Cambridge Analytica and British parent shut down after Facebook scandal

The nameplate of political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, is seen in central London
The nameplate of political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, is seen in central London, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

May 3, 2018

(Reuters) – Cambridge Analytica, the firm embroiled in a controversy over its handling of Facebook Inc user data, and its British parent SCL Elections Ltd, are shutting down immediately after suffering a sharp drop in business, the company said on Wednesday.

The company will begin bankruptcy proceedings, it said, after losing clients and facing mounting legal fees resulting from the scandal over reports the company harvested personal data about millions of Facebook users beginning in 2014.

“The siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” the statement said.

“As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the company into administration.”

Allegations of the improper use of data for 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. election campaign, has hurt the shares of the world’s biggest social network and prompted multiple official investigations in the United States and Europe.

“Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company’s efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas,” the company’s statement said.

The firm is shutting down effective Wednesday and employees have been told to turn in their computers, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier.

The Cambridge Analytica sign had been removed from the reception area of its London offices on Wednesday. At SCL’s Washington, D.C. office, a man declined to answer questions from a Reuters reporter.

After the announcement, Britain’s data regulator said it would continue civil and criminal investigations of the firm and will pursue “individuals and directors as appropriate” despite the shutdown.

“We will also monitor closely any successor companies using our powers to audit and inspect, to ensure the public is safeguarded,” a spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office said in a statement.

Cambridge Analytica was created around 2013 initially with a focus on U.S. elections, with $15 million in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, the New York Times reported.

Cambridge Analytica marketed itself as a provider of consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-related services to both political and corporate clients.

After Trump won the White House in 2016, in part with the firm’s help, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix went to more clients to pitch his services, the Times reported last year. The company boasted it could develop psychological profiles of consumers and voters which was a “secret sauce” it used to sway them more effectively than traditional advertising could.

One unanswered question in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether there was any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia is whether Russia’s Internet Research Agency or Russian intelligence used data Cambridge Analytica obtained from Facebook or other sources to help target and time messages during the campaign that were anti-Hillary Clinton, pro-Trump and politically and racially divisive.

Bannon was a former vice president of the London-based firm, and Mueller has asked it to provide internal documents about how its data and analyses were used in the Trump campaign, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington, Andy Bruce in London and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Patrick Graham and Bill Rigby)

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Beancounting: the EU’s “coffee-a-day” new budget

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels
FILE PHOTO: European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

April 30, 2018

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission will unveil proposals on Wednesday for the Union’s next seven-year budget, starting in 2021.

Worth over a trillion euros (dollars), the costs of EU membership played a role in Britain voting to quit the bloc. However, EU leaders insist that spending just about one percent of total income — roughly equal to the cost of one cup of coffee a day for 440 million citizens — brings benefits for security, stability and prosperity.

Here are answers to key questions:

DOES BREXIT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Absolutely. Despite a large and much envied British rebate, the loss of the EU’s second-ranked economy will leave a hole of at least 10 billion euros a year. Rich states such as the Netherlands and Sweden insist they do not want to pay another cent and demand that the budget shrink. They have, however, lost an important ally since Britain was a driving force behind previous cuts. Poorer countries which are net recipients of EU cash, such as Poland, have warned that they will not accept less from Brussels.

WHAT IS THE BUDGET FOR?

The 2014-20 budget or Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) is 1.1 trillion euros or 155 billion a year and, when agreed in 2013 was worth 1.03 percent of the bloc’s economic output. It represents 2.2 percent of public spending in the 28 EU states.

Most goes on subsidizing farmers, improving poorer regions and promoting cooperation across the bloc. About 39 percent goes on farm support, rural development and related areas and 34 percent on economic, social and regional cohesion. Lawmaking and administration costs about 10 billion euros a year, or 6 percent.

WILL THAT CHANGE?

Yes. Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has promised to propose spending at least as great as at present despite Brexit — at least 1.1 percent of the EU’s Brexit-diminished output and possibly close to 1.2 percent — he calls it “1.1x percent”.

EU leaders expect to put more cash into:

– policing frontiers to control immigration — one source told Reuters the Commission will propose quintupling spending on border guards to 25 billion euros over 2021-7;

– science and technology research and cooperation;

– joint EU defence projects, especially on procurement.

To make room for that, Oettinger has spoken of cuts of about six percent in spending on agricultural and regional support.

SO THAT’S ALL SETTLED?

