Dutch PM Rutte confirms lockdown to last until at least March

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Tuesday that most of the lockdown measures in the Netherlands, many of which have been in place since October, will remain in place for weeks due to fears over a surge in cases as a result of variant strains.

Rutte’s government is still weighing whether to continue an evening curfew that has triggered rioting in some Dutch cities beyond next week, the prime minister told a press briefing.

The government announced earlier this week that primary schools and daycares will reopen on Feb. 8, adding that it is also looking at possibly reopening secondary schools but that will not happen before March.

“It is inescapable to extend the current lockdown almost entirely until at least March 2,” Rutte said, despite falling case numbers in the Netherlands.

“A third wave is inevitably coming our way,” he said, pointing to new virus strains which are more infectious.

The Netherlands has been in what the government calls a strict lockdown since mid-December and last month imposed a curfew, the country’s first since World War Two, which sparked riots.

The National Institute for Health (RIVM) said on Tuesday there had been 28,628 COVID-19 cases in the past week, down 20% from the week before and the lowest level since lockdown measures were introduced in October.

But this week’s decline “would have been greater without the new variants of the virus that have entered the Netherlands, especially the British Variant,” the RIVM said in a statement.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said on Monday that half of the cases were being caused by the new variant as of Jan. 26, up from around a third the week before. The government fears it may cause a new wave ahead of March 17 elections.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Chris Reese and Alexander Smith)

Shops boarded up as Dutch brace for fourth night of coronavirus riots

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Netherlands braced on Tuesday for a fourth consecutive night of coronavirus anti-lockdown riots, with some shops boarding their windows and sending staff home early for safety.

Dutch police detained more than 180 people on Monday night, where roaming groups set fires, threw rocks and looted stores in several cities.

The Netherlands’ first curfew since World War Two was imposed on Saturday despite weeks of falling infections, after the National Institute for Health (RIVM) said a faster-spreading variant first found in England was causing a third of cases.

A hospital in Rotterdam warned visitors of patients to stay away, after rioters tried to attack hospitals in various cities in the past days.

“We have had riots in the past, but it’s rare to have this for several nights across the entire country,” said National Police spokeswoman Suzanne van de Graaf. “It’s not only in known problem areas, but much more widespread.”

Riot police with shields and batons were called out in more than 10 cities, many of which had issued emergency decrees to provide officers with greater powers to conduct searches.

Police had scuffled with rioters in several cities late into the night, chasing them down narrow streets with vans or on foot as helicopters hovered overhead.

In Amsterdam on Monday, groups of youths threw fireworks, broke store windows and attacked a police truck, but were broken up by a massive police presence.

Ten police officers were injured in Rotterdam, where 60 rioters were detained overnight after widespread looting and destruction in the city center, a police spokeswoman said. Supermarkets in the port city were emptied, while rubbish bins and vehicles were set ablaze.

Two photographers were hurt after being targeted by rock-throwing gangs, one in Amsterdam and another in the nearby town of Haarlem, police said.

Coronavirus infections have been falling in recent weeks, with the number of new cases down by 8% over the past week. A little under 4,000 new infections were reported on Tuesday, the smallest daily increase since Nov 24.

But the RIVM said the situation in the Netherlands was still very serious as a result of the more contagious variant that has caused a massive surge in cases in Britain.

Van de Graaf said much of the aggression during the three days of unrest had been targeted at police officers. More than 470 people have been arrested, with riot police deploying water cannon and officers on horseback in several places.

Schools and non-essential shops across the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December. Bars and restaurants were closed two months earlier. The country’s death toll stands at 13,664, with 956,867 infections to date.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Dutch COVID-19 lockdown extended by three weeks until Feb. 9

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Lockdown measures in the Netherlands, including the closure of schools and shops, will be extended by at least three weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government decided on Tuesday.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a live press conference that social curbs must remain in place, also because of the threat posed by the British variant.

All schools and many stores across the country were shut in mid-December, following the closure of all bars and restaurants two months earlier.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Bart Meijer)

Exclusive: New global lab network will compare COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A major non-profit health emergencies group has set up a global laboratory network to assess data from potential COVID-19 vaccines, allowing scientists and drugmakers to compare them and speed up selection of the most effective shots.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of announcing the labs involved, Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said the idea was to “compare apples with apples” as drugmakers race to develop an effective shot to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The centralized network is the first of its kind to be set up in response to a pandemic.

