Uber Cuts 600 Jobs In India Amid Covid-19 Lockdown

Ride hailing company Uber Technologies Inc. is cutting 600 jobs in India amid the impact of continuing coronavirus-related lockdown across the country, reports said citing Uber India and South Asia President Pradeep Parameswaran.

The affected employees include full-time workers in driver and rider support, as well as other functions, and represent around 25% of its workforce in the country.

The affected employees will get a minimum 10-week payout and medical insurance coverage for the next six months. They will be given outplacement support and will allow to retain their laptops. The employees will also have the option to join the Uber talent directory.

The decision is part of the company’s recently announced around 6,700 job cuts across the globe as the coronavirus lockdown has halted businesses globally. Last week, Uber announced plans to lay off around 3,000 more jobs in addition to the earlier announced layoff of 3,700 employees.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi then said the company was concentrating its efforts on core mobility and delivery platforms and resizing company to match the realities of its business due to the impact of the pandemic and the unpredictable nature of any eventual recovery.

Uber’s ride hailing services in India were stopped since late March due to the lockdown, but resumed services earlier this month in about 50 cities.

Uber’s Indian rival Ola last week announced job cuts of over 1,400 employees, representing around 35 percent of its total workforce in the country, citing Covid-19’S unprecedented economic and social destruction.

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Merck Advances Covid Vaccine Candidates in Research Drive

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Merck & Co. moved to bolster the global fight against the coronavirus, unveiling development plans for a pill to the treat the infection and two vaccines to prevent it.

The U.S. drugmaker bought rights to develop a promising antiviral discovered at Emory University and will work with partners to advance candidate vaccines based on the technology behind Ebola and measles immunizations, according to statements on Tuesday.

Chief Executive Office Kenneth Frazier said the pandemic and Merck’s efforts to counter it have delayed planned leadership changes, but galvanized the Kenilworth, New Jersey-based company’s commitment to global solidarity. Even as a rush to restart economies has prompted some nations to compete for vital pharmaceuticals, Merck won’t be pressured to supply any one country, and will prioritize access for health-care workers and others at highest risk, he said.

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Read More: Vaccine Nationalism Puts Global Advocate on Covid Front Line

“This is a global pandemic. No one country can solve it, and we can’t put borders around any one country,” Frazier, 65, said in a phone interview. “If we’re successful, we want to ensure broad, supportable access for whoever needs it, wherever they are.”

Merck shares rose 2.5% in premarket trading. They’ve fallen 16% so far this year.

The company, which over the past century has pioneered inoculations to stop diseases from diphtheria to Ebola, started researching ways to thwart Covid-19 after the pandemic-causing virus was discovered, and has evaluated hundreds of potential vaccines, Frazier said. Below are the highlights of news announced in separate emailed statements:

  • Collaboration with IAVI and funding from BARDA to develop a Covid vaccine using technology behind Merck’s Ebola shot
  • Acquisition of Themis to gain a Covid vaccine candidate that uses measles virus vector platform discovered by the Pasteur Institute
  • Rights to EIDD-2801, an orally available antiviral candidate in early clinical development, bought from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP and discovered at Emory University

Ebola Inspiration

Merck’s immunization against Ebola -- the only one approved by the Food and Drug Administration -- provided a reference point for a candidate Covid vaccine since it confers protection with a single shot and uses technology that’s shown to be safe and effective, Frazier said.

A collaboration with International AIDS Vaccine Initiative Inc., a nonprofit scientific research organization, aims to develop a Covid vaccine by adapting the so-called recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus technology behind Merck’s Ebola shot.

IAVI scientists in Brooklyn are researching the experimental shot, which is receiving funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and may enter human studies later this year.

“We start with a platform we understand,” Frazier said. “We understand how it behaves, how to make it, how to scale it up, because we have experiencing with that platform.”

Measles Vector

Merck will buy Themis, a privately-held biotechnology company, for an undisclosed sum, gaining a Covid-19 vaccine candidate that uses the existing measles virus vector platform. Development of the shot has received support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. It’s slated to start phase 1 clinical studies within weeks, Frazier said.

He said he’s unable to say how much any successful immunization would cost, but that Merck is committed to supplying “affordable access.” Also the company would need to find partners to manufacture them en masse to meet global demand. “We’re prepared to do that,” he said.

Covid-19 Pill

Merck is also pressing ahead with potential treatments for Covid-19. It agreed to buy rights to EIDD-2801, an antiviral compound discovered at Emory University, from Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP, a closely held biotechnology company.

An early stage clinical trial showed it was well-tolerated, while preclinical studies by scientists at Emory and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found it induced mutations in a broad range of coronaviruses, causing them to make catastrophic errors when they replicate. Remdesivir, the antiviral infusion developed by Gilead Sciences Inc. works in a similar way and has been shown to improve outcomes in some patients, Frazier said.

“But importantly, this compound can be given in pill form, which would make it easier to use,” he said.

