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India’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout needs to address hesitancy to truly take off

India has kicked off the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination programme, but the shadow of rushed approvals persists.

Hesitancy over the safety and efficacy of Covaxin, India’s homegrown coronavirus vaccine developed by biotechnology firm Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research, has led to fewer people turning up for their shots.

India began its vaccination drive for frontline and healthcare workers on Jan. 16, and has inoculated 631,417 people in four days. Two vaccines, Covishield, manufactured by Serum Institute of India using the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s master seed, and Covaxin currently have emergency use approval in India. India will also begin exporting the Covishield vaccine today (Jan. 20) to neighbouring nations like Maldives and Bhutan.

Of these two, Covishield was granted approval based on data from the UK drugs regulator, while India-specific bridging trial study data are still pending. Covaxin has no efficacy data because the third phase of its clinical trial is still underway.

Healthcare workers have expressed concern over being administered shots of Covaxin. For instance, in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, resident doctors asserted their desire to take only the Covishield vaccine instead of the Covaxin that was on offer.

Such hesitancy has led to lower turnout from healthcare and frontline workers, especially in large metropolitan cities in the country. In Delhi, for instance, only eight people were vaccinated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India’s leading public healthcare institution, on Jan. 18, a source-based report said.

This despite AIIMS director Randeep Guleria being among the first to take the vaccine in the country.  Several senior doctors and private hospitals have advocated for the use of the vaccine on social media and elsewhere.

But as of yesterday (Jan. 19), Delhi has consistently vaccinated about half of its daily target of roughly 8,000 healthcare and frontline workers per day.

A vaccine trust deficit

In other parts of the world, including the US, doctors have been hesitant to take vaccines that have not yet been fully tested. “Whatever is happening right now, the kind of response from we’re seeing from workers listed for the vaccines, especially Covaxin, is a sign that the government has dropped the ball on this issue,” says Sulakshana Nandi, national joint convener of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian chapter of the People’s Health Movement. “Such hasty approvals have resulted in a mistrust of the Covid-19 vaccine,” she says.

India’s scientific community has spoken out against rushed vaccine approvals and has questioned the government’s decision making that was based on limited facts and data. For instance, Covaxin was given clearance by India’s drugs regulator under “clinical trial mode,” with no clarity on what that meant.

Besides the lack of clarity on approvals, distrust is also stemming from the allegations against Bharat Biotech for violating consent norms during the phase 3 trial recruitments. “The Indian government has tried to elicit support from the WHO and people like Bill Gates. But this vaccine rollout, under these circumstances and conditions, will go down as an unfortunate event in the history of India’s Covid-19 response,” Nandi says.

Guleria of AIIMS believes that this vaccine hesitancy among healthcare staff is because of the “infodemic” against the coronavirus vaccines in India. “Initially, healthcare workers were very keen to get the vaccine. But then because of the infodemic, because of things doing the rounds on social media, because of side effects being highlighted more than what they were, it created a lot of anxiety not only among healthcare workers but also in public at large,” he told Hindustan Times newspaper.

What has also not helped build trust is the number of adverse events following immunisation (AEFIs) that have been reported.

The adverse events

On Jan. 18, the Indian health ministry had reported a total of 580 AEFIs. These included mild cases of pain on the site of the jab, nausea, headache, and general fatigue, as well as serious symptoms like breathlessness and chest pain. So far, nine cases of AEFIs have required hospitalisation, and none were reported after Jan. 18.

Currently, India has less than 200,000 active Covid-19 cases, and over thrice as many people have been vaccinated. This is also the reason doctors would rather wait a while before getting the jab.

“Many of us have already suffered from Covid and hence we’re not willing to take vaccines unnecessarily. We want to wait for safety and efficacy data,” an unnamed doctor from AIIMS told ThePrint.

Since March, 152,718 Indians have lost their lives to the pandemic. Nandi believes that unlike the US or the UK, where cases and fatalities are on the rise again, India could have waited a while before granting the approvals. “After the questions raised by scientists, the government should have ideally rolled back the approval, especially since it could afford to wait given that the number of cases was declining,” Nandi says. India recorded its lowest number of fresh Covid-19 cases in seven months yesterday (Jan. 19). “A few more weeks and the availability of the efficacy data could have avoided this whole situation.”

