By Powerscourt on 01/12/2020

Powerscourt Coronavirus Briefing – 01 December 2020


The scientists have done their bit by developing vaccines against Covid-19 in record-quick time.  Now it is over to the regulators to approve those medicines before they can be used to vaccinate the entire human race.

The announcement by Moderna, a US biotech company, that it has applied to US and European regulators for approval of its vaccine is one of the big developments of the past 24 hours.

Moderna said its vaccine, currently known as mRNA-1273, was 94.1 per cent effective against the virus in Phase III trials involving 30,000 participants.  The news capped a good November, relatively speaking, in the scientific fight against the pandemic.  Its vaccine is one of several that have been developed at extraordinary pace by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries since the pandemic began.

One comes from Pfizer and BioNTech, a German biotech research company founded by a husband-and-wife couple in Mainz, and is awaiting regulatory approval.  Another has been developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, though it has proved more controversial because its efficacy data varies more than others, depending on dosage.  Russia’s Gamelaya Institute has reported excellent results for its Sputnik V vaccine candidate. The pharmaceutical industry is having a moment.

Moderna said it had asked the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorisation for the vaccine, and the European Medicines Agency for conditional approval.  Other regulatory agencies are also involved, including in the UK, Singapore and Japan.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said:  “We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent disease, hospitalisations and death.”  Moderna had identified “no serious safety concerns to date” from the vaccine, which could be discussed by the FDA as early asthe  17 December, Bancel said.

Alex Azar, the US health secretary, said the first people to get the vaccine would be those most at risk, such as residents of care homes and healthcare workers.

As the US moves President Donald Trump and his relatively laissez-faire attitude to the pandemic, Dr Scott Atlas, his special advisor on the virus, has resigned after a controversial four months in which he repeatedly questioned public health measures and argued with other members of the White House task force. Atlas, a consultant neuroradiologist, had no experience with infectious diseases. His resignation letter, dated December 1, was leaked a day early to Fox News.

Atlas is a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank. That university’s medical faculty lost no time in celebrating his departure. It issued a statement saying: “Dr. Scott Atlas’ resignation today is long overdue and underscores the triumph of science and truth over falsehoods and misinformation.”

The vaccine developments are a big factor in driving US stocks to record highs during November.  Monday was mostly a down day on Wall Street, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average still posted its best monthly performance since January 1987, and hovers just below 30,000.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the market surge is broadening and is no longer confined to Big Tech stocks such as Apple and Facebook.

Yet amid the reasons to be cheerful, some scientists are sounding a note of caution.  Regulators will not just rubber-stamp the vaccines.  Professor Stephen Evans of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC they would need time to investigate issues such as efficacy and safety.

So the pandemic is not going to be halted overnight.  The New York Times has a long report on America’s battle with Covid-19, and its message can be summed up in its headline:  “The Long Darkness Before Dawn.”  It quotes  Ashish Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University, saying “the next three months are going to be just horrible.”

It may not be too bad for the ruling clique in North Korea. According to Reuters, China has provided chairman Kim Jong Un and his family with an experimental coronavirus vaccine, a U.S. analyst said on Tuesday, citing two unidentified Japanese intelligence sources.

Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington, said the Kims and several senior North Korean officials had been vaccinated.

December started with a bang for Asian markets with Tokyo and Shanghai both up about 1.5%.



Consumer & Retail

Arcadia Group Ltd.
The British multinational retailing company went into administration last night. Deloitte announced late on Monday that it had been appointed Arcadia’s administrator and would seek buyers for the group’s brands. Deloitte said Arcadia’s stores would continue to trade, its online platforms would remain operational and supplies to concession partners would continue. It said no redundancies were being immediately announced. “We will be rapidly seeking expressions of interest and expect to identify one or more buyers to ensure the future success of the businesses,” said Matt Smith, Deloitte’s joint administrator. Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group said on Monday it was interested in participating in any Arcadia sale process. Media reports have also identified Marks & Spencer, Next and Boohoo, as well as private equity players, as potential bidders for individual brands.

