Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

Read More

Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

Read More

Brussels warns AstraZeneca will miss slashed targets

Europe’s vaccination push was dealt another severe blow when Brussels warned supplies from AstraZeneca threatened to fall short in the first quarter and hopes faded that the US would provide extra jabs.

Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, said he was not seeing “best efforts” from AstraZeneca to meet its EU delivery targets. He urged the company’s board to press managers to increase production.

Separately, the European Commission told diplomats in a private meeting that efforts to secure extra AstraZeneca doses from the US were not likely to succeed in the short term.

The drugmaker is struggling to increase production in the EU after cutting its delivery commitments. The company originally offered to ship at least 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU by the end of March, but in January it angered the bloc by disclosing it would fall well short. 

Chief executive Pascal Soriot has subsequently agreed to a revised target of 40m doses in the first quarter, but the commission now believes the company is on track to miss even this heavily reduced target. 

“I see efforts, but not ‘best efforts’ — that’s not good enough yet for AstraZeneca to meet its Q1 obligations,” Breton said in a statement to the Financial Times on Thursday night. “It’s time for AstraZeneca’s board to exercise its fiduciary responsibility and now do what it takes to fulfil AZ’s commitments.”

The company has been plagued by production problems, notably lower than hoped for yields in the bioreaction that produce the raw vaccine. Its deliveries to EU countries to date amount to just 11.75m, according to data from the bloc’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control accessed on March 11.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on Breton’s statement.

In a separate blow to Europe’s vaccination effort, Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in a “precautionary” move after a Danish woman died with blood clots following inoculation.

At least five other European countries have halted the use of a specific batch of the vaccine this week, after reports of blood clots sparked a safety probe from the European drugs watchdog. Meanwhile, Italy’s drug regulator on Thursday said it had halted the use of another batch, ABV2856, after two deaths.

“Right now we need all the vaccines we can get,” said Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority. “Therefore, pausing one of the vaccines is not an easy decision.”

Danish, Austrian and EU authorities said it could not yet be concluded whether there was a link between the blood clots and the vaccine. Sweden’s medical products agency told local media it did not think there was “sufficient evidence” to suspend the vaccine.

Italy’s regulator stressed that no causal link had been identified between the vaccine and the deaths, adding that it was working with the European Medicines Agency to probe the batch.

Despite the suspensions, the EMA on Thursday said the vaccine’s benefits still outweighed the risks, and that the shot could continue to be administered while the incidents were investigated.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was keeping the issue under review. With more than 11m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK, the “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”, it said.

AstraZeneca, whose shares fell 2.5 per cent on Thursday in London, said patient safety was its “highest priority”.

“Regulators have clear and stringent efficacy and safety standards for the approval of any new medicine, and that includes” its vaccine, the company said.

“The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase 3 clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” it said.

No deaths have been attributed directly to any Covid-19 vaccination.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain postponed broadening use of the jab on those over the age of 55 pending further guidance from the EMA. France and Germany said no further action was needed.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels, Sarah Neville in London, Dan Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud and Victor Mallet in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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Saudi court sentences prominent female activist to nearly six years

A prominent Saudi women’s rights activist has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by an anti-terrorism court in a high-profile case that has drawn widespread international criticism and intensified scrutiny on the kingdom’s human rights record.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right for women to drive, was charged with incitement to change the absolute monarchy’s political system, serving a foreign agenda and co-operating with individuals and entities accused of violating the kingdom’s anti-terrorism act, according to Saudi state-affiliated media.

Ms Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months, effective from the date of her arrest in May 2018, with two years and 10 months suspended, meaning she could be released in a few months, said Lina al-Hathloul, her sister. She will be banned from travel for five years, her sister wrote on Twitter.

The sentencing comes as US president-elect Joe Biden is expected to put greater scrutiny on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic rule, under which hundreds of royals, businessmen, activists, bloggers and academics have been jailed.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s pick to be national security adviser, on Monday said Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Ms Hathloul “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he wrote on Twitter.

In October, Mr Biden said his administration would “reassess” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia as he used the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the veteran journalist, to pledge that human rights would be a priority “even with our closest security partners”.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Hasan Jamali/AP

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, has spearheaded sweeping changes in recent years as he has pledged to modernise the ultra-conservative kingdom and reform its oil-dependent economy.

But the easing of social restrictions under his watch, including allowing women to drive and live independently and marry without the approval of male guardians, has been accompanied by waves of crackdowns against any hint of dissent.

The murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 triggered Riyadh’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades. But President Donald Trump stood by Prince Mohammed and was accused by activists of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule was highlighted by the arrest of Ms Hathloul, 31, and more than 10 other female activists who had also campaigned for the lifting of a decades-old ban on women driving. They were detained just weeks before the prohibition was lifted in what was widely interpreted as a signal from the authorities that all forms of activism would be quashed.

Ms Hathloul’s family alleged that she had been tortured while she was detained, but a court last week cleared the authorities, saying there was no evidence to support the claims.

Her case was transferred to a court that typically hears terrorism cases last month.

Alqst, a London-based human rights organisation, said it was a “travesty of justice” that Ms Hathloul was “sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges relating solely to her peaceful activism”. It added that her trial “has been flawed from start to finish”.

Human rights groups say scores of activists remain in prison. This month, a court sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi-US doctor, to six years in jail on what Human Rights Watch described as “vague charges mostly tied to his peaceful political views and expression”.

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‘Regulation can get it wrong’: Google’s Sundar Pichai on AI and antitrust

For Google, the Techlash arrived with a vengeance last week. After years of mounting angst about the power of Big Tech, two state-level antitrust suits against the search giant in the US landed on consecutive days, adding to a Federal case launched in October.

The European Commission, which has fought a running battle with Google over a series of competition complaints for the past decade, also upped the ante by proposing sweeping new laws aimed at curbing the power of a handful of dominant tech platforms.

For Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer since 2015, defending the company against the multiplying legal and legislative threats has become almost a full-time job. He is also ending his first year at the helm of Alphabet, the parent company of both Google and “moonshot” ventures like driverless car subsidiary Waymo.

Honing the diffuse, cash-burning holding company, while at the same time refocusing Google on artificial intelligence, have been less public parts of the job, but could turn out to be more significant.

Like it or not, for Google, government intervention is now an inescapable fact of life. Faced with the inevitable, Mr Pichai’s strategy is clear: to publicly welcome new forms of regulation, while at the same time trying to head off its most onerous effects. The tactic is evident from his response to Europe’s proposal last week for a new Digital Services Act which would put more responsibility on the most powerful tech companies to police their platforms.

As head of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, Mr Pichai’s strategy is to publicly welcome new forms of regulation while trying to head off its most onerous effects © Graeme Jennings/Pool/Getty

“I think it’s an important regulation to think through and get right,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times. “What are the responsibilities on platforms? What is the contract we want to have? Where do there need to be clear processes, more transparency? I think all that makes sense to me. Thinking that through and tackling it, it’s a worthwhile effort.”

When it comes to the details, however, things are unlikely to be so simple. GDPR, Europe’s privacy regulation introduced two years ago, has had the effect of favouring the companies that have amassed the largest troves of data on their own users, like Google. “It shows that for a lot of these things, the answers are nuanced, and regulation can get it wrong,” Mr Pichai says.

And he sounds a warning about one idea floated by the EU: to promote competition by forcing companies like Google to open up some of their data to competitors. 

“These are going to be the difficult questions they will have to grapple with,” Mr Pichai says. “Governments need to think through these important principles. Sometimes we can design very open ecosystems, they can have security implications.”

Pending antitrust complaints against the company accuse it of dominating technology networks and monopolising a disproportionate share of the profits © Spencer Platt/Getty

Resisting a break-up

Naturally cautious, Mr Pichai, 48, has the sort of non-confrontational style that makes him well suited to the job at hand — a contrast to Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who made a virtue of their iconoclastic disregard for the expected ways of doing things.

The antitrust challenges piling up against the company, with politicians hinting that they may even try to push for a break-up, provide the most immediate threat. The accelerated switch to digital forms of communication and collaboration during the pandemic, he suggests, may have boosted Google’s economic heft, but it has hardly been alone: “It’s one thing if there’s only one company which is doing well, but that’s not what we are seeing.”

Mr Pichai’s arguments have the well-honed style of a company that has been on the receiving end of antitrust challenges for years — even if US regulators have been late to join the action. One of his main points is that Google’s technology platforms bring broad benefits in the tech world.

Of the Android mobile operating system, for instance, he says: “We are providing a software platform to literally hundreds of handset manufacturers around the world.” Yet the antitrust complaints now pending against the company accuse it of dominating those same informal technology networks, sucking out a disproportionate share of the profits.

Pichai and his chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, have pushed financial discipline deeper into the group’s disparate projects © Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

“The formula with Google is, they start with open [platforms] and then become closed, they jack up the rent,” says Luther Lowe at Yelp, the local search company that has been campaigning against Google’s tactics for a decade. Android has “increased the chance for developers to write apps”, he says, while at the same time sucking most of the mobile web traffic into Google’s search engine.

