EU quizzes Google’s rivals about its advertising business

The EU has started asking rivals about Google’s advertising practices, just two years after closing a decade of investigations into the company’s shopping, advertising and Android businesses that led to €8.2bn of fines.

Regulators in Brussels have sent questionnaires to publishers and advertising companies asking them about Google’s position in the online advertising market, where it acts as the dominant middleman between publishers and advertisers. The questions may or may not lead to a formal inquiry.

Google’s technology stack has unrivalled scale in serving automated ads on websites in the open internet, putting buyers and sellers together, providing data and overseeing auctions for ad inventory.

The move by EU investigators comes after regulators in the US accused Google in December of abusing its monopoly and colluding with Facebook to shut out rival ad exchanges.

The main concerns of the EU relate to whether Google abused its position to structure auctions to its own benefit and tied parts of its ad services in contracts, to the detriment of publishers and advertisers. In the online advertising market, intermediary fees often range between 40 and 60 per cent of the money spent by advertisers.

The questionnaire contains a range of inquiries about Google’s behaviour and how companies feel about a series of rule changes, such as the decision by Google in 2016 to combine the data it gathered from people logging into Google services, such as Google Maps and Gmail, with the data it gathered from online searches.

“Certain practices may create obstacles to entry and expansion of competitors and/or protect Google’s position in potential markets that relate to the collection, access, processing, use and monetisation of data, as well as neighbouring and downstream markets for the provision of online services,” the questionnaire said.

The questionnaire also asked companies to outline the importance of YouTube, which is owned by Google, for their ad campaigns, and their overall ad spend on search campaigns on Google Ads. Regulators also asked companies if Facebook can be regarded as a rival to Google. The deadline for submitting answers is Friday.

The questions are part of an investigation into the way Google collects data that started in 2019.

Google said: “We compete with many others in the industry and give people granular controls over how their information is used to personalise ads and limit the sharing of personal data to safeguard people’s privacy. We have been engaging with the Commission and others on this important discussion for our industry and will continue to do so.” 

The company is still contesting its earlier EU fines in court. Politico first reported on the questionnaires.

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Museveni’s grip on Uganda: ‘he doesn’t believe in change’

When Yoweri Museveni was first sworn in as Uganda’s president in January 1986, he was already looking to the future — his own. “Nobody is to think that what is happening today . . . is a mere change of guards,” the bush fighter-turned-president said.

Fast-forward 35 years and history has proved him right. Despite his promise not to stay in power too long, there has been no change of guard ever since. On Saturday, Uganda’s electoral commission declared that Mr Museveni, now 76, had won a sixth-term in office, although his main opponent, the rap singer Bobi Wine, said the results were rigged and he would have won a fair contest.

“Museveni after committing the most vile election fraud in history, has resorted to the most despicable forms of intimidation,” Mr Wine tweeted, after internet was restored on Monday, following a government-ordered shutdown last week. He remains under house arrest in Kampala.

Initially lauded as one of a new generation of African leaders by the international community, detractors increasingly compare Mr Museveni with other aged autocrats such as Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea or the late Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

With no succession plan in place, the president appears to have convinced himself that he remains indispensable to his country’s future. “There are not many things in the world that I don’t know,” he said in an interview with Channel 4 News last week. “Uganda is very successful. We are a very strong system because we know what we are doing.”

Less ideological than some freedom fighters, such as Mugabe, Mr Museveni was quick to embrace a mixed-economy model that has seen output increase 10-fold during his tenure and helped keep foreign assistance flowing in. He invited back Indian entrepreneurs previously driven out by Idi Amin, a dictator, and restored a modicum of stability sorely lacking in the tumultuous decades following Uganda’s independence in 1962.