Others have argued that this vaccine rollout comes at an appropriate time, allowing large sections of the population to build immunity against the novel coronavirus, especially when the healthcare systems are not overburdened.

“Vaccination is necessary because you do not know when a second wave can potentially start and various other countries have witnessed a second and a third wave with severe cases or a more infectious strain,” Public Health Foundation of India president K Srinath Reddy told Times of India newspaper.


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Author: Manavi Kapur

China’s ‘Big Three’ cap off 2020 with lower passenger traffic results

China’s three largest carriers reported year-on-year declines in their full-year traffic results for 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak impacted travel demand, particularly in their international networks. 

China’s three largest carriers reported year-on-year declines in their full-year traffic results for 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak impacted travel demand, particularly in their international networks.

However, a strong domestic recovery for most of the second half of the year helped the ‘Big Three’ — China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Air China — offset any steeper plunge in full-year passenger traffic. 

China Eastern

Source: Shutterstock

Chinese carriers ended 2020 with lower traffic figures, as the coronavirus outbreak impacted travel demand.

In separate traffic results released on 15 January, the three carriers saw full-year passenger numbers drop by around 40% year on year. Overall capacity and traffic, measured in ASKs and RPKs respectively, also saw declines — of between 38 to 52% — compared to full-year results from 2019. 

China Southern carried 96.9 million passengers for the year across its network, a 36% year-on-year drop. Overall RPKs shrank 46%, while ASKs fell by 38% year on year. 

On the domestic front, the airline carried 93.9 million passengers in 2020. Compared to 2019, it represented a 27% drop. Domestic RPKs fell 28%, while ASKs saw a 18% decline year on year. 

Compatriot China Eastern carried 74.5 million passengers in 2020, a 43% year-on-year decrease. The SkyTeam carrier reported a 52% fall in RPKs, and a 44% drop in overall ASKs, compared to 2019. 

China Eastern carried 71.9 million domestic passengers for the year, which was a 34% decrease compared to 2019. Domestic RPKs shrank 33%, while ASKs slipped 22% year on year. 

As for Air China, it carried 68.7 million passengers in 2020 across its networks, a 40% decline year on year. Overall RPKs fell 53%, while ASKs across the network decreased 46% year on year. 

The airline carried 65.8 million domestic passengers in 2020, a 29% drop compared to 2019’s numbers. Domestic RPKs fell nearly 30%, with ASKs slipping 19% year on year. 

Across the three carriers, full-year international traffic numbers recorded steep plunges, due to international travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread — and importation — of the coronavirus. 

The ‘Big Three’ saw passenger numbers plummet around 87% year on year, with international ASKs falling around 81% and RPKs plunging about 86% compared to 2019. 

The three carriers also released traffic results for December, where they each reported a second consecutive month-on-month decline in domestic passenger numbers, both in capacity and traffic. 

In November, all three airlines saw passenger traffic shrink — on a month-on-month basis — for the first time in more than half a year, due in part to a resurgence in domestic coronavirus cases. 

China — where the first cases of the coronavirus were discovered — has claimed to keep the outbreak largely under control, but it has seen an uptick in local cases in recent months. 

No winner of Mega Millions $750M; Powerball drawing Saturday

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — One of the largest jackpots in U.S. history will grow even larger since there was no winner for Friday’s drawing of the Mega Millions’ $750 million top prize.

The numbers were 3, 11, 12, 38, 43, with a Mega Ball of 15 and would have marked the fifth-largest jackpot ever drawn.

Mega Millions estimated its next top prize would be $850 million, which would be the third-largest of all time. The drawing is on Tuesday.

Lottery players still have a chance to win big with Saturday’s drawing for a $640 million Powerball top prize, the eighth-largest jackpot. The odds of winning are one in 292.2 million.

It’s been nearly two years since a lottery jackpot has grown so large. No one has won either game’s top prize in months.

