Biden seeks five-year extension of New START arms treaty with Russia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will seek a five-year extension to the New START arms control treaty with Russia, the White House said on Thursday, in one of the first major foreign policy decisions of the new administration ahead of the treaty’s expiration in early February.

“The President has long been clear that the New START treaty is in the national security interests of the United States. And this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing.

She also said Biden had “tasked” the U.S. intelligence community for its full assessment of the Solar Winds cyber breach, Russian interference in the 2020 election, Russia’s use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

“Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, so too we work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” Psaki said.

The arms control treaty, which is due to expire on Feb. 5, limits the United States and Russia to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each.

In addition to restricting the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to its lowest level in decades, New START also limits the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that deliver them.

The treaty’s lapse would end all restraints on deployments of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads and the delivery systems that carry them, potentially fueling a new arms race, policy experts have said.

Earlier, a source familiar with the decision told Reuters that U.S. lawmakers have been briefed on Biden’s decision on the New START treaty.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday it remained committed to extending New START and would welcome efforts promised by the Biden administration to reach agreement.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jeff Mason; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. counter-intelligence chief worried about China, Russia threats to vaccine supply chain

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. counter-intelligence chief said on Tuesday he was worried about threats from China and Russia to disrupt the coronavirus vaccine supply chain in the United States.

William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told an online Washington Post event that U.S. adversaries were trying to interfere with Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government operation distributing the vaccines.

“Our adversaries are trying to disrupt that supply chain,” he said. Asked which adversaries he was particularly concerned about, he replied, “I would say China and Russia right now.”

The Chinese and Russian embassies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Evanina’s assertion. Russia and China have denied U.S. accusations that hackers linked to both governments tried to steal data from vaccine manufacturers.

U.S. states are scrambling to accelerate inoculations as infections and deaths surge – COVID-19 has claimed on average about 3,200 lives nationwide every day over the past week.

Since the pandemic began more than 10 months ago nearly 375,000 people in the country have died, according to a Reuters count.

Evanina said that his agency was working with the U.S. Army and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the safe “transportation” of the vaccines “from the manufacturing site to the end-user inoculation.”

Vaccines available are made by Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna. Nearly 9 million Americans have received the first of two doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than one-third of the 25 million doses distributed by the federal government.

Public health experts have said no U.S. state has so far come close to using up its federal vaccine allotments, a much slower-than-expected roll-out blamed in part on rigid rules sharply limiting who can be inoculated.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Grant McCool)

U.S. senators ask IRS if hacking campaign compromised taxpayer data

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two top U.S. Senators on Thursday said they were seeking answers on whether the recent hacking attack against the federal government compromised U.S. taxpayers’ data, which could make millions of Americans more vulnerable to identity theft and other crimes.

As officials continued to assess damage from the cyberattack, U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking Democrat Ron Wyden asked the Internal Revenue Service whether the tax agency was affected and, if so, what it was doing to mitigate the fallout and protect against further intrusions.

The sweeping campaign, done by hackers believed to be working for Russia, leveraged technology from SolarWinds Corp used by multiple U.S. government agencies and other businesses, Reuters has reported.

The U.S. government has not publicly identified who might be behind the massive intrusion, and several U.S. lawmakers on Thursday said it appeared that U.S. officials were still analyzing the impact of the attack.

“I think the government is still assessing how bad the damage is,” Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, told MSNBC in an interview.

Grassley and Wyden, in their letter, sought an immediate briefing from IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig on the impact to U.S. taxpayers, whose sensitive financial records are filed each year with the agency.

The IRS has used SolarWinds technology as recently as 2017, they said.

“Given the extreme sensitivity of personal taxpayer information entrusted to the IRS, and the harm both to Americans’ privacy and our national security that could result from the theft and exploitation of this data by our adversaries, it is imperative that we understand the extent to which the IRS may have been compromised,” the senators wrote.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by David Gregorio)

Trump pardons former adviser Flynn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

A retired Army general, Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about interactions he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States in the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

He has since sought to withdraw the plea, arguing that prosecutors violated his rights and duped him into a plea agreement. His sentencing has been deferred several times.

