By Powerscourt on 04/12/2020

Powerscourt Coronavirus Briefing – 04 December 2020


The first vaccines against Covid-19 have arrived in the UK, and collided head-on with an outbreak of medical one-upmanship.

The UK became the first western country to approve a vaccine against the virus earlier this week, which the British government hailed as a world-beating national achievement.  Education secretary Gavin Williamson claimed it was possible because Britain “has better scientists and regulators, and is just a better country, than Belgium, France or the US.”

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) move raised eyebrows among fellow regulators, and British bragging got on European and indeed American nerves.  Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, queried whether the UK regulator had cut corners and said the US Food and Drug Administration was the “gold standard” for drug regulation globally.  An EU spokesman said: “This is not a football competition.”

Fauci backtracked overnight and said he did not doubt the skills of the MHRA.  “We do things differently, that’s all – not better, not worse, just differently,” he told the BBC.  Later he was asked by president-elect Joe Biden to be the incoming administration’s chief medical officer, the New York Times reported. (Dr Fauci will be 80 on Christmas Eve and is two years older than Biden, proof that age discrimination is not an issue).

EU health ministers came under pressure to explain why the MHRA could move quickly while the European Medicines Agency is unlikely to approve the vaccine – developed by Pfizer and BioNTech – until nearer to Christmas.  Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, said:  “The idea is not to be first but to have a safe and efficient vaccine.”  Stephen Donnelly, his Irish counterpart, told RTE: “The UK has eminent scientists and regulators and it is OK for the UK to do it that way, but the EMA is approaching this very professionally.”

As we noted yesterday, the EU is predicted to be four months behind the US and two months behind the UK in completing widespread immunisation.

June Raine, the MHRA’s boss, is to conduct a round of interviews on local and regional media on Friday to reassure the country that the vaccine is safe, the Times reports.

Professor Stephen Evans, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said one reason the MHRA could be first to approve the vaccine was that it had more capacity and time since it was no longer involved in EU-wide drug approval because of Brexit.  Any errors in approving the vaccine would seriously damage the UK regulator’s reputation and “there is a huge incentive to get this right,” he said.

The vaccine nationalism coincided with some grim new milestones.  The UK death toll climbed over 60,000, the number of people in hospital in the US rose above 100,000, and the number of deaths globally is now over 1.5 million.  Italy on Wednesday recorded the highest daily death toll since the outbreak of the pandemic and has banned travel from region to region from December 20 to January 6.  “It’s an essential caution to protect our loved ones,” said prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

In the US, Biden said he would ask all Americans to wear masks for 100 days to contain the spread of the virus.  Former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton are willing to be vaccinated live on TV to reassure a sceptical and even hostile US public that vaccines are safe, according to CNN.

Equity markets are strong thanks to vaccines and hopes of US stimulus.



Consumer & Retail

Pets at Home Plc
The UK’s leading pet care business has today announced its decision to fully repay the £28.9m of business rates relief received across the business during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Group stipulates that it is extremely grateful for the support it received in March, as it allowed the Company to adapt quicker to a challenging trading environment. However, ten months into the pandemic, despite c.£35m financial impact on the business being caused by covid-19, Pets at Home plc is proud to announce that due to its adaptability and recent sustained performance, it is in a more confident position than ever and as such, will be repaying all business rates relief it has received over the course of the pandemic.

Associated British Foods plc
The diversified food, ingredients and retail company which operates in 53 companies has today released an AGM trading update, detailing the impact covid-19 disruption has had on the company. In an extremely difficult trading period, primarily due to enforced closures of hundreds of Primark stores, the Group estimates a loss of sales totaling some £430m. While the operating costs of the stores which were closed were reduced some 25% during this period, all orders with suppliers were upheld. However, things look to be picking up. At this early stage in its new financial year trading across Grocery, Sugar, Ingredients and Agriculture has been ahead of both expectation and last year. That being said, UK sugar production has been severely impacted by covid-19 and the group remains cautious.


Financials & Real Estate 

Hipgnosis Songs Fund Limited
The UK’s first listed investment company offering investors a pure-play exposure to songs and associated intellectual property rights  is pleased to have, today, announced its interim results for the six months ended 30 September 2020. In a strong trading period, group net revenue from the portfolio increased to £44.8m, compared to £22.6m at the same period last year. Furthermore, 63 catalogues were acquired during this period, including Mariah Carey’s festive period-defining ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, which currently sits third in Spotify’s Global Chart. The company remains optimistic after this strong performance and anticipates further growth.

Berkeley Group Holdings plc
The country’s leading place-maker, specialising in the creation of sustainable places for communities has today announced its interim results for the six months ended 31 October 2020. In a difficult financial climate, the Group posted a strong £230.8m in profit before tax, in line with Berkeley’s guidance. Rob Perrins, Chief Executive, said ‘we continue to invest in the business, adding four new sites covering 2,800 homes’, having developed a new ten year vision for the business to contribute more actively to society. Berkeley Group remains optimistic over the near future and anticipates a strong performance over the rest of the year.


‘Lockdown Face’ fears drive ‘Zoom boom’ in UK cosmetic surgery requests – Financial Times

Britain hits back over Covid-19 vaccine – The Times

Supply fears hit coronavirus vaccine amid warnings over initial 800,000 doses – The Telegraph