Far from it. The last MFF negotiations went down to the wire, taking two and a half years of haggling. Member states and the European Parliament are set for tough talks, though there is an informal deadline of agreement in the middle of next year.

Germany and France, the biggest paymasters putting in 19 and 17 percent of the budget respectively, are ready to plug some of the Brexit gap if the budget suits their new priorities. Paris, for example, wants to see some budget allocated to the 19-member euro zone as part of plans to bolster the EU single currency. With its traditionally strong farm lobby, France is also likely to defend farmers from pressure to cut back on EU subsidies.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST FIGHT?

Aside from possible reforms to the farm budget, officials expect the biggest fight to be one that pits poor, ex-communist countries in the east against rich net contributors in the west over what Brussels sees are threats to democracy and the rule of law, notably in Poland and Hungary. Leaders there deny they are breaking EU laws and values to entrench their own power.

EU officials have told Reuters their proposals include a dramatic novelty which will tie disbursement of EU funds that via national and regional governments to authorities’ provision of functioning judicial systems capable of enforcing EU rules. Expect Poland and Hungary to lead a vocal push back.

(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald ; @macdonaldrtr; editing by David Stamp)

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Investors demand more changes at Thyssenkrupp ahead of review

FILE PHOTO: Thyssenkrupp's logo is seen close to the elevator test tower in Rottweil
FILE PHOTO: Thyssenkrupp’s logo is seen close to the elevator test tower in Rottweil, Germany, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle/File Photo

April 27, 2018

By Christoph Steitz and Tom Käckenhoff

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – With a planned steel joint venture in reach, Thyssenkrupp <TKAG.DE> has pledged to refine its strategy by the second half of the year, with some shareholders expecting more radical and structural changes to remove a discount on the stock.

Much of Thyssenkrupp’s future set-up depends on a 50-50 steel venture with India’s Tata Steel <TISC.NS>, a transaction that was delayed earlier this month due to ongoing talks between Tata and workers in Britain and the Netherlands.

As part of the annual strategy dialogue between management and the supervisory board, Thyssenkrupp Chief Executive Heinrich Hiesinger has pledged to “hone our strategic vision and also adapt our financial targets accordingly”.

This has fueled hopes the group could give in to demands to simplify its complex structure, similar to a broader strategy overhaul unveiled in 2011, which led the group to pull out of a substantial part of its steel activities.

“It is hard to believe management will not feel under some pressure to come up with something equally as radical this time around,” Credit Suisse analysts wrote.

Below are some key shareholder demands:

UNTANGLING COMPLEXITY

The steel-to-submarines group should make a more profound change to its structure and explore strategic solutions for its businesses, investors such as Cevian, the group’s second-largest shareholder, have said.

“My expectation is they will look carefully at the strategy and also challenge the current structure,” Tomas Johansson, portfolio manager at SKAGEN Funds, said.

In the last financial year, the company’s corporate functions cost Thyssenkrupp 535 million euros ($652 million) in adjusted operating profit (EBIT), nearly as much as its steel division raked in.

MATERIALS SERVICES

Investors expect Thyssenkrupp to explore a sale of its materials trading division, its largest by sales. Parts of the unit, which does not belong to Thyssenkrupp’s industrial goods business, have already been labeled non-core.

Smaller peer Kloeckner & Co <KCOGn.DE> has repeatedly expressed interest in the unit, adding it would need a partner to pursue a deal as Materials Services is more than twice as big in terms of revenue.

Help could come from private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg Vogel, which bought Thyssenkrupp’s former alloys business, VDM, in 2015 and whose Chairman Dieter Vogel also leads Kloeckner’s supervisory board. Lindsay Goldberg Vogel declined to comment.

EUROPEAN STEEL

Thyssenkrupp could reveal details about a potential listing of the planned joint venture with Tata Steel, a move expected by investors but only possible once the deal is closed. Thyssenkrupp has said that listing the entity is an option.

The cornerstone of Thyssenkrupp CEO Heinrich Hiesinger’s restructuring plan, the combination of Tata Steel’s and Thyssenkrupp’s European steel operations could lead to 400-600 million euros in synergies.

“Mr Hiesinger has put all his eggs into one basket. If the deal with Tata collapses he will have to pick up the pieces. He will do everything to make sure that does not happen,” said Ingo Speich, fund manager at Union Investment.

ELEVATOR TECHNOLOGY

Thyssenkrupp’s most profitable division, Elevator Technology accounts for most of the group’s operating profit, with some investors calling for a listing or other strategic solution for the unit to unlock its value.