Flynn was one of several former Trump aides to plead guilty or be convicted at trial in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election to boost Trump’s candidacy. Russia denied meddling.

Trump in March said he was strongly considering a full pardon for Flynn. He said the FBI and Justice Department had “destroyed” Flynn’s life and that of his family.

The Justice Department has repeatedly denied allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected all of Flynn’s claims in December 2019.

Federal prosecutors had asked the judge in January to sentence Flynn to up to six months in prison, arguing in a court filing that “the defendant has not learned his lesson. He has behaved as though the law does not apply to him, and as if there are no consequences for his actions.”

Flynn joined the Trump 2016 election campaign and at the Republican National Convention that year he led supporters in chants of “Lock her up,” in reference to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Howard Goller)

Supreme Court cancels arguments over Trump bid to withhold parts of Russia probe

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday canceled oral arguments next month over President Donald Trump’s bid to keep Congress from seeing material withheld from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian political meddling, raising the possibility that the justices may never rule on the issue.

The court granted a request from the Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which asked in court papers for a postponement given that a new Congress will convene in the first week of January 2021 and Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

The committee last year subpoenaed grand jury materials related to the Mueller report, which documented Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to boost Trump’s candidacy. The Justice Department withheld the materials when the report was released.

Come January, a newly constituted committee, still led by Democrats following last month’s election, “will have to determine whether it wishes to continue pursuing the application for the grand-jury materials that gave rise to this case,” the committee said in the court papers.

Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, representing the Trump administration, did not oppose the request.

The oral arguments had been scheduled for Dec. 2. The court action in a brief order means it is possible the case will be dropped altogether once Biden takes office.

Mueller submitted his report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr in March 2019 after a 22-month investigation that detailed Russian hacking and propaganda efforts to help the Republican Trump and harm his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and documented multiple contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. nuclear power industry group sees reprocessing as potential waste fix

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the top U.S. nuclear power group said that reprocessing of nuclear waste, a technique that has not been practiced in the United States for decades because of proliferation and cost concerns, could help address a growing problem building up at nuclear plants across the country.

“Reprocessing is a very interesting part of the solution set,” Maria Korsnick, the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said during an interview last week that will be part of Reuters Events Energy Transition North America on Friday. The technology “would be really closing the fuel cycle in a very useful way” because it squeezes more energy from the waste that cannot be used when it is disposed permanently.

France and other countries reprocess nuclear waste by breaking it down into uranium and plutonium and reusing it to make new reactor fuel.

But nonproliferation experts say militants could target the reprocessing supply chain, which would be far longer in the United States, to seize materials that could be used to make a crude nuclear weapon.

Former President Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing in 1977, citing proliferation concerns. President Ronald Reagan lifted Carter’s moratorium in 1981 but high costs have prevented plants from opening.

Now the United States has a growing problem with nuclear waste, currently kept at the country’s nuclear reactors, first in spent fuel pools, and then in steel and concrete casks. While about $8 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository project in Nevada, it has never opened due to local opposition.

President Donald Trump’s administration wanted to open Yucca, but Trump began opposing it in February as the presidential campaign got under way.

Two sites in New Mexico and Texas could serve as interim nuclear waste storage sites, but local concerns are mounting that those places could become the default permanent fix.

Rita Baranwal, the top U.S. Energy Department official on nuclear power, has said it is a shame to permanently dispose of nuclear waste and that the country should look at reprocessing and potentially export the waste to countries that could do it.

Korsnick said the nuclear power industry is eager to work with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden on energy issues including nuclear waste. Biden’s transition website lists driving down costs of advanced nuclear power and commercializing it as one way to fight climate change.

Korsnick also applauded a decision this summer by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a U.S. development agency, to lift a ban on funding nuclear projects.

