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Chuck Schumer: the man who must steer the Biden agenda

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Chuck Schumer has spent more than a dozen years thinking about how Democrats might exercise power if they controlled the US Senate.

The veteran lawmaker from New York was first put in charge of electing more Democrats to the upper chamber of Congress in 2005. His party picked up 14 seats over the next four years, giving Democrats control of the Senate and propelling his colleague, Nevada senator Harry Reid, to the post of Senate majority leader.

More than a decade later, Mr Schumer, 70, has taken up that mantle, after Democrats won back the Senate by the smallest possible margin in two closely fought run-offs in Georgia. The 100-member chamber is split 50-50, with vice-president Kamala Harris able to cast a tiebreaking vote.

That presents Mr Schumer with quite a task: he will need to balance the interests of his increasingly progressive party with the need to reach across the aisle to Republicans wrestling with how to govern in a post-Trump era.

“He finally got the job that he has wanted for a long time,” said Jim Manley, a longtime adviser to Mr Reid. “But the problem is he is getting it under some really tough circumstances.”

Mr Schumer became majority leader last Wednesday, following the swearing-in of Ms Harris as vice-president and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff from Georgia as senators.

He did so at a time of unprecedented rancour, just two weeks after the violent siege on the Capitol that many Democrats have blamed on their Republican colleagues, in particular Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

Mr Schumer’s first task was ironing out a schedule for a Senate impeachment trial for former president Donald Trump on a charge of inciting the Capitol Hill insurrection — one that would leave time to confirm Joe Biden’s cabinet appointments and consider his ambitious proposals for another $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief.

Mr Schumer announced late Friday that he had struck a deal with Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart, for a trial to begin on February 9.

But the two men are still locked in tough negotiations over an “organising resolution”, or power-sharing agreement, for how to run a Senate that is divided down the middle. The upper chamber has been so finely balanced only once before, for a handful of months in 2001, and the leaders need to agree on how to divide sought-after committee assignments and structure important votes.

Mr McConnell has said he will not sign any deal unless Mr Schumer agrees to preserve the filibuster, an arcane rule that requires 60 senators to back legislation for it to become law. Progressives want the filibuster to be scrapped so they can pursue more liberal policies such as statehood for the District of Columbia, while centrists like Mr Biden and Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, have said the convention should remain.

Mr Schumer faces a formidable opponent in Mr McConnell, a more experienced senator who spent the past six years in the majority, first standing in the way of Barack Obama’s legislative agenda and later using his authority to confirm a record number of conservative judges.

“The Senate is not working right now, at all,” said Mr Manley, who described the upper chamber as “incredibly toxic”.

“It is going to be up to [Mr Schumer] to figure out a way to get it up and running so they can start focusing on the legislative agenda.”

At a press conference last week, reporters asked Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House who has a firm grip on her caucus and has proved to be a deft dealmaker with Mr McConnell, whether she had any advice for the new Senate majority leader. Ms Pelosi demurred, saying she “wouldn’t think of giving him any advice”.

Mr Schumer’s former aides insist he is the man for the job.

“He still thinks of himself, in many ways, as an outsider trying to prove himself,” said Stu Loeser, a communications strategist and former senior aide to Mr Schumer. “He works really hard to out-think, out-strategise and out-hustle everybody else.”

Mr Schumer grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn attending public schools — including a high school whose alumni include Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — before going to Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

But he never practised law, instead joining the New York state legislature before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. Nearly two decades later, he ran for Senate, ousting a longtime Republican incumbent.

Mr Loeser said his former boss had a knack for finding compromise.

“He has been able to outmanoeuvre the Republicans on substantive issues for more than 20 years,” Mr Loeser said. “He is not doing it through demagoguery and he is not doing it through insults. He is doing it by figuring out a way to make it in their interest to work with him.”

Risa Heller, a communications strategist and another former Schumer aide, said: “He knows every detail of everything that you can imagine, every policy detail, he knows everything about every county in New York state.”

Mr Schumer visits each of New York state’s more than 60 counties at least once a year, and spends as many nights as he can at home in Brooklyn, rather than in Washington, DC.

“He was a United States senator, rising through the ranks of leadership, and missed fewer of his daughter’s basketball games . . . than any of the other dads, and those dads were working in Manhattan,” Mr Loeser said. Mr Schumer, who is married to Iris Weinshall, a longtime New York City official, has two grown-up children.

Mr Schumer’s allies insist his omnipresence in New York would help him stave off a rumoured primary challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive congresswoman representing parts of the Bronx and Queens.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez arrived in the House two years ago after defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in a primary campaign that focused on him for being largely absent in his district.

Mr Schumer’s aides defend his ubiquity on national and local news by arguing it is important that the senator’s constituents see that he is working for them. But it has attracted derision too. Bob Dole, the former Republican senator, once noted that the “most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera”.



