The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine does not appear to offer protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the viral variant first identified in South Africa, according to a study.
Although none of the more than 2,000 mainly healthy and young patients in the study died or was hospitalised, the findings, which have not yet been peer reviewed, could complicate the race to roll out vaccines as new strains emerge.
In both the human trials and tests on the blood of those vaccinated, the jab showed significantly reduced efficacy against the 501Y.V2 viral variant, which is dominant in South Africa, according to the randomised, double-blind study seen by the Financial Times.
“A two-dose regimen of [the vaccine] did not show protection against mild-moderate Covid-19 due to [the South African variant]”, the study says, adding that efficacy against severe Covid-19, hospitalisations and deaths was not yet determined.
While all Covid-19 vaccines so far have largely held up against the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the UK, the strain that originated in South Africa has been more worrying. Both Johnson & Johnson and Novavax have said their vaccines were less effective against the strain in clinical trials conducted in South Africa. In trials, both vaccines offered complete protection against severe disease and death in relation to Covid-19.
Moderna has said it will test a booster shot and a reformulated vaccine to target the South African variant, after studies showed its vaccine was significantly less effective.
BioNTech/Pfizer said their vaccine was slightly less effective in a lab study using a pseudovirus with some mutations from the 501Y.V2 variant, but have not published results of tests against the variant itself.
There are caveats to the Oxford/AstraZeneca study, as the sample sizes were relatively small. The study, led by South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford university, enrolled 2,026 HIV negative individuals, with a median age of 31. Half the group was given at least one dose of placebo, with the other half receiving at least one dose of vaccine.
Tulio de Oliveira, who heads the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, told the Financial Times the findings were a “wake-up call to control the virus and increase the response to Covid-19 in the world”.
Health authorities worldwide hope vaccines will reduce or completely eliminate the burden of hospitalisation, which would allow for lockdowns to be eased.
While important, it is relatively less urgent to avert symptomatic, but milder, infection that does not progress to hospitalisation.
Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher on the Oxford Vaccine Development Programme, told the BBC on Sunday that she was hopeful the jab would still prove effective in preventing severe illness.
“What we’re seeing from other vaccine developers is that they have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses,” she said. “What that is looking like is that we may not be reducing the total number of cases. There’s still protection in that case against deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.”
Any setback for the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would be particularly crucial for the developing world, as the partners are producing billions of doses on a non-profit basis during the pandemic.
The vaccine still appears to be fully effective in preventing hospitalisation and death caused by other variants of coronavirus, according to data from other studies.
AstraZeneca initially declined to comment. It later said it had not been able to properly ascertain the effect of the vaccine on severe disease and hospitalisation caused by the South African variant in the study given most of the participants were young, healthy adults.
“We do believe our vaccine could protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to that of other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to 8-12 weeks,” it said. It added that other immune responses, such as T-cells, may protect against disease. Initial data, it said, indicated those responses “may remain intact” against the South African variant.
It noted that it had begun to adapt the vaccine against this variant with Oxford, advancing rapidly through clinical development “so that it is ready for autumn delivery [if] needed”.
Oxford declined to comment on the results of the study, saying only that it was working with partners across the globe, including in South Africa, to evaluate the effects of new variants on the first generation of its Covid vaccine.
“Oxford is working with AstraZeneca to optimise the pipeline required for a strain change should one become necessary,” the university said. “This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”
Shabir Madhi, director of the Vaccines & Infectious Diseases Analytics (VIDA) research unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, and chief investigator on the trial in South Africa said: “Recent data from a study in South Africa sponsored by Janssen which assessed moderate to severe disease, rather than mild disease, using a similar viral vector, indicated that protection against these important disease endpoints was preserved.”
He added: “These findings recalibrate thinking about how to approach the pandemic virus and shift the focus from the goal of herd immunity against transmission to the protection of all at risk individuals in population against severe disease.”
South Africa’s Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
The 501Y.V2 variant, dominant in South Africa, has recently been discovered in countries all over the world, including the US and the UK.
The so-called Kent variant, which Oxford university said on Friday was just as susceptible to its vaccine as older variants of the virus, has now acquired the E484K mutation in a few cases that UK health authorities are trying to stop spreading. E484K is present in the variants fuelling Covid-19 surges in Brazil and South Africa.
South Africa took delivery of 1m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week, the first Covid-19 vaccines to arrive in the country, as part of a 1.5m dose order from India’s Serum Institute.
Norsk Hydro blamed for birth defects in Amazon forest pollution case
Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.
For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro.
Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage this month when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.
“We cannot have future generations because the children are born and then die. Whole families are contaminated,” said Socorro from the Barcarena township in the northern state of Pará.