She said the move would help the United States compete with Russia and China, which are also looking to export nuclear technology. The export market for U.S. advanced nuclear power technology could be worth up to $2 trillion, she said. The DFC’s move was criticized by some development experts who say bringing nuclear projects to poor countries would do little to address poverty.

On reprocessing, France has demonstrated it can be done safely, Korsnick said. “These are all conversations that we would have to step through as we design our final solution,” she said. “I’m confident that we have the technological expertise to do this well.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

North Korean, Russian hackers target COVID-19 researchers: Microsoft

By Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hackers working for the Russian and North Korean governments have targeted more than half a dozen organizations involved in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine research around the globe, Microsoft said on Friday.

The software company said a Russian hacking group commonly nicknamed “Fancy Bear” – along with a pair of North Korean actors dubbed “Zinc” and “Cerium” by Microsoft – were implicated in recent attempts to break into the networks of seven pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers in Canada, France, India, South Korea, and the United States.

Microsoft said the majority of the targets were organizations that were in the process of testing COVID-19 vaccines. Most of the break-in attempts failed but an unspecified number succeeded, it added.

Few other details were provided by Microsoft. It declined to name the targeted organizations, say which ones had been hit by which actor, or provide a precise timeline or description of the attempted intrusions.

The Russian embassy in Washington – which has repeatedly disputed allegations of Russian involvement in digital espionage – said in an email that there was “nothing that we can add” to their previous denials.

North Korea’s representative to the United Nations did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Pyongyang has previously denied carrying out hacking abroad.

The allegations of cyber espionage come as world powers are jockeying behind the scenes in the race to produce a vaccine for the virus.

They also highlight how Microsoft is pressing its case for a new set of global rules barring digital intrusions aimed at healthcare providers.

Microsoft executive Tom Burt said in a statement his company was timing its announcement with Microsoft President Brad Smith’s appearance at the virtual Paris Peace Forum, where he would call on world leaders “to affirm that international law protects health care facilities and to take action to enforce the law.”

(Reporting by Raphael Satter Additional reporting by Christopher Bing in Washington, Jack Stubbs in London, and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

U.S. and France play catch-up on Karabakh after Russia deploys troops

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Nvard Hovhannisyan

MOSCOW/YELPIN, Armenia (Reuters) – France and the United States are expected to send diplomats to Moscow soon to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia said on Thursday, two days after the Kremlin deployed troops to the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan to secure a truce.

The arrival on Tuesday of the peacekeepers to oversee the ceasefire between Azeri troops and ethnic Armenian forces in the enclave extends Russia’s military footprint among the former Soviet republics it views as its strategic back yard.

Moscow co-chairs an international group overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Washington and Paris, but they were not involved in the deal signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to end six weeks of fighting over the enclave.

“By no means do we want to distance ourselves from our American and French colleagues,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Moreover, we have invited them to Moscow. They will arrive within the next few days to discuss how they can contribute to the implementation of the achieved agreements.”

The accord, which locked in territorial gains by Azeri troops against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered protests in Armenia calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan when it was announced early on Tuesday.

Hundreds of protesters rallied for a third day in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Thursday chanting “Nikol is a traitor!”. They then marched to the Security Service headquarters to demand the release of some opposition leaders and activists detained on Wednesday.

Pashinyan, elected in 2018 after street protests against alleged corruption ousted the former elite, said on Thursday he had signed the accord to secure peace and save lives.

Armenians living nearer to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has reported more than 1,300 losses among its fighters, had mixed feelings but welcomed the small columns of Russian peacekeepers making their way to the enclave on Thursday.

“We are happy that peacekeepers came but at the same time we are sad that we are giving up that territory,” Armen Manjoyan, a 45-year-old driver, said outside the Armenian village of Yelpin between Yerevan and the Azeri border.

“We all fought for it, but it turned out in vain,” he said. “I think it was not the right decision.”

Turkey, which has backed Azerbaijan over the conflict, signed a protocol with Russia on Wednesday to establish a joint centre to coordinate efforts to monitor the peace deal, agreed after three previous ceasefire attempts quickly broke down.

