Trump administration awards contract to make COVID-19 drugs in U.S

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has awarded a $354 million contract to U.S.-based Phlow Corp to manufacture drugs being tested or used to fight the new coronavirus as well as some medicines that are in shortage.

The four-year contract, with an additional $458 million included as potential options, is a move by the administration to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign nations to support its drug supply chain.

Virginia-based Phlow Corp said it had started making pharmaceutical ingredients and finished dosage forms for over a dozen essential medicines to treat hospitalized patients with COVID-19-related illnesses.

Many of these medicines are in shortage and have previously been imported from other countries, the private company said in a statement. India and China account for a vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients used to make drugs in the United States.

“For far too long, we’ve relied on foreign manufacturing and supply chains for our most important medicines and active pharmaceutical ingredients while placing America’s health, safety, and national security at grave risk,” Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, said in a statement.

The funding immediately enabled Phlow to deliver to the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile over 1.6 million doses of five essential generic medicines used to treat COVID-19 patients, it said.

Phlow will partner with private sector entities that include Civica Rx, Ampac Fine Chemicals and the Medicines for All Institute to manufacture the medicines.

All pharmaceutical products by Phlow will be made in the United States, according to the company’s website.

The private company said it was also building the United States’ long-term, national stockpile to secure key ingredients used to manufacture the most essential medicines on U.S. soil.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

States ask Trump administration to pay laid off oil workers to plug abandoned wells

By Nichola Groom

(Reuters) – A coalition of U.S. oil-producing states has asked the Trump administration for stimulus funds to hire laid-off energy workers to plug abandoned wells, a proposal aimed at fending off unemployment while tackling a growing environmental problem, a spokeswoman for the group said.

The request from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a consortium of 31 states, comes as the coronavirus pandemic triggers a historic downturn in crude oil prices and fuel consumption, forcing the once-booming U.S. drilling industry to slash production and cut its workforce.

IOGCC spokeswoman Amy Childers said the group had recently asked the Department of Energy for stimulus funds “to help keep oil and gas crews working during the current crisis.” Childers did not say if a specific amount of funds was requested.

DOE officials would not comment on the proposal.

There are about 3 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States, about two-thirds of which are unplugged, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That number is likely to grow as the current market meltdown pushes hundreds of drilling companies toward bankruptcy, according to industry analysts, bankruptcy attorneys and state regulators.

Unplugged wells are typically abandoned by distressed operators and can pose serious environmental and safety risks if left to leach pollutants into the air and water. Most state governments lack sufficient funding to plug all the wells themselves, according to the IOGCC.

The push from U.S. states comes after Canada said last month that it would invest $1.2 billion to clean up abandoned wells in three provinces as part of a suite of measures to help the hard-hit oil and gas industry during the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. states would like to see a similar commitment from the Trump administration, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner said in an email.

“Oklahoma is certainly supportive of the idea around a stimulus similar to what has been done in Canada around plugging abandoned wells,” he said. Oklahoma has roughly 4,000 abandoned and unplugged wells, according to state records.

North Dakota’s top energy official, Lynn Helms, said at a public meeting last month that his state is seeking federal stimulus money to tackle its list of around 800 abandoned wells: “We’ll be asking for some of this money.”

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Marguerita Choy)

Exclusive: U.S. Navy destroyer in Caribbean sees significant coronavirus outbreak – officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer is believed to have a significant coronavirus outbreak on board as it carries out a counter-narcotics mission in the Caribbean, U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday, marking the latest challenge for the military in dealing with the virus.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that over a dozen sailors had tested positive for the virus. Given the size of ship, usually only a few hundred sailors, an outbreak like this is likely to cause concern and raise questions about whether it would have to return to the United States.

The cases on the ship appear to be the first onboard a ship currently underway at sea.

The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was in the Asia Pacific when it had an outbreak onboard, having to eventually dock in Guam. Nearly 850 out of the roughly 4,800 personnel on the carrier have tested positive on the Roosevelt.

The destroyer Kidd is part of the Trump administration’s deployment of more Navy warships and aircraft to the Caribbean to fight drug cartels. Announcing the deployment earlier this month, the Trump administration said the additional warships and aircraft were also aimed and preventing “corrupt actors” like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to smuggle more narcotics.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. economy will eventually reopen but with big changes: White House’s Kudlow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is aiming to reopen the U.S. economy when the nation’s top health experts give the go-ahead, but Americans’ lives will be drastically different, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Tuesday.

Even when people in the United States return to work and school, they will likely have to stay home when they have signs of sickness, face more widespread and ongoing testing and submit to routine temperature taking, he told Politico in an interview.

“We are aware that things are going to be different,” he said. “That’s going to be a new feature of American life. And I don’t know how quickly that gets up and going, but it’s going to be very, very important because we obviously want to prevent any recurrences.”

It remains unclear when the country, which remains largely shuttered amid the ongoing outbreak that has crushed the economy, will resume more normal operations as a number of states approach their potential peak number of cases amid federal guidelines to isolate until the end of April.