Yoweri Museveni was first sworn in as Uganda’s president on January 1 1986
Yoweri Museveni was first sworn in as Uganda’s president on January 1 1986 © The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
Yoweri Museveni after casting his ballot in Kiruhura, Uganda, on Thursday
Mr Museveni after casting his ballot in Kiruhura, Uganda, on Thursday © Badru Katumba/AFP/Getty

In his early years, Mr Museveni also won praise for his openness about Aids and a mass-prevention campaign that brought the epidemic under control. But while he has regularly held elections to bolster his supposed democratic credentials, political contests have become increasingly violent. Western powers, though disenchanted with his use of coercion to maintain power, have begrudgingly treated him as a force for regional stability. Uganda has run a generous refugee policy and has supplied peacekeepers to regional hotspots, including Somalia.

According to the IMF, more than 12 per cent of Uganda’s government spending comes from foreign grants and financing. “The country as a whole does rely heavily on development partner financing for a number of infrastructure projects, social services, and credit for capital investment,” said Priya Manwaring, Uganda economist with the International Growth Centre in Kampala.

Although Mr Museveni has continued to milk foreign aid and military assistance, he has repeatedly derided foreigners for what he alleges is meddling in his country’s internal affairs and more recently blasted them for allegedly backing Mr Wine. On Tuesday, Uganda accused the US of subversion after its envoy tried to visit the opposition politician. “[They think] the problem with Uganda is because I’ve been in the government for a long time,” Mr Museveni told Channel 4. “That’s our advantage. So we don’t agree.”

Livingstone Sewanyana, who heads Uganda’s Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, said Mr Museveni had convinced himself that Uganda would fall apart without him. “He doesn’t seem to believe in succession; he doesn’t believe in change,” said. “He doesn’t believe in democratic means. It is all about him.”

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a Kampala-based political scientist, said Mr Museveni’s longevity threatened to undermine his achievements. “He has unified the country, to some extent, but the longer he stays around, the more the country seems to be fracturing.”

In a weekend press conference, held from his home, which was surrounded by Mr Museveni’s troops, Mr Wine called on western donors to review their assistance to Uganda. A senior diplomat from the US, which provides almost $1bn in aid a year to Uganda, acknowledged the dilemma of assisting an autocratic, if useful, regime. “He should have already bowed out gracefully a while ago,” he said.

Bobi Wine addressing a press conference held at this home on Friday
Bobi Wine addressing a press conference held at his home in Kampala, on Friday © Luke Dray/Getty
Security forces near Bobi Wine’s house on Saturday. He remains under house arrest
Security forces near Mr Wine’s house on Saturday. He remains under house arrest © Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty

There are few obvious signs that Mr Museveni’s grip is loosening. Opponents said he holds sway over the courts as well as the security forces. They accuse his government of both corruption and nepotism — his wife, son, and brother occupy high positions in the administration.

Mr Museveni has acknowledged the frustration of the country’s youth, many of whom backed Mr Wine, although he has cautioned against any attempt at a Sudan-style uprising. “Anybody who brings violence will be defeated,” the president warned.

Mr Museveni has said he still has a mission to complete, but that he will discuss succession plans with his party when the time is right. Mr Golooba-Mutebi, the political scientist, said that was unlikely. “Officially, there is no such thing as a succession plan that anyone knows of,” he said, adding that, if Mr Museveni were suddenly to die, infighting would follow.

Sporting a military jacket and his trademark wide-brimmed hat, Mr Museveni said over the weekend that he would rule not in the interests of the elites or foreigners but in the interests of the Ugandan people.

Some of his supporters, who poured on to the streets wearing the yellow colours of the president’s party, seemed to agree. Mr Wine, for one, did not. “He’s a dictator because he has been in power for 35 years,” he told the Financial Times. “He believes that he’s supposed to be president for life.”

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EU salutes ‘new dawn’ for US ahead of Biden’s inauguration

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, saluted a “new dawn” in the US following the departure of Donald Trump as she called for a revival of the tattered transatlantic partnership.

Speaking to the European parliament ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as America’s 46th president on Wednesday, Ms von der Leyen said the EU would be seeking joint action with Washington in areas including the Covid-19 response and climate change. 

Mr Trump’s impending departure has been marked by open relief in European capitals following a tempestuous four-year period in which the former property baron stoked trade tensions with the EU, questioned the Nato military alliance, and ditched US commitments to the Paris climate change agreement and Iran nuclear deal. 