Mr Pichai also denies that Google has used acquisitions to build a dominant position. “There have been acquisitions we have said ‘no’ to early on,” he says, without disclosing what these might have been. “There are definitely areas we wouldn’t look at, from an acquisition standpoint,” he adds of possible future deals.

His explanation for this forbearance is: “We only want to do acquisitions where we are able to add to innovation,” or something else that would benefit users. “We’ve had that framework for a long time”.

However, Dina Srinavasan, a former ad tech executive who was involved in drafting one of the latest antitrust cases in the US, said the company had used acquisitions as part of a strategy to dominate in all parts of the digital advertising value chain, squeezing out rivals.

Another, somewhat unlikely, defence has been to try to depict the company as an underdog, at least in markets dominated by other big tech platforms. “I look at the dynamism in the market, I look at many markets which didn’t exist . . . There are many areas where we are challengers, be it cloud or be it commerce or be it trying to make a phone.”

These are certainly big markets where Google has struggled to make an impact, including against Amazon and Apple. But with a stock market value of nearly $1.2tn, and a strong grip on online search and digital advertising that are forecast to leave it with revenue of more than $200bn next year, such protestations are liable to ring hollow.

“Google’s a one-trick pony,” says Mr Lowe. “The only way he would even be able to dabble in these fields is the ill-gotten gains of dominating and exploiting search.”

Mr Pichai also downplays Google’s influence over the mass market for digital information. What once sounded like a bold corporate mission for an internet start-up — to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — risks sounding more sinister when applied to a company with such wealth and power.

Artificial intelligence is ‘one of the most profound things we are working on’, says Pichai © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“We are still a small part of the overall information ecosystem, anyway you look at it,” the chief executive insists. “If you take an area like video, you look at the amount of players in the market today. And so I think there’s more information than ever before. And that’ll always be true.”

A mark of the backlash has been the mistrust from Republicans in the US around this year’s presidential elections. Mr Pichai seems resigned to the idea that Google has become a perennial target, whichever political party is in power.

“I think information is essential to who we are as humanity,” he says. “And I do think people are always going to have strong views around it. It’s not surprising to me that there is a lot of focus on it.”

He also seems resigned to a continued barrage of complaints over a failure to prevent misinformation spreading online — while still claiming significant headway.

“I think ultimately, it’s humans [who] will design these systems,” he says. “When I look at the progress we have all made in ranking and quality, using AI to calculate some of these things, I think that the pace of innovation is pretty steep. But there are clearly areas where misinformation exists and we have work to do to make it all better. And so both are simultaneously true, I think there’s both a lot of progress and a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Reordering Alphabet

If his year has ended under a regulatory spotlight, it began on a very different note. After taking over as head of Alphabet from Google’s founders, he gave Wall Street what it had long been asking for: a more detailed financial breakdown of Google’s various activities.

Mr Pichai and Ruth Porat, the company’s chief financial officer, have also been pushing financial discipline deeper into the group’s disparate projects, in the process preparing the way for what has started to look like a slow-motion unbundling of Alphabet.

Waymo took in outside investors for the first time, while Verily — the life sciences division which had been the first to look beyond its parent for funding — raised another $700m last week. These businesses now have independent boards and Mr Pichai concedes that their investors will want to cash out some day.

“One of the possibilities for some of these things is that they are standalone companies outside [Alphabet],” he says. “We don’t have any specific plans in mind, but it is one of the possible paths. That’s part of the framework that Alphabet is creating, to give that structure. I think it also gives a chance for others to be part of the journey as well.”

It is a different vision to the one laid out by Larry Page, who once told the FT that Alphabet could become a digital-era Berkshire Hathaway, assembling a collection of independently run and unrelated businesses under a loose umbrella.

Media Pipe, an AI hand recognising application, is an example of the robotic technology that Google is heavily investing in © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Mr Pichai is keen to downplay any suggestion of disagreement over Alphabet’s future — and the Google founders, who gave up direct involvement in the group a year ago, are still his bosses, thanks to a separate class of stock that gives them 51 per cent of the votes, despite having less than 12 per cent of the equity.

“I think they always envisioned being able to innovate with the structure,” he says. “It’s not like we have a specific way of doing it. We are looking at what works, and we are adapting to it. That’s how they would approach it — and that’s how I approach it as well.”

There are other apparent changes in direction. Mr Page, while he ran Alphabet, said he saw no underlying technological connection between its different operations: The main determining factor was whether they were bold and potentially transformative enough. Mr Pichai, however, talks of a more coherent AI conglomerate taking shape out of the disparate collection of projects he inherited.

Pointing to Everyday Robotics — a project to build robots capable of handling day to day tasks — he says: “Why does it exist within Alphabet? Because the underlying innovation is going to come from AI. And so we are doing that.”