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Analysis

Pharma groups spend billions to tap into booming China healthcare

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Pharmaceutical groups signed partnerships with Chinese biotechnology start-ups at a record rate last year despite geopolitical tensions and concerns over intellectual property rights and data security in the country.

China has opened up its healthcare industry over the past five years, prompting US and European companies to seal deals with local companies to access the world’s second-biggest drug market.

A record 271 cross-border licensing partnerships were agreed in 2020 between multinational groups including Roche, Bayer, AbbVie and Pfizer and Chinese pharma companies, according to data from consultancy ChinaBio. The collaborations involve clinical trials, development and commercialisation and sharing data and are up nearly 50 per cent from 2019 and more than 300 per cent since 2015.

Deals are being signed despite concerns over intellectual property protection and the safety of US healthcare data in China, with analysts saying the market is too big and fast-growing to ignore.

China’s healthcare industry overtook Japan in 2016 to become the world’s second-biggest and is expected to surpass the US within three years. Pharmaceutical spending in China totalled $137bn in 2018 and will reach $140bn-$170bn by 2023, according to data provider IQVIA.

“There has been an increase in both deals where Chinese companies will develop and commercialise innovative drug candidates discovered by western companies and where multinational companies will do the same with cutting-edge Chinese-invented pharmaceuticals outside China,” said Sam Thong, chairman of Goldman Sachs’ healthcare group in the Asian investment banking division.


$170bn


Potential size of pharma spending in China by 2023

Under the Made in China 2025 strategy, a scheme designed to advance the country’s technology and manufacturing goals, Beijing has set targets for domestic drug companies to make progress on innovation and has streamlined the drug approval process.

China’s state medical insurance scheme has also added more branded, non-generic drugs to a list of those that qualify for patient reimbursement, including products by foreign companies such as Novartis, in a move that could boost demand.

Western groups have already reported the financial benefits of their China strategies.

Eli Lilly, the US pharma company, agreed a $255m deal with Shanghai-listed biotechnology business Junshi Biosciences last May to collaborate on a Covid-19 antibody treatment and reported a 41 per cent jump in quarterly profit in January. Eli Lilly’s chief scientist lauded the “exciting” phase 3 trial results for the treatment with Junshi that showed the antibodies reduced risk of hospitalisation and death by 70 per cent.

Junshi said the record string of partnerships proved China’s drugs were of “international quality”.

US was the most desirable region for cross border partnering

Pfizer agreed a $480m deal in September with CStone Pharmaceuticals that gave the US group a 9.9 per cent stake in the Hong Kong-listed company, which focuses on immuno-oncology medicines, as well as an exclusive licence to commercialise CStone’s cancer drug in China.

For Chinese start-ups, the partnerships can be used as a launch pad for their global ambitions, enabling companies to carry out trials and win commercial approval for their products in the west.

Eli Lilly signed a licensing deal worth more than $1bn with Suzhou-based oncology group Innovent in August for the exclusive rights to its lung cancer therapy outside China.

AbbVie, another US pharma group, agreed to pay mainland biotech I-Mab up to $2bn for access to its experimental cancer drug in September.

“This is an important step for Chinese companies because it validates their capabilities — their R&D is reaching a global standard,” said Cathy Zhang, Morgan Stanley’s head of healthcare for global capital markets in Asia.

Column chart of Number of deals showing China pharma partnering hit a record in 2020

But China remains under pressure to better protect intellectual property, a longstanding grievance for overseas companies.

Patent law changes in 2020 gave foreign groups more confidence they would be protected, but “enforcement is still a big issue in practice”, said Rocky Wu, a Shanghai-based partner for KPMG, the professional services firm. “The detailed guidelines on implementation of patent linkage has not officially been published.”

US national security experts are also worried about Beijing gaining access to American healthcare data, particularly genomic information, for both privacy reasons and concerns about the ability to use such data to help develop biological weapons.

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which evaluates the national security risks attached to doing business with China, last year said Beijing had made the collection of foreign healthcare data a priority and tried to gain access to US information through “licit and illicit means”.

Chinese entities have done this through investments, partnerships and sales of equipment and services, the commission said in its 2020 report to the US Congress.

The commission added that “Beijing has placed increasingly tight restrictions on foreign firms’ ability to access and share healthcare-related data collected in China”, despite officially encouraging foreign participation.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai, Thomas Hale in Hong Kong and Hannah Kuchler in New York



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Teachers grapple with how to help students scarred by pandemic

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As staff at Strive Collegiate Academy in Nashville prepare for the school’s reopening this month, principal LaKendra Butler is grappling with the best way to support pupils after a traumatic year in which their education was thrown into chaos by the pandemic.