Health officials have called on Americans to brace for a tough week as the death toll rises, but on Tuesday said there were optimistic signs ahead that mitigation efforts were helping to contain the highly contagious and potentially lethal virus.

“It is the health people that are going to drive the medical decisions, here, the medical-related decisions,” Kudlow told Politico, adding that he still believes “that in the next four to eight weeks we will be able to reopen the economy and that the power of the virus will be substantially reduced and we will be able to flatten the curve.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. in crisis mode as coronavirus cases soar, travel restrictions loom

Reuters
By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States went into crisis mode on Thursday to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has played havoc with businesses, shuttered schools and universities and severely disrupted the sports and entertainment world.

Fears of a recession grew as U.S. cases of the virus that causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness rose and the Trump administration prepared to roll out restrictions that threaten to cripple the travel industry.

U.S. stock markets cratered again after trading opened, with major indexes entering bear-market territory.

Officials in the hardest-hit parts of the country, including New York and Washington states, were trying to balance the need to protect the public while stopping short of actions that could freeze the daily lives of millions of people and stop economic activity.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN that “more and more restrictions” were likely on the way, though he said there were no plans to shut down the city’s famous theater district or its subway system, a vital transportation link.

“I don’t want to see Broadway go dark,” de Blasio said, adding that authorities will be issuing further guidance either on Thursday or Friday. He also announced the closure of two schools in the city due to a student’s “self-confirmed” positive case of COVID-19.

Hollywood has postponed the release of several movies and movie theaters around the world have been closed over the health crisis.

More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, has accounted for a large share of the deaths.

U.S. health officials have struggled to quickly expand testing capacity to make screening for the virus widely available, and have acknowledged that it is not easy for those possibly exposed to the virus to get tested.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association are among those who have been infected with the highly infectious coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory problems, especially in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The NBA has suspended its season until further notice.

Harvard and Princeton are among the universities that have announced they will move to virtual classroom instruction after the spring break later this month.

‘SELF-QUARANTINE’

U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from abroad will be screened for the virus and asked to go into “self-quarantine” for 14 days, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with CNN.

“Americans coming home will be funneled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.

President Donald Trump defended his decision to impose a 30-day restriction on travel from Europe, except Britain and Ireland, that goes into effect at midnight on Friday.

Speaking to reporters in the White House alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he said the ban could be lengthened or shortened, and added that he had been unable to consult with the European Union prior to announcing it on Wednesday night.

The travel restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said. Global stock markets sank again on Thursday.

The S&P 500 <.SPX> and the Nasdaq <.IXIC> indexes entered into a bear market. The S&P 500 plunged more than 8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> was down 4.3%. Airline and some cruise line stocks were particularly hard hit.

The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Democrats’ sweeping coronavirus bill on Thursday, according to a Democratic aide.

Republicans have balked at the plan and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation, and Trump said on Thursday he didn’t support the bill.

Instead, Trump has pushed for a payroll tax cut and instructed the Treasury Department to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain business and individuals hit by the health crisis.

The president also backs emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani and Michael Erman in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Trump administration weighs emergency funds to combat coronavirus

By Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering asking lawmakers for emergency funding to ramp up its response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, a White House spokesman and an administration source said on Monday, though they did not say how much money was needed.

“We need some funding here to make sure that we … protect all Americans, that we keep us safe,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox News Channel.

Asked how much funding the administration may ask Congress to approve, Gidley later told reporters at the White House that there was no announcement yet on the amount.

Politico and the Washington Post, citing unnamed individuals familiar with the planning, had reported the administration may request $1 billion funding from the U.S. Congress. An administration official told Reuters the amount was still being finalized, and the request could go to lawmakers this week.

The official said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was seeking an amount that some within the administration viewed as out of proportion, given the limited number of U.S. cases and other HHS funding that has not yet been used.

The outbreak has spread beyond central China to South Korea, Iran and Italy, rattling global markets.

The United States has not seen the kind of community spread that has hit China, but health officials are preparing for such a possibility even as those Americans affected so far have been quarantined.

There have been 13 cases of people diagnosed with the virus in the United States and 21 cases among Americans repatriated on evacuation flights from the virus epicenter of Wuhan, China, as well as from a cruise ship in Japan, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the funding requests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tapped Azar to lead a task force coordinating the response to the outbreak that the department has declared a public health emergency.

Democrats, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, have urged the administration to seek emergency funds after it notified Congress in recent weeks that it had already spent millions of dollars for its virus response, according to the Washington Post.

Trump has been at odds with his own White House advisers over China’s coronavirus response and has sought to downplay the impact of the virus, saying it could fade in April with warmer spring weather – something health experts said is unknown.

“We have aggressively worked to combat the spread of this virus, tried to prevent it as best we could from coming into this country,” Gidley told reporters.

The administration is also grappling with where to send Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who tested positive for the virus after backing off plans to quarantine them in a federal facility in Alabama.

In a statement on Monday, HHS cited a “rapidly evolving situation,” but said that the Alabama center was “not needed at this time” and that it was looking for alternatives.