Although key executives at Thyssenkrupp have repeatedly said that elevators are a core business, this has not quelled speculation that Finnish peer Kone <KNEBV.HE> might be interested in a deal.

An elevator joint venture between the two groups, which also compete with Schindler <SCHP.S>, Otis <UTX.N> and Mitsubishi Electric <6503.T>, could yield annual synergies of more than 570 million euros, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

($1 = 0.8209 euros)

(Additional reporting by Simon Jessop in London; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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Trump, France’s Macron face differences at glitzy state visit

April 24, 2018

By Jeff Mason and Marine Pennetier

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump treated French President Emmanuel Macron to a colorful welcome ceremony at the White House on Tuesday during a state visit that threatened to expose differences on Iran, trade and Syria between two close allies.

A 21-gun salute echoed across the South Lawn and a flute-playing fife and drum corps, in red-coated uniforms and tri-corner hats, marched by Trump and Macron and their wives, Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron.

The two leaders were then to launch into a morning of talks expected to include how to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump wants to withdraw the United States from unless European powers strengthen its terms.

In the evening, the Trumps are to host the Macrons at the first state dinner conducted by Trump since he took power.

European calls for exemptions from Trump’s plan for 25 percent tariffs on steel imports are also on their agenda, as well as the U.S. president’s desire to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria as soon as practicable.

Macron, whose visit will be followed by one on Friday from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sees the Iran deal as the best available option to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He has called on Trump to keep troops in Syria for the time being to ensure the defeat of Islamic State militants.

Trump, in welcoming remarks, thanked France for joining with the United States and Britain in launching airstrikes in Syria earlier this month in response to a chemical weapons attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He said he and Macron had developed over the past year “a wonderful friendship” that is “a testament to the enduring friendship that binds our two nations.”

Macron, in his remarks, called for the two countries to work together against Islamist militants, on North Korea and Iran, on “free and fair trade,” and on climate change.

“It is together that we will counter the proliferation in weapons of mass destruction, whether it is in North Korea or in Iran,” Macron said.

He alluded to Trump’s withdrawal last year from the Paris climate accord, saying “we do not always agree on the solution,” but stressed “the fate of our children is at stake.”

(Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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Pliskova and Kvitova give Czechs commanding lead over Germany


April 21, 2018

(Reuters) – Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova won their opening singles matches to give Czech Republic a commanding 2-0 lead in their Fed Cup semi-final against Germany in Stuttgart on Saturday.

Kvitova powered past German number one Julia Goerges 6-3 6-2 before Pliskova produced a sublime display to record a 7-5 6-3 victory over Angelique Kerber.

Pliskova, who had lost in her previous three encounters with Kerber, fired 15 aces and faced no break points as she subdued the home fans in Stuttgart.

“No one expected it,” Pliskova said after the German failed to win a set on day one.

Kvitova recorded her 29th Fed Cup victory on the back of a strong serve and a string of blistering groundstrokes.

World number 11 Goerges was stronger in the opening exchanges and raced to a 3-1 lead in the first set before Kvitova rediscovered her rhythm to level things up.

The 28-year-old Czech claimed nine of the last 11 games and dropped just two points on her serve to seal the victory on the stroke of an hour.

The 10-time champion Czechs are looking to reach the Fed Cup final after a one-year absence. The last time Germany won the Fed Cup title was in 1992 in Frankfurt.

(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Clare Fallon)

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EU edges closer to new Iran sanctions ahead of Trump deadline, envoys say

April 18, 2018

By Robin Emmott and John Irish

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – European Union governments are showing more support for the idea of new sanctions on Iran proposed by Britain, France and Germany as a way of dissuading U.S. President Donald Trump from pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, diplomats say.

London, Paris and Berlin angered their EU partners in March when they tried to move quickly with a proposal to impose sanctions on 15 senior Iranian officials, military figures and companies, before a May 12 deadline set by Trump.

But assurances from U.S. government officials that such sanctions could influence Trump, who has given Europe until next month to “fix” what he says is “the worst deal ever negotiated”, as well as a less confrontational approach by London, Paris and Berlin, appear to be winning other EU members over.

Diplomats also said EU governments were under more pressure to protest against Iran’s role in Syria’s civil war following an April 7 suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus which the West blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s not a ‘done deal’ but several states have dropped their resistance,” one diplomat said, citing Spain, Austria and Sweden which had recently joined a majority in favor.