The details of the monitoring have yet to be worked out and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Russian officials were due in Ankara on Friday to discuss them.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which now joins eight other former Soviet republics where Russia has a military presence. Moscow has military bases in five neighboring states as well as troops in regions which have broken away from three others.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in YELPIN, Nailia Bagirova in BAKU and Margarita Antidze in TBILISI and Alexander Marrow in MOSCOW; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Alison Williams)

Russia says its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine is 92% effective

By Polina Ivanova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective at protecting people from COVID-19 according to interim trial results, the country’s sovereign wealth fund said on Wednesday, as Moscow rushes to keep pace with Western drugmakers in the race for a shot.

Russia’s results are only the second from a late-stage human trial, following on swiftly from data released on Monday by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, which said their shot was also more than 90% effective.

While experts said the Russian data was encouraging and reinforced the idea the pandemic could be halted by vaccines, they warned that the results were only based on a small number of trial volunteers who had contracted COVID-19.

The analysis was conducted after 20 participants developed the virus and examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo. That is significantly lower than the 94 infections in the trial of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

“I assume there was political pressure after the press release from Pfizer and BioNTech earlier in the week to now draw level with their own data,” said Bodo Plachter, deputy director of the Institute of Virology at the Mainz University. “What is missing for now is an analysis of statistical significance.”

To confirm the efficacy rate of its vaccine, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has been backing Sputnik V’s development, said the Russian trial would continue for six months.

Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Gamaleya Institute which developed the vaccine, said the interim results demonstrated that Sputnik V was effective and mass vaccinations would be rolled out in Russia in the coming weeks.

European stocks and U.S. stock futures extended their gains slightly after Russia’s announcement though the reaction was far more muted than after Pfizer’s results.

China’s Sinopharm, which is running large-scale late-stage clinical trials for two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, said on Wednesday that its data was better than expected, though it did not give further details.

‘NOT A COMPETITION’

Successful vaccines are seen as crucial to restoring daily life around the world by helping end the pandemic that has killed more than 1.26 million people, shuttered businesses and put millions out of work.

However, experts said knowledge about the Russian trial’s design was sparse, making it hard to interpret the data.

Scientists have raised concerns about the speed at which Moscow has worked, giving the regulatory go-ahead for the shot and launching mass vaccinations before full trials to test its safety and efficacy had been completed.

“This is not a competition. We need all trials to be carried out to the highest possible standards and it is particularly important that the pre-set criteria for un-blinding the trial data are adhered to avoid cherry picking the data,” said Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh.

“Anything less than this risks a public loss of trust in all vaccines, which would be a disaster.”

The results are based on data from the first 16,000 trial participants to receive both shots of the two-dose vaccine.

“We are showing, based on the data, that we have a very effective vaccine,” said RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev, adding that it was the sort of news that the vaccine’s developers would talk about one day with their grandchildren.

The so-called Phase III trial of the shot is taking place in 29 clinics across Moscow and will involve 40,000 volunteers in total, with a quarter receiving a placebo shot.

The chances of contracting COVID-19 were 92% lower among people vaccinated with Sputnik V than those who received the placebo, the RDIF said.

That’s well above the 50% effectiveness threshold for COVID-19 vaccines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The RDIF said data from the study would be published in a leading medical journal following a peer review. The results of the early-stage Russian trials were peer reviewed and published in September in The Lancet medical journal.

Experts said that as with the Pfizer results, it was not yet clear how long immunity would last after taking the Russian vaccine, nor how efficient it would be for different age groups.

“We certainly need longer-term observations to draw valid conclusions about efficacy and side effects. The same goes for Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s numbers,” said Plachter in Mainz.

As Moscow seeks partners abroad to boost output, China’s Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding announced a deal soon after the results to released to make, sell and test the shot in China.

SPUTNIK V

The Russian drug is named Sputnik V after the Soviet-era satellite that triggered the space race, a nod to the project’s geopolitical importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia registered the vaccine for public use in August, the first country to do so, ahead of the start of the large-scale trial in September.