“Our students are performing 10-15 per cent below the level a year ago,” Butler said. “Right now I’m prioritising their time during the school day and making sure we’re focused on bringing them back . . . [but] longer-term we need to look at how to do school differently. We can’t go back to the status quo.”

Strive is one of tens of thousands of schools around the world, from the US to the UK and the Netherlands, that will reopen their doors in the coming weeks, as students return to the classroom after months of often solitary online study.

A first priority will be regular Covid-19 tests and measures to cut the risk of the virus spreading in schools. The longer-term challenge will be assessing how far behind pupils have fallen in their academic and emotional development and finding ways to rectify the problem with often limited resources.

Getting students back into the classroom is just the start. Many educators believe schools will need to adopt radical new approaches to learning and spend eye-watering sums of money to close the “learning gap” and prevent a generation being scarred, their prospects set back permanently.

LaKendra Butler, left, says students at Strive Collegiate Academy in Nashville are performing 10-15% below the level of a year ago
LaKendra Butler, left, says students at Strive Collegiate Academy in Nashville are performing 10-15% below the level of a year ago © STRIVE Collegiate Academy

“Covid has been the largest disruption to education in history,” said Per Engzell, a researcher at the Oxford Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science in the UK. “Ninety-five per cent of children were affected and in many countries schools have remained closed since [last] March. It’s totally unprecedented.”

Using detailed testing in the Netherlands, his team has identified an “alarming” average loss of learning equivalent in that country to one-fifth of the academic year — the entire period students were out of school in 2020. The finding “seems to bear out some of the worst misgivings on the magnitude of learning loss and social disparities”, he said.

The pattern is similar elsewhere. Jonathon Guy, research officer at the Australian Education Union, said the learning loss was even more marked for children from marginalised communities and disadvantaged groups. “Demographic factors, low levels of prior achievement and a lack of access to technology are the main concerns,” he said.

Surveys in Australia and other countries suggest widespread disparities in access to computers, affordable internet, safe places to learn and supportive home environments.

Home-schooling in remote Tarpoly Creek, New South Wales. Surveys suggest learning loss has been more marked for children from marginalised communities
Home-schooling in remote Tarpoly Creek, New South Wales. Surveys suggest learning loss has been more marked for children from marginalised communities © Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Luke Sibieta, a researcher at the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies, has estimated that British pupils could lose a combined £350bn over their lives as a result of missed education during lockdown. According to a forecast by the World Bank, globally the loss could be as much as $10tn if effective policy responses were not introduced.

Those responses will not come cheap. In the UK, Sibieta suggested £30bn — equal to six months of spending on schools — as a useful benchmark for what the government should consider spending on “radical and properly resourced ways to help pupils catch up”.

Some teachers have sought to learn from approaches adopted after previous disruptions, such as when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans in 2005. Then, a so-called spiralling technique was used to reteach essential missing skills before proceeding with scheduled lessons.

David Steiner, head of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in the US, who led a review of “catch up” techniques for Unesco, said the evidence was against strategies that promoted students automatically to the next grade regardless of the gaps in their learning or got them to retake the entire year with a younger class.

Instead, he called for “acceleration” programmes to test students and focus on missing skills essential to the next stage of study. “You need to narrow the list of topics to those that really matter and do ‘just-in-time’ instruction so they’re ready to take regular classes with grade-level peers,” he said.

Children sanitise their hands at a school near Bordeaux, France. Researchers say the pandemic has been the biggest disruption to education in history
Children sanitise their hands at a school near Bordeaux, France. Researchers say the pandemic has been the biggest disruption to education in history © Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Butler has carved out two hours during her school’s daily schedule away from normal lessons, to focus on teaching in one-on-one and small group sessions, guided by periodic assessments of students’ progress and surveys of their parents.

She is also exploring more use of tutoring, an approach that has garnered attention around the world, including in a £1.7bn package in Britain. The UK has also appointed an “education recovery tsar” who has made clear that the catch-up would take years of work and “radical” curriculum changes.

James Turner, head of the Sutton Trust, a charity participating in the UK tutoring programme, said this was an essential response. “It’s not the complete solution but the evidence is very strong,” he said, estimating that the country would need 20,000 additional tutors to meet its objective of supporting 250,000 pupils in the current school year.

Matthew Kraft, associate professor of education and economics at Brown University in the US, cautioned that while there was strong evidence for the value of tutoring in small groups, “we know much less about scaling and maintaining its effectiveness”.

He proposed a “peer-to-peer” volunteer system where older students helped younger ones, to reinforce their own learning and give something back.

Jelmer Evers, a teacher in the Dutch city of Utrecht and vice-president of the country’s General Education Union, said the task was best tackled by qualified teachers, despite a backdrop of falling numbers entering the profession. They had greater knowledge of their students’ needs and of the curriculum than external tutors, he said.