EIDD-2801 may potentially arrest infections at an earlier stage, he said, adding that it also appears easier to synthesize and manufacture on a large scale.

Earlier Efforts

Merck announced in April a research collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology to investigate and define the molecular mechanisms of the virus and Covid-19, the disease it causes, and identify targets for medicines and vaccines.

That same month, Merck joined the U.S. National Institutes of Health in an effort known as Activ, or Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines. The public-private partnership brought together government health agencies and 16 biopharmaceutical companies with the goal of expediting development and production.

Merck scientists spent time determining optimal research strategies, Frazier said. “They’re asking, what kind of vaccine and therapeutic does the world need to deal not just with the pandemic, but the endemic phase.”

He said the pandemic and the company’s research and development efforts to fight it have disrupted plans to appoint his successor and a replacement for R&D leader Roger Perlmutter, a former president of the American Association of Immunologists who first joined Merck in 1997.

“We’ll get back to normal at some point,” Frazier said. “I’m totally confident in the high quality people who we have behind me and behind Roger Perlmutter.”

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Pandemic May Split Thailand’s Ruling Coalition, Says Opposition

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Thailand’s ruling coalition is at risk of fracturing amid infighting stoked in part by criticism of its response to the Covid-19 induced economic crash, according to the main opposition party.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s administration acted too slowly and lacked a vision for how to fight the fallout, said Sompong Amornvivat, leader of the Pheu Thai party. The next largest opposition party, Move Forward, signaled anti-government protests are likely once a state of emergency ends.

“We’ve seen the weakness in the coalition,” Sompong said in an interview May 22, citing tension between some of the more than a dozen parties in the bloc. “We’ve seen signs of cracks. A people’s movement, and the stability of the government, are the things to watch for.”

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The risk of the coalition splintering could renew questions about whether Prayuth’s military-backed alliance can last its full term to 2023 after taking office in July last year following a disputed election. A political upheaval would add another challenge for an economy facing its worst contraction this year since the Asian financial crisis about two decades ago.

The party leading the coalition, Palang Pracharath, has rejected claims of internal discord and described Prayuth’s response to the crisis as “outstanding.” The comment followed rumors that party leader Uttama Savanayana, also the finance minister, could quit Palang Pracharath to form a new outfit.

Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, a spokesman for Palang Pracharath, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The World Bank estimates the government’s stimulus of 15% of the economy is among the largest in East Asia and the Pacific. Tourism and trade reliant Thailand still faces a contraction of about 6% in 2020, and as many as 10 million jobs could be lost in a country that was already facing rising poverty.

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The stimulus includes emergency cash handouts to spur consumer spending. Almost 29 million people applied for handouts of approximately $155 a month, but only about half qualified, leading to criticism that more needs to be done.

A state of emergency imposed in late March to curb the pathogen is set to be extended to the end of June. At the same time, Prayuth is easing a national lockdown in stages to kickstart the economy after infections dwindled, restricting the official tally to just over 3,000.

Prayuth, a former army chief, seized power in a military coup in 2014, ruled at the head of a junta for five years and returned as leader after the election, which was held under rules crafted during the junta’s tenure.

Before large gatherings were banned due to the virus crisis, he and his backers in the royalist establishment faced escalating protests from critics who dispute the fairness of the poll.

The emergency and lockdown amplified the dissatisfaction, said Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward, the second largest opposition party. Move Forward emerged from the now disbanded Future Forward party, which was dissolved by a court just before the outbreak.

Students were protesting about a lack of opportunities back in January, and now laborers, business owners and the middle class are also reeling, he said, adding it’s as if “their problems are now on steroids.”

A Cabinet reshuffle and a change in policies is likely in the months ahead, said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor in politics at Mahidol University. “A lot of the protest movement that went online during the lockdown will return and intensify,” she said.

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China Pledges to Implement U.S. Trade Deal Amid Rising Tensions

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China reiterated a pledge to implement the first phase of its trade deal with the U.S. despite setbacks from the coronavirus outbreak, and as tensions escalate between the world’s two biggest economies.

“We will work with the United States to implement the phase one China-U.S. economic and trade agreement,” Premier Li Keqiang told an annual gathering of lawmakers in Beijing on Friday. “China will continue to boost economic and trade cooperation with other countries to deliver mutual benefits.”

Over the past two years, the Trump administration had imposed punitive duties on roughly $360 billion in Chinese goods, and China retaliated by raising levies on more than half of America’s exports. The two sides signed a phase-one trade pact on Jan. 15 and rolled back some of the tariffs, but the agreement has come under treat as the two nations escalate disputes on many fronts.

The centerpiece of the January agreement was China’s promises to buy more U.S. goods and services, but even before the coronavirus hit analysts were questioning whether those targets were realistic. Now, with both Chinese demand and U.S. manufacturing and transport capacity down due to the virus — and prices falling for energy and other goods — those promises look even further out of reach.

