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Brazil faces political backlash after trial of China-developed Covid vaccine is halted

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Brazil’s health regulator is facing political backlash after suspending final-stage trials of a Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine following an event that scientists involved in the study said was unrelated to the testing.

Late on Monday, Anvisa said that a CoronaVac trial of 9,000 people had been halted due to an “adverse event” on October 29. The trial was carried out jointly with São Paulo’s Butantan Institute, a biomedical research centre.

But on Tuesday the institute questioned why the trial had been halted, saying the event had no relation to the vaccine.

“It was a death, but from an external cause, with no relation to the vaccine. I repeat, a serious adverse event that is unrelated to the vaccine. This information has been available to Anvisa,” said Dimas Covas, president of the Butantan Institute.

Police are investigating the death as a suicide, according to the São Paulo public health secretary.

The development has raised questions about whether Anvisa is facing pressure from President Jair Bolsonaro, who for weeks has rallied publicly against the China-made vaccine, saying that Brazilians should not be “guinea pigs”.

Late last month, Antônio Barra, director of Anvisa, told local media there was “unpleasant and bothersome” political pressure, but that it did not affect the regulator’s work.

The decision to suspend the late-stage trials was a blow to one of Mr Bolsonaro’s key political rivals, João Doria, governor of São Paulo, who earlier on Monday said the state would import 120,000 doses of the China-made vaccine next week in anticipation of final approval from Anvisa.

Brazil’s largest and wealthiest state has also begun construction on a facility that will be able to produce 100m doses of the vaccine every year.

Following the decision by Anvisa, the Brazilian leader celebrated on social media, saying: “Another win for Bolsonaro.”

But Mr Covas, a scientist, shot back: “They suspended the study, caused uncertainty and fear and fostered an environment that is already not conducive to a vaccine made in China. And in exchange for what?”

Mr Covas added that the staff of his institute did not receive a phone call about the decision, only an email.

Flávio Dino, governor of the northern state of Maranhão, said “163,000 dead in Brazil. And Bolsonaro says he ‘won’? What is the victory? Bolsonaro remains the greatest ally of the coronavirus in our country.”

Ciro Gomes, a former presidential candidate, added: “Jail is too little for scoundrels who play politics with vaccines — which are the only way out to put an end to the biggest public and socio-economic health crisis in history.”

The announcement of the suspension of trials has also threatened to derail an effort by China to use its vaccines to strengthen ties with diplomatic partners and burnish its credentials as a provider of global public health goods.

Beijing and its leading vaccine developers have made grand promises to manufacture and deliver vaccines across the developing world, as part of a charm offensive to soothe anger over China’s early mishandling of the outbreak. 

Sinovac, the group that developed the CoronaVac vaccine, has been at the forefront of China’s efforts. Its vaccine uses a chemically inactivated version of the virus to spark an immune response. 

The company has been conducting phase-3, or final-stage, trials in Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, following positive results in early-stage safety and efficacy clinical trials.

The spat in Brazil comes a day after a vaccine by US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech was found to be more than 90 per cent effective, raising hopes that the drug may be available by the end of the year. Brazil’s ministry of health, run by an army general close to Mr Bolsonaro, said it was in talks with Pfizer to buy their vaccine.

Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote on Twitter: “Pfizer announced its progress on COVID-19 vaccine right after the election, this is odd. It is even weirder that trial of a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine was halted by Brazil later. I am worried that politics and excessive pursuit of economic interests are involved in vaccine R&D.”

Sinovac, alongside Chinese state-backed pharmaceutical groups Sinopharm and CanSino, which are also conducting phase-3 trials of their respective vaccines, has been forced to carry out its final tests overseas because the coronavirus outbreak has been nearly halted within China. 

China has been administering experimental vaccines to its own population as part of “emergency use” efforts ahead of final-stage trials, a move that has raised ethical and safety concerns from some international public health experts.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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Ebay to sell South Korea unit for $3.1bn as local rivals target Coupang

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Ebay is set to sell its South Korea business to a local consortium for $3.1bn, according to people with knowledge of the matter, as rivals seek to turn up the heat on SoftBank-backed Coupang in the world’s fourth-largest ecommerce market.

The consortium, which consists of South Korea’s biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer E-Mart and internet group Naver, plans to buy an 80 per cent stake in eBay Korea for Won3.5tn ($3.1bn) with the US company retaining the remainder, said the people.

The purchase could help the consortium to overtake fast-growing Coupang, which raised $4.6bn in an initial public offering in New York in March to become the biggest player in South Korea’s highly competitive ecommerce market. Japanese technology group SoftBank is a large investor in Coupang.

Ebay Korea was the country’s third-largest ecommerce company with a 13 per cent market share last year, according to research group Euromonitor. Its three platforms — Gmarket, Auction and G9 — recorded Won20tn in transactions last year, data from Meritz Securities showed.

Euromonitor has forecast that South Korea’s ecommerce market will grow by 11 per cent this year to $116bn. But it is a fragmented market of more than a dozen players, with Coupang and Naver controlling 19 per cent and 14 per cent shares in terms of transaction volume, respectively.

South Korea is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing ecommerce markets, driven by its tech-savvy population, high-speed internet infrastructure and densely populated environment. Ecommerce accounted for 35.8 per cent of the retail market last year, compared with 28.6 per cent in 2019, Euromonitor data showed.

E-Mart plans to fund the deal with Won3tn of asset-backed loans with the remainder paid by its cash holdings, while Naver will contribute Won100bn, according to an industry official close to the situation.

