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)

U.S. House members ask Trump to probe Navalny poisoning, suggest sanctions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee called on President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday to investigate the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, suggesting sanctions might be necessary.

“If the Russian government is once again determined to have used a chemical weapon against one of its own nationals, additional sanctions should be imposed,” Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic committee chairman, and Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican, said in a letter to Trump.

Germany, where Navalny is in a hospital, has said Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-style Novichok nerve agent and wants the perpetrators held to account. Russia has until now not opened a criminal investigation and said there is no evidence yet of a crime.

Navalny is the most popular and prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin, and the German announcement that he was poisoned by a nerve agent has raised the possibility of further Western sanctions against Moscow.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Trump said on Friday his administration had not yet seen proof that Navalny was poisoned.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell)

WHO’s Tedros says ‘vaccine nationalism’ would prolong pandemic

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday that “vaccine nationalism” would only slow the effort to quash the pandemic and called for vaccines to be used fairly and effectively.

Tedros said 78 high-income countries had now joined the “COVAX” global vaccine allocation plan, bringing the total to 170 countries, and the “number is growing”. He urged others to join by the Sept. 18 deadline for binding commitments.

Joining the plan guaranteed those countries access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccines, with nine candidates currently in the pipeline, he said, adding that a further four were “promising”.

The WHO and the GAVI vaccine alliance are leading the COVAX facility, aimed at helping buy and distribute vaccination shots fairly around the world.

But some countries that have secured their own supplies through bilateral deals, including the United States, have said they will not join COVAX.

“Vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it,” Tedros told a WHO briefing in Geneva, without mentioning any specific countries.

“If and when we have an effective vaccine, we must also use it effectively … In other words, the first priority must be to vaccinate some people in all countries, rather than all people in some countries,” he said, adding that priority should be given to healthcare workers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

Tedros thanked Germany, Japan, Norway and the European Commission for joining COVAX during the last week.

“Certainly by the middle of 2021 we should start to see some vaccines actually moving into countries and populations,” said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, reiterating earlier comments.

Noting that there were 13 experimental vaccines currently in clinical trails, Swaminathan called it an “optimistic scenario” since the typical success rate of 10% could mean several vaccines are approved.

But Swaminathan said that no vaccine should be approved for a worldwide rollout until it had undergone sufficient scrutiny.

“No vaccine is going to be mass-deployed until regulators are confident, governments are confident, and the WHO is confident it has met the minimum standard of safety and efficacy,” she said.

Results were expected from some of the candidates already in phase 3 trials, each involving thousands of participants, by the end of the year or early 2021, Swaminathan said.

“We are not going to have enough for the whole world right at the beginning,” she said adding that scaling up of manufacturing would take time.

“Eventually there will be enough for everyone but it will mean prioritization,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; Editing by Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)

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)

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)

J&J to start mid-stage coronavirus vaccine trials in three European countries

By Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will begin mid-stage trials for its coronavirus vaccine in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany next week, Spain’s health minister said on Friday, as the U.S. drugmaker expands testing for its experimental shot.

The Phase II trial will last two months and include 550 participants across the three countries, including 190 people in Spain, Salvador Illa told a news conference in Madrid.

“It’s a vote of confidence in our health system,” Illa said, adding it was the first human trial for a coronavirus vaccine to be approved in Spain.

The study will focus on healthy people between the ages of 18 and 55 as well as people over 65.

Johnson & Johnson said the study will evaluate the safety and the ability to induce an immune response from single dose and two-dose regimens of the vaccine candidate, the company said in a statement.

Spain, which has western Europe’s highest tally of coronavirus cases, is also working with AstraZeneca via the European Union’s vaccine procurement program to secure sufficient doses.

J&J’s website says if the latest trials are successful, it will begin final Phase III studies, in which even more volunteers will receive the experimental vaccine.

More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, with 30 in human trials.

There is so far no approved vaccine, except one authorized in Russia before large-scale trials.

J&J is carrying out tests in the United States and Belgium, and this week added Chile, Argentina and Peru to the list of Latin American nations where it plans to conduct Phase III trials on 60,000 volunteers, in a study that will also cover Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The company’s potential vaccine uses “viral vectors” to generate immune responses, similar to the approach taken by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca in their experimental vaccine, as well as China’s CanSino.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Jose Elías Rodríguez; editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely)

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)

German, Israeli air forces fly past 1972 Munich Olympic attack site

FUERSTENFELDBRUCK, Germany (Reuters) – German and Israeli fighter jets flew in formation past the site of the 1972 attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics on Tuesday in their first joint exercise in Germany.

As part of their “Blue Wings 2020” maneuvers, German and Israeli pilots flew over the Fuerstenfeldbruck military airfield near Munich to commemorate the attack which left 11 Israelis, a German policeman and five Palestinian gunmen dead.

A gunfight erupted at the airfield after Palestinians from the Black September group took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage at the poorly secured athletes village on Sept. 5, 1972.

Later the jets flew over the site of the Dachau concentration camp where some 200,000 people, many of them Jews, were imprisoned and 41,500 murdered under Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Set up in 1933, it was meant as a model for other concentration camps.

Senior officials, including a relative of a camp survivor and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer were due to take part in a ceremony there.

“Our Air Force pilots flew over the Dachau concentration camp in Germany today,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tweet. “In Dachau a massacre of the Jewish people took place.

“The big lesson of the Holocaust is that no one will protect the Jews if they do not defend themselves. Today we are defending ourselves. I salute our pilots!”

Since the end of World War Two, Berlin has felt a special responsibility towards Israel and the joint maneuvers are the first time Israeli fighter planes have trained in Germany.

A rise in anti-Semitism, in particular an attack on a synagogue in Halle last year which left two people dead, has caused alarm in Germany.

Luftwaffe chief of staff Ingo Gerhartz said the program was a sign of friendship. The darkest chapter of German history handed the country the “task to resolutely fight anti-Semitism today,” he was quoted by broadcaster BR24 as saying.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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)