Following meetings in Washington, Luxembourg and Brussels over the past week, Britain, France and Germany have agreed to take a more consensual approach to winning over the other 25 EU governments, which must all agree to the measures, envoys said.

That now includes a formal study of the potential political and economic impact of the proposed travel bans, asset freezes and other steps.

That could be followed by a final round of debate among EU envoys in Brussels, or, if all countries see only a modest sanctions’ impact, a formal document bringing the measures could come into effect in the next few weeks.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are both due to meet Trump in separate visits to Washington next week and are expected to discuss the Iran deal.

ITALIAN HOLDOUT

New EU sanctions are part of a multi-pronged approach being negotiated with senior U.S. government officials to show Trump that scrapping the pact between Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – could be devastating for the Middle East. 

However, Italy, which January signed a 5-billion-euro ($6 billion) investment deal with Tehran in January, fears sanctions could damage efforts to rebuild a business relationship with Iran that once made Tehran the EU’s second-biggest oil customer.

Following inconclusive elections in Italy last month, diplomats say the caretaker government in Rome may tell its EU partners it cannot support any new sanctions.

Italian diplomats also questioned whether sanctions would really sway Trump, as some U.S. officials believe they could.

But agreeing sanctions before Trump’s May deadline may be less important than actually getting them approved. The European Union wants to show its anger at Tehran’s support for Assad.

“What is crucial is that there is a goal that has been set and that the Europeans share concerns on Iran’s ballistic and regional activity,” a second diplomat said.

According to the sanctions proposal sent to EU capitals and seen by Reuters, Paris, Berlin and London are also concerned by Iran’s ballistic weapon program, accusing Tehran of “transfers of Iranian missiles and missile technology” to Syria and allies of Tehran in Yemen and Lebanon.

Iran says its missiles are for defensive purposes only.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Facebook fuels broad privacy debate by tracking non-users

FILE PHOTO: Facebook CEO Zuckerberg testifies before a U.S. Senate joint hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
FILE PHOTO: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

April 15, 2018

By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Concern about Facebook Inc’s <FB.O> respect for data privacy is widening to include the information it collects about non-users, after Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said the world’s largest social network tracks people whether they have accounts or not.

Privacy concerns have swamped Facebook since it acknowledged last month that information about millions of users wrongly ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, a firm that has counted U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign among its clients.

Zuckerberg said on Wednesday under questioning by U.S. Representative Ben Luján that, for security reasons, Facebook also collects “data of people who have not signed up for Facebook.”

Lawmakers and privacy advocates immediately protested the practice, with many saying Facebook needed to develop a way for non-users to find out what the company knows about them.

“We’ve got to fix that,” Representative Luján, a Democrat, told Zuckerberg, calling for such disclosure, a move that would have unclear effects on the company’s ability to target ads. Zuckerberg did not respond. On Friday Facebook said it had no plans to build such a tool.

Critics said that Zuckerberg has not said enough about the extent and use of the data. “It’s not clear what Facebook is doing with that information,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington advocacy group.

COOKIES EVERYWHERE

Facebook gets some data on non-users from people on its network, such as when a user uploads email addresses of friends. Other information comes from “cookies,” small files stored via a browser and used by Facebook and others to track people on the internet, sometimes to target them with ads.

“This kind of data collection is fundamental to how the internet works,” Facebook said in a statement to Reuters.

Asked if people could opt out, Facebook added, “There are basic things you can do to limit the use of this information for advertising, like using browser or device settings to delete cookies. This would apply to other services beyond Facebook because, as mentioned, it is standard to how the internet works.”

Facebook often installs cookies on non-users’ browsers if they visit sites with Facebook “like” and “share” buttons, whether or not a person pushes a button. Facebook said it uses browsing data to create analytics reports, including about traffic to a site.

The company said it does not use the data to target ads, except those inviting people to join Facebook.

TARGETING FACEBOOK

Advocates and lawmakers say they are singling out Facebook because of its size, rivaled outside China only by Alphabet Inc’s <GOOGL.O> Google, and because they allege Zuckerberg was not forthcoming about the extent and reasons for the tracking.

“He’s either deliberately misunderstanding some of the questions, or he’s not clear about what’s actually happening inside Facebook’s operation,” said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Zuckerberg, for instance, said the collection was done for security purposes, without explaining further or saying whether it was also used for measurement or analytics, Gillmor said, adding that Facebook had a business incentive to use the non-user data to target ads.

Facebook declined to comment on why Zuckerberg referred to security only.