The frayed relations have left a lasting impact in European capitals despite the warm welcome they will offer the new US president. A drive for the EU to achieve greater “strategic autonomy” in areas ranging from industrial policy and defence to finance and the role of the euro took on greater urgency given Mr Trump’s willingness to shred previous norms.

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council of EU leaders, said on Wednesday that the arrival of Mr Biden marked an opportunity for the rejuvenation of the alliance between the EU and US — but also warned that the European bloc would “not wait for permission to take its own decisions”. 

He laid out five priorities for the EU to pursue with the US — boosting multilateral co-operation, fighting Covid-19, tackling climate change, boosting growth and joining forces on security. 

“On the first day of his mandate, I address a solemn proposal to the new US president: let’s build a new founding pact,” he said on Wednesday. “Together, we must stand as the bedrock of the rules-based international order, working for peace, security, prosperity, freedom, human rights and gender equality.”

Brussels has no intention of slackening off as it seeks to prove the EU is able to stand on its own feet in an era of multi-power rivalries, given the bitter divisions that remain in US society.

Mr Michel acknowledged in his speech that “America seems to have changed” — as have perceptions of the country in Europe. 

“Likewise, the way the United States views the European Union may also have to change,” he said. “The EU chooses its course and does not wait for permission to take its own decisions.”

Ms von der Leyen hailed the chance to “breathe new life into our cherished alliance” but also served notice of potential clashes with the US on the particular topic of big tech regulation. 

“We want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate,” she said. 

She added that moves to limit free expression, such as Twitter’s block on Mr Trump’s account after the Capitol storming, “should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers”.

The commission chief proposed a joint trade and technology council to “create a digital economy rule book that is valid worldwide”, covering areas including data protection, privacy and the security of technical infrastructure.

“The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level,” she said. 

Mr Trump on Tuesday insisted his movement was “only just beginning” as he prepared for the handover of power to Mr Biden — a successor he could not bring himself to name in a farewell address from the White House. 

Mr Trump will be the first president in more than 150 years to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration.

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Joe Biden to issue raft of executive orders after inaugural address

Joe Biden will sign a barrage of executive orders on Wednesday as he aims to use his first afternoon as US president to reverse some of Donald Trump’s most controversial policies in areas ranging from climate change to immigration.

Mr Biden will use his inaugural address from the US Capitol, which is under heavy military protection after the January 6 attack, to ask Americans to come together as they face the twin crises of Covid-19 and a bruising economic downturn, according to his advisers.

His conciliatory message is intended to mark a sharp contrast with the divisive rhetoric that defined Mr Trump’s four years in office, which culminated in a mob of his supporters launching the assault on the seat of US democracy.

On the global front, Mr Biden will signal that the US intends to rejoin the Paris climate accord and halt its withdrawal from the World Health Organization.

Anthony Fauci, the US health official who was often at odds with Mr Trump over the coronavirus response, will participate in this week’s executive board meeting at the WHO as head of the US delegation.

In addition, Mr Biden is expected to stop the construction of the border wall in Mexico that was championed by his predecessor, and will roll back the travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim countries introduced at the very beginning of Mr Trump’s administration.

“It was rooted in xenophobia and religious animus and president-elect Biden has been clear that we will not turn our back on our values with discriminatory bans on entry to the United States,” Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, said of the Muslim ban in a briefing with reporters.

Mr Biden also plans to move to reverse some of the environmental deregulation pursued by Mr Trump, and introduce a mask mandate lasting 100 days on federal property to try to curb coronavirus infections.

The new president plans to rescind the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline connecting the US with Canada. “Its construction was not consistent with addressing the climate crisis to the depth and scope that we are planning to address it,” said Gina McCarthy, the incoming White House climate tsar.

Ms McCarthy said the Biden administration would place a temporary moratorium on all oil and natural gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

On the economic front, Mr Biden will ask US government agencies to consider extending moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, and extending the pause on interest and principal payments for federal student loans.

In terms of racial justice, Mr Biden will rescind Mr Trump’s “1776 commission”, which was set up by the outgoing president to “restore patriotic education to our schools” and was criticised for seeking to erase the history of racism in America.