So far, it has inoculated 10,000 members of the public considered at high risk of contracting COVID-19 such as doctors and teachers, outside of the trial.

The vaccine is designed to trigger a response from two shots administered 21 days apart, each based on different viral vectors that normally cause the common cold: human adenoviruses Ad5 and Ad26.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

Russia is also testing a different vaccine, produced by the Vector Institute in Siberia, and is on the cusp of registering a third, Putin said on Tuesday, adding that all of the country’s vaccines were effective.

RDIF said as of Nov. 11 no serious side effects had been reported during the Sputnik V Phase III trial.

Some volunteers had short-term minor adverse events such as pain at the injection site, flu-like syndrome including fever, weakness, fatigue, and headache, it said.

In late October, the vaccination of new volunteers was temporarily paused due to high demand and a shortage of doses.

Russia’s deputy prime minister said on Wednesday that the Vector Institute vaccine was expected to start post-registration trials on Nov. 15.

She also said that Russia would produce 500,000 doses of Sputnik V in November, lower than a previous forecast of 800,000 doses given by Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov.

Russia reported 19,851 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours and a record high of 432 deaths. At 1,836,960, its overall case tally is the fifth largest in the world, behind the United States, India, Brazil and France.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland, Ludwig Burger, Josephine Mason and Thyagaraju Adinarayan; Editing by David Clarke)

Europe COVID death toll tops 300,000 as winter looms and infections surge

By Shaina Ahluwalia, Anurag Maan and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – More than 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 across Europe, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday, and authorities fear that fatalities and infections will continue to rise as the region heads into winter despite hopes for a new vaccine.

With just 10% of the world’s population, Europe accounts for almost a quarter of the 1.2 million deaths globally, and even its well-equipped hospitals are feeling the strain.

After achieving a measure of control over the pandemic with broad lockdowns earlier this year, case numbers have surged since the summer and governments have ordered a second series of restrictions to limit social contacts.

In all, Europe has reported some 12.8 million cases and about 300,114 deaths. Over the past week, it has seen 280,000 cases a day, up 10% from the week earlier, representing just over half of all new infections reported globally.

Hopes have been raised by Pfizer Inc’s announcement of a potentially effective new vaccine, but it is not expected to be generally available before 2021 and health systems will have to cope with the winter months unaided.

Britain, which has imposed a fresh lockdown in England, has the highest death toll in Europe at around 49,000, and health experts have warned that with a current average of more than 20,000 cases daily, the country will exceed its “worst case” scenario of 80,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy and Russia have also reported hundreds of deaths a day and together, the five countries account for almost three quarters of the total fatalities.

Already facing the prospect of a wave of job losses and business failures, governments across the region have been forced to order control measures including local curfews, closing non-essential shops and restricting movement.

France, the worst-affected country in the EU, has registered more than 48,700 infections per day over the past week and the Paris region’s health authority said last week that 92% of its ICU capacity was occupied.

Facing similar pressures, Belgian and Dutch hospitals have been forced to send some severely ill patients to Germany.

In Italy, which became a global symbol of the crisis when army trucks were used to transport the dead during the early months of the pandemic, daily average new cases are at a peak at more than 32,500. Deaths have been rising by more than 320 per day over the past three weeks.

While the new vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech will take time to arrive, authorities are hoping that once winter is passed, it will stem further outbreaks next year.

Citi Private Bank analysts described the news as “the first major advance toward a Post-COVID world economy”.

“More than any fiscal spending package or central bank lending program, a healthcare solution to COVID has the greatest potential to restore economic activity to its full potential…” it said in a note.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday said the European Union would soon sign a contract for 300 million doses of the vaccine, just hours after the drugmaker announced promising late-stage trials.

Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet – not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

Such requirements pose a challenge for countries in Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan, Shaina Ahluwalia, Chaithra J and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru, Sujata Rao-Coverley in London; editing by Jane Wardell, James Mackenzie, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)