Announced late last year, the unit was formed from research going on in other parts of Google. “We said, if you want to build a generalised robot that could help with everyday tasks, that’s a hard problem,” Mr Pichai says — something that would have a better chance of success cut off from the more immediate day-to-day business pressures of the internet company.

Challenged about whether Alphabet is still in the business of backing so many “moonshot” ideas, he points to Wing, a drone delivery company that has seen a big pick-up in demand during the pandemic, and AlphaFold, a potential breakthrough in AI understanding of how proteins are formed. 

AI is the engine that drives all these projects. That has turned technologies like machine vision into potentially foundational capabilities that underpin much of the work inside Google and the wider Alphabet network of companies.

“Waymo is pushing the state of the art in terms of AI [and] computer vision very, very hard,” Mr Pichai says. “And that applies to robotics. It applies to our search: Over time, it will be based on what you’re seeing, not just what you’re willing to type in.

“In some ways,” he adds, “the future across all of these things is connected. That’s what gives us the comfort to take a long-term view and invest in them.”

A question of ethics

The Google boss’s understated style can belie the scale of this ambition. Technology leaders, like Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk, often strike a hyperbolic tone when discussing AI, veering towards science fiction when describing the time when machines will surpass human intelligence — a point known as Artificial General Intelligence. Mr Pichai, by contrast, makes it sound like a more routine and prosaic computer science problem.

“I just call it AI,” he says. “AI over time will be more general in nature. I still think we have ways to go — but I think it’s one of the most profound things we are working on.”

Even with Google’s enviable resources and acknowledged lead in the field, however, building the AI machine that Mr Pichai envisages will not be easy. An incident last month highlights the extent of the managerial challenge.

Timnit Gebru, Google’s former co-head of AI ethics, and a rare black female researcher at the company, claimed to have been fired after the company blocked the publication of a report she had co-authored. It raised ethical questions about the use of large, data-consuming language models in which Google is one of the leaders.

Her statement brought allegations that Google was suppressing research into an important ethical question out of self-interest. It also stirred up disquiet internally over the company’s continuing struggles to promote diversity.

“I definitely felt pain and disappointment going through a moment like that,” Mr Pichai says. “I think we have to understand all the circumstances and see what we can learn from there. We don’t always get it, right. But we are, as a company, committed to learning from these moments.”

Nor is it the first time Google has stumbled when it comes to AI ethics. Nearly two years ago, it abandoned a plan to set up an AI ethics board made up of external advisers after internal unrest about its composition.

Mr Pichai points out that the company was one of the first to publicly lay out principles for how it will apply AI, and claims it has internal processes to govern the technology’s use — for instance, choosing not to open up its facial recognition technology for use by other companies.

“Over time we expect there will be important regulation” in this and other areas of AI, he says. The Google boss wants the world to know his company is a responsible steward of some of the world’s most powerful technologies: But in this, as in so much of what it does, he is preparing for a time when it is no longer left to exercise that responsibility on its own.

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Beware the cunning minimalist in your midst

Never have so many been so worried about losing their jobs while feeling so reluctant to do them.

This thought shot to mind last week as the new year was upended by worrying new strains of Covid, a fresh round of lockdowns and more job cuts.

Close behind came another idea: there has never been a better time to study the ways of the cunning minimalist.

This is a species of worker, common to every office, who instinctively knows how to avoid the tiresome, invisible work that makes life easier for colleagues but gains little attention or credit.

Instead, they focus on high profile stuff. The boss’s pet project. Work that gets noticed, inside and preferably outside too, because doing it makes one more marketable and thus invincible.

I wish I could say I came up with the cunning minimalism term that so aptly describes this unvirtuous circle of craftiness, but I did not.

I heard it the other day from a despairing friend who was trying to work out how she and her husband could juggle another spate of home-schooling and childcare on top of their demanding jobs.

“Both of us have always believed that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead, so that’s what we’ve always done,” she said. “But it’s killing us now so I’ve decided we have to be cunning minimalists and be more strategic about what we do or don’t do to get by.”

She was joking, mostly, but not entirely. The trouble was that she, like me, was so averse to the idea of shirking that she had never worked out how to be a successful minimalist, cunning or otherwise, despite years of close observation.

The first time I noticed a master in action I was working in an Australian newsroom that, like a lot of other places, had a rota for weekend shifts. Everyone was on it except for one middle-aged reporter. His absence meant that everyone else had to do a bit more work.

“How come he doesn’t have to work on Sundays?” I asked a manager one day. The manager’s face clouded as he explained the man had refused to do weekend work and no one, including the editor, was inclined to make him.