“Any action that HHS takes, working with our federal, state and local partners, to address this public health emergency will be done in a way that protects both those infected with the virus and other citizens as well,” HHS said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York, and Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and David Gregorio)

Some migrants waiting in Mexico for U.S. court hearings caught crossing illegally

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 migrants pushed back to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings under a Trump administration program have been caught crossing the border again, a top border official said on Thursday.

Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said during a White House briefing that migrants returned to Mexico under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have a 9% recidivism rate. Many of those migrants intend to seek asylum in the United States.

“Unfortunately, some of the individuals in the MPP program are actually going outside the shelter environment,” Morgan said. “They’re re-engaging with the cartels because they’re tired of waiting. And that’s when we’re hearing that some of that further abuse and exploitation is happening.”

Morgan said that around 50,000 people have been returned to Mexico under the program. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for more details on his comments.

The administration of Republican President Donald Trump launched the MPP program in January as part of a strategy to deter mostly Central American families from trekking to the U.S. border to seek asylum. Trump officials have argued the bulk of such claims for protection lack merit and that migrants are motivated by economic concerns.

Immigration advocates say asylum seekers sent to wait in Mexican border towns, for the weeks or months it takes for their cases to wind through backlogged immigration courts, face dangerous and possibly deadly conditions.

Migrants who claim fear of returning to Mexico can ask to stay in the United States for the duration of their court case. But just 1% of cases have been transferred out of the program, according to a Reuters analysis of federal immigration court data as of early October.

The administration has said the MPP program and other measures has helped lead to a decline in border arrests. In October, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border fell for the fifth straight month, Morgan said.

The White House briefing followed a leadership change at the Homeland Security Department on Wednesday.

The Trump administration installed Chad Wolf, previously chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, as acting secretary. Wolf then announced that acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli – an immigration hard liner – would be elevated to the No. 2 position at the department.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump administration to announce changes to anti-kickback rules for healthcare providers

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – The Trump administration will announce plans to change healthcare regulations on Wednesday to loosen anti-kickback provisions that restrict the kinds of outside services providers can refer patients to, administration officials said.

President Donald Trump on Thursday will explain how the new rules advance his broader healthcare agenda, which includes reducing regulatory burdens and promoting innovative ways to reimburse healthcare providers, in a speech in Minnesota, the officials said.

The plan will change how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) enforces the Physician Self Referral Law, also known as the Stark law, which penalizes healthcare providers for referring patients to outside services that the provider could stand to benefit from financially.

HHS will create exceptions for healthcare providers that enter into agreements with other parties if they are aimed at cutting costs and improving patient health, the officials said.

Trump issued an executive order last week that sought to woo seniors by strengthening the Medicare health program.

The order was the Republican president’s answer to Democrats like Bernie Sanders, who is running to become the party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential election and is promoting the idea of Medicare for all Americans.

The Trump administration has also rolled out measures in recent months designed to curtail drug prices and address other problems in the U.S. healthcare system.

Policy experts say the efforts are unlikely to slow the rise of drug prices in a meaningful way, however.

(This story corrects lead to show Trump administration officials, not President Trump, announcing plans on Wednesday)

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. to ramp up rapid deportations with sweeping new rule

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parks near the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Tijuana, Mexico July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it will expand and speed up deportations of migrants who enter the United States illegally by stripping away court oversight, enabling officials to remove people in days rather than months or years.

Set to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the rule will apply “expedited removal” to the majority of those who enter the United States illegally unless they can prove they have been living in the country for at least two years.

Legal experts said it was a dramatic expansion of a program already used along the U.S.-Mexican border that cuts out review by an immigration judge, usually without access to an attorney. Both are available in regular proceedings.

“The Trump administration is moving forward into converting ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) into a ‘show me your papers’ militia,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on a call with reporters.

It was likely the policy would be blocked quickly by a court, several experts said. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to block numerous Trump immigration policies in court, has vowed to sue.

President Donald Trump has struggled to stem an increase of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to overcrowded detention facilities and a political battle over a growing humanitarian crisis.

The government said increasing rapid deportations would free up detention space and ease strains on immigration courts, which face a backlog of more than 900,000 cases.

Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally could be quickly deported under the new rule, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 37%, or 20,570, of those encountered by ICE in the year to September, had been in the country less than two years.

People in rapid deportation proceedings are detained for 11.4 days on average, according to DHS. People in regular proceedings are held for 51.5 days and are released into the United States for the months or years it takes to resolve their cases.

Legal experts said the rule shreds basic due process and could create havoc beyond immigrant communities.

“ICE has been detaining and deporting U.S. citizens for decades,” said Jackie Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University. That policy came at a great cost to U.S. taxpayers in terms of litigation and compensation, she added.

&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; ICE in 2003 became a successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

U.S. citizens account for about 1% of those detained by ICE and about 0.5% of those deported, according to Stevens’ research.

“Expedited removal orders are going to make this much worse,” she said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in March ruled that those ordered deported in the sped-up process have a right to take their case to a judge.

Previously, only those immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country two weeks or less could be ordered rapidly deported. The policy makes an exception for immigrants who can establish a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)