In a network spanning Europe, Asia and North America, the labs will centralize analysis of samples from trials of COVID-19 candidates “as though vaccines are all being tested under one roof”, Saville said, aiming to minimize the risk of variation in results.

“When you start off (with developing potential new vaccines) especially with a new disease, everyone develops their own assays, they all use different protocols and different reagents – so while you get a readout, the ability to compare between different candidates is very difficult,” she told Reuters.

“By taking the centralized lab approach … it will give us a chance to really make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

The CEPI network will initially involve six labs, one each in Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India, Saville said.

Hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development around the world, with shots developed in Russia and China already being deployed before full efficacy trials have been done, and front-runners from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca likely to have final-stage trial results before year-end.

Typically, the immunogenicity of potential vaccines is assessed in individual lab analyses, which aim to see whether biomarkers of immune response – such as antibodies and T-cell responses – are produced after clinical trial volunteers receive a dose, or doses, of the vaccine candidate.

But with more than 320 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, Saville said, the many differences in data collection and evaluation methods are an issue.

As well as potential variations in markers of immunity, there are differences in how and where samples are collected, transported and stored – all of which can impact the quality and usefulness of the data produced, and make comparisons tricky.

And with a range of different vaccine technologies being explored – from viral vector vaccines to ones based on messenger RNA – standard evaluation of their true potential “becomes very complex”, she said.

“With hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in development … it’s essential that we have a system that can reliably evaluate and compare the immune response of candidates currently undergoing testing,” she said.

By centralizing the analysis in a lab network, much of what Saville called the “inter-laboratory variability” can be removed, allowing for head-to-head comparisons.

CEPI says all developers of potential COVID-19 vaccines can use the centralized lab network for free to assess their candidates against a common protocol. For now, the network will assess samples from early-stage vaccine candidate testing and first and second stage human trials, but CEPI said it hoped to expand its capacity to late stage (Phase III) trial data in the coming months.

Results produced by the network will be sent back to the developer, with neither CEPI nor the network owning the data.

CEPI itself is co-funding nine of the potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, including candidates from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and CureVac.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Potter)

Height of fashion? Clothes mountains build up as recycling breaks down

By Sonya Dowsett and George Obulutsa

MADRID/NAIROBI (Reuters) – Clothes recycling is the pressure-release valve of fast fashion, and it’s breaking under COVID-19 curbs.

The multi-billion-dollar trade in second-hand clothing helps prevent the global fashion industry’s growing pile of waste going straight to landfill, while keeping wardrobes clear for next season’s designs. But it’s facing a crisis.

Exporters are struggling, as are traders and customers in often poorer nations from Africa to Eastern Europe and Latin America who rely on a steady supply of used clothes.

The signs are everywhere.

From London to Los Angeles, many thrift shops and clothing banks outside stores and on streets have been deluged with more clothes than could be sold on, leading to mountains of garments building up in sorting warehouses.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began early this year, textile recyclers and exporters have had to cut their prices to shift stock as lockdown measures restrict movement and business slows in end markets abroad. For many, it’s no longer commercially viable and they can’t afford to move merchandise.

“We are reaching the point where our warehouses are completely full,” Antonio de Carvalho, boss of a textile recycling company in Stourbridge, central England, wrote to a client in June, asking for a price cut for clothes he collects.

De Carvalho pays towns for clothing collected in his containers then sells it on at profit to traders overseas.

Since May, he said, the price he has been able to charge overseas buyers had dropped from 570 pounds ($726) a tonne to 400 pounds, making it hard for his company, Green World Recycling, to cover the costs of collecting and storing items.

Buyers were also asking to increase the credit periods before they had to pay from 15 days to 45-60 days, adding to cash-flow problems, de Carvalho wrote.

“We are losing … a huge amount of money, making a big loss for the operation.”

‘GOING OUT OF BUSINESS’

De Carvalho’s experience is mirrored across the sector, suggesting that, even once the pandemic passes, the battered trade could take a long time to recover.

Recyclers are removing clothes banks from streets, reducing the number of times they are emptied per week and looking at laying off workers to conserve cash, according to Reuters interviews with 16 market players in Britain, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.

At the same time, in a bleak irony for such firms, donations have mounted as people stuck at home clear out their wardrobes – a boon in normal times.

“This is unlike any other recession in a century,” said Jackie King, executive director of U.S. trade body the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). “I would anticipate there will be companies going out of business.”

The retreat of recyclers is having far-reaching consequences for an industry that has seen an annual average of more than $4 billion of used clothing exported globally over the five years to 2019, according to U.N. trade data.