This did the man no harm at all. He proceeded to glide from job to golden job in a career that glistened with awards, acclaim and book deals.

How did he do it? The same way I have watched countless others do it in every place I’ve worked at since. He was grumpy and slightly intimidating, so managers disliked asking him to do something if a nicer, more agreeable person could do it instead.

He was also an expert at saying no, a skill the nicer people often lacked, and adept at staying onside with the boss and the boss’s most powerful lieutenants.

Crucially, he was rarely in the office, which meant he avoided being asked to do things in the first place.

Covid-19 has upset this strategy in two distinct ways. First, hiding outside the office can be less of a foolproof ploy if everyone is working from home and managers feel the need to keep a closer eye on who is doing what.

Far more importantly, dumping extra work on colleagues has gone from being vaguely unpleasant to potentially dangerous.

Before the pandemic took hold, chronic work stress had become such a widespread problem that the World Health Organization officially listed burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.

The same year, close to 30 per cent of US workers said they felt burnt out at work “very often” or “always”. Once Covid hit, another survey found 41 per cent of US workers who had managed to keep their jobs felt their work was burning them out.

In other words, the cunning minimalist has become an increasingly risky management problem. The resentment they breed was bad enough in good times, but at a time when so many workers face so much hardship and stress, it is intolerable.

More than ever, companies need staff to be as generous and collegial as possible. Letting the minimalists roam free is not just unfair and unreasonable, it also encourages the rest of us to think about joining their ranks to survive.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark

Read More

Beware the cunning minimalist in your midst

Never have so many been so worried about losing their jobs while feeling so reluctant to do them.

This thought shot to mind last week as the new year was upended by worrying new strains of Covid, a fresh round of lockdowns and more job cuts.

Close behind came another idea: there has never been a better time to study the ways of the cunning minimalist.

This is a species of worker, common to every office, who instinctively knows how to avoid the tiresome, invisible work that makes life easier for colleagues but gains little attention or credit.

Instead, they focus on high profile stuff. The boss’s pet project. Work that gets noticed, inside and preferably outside too, because doing it makes one more marketable and thus invincible.

I wish I could say I came up with the cunning minimalism term that so aptly describes this unvirtuous circle of craftiness, but I did not.

I heard it the other day from a despairing friend who was trying to work out how she and her husband could juggle another spate of home-schooling and childcare on top of their demanding jobs.

“Both of us have always believed that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead, so that’s what we’ve always done,” she said. “But it’s killing us now so I’ve decided we have to be cunning minimalists and be more strategic about what we do or don’t do to get by.”

She was joking, mostly, but not entirely. The trouble was that she, like me, was so averse to the idea of shirking that she had never worked out how to be a successful minimalist, cunning or otherwise, despite years of close observation.

The first time I noticed a master in action I was working in an Australian newsroom that, like a lot of other places, had a rota for weekend shifts. Everyone was on it except for one middle-aged reporter. His absence meant that everyone else had to do a bit more work.

“How come he doesn’t have to work on Sundays?” I asked a manager one day. The manager’s face clouded as he explained the man had refused to do weekend work and no one, including the editor, was inclined to make him.

This did the man no harm at all. He proceeded to glide from job to golden job in a career that glistened with awards, acclaim and book deals.

How did he do it? The same way I have watched countless others do it in every place I’ve worked at since. He was grumpy and slightly intimidating, so managers disliked asking him to do something if a nicer, more agreeable person could do it instead.

He was also an expert at saying no, a skill the nicer people often lacked, and adept at staying onside with the boss and the boss’s most powerful lieutenants.

Crucially, he was rarely in the office, which meant he avoided being asked to do things in the first place.

Covid-19 has upset this strategy in two distinct ways. First, hiding outside the office can be less of a foolproof ploy if everyone is working from home and managers feel the need to keep a closer eye on who is doing what.

Far more importantly, dumping extra work on colleagues has gone from being vaguely unpleasant to potentially dangerous.

Before the pandemic took hold, chronic work stress had become such a widespread problem that the World Health Organization officially listed burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.

The same year, close to 30 per cent of US workers said they felt burnt out at work “very often” or “always”. Once Covid hit, another survey found 41 per cent of US workers who had managed to keep their jobs felt their work was burning them out.

In other words, the cunning minimalist has become an increasingly risky management problem. The resentment they breed was bad enough in good times, but at a time when so many workers face so much hardship and stress, it is intolerable.

More than ever, companies need staff to be as generous and collegial as possible. Letting the minimalists roam free is not just unfair and unreasonable, it also encourages the rest of us to think about joining their ranks to survive.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark

Read More