Mr Biden’s inaugural speech is expected to last between 20 and 30 minutes, according to people briefed on the address.

In a break with the norms of transferring power, Mr Trump will not be welcoming Mr Biden at the White House and will instead head to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Wednesday without attending the inauguration.

“What you can expect to hear from . . . the president once he’s sworn in, is a call for unity and bringing the country together,” said Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary. “It will be a forward-looking speech,” she told reporters.

Mr Biden arrived in Washington on Tuesday afternoon from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, to attend a memorial service for coronavirus victims at the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool. “To heal, we must remember,” he said in brief remarks. “It is important to do that as a nation,” he added.

At 78, Mr Biden will be the oldest incoming president in US history, and faces a huge task in rebuilding the country’s morale. According to an NBC News poll released on Tuesday, 73 per cent of voters say America is on the wrong track, and 53 per cent say they are worried and pessimistic about the nation’s future.

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Liz Cheney praised for impeachment ‘courage’ but risks pro-Trump ire

Soon after Liz Cheney cast her vote for the impeachment of Donald Trump, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives received a harsh rebuke from the party leadership in her home state of Wyoming.

“The wind in Wyoming has been horrendous today with gusts up to 65 miles per hour [but] that is nothing compared to the whirlwind created by Representative Cheney,” the Wyoming Republican party said.

Ten Republicans joined Democrats on January 13 in voting to impeach Mr Trump for inciting the storming of the Capitol on January 6. But as a staunch conservative who had been propelled into the Republican leadership ranks in a record two years, Ms Cheney, 56, immediately became the prime target for the president’s most vocal defenders in Congress.

Jim Jordan, the Ohio congressman who helped dethrone John Boehner as the Republican House Speaker in 2015, urged the party to oust Ms Cheney from her role as House Republican Conference Chair.

Ahead of her vote, Ms Cheney said Mr Trump had summoned the mob and “lit the flame” of the attack. She added that there had “never been a greater betrayal” by a president of his oath to the constitution.

But to her critics, it is she who has betrayed her president. The Wyoming Gun Owners Association described the fiercely conservative daughter of former Republican vice-president Dick Cheney, as “Liberal Liz”.

Ms Cheney defended her decision as a “vote of conscience” in the midst of the gravest crisis since the Civil War, and rebuffed calls for her resignation, saying: “I’m not going anywhere.”

Her attack on Mr Trump and subsequent impeachment vote have boosted Ms Cheney’s national profile, potentially positioning her as a future Republican standard-bearer should the party decide to break with the outgoing president and his nationalist agenda.

However, William Kristol, a conservative critic of Mr Trump who has known her for years, said he thought Ms Cheney had voted with her conscience and was not making a calculated gamble ahead of a possible presidential run in 2024.

“She felt it had gone so far that she stopped calculating and decided to do what was the right thing,” said Mr Kristol.

On most issues over the past four years, Ms Cheney backed Mr Trump. But last year, the former state department official criticised some of his foreign policy decisions, including a plan to withdraw troops from Germany and Afghanistan. And in June, as Mr Trump continued to refuse to wear a mask, she tweeted a photo of her father wearing a face covering with the caption, “Dick Cheney says wear a mask. #realmenwearmasks.”

On January 6, as Congress met to confirm the election result, Ms Cheney was in the middle of urging fellow Republicans not to try to overturn the result when Mr Trump took aim at her.

“The Liz Cheneys of the world . . . we have to get rid of them,” he said in a fiery speech, which has been blamed for inciting the pro-Trump mob that attacked the US Capitol.

Liz Cheney, right, talks with Maryland’s Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin in Washington, DC © Chip Sommodevilla/Getty

On the day of the impeachment vote, Ms Cheney did not speak during the debate in the House of Representatives. But her withering criticism of the president was repeatedly cited by Democrats as they made their case for charging the outgoing president with “incitement to insurrection”.

“It was truly a courageous vote on her part and clearly out of conviction,” said Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat.

