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Boris Johnson says variant from India more transmissible

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a televised press conference at 10 Downing Street on February 22, 2021 in London, England.

Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Friday that the coronavirus variant first discovered in India has the potential to derail the lockdown easing currently underway in the country.

The U.K. will now accelerate second doses of vaccines for the over-50s and the clinically vulnerable due to concerns over the variant from India.

Speaking at a press conference Friday, Johnson said the variant looked to be more transmissible than other variants, but cautioned that it wasn’t clear by how much. England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, speaking alongside Johnson, added that there’s “confidence” it’s “more transmissible” than the strains already circulating in the country.

Whitty said: “Earlier this week we said that we thought that it was as transmissible as B.1.1.7 and possibly even more so. There is now confidence … that this variant is more transmissible than B.1.1.7.”

The B.1.1.7 variant, known as the U.K. or Kent strain, has an unusually high number of mutations and is associated with a more efficient and rapid transmission of the coronavirus. British scientists first detected this mutation in September last year and by April it had become the dominant strain in the U.S.

Johnson added that there was currently no evidence that the variant would evade the vaccines that are being deployed across the country.

“But I have to level with you, this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress,” Johnson said.

“And I must stress that we will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe.”

Data on the new variant published Thursday by Public Health England showed that the number of cases across the U.K. had risen from 520 last week to 1,313 this week, with most cases concentrated in northwest England and a few clusters in London.

The U.K.’s vaccine rollout has been one of the fastest in the world, with almost 70% of the adult population having received at least one shot. Vaccines are available to anyone over age 38, but the government has said they could be made available to younger people living in multigenerational households.

The next phase of England’s exit from lockdown is scheduled for Monday, when indoor socializing, hospitality and entertainment will resume.

—CNBC’s Elliot Smith contributed to this article.

This is a breaking news story, please check back later for more.

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Fierce competition as UAE digital bank Zand prepares for launch

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Dubai-based digital bank Zand will attempt to attract customers with competitive deposit rates and a digital-first product lineup when it launches later this year, challenging traditional bank rivals as Covid-19 drives a wave of digital adoption in the Gulf.

“We think there is a huge opportunity,” Zand CEO Olivier Crespin said during a CNBC moderated panel session at the Open Banking Ecosystem Summit hosted by QnA International on Monday.

“We are onboarding friends and family on both the retail and corporate side, and we should be ready to go to market in the next couple of months,” added Crespin, who said interest in the Sheikhdoms newest bank had been “very strong” ahead of its official launch date, which is still subject to final administrative and licensing requirements.

Zand plans to be the first fully independent digital bank in the UAE, with a remit to service both retail and corporate customers. Emaar Properties founder Mohamed Alabbar, the developer behind The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, has invested in the company and will serve as chairman.

Other domestic and international backers are yet to be disclosed.

Zand will offer interest rates of “around 2%” on deposits according to Crespin, as it seeks to attract users and compete in the crowded UAE market, where 48 banks already cater to a population of around 10 million people. 

For example, major local incumbents such as First Abu Dhabi Bank and Emirates NBD offer 0.020% and 0.2% respectively on a standard website advertised savings account. Rates are dependent on a multitude of factors, and a proper like-for-like comparison can’t be considered fair until details of Zand’s product offering are released to the public. 

Zand will offer cards, loans, accounts and personal financial management products “comparable to N26 or Revolut” for new retail customers, Crespin said, drawing a comparison with some of Europe’s established neobanks. “We’re also focusing on the corporate side, where we are going to work primarily on supply chain finance,” he added. 

The launch comes as Covid-19 accelerates the adoption of digital services across the Gulf region. Demand for financial technology products among its young and mobile enabled population is rising, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Regional competition

In the UAE, Emirates NBD has already launched digital retail bank Liv and separate digital business bank E20 — leveraging its banking license, large customer base and established brand credibility. Liv claims to have 400,000 users. 

Other banking incumbents have chosen to partner with financial technology platforms as a means to grow their digital presence. Large international digital banks such as Revolut have also signaled an intention to enter the region, promising currency and crypto exchange services, person-to-person payments, and advanced personal finance analytics beyond the standard offering.

The rising competition underscores the challenge for Zand — a start-up that will need to compete on product, service and back-end technology, while still being subject to the same capital requirements and regulations as its traditional bank rivals. 

“The challenge is being able to combine two DNAs — the DNA of banking, which is about risk management, financial expertise and compliance with regulation, and the DNA of digital, which is about customer centricity, better leverage of analytics and the latest technology,” said Crespin, who previously held roles at BNP Paribas, Citi, and DBS Bank. 

Local reaction

Zand will be put to the test when it finally launches, according to big bank executives who also joined Monday’s panel discussion.