Gillmor said Facebook could build databases on non-users by combining web browsing history with uploaded contacts. Facebook said on Friday that it does not do so.

The ACLU is pushing U.S. lawmakers to enact broad privacy legislation including a requirement for consent prior to data collection.

The first regulatory challenge to Facebook’s practices for non-users may come next month when a new European Union law, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), takes effect and requires notice and consent prior to data collection.

At a minimum, “Facebook is going to have to think about ways to structure their technology to give that proper notice,” said Woodrow Hartzog, a Northeastern University professor of law and computer science.

Facebook said in its statement on Friday, “Our products and services comply with applicable law and will comply with GDPR.”

The social network would be wise to recognize at least a right to know, said Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor.

“If I’m not a Facebook user, I ought to have a right to know what data Facebook has about me,” Froomkin said.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Peter Henderson and Richard Chang)

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Trump says Syria attack ‘could be very soon or not so soon’

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma
A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

April 12, 2018

By Makini Brice, Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin

WASHINGTON/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump cast doubt on Thursday over the timing of his threatened strike on Syria in response to a reported poison gas attack, while France said it had proof of Syria’s guilt but needed to gather more information.

Fears of confrontation between Russia and the West have been running high since Trump said on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” after the suspected chemical weapons assault in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” the U.S. president said in his latest early morning tweet on Thursday.

French President Emmanuel Macron said France has proof the Syrian government carried out the attack, which aid groups have said killed dozens of people, and will decide whether to strike back when all the necessary information has been gathered.

“We have proof that last week … chemical weapons were used, at least with chlorine, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Macron said, without offering details of any evidence.

“We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective,” he told broadcaster TF1.

Prime Minister Theresa May prepared to convene a special cabinet meeting at 1430 GMT to weigh whether Britain should join the United States and France in a possible military action.

May recalled ministers from their Easter holiday to debate action over what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack in Douma, then rebel-held, just east of the capital Damascus.

There were signs, though, of a global effort to head off a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.

“The situation in Syria is horrific, the use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent,” Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis said.

“But also it’s a very, very delicate circumstance and we’ve got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well thought-through basis.”

There was no direct word from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis, though he discussed the situation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan by phone on Thursday, Interfax news agency said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow sought no escalation of the situation, but that it could not support “dishonest accusations” and it had found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Statements from Washington have been militaristic, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, and threats by the United States and France were a violation of the U.N. charter.

NAVAL MANEUVERS

Syria’s military has repositioned some air assets to avoid missile strikes, U.S. officials told Reuters. Locating them alongside Russian military hardware might make Washington reluctant to hit them.

Russian ships had left the Tartus naval base in Syria, Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying. Vladimir Shamanov, who chairs the defence committee of the lower house, said the vessels had departed the Mediterranean base for their own safety, which was “normal practice” when there were threats of attack.

For its part, the Russian military said it had observed movements of U.S. Navy forces in the Gulf. Any U.S. strike would probably involve the navy, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defences. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.

Moscow’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, warned on Wednesday that any U.S. missiles unleashed at Syria would be shot down and the launch sites targeted.

Russia, Assad’s most important ally in his seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.

“They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying.

Assad said any Western action “will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region, threatening international peace and security”, Syrian state TV reported.

The Syrian conflict has increasingly widened the rifts between Moscow, Washington and European powers and inflamed the bitter rivalries that run across the Middle East.

Syria, Russia and Iran say reports of the attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers in Douma and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the government.

Nervous world stock markets showed signs of recovery after Trump signaled military strikes might not be imminent.

ISRAELI AIR STRIKE

Syria and its allies Russia and Iran say Israel was behind an air strike on a Syrian air base on Monday that killed seven Iranian military personnel, something Israel has neither confirmed nor denied.

Russia’s Putin spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday and urged him to do nothing to destabilize Syria. Netanyahu’s office said: “The prime minister reiterated that Israel will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said the Western threats were “based on lies” about the poison gas assault, after meeting Assad. He said later he hoped Syria’s army and its allies would drive U.S. troops out of eastern Syria, and take Idlib in the northwest from rebels.

May has ordered British submarines to move within missile range of Syria in readiness for strikes against the Syrian military that could begin as early as Thursday night, London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said on Wednesday.

The BBC reported that May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in military action. She would not seek approval from parliament, the BBC said.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said parliament must be consulted.

