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Exclusive: Russia to roll out its first approved COVID-19 drug next week

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will start giving its first drug approved to treat COVID-19 to patients next week, its state financial backer told Reuters, a move it hopes will ease strains on the health system and speed a return to normal economic life.

Russian hospitals can begin giving the antiviral drug, which is registered under the name Avifavir, to patients from June 11, the head of Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund told Reuters in an interview. He said the company behind the drug would manufacture enough to treat around 60,000 people a month.

There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and human trials of several existing antiviral drugs have yet to show efficacy.

A new antiviral drug from Gilead (GILD.O) called remdesivir has shown some promise in small efficacy trials against COVID-19 and is being given to patients by some countries under compassionate or emergency use rules.

Avifavir, known generically as favipiravir, was first developed in the late 1990s by a Japanese company later bought by Fujifilm as it moved into healthcare.

RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said Russian scientists had modified the drug to enhance it, and said Moscow would be ready to share the details of those modifications within two weeks.

Japan has been trialling the same drug, known there as Avigan. It has won plaudits from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and $128 million in government funding, but has yet to be approved for use.

Avifavir appeared on a Russian government list of approved drugs on Saturday.

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Dmitriev said clinical trials of the drug had been conducted involving 330 people, and had shown that it successfully treated the virus in most cases within four days.

The trials were due to be concluded in around a week, he said, but the health ministry had given its approval for the drug’s use under a special accelerated process and manufacturing had begun in March.

Clinical trials to test efficacy drugs usually take many months, even when expedited, and involve large numbers of patients randomly assigned who receive either the drug being trialled or a control or placebo.

Success in small small-scale, early-stage trials is no guarantee of success in later, more comprehensive trials.

A study published this month, for example, tied the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which U.S. President Donald Trump says he has been taking and has urged others to use, to an increased risk of death in hospitalised COVID-19 patients.

Dmitriev said Russia was able to cut testing timescales because the Japanese generic drug which Avifavir is based on was first registered in 2014 and had undergone significant testing before Russian specialists modified it.

“We believe this is a game changer. It will reduce strain on the healthcare system, we’ll have fewer people getting into a critical condition,” said Dmitriev. “We believe that the drug is key to resuming full economic activity in Russia.”

With 414,878 cases, Russia has the third highest number of infections in the world after Brazil and the United States, but has a relatively low official death toll of 4,855 – something that has been the focus of debate.

RDIF, which has a 50% share in the drug’s manufacturer ChemRar, funded the trials and other work with its partners, to the tune of around 300 million roubles ($4.3 million), said Dmitriev, who explained that the costs to Russia were much lower because of previous development work conducted in Japan.

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Russia seeks 18-year jail term for ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian prosecutors asked a court on Monday to sentence former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is on trial accused of spying for the United States, to 18 years in a maximum security prison, his lawyer said.

Whelan, a U.S. national who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in December 2018. He says he was set up in a sting and has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

His trial, which began on March 23, has been closed to the public as its content broaches classified information.

The court will announce its verdict on June 15, Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said after Monday’s hearing.

U.S. authorities have called the charges against Whelan spurious have called on Russia to release him, describing the case as a “significant obstacle” to improving bilateral ties.

Whelan, who turned 50 in custody this year, has used his appearances at hearings to allege he has been ill-treated by prison guards and been denied medical attention.

Russian authorities have accused him of faking health problems to draw attention to his case.

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U.S. discussed conducting its first nuclear test in decades, Washington Post reports

(Reuters) – The Trump administration discussed last week whether to conduct its first nuclear test explosion since 1992, the Washington Post reported late on Friday, citing a senior official and two former officials familiar with the matter.

The topic surfaced at a meeting of senior officials representing the top national security agencies after accusations from the administration that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests, the Washington Post said

The meeting, however, did not conclude with any agreement to conduct a nuclear test. A decision was ultimately made to take other measures in response to threats posed by Russia and China and avoid a resumption of testing, the report added.

U.S. officials could not be reached immediately for a comment.

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U.S. prepared to spend Russia, China 'into oblivion' to win nuclear arms race: U.S. envoy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s arms control negotiator on Thursday said the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in order to win a new nuclear arms race.

