U.S. government awards Novavax $1.6 billion for coronavirus vaccine

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. government has awarded Novavax Inc $1.6 billion to cover testing and manufacturing of a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus in the United States, with the aim of delivering 100 million doses by January.

The award announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is the biggest yet from “Operation Warp Speed,” the White House initiative aimed at accelerating access to vaccines and treatments to fight COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Shares in Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Novavax rose 29% to $102 in morning trading.

“What this Warp Speed award does is it pays for production of 100 million doses, which would be delivered starting in the fourth quarter of this year, and may be completed by January or February of next year,” Novavax Chief Executive Stanley Erck told Reuters.

It will also cover the cost of running a large Phase III trial, the final stage of human testing.

Erck said Novavax expects results of its Phase I trial testing the vaccine’s safety within the next week or so. The company aims to start mid-stage trials in August or September, with Phase III testing starting in October, Erck added.

The HHS announcement follows a $456 million investment in Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate in March, a $486 million award to Moderna Inc in April, and up to $1.2 billion in support in May for AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine being developed with Oxford University. The U.S. government also awarded Emergent Biosolutions Inc $628 million to expand domestic manufacturing capacity for a potential coronavirus vaccine and drugs to treat COVID-19.

The addition of Novavax’s candidate to Operation Warp Speed’s portfolio “increases the odds that we will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

Besides the massive cash infusion for Novavax, the U.S. government inked a $450 million contract with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc to make and supply its antibody cocktail for COVID-19.

Novavax is somewhat of a dark horse in the race for a coronavirus vaccine. The company was not on the list of vaccine finalists for Warp Speed previously reported by the New York Times that included Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer Inc, J&J and Merck & Co.

In May, Novavax received an additional $388 million in funding for COVID-19 vaccine development from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a private foundation, after a $4 million investment in March. In June, the U.S. Defense Department awarded the company $60 million to support manufacturing of 10 million doses of its vaccine in 2020.

‘A BIG SCALE UP’

The company is in the process of transferring its vaccine technology to an unnamed contract manufacturer that has two large manufacturing facilities, its CEO said. That is in addition to the work being done by Emergent Biosolutions, which is making doses to supply the company’s smaller early and mid-stage clinical trials.

By early next year, Novavax expects to be able to make 50 million doses a month in the United States.

“It’s a big scale up in a few different manufacturing sites in the United States,” Erck said. “What it leaves us with is the capacity of making many more doses in the U.S. in 2021.”

Novavax did not start human safety trials until late May. One reason for the delay is that the vaccine is grown in insect cells, a process that can take 30 days before company scientists can start purifying it and making it in bulk.

“You lose a month or so there, but I don’t think we’re behind because of our data,” Erck said, referring to animal data showing a strong immune response and high levels of virus-killing antibodies.

Besides Moderna, the company trails two other candidates – one from AstraZeneca and Oxford University and one from Pfizer and BioNTech.

Jefferies analyst Jared Holz said the cash infusion “places Novavax in a very enviable position should its data look compelling later in the year.”

Although Novavax has not yet produced a licensed vaccine, Sanofi SA uses the same basic technology to make flu vaccine, “so the risk of us not succeeding is pretty low,” Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development for Novavax, said in a telephone interview.

The Novavax vaccine works in conjunction with an adjuvant – a substance that boosts the immune response to help the body build a robust defense against the virus.

Currently, Novavax makes its adjuvant in Sweden. The company is building up U.S. manufacturing capacity for its adjuvant “so that we can make upwards of a billion doses of adjuvant in the United States,” Erck said.

Novavax also has a manufacturing plant in the Czech Republic and hopes to have two other plants in Europe and one in Asia, Erck said. The company is also working with a manufacturer in India. The aim there is to make more than 100 million doses a month, Erck said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Will Dunham)

Americans are spending coronavirus checks on rent and groceries

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – When Jessica Rosner saw the $1,200 coronavirus relief payment from the U.S. government was deposited into her bank account Wednesday morning, the furloughed behavioral therapist knew immediately how she would spend the cash.

The unemployment benefits she applied for two weeks ago have yet to come through. And Rosner, 23, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, still owed nearly $1,500 for April’s rent and about $200 for car insurance.

The “Economic Impact Payments” being issued under the $2.3 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month started landing in consumers’ bank accounts this week. The relief payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child are meant to soften some of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Americans’ lives have been upended by the crisis, with most schools and businesses closed, vacations canceled, and families mourning the more than 31,000 people killed by the virus.