The listed jackpot amounts refer to winners who opt for an annuity, paid over 30 years. Winners nearly always choose cash prizes, which for Powerball would be $478.7 million. The estimated cash prize for the next Mega Millions jackpot is $628.2 million.

Massive Mega Millions jackpot grows after no winner

One of the largest jackpots in U.S. history will grow even larger since there was no winner for Friday’s drawing of the Mega Millions’ $750 million top prize. The numbers were 3, 11, 12, 38, 43, with a Mega Ball of 15 and would have marked the fifth-largest jackpot ever drawn.

Mega Millions estimated its next top prize would be $850 million, which would be the third-largest of all time. The drawing is on Tuesday.

Lottery players still have a chance to win big with Saturday’s drawing for a $640 million Powerball top prize, the eighth-largest jackpot. The odds of winning are one in 292.2 million.

It’s been nearly two years since a lottery jackpot has grown so large. No one has won either game’s top prize in months.

The listed jackpot amounts refer to winners who opt for an annuity, paid over 30 years. Winners nearly always choose cash prizes, which for Powerball would be $478.7 million. The estimated cash prize for the next Mega Millions jackpot is $628.2 million.

Mega Millions and Powerball are both played in 45 states as well as Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Powerball also is offered in Puerto Rico.


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Giants owner Johnson says he was unaware of QAnon connections in donations

Charles Johnson, the Giants’ largest shareholder, defended newly revealed political donations in a statement late Friday, saying he did not know that a candidate he supported was linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Johnson and his wife Ann each sent $2,800, the maximum contribution, to Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert. Boebert, who was elected in November, has expressed support for the far-right conspiracy theory that alleges Satan-worshipping pedophiles are plotting against President Trump.

Boebert and at least 19 other representatives who received donations last year from Johnson voted in support of objections to election certification last week. The vote came just hours after a riotous mob of Trump supporters stormed into the U.S. Capitol Building with unfounded claims of election fraud as their motive. Johnson also made donations to three senators who voted for objections against certification.

“It is often difficult to predict the future behavior of candidates and I would never have imagined that any legitimate candidate would participate in undermining the core values of our great country,” Johnson wrote in a statement released by the Giants at 4:58 p.m. Friday. “Nor was I aware that any candidate to whom I contributed was associated with QAnon.”

Chinese drone firm DJI builds team to work on self-driving tech: job posts, sources

By Yilei Sun and David Kirton

BEIJING/SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – China’s SZ DJI Technology Co, the world’s largest drone maker, is building an engineering team to work on self-driving technologies, according to job posts and people familiar with the company’s strategy.

The Shenzhen-based company is hiring engineers for auto electronics, autonomous driving, and in-car software, job posts on its website show.

Three people said DJI plans to sell driver-assist technology such as lidar sensors, a key component in self-driving cars, and packaged solutions for autonomous driving functions.

All sources spoke on condition of anonymity as the details are not public yet.

DJI said it had no new announcements at the moment.

DJI has been developing lidar technology and cameras for years, two of the sources added.

In 2020, Livox, a startup with links to DJI, displayed two lidar sensors for autonomous vehicles at a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Chinese electric vehicle maker Xpeng Inc has said it would use Livox’s lidar technology for self-driving functions.

DJI’s move comes as several hardware and software tech firms are racing to tap into the auto industry’s autonomous future.

Huawei Technologies, which makes communications machines and smartphones, has launched a car business unit and is developing sensors. Baidu, which has been working on autonomous driving and smart car technologies, has partnered with Geely to make its own cars.

DJI dominates the global small drone business with a 69% market share, according to consultancy DroneAnalyst. Research firm Frost & Sullivan estimated the market would be worth $8.4 billion last year.

In December, the company was added to the U.S. Commerce Department’s entity list, allegedly over its technology being used to facilitate human rights abuses in China.

(Reporting by Yilei Sun and David Kirton, additional reporting by Jane Lee; Editing by Himani Sarkar)


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Will India’s Signal fever make a dent in WhatsApp’s 400 million user base?

