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WHO dismisses coronavirus lab leak theory as ‘extremely unlikely’

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The World Health Organization has ruled out a laboratory accident as the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it was “extremely unlikely” that the pathogen leaked from a Chinese laboratory.

A WHO scientific team has spent the past few weeks in Wuhan in an attempt to learn more about the origins of the virus, including a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some have speculated that the Sars-Cov-2 virus that caused Covid-19 may have leaked from the WIV, the country’s highest level biosafety laboratory.

Peter Ben Embarek, head of a WHO team, told reporters on Tuesday that they had appraised various hypotheses and concluded that the evidence weighed against the virology institute or another of the Chinese city’s labs being the source.

While “accidents do happen”, virus leaks from high-level biosafety labs were “extremely rare” and the WIV set-up made it “very unlikely that an escape could happen from a place like that”, he said.

The most plausible explanation was the accepted theory that the virus originated in bats and jumped to an as yet unknown intermediate host species before infecting humans, he added.

Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO scientific team, at the press conference in Wuhan on Tuesday
Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO scientific team, at the press conference in Wuhan on Tuesday © AFP via Getty Images

The press conference marked the conclusion of the WHO visit. Beijing’s careful management of the trip and a delay of more than a year between the virus being detected and the team’s arrival have raised doubts about the investigation’s ability to draw hard conclusions concerning the politically charged issue of the virus’s origin.

Ben Embarek acknowledged the field research conducted in Wuhan did not “change dramatically” the team’s broad understanding of what had happened.

That the WIV was known to be experimenting on coronaviruses before the pandemic began has stoked the “lab leak” hypothesis. Mike Pompeo, the former US secretary of state in Donald Trump’s administration, was one of those to advance the unproven theory.

Liang Wannian, an expert from China’s National Health Commission who led a team of Chinese scientists working alongside the WHO, said that the inability to find samples of Sars-Cov-2 in Wuhan’s labs added to evidence against the lab leak hypothesis.

Liang said studies to sample animals that might have been the intermediary host for the virus should extend beyond China and added that tens of thousands of samples from wild and farm animals inside the country had already tested negative for the virus.

Liang also noted that infections were discovered in different parts of Wuhan before the first known cases linked to the Huanan seafood market, making it less likely to be the source of the outbreak.

The WHO team’s research focused primarily on the early stages of the virus outbreak in China and concluded that the evidence available from hospital records and blood samples did not suggest the virus had been circulating widely in Wuhan before December 2019, when the first cases were reported.

The team did not rule out the possibility of the virus arriving in Wuhan on frozen or refrigerated foods, a theory endorsed by a number of Chinese scientists.

Many in China have also pushed the idea that the virus was already circulating and infected humans elsewhere before the Wuhan outbreak.

Marion Koopmans, a virologist on the WHO team, told reporters that they were open to looking at evidence from countries outside China. The investigation intended to “go and search for evidence of earlier circulation wherever that is indicated,” she said.

A report on the team’s findings would be released in coming weeks.



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Scoreboard: Narendra Modi cricket stadium a monument to India’s tycoons

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One thing to start: we want to hear ways to improve Scoreboard and would be grateful for your input by completing a survey here. All responses will remain anonymous.

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.

Send us tips and feedback at scoreboard@ft.com. Not already receiving the email newsletter? Sign up here. For everyone else, let’s go. 

Narendra Modi cricket stadium also a monument to India’s tycoons

Virat Kohli celebrates win over England: for the nation © Dave Hunt/AAP/Reuters

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.

Narendra Modi: naming rights © Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad: field of dreams © AFP via Getty Images

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

Fenerbahce vs beIN Sports: grudge match © Gokhan Kilincer/Reuters

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.

Fenerbahce: Turkish delight © Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty

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: man in the middle © Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency/Getty

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: one and only © Will Baxter/for The Financial Times

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.

One Championship: in the fight © ONE Championship YouTube

“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. 

The Apprentice: One Championship edition — fired up © YouTube

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.

Highlights

Amanda Staveley: cans, canned © Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
  • 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.

Transfer Market

Kevin Mather: Mariner marooned © Ted S. Warren/AP
  • 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.

Final Buzzer

Ashley Docking: Raptors raconteur © Ashley Docking @SmrtAsh

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. 



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NYSE to suspend trading of China’s Cnooc next month

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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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Bond sell-off roils markets, ex-Petrobras chief hits back, Ghana’s first Covax vaccines

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The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury exceeded 1.5 per cent for the first time in a year and the outgoing head of Petrobras warns Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro against state controlled fuel prices. Plus, the FT’s Africa editor, David Pilling, discusses the Covax vaccine rollout in low-income countries. 

Wall Street stocks sell off as government bond rout accelerates

https://www.ft.com/content/ea46ee81-89a2-4f23-aeff-2a099c02432c

Ousted Petrobras chief hits back at Bolsonaro 

https://www.ft.com/content/1cd6c9fb-3201-4815-9f4f-61a4f0881856?

Africa will pay more for Russian Covid vaccine than ‘western’ jabs

https://www.ft.com/content/ffe40c7d-c418-4a93-a202-5ee996434de7


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