The relief money is arriving in bank accounts as states across the country struggle to process unemployment claims filed by more than 22 million Americans over the past month, and helping some people cover the essentials.

“It’s going to get used quickly because there are so many people who need money right now,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist and now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Preliminary results from a survey Sahm is conducting with Google and the University of Michigan suggest U.S. families plan to spend the money on essentials or pay off debt, Sahm said. That is the way stimulus checks were used during the financial crisis of 2008 and to counter an economic slowdown during the summer of 2001, she said.

Some people said they were planning to save the cash temporarily, an indication the payments may not lead to the immediate economic stimulation hoped for by the government.

Hyniah Herrin, 26, wanted to enroll in college this fall but put those plans on hold after she lost her two part-time jobs as a school bus driver and restaurant host in Philadelphia. The stimulus money landed in her bank account on Monday, and she’s holding on to it. “We don’t know when we’re going to be able to resume life,” Herrin said.

Steve Davison, 61, says the workload in his part-time job handling social media advertising for a forklift distributor hasn’t decreased because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Davison, who has not received a payment yet, said he is still living paycheck to paycheck and is worried about the future.

After he pays an old tax bill, he plans to hold on to the rest of the cash. “I’m just going to stash it because you never know what’s going to come up,” said Davison, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Treasury Department Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier this week that more than 80 million Americans would have the money deposited directly into their bank accounts by Wednesday morning.

Those who haven’t received the money can check their status and provide bank account information through a new “Get My Payment” app. Paper checks bearing President Donald Trump’s name on them will be sent out starting early next week to people who don’t use direct deposit.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons and Paul Simao)

U.S. direct payments likely to begin April 13: House panel

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans should start receiving direct deposit payments from the U.S. government around April 13 to help them cope with the coronavirus pandemic, but others may have to wait until mid-September to receive paper checks, according to a key congressional committee.

The government is expected to distribute 60 million payments of up to $1,200 per individual using bank deposit information gleaned from 2018 and 2019 income tax filings during the week of April 13, according to a memo from Democrats on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

But it will not begin to send out paper checks to those who do not have bank deposit information on file until about 21 days later on May 4, according to the memo, which was reviewed by Reuters.

The IRS expects to issue checks at a rate of about 5 million a week, meaning that some Americans may have to wait 20 weeks. Under the schedule, the last checks would not arrive until around Sept. 21.

“This timeline is subject to change,” the memo noted.

The money is intended to help individuals and families offset the economic impact of the pandemic. Government officials hope to see the coronavirus die out during the warmer summer months, though health experts have warned of a possible resurgence in the fall.

(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Andy Sullivan, Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)

Cruise ship passengers await Florida deal allowing them to disembark

By Zach Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – The U.S. government and Florida were working on a plan on Wednesday to allow thousands of cruise ship passengers exposed to an onboard coronavirus outbreak to disembark, a day after President Donald Trump urged the governor to drop his opposition to their docking.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said he was not opposed to them docking in his city. But he said a clear protocol was needed to protect residents of his South Florida city from infection.

“There can be no missteps in this process,” he told CNN.

“We have to be comfortable knowing that they are being quarantined in such a way that they do not infect the rest of the community,” Trantalis said.

One of the two Dutch cruise ships involved is Holland America Line’s MS Zaandam. Nearly two-thirds of its passengers, those who passed a medical screening, were moved to the line’s sister ship, the Rotterdam.

Both vessels were on the way to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, the Zaandam carrying nearly 1,050 passengers and crew, and the Rotterdam almost 1,450.

Florida has reported 6,490 cases of coronavirus, including 251 non-residents, and 85 deaths, according to the state website. It ranks eighth in the number of new cases reported in the past 24 hours, analyst Michael Newshel of investment bank Evercore ISI said in a research note.

For the country as a whole, the tally stands at more than 190,000 reported cases and nearly 4,000 deaths, a toll that shot up by more than 850 on Tuesday, by far the most for a single day. Nearly half of the new fatalities were in New York state, the epicenter of the pandemic despite closed businesses and deserted streets.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order on Monday for four counties in southern Florida that will last until April 15 and then be reviewed. On Tuesday, he said the White House task force had not recommended a statewide order.

“If they do, that’s something that would carry a lot of weight with me,” DeSantis told reporters.

