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Elon Musk puts $100 million jolt into quest for carbon removal

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By Hyunjoo Jin and Nichola Groom

(Reuters) -Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Thursday offered inventors $100 million in prize money to develop ways to fight global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or ocean.

“Right now we’ve only got one planet,” said Musk, CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc. “Even a 0.1% chance of disaster — why run that risk? That’s crazy!”

In January, Musk announced his intention to offer $100 million in prizes and set out the contest rules on Thursday, Earth Day. What organizers called the “largest incentive prize in history” will last for four years through Earth Day, 2025.

Carbon capture and storage has drawn growing interest as a warming climate has melted glaciers, intensified tropical storms and resulted in “sunny day flooding” of more and more coastal areas. While countries are working to reduce emissions, scientists say carbon removal technology will also be crucial to the goal of getting emissions to net zero by 2050.

“Both cost and scalability need to be addressed. Is it going to be enough carbon to matter, and can we afford it as a civilization? Those are two things that matter,” Musk said on a video feed that showed him outdoors, barefoot in a black shirt with water and trees in the background.

Carbon capture projects have already drawn backing from Silicon Valley startups, public officials worried about the slow pace of cutting emissions, and emitters including oil companies seeking to offset their climate impacts.

The technology is not yet commercially viable. Removing carbon can cost more than $300 per metric tonne in a world that each year emits greenhouse gases equivalent to about 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 2050, some 10 billion tonnes of carbon capture may be needed, by some estimates.

“I think this is one of those things that is going to take a while to figure out what the right solution is,” Musk said. “And especially to figure out what the best economics are for CO2 removal.”

Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal is aimed at finding a viable solution for taking 1,000 tonnes out of the atmosphere annually, with potential to scale up dramatically.

Contenders must have a plan to sequester carbon for at least 100 years. Organizers said they will get feedback by mid May and turn guidelines into rules.

Musk has built a reputation as an industrialist focused on environmentalism, turning electric car maker Tesla into the world’s most valuable vehicle company and expanding into solar power so customers can charge their rides carbon-free. He had conversations about the prize with Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation.

There are plenty of Silicon Valley startups eager to compete. Venture capital-backed carbon removal companies raised $336.5 million last year, according to PitchBook.

On Monday, XPRIZE announced two winners of a separate, $20 million prize to develop technologies to covert emissions from power plants into concrete. One is CarbonCure Technologies, based in Canada and backed by separate funds by Bill Gates, Amazon.com Inc and others.

The United Nations has said carbon removal technology is needed to limit increase in planetary warming and avoid catastrophic climate impacts. But some environmentalists have argued that focusing on carbon removal reflects a lack of resolve to end the use of fossil fuels.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom and Hyunjoo Jin; editing by Peter Henderson and David Gregorio)

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AMC expects people to return to theaters as vaccine rollout gathers pace

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(Reuters) -AMC Entertainment Holdings said on Thursday its business was expected to improve in the coming months as the mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccines draws moviegoers back to the cinema chain’s theaters.

A strong slate of big-budget movies, including “Fast & Furious” film “F9” and Marvel’s “Black Widow,” in the summer is expected to fuel a rebound in box-office sales after the pandemic-driven slump in 2020.

“We finally can now say that we are looking at an increasingly favorable environment for movie-going and for AMC as a company over the coming few months, Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron said in a statement.

However, the company’s revenue fell to $148.3 million in the quarter ended March 31, from $941.5 million a year earlier, missing a Refinitiv IBES estimate of $153.43 million.

Its net loss shrunk to $567.2 million, or $1.42 per share in the quarter, from a loss of $2.18 billion, or $20.88 per share, a year earlier.

(Reporting by Chavi Mehta in Bengaluru; Editing by Aditya Soni)

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Drugmakers say Biden misguided over vaccine patent waiver

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By Stephanie Nebehay and Ludwig Burger

GENEVA/FRANKFURT (Reuters) -Drugmakers on Thursday said U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines could disrupt a fragile supply chain and that rich countries should instead share more generously with the developing world.

Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, angering research-based pharmaceutical companies.

If adopted by the World Trade Organisation, the proposal would invite new manufacturers that lack essential know-how and oversight from the inventors to crowd out established contractors, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said.

“I have heard many (vaccine makers) talking about ‘our resources are stretched, our technicians are stretched’,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni told Reuters. He warned of a possible free for all if “sort of rogue companies” were allowed to become involved.

Vaccine developers echoed his comments that waiving intellectual property rights was not a solution.

“Patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine. They would not increase the global production and supply of vaccine doses in the short and middle term,” said Germany’s BioNTech, which aims to supply up 3 billion doses together with Pfizer this year.

BioNTech said it took more than a decade to develop its vaccines manufacturing process and replicating it required experienced personnel and a meticulous technology transfer, among several other factors beyond patents.

Another German company CureVac, which hopes to release trial results on its messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine as early as this month, said patents were not to blame for supply bottlenecks.

“Since mRNA technology has emerged as the key technology in the fight against COVID-19, the world now needs the same raw materials in unfathomable amounts. The biggest problem is how to coordinate this,” a spokeswoman said.

