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There’s talk prime minister ‘snubbed’ by Indian government

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is this week visiting India, but the young politician — known for rock-star treatment on the international stage — is not getting much of a reception in the South Asian giant.

Media in the country has had its attention occupied by the scandal over the Punjab National Bank fraud case, and top officials have an ax to grind with the Canadian, experts said.

“Mr. Trudeau, I must, say is barely even in the news here,” Vivek Dehejia, a resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, an India-based think tank.

International and Canadian outlets, however, have been making news out of a potential “snub.”

According to many commentators in the media, the Indian government is wary of Trudeau for his alleged ties to advocates for a separate Sikh homeland, called Khalistan, in the Punjab region.

In fact, Canada’s National Post notes that Trudeau’s cabinet has had four Sikhs in it, including one who an Indian official labeled a sympathizer to the separatists. The Canadian leader, the National Post says, once even bragged that his cabinet had more Sikhs in it than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s.

“[The trip] is best described as a slow-moving train wreck … Very little substance has come out of it and very little actually will emerge from this visit apart from some nice photo ops,” Dehejia told CNBC on Wednesday.

Dehejia said he believes Trudeau’s visit was orchestrated to appease the significant Sikh population in Canada, making the international trip essentially about domestic politics. Trudeau’s schedule for his visit to India has been scrutinized for including only half-a-day of official state engagements in New Delhi.



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Saudi fund vulnerable after MBS actions in Khashoggi killing, ex-Obama official says

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The Saudi crown prince’s actions in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi might have left the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund vulnerable to consequences, according to a former leading diplomat in the Obama administration.

The Biden administration on Friday released a previously classified intelligence report that assessed Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the plan to assassinate Khashoggi in 2018.

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, is chaired by MBS. It appears to have played a role in purchasing the aircraft that ferried Khashoggi’s killers to Turkey, where the murder occurred.

“If this is the case, it could become a target for American human rights sanctions,” according to Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State. That could, in turn, “create an economic earthquake,” he said. 

“If the United States determines that the Khashoggi killing was a targeted human rights violation, then the perpetrators and backers of that killing could be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act,” Rubin said. 

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the president to impose economic sanctions, freeze any U.S. assets, and deny entry into the U.S. to any foreign person who has engaged in human rights abuse or corruption, while prohibiting Americans from doing business with him or her. The Magnitsky Act has been used against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies. Putin called it, “A purely political, unfriendly act.”

Shortly after the release of Friday’s intelligence report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. banned 76 people from Saudi Arabia. He called it the “Khashoggi Ban.” Blinken added that the U.S. will not tolerate individuals who threaten or assault activists, dissidents and journalists on behalf of foreign governments. There was, however, no direct action taken against MBS.

The Saudi government rejected the findings of the U.S. report.

Sovereign wealth funds are prevalent among oil-rich countries. They provide a haven where countries can stockpile significant wealth, and store that money in a self-controlled coffer.

Funds like the MBS-chaired Public Investment Fund help buffer countries from oil price shocks that impact its annual fiscal position while also making the country resistant to external financial pressures. The Public Investment Fund has more than $360 billion in assets, and ranks as the eighth-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, based on total assets.

“The Saudi fund, which is nearly five decades old, is massive and guarantees long term financial stability for the Kingdom,” Rubin said. “But it can also be a target for abuse, mismanagement, and corruption.”

In 2018, NBC News learned that the CIA concluded that MBS ordered the hit squad that lured Khashoggi into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, killed him, and cut his body into pieces.

MBS is the heir apparent to the Saudi crown. Rubin told CNBC that his domestic political critics will see the exposure of the Public Investment Fund to potential sanction as another sign of his recklessness and willingness to both risk Saudi assets and put the country in international crosshairs for his personal agenda. 

“The international private sector, which initially shunned Saudi Arabia after the killing of Khashoggi, will also view this as another public relations setback for engagements with Saudi,” Rubin said. “It could also open up the fund to increased scrutiny, lawsuits, and legislative action against the fund’s activities, both from abroad and within Saudi.”

Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon told CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” that President Joe Biden will not make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” because it would imply cutting off the economic and military relationship that the U.S. has with the Saudis.

This, despite, Biden in 2019 saying, “We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

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FDA panel unanimously recommends emergency use

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A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday unanimously backed Johnson & Johnson‘s single-shot coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, a critical step paving the way to distribute a third preventative treatment in the U.S. next week.

The nonbinding decision, which was adopted 22-0, by the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee comes as the Biden administration works to ramp up the supply of vaccine doses and get Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible. U.S. health officials are growing concerned about new, emerging variants of the virus, particularly the B.1.351 strain from South Africa, which has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines that are both on the market and under development. 

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, warned earlier Friday that the declines in Covid-19 cases reported in the U.S. since early January may now be flattening as variants continue to spread.

“Over the last few weeks, cases and hospital admissions in the United States have been coming down since early January and deaths have been declining in the past week,” Walensky said during a White House news briefing. “But the latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially levelling off at still a very high number.”

Scaling-up vaccinations could help blunt the impact of the highly contagious variants, Adam MacNeil, an epidemiologist at the CDC, said during a presentation Friday before the vote. He added that the U.S. “nowhere close” to herd immunity, but vaccinations could help in “moving us closer to filling the herd immunity gap.”

The FDA advisory committee plays a key role in approving flu and other vaccines in the U.S., verifying the shots are safe for public use. While the FDA doesn’t have to follow the advisory committee’s recommendation, it often does. During similar requests by Pfizer and Moderna, the FDA authorized those companies’ vaccinations a day after the committee backed emergency use authorization. If J&J’s follows the pattern, a third vaccine could be authorized on Saturday.