Florida’s Democrats in the U.S. Congress published an open-letter to DeSantis renewing a call for him to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, saying the decision cannot be left to county and municipal governments.

“This pandemic has not respected global borders so it certainly will not respect county borders,” said the letter, which was signed by U.S. Representative Lois Frankel and 12 other members of Congress.

SICK AND STUCK

Jennifer Allan, whose 75-year-old father and 70-year-old mother are sick and stuck aboard the cruise ship Zaandam, was asked on NBC’s “Today” what she would say if she could speak with DeSantis:

“I would beg him and everybody who has the power to make this happen that we need to look at the humanity of what’s going on right now. There needs to be compassion for these people.

Another Florida official, Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, said the port was being operated by a “unified command” of federal and state agencies discussing the situation.

“As it stands today, they’re going back and forth, working on a plan to ensure that we’re safeguarding the people of Broward County from further spread of this virus, but also seeing how we can find a way to deal with these folks” in a humanitarian manner, Holness said on MSNBC.

GRAPHIC: Tracking the spread of the global coronavirus – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html

NEW MONTH, NEW CONCERNS

With rent and mortgage payments due on Wednesday, the first day of the month, job losses soaring, medical equipment in short supply and a projected coronavirus death toll in the United States of up to 240,000 people, Americans steeled themselves for months of uncertainty.

Medical experts on the U.S. government’s coronavirus task force on Tuesday said they were predicting that even with strict observance of stay-at-home orders and other precautions, between 100,000 to 240,000 people could ultimately die from the respiratory disease.

Public health officials are debating whether to recommend that people wear protective face masks even as an emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the U.S. government has nearly run out of protective gear.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, interviewed on the NBC News “Today” program on Wednesday, said officials were weighing potential new guidelines given the role of asymptomatic people carrying the virus but that people wearing masks should try not to touch their face and should still save N95 masks for healthcare workers.

“Wearing a face covering does not mean that you don’t have to practice social distancing. The most important thing you can do is stay at home right now,” Adams said.

The start of April brings a moment of reckoning for millions who have lost jobs and are forced to stay at home – their rent and mortgage checks are due.

Many Americans have already lost their jobs – last week’s national unemployment claims exceeded 3 million, shattering previous records.

Coronavirus news: https://emea1.apps.cp.extranet.thomsonreuters.biz/cms/?navid=919104201

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Daniel Trotta and Peter Szekely; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Howard Goller)

Top U.S. expert sees ‘glimmers’ social distancing dampening virus spread

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert said on Tuesday there were “glimmers” that social distancing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus were having an impact, even though the nation was still in a very dangerous situation.

“We’re starting to see glimmers that that is actually having some dampening effect,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told CNN in an interview. “But that does not take away from the seriousness … We clearly are seeing cases going up.”

Fauci’s comments came after the United States endured its deadliest day yet on Monday with 575 coronavirus-related fatalities. U.S. officials want to build hundreds of temporary hospitals across the country as existing medical centers have come under siege from the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of U.S. dead has now climbed past 3,000, more than the number who died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections rose to more than 163,000, according to a Reuters tally of official U.S. statistics.

Fauci cautioned that, while stay-at-home restrictions were starting to produce some results, Americans remained at risk.

“We clearly are seeing cases going up. People in New York

are in a difficult situation,” he said. “We are still in a very difficult situation. We hope and I believe it will happen, that we may start seeing it turn around, but we haven’t seen it yet.

“We really have to hang in there and abide by the mitigation strategies. We do believe it’s working.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Tim Ahmann; editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Berkrot)

J&J, U.S. government plan 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson said on Monday that it and the U.S. government will invest $1 billion to create enough manufacturing capacity to make more than 1 billion doses of a vaccine it is testing to stop the new coronavirus that has killed more than 35,000 people around the world.

As part of the arrangement, the U.S. government will pay $421 million to support the company’s efforts to build new manufacturing capacity in the United States.

J&J said it had selected its own lead vaccine candidate and would start human testing by September, with an eye on having it ready under an emergency use authorization in early 2021, far quicker than the typical 18 month period that it takes for vaccines to be tested, approved and then manufactured.

J&J Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Paul Stoffels told Reuters the company had to start ramping up manufacturing capacity now, even before it has a signal that its experimental vaccine candidate works. The company will start making the vaccine at risk, without knowing for sure that it works.