Parliament voted down British military action against Assad’s government in 2013 in an embarrassment for May’s predecessor, David Cameron. That then deterred the U.S. administration of Barack Obama from similar action.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, William James in London, Andrew Osborn, Maria Kiselyova and Jack Stubbs in Moscow, John Irish in Paris and Graham Fahy in Dublin; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Richard Balmforth)

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Merck’s Keytruda helps lung cancer patients live longer in trial

US-MERCK-CO-STUDY
Merck’s cancer drug Keytruda. REUTERS/via Merck

April 9, 2018

By Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – Merck & Co’s <MRK.N> blockbuster drug Keytruda helped previously untreated lung cancer patients live longer in a late-stage trial, potentially cementing its position as the dominant player in the lucrative lung cancer market.

Shares of the drugmaker were up 3.1 percent at $55.07.

Merck is already considered the frontrunner in the space and Keytruda is expected to earn peak sales of over $10 billion in 2023, according to Credit Suisse.

Keytruda is already approved in the U.S. to treat patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who have not received prior therapies and whose tumors show PD-L1 protein levels of 50 percent or greater.

If the company can show that the new data benefits patients whose PD-L1 expression is between 1 and 49 percent, it would expand Keytruda’s market and raise the competitive benchmark for rivals Bristol-Myers Squibb <BMY.N> and AstraZeneca Plc <AZN.L>, BMO Capital Markets analyst Alex Arfaei said.

An independent data monitoring committee determined the trial, which tested Keytruda as a monotherapy to treat NSCLC, extended the lives of patients significantly compared to chemotherapy.

Additional data from Merck, as well as results from trials of competitors, could eventually determine which companies will snatch the largest slice of the pie for the lung cancer market.

“I think the market still believes that there could be other players in the lung cancer market, which would combat overall sales of Keytruda in this setting,” Guggenheim Securities analyst Tony Butler told Reuters.

“Because we don’t know the full data set we don’t know the survival benefit here.”

Based on a recommendation from the committee, the trial will continue to evaluate a secondary goal on whether the treatment can delay the disease from progressing.

“While it is still unclear whether Keytruda and (Bristol-Myers’) Opdivo are truly different in some way, it is crystal clear that Merck has done a much better job designing trials and developing their drug. This will solidify their lead,” said Brad Loncar, chief executive officer of Loncar Investments, which runs the Loncar Cancer Immunotherapy ETF.

Keytruda, which is approved to treat several other forms of cancer including skin and blood cancer, racked up $3.81 billion in revenue in 2017.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and is expected to kill over 154,000 people this year, the American Cancer Society says. NSCLC accounts for about 85 percent of all lung cancer cases, Merck said.

Shares of Bristol-Myers fell 2.3 percent to $59.43.

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Michael Erman in New York; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila, Bernard Orr)

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Apple says repeal of EPA carbon plan would threaten investments

April 6, 2018

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Apple Inc <AAPL.O> said on Friday it opposes any repeal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the Clean Power Plan, which is a priority of the agency’s Administrator Scott Pruitt and would reverse an Obama-era program to curb greenhouse gases.

Repealing the plan would jeopardize the country’s position in the race for investments in clean energy, particularly its competition with China, Apple said. It was the first public comment by a company on the proposed repeal of the plan, which has never been implemented because of legal challenges.

“Repealing the Clean Power Plan will subject consumers like Apple and our large manufacturing partners to increased investment uncertainty,” the California-based company said in a filing to the agency.

Apple, which says it runs its U.S. operations fully on renewable energy such as wind and solar power, added that repeal of the plan would also threaten development and investments that have already been made in renewable power.

Lisa Jackson, who was the EPA’s chief from 2009 to 2013 under former President Barack Obama, runs Apple’s program to address climate change through renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The opposition from one of America’s biggest and best known companies to Pruitt’s planned repeal comes as the EPA head is battling allegations about his ethics, including that he leased a room in a Washington townhouse co-owned by the wife of energy industry lobbyist.

Pruitt proposed last October to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a set of standards for U.S. states intended to cut pollution from power plants, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In December, the EPA launched a comment period for a possible replacement of the plan.

Under Pruitt, the EPA has said the Clean Power Plan was illegal and exceeded the agency’s statutory authority. The plan never went into effect after it was suspended by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. The EPA has not indicated whether or when it would propose a new rule to regulate the emissions.

The proposed repeal is part of Trump’s broader effort to support the coal, oil and natural gas industries and to boost exports of the resources to cut trade deficits.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a response to Apple’s filing that the agency appreciates all public feedback and will be considering the comments as part of the rulemaking process.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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