Smaller WhatsApp rivals are having a moment in the sun in India after the world’s largest instant messaging app got marred in controversy over its updated privacy policy. But the reality is that WhatsApp’s craze in India is almost invincible for now.

Over the last few days, several Indians have been flocking to apps like Signal and Telegram after Facebook-owned WhatsApp started asking users to accept a controversial new privacy policy furthering data-sharing with its parent whose privacy standards are also questionable. Even as the hue and cry on the internet are loud, experts suspect the switch is limited to a tiny section of privacy-conscious users and amplified on their groups. The masses, though, are largely unaware or unbothered.

“I’d say about 5-10% of WhatsApp’s current user base is going to end up installing a rival app (Signal, Telegram), but much less than 1% will fully switch—meaning abandon WhatsApp and move to Signal,” said Prasanto K Roy, an independent tech and public policy consultant. “Adding on to those few users driving the switch are some more who are panicking based on incorrect information, such as about all their messages and content being shared with Facebook or third parties.”

Two-year-old open-source messaging app Signal and its seven-year-old rival Telegram have been cashing in on the anti-WhatsApp frenzy but their popularity is still far from the Facebook-owned app’s. Like India’s biometric programme Aadhaar, which has become a mainstay of multiple government schemes and other initiatives despite the many privacy concerns around it, WhatsApp, with all its flaws, will likely remain a permanent fixture in 400 million Indian lives.

From family group chats to delivery updates from businesses, much of daily life in India plays out on WhatsApp. The app’s biggest strength is that it has built huge networks over time. “Once a critical mass of people are on board, the remaining people adopt on their own without much push or marketing,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of technology and digital business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. While the likes of Signal are getting an influx of new users, it is unclear is whether it will reach that critical mass. “It’s not there yet and it will need more endorsements from many other influencers,” Hosanagar added.

Rivalling WhatsApp

Signal and Telegram clocked 2.3 million and 1.5 million downloads respectively in India between Jan. 6 and Jan. 10. The former has even been endorsed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, automobile and space magnate Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Indian billionaire businessman Anand Mahindra, and Paytm co-founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma.

But keeping pace with this new popularity isn’t coming easy. Already, Signal said it was witnessing delays in verifying accounts and syncing contacts, among other things.

“Although Signal scores very high on privacy settings and encoding, the robustness of the system is under serious challenge,” said Vidhyashankar, head of corporate development at Chennai-based IT services company Ninestars Technologies. “Not to forget user interface and friendly features that we have been used to with WhatsApp.” Signal has been working to match WhatsApp with increased group video call participant limits and new chat wallpapers and animated stickers, but is that enough?

The expanding userbase will probably bring even more problems. “I already see some conversations that if Signal is not a concern from privacy aspects today, it will become one when they have scale as they need a revenue model,” said Harish HV, managing partner at ECube Investment Advisors.

Signal claims “there will never be ads” on its platform. Telegram’s founder, too, has said it will never collect private data and profile users. But experts suspect that stance will change as these apps grow. After all, these are not deep-pocketed companies. Monetisation will become crucial with time, and direct advertising is one of the best modes to do that.

“Given far lighter resources than Facebook-WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram et al would be hard put to woo businesses,” said Roy. “Unless they get acquired by a tech major, in which case the potential concerns would be similar to those for Facebook-WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp means business

While Telegram shares memes mocking WhatsApp and Signal takes digs at Facebook, WhatsApp is rallying behind efforts to clear its name and calm users.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”

WhatsApp integrated businesses have found value in managing, running, and marketing business over the app—but that doesn’t mean businesses won’t move to another platform if the consumer base adopts it on a large scale. “Today, customers expect brands to be available on the channels of their preference, in the language of their choice, at a time convenient to them,” said Vartika Verma, vice president of marketing at Yellow Messenger, a company that builds chatbots. WhatsApp has been a successful platform for them but they are “constantly adding new channels” and Signal is on the table, too.