“The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it,” Special Presidential Envoy Marshall Billingslea said in an online presentation to a Washington think tank.

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Putin's spokesman becomes fifth senior Russian official to get coronavirus

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, as a new surge in infections gave Russia the third highest number of reported cases in the world after the United States.

Peskov, the fifth senior official to contract the virus, said he had last met Putin in person more than a month ago, the TASS news agency reported. Tatyana Navka, Peskov’s wife, said on Instagram that she also had the virus.

Putin, who has been working remotely from his residence outside Moscow and holding many meetings via video conference, held a face-to-face meeting earlier on Tuesday with Igor Sechin, the head of oil giant Rosneft (ROSN.MM).

The Kremlin says Putin’s health is rigorously protected.

In a surprise announcement on Monday, Putin said it was time after six weeks to gradually lift nationwide restrictions that had forced many people to work from home and businesses to temporarily close.

Although Putin gave broad leeway to Russia’s regions to ease or tighten restrictions as they saw fit, he said it made sense for certain sectors of the bruised economy, such as construction and heavy industry, to be allowed to restart work from Tuesday.

His statement, made on the same day that Russia overtook Italy in the number of coronavirus cases reported, drew criticism from some anti-Kremlin politicians. On Tuesday, the number of Russian coronavirus cases surpassed the reported tally in Britain.

With 232,243 confirmed cases, Russia now has the third highest number in the world after the United States and Spain, according to a tally compiled by Reuters, but with 2,116 deaths one of the lowest mortality rates.

Government officials attribute the lower death toll and the rising and large number of cases to a vast testing programme, under which they say 5.8 million tests have been conducted.


In Moscow, where local authorities have ordered the lockdown to remain in place until the end of May, many people seemed to think Putin’s announcement marked the end of restrictions. There were more cars on the road and people on the streets.

Data compiled by internet firm Yandex showed that many Muscovites had left their homes on Tuesday morning in spite of the lockdown. New rules introduced on Tuesday mean they have to wear masks and gloves on public transport and in food shops.

In other Russian regions, some hairdressers, clothing stores and outdoor cafes reopened. But few small business owners expect their profits to reach pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

“After a month of being at home, people don’t have any money,” said Viktor Razzhivin, owner of the Limpopo children’s clothing store chain in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

“That’s why we have no idea when we will be making even just 30% of the profits we had before the coronavirus.”

Kremlin critics say Putin’s order to ease restrictions jeopardises the population’s health and is motivated by a desire for the state not to have to stump up more economic support.

Putin on Monday unveiled new support measures for businesses and for families with children who have seen their livelihoods devastated. He said unemployment had doubled to 1.4 million in a month and he wanted to try to stop it spiralling higher.

Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician, said Putin’s easing decision shifted responsibility and potential blame for future unpopular decisions on to regional governors, whom the Russian leader has told to implement measures to contain the virus.

“The governors will be the ones introducing restrictions,” Gudkov wrote on Facebook. “They are the ones who will be responsible for the spread of the virus. Direct your anger at them.”

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Putin presides over slimmed down Victory Day as coronavirus cases rise

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia marked 75 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two on Saturday, but the coronavirus outbreak forced it to scale back celebrations seen as boosting support for President Vladimir Putin.

With coronavirus infections rising, Putin last month postponed the highlight of annual Victory Day celebrations, a massive parade on Red Square that showcases Moscow’s most sophisticated military hardware, to an unspecified date.

Clad in a black rain coat, a sombre-looking Putin laid a bouquet of red roses at the Eternal Flame war memorial outside the Kremlin walls after a brief downpour in the Russian capital.

“We will certainly celebrate this anniversary extensively and solemnly, as usual,” Putin said, pledging that Russia would hold its traditional Red Square military parade and commemorative processions at a later date.

Guards from the Kremlin Regiment marched past after he had spoken as a military band played the Russian national anthem.

Overhead, 75 military planes and helicopters, including Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters, Russia’s most advanced warplanes, flew over central Moscow despite cloudy skies.

A group of fighter jets left a trail in the sky in the colours of the Russian national flag. In the absence of the usual ground parade, state television broadcast a replay of last year’s Red Square parade.