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this month pledged to create favorable conditions for implementing the trade deal and cooperating on the economy and public health. But President Donald Trump said later in an interview that he is having “a very hard time with China” and last week said the U.S. would “save $500 billion” if it cut off ties with China.

China on Friday also abandoned its usual practice of setting a numerical target for economic growth this year due to the turmoil caused by the virus, breaking with decades of Communist Party planning habits in an admission of the deep rupture that the disease has caused.

Beijing is using the legislative session to pass a bill establishing “an enforcement mechanism for ensuring national security” for Hong Kong, setting up a potential showdown with Trump, who has come under pressure in Washington to reconsider the city’s special trading status. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has delayed an annual report on whether the city still enjoys a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing, telling reporters Wednesday that he was “closely watching what’s going on there.”

— With assistance by Sharon Chen, and Miao Han

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Democrats Propose Federal Jobs Program For Those Unemployed By Coronavirus

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative established a series of government programs and agencies that put thousands of Americans back to work, building large-scale infrastructure and conservation projects.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats proposed a similar program designed to employ those who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, which this week numbered more than 38 million people.

The Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act of 2020, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, would give states and localities $100 billion in grants to hire and train newly unemployed workers to perform pandemic response work, including contact tracing, surveillance, mitigation and cleaning services.

“With nearly 40 million people unemployed, we need solutions that meet the scale of the problem,” Schatz said in a statement. “Our bill will put people back to work and provide the workforce we need to stop the spread of the coronavirus and help us safely reopen.”

Senators who co-sponsored the measure included Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Contact tracing is a critical tool in fighting highly infectious diseases. It’s been used to fight other viruses, including Ebola. Countries such as South Korea have used it and other surveillance methods to bring their coronavirus caseloads close to zero.

Without federal guidance on contact tracing, states have pushed forward with their own plans to hire armies of contact tracers in an effort to curb coronavirus spread.

California is planning on fielding a force of 10,000 state employees to track those who have been infected with the virus, for example. Other states — such as Washington, West Virginia, Iowa, North Dakota and Rhode Island — are using National Guard personnel to trace contacts.

Still, not every state government has the resources to marshal huge cadres of people dedicated to tracking the spread of coronavirus. Many states and localities are already facing severe shortages in tax revenue because of stalled economies, a problem that is threatening essential services such as police, fire and sanitation.

The idea of a federal jobs program on the scale of those seen during the Great Depression has barely been discussed in Washington, D.C. Congress has instead focused on other measures to provide relief to Americans ― such as increased unemployment benefits, payroll support and direct checks from the federal government.

Billionaire businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the most prominent voices calling on the government to create a program like the one that Democrats proposed on Thursday. His tweets pushing the idea caught the attention of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Totally agree,” the New York Democrat tweeted in response on Sunday. “It’s time for a Federal Jobs Guarantee.”

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MPTF Nursing Home Reports No New Coronavirus Cases Among Residents In Nearly 6 Weeks

The extraordinary steps taken to combat the coronavirus at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s nursing home in Woodland Hills are paying off. While six residents died in the early days of the outbreak, there have been no deaths there due to the virus since April 23, and no residents have tested positive since April 12. The last caregiver tested positive on April 30, and none has died.

A key tool in keeping the virus in check, said MPTF president and CEO Bob Beitcher, is lots of testing, which was not available in the early days of the pandemic. But even that, he said, is “no silver bullet.”

“Not only is there no silver bullet, but, worse, there are random and invisible bullets – in the form of asymptomatic caregivers – being sprayed at you and it’s hard to defend yourselves against that,” he said. “In terms of changes we’ve made, the biggest single transformative thing is testing. We’ve done close to 2,000 tests in the past six weeks of residents, staff, and private caregivers. We’ve just completed our second round.”

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Going forward, he said, “We will be testing direct caregivers every two weeks and the rest of staff and residents every month. While we’d like to do it more often, this is still very useful. Additionally, every day we are building up our culture of ‘community cares’ – the simple but powerful concept of ‘I don’t want to be the one to get others sick so I will take all precautions to keep myself safe, and in so doing, keep my family safe, my friends safe, my co-workers safe, and my residents safe.’

“This is so critical now that the city is ‘opening up’ a bit,” he said. “We can only control our staff when they’re on campus. What they do at home is their choice and we want to educate and remind that those choices can have a big impact – and staff has seen six people die – on others. We are also very fortunate to be able to do things for staff like feed them for free when they’re on campus, provide meals donated by Amazon Studios and prepared by Jon & Vinny’s every night when they go home; provide hard-to-get groceries curated by Morrison Senior Living, our hospitality partner on campus; provide household goodies from an amazing donation we got from a relief fund in Ohio – all of them good for staff’s households and good for keeping them out of grocery stores.”

Across the country in Englewood, New Jersey, The Actors Fund’s retirement home is also reporting success in battling the virus, with no new cases in nearly a month after losing 11 residents in the early weeks of the contagion.

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