But any new platform will have to provide an ecosystem as holistic as WhatsApp’s. “It has to be inclusive of all spheres of business management including payments, security, mass reach and more for smooth execution,” Sonakshi Nathani, co-founder & CEO, Bikayi, a “Shopify for India” helping small businesses go online.

Nathani added it’s still “early to comment” on businesses moving away from WhatsApp. And most likely, they will add a channel, not swap WhatsApp out.

India needs better privacy laws

Even if the storm blows over, there is still room for reform.

From a safety perspective, WhatsApp is the poorer cousin. It encrypts chats and calls but Signal goes a step further and encrypts the metadata, too. And it has several other privacy-focused features, including an option to relay calls to avoid revealing the IP address, the option to turn on or off read receipts, and an option to turn on or off indicators to show when a message is being typed, explained Sukriti Seth, an analyst at Noida-based TechSci Research.

However, the world’s largest messaging app is not explicitly violating any data laws in the country.

Europe is already exempt from this new policy thanks to its 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law. “Stringent regulations and clear guidelines on data sharing such as GDPR could have avoided this sudden shift (in India),” said Anand S, vice president, and Kiran Kumar, research manager, at consultancy Frost & Sullivan’s technology and innovation arm. Unfortunately, India’s data protection bill is still a shoddy work-in-progress.

Despite no framework or precedence, if the backlash continues, there’s still a chance Facebook will pull the plug on this policy update before Feb. 8, at least three experts said.


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Author: Ananya Bhattacharya

The battle for more Covid aid is far from over. Biden, Democrats have plans.

Before President Donald Trump’s signature on one of the largest economic aid packages in U.S. history is even dry, the battle lines for the next possible Covid-19 relief deal in the new year are being drawn.

For Democrats, at the top of the list is billions in no-strings-attached aid to state and local governments struggling with revenue shortfalls amid the pandemic. They’re also eyeing additional funding for testing and vaccines, as well as larger stimulus checks and targeted help for restaurants and renters.

Republicans, on the other hand, are renewing their push for Covid-related liability protections for employers.

The $900 billion package, signed by Trump on Sunday night after it was passed along with a $1.4 trillion government funding bill, was the result of more than seven months of negotiations. It provides expanded jobless benefits, rental assistance, direct payments, money for schools, child care, testing, vaccine distribution, businesses, broadband expansion and transportation and extends an existing eviction moratorium through the end of next month.

Dec. 28, 202003:31

Major players on both sides of the aisle have already made clear that the package is unlikely to be the final phase of Covid-19 relief. Pelosi called the bill “a first step” while President-elect Joe Biden said it was “an important down payment on what’s going to have to be done beginning the end of January into February.”

Last week, Biden called for more stimulus checks, money to state and local governments, additional funding for testing and vaccine distribution and another extension of expanded unemployment benefits, which will begin to expire in March.

“Congress did its job” in passing the measure, he said. “It can and must do it again next year.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech ahead of the final vote that future legislation must contain direct aid to state and local governments, as well as larger stimulus checks. He also floated reviving the “Restaurants Act,” bipartisan legislation that would provide grants to bar and restaurant owners with annual revenues of less than $1.5 million.

The $900 billion aid bill “is certainly not the end of the story,” Schumer said, “and it cannot be the end of the story. Anyone who thinks this bill is enough doesn’t know what’s going on in America.”

Pointing to the rental crisis, former President Barack Obama tweeted: “It’s unconscionable that there are families worried over the holidays that they’ll be evicted next month.”

“Extending the eviction moratorium was a start,” he added, “but Congress has to do more to help folks who can’t pay rent because of COVID-related unemployment.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has stressed that liability protections are “really important.”

“And if there is another coronavirus relief bill after the first of the year, I’m going to insist a liability protection for these universities and health care providers is a part of it,” he said recently on Fox News.

The liability protection clause and the state and local aid were among the biggest sticking points during recent negotiations and setting them aside for now smoothed the way for the bill’s passage. Leaders from both parties are likely to encounter strong opposition if they attempt to revive those measures.