“I think it’s a great development,” Bernd van Linder, CEO of Commercial Bank of Dubai, told CNBC. “The challenge that Zand puts to the banking sector, and one that I embrace and look forward to, is to make sure that we become as agile as fast and as innovative as (Zand) will be.”

However, he said: “The big challenge for the digital banks … is to make money while you compete with lots of incumbents that have already developed their digital proposition, and who know how to make money on the back of lending.”

“The competition is going to be fierce,” Boutros Klink, CEO of Standard Chartered Middle East, told CNBC when asked about digital-first rivals in the region. “It’s exciting, and we need to do what we need to do to stay ahead of the curve,” he added.

“Some will survive, and some will fail, without a doubt.”

 

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BuzzFeed announces plans to go public via SPAC

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Jonah Peretti, Founder and CEO, Buzzfeed, speaks at the Wall Street Journal Digital Conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., October 18, 2017.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

BuzzFeed, a 15-year-old digital media company, announced Thursday it plans to go public via a merger with a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company. 

The company, merging with 890 Fifth Avenue Partners, is targeting a $1.5 billion valuation. The deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter.

BuzzFeed also plans to acquire Complex Networks, a digital publisher that specializes in streetwear, music and culture, for $300 million. The deal is made up of $200 million in cash and $100 million of equity in BuzzFeed, the company said. They added it will “immediately accelerate BuzzFeed’s revenue growth.”

“With this acquisition, BuzzFeed becomes even better-positioned to thrive in an age of media consolidation,” the company said. BuzzFeed in November acquired news site HuffPost from Verizon Media for an undisclosed amount.

BuzzFeed generated $321 million in annual revenue and $31 million in adjusted EBITDA in 2020, in large part due to its e-commerce business, a spokesperson previously told CNBC. The company is estimating $654 million in revenue in 2022 and $117 million in adjusted EBITDA, according to an investor presentation.

SPAC deals have become an increasingly popular route to go public over this past year. Several digital publishers, including Bustle Digital Group, Vox Media and Vice Media, had held talks about a market debut via a SPAC, CNBC previously reported.

BuzzFeed will trade under the ticker symbol “BZFD” on the Nasdaq. The company said its management team will stay in place following the deal, with founder Jonah Peretti remaining CEO and Felicia DellaFortuna as its CFO.

“With today’s announcement, we’re taking the next step in BuzzFeed’s evolution, bringing capital and additional experience to our business,” Peretti said in a statement. The company has also bulked up its business in other areas, leaning into e-commerce, selling things like branded cookware, and affiliate commerce.

This story is developing. Please refresh for updates.

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Singapore to expand its vaccination campaign to everyone 12 and older on July 2

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People wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore.

Maverick Asio | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Singapore will expand its Covid vaccination program to all residents 12 and older starting early next month.

The government said Thursday that some permanent residents and long-term pass holders can begin booking appointments on July 2.

Since June 11, citizens between the ages of 12 and 39 had a priority window to book vaccinations. Singaporeans were originally given a two-week window, but the Ministry of Health said that period will be extended by one week.

Authorities approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old in mid-May.

The Southeast Asian country has one of the fastest vaccination rollouts in Asia-Pacific, but lags many countries in the West.

The health ministry said around 3 million people have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine so far, of whom 2 million have been fully vaccinated. Singapore’s population is around 5.8 million people.

Accelerating vaccinations

Singapore will be ramping up its inoculation campaign, increasing daily doses to 80,000, up from 40,000 in May, authorities said.

The country previously extended the duration between first and second doses in order to allow more people to receive their first shot. But as the country speeds up its rollout, officials said some people who have already booked appointments will be able to receive their second shots sooner.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Singapore aims to have two-thirds of its population fully vaccinated by August 9, the country’s National Day.

Ong added that the country has signed an advanced purchase agreement with biotech firm Novavax. Last week, the company said its vaccine candidate was 90.4% effective overall in a phase three clinical trial.

“We hope the vaccine supplies can arrive before the end of the year for those who want to take something that is not mRNA,” he said. “But in the meantime, please continue to consider mRNA vaccines. They work very well.”

Restrictions could potentially be loosened for fully vaccinated people

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs Singapore’s Covid taskforce, also said authorities are discussing revising public health guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated.

“We could allow gatherings involving just vaccinated persons to have larger group sizes, and also relax the social distancing rules in such settings,” he said during a press conference, adding that this could apply to religious services, concerts and sporting events.

Wong added that the government is working on new guidelines for people in Singapore to be able to travel. For example, stay-home notices or hotel quarantines may be waived or shortened for vaccinated people, depending on the country they are returning from, he said.

“These are the, potentially, revised guidelines that will apply to vaccinated persons. We are still working through them and we will announce them when we are ready,” he said.

As of Thursday, Singapore has reported 62,493 cases of Covid-19 infections and 35 deaths.

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