For Amy Wood, principal at Mossbourne Riverside Academy in London, student wellbeing and social activities would be as important as academic work when her pupils return on Monday.

She remained optimistic. “Children are more resilient,” she said. “They’ll bounce back.”



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Analysis

Pandemic shift to premium brands leaves drinks makers in high spirits

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Drinks industry chiefs may be hoping for a new “roaring 20s” when coronavirus restrictions ease, but millions of households have already embarked on an era of upmarket stiff drinks in their living rooms as Covid-19 reshaped global drinking culture.

Global sales of tequila, vodka and liqueurs outperformed the broader alcohol market in 2020 as housebound consumers took to sipping high-end spirits and mixing their own cocktails.

While parts of the population faced acute financial hardship because of coronavirus, wealthier consumers who kept their jobs have been left with extra disposable income as holidays and going out became all but impossible.

That has resulted in “huge trading up” when it comes to alcohol, said Ed Mundy, analyst at Jefferies, as these cash-rich drinkers also took advantage of lower retail prices compared with those for the same drinks served in bars and restaurants.

“If you’re stuck at home and you don’t want to go out to the shops, it’s easier to buy a big bottle of spirits than 24 beers. There’s more cocktail making at home going on . . . people are trading up from brandy to cognac, from cheap drinks to expensive drinks,” said Mr Mundy.

Sales of prestige spirits, which cost more than $100 a bottle, are forecast to grow by more than two-fifths to 2024, about four times faster than standard brands and almost twice the growth of premium bottles, according to drinks analytics group IWSR.

Chart showing that prestige and premium brands forecast to outperform standard spirits

The world’s largest distiller Diageo said its tequila sales shot up 80 per cent last year, driven by the high-end brands Don Julio and Casamigos, which was co-founded by the actor George Clooney. The boom, centred in the US, has followed a resurgence of upmarket “pure agave” tequila as a sipping drink.

“The trend of moving to spirits away from beer and wine has accelerated in the pandemic,” said Ivan Menezes, chief executive of Diageo. The group’s North American chief said late last year that household penetration for spirits had increased in 2020 at three times the rate of beer, and double that of wine.

Pernod Ricard said its whisky brands Jameson and The Glenlivet had shown “solid growth” despite the closure of stores in airports and train stations, which have traditionally been a major sales outlet for spirits.

Globally, overall alcoholic drinks consumption fell just 8 per cent in 2020 by volume from the year before despite many pubs, bars and restaurants being closed, according to IWSR figures. But there were substantial differences between countries.

Chart showing drinks sales fell modestly in 2020 as people switchedto cocktails and upmarket spirits

Shifts in drinking patterns, at first glance, appear similar in the UK and US: sales through the “on-trade”, which includes pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs, dropped by half in 2020 in both countries, while retail sales rose 12 per cent.

Yet overall drinking was far higher in the US last year, since retail sales of drinks to consume at home account for much more of the market. Before Covid-19, a fifth of alcohol sales by volume took place in bars and restaurants in the US, while it was twice the level in the UK, Jefferies said.

In South Africa, where periodic alcohol bans have been imposed, and Turkey, where drinks sales are closely linked to tourism, consumption dropped by about a third. Many countries still turned to a spirit of choice: Brazilians favoured gin, Colombians liqueurs and vodka, said Diageo.

While all drinks makers suffered to some extent from pub closures, brewers were especially hit: the world’s second-largest brewer Heineken announced 8,000 job cuts this year as it struggles to deal with the drop in beer drinking.

In China, where the pandemic originated but where the virus was brought relatively quickly under control, drinking declined by 9 per cent but retail sales of drinks by volume were up 23 per cent, the highest among major markets. Kweichow Moutai, which makes a luxury version of the national white spirit baijiu, reported a 10 per cent sales rise for the year.

Chart showing that drinking dropped in countries with strong barand restaurant cultures

For those with a thirst for less fiery drinks — Kweichow Moutai comes in at 35 to 60 per cent alcohol — another trend has taken hold: the cocktail in a can. 

Ready-to-drink cocktails, a broad group that also includes the flavoured alcoholic sparkling water known as hard seltzer, were the only category to record growth last year. Sales increased by more than 40 per cent, a surge that began in the US but is also evident in other markets such as the UK and China.

As vaccinations are rolled out, analysts at Bernstein expect a return to “near normal” in terms of socialising by the middle of 2021. “As the vaccines are rolled out and lockdowns ease, there will be enormous pent-up demand to socialise, glass in hand,” said Trevor Stirling, analyst at Bernstein. 

And entrepreneurs are making a similar bet; in the UK, despite the pain of coronavirus, the Wine & Spirits Trade Association said a record number of new distillers were registered in 2020.



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