Germany’s seven-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people fell on Thursday for the third day in a row to 155 – its lowest level in two weeks, data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases showed.

The incidence figure – a key metric used by the German government to determine when to tighten or ease lockdowns – hit 169 on Monday, but has fallen each day since then. The last time it was under 160 was on April 14, when the incidence was 153.

RKI President Lothar Wieler cautioned that the pandemic would not be over until it was under control around the world, noting that global cases had risen 24% in the last week.

LOCKDOWNS

New legislation enables the federal government to impose curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in areas where cases exceed 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days. The rules also include stricter limits on private gatherings and shopping.

Schools will have to close and return to online lessons if cases reach 165 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days.

If the European Union’s watchdog approves COVID-19 vaccines for children, Germany will be able to vaccinate under 12-year-olds during the summer holidays at the latest, Spahn said.

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 24,736 on Thursday – almost 5,000 fewer than those recorded a week ago – bringing Germany’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 3,357,268.

The total COVID-19 death toll rose by 264 to 82,544.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, Caroline Copley, editing by Kirsti Knolle and Gareth Jones)

Parties to Iran nuclear talks to speed up efforts for Iranian, U.S. compliance

VIENNA (Reuters) -The parties negotiating a revival of the Iran nuclear deal agreed on Tuesday to speed up efforts to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance, diplomats said.

Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia began a third round of meetings in Vienna on Tuesday to agree yo steps that would be needed if the 2015 agreement is to be revived.

The main differences are over what sanctions the United States will need to remove, what steps Iran will need to take to resume its obligations to curb its nuclear program, and how to sequence this process to satisfy both sides.

“The discussions proved that participants are guided by the unity of purpose which is full restoration of the nuclear deal in its original form,” Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N. atomic watchdog, said on Twitter after senior diplomats met in the Austrian capital.

“It was decided to expedite the process.”

A U.S. delegation is in a separate location in Vienna, enabling representatives of the five powers to shuttle between both sides because Iran has rejected direct talks.

Three expert working groups have been tasked with unravelling the most important issues and drafting solutions.

At the end of talks last week, the United States and its European allies said serious differences still persisted despite making some progress in their latest indirect talks.

“We hope all parties will sustain the momentum we have already reached in their efforts towards an earliest resolution of this issue before us,” Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the U.N. watchdog, told reporters, adding that senior diplomats would reconvene on Wednesday to take stock.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. adds 116 countries to its ‘Do Not Travel’ advisory list

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department has added at least 116 countries this week to its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list, putting the UK, Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, Germany and others on the list, citing a “very high level of COVID-19.”

On Monday, the State Department said it would boost the number of countries receiving its highest advisory rating to about 80% of countries worldwide.

Before Tuesday, the State Department listed 34 out of about 200 countries as “Do Not Travel.” The State Department now lists 150 countries at Level Four. It declined to say when it would complete the updates.

The State Department said on Monday the move did not imply a reassessment of current health situations in some countries, but rather “reflects an adjustment in the State Department’s Travel Advisory system to rely more on (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) existing epidemiological assessments.”

The recommendations are not mandatory and do not bar Americans from travel.

Other countries in the “Do Not Travel” list include Finland, Egypt, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. Some countries like China and Japan remain at Level 3: Reconsider Travel.”

Most Americans already had been prevented from traveling to much of Europe because of COVID-19 restrictions. Washington has barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who have recently been in most of Europe, China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa.

On Tuesday, the United States extended by a further 30 days restrictions in place for 13 months that bar non-essential travel at its Canadian and Mexican borders.

Nick Calio, who heads Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. carriers, told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that policymakers needed to find a “road map” to reopening international travel.

Earlier this month, the CDC said fully vaccinated people could safely travel within the United States at “low risk,” but its director, Rochelle Walensky, discouraged Americans from doing so because of high coronavirus cases nationwide.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Merkel backs tougher COVID lockdown in Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) -Chancellor Angela Merkel supports demands for a short, tough lockdown in Germany to curb the spread of the coronavirus as infection rates are too high, a German government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Germany is struggling to tackle a third wave of the pandemic and several regional leaders have called for a short, sharp lockdown while the country tries to vaccinate more people.

“Every call for a short, uniform lockdown is right,” deputy government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters, adding Germany was seeing a growing number of intensive care patients.

“We need a stable incidence below 100,” she said, referring to the number of cases over seven days per 100,000 inhabitants. It is currently 110.1, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.

She also said the government was looking at whether nationwide, rather than regional, measures were needed.

“The range of regulations does not help acceptance,” said Demmer. While some states have imposed night-time curfews over Easter, others are experimenting with some easing of restrictions.

Merkel pressed regional leaders on March 28 to step up efforts to curb rapidly rising coronavirus infections, adding a thinly veiled threat that she would otherwise have to consider what steps could be taken on a nationwide basis.

One option would be to amend the Infection Protection Act to stipulate what should happen under certain scenarios and which could enable the federal government to enforce a nationwide lockdown without getting approval of the 16 state premiers.

Demmer said the government was still looking into this option, but that no final decision had been taken yet.

Bild newspaper reported that conservative lawmakers were currently working on a draft law to give the federal government more powers to get the third wave under control.

The majority of Germany’s federal state premiers was against bringing forward talks scheduled for April 12 on what action to take.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 9,677 on Wednesday to more than 2.9 million, the Robert Koch Institute said. It has warned that the numbers may not yet show the full picture as not all cases were registered over Easter. Some 77,401 people have died.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Michael Nienaber; Writing Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Sheahan, Kirsti Knolle)