The case — filed just days before the UK’s top court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could face legal action in London brought by thousands of Nigerian villagers over alleged pollution — is the latest international trial pitting large, resource-hungry companies against impoverished rural communities.
It also comes amid mounting pressure on companies to abide by strict environmental standards, a push being spearheaded visibly by Scandinavian investors.
“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro.
“International corporations have different standards for how they do business in the northern and southern hemispheres as if life in the southern hemisphere does not have the same value.”
Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.
The company said it would respond to the request before the court in the Netherlands, where its subsidiaries controlling the local entities at issue are headquartered. It denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth. The company declined to comment further.
A source close to the company said, however, that it did “not see the [health] effects that have been claimed. The actual impact is hard to see and there aren’t any studies showing that.”
A combination of poor sanitary conditions and the tropical climate could be behind many of the health issues, he added: “There are a lot of feelings and not so many things relating to actual facts.”
Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.
Like many Amazonian communities, much of the Barcarena township depends heavily on fishing and farming for survival, work that they now say is impossible.
“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves.
Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.
“Studies around the world have shown the effects [of toxic metals] on pregnant women, foetuses and children at birth,” said Marcelo de Oliveira Lima, a public health researcher at the Chagas institute. “But our studies so far did not go deep enough to show the [connection]. Other studies are still being done.”
The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.
“There seem to be quite some dispute about the facts in this case and in particular about the actual harm of the spill to local environment and whether the company is somehow to blame by neglecting important safety measures,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investments at the KLP pension fund, Norway’s largest pension provider.
“We know Norsk Hydro as a responsible corporate actor when doing businesses abroad. I do not think [this case] will damage the credibility of Norwegian actors.”
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here
Martins, the lawyer leading the group action, said they brought the case in the Netherlands because of the inertia of the Brazilian court system. He believes the case can reach a verdict in 18 or 24 months.
Brazil is no stranger to environmental disasters. This month, miner Vale agreed to a $7bn settlement with authorities over a dam breach in 2019 in the Brumadinho township that killed hundreds of people and polluted vast tracts of lands with industrial sludge.
BHP was sued in a British court over a dam failure in Brazil’s Mariana township in 2015 that left 19 dead. The case was thrown out because parallel proceedings were taking place in Brazil.
“The Hydro case draws attention for having caused significant environmental damage,” said Luiz Eduardo Rielli, director of sustainability consultancy Novi. “After three years, what I care most about is: What lessons have been learned? How can we ensure that new damages do not occur?”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo
Scoreboard: Narendra Modi cricket stadium a monument to India’s tycoons
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In this edition of Scoreboard, we discuss what the new Narendra Modi cricket stadium reveals about Indian business, explain how a refereeing row imperils a key broadcasting contract for Turkey’s indebted football clubs, talk to the Thai entrepreneur behind Asia’s answer to UFC, and more.
Narendra Modi cricket stadium also a monument to India’s tycoons
India’s cricket politics were on global display this week when the country’s national team hosted England for the first-ever match at the Narendra Modi Stadium, writes the FT’s Benjamin Parkin from the newly built ground in Ahmedabad.
The game itself was over in two measly days, the quickest Test match since 1935. But the world’s largest cricket stadium, named after the prime minister, will stand as a monument to how Indian politicians have for decades used the country’s favourite sport as a launch pad to greater power and influence.
And the venue also highlights the parallel role that India’s corporate titans have played in shaping the country’s cricket.
Stands at the ground are named after Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani’s eponymous conglomerate, India’s most powerful industrialists whose close ties with the prime minister have faced intense scrutiny.
This proved immediate fodder for Modi’s critics. “Wonder whether Modi-ji prefers to bat from the Ambani end or the Adani end,” Prashant Bhushan, an anti-corruption lawyer, wrote on Twitter.
Tycoons have for decades thrown money at Indian cricket. But their sway has grown exponentially — and all the more controversially — with the arrival of the money-spinning Indian Premier League tournament in 2008.
While supporters argue this helped fund grassroots development, critics say the swirl of money, sports and dealmaking leads to conflicts of interest. Cement magnate Narayanaswami Srinivasan was forced to step down as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the sport’s national governing body, in a damaging scandal in 2015.
India’s business leaders have long been cricketing patrons. After independence, sprawling conglomerates such as the State Bank of India and Tata Group hired dozens of promising players, providing a steady income.
The commercialisation of Indian sport has only increased its appeal. No corporation has loomed as large over Indian cricket in recent decades as Ambani’s Reliance, an energy-to-telecoms conglomerate.
It sponsored the 1987 Cricket World Cup, the first held in India, famously hosted shareholder meetings in a cricket ground and owns the successful Mumbai Indians IPL franchise. It is also an owner of the fledgling Indian Super League, a football tournament.