One person who knows Ms Cheney said she was always deliberate and never shoots from the hip. But for Ms Cheney, who has been discussed as a possible future Speaker and presidential candidate, the question is whether she will face a primary challenge from a pro-Trump Republican in 2022.

Anthony Bouchard, a Wyoming Republican state senator who founded the Wyoming Gun Owners Association, has said he may challenge her next year.

Ms Cheney has a strong election record in Wyoming. She won her first race — for the congressional seat that her father once held — in 2016 by 32 points, and expanded her winning margin to 44 points in her second re-election bid in November. But the state also delivered Mr Trump his biggest margin of any state in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

While critics have called for a primary challenge, she has received support from other members of her party. Writing in the Casper Star-Tribune, 30 lawyers and judges, including three former Wyoming governors and two former state supreme court judges, praised her for her vote of “courage”.

One GOP official familiar with Wyoming politics argued that she would be very difficult to oust. He said that if multiple candidates ran against her in the primary, they would split the vote. And if only one challenger emerged, they would still face a big hurdle because of her strong support from donors.

Mr Kristol said that in normal circumstances voters would forgive her vote against Mr Trump over time, but he cautioned there was no guarantee given how politics had shifted in the Trump era.

“She better work hard to make sure to fight it. We’re raising a lot of money to help people like her,” said Mr Kristol, whose Republican Accountability Project plans to help the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment.

Amy Edmonds, a former Wyoming state legislature member who served as communications director for Ms Cheney, was critical when her former boss questioned whether Mr Trump had any evidence of mass voter fraud. But she changed her mind after realising there was no evidence and after the violent siege.

“When January 6 happened . . . a lot of people in Wyoming were utterly horrified,” said Ms Edmonds. “She then came out in favour of impeachment. It was an incredibly courageous thing for her to do.”

She said some hardline Trump fans would remain angry but that the fervour would fade, particularly because most Wyoming Republicans would not want to jeopardise the clout that their state has, thanks to Ms Cheney’s leadership position.

“The legacy of her vote is going to be seen over the next two years in light of everything she will continue to do for Wyoming,” she said. “They will continue to see her as a very strong conservative representative.”

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Washington’s new power brokers: the fickle senators calling the shots

There is a new group of political power brokers in Washington.

They will not be found in the White House or government departments, nor in the ranks of Congressional leadership, but rather in the US Senate, where a handful of centrist lawmakers are ready to wield outsized influence.

Their newfound power comes as the Democrats prepare to take control of the upper chamber of Congress by the narrowest of margins after winning two run-off elections in Georgia earlier this month. The 100-member Senate will be split 50-50, with Kamala Harris, the new US vice-president, able to cast a tiebreaking vote.

Given the tight margins, a group of self-styled moderates that do not always vote along party lines will prove crucial to Joe Biden’s chances of passing legislation, most pressingly his $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package.

The group includes Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, as well as Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maine’s Susan Collins.

“They become the dealmakers, or the deal-breakers, depending on what the bill is,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “Clearly, they are in a position of influence that is much greater than just a week ago.”

Democrats still control the agenda, with Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York, becoming Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the upper chamber’s top Republican, demoted to minority leader. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, will maintain control of the lower chamber.

The Senate has been split evenly just once before, in 2001, when Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s vice-president, was able to cast the tiebreaking vote for Republicans.

But that changed in June that year when Jim Jeffords, a senator from Vermont, announced he was leaving the Republican party and would caucus with the Democrats, leaving the chamber 51-49 in Democrats’ hands. The switch made Tom Daschle, the Democratic senator from South Dakota, the Senate majority leader.

Mr Daschle, who left the Senate in 2005, said in an interview with the Financial Times this week that he thought it was a “good thing” that Mr Biden’s agenda would depend on the backing of people such as Mr Manchin, a self-described “conservative Democrat” from West Virginia, a state that Donald Trump won by an almost 40-point margin in November.

Mr Manchin voted more times in favour of the Trump agenda than any other Democratic lawmaker in recent years. He has sided with Republicans on abortion and voted in favour of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But he voted alongside Democrats in opposing Mr Trump’s tax cuts and supporting Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

“They will be the ones who can ensure that there is at least an effort to reach compromise,” Mr Daschle said of Mr Manchin and other moderate Democrats such as Ms Sinema and Mark Kelly, another Arizona senator.