IFPMA’s Cueni said the real bottlenecks were trade barriers, in particular the U.S. Defense Production Act (DPA).

The DPA is a decades-old U.S. law that prioritised procurement orders related to U.S. national defence, but it has been widely used in non-military crises, such as natural disasters.

Cueni said the way to kickstart low-income countries’ vaccination campaigns was for rich countries to donate vaccine, rather than widen eligibility to young and healthy people at home.

Moderna, which on Thursday reported quarterly results, said waiving intellectual property rights would not help to increase supply of its vaccines in 2021 and 2022.

The U.S. drugmaker said last year it would not enforce its vaccine patents. CureVac said on Thursday it would also not enforce its patents during the pandemic and that it knew of no other developer that would.

Italy’s ReiThera which is in late-stage tests on an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, was also critical of patent waivers.

“There is proprietary know-how that has to be transferred by the owner. And then there is the problem with process materials, which at the moment have delivery times of almost a year,” ReiThera’s chief of technology Stefano Colloca said.

In contrast to the industry reaction, the GAVI vaccine alliance, which co-leads the COVAX dose-sharing programme with the WHO and faces major supply constraints, welcomed Biden’s support for waiving intellectual property rights.

(Writing by Ludwig BurgerAdditional Reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Barbara Lewis and Jane Merriman)

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EU supports COVID vaccine patent waiver talks, but critics say won’t solve scarcity

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By Philip Blenkinsop and Carl O’Donnell

BRUSSELS/NEW YORK (Reuters) -The European Union on Thursday backed a U.S. proposal to discuss waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, but drugmakers and some other governments opposed the idea, saying it would not solve global inoculation shortages.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to explore a waiver after President Joe Biden on Wednesday promoted the plan, reversing the U.S. position.

“The main thing is, we have to speed this up,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Thursday as India battled a devastating COVID-19 outbreak. “None of us are going to be fully safe until … we get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

A patent waiver is “one possible means of increasing manufacture, and access to vaccines,” he said, as the White House denied a split among officials over the waiver idea.

Biden’s administration endorsed negotiations at the World Trade Organization to gain global agreement.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told member states that she “warmly welcomed” the U.S. move. “We need to respond urgently to COVID-19 because the world is watching and people are dying,” she said.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reached for capital letters in a tweet calling Biden’s move a “MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19,” and said it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”

Despite that enthusiasm, drugmakers, who stand to lose revenue if they are stripped of patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines, and other critics found flaws in the proposal.

The complexities of manufacturing means free access to the intellectual property is not enough to immediately increase vaccine production, they said. Moderna waived its patent rights in October, and on Thursday noted the lack of companies able to rapidly manufacture a similar vaccine and secure approval for it.

Combined, Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have forecast over $45 billion in sales this year for their COVID-19 vaccines.

In the long term, a waiver would discourage pharmaceutical companies from rapidly responding to future global health threats with large research investments, some said.

Germany, the EU’s biggest economic power and home to a large pharmaceutical sector, rejected the idea, saying vaccine shortages were due to limited production capacity and quality standards rather than patent protection issues.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden’s goal of providing the whole world with vaccines. But a government spokeswoman said in a statement that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”

Moreover, a waiver would take months to negotiate and require unanimous agreement among the 164 countries in the WTO. Drug companies urged rich countries instead to share vaccines more generously with the developing world.

DOES NOT ADDRESS ‘THE REAL CHALLENGES’

Stock prices for drugmakers largely recovered after initially falling sharply after Biden backed the waiver idea. Moderna was off 1.3% after earlier dropping 12%, and the U.S. shares of its German partner BioNTech SE shed 0.6% after falling as much as 15% earlier. “The bottleneck is neither access nor patents (or price) butsimply that there aren’t enough vials, raw materials, etc tomanufacture it regardless of patents,” Jefferies analyst Michael Yee said of expanding COVID-19 vaccine production.

The pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group, PhRMA, said: “This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials.”

There have been more than 155 million confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide and almost 3.4 million peopled have died for COVID-19, according to a Reuters tally.

But the vast bulk of the 624 million people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Our World in Data website, live in wealthier countries.

The global COVAX vaccine distribution program, led by the WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), that aims to supply vaccines to low-income countries, has so far handed out around 41 million doses.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “very much in favour” of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said vaccine shortages was the result of a lack of production capacity and ingredients, not of patents.

“I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents,” the official said.

The United States has shipped a few million vaccine doses it was not using to Mexico and Canada on loan.

South Africa and India made the initial waiver proposal at the WTO in October, gathering support from many developing countries, which say it will make vaccines more widely available.

Until now, the European Union has been aligned with a group of countries, including Britain and Switzerland – home to large pharmaceutical companies – that have opposed the waiver.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Sabine Siebold in Brussels, additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Francesco Guarascio and John Chalmers in Brussels, Emilio Parodi in Milan, Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris, Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt aboard Air Force One, Andrea Shalal in Washington, Carl O’Donnell and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Writing by Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot)

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