After the vote, Dr. Archana Chatterjee, an infectious disease expert at Chicago Medical School and a voting member of the committee, said J&J’s vaccine will help “meet the needs of the moment” as states complain there is not enough supply of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines.

“We need to get this vaccine out now,” Dr. Jay Portnoy, a professor UMKC School of Medicine and a voting member of the committee, said after the vote. He added, “we’re in a hurry” as the variants pose a threat to the nation’s progress on the pandemic.

Initially, doses would be limited. The U.S. plans to ship 3 million to 4 million doses of J&J’s vaccine to states, pharmacies and community health centers next week, pending FDA authorization, Jeff Zients, President Joe Biden’s Covid czar, told reporters on Wednesday. The company expects to deliver 20 million doses by the end of March, J&J’s vice president of U.S. medical affairs, Dr. Richard Nettles, told House lawmakers on Tuesday. J&J has a deal with the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of June.

Federal and state health officials have been eagerly awaiting the authorization of J&J’s vaccine. Unlike Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, which require two doses given three to four weeks apart, J&J’s requires only one dose, easing logistics for health-care providers. J&J’s vaccine can also be stored at refrigerator temperatures for months, unlike the two other vaccines that have to be stored at sub-zero temperatures.

J&J’s one-dose vaccine “makes it operationally easier in lots of contexts,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the Journal of the American Medical Association during a Q&A event on Friday. “I expect lots of considerations state health departments are having around these vaccines is more about the ease of use of the J&J vaccine and how it might be better suited for some populations.”

An EUA means the FDA will allow some people to receive the vaccine as the agency continues to evaluate data. It isn’t the same as full approval, which requires more data and can typically take several months longer. J&J, like Pfizer and Moderna, has submitted only two months of safety data, but the agency usually requires six months for full approval. The company is asking the FDA to approve the use of the vaccine in people age 18 and older.

J&J submitted its Covid vaccine data to the FDA on Feb. 4. The vaccine’s level of protection varied by region, J&J said, with the shot demonstrating 66% effectiveness overall, 72% in the United States, 66% in Latin America and 57% in South Africa, where the B.1.351 variant is rapidly spreading. However, FDA staff documents show the vaccine was 64% effective in South Africa after about a month. The company said the vaccine prevented 100% of hospitalizations and deaths.

The FDA has indicated it would authorize a Covid-19 vaccine that’s safe and at least 50% effective. The flu vaccine, by comparison, generally reduces people’s risk of getting influenza by 40% to 60% compared with people who aren’t inoculated, according to the CDC.

FDA staff endorsed J&J’s vaccine on Wednesday, saying in documents that the clinical trial results and safety data were “consistent with the recommendations set forth in FDA’s Guidance on Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines to Prevent COVID-19.”

No specific safety concerns of the vaccine were identified when analyzed by age, race and comorbidities, according to the FDA report. Headaches, fatigue and muscle pain were some of the most common side effects among people who received the inoculation, the report said. There were also reports of nausea, fever and pain at the injection site. 

Macaya Douoguih, head of clinical development and medical affairs for J&J’s vaccines division Janssen, told the FDA panel on Friday that two people suffered severe allergic reactions shortly after getting the vaccine. One of the people was participating in an ongoing trial in South Africa and developed anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction.

The FDA report said there were some Bell’s palsy cases, a condition that causes half of your face to droop, but they were “balanced” with the number generally found in the overall population. The FDA had previously said the condition would be monitored among recipients of vaccines after it was flagged as a potential concern with Pfizer’s shots, noting that it’s not necessarily a side effect but is worth watching out for.

–CNBC’s Hannah Miao contributed to this report.

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Democrats criticize Biden launching airstrikes in Syria without asking Congress

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The U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jets fly in formation during a flyover of military aircraft down the Hudson River and New York Harbor past York City, and New Jersey, U.S. July 4, 2020.

Mike Segar | Reuters

Some Senate Democrats on Friday criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to launch an airstrike Thursday night in Syria without conferring with all of Congress.

The Pentagon briefed congressional leadership before the action, according to a National Security Council spokesman. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff was notified before the strike, according to a Democratic aide.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Friday requested a briefing from the Biden administration on the decision-making behind the airstrikes.

“The American people deserve to hear the Administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress. Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” a statement from Kaine’s office read. Kaine is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There will be a full classified briefing early next week, the NSC spokesman said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee, also called for transparency.

“Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action,” Murphy said in a statement Friday.

A representative for Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s top Democrat, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden on Thursday directed U.S. military airstrikes in eastern Syria against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militia, in response to recent rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.

In a Feb. 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. military base at Irbil in the Kurdish-run region, killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a U.S. service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later, hurting at least one contractor. On Monday, rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions.

“It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether there’s a strategic calculation driving this … recent uptick in attacks or whether this is just a continuation of the sorts of attacks we’ve seen in the past,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a briefing Monday.

“We will hold Iran responsible by the attacks, by the provocations of its proxies,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a separate briefing Monday. The rocket attack in Irbil “remains under active investigation,” he said.

The U.S. airstrikes Thursday garnered Biden some rare praise from the other side of the aisle. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., thanked Biden for the move.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump ordered military strikes in Syria. The move also prompted criticism from Democrats.

“The President must come to Congress and secure an Authorization for Use of Military Force by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives that keep our military safe,” Pelosi tweeted at the time.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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