“I have always said that compromise is the oxygen of democracy, and we need a lot more oxygen in the Senate right now. I think they can be the ones to provide it,” Mr Daschle said.

Others are more sceptical, especially given how sharp the partisan divide in Washington has become.

Mr Biden takes office under the long shadow of an impeachment trial for Mr Trump, and it remains unclear whether more than a dozen Republican senators will break with their party and vote to convict the outgoing president for inciting the violent January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.

“It is a very different environment right now,” Mr Heye said. “Given the polarisation in the country, which manifests itself in both the House and the Senate, it is going to be hard to get things done.”

So far, a handful of Republicans, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who was the only GOP lawmaker to vote to convict Mr Trump at his first impeachment trial, have indicated they are open to conviction.

While Mr Biden may use a process called budget reconciliation to push through the bulk of his economic relief plans through the Senate with a simple majority, most of his other legislative proposals will need the backing of at least 60 senators under arcane “filibuster” rules.

“Nothing happens in the Senate without . . . collaboration unless you have that very rare and fleeting 60 votes,” said John Lawrence, a veteran congressional staffer who was chief of staff to Ms Pelosi from 2005 to 2013. “Ultimately, the Senate is the keyhole that any proposal has to be able to slot through.”

Progressives have called for the scrapping of the filibuster to make it easier for Democrats to push through everything from aggressive policies to tackle climate change to statehood for the District of Columbia. But Mr Manchin has already said he is against filibuster reform, making it extremely unlikely.

That means Mr Schumer will not only need to hold on to votes from Mr Manchin and other moderate Democrats, but also win over as many as 10 Republicans in order to pass major pieces of legislation — no small feat in the current political climate.

Some Democrats hope they will be able to count on support for some legislation from Ms Murkowski, who said last week that the House acted “appropriately” by impeaching Mr Trump. In a recent interview with the Anchorage Daily News, she said “if the Republican party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me”.

But Washington stalwarts caution Mr Biden will need the backing of more than one or two Republicans to make his plans “filibuster-proof”.

“Getting three or four [Republicans] is reasonably likely,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think-tank Third Way. “Getting 10 of them is very, very hard.”

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BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine found effective against Covid-19 variant

The Covid-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer is likely to be effective against a rapidly spreading strain of the virus that was first discovered in the UK, a laboratory-based study by the companies has shown.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, has a high number of mutations, which has led to concerns that could bypass the immune defences built up by vaccines being rolled out worldwide, a large proportion of which have been made by BioNTech and Pfizer.

However, researchers at BioNTech’s headquarters in Mainz found that a test-tube version of the virus carrying all the new strain’s mutations was neutralised by antibodies in the blood of 16 patients who had received the vaccine in previous trials, half of whom were over 55 years old.

In a paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed, the companies said there was “no biologically significant difference in neutralisation activity” between the results of the lab tests on surrogate versions of the original strain of the coronavirus, sequenced in China last January, and the new variant.

But the authors warned that the “ongoing evolution of Sars-Cov-2 necessitated continuous monitoring of the significance of changes for maintained protection by currently authorised vaccines”.

The test is the first of its kind to be completed by a major vaccine maker, as companies rush to check their jabs hold up against the new variant.

Pfizer and researchers at the University of Texas had already checked it against one of the most worrying changes in the new variant that emerged in the UK and South Africa, in a lab study published earlier this month.

Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca, which are both in the process of testing their vaccines, have previously said they expected their jabs to protect against B.1.1.7.

But a group of scientists in South Africa have warned that vaccines could be less effective against the 501Y.V2 strain that is driving a second wave of Covid-19 infections there, because it has an extra mutation in a key part of the spike protein that the virus uses to enter human cells.

A study of serum from 44 South Africans, who had previously been infected with earlier versions of the Sars CoV-2 virus, found that 90 per cent were not fully protected against the new variant — and the antibodies in about half the sample were not at all protective.

