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EU tries to drum up support for unpopular AstraZeneca shot



French President Emmanuel Macron (L) takes photos with his smartphone from a document held by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) during an EU summit in Brussels on July 20, 2020.

JOHN THYS | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — European officials are coming under increasing pressure to reverse restrictions on who can receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus vaccine, and to drum up support for the shot.

On Monday, France performed a U-turn on previous guidance over who can receive the vaccine, now recommending the AstraZeneca shot to anyone under 75 (up from a previous age limit of 65), including those with pre-existing health problems.

Italy, Sweden and Poland have implemented similarly age-restrictive guidelines on who can receive the AstraZeneca shot, but France’s move has increased expectations that they too could follow suit and offer the jab to older age groups.

A renowned immunologist in Germany earlier this week called on his country to change its stance, echoing comments from other health experts in the country. Speaking to the BBC, Carsten Watzl, head of the German Society for Immunology, urged Chancellor Angela Merkel to take the vaccine live on TV to show it’s safe.

Watzl’s comments come amid tensions over the EU’s slow vaccine rollout and increasing hesitancy over the AstraZeneca shot. In addition, parts of Europe are battling to stave off a third wave of infections, largely caused by the spread of more infectious variants, lending more urgency to the take up of vaccines.

German criticism

What’s gone wrong?

Europe’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, approved the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant and the University of Oxford in January, but France and Germany’s health regulators, among others in Europe, only approved the vaccine for the under-65s, saying there was not enough evidence to prove the vaccine’s effectiveness in the higher age group.

That hesitancy has fed through into lackluster take up of the shot by the public. The AFP news agency reported Monday that only 273,000 AstraZeneca doses had been administered in France out of 1.7 million received as of end-February, citing health ministry figures. Last week, Germany’s health ministry said it had administered only 15% of the Oxford shots it had available, Reuters reported.

Public sentiment has not been helped by somewhat ambivalent comments from some senior European officials.

French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, was quoted in January as telling journalists the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-effective” for over-65s and Merkel, who’s 66, has insinuated she is too old to have the shot, going against data and experts that show the vaccine is safe and effective for the over-65s.

France and Germany’s stance appeared to ignore guidance from the EMA that stated that data showed the vaccine to be effective for anyone aged over 65, the main target group for vaccines given higher risk factors from Covid-19 that are associated with older age.

Since the EMA’s authorization, a growing body of both clinical trial and real-world data involving older age groups has shown that the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine is strongly effective at preventing Covid-19 infection, hospitalizations and deaths.

It has also been shown to reduce transmission of the virus and the U.K.’s decision to delay the second dose of the vaccine, in a bid to offer more people initial protection, has been proved effective too. The U.K. has now vaccinated more than 20 million people with a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Germany has so far inoculated just over 6.3 million people (with 4.2 million of those having received a first dose), according to official data. France has given at least one dose of the vaccine to almost 3 million people, according to the latest data from Sunday.

The Oxford Vaccine Group’s Director Andrew Pollard said Tuesday that real-world data from Britain should be used to inform decision making in other countries in Europe.

Asked if other countries should look at real world data from Public Health England, Pollard said: “I think that the scientific committees in each of these countries will be doing exactly that over the days ahead,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program.

“The strength of evidence that we’re now seeing … all of that is being accessed by scientific committees in different countries, and I’m sure will help support their decision making,” he added.

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Zoom (ZM) earnings Q4 2021



Zoom shares rose as much as 11% in extended trading on Monday after the video-calling software maker reported fiscal fourth-quarter earnings and guidance that were stronger than analysts had expected.

Here’s how the company did:

  • Earnings: $1.22 per share, adjusted, vs. 79 cents per share as expected by analysts, according to Refinitiv
  • Revenue: $882.5 million, vs. $811.8 million as expected by analysts, according to Refinitiv

Revenue grew 369% year over year in the quarter that ended on Jan. 31, according to a statement. In the year-ago quarter people began to use Zoom more heavily as the Covid-19 virus emerged in China, leading to the World Health Organization calling the virus a pandemic in March 2020. In the previous quarter revenue had grown some 367%.

Zoom expanded its gross margin to 69.7% from 66.7% in the prior quarter. That was primarily connected to seasonal audio usage that declines during the holidays, finance chief Kelly Steckelberg said on a Zoom call with analysts.

The company lost fewer customers than executives had expected, she said. Still, churn rates remain higher than they were before the pandemic, and Zoom expects higher churn rates to persist as people start to travel more, Steckelberg said.