“Despite the funding structure, E-Mart needs Naver to make up for its weak online networks,” said the official.

Conglomerate Lotte Group and E-Mart were the final bidders for eBay Korea. Both have struggled to catch up with Coupang, which is investing heavily in logistics to boost its delivery times. Coupang almost doubled its revenues last year to $12bn as more consumers shifted to online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Both Lotte and E-Mart were eager to take over eBay’s operations but E-Mart offered about Won500bn more,” added the industry official.

Naver is one of Korea’s most popular internet portals and more than 40 per cent of eBay Korea’s customers access it via the former’s search engine.

Shinsegae, E-Mart’s parent company, and Naver partnered in March by swapping stakes in each other worth Won250bn.

Ebay Korea declined to comment. E-Mart said in a regulatory filing that it was in talks with eBay but a sale had not been finalised. Naver said in a separate filing that the deal had not been concluded.



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ByteDance revenues more than doubled in 2020 to $34.3bn

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ByteDance increased its revenues 111 per cent last year to $34bn and had 1.9bn monthly users across its apps at the end of the year, said its incoming chief executive Liang Rubo on Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter.

The owner of the short-video apps TikTok and Douyin recorded a surge in users as coronavirus lockdowns across the world left people searching for more entertainment online. Douyin, the Chinese sister app to TikTok, was ByteDance’s largest driver of revenue and has become a destination for shoppers looking to buy products from livestreaming presenters.

Facebook, the world’s biggest social media group, reported 2.85bn monthly users as of March 31.

ByteDance recorded an annual gross profit of $19bn but a net loss of $45bn for the year because of non-cash items including share-based compensation and fair-value changes of its shares, and heavy investment in new businesses, the people said. The company had 110,000 employees at the end of they year.

The financials were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and Chinese media.

Its chief rival in China, Kuaishou, reported a net loss of $15.4bn on $8.5bn in revenue last year — four times less than ByteDance — and 481m monthly users during the period. Kuaishou is trading in Hong Kong at a market capitalisation of HK$801bn ($103bn), while ByteDance has yet to reveal its plans for an initial public offering.

ByteDance raised about $5bn in December at a $180bn valuation, according to people familiar with the matter. The Beijing-based company is the world’s most valuable start-up, according to CB Insights. 

Liang made his first all-hands staff meeting speech on Thursday after he began the transition to chief executive last month, following founder Zhang Yiming’s announcement that he would step down at the end of the year. Zhang said he wanted to focus on innovation and “longer-term initiatives”.

Liang, a ByteDance co-founder who staff regard as Zhang’s loyal right-hand man, was previously head of human resources. Even after a six-month handover period, staff said they expected him to not make big changes and to continue taking direction from Zhang.

As Beijing increases its scrutiny of tech giants, several high-profile founders and chiefs have stepped back this year. Colin Huang stepped down as chair of ecommerce platform Pinduoduo in March, days after Eric Jing resigned as chief of Ant Group.

Liang told employees he was disclosing the financial figures as part of a drive for greater transparency at the company.



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Coronavirus latest: Royal Caribbean delays inaugural sailing of ship due to Covid cases

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Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’
Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’, which is published in paperback this month by Vintage © Monique Roffey

In April 2020, as coronavirus spread around the world, Monique Roffey published her seventh book.

She went with UK-based Peepal Tree Press, a small Caribbean-focused independent company, to publish The Mermaid of Black Conch after the majors rejected her fantastical tale of a mermaid from another era.

“Indie published me in the eye of the storm,” Roffey says. “I did everything I could to get it noticed.”

The Trinidadian-born author crowdfunded £4,500 for a publicist for her novel but as the healthcare crisis took hold she feared her mermaid tale would slide by unnoticed.

She was struggling to pay the rent while the Covid-19 crisis cancelled book tours and festivals.

“Covid was potentially disastrous for my book,” she says. “It was in danger of falling into the Covid chasm.”

But then the lyrical tale of loneliness, love and otherness caught the attention of the literary world and judges applauded it. In January, the novel won the prestigious £30,000 Costa book award, with judges calling it “extraordinary”, “captivating” and “full of mythic energy and unforgettable characters”.

And, bingo, suddenly everyone wanted to read about the mermaid Aycayia, says Roffey, who (full disclosure) attended the same school in the outskirts of Port-of-Spain as I did. 

The story has sold about 60,000 copies in print and online and this month it is published in paperback format by Vintage. For two consecutive weeks this year the novel topped The Times bestseller list. Film rights could well be next.

“Against all the odds, I have done well during Covid,” Roffey says from her home in London. “In 20 years of writing, with many ups and downs, I have seen nothing quite like this.”

Her novel of fantasy and folklore tapped into a desire for reading and imagination during the dark days of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Roffey joined many authors pivoting online with book launches and literary festivals, which meant she gained global readers.

“In 2020, the nation turned to books for comfort, escapism and relaxation,” says the Publishers Association, the UK’s trade organisation that serves book and journal publishers. “Reading triumphed, with adults and children alike reading more during lockdown than before.”

Income from fiction rose 16 per cent last year to £688m, while the total for consumer publications rose 7 per cent in the UK to £2.1bn, the UK trade body says. 

“Basically a book, which was roundly ignored, rejected, published in the first Covid wave and that nobody registered,” was relaunched, Roffey says.

From nobody wanting the book, suddenly billboards of its cover are cropping up around town, she adds.

This is the sixth article in a series for the blog that explores the effects of the pandemic on people and businesses around the world



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