Salim Abdool Karim, chief adviser to the South African government on Covid-19, said: “Vaccine antibodies are different and may or may not be impacted. We have no empirical evidence yet on whether vaccines are effective against the 501Y.V2 variant. Studies are under way.”

Even if vaccines still work well against the current variants, vaccine makers and regulators are starting to prepare for the virus to mutate further.

If vaccines become significantly less effective, the companies will need to adapt their formulations and manufacture new batches. BioNTech’s researchers said that unlike longstanding flu jabs, the point at which the shot would have to be tweaked to fight any new strain “has not been established for Covid-19 vaccines”.

Previously, BioNTech has said that it could tweak its vaccine to tackle a new strain in roughly six weeks. But it would be up to regulators to decide what evidence they will require to be satisfied that a modified product is safe and effective, and whether they will necessitate further clinical trials.

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Thailand to charge opposition leader over ‘royal vaccine’ remarks

Thailand will charge the country’s leading opposition figure under its harsh lèse majesté law after he accused a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn of seeking to profit from distributing the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

The move against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit comes as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government attempts to silence criticism of Thailand’s billionaire monarch by opening cases under the law, which carries a maximum 15-year prison term, against dozens of supporters of a six-month-old democracy movement.

Thailand’s digital affairs ministry said on Wednesday that the government had also asked police to charge Mr Thanathorn, who has faced multiple criminal charges since entering politics in 2018, under the “computer-related crimes” act.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Thanathorn, leader of the Progressive Movement, said that giving Siam Bioscience exclusive rights to distribute the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was “an attempt to shore up the popularity of the monarchy” and that “the vaccine was not given by the king”.

The Thai company is 100 per cent owned by the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the king’s wealth portfolio, estimated to be worth in excess of $40bn. The politician first aired the accusations in a Facebook Live presentation on Monday about what he called the “royal vaccine”.

 “The Prayuth government pays for the vaccine using taxpayer money,” Mr Thanathorn told the FT before news emerged that he would be charged.

A government spokesman referred the FT to remarks by Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s health minister and deputy prime minister, who rejected Mr Thanathorn’s criticism, saying: “Vaccines are an important issue in this emergency situation, and should not be made a political issue.” 

Thailand in November announced a deal with AstraZeneca to license and produce 26m doses of the drugmaker’s vaccine, which it aims to distribute by mid-year. The government has said it would source 61m doses of the vaccine in all. 

Under a separate agreement with the drugmaker, Siam Bioscience will produce up to 200m doses of the vaccine, most of which will be exported. Nakorn Premsri, Thailand’s vaccine chief, told the FT last month that local vaccine production capacity was a matter of “national security”.

Mr Thanathorn said that while Siam Bioscience was a newcomer to the vaccine industry, “it’s now becoming the biggest player” in Thailand. 

Siam Bioscience declined a request for comment. Mr Thanathorn did not accuse AstraZeneca of any wrongdoing.

Last year, the constitutional court dissolved Mr Thanathorn’s former party, Future Forward, which came in third in the 2019 election. The decision angered supporters and helped spark the protests. 

Last year its MPs, who regrouped in parliament under the name Move Forward, probed taxpayer spending on the king and his royal office, including a fleet of 38 aircraft reserved for royal use. 

The Thai king’s power and wealth have become the focus of unprecedented scorn by participants in the protest movement, which began last July. 

While Thai authorities had previously refrained from using the lèse majesté law in recent years, they have opened cases against more than 50 people since November. A Thai court on Tuesday handed Anchan Preelert, a former civil servant, a sentence of more than 43 years for sharing antimonarchist posts, in what human rights groups described as a warning to protesters to curb criticisms of the king.

After successfully reining in local Covid-19 infections last year, Thailand is trying to contain a new wave of infections that has increased public pressure on the government to roll out vaccines more quickly. 

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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BHP slashes values of Australian thermal coal assets

BHP will slash the value of its Australian thermal coal assets by up to $1.25bn as it seeks to divest the business and focus on other commodities.

The world’s biggest miner announced in August plans to sell or spin off its New South Wales Energy Coal unit along with stakes in a Colombian coal mine and a joint venture producing another type of coal used in steel making.