Debenhams plc
According to media reports this morning, the British sports-fashion retailer JD Sports Fashion plc is to pull out of rescue talks with the British multinational retailer Debenhams plc. The recent collapse of Arcadia is understood to have swayed JD Sports Fashion plc’s decision to buy Debenhams plc. JD Sports was the last remaining bidder for the firm, which is in administration, and up until the end of last week had been closing in on a deal. Debenhams has already cut an estimated 6,500 jobs since May, and now has 12,000 staff. If a buyer is not found for Debenhams, the firm could go into liquidation, or face being wound down. Hilco Capital, a firm that specialises in winding up struggling retailers, was appointed by Debenhams in August to draw up contingency plans. Debenhams said at the time that it was “trading strongly”, despite having issued a string of profit warnings even before the pandemic hit.

Topps Tiles Plc
The UK’s largest tile specialist today announced its annual financial reports for the 52 weeks ended 26 September 2020. The Company posted a 78% slide in full-year profit and did not propose a final dividend as coronavirus restrictions prompted the company to close stores temporarily in the third quarter. The company’s adjusted profit before tax slumped to 3.6 million pounds ($4.82 million) for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 26 from 16 million pounds a year earlier. Commenting on the results, Rob Parker, Chief Executive said: “It has been a year of challenge and change for Topps but we are emerging stronger and refreshed.  Our new financial year has begun strongly, with retail like-for-like sales in the first eight weeks ahead by 19.6%.  With our true omni-channel offer, specialist credentials and strong financial footing, Topps is well-positioned for growth as the UK economy begins to recover.”


Financials & Real Estate 

Custodian REIT plc
The UK commercial real estate investment company today reports its interim results for the six months ended 30 September 2020. The Company announced that the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to impact the property market and its tenants – Custodian REIT has seen a £27.4m (5.1% of property portfolio) valuation decrease during the Period. It reported that EPRA earnings per share for the Period had decreased to 2.6p (2019: 3.4p) due to the reduced level of rent collection and announced a loss before tax of £16.1m (2019: profit of £0.7m). David Hunter, Chairman of Custodian REIT, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced Custodian REIT’s strategy which has always placed income and financial resilience at the heart of the Company’s objectives.  When allied to the appropriate property strategy this focus underpins sustainable dividends, which in turn support total return, and we remain committed to both growing the dividend on a sustainable basis and delivering capital value growth for our shareholders over the long-term.”

The Lindsell Train Investment Trust plc
The equity investment trust today announced its unaudited half-year results for the six months ended 30 September 2020. The Group said that equity markets continued to be volatile during the period associated with uncertainties linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and that the Board is also aware that the UK’s exit from the European Union has introduced elements of political and economic uncertainty. In his statement, Julian Cazalet, the Group’s Chairman, commented: “The coronavirus pandemic has meant that the Company has had to run the great majority of its business remotely since the beginning of the year. I am happy to report that… we have conducted business without interruption and in a seamless way.”

Honeycomb Investment Trust plc
The investment trust today released a monthly factsheet announcing that it had delivered a NAV return of 0.58% for the month, which is equivalent to 6.8% per annum. It stated that its portfolio continues to perform well with a stable performance throughout the Covid period. This stability is driven by the Company’s focus on credit investments secured on loan portfolios of non-bank lenders with strong downside protection from structural seniority and junior cash equity provided by the borrower. The strong level of cash collection along with the low levels of new investments during the Covid period has meant that the investment portfolio has repaid down from £595m in February 2020 to a low £509m in August. This increased to £553m in October through drawdowns under existing investments and the completion of three new investments. The Company affirmed that it has been careful in its deployment and is being highly selective in the new investments it makes.



Covid impact assessment fails to quell Tory revolt over tiers – Financial Times

Secret dossier on coronavirus damage – The Times

Exclusive: GPs warn Covid vaccine roll-out plans could bankrupt them – The Telegraph