Adani’s involvement in sports has thus far been comparatively limited. The company is, however, rumoured to be among those interested in buying a new IPL team after the BCCI in December approved adding new franchises to the league.
Were that to happen, Ahmedabad-based Adani Group would find at least one world-class ground in its neck of the woods: the Narendra Modi Stadium.
Read the FT analysis of how Modi is harnessing cricket to remake India here.
Fenerbahce vs beIN Sports: refereeing dispute spills off the pitch
A fight between Turkish football club Fenerbahce and broadcaster beIN Sports has spilled off the pitch — and on to players’ jerseys, writes Ayla Jean Yackley in a special dispatch for Scoreboard from Istanbul.
For months, Fenerbahce has complained of bias at the Qatari TV company, which owns the broadcasting rights for the Super Lig, Turkey’s top football division.
The club has accused beIN Sports of using selective camera angles to negatively influence the video assistant referee (VAR) in reviews of controversial plays. BeIN denies the claim. Some industry figures argue that the row distracts fans from the team’s recent lacklustre performances.
The latest salvo came last weekend when Fenerbahce players, including former Arsenal star Mesut Ozil, mocked the broadcaster by using its logo to brandish “beFAIR” on its T-shirts.
The TV company responded by starting legal proceedings against Fenerbahce in an Istanbul court for allegedly violating its intellectual property by misappropriating the logo. The club did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Why would we deliberately try to disenfranchise one of the biggest clubs in Turkey?,” a beIN executive told Scoreboard. “It doesn’t make any sense, commercially or otherwise.”
The row could have wider ramifications, imperilling a key source of revenue for Turkey’s heavily indebted football clubs.
BeIN Sports acquired Turkish satellite network Digiturk in 2015, and two years later won a five-year contract worth an annual $500m with the Turkish Football Federation and its clubs to show league matches.
It renegotiated the sum down to $420m for the 2019-2020 season as the country’s economy stumbled and the Turkish lira suffered a sharp depreciation. This season, the coronavirus pandemic forced the figure even lower to $370m.
That’s still a sizeable sum at a time when Turkish clubs have seen other revenue streams dry up in the pandemic.
Nihat Ozdemir, head of the TFF, has said debt at the country’s top four clubs stands at a combined TL14bn ($1.9bn). Fenerbahce’s most recent balance sheet from November said its total debt and liabilities were TL3.29bn ($442m).
Ozil’s signing has sunk the club deeper into the red. His three and a half-year contract will earn him at least €9m and a further signing bonus of €550,000. The club is betting that the player will sell more merchandise while taking the club to a league title — and, with it, lucrative Champions League qualification.
BeIN Sports’ contract with the TFF expires next year. The row with Fenerbahce is devaluing Turkish football rights and could even make beIN Sports think twice before bidding again, said a person close to the TV company’s thinking.
As for Fenerbahce, the “beFAIR” protest ahead of last Sunday’s match did little to improve its performance at home against 10th place Goztepe. Fenerbahce lost 1-0.
Can One Championship beat up the UFC?
Chatri Sityodtong does not lack ambition. The Thai entrepreneur’s aim is to build the mixed martial arts company he founded into a $100bn global sports platform, writes Stefania Palma in Singapore.
One Championship, Asia’s answer to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is reportedly valued at $1bn after raising $346m from investors including Sequoia Capital, GIC and Temasek.
Founded in 2011, One Championship says its MMA competition is broadcast to more than 150 countries. But Sityodtong has bigger goals.
“We are more than prepared to invest a minimum of a billion dollars into what we believe is a $100bn long-term opportunity,” he told Scoreboard.
The Singapore-based company is considering an IPO in markets including the US, as well as a merger with a special purpose acquisition company to raise funds after receiving inbound interest starting late last year. Private capital is also an option.
“There is a good chance of a fundraise happening in the next 18 months, maybe even as soon as this year,” said Hua Fung Teh, group president at One Championship.
Investors must determine whether fighting talk stacks up to a strong business.
The pandemic forced the company to suspend live events — one of its biggest revenue sources — for three months last year. It cut approximately 20 per cent of its staff last June.
Yet even before Covid-19, the start-up had registered losses of S$130m (US$98m) in 2019, up from S$82m a year prior and S$34m in 2017. This was coupled with cash burn almost doubling from S$78m in 2018 to S$137m in 2019.
Sityodtong said the cash burn rate in 2020 “dropped dramatically” and would continue to fall, while revenues would hit a record high this year.
“I don’t think any $100bn or $200bn company was built off burning, like, 100 bucks a month,” said Teh.
One Championship is now building its entertainment arm. Its first project is a TV series The Apprentice: One Championship edition — a spin-off from the American franchise once fronted by former US president Donald Trump.