Chief executive Mike Henry is looking to shift BHP’s portfolio more towards commodities such as copper and nickel that will be needed in ever greater quantities as the world shifts to cleaner forms or power and transport.

In a quarterly trading update on Wednesday, the Anglo Australian company said it would take a writedown of between $1.15bn and $1.25bn on NSWEC, slashing its value to between $250m and $350m.

BHP said the impairment reflected current market conditions for Australian thermal coal, which is used to produce electricity in power stations, as well as the Australian dollar, changes to the mine plan and an updated assessment of the likelihood of recovering tax losses.

BHP has cited those tax assets as one reason for unifying its complex corporate structure, which involves listed companies in Australia, where the miner has its headquarters, and in the UK.

The Australian coal industry has been rocked by China’s decision to ban imports because of a diplomatic row over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Analysts say that it will be difficult for BHP to find a buyer for its unwanted coal assets because of growing investor concerns about fossil fuels. They see the company opting for a demerger. Mr Henry has said divesting the assets could take two years.

The impact of China’s blacklisting of Australia coal was evident in Wednesday’s update. 

The price BHP received for thermal coal in the six months to December averaged $44.35 a tonne, down 24 per cent on the same period last year. The price for metallurgical coal was $97.61, down 31 per cent.

Metallurgical coal is a big business for BHP, which is the world’s leading supplier of the commodity.

On a brighter note BHP said its flagship iron ore unit shipped a record 145m tonnes of the raw material, which is also needed to make steel, in the second half of the year to meet surging demand from China.

China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for iron ore boosted the price BHP received to an average of $104 a tonne, up 33 per cent. That could pave the way for BHP to pay a big dividend when it announces half-year results in February.

“A special dividend at interim results is possible,” said Jefferies analyst Christopher LaFemina.

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British lawyer steps down from Hong Kong trial after intense UK pressure

David Perry, the British lawyer who was hired by the Hong Kong government to prosecute a group of pro-democracy activists, has stepped down following withering criticism from the UK government.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary and a former human rights lawyer, had labelled the barrister a “mercenary”, adding that he was unable to understand how anyone could take on the case “in good conscience”.

Mr Perry was hired by Hong Kong authorities to prosecute a group of veteran activists including Jimmy Lai, the media mogul, and Martin Lee, who helped write the territory’s mini-constitution governing its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. The trial was set to begin on February 16.

The Hong Kong justice department said on Wednesday: “Mr Perry, QC, expressed concerns about such pressures and the exemption of quarantine, and indicated that the trial should proceed without him.

“In light of the public interest involved and the imminent trial date, the DoJ has instructed another counsel to prosecute the trial as scheduled.”

Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year following pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019. Critics say the harsh new measures have threatened the city’s independent judiciary and its status as a financial hub.

Hong Kong authorities have used the law to stage a crackdown on the opposition, arresting pro-democracy lawmakers and detaining at least 53 activists in a raid this month.

Albert Ho, part of the group on trial, had called Mr Perry’s participation “shameful”. The group was accused of organising unlawful assemblies during the protests.

Mr Lee, 82, has been dubbed Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” after helping to write the legal framework that has underpinned the territory’s governance. He said he was “proud” to be a defendant in the case.

The 73-year-old Mr Lai’s campaigning pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily, has long irritated local authorities.

Allies of Mr Perry said he was acting under the “cab rank” principle, whereby barristers take cases as they come up. Other lawyers, however, have argued the principle did not apply when accepting overseas cases.

Mr Raab told the BBC at the weekend that a barrister could resist such a case “under the bar code of ethics”.

He added: “From Beijing’s point of view, this would be a serious PR coup.”

Grenville Cross, the former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong, said the pressure Mr Perry faced was part of a deliberate effort to weaken the city’s legal system. “This may play well with the anti-China lobby in the UK, it will dismay everyone in Hong Kong who values the rule of law,” he said.

CY Leung, Hong Kong’s former chief executive from 2012-17, said the pressure on Mr Perry was “naked political intervention” from the UK.

Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

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