Democratic lawmakers echoed Schumer in saying the bill would not be the last. Much depends on the results of the Jan. 5 Senate runoff races in Georgia, where Democrats could gain control of the Senate if the two Democratic candidates prevail.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., tweeted she is “ready to restart bipartisan negotiations in the next Congress w/lawmakers & the Biden administration to deliver a stimulus bill that addresses the long-term needs of our recovery, including aid for state & local governments.” Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., tweeted he wished the latest package was “larger and had been passed months ago but this will help bridge us to the Biden Administration.” And Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., tweeted that while “this bill is not ideal … it will provide some much-needed relief to the American people until we can pass a more robust stimulus under the Biden Administration.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., has suggested a future stimulus package could be part of a larger, bipartisan infrastructure deal.

“Everything that we have done up to this point has not been stimulus, it’s been relief,” Fitzpatrick, a GOP moderate, said on CNBC. “We do need a stimulus bill. There’s no question about it.”

“I think with all this talk about creating jobs and injecting some type of stimulus — not relief but stimulus — infrastructure and transportation legislation is the way to go,” he added. “The question is how we’re going to finance it. And that’s going to be the debate.”

In an interview with the conservative commentator Scott Jennings, McConnell expressed a willingness to play ball on such spending, adding, “We still have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., and a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told MSNBC last week that liability reform and emergency funding to state and local governments need to be a part of the next deal.

“But the good news is,” he said, “with the vaccine being distributed, we’re getting closer to getting Covid-19 into history books, and that is the ultimate solution we need to focus on, in my opinion, going forward.”


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Author: Allan Smith

BlackRock’s list of climate commitments just got longer

The world’s largest asset manager kicked off 2020 by laying out a list of climate pledges that put the rest of the financial sector on notice. “Climate risk is investment risk,” wrote BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink in his annual open letter to chief executives in January. Climate change is rewriting the most basic assumptions of modern finance, he argued, and portfolios that integrate climate risk will deliver better long-term returns than conventional investments.

Over the last year, though, critics were less than impressed with how BlackRock delivered on its rhetoric. So for 2021, the manager of $7.8 trillion in assets has added at least a dozen more items to its climate to-do list—and they seek to give teeth to the principles laid out this January, perhaps increasing the pace of companies’ climate plans.

At the beginning of the year, Fink laid out a laundry list of steps putting “sustainability at the center of our investment approach” in 2020, from divesting from thermal coal companies to demanding that companies in its portfolio disclose climate and sustainability risks.

The letter sent banks and companies scrambling. “BlackRock is the biggest player on the block,” says Mindy Lubber, CEO of Ceres, a non-profit pressuring investors and companies to act on climate. “When they move, a lot of people follow.” BlackRock has a sizeable stake in more than 90% of S&P 500 companies, along with powerful voting rights capable of challenging management’s decisions on climate if they don’t meet its standards.

Yet BlackRock’s pledges, greeted with cautious optimism, failed to change the company’s voting behavior in the first half of 2020. If anything, it worsened.

During the 12 months up to June 2020, the company opposed slightly more environmental shareholder resolutions compared to the prior year, rising from 92% to 94%, even as competitors such as JPMorgan tripled their support. That unleashed a torrent of criticism.

So BlackRock responded. In its most recent report, published in December, it said it updated its voting policies in July and was engaging directly with management to fix perceived shortfalls. The firm is now disclosing quarterly, rather than annual reports, on shareholder resolutions votes, and the rationale behind their decisions.

Between Jul. 1 and Dec. 4, it cast 22 votes on environmental and social shareholder proposals (p 23; pdf), supporting half of them (although still less than the total number of resolutions). These included approving dates to shut down coal plants owned by Australia’s largest energy company and reporting on deforestation elimination efforts at Procter & Gamble.

“At the beginning of the year they made some very strong statements,” said Lubber. “Some of their shareholder advocacy was not as strong as we had hoped. By the end of the year, their votes on shareholder resolutions have changed substantially.”

BlackRock has said, ‘We will vote against the board of directors if they don’t act on climate.’ It’s more than symbolic.