Filmed in Singapore last year, the show will air first in Asia next month. The trailer — featuring rock music and glitzy skylines — shows 16 candidates doing physical and business challenges to win a $250,000 pay cheque to work with Sityodtong.
“You bombed, you bombed and you bombed!” he shouts in the trailer. Sityodtong is determined his company steers clear of the same fate.
Amanda Staveley, the financier who tried to orchestrate Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United, lost her court battle against Barclays over the UK bank’s 2008 emergency fundraising. The judge ruled that Barclays was “guilty of serious deceit” but did not award damages to Staveley because PCP Capital Partners, her investment firm, could not prove it would have obtained debt funding for a deal.
The International Olympic Committee has chosen Brisbane as its “preferred partner” to host the 2032 summer games. It is the first step in a new selection process, with the IOC beginning non-binding talks with potential host cities rather than undergoing an expensive and competitive bidding process.
RedBird Capital is nearing a deal to pay $750m for a roughly 10 per cent stake in Fenway Sports Group, valuing the ownership vehicle of Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox at more than $7bn, according to Sportico. The FT previously reported the two sides were in talks for a minority stake purchase, after a different deal between FSG and a blank-cheque company helmed by RedBird’s Gerry Cardinale fell through.
Under Armour slashed its sponsorship commitments in half in 2020, after the US sportswear company pulled out of contracts with the likes of UCLA and Cal, two prominent American collegiate sports departments. The company is on the hook for some $362m in sponsorship contracts from 2021 onward, down from $679m before the pandemic.
Inter Milan’s owner is selling a $2.5bn stake in one of its subsidiaries ahead of looming debt repayments. Suning, the Chinese conglomerate part-owned by Alibaba, has also been looking to raise $200m to strengthen the Italian club’s finances.
Tiger Woods was rushed to hospital for surgery after he seriously injured both legs in a car accident. The golf legend was already recovering from his fifth back surgery, which has kept him away from competition.
The new documentary on the career of Brazilian great Pelé strays from the football pitch to ask whether sport can ever break free from politics, according to the FT’s chief film writer Danny Leigh.
Kevin Mather resigned as president and chief executive of the Seattle Mariners after taking aim at two players’ English language skills and claiming one veteran was “probably overpaid”. John Stanton, chairman of the Major League Baseball team, said there was “no excuse” for Mather’s comments.
Retired MLB great Cal Ripken Jr is the latest celebrity athlete to join the board of directors of sports-wagering platform DraftKings, joining Michael Jordan, who was added to the board in September. Ripken Jr played 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, where he earned the nickname “Iron Man” for his streak of playing 2,632 consecutive games.
What do the Toronto Raptors, “Bring it On” and that beguiling Kombucha girl meme have in common?
They’re all part of the savvy, succinct TikToks compiled by social media personality Ashley Docking to recap each game by the Canadian National Basketball Association team. She offers sophisticated analysis of the Raptors’ performance, spliced with movie clips and funny quips, such as by comparing Kyle Lowry‘s game to bitcoin.
Scoreboard is written by Samuel Agini, Murad Ahmed and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and its data visualisation team.
NYSE to suspend trading of China’s Cnooc next month
The New York Stock Exchange is to start delisting proceedings against China National Offshore Oil Corporation to comply with an executive order from Donald Trump that bans Americans from investing in companies with ties to the Chinese military.
The NYSE on Friday said it would suspend trading in Cnooc’s American depository shares on March 9, after determining that the company was “no longer suitable for listing” following the order that the former US president signed in November.
The order banned investing in several dozen Chinese groups that were last year put on a Pentagon blacklist of companies that are accused of working with the People’s Liberation Army and threatening US security. Trump set a January 28 deadline for the ban to take effect, but President Joe Biden pushed the deadline back to May 27.
The NYSE move comes as Biden evaluates a number of assertive actions that Trump took against China during his last year in office. The commerce department last year put Cnooc on a separate blacklist — called the “entity list” — that makes it hard for US companies to sell products and technology to the Chinese oil group.
The Biden administration has not made clear whether it intends to keep Trump’s executive order in place. But the new president and his officials have so far adopted a tough stance towards China over everything from its economic “coercion” to concerns about its clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong to the repression of more than 1m Uighur Muslims in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Earlier this month, Biden used his first conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping since assuming office to raise concerns about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and aggressive Chinese actions towards Taiwan. Antony Blinken, secretary of state, also described the detention of Uighurs in labour camps as “genocide”.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, has said the administration was conducting a number of “complex reviews” of the China actions that Trump took. The former president put dozens of other Chinese companies on the Pentagon and commerce department blacklists, including Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment group.
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