The company also posted gains among small customers. Zoom said it had 467,100 customers with more than 10 employees at the end of the fiscal fourth quarter, up 470% on an annualized basis, compared with 354% growth in the previous quarter. The company ended the quarter with $4.24 billion in cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities, up from $1.87 billion in the previous quarter.

The company is open to buying companies while it has more cash. “We just haven’t quite found the right match yet,” Steckelberg said.

During the fiscal fourth quarter Zoom said it had accumulated more than 1 million seats paying for Zoom Phone, a service that allows people to virtually make and receive phone calls, route calls and accept voice mail.

With respect to guidance, for the fiscal first quarter Zoom sees 95 cents to 97 cents in adjusted earnings per share on $900 million to $905 million in revenue, which would imply 175% revenue growth at the middle of the range. Analysts surveyed by Refinitiv had expected 72 cents in adjusted earnings per share on $829.2 million in revenue.

For the full 2022 fiscal year, Zoom called for adjusted earnings of $3.59 to $3.65 per share and $3.76 billion to $3.78 billion in revenue, which would represent 42% growth. Analysts polled by Refinitiv had been looking for $2.96 in adjusted earnings per share and $3.56 billion in revenue.

About half of business is billed monthly, up from 40% in the past year, Steckelberg said.

Excluding the after-hours move, Zoom stock has risen 22% since the start of the year, while the S&P 500 is up less than 4% over the same period.

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Eric Schmidt’s National Security Commission on AI issues China warning



Eric Schmidt speaks during a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference November 5, 2019, in Washington

Alex Wong | Getty Images

The U.S. is drastically underprepared for the age of artificial intelligence, according to a group of experts chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

The National Security Commission on AI warned in a 756-page report on Monday that China could soon replace the U.S. as the world’s “AI superpower” and said there are serious military implications to consider.

“America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era,” wrote Schmidt and vice chair Bob Work, who was previously the deputy secretary of defense in the U.S. “This is the tough reality we must face.”

The commission began its review in March 2019 and this is its final report for the U.S. president and Congress. The 15 members of the commission include technologists, national security professionals, business executives, and academic leaders. Amazon’s next CEO, Andy Jassy, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Microsoft chief scientific officer Eric Horvitz, and Google Cloud AI chief Andrew Moore are all members.

Schmidt and Work say the report presents a “strategy to defend against AI threats, responsibly employ AI for national security, and win the broader technology competition for the sake of our prosperity, security, and welfare.”

A.I. to move beyond sci-fi

They warn that AI systems will be used in the “pursuit of power” and that “AI will not stay in the domain of superpowers or the realm of science fiction.”

The report urges President Joe Biden to reject calls for a global ban on highly controversial AI-powered autonomous weapons, saying that China and Russia are unlikely to keep to any treaty they sign.

“We will not be able to defend against AI-enabled threats without ubiquitous AI capabilities and new warfighting paradigms,” wrote Schmidt and Work.

Samim Wagner, an AI researcher in Berlin, sees things differently, telling CNBC that AI weapons and killer robots will make today’s weapons even more deadly.

“[Adopting AI weapons] is brutal inanity and everyone knows it yet think tank staffers from DC to Beijing keep assuring us it’s ‘progress and necessary’.”

He added: “A real discussion around ‘how AI can help to promote peace globally’ is what is truly required – but you certainly won’t find it on the agenda of Pentagon operatives or intelligence agency billionaires like the Eric Schmidts of the world.”

China has stated that it wants to be a global leader in AI by 2030 and the report’s authors have said it is vital that the U.S. does all it can to eliminate the chance of this happening.

“We must win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China,” said Schmidt and Work. “China’s plans, resources, and progress should concern all Americans. We take seriously China’s ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s AI leader within a decade.”

They added that China’s domestic use of AI is “a chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty.”

A.I. proposals

The commission calls on the U.S. government to more than double its AI research and development spending to $32 billion a year by 2026.

It also suggests establishing a new body to help the country’s president guide the U.S.’s wider AI policies, relaxing immigration laws for talented AI experts, creating a new university to train digitally skilled civil servants, and accelerating the adoption of new technologies by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The report also warns that the U.S. needs to do more to become self-reliant on computer chips, and warns about the dangers of being so dependent on Taiwan’s TSMC.

“Microelectronics power all AI, and the United States no longer manufactures the world’s most sophisticated chips,” wrote Schmidt and Work. “Given that the vast majority of cutting-edge chips are produced at a single plant separated by just 110 miles of water from our principal strategic competitor, we must reevaluate the meaning of supply chain resilience and security.”

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