Critics contend it’s not enough. “BlackRock isn’t actually demanding that companies do what they can to halt climate change,” according to a coalition of non-profit environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. “It’s demanding that companies merely report on risks to them from climate change,” and calling on them to “step it up.”

But Lubber says this is the first step in a long journey to reform Wall Street. “BlackRock has said, ‘We will vote against the board of directors if they don’t act on climate,’” she said. “It’s more than symbolic.” In the coming years, she expects the financial sector, including BlackRock, to do two things: align their investment portfolios with a net-zero emissions target, and force corporate management to set short, medium, and long-term goals to eliminate net emissions and adopt transparent reporting. Companies that fail to do this should lose access to capital, she argues.

We’re still a long way from there. But this month, however, BlackRock has announced a new slate of changes for 2021 intended to show how it will make its 2020 climate commitments a reality.

It would expand the number of companies under climate scrutiny from about 440 companies (of which 191 are “on watch” for lack of progress) to more than 1,000 companies. In addition to asking companies deliver business plans to reach net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, BlackRock vowed to vote against and oppose the re-election of management who failed to “move with sufficient speed and urgency” on climate matters. By early 2021, BlackRock will start recognizing natural capital such as biodiversity, forests, and water in its company evaluations. “These are topics we actively engage and vote on,” according to the company.

Next year is now set to be the biggest on record for integrating climate risk into the DNA of doing business. “We will continue to engage where it matters most, on the material risks and business practices that support sustainable long-term value creation,” according to BlackRock’s report ‘Our 2021 Stewardship Expectations,’ naming climate change as chief among them. Without this, it argues, companies “will ultimately lose the license to operate.”


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Author: Michael J. Coren

China orders Ant Group to rectify businesses

HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese regulators have ordered Ant Group, the world’s largest financial technology company, to rectify its businesses and comply with regulatory requirements amid increased scrutiny of anti-monopoly practices in the country’s internet sector.

The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, summoned Ant executives on Saturday and ordered them to formulate a rectification plan and an implementation timetable of its business, including its credit, insurance and wealth management services, the regulators said in a statement Sunday.

The statement said that Ant Group lacked a sound governance mechanism, defied regulatory compliance requirements and engaged in regulatory arbitrage. It also said that the company used its market position to exclude rivals and hurt the rights and interests of consumers.

The meeting came after Chinese regulators last month halted Ant’s $37 billion stock debut in Shanghai and Hong Kong over regulatory changes, and comes just days after China announced an anti-monopoly investigation of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, which owns a 33% stake in Ant Group.

The orders from regulators could limit Ant Group’s expansion and throw its lucrative finance businesses into disarray.

Ant Group, which started out as a payments services for Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao, has since expanded to offer insurance and investment products to its hundreds of millions of users in mainland China. Jack Ma, the founder of both Alibaba and Ant Group, is one of China’s richest and most prominent entrepreneurs.

Regulators ordered Ant Group to establish a financial holding company and hold sufficient capital. They also said that Ant Group should return to its payments origins, enhance transparency around transactions and prohibit unfair competition, while improving corporate governance and ensuring that it complies with regulatory requirements for its businesses.

Ant Group said in a statement Sunday that it would comply with regulatory requirements and enhance risk management and control, and that a working group would be set up to make the necessary rectifications.

“We appreciate financial regulators’ guidance and help,” the statement said. “The rectification is an opportunity for Ant Group to strengthen the foundation for our business to grow with full compliance, and to continue focusing on innovating for social good and serving small businesses.”

The scrutiny of Ant Group and Alibaba comes as China closely examines the influence of the country’s internet sector.

Last month, China released draft regulations to clamp down on anti-competitive practices in the industry, such as signing exclusive agreements with merchants and the use of subsidies to squeeze out competitors.

Alibaba and a company spun off by Tencent Holding Ltd. were fined this month for failing to apply for official approval before proceeding with some acquisitions.

Last Tuesday, regulators met with executives of Alibaba and five other major Chinese internet companies and warned them not to abuse their dominance to drive out competitors through use of exclusive contracts, predatory pricing and other tactics, according to a statement by the State Administration of Market Regulation.


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