“That is the only option for us to get it on time,” Stoffels said in a phone interview.

The company has a manufacturing plant in the Netherlands that can make up to 300 million doses of vaccine, Stoffels said, adding that “absolutely will not be sufficient for the world.”

He said J&J is starting to build a plant in the United States now so it can be ready to manufacture vaccines by the end of the year, when data from its clinical trials will show whether the vaccine works.

Nearly half of the $1 billion will come from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is looking to expand on J&J’s previous collaboration with the agency.

Stoffels said the company is also scouting for manufacturing plants in other parts of Europe and Asia that are capable of making the type of vaccine the company is working on.

So far, J&J has not given any doses of its vaccine to humans. But Stoffels said the coronavirus vaccine will be based on the same technology used to make its Ebola vaccine, which has been widely used in people, and the company believes it will prove safe.

Safety testing of vaccines is even more important than for treatments as they are given to healthy people to prevent infection. That could be 1 billion people or more around the world.

In lab studies, the vaccine candidate has produced strong neutralizing antibodies to the virus – the type needed to make a successful vaccine.

J&J will continue testing the vaccine in animal studies this summer and plans to start human trials in September.

The new coronavirus, which began in Wuhan, China, has infected people in most countries around the world. The United States, with over 143,00 confirmed case of COVID-19 – the illness caused by the virus – has the most cases globally.

Moderna Inc <MRNA.O> this month began initial testing of it’s experimental coronavirus vaccine in healthy volunteers, making it the early front-runner in the race to develop a viable vaccine.

(This story corrects to say “$421 million” in second paragraph)

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. government extends deadline to sign up for Obamacare insurance plans

(Reuters) – The U.S. government said on Monday the deadline for signing-up for 2020 insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been extended by three days to Dec. 18 to accommodate those who experienced issues while attempting to enroll.

There were website glitches and call center delays reported on Sunday, the earlier deadline for the 2020 open enrollment, and the extension should help the final enrollment tally, said Evercore ISI analyst Michael Newshel.

“The post-Thanksgiving ramp-up in sign-ups was better than expected, and the momentum bodes well for the key final surge into the deadline this Sunday, December 15,” Newshel said in a note last week.

Last year, the number of people who signed up for 2019 health plans fell 4% to 8.5 million people from 2018, but saw a typical trend of last-minute shopping in the final week.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services runs enrollment for insurance plans created by the ACA, often called Obamacare, through the online marketplace, HealthCare.gov, for 38 states.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

Exclusive: U.S. opens national security investigation into TikTok – sources

Exclusive: U.S. opens national security investigation into TikTok – sources
By Greg Roumeliotis, Yingzhi Yang, Echo Wang and Alexandra Alper

NEW YORK/BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government has launched a national security review of TikTok owner Beijing ByteDance Technology Co’s $1 billion acquisition of U.S. social media app Musical.ly, according to two people familiar with the matter.

While the $1 billion acquisition was completed two years ago, U.S. lawmakers have been calling in recent weeks for a national security probe into TikTok, concerned the Chinese company may be censoring politically sensitive content, and raising questions about how it stores personal data.

TikTok has been growing more popular among U.S. teenagers at a time of growing tensions between the United States and China over trade and technology transfers. About 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are between the ages of 16 and 24, the company said earlier this year.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews deals by foreign acquirers for potential national security risks, has started to review the Musical.ly deal, the sources said. TikTok did not seek clearance from CFIUS when it acquired Musical.ly, they added, which gives the U.S. security panel scope to investigate it now.

CFIUS is in talks with TikTok about measures it could take to avoid divesting the Musical.ly assets it acquired, the sources said. Details of those talks, referred to by CFIUS as mitigation, could not be learned. The specific concerns that CFIUS has could also not be learned.

The sources requested anonymity because CFIUS reviews are confidential.

“While we cannot comment on ongoing regulatory processes, TikTok has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S. Part of that effort includes working with Congress and we are committed to doing so,” a TikTok spokesperson said. ByteDance did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The U.S. Treasury Department, which chairs CFIUS, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Tom Cotton asked for a national security probe. They said they were concerned about the video-sharing platform’s collection of user data, and whether China censors content seen by U.S. users. They also suggested TikTok could be targeted by foreign influence campaigns.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Schumer and Cotton wrote to Joseph Macguire, acting director of national intelligence.