Exports have shrunk this year.

In Britain, the weight of used clothing exported from March to July was around half what it was for the same period last year, official trade data shows. Exports improved in July – the latest month on record – as merchants rushed to shift stock as countries began to re-open, but were still down around 30%.

In the United States, the value of exports from March to July fell 45% compared with the same period last year, government data shows.

Up to a third of clothes donated in the United States – the world’s biggest exporter of used clothing – ends up for sale in markets in the developing world.

KENYAN WOES

The consequences of the decline can be seen in countries like Kenya, which imported 176,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing in 2018, equivalent to over 335 million pairs of jeans.

Business is sluggish in the open-air Gikomba market in Nairobi, one of the biggest second-hand clothes market in East Africa. Shop assistants stand idle while traders call out to shoppers asking them to try their garments

Traders have been hit with a double-whammy of the shrinking supply, exacerbated by the government banning the import of used textiles in March on concerns they could carry the novel coronavirus, and a drop in footfall due to people staying home.

“Before coronavirus came in, I would manage to sell at least 50 (pairs of) trousers a day,” said trader Nicholas Mutisya, who sells jeans and hats. “But now with coronavirus, even selling one a day has become difficult.”

“We cannot buy bales (of clothes) directly, so we buy our stock from those who have already bought them.”

The ban on used textiles imports was lifted in August after pushback from traders in Kenya and industry bodies in Europe and the United States who said second-hand clothes were safe as the virus could not survive the journey to Africa.

Yet the struggle continues for traders like Mutisya and Anthony Kang’ethe, who works as a driver for a shop selling second-hand clothes in bales shipped from Britain. He said the business had been hit hard by the supply crunch.

“Before we used to have five workers in our company,” Kang’ethe said. “We are left with two.”

DARK SIDE OF FASHION

Large-scale commercial trade in second-hand clothing from Europe and the United States to emerging markets took off in a big way in the 1990s due to growing African and Eastern European demand for Western fashion.

Such demand has provided a badly needed release value for a booming fashion market, where clothing production has approximately doubled over the past 15 years, according to sustainability charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, the U.N.’s environment program said in March 2019.

Meanwhile, clothes account for a massive, and growing, pile of waste that ends up in landfills.

In Britain, shoppers buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, amounting to some five times more than what they bought in the 1980s, according to a 2019 UK parliamentary report by the Environmental Audit Committee.

About 300,000 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill or incineration per year, the report said.

The United States produces just under 17 million U.S. tons (15.4 tonnes) of textile waste per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency – equivalent to around 29 billion pairs of jeans. Two-thirds of this ends up in landfills.

Many fashion retailers, including Zara owner Inditex and H&M, encourage shoppers to bring unwanted textiles to their stores for collection and, in the case of H&M, even offer discounts on new purchases in exchange.

Only a small proportion of clothes collected by Inditex end up for sale in international markets, a company spokesman said. H&M said clothing collected in its stores was processed by I:CO, a unit of German textile recycling company Soex.

“The whole problem is just getting bigger,” said Anna Smith, a doctoral researcher at King’s College London looking at a so-called circular economic system, which aims to eliminate waste.

“People are consuming more and more.”

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Pravin Char)

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)

U.S., allies to condemn China for economic espionage, charge hackers: source

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and about a dozen allies are expected on Thursday to condemn China for efforts to steal other countries’ trade secrets and technologies and to compromise government computers, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden are expected to be involved in the U.S. effort, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. Justice Department also is expected later on Thursday to unveil criminal charges against hackers affiliated with China’s main intelligence service for an alleged cyber-spying campaign targeting U.S. and other countries’ networks, according to the source.

The Washington Post first reported the coming action on Thursday.

The suspected hackers are expected to be charged with spying on some of the world’s largest companies by hacking into technology firms to which they outsource email, storage and other computing tasks. The attacks began as early as 2017.

Cloudhopper is considered a major cyber threat by private-sector cybersecurity researchers and government investigators because of the scale of the intrusions.

Over the past several years, as companies around the globe have sought to cut down information technology spending, they have increasingly relied on outside contractors to store and transfer their data.

When a managed service provider is hacked, it can unintentionally provide attackers access to secondary victims who are customers of that company and have their computer systems connected to them, according to experts.

The timing of the action may further escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, in Canada at the request of the United States.

The action also comes just weeks after the United States and China agreed to talks aimed at resolving an ongoing trade dispute that threatens global economic growth.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Lisa Lambert and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)