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U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia over election interference, hacking; Moscow vows retaliation

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By Trevor Hunnicutt, Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday imposed a broad array of sanctions on Russia, including curbs to its sovereign debt market, to punish it for interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking, bullying Ukraine and other alleged malign actions.

The U.S. government blacklisted Russian companies, expelled Russian diplomats and barred U.S. banks from buying sovereign bonds from Russia’s central bank, national wealth fund and Finance Ministry. The United States warned Russia that more penalties were possible but said it did not want to escalate.

The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, summoning the U.S. ambassador for a diplomatic dressing-down to tell him “a series of retaliatory measures will follow soon.” A ministry spokeswoman also said a possible summit could be imperiled.

Russia denies meddling in U.S. elections, orchestrating a cyber hack that used U.S. tech company SolarWinds Corp to penetrate U.S. government networks and using a nerve agent to poison Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke on Tuesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin to raise concerns about those issues and the buildup of Russian forces in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine, although a top U.S. general saw only a “low-to-medium” risk of a Russian invasion in the next few weeks.

Biden, who also proposed a U.S.-Russian summit, is trying to strike a balance between deterring what Washington sees as hostile Russian behavior, while avoiding a deeper deterioration in U.S.-Russian ties and preserving some room for cooperation.

“My bottom line is this: There is an interest in the United States to work with Russia. We should and we will,” Biden said in remarks to the press.

But “when Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States, we will respond,” he said. “I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so. I chose to be proportionate.”

Russia said Washington’s actions contradicted a stated U.S. desire to normalize relations with Moscow. The sanctions are hostile steps that heighten the countries’ confrontation, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.

Among his moves, Biden signed an executive order authorizing the U.S. government to impose sanctions on any area of the Russian economy and used it to restrict Russia’s ability to issue sovereign debt to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2020 U.S. election.

Biden barred U.S. financial institutions from taking part in the primary market for rouble-denominated Russian sovereign bonds from June 14. U.S. banks have been barred from taking part in the primary market for non-rouble sovereign bonds since 2019.

He did not prohibit them, however, from buying such debt in the secondary market, a step likely to have a far more dramatic effect on the Russian bond and currency markets, which fell as news of the sanctions seeped out before recovering some losses.

The Treasury also blacklisted 32 entities and individuals that it said had carried out Russian government-directed attempts to influence the 2020 presidential election and other “acts of disinformation and interference.”

ANALYST: RUSSIA TO CONTINUE TESTING U.S.

In concert with the European Union, Britain, Australia and Canada, the Treasury also put sanctions on eight individuals associated with Moscow’s occupation of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The White House said it was expelling 10 Russian diplomats in Washington, including representatives of the Russian intelligence services, and for the first time, formally named the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) as the perpetrator of the SolarWinds hack. The agency said the allegations were “nonsense” and “windbaggery.”

The U.S. government plans a new executive order to strengthen its cybersecurity, a U.S. official told reporters, suggesting it could include such elements as encryption and multifactor authentication.

The White House also said it would respond to reports Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies have “low-to-moderate” confidence in their assessment of those reports, in part because they rely on sometimes undependable testimony from detainees, it said.

Russia has long brushed off allegations of putting bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank analyst, was skeptical the U.S. sanctions would change a “largely competitive and adversarial relationship” in the short term or deter Russia in the long term.

“I’d be surprised if today’s very calibrated announcements by the Biden administration materially shift the relationship in either direction,” he said, saying Russia was willing to cooperate on some issues but there was unlikely ever to be a meeting of the minds on Ukraine or election interference.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the new sanctions will shift Russia’s risk calculus in a fundamental fashion,” he added. “It’s to be expected that the Russians will keep probing and testing our resolve.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Tim Ahmann, Doina Chiacu Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Arshad Mohammed in St. Paul, Minn., and Andrew Osborn, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Cooney)

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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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