TikTok allows users to create and share short videos with special effects. The company has said U.S. user data is stored in the United States, but the senators noted that ByteDance is governed by Chinese laws.

TikTok also says China does not have jurisdiction over content of the app, which does not operate in China and is not influenced by any foreign government.

Last month, Musical.ly founder Alex Zhu, who heads the TikTok team, started to report directly to ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, one of the sources said. He previously reported to Zhang Nan, the head of ByteDance’s Douyin, a Chinese short video app. It was not clear whether this move, which separates TikTok organizationally from ByteDance’s other holdings, was related to the company’s discussions with CFIUS over mitigation.

In October, U.S. senator Marco Rubio asked CFIUS to review ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly. He cited questions about why TikTok had “only had a few videos of the Hong Kong protests that have been dominating international headlines for months.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose product competes with TikTok particularly for younger users, has also criticized the app over censorship concerns.

The United States has been increasingly scrutinizing app developers over the safety of personal data they handle, especially if some of it involves U.S. military or intelligence personnel.

Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd said in May it would seek to sell its popular gay dating app Grindr after it was approached by CFIUS with national security concerns.

Last year, CFIUS forced China’s Ant Financial to scrap plans to buy MoneyGram International Inc over concerns about the safety of data that could be used to identify U.S. citizens.

The panel also compelled Oceanwide Holdings and Genworth Financial Inc to work through a U.S. third party data administrator to ensure the Chinese company could not access the insurer’s U.S. customers’ personal private data.

BYTEDANCE’S RISE

ByteDance is one of China’s fastest growing startups. It owns the country’s leading news aggregator, Jinri Toutiao, as well as TikTok, which has attracted celebrities like Ariana Grande and Katy Perry.

ByteDance counts Japanese technology giant SoftBank, venture firm Sequoia Capital and big private-equity firms such as KKR, General Atlantic and Hillhouse Capital Group as backers.

Analysts have called ByteDance a strong threat to other Chinese tech industry firms including social media and gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd and search engine leader Baidu Inc. Globally, ByteDance’s apps have 1.5 billion monthly active users and 700 million daily active users, the company said in July.

The seven-year-old Chinese start-up posted a better-than-expected revenue for the first half of 2019 at over $7 billion, and was valued at $78 billion late last year, sources have told Reuters.

(Reporting by Greg Roumeliotis and Echo Wang in New York, Yingzhi Yang in Beijing and Alexandra Alper in Washington, D.C.; Editing by David Gregorio)

Charleston mass shooting victims can sue U.S. over gun purchase: court

FILE PHOTO: Dylann Roof sits in the court room at the Charleston County Judicial Center to enter his guilty plea on murder charges in state court for the 2015 shooting massacre at a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Grace Beahm/Pool/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Survivors of a 2015 mass shooting at a South Carolina church can sue the U.S. government over its alleged negligence in allowing Dylann Roof to buy the gun he used to kill nine African-Americans, a federal appeals court said on Friday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the government was not immune from liability under either the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) or the Brady Act to prevent handgun violence.

Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel revived 16 lawsuits that challenged lapses in how the government vetted prospective gun purchasers, including the FBI’s management of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

William Wilkins, a former chief judge of the 4th Circuit representing the victims, said Congress had charged the FBI with adopting procedures “to stop people like Roof who could obtain assassins’ weapons” from doing so.

“The government has to do what the law requires,” Wilkins said in an interview. “It failed to do that in this case.”

Roof, a white supremacist, had been admitted to a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015, where he then used his .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol in the shooting.

Victims said a proper background check would have shown that Roof had recently admitted to drug possession, which would have disqualified him from buying the gun from a federally licensed dealer two months earlier.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court that no one disputed that a proper check would have stopped Roof.

But he said U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston was wrong to dismiss the lawsuits on immunity grounds in June 2018, even as Gergel faulted the government’s “abysmally poor policy choices” in managing the background check system.

Gregory said the case turned on the NICS examiner’s alleged negligence in disregarding mandatory procedures. “The government can claim no immunity in these circumstances,” he wrote.

Circuit Judge G. Steven Agee partially dissented, saying the government was not immune from Brady Act claims, but that Gergel properly dismissed the FTCA case.

Roof, now 25, was sentenced to death in January 2017 after being convicted on 33 federal counts related to the shooting, including hate crimes. He pleaded guilty three months later to state murder charges, and was sentenced to nine consecutive life terms without parole.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)