Putin in previous years has basked in national pride watching Russian tanks rumble across the square with world leaders by his side. But a recent poll gave him his lowest approval rating in more than two decades, albeit a still high 59%, and the country’s economy is slipping into a deep downturn.

Moscow and other regions have observed lockdowns since late March to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected 198,676 Russians so far. The number of cases overtook French and German infections this week to become the fifth-highest in the world.

Some Muscovites decided to try to hold their own celebrations despite the lockdown.

More than 10 people, including municipal lawmakers, were detained on a Moscow square as they sang to accordion music to celebrate Victory Day, OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group, said.

Similar fly-pasts were held in other Russian cities, but some had to be cancelled because of unfavourable weather conditions.

Fireworks will be let off across Russia once darkness falls, the Defence Ministry has said.

Public processions commemorating Soviet participants in the war that are normally held on May 9 took place online, with people uploading pictures of family members and telling their war stories.

On the eve of the anniversary, Putin sent congratulatory letters to many former Soviet republics, as well as to the leaders of Britain, the United States and France, suggesting the need to rekindle their nations’ cooperation during World War Two to solve today’s problems.

Putin has accused Russia’s detractors of diminishing the Soviet war effort, and on Friday he warned post-Soviet leaders against what he said were attempts to rewrite the history of World War Two.

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Russia's coronavirus case tally nears 100,000 milestone

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Wednesday reported 5,841 new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing its overall nationwide case tally to 99,399.

The official nationwide death toll reached 972 on Wednesday after 108 people with the virus died in the last 24 hours, Russia’s coronavirus crisis response centre said.

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Russia hails oil deal it says will save millions of U.S. jobs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The global oil production deal clinched at the weekend will help to establish a price floor and help to save millions of jobs in the United States, senior Russian officials said on Monday.

Having been in a stand-off with western nations – most notably the United States – from 2014 on everything from Crimea’s annexation from Ukraine to allegations of election meddling, Moscow has sought to rebuild ties since the coronavirus outbreak.

It sent medical support to Italy and the United States to fight the pandemic and has supported the historic oil supply pact, which could have negative implications for its own economy.

The planned supply cuts represent a complete reversal by Russia and Saudi Arabia, which had both threatened to ramp up output in a battle for market share after the previous deal between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other producers fell apart in early March.

Combined with G20 input, the leaders of Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia engaged in a series of phone calls last week to help to iron out the deal that could remove as much as 20 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil from the market – roughly a quarter of all supplies.

“(Russia’s) President (Vladimir) Putin had as many calls with (U.S.) President (Donald) Trump last week as he had for the whole of last year,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF, told CNBC on Monday.

Trump has said he helped to broker the deal. The United States also agreed to make extra cuts on behalf of Mexico, helping to save the accord after four days of talks.


Dmitriev, one of Moscow’s top negotiators, and whose fund shared the cost of Russia’s medical help for Washington, believes that the oil deal would help to save more than 2 million U.S. jobs, he told CNBC.

“This is an example of us working together for the best of our nations,” Dmitriev said.

Without the deal, oil prices might have collapsed to less than $10 a barrel from more than $30 now, he added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday described the deal as important and that it would help to keep oil prices from collapsing.

Russian oil output has already started to decline, falling to 11.24 million bpd this month, from 11.29 million bpd in March, an oil industry source said.

Moscow’s obligations under the deal are to cut its output to 8.5 million bpd from May to June, bringing it to the lowest level since 2003.

The resulting economic impact could be as much as 1.2 percentage points from Russia’s gross domestic product, said Kirill Tremasov, head of investment research at Loko-Invest.

Energy minister Alexander Novak is scheduled to meet oil companies later on Monday to discuss how the cuts are to be applied.

Asked in a Russian state TV interview whether Moscow would lose some of its oil wells permanently, Novak said: “I think our oil companies will not allow this.”

Producers will slowly relax curbs after June, though production reductions will remain in place until April 2022 under the terms of the deal.

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Russia to block 'fake news' criticism of coronavirus measures

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office said it would start blocking from Friday access to “fake news” social media posts criticising quarantine measures taken by the city of Moscow to curb the new coronavirus.

Moscow officials have unveiled a tracking app and also plan to roll out a QR-code system to show codes to police monitoring compliance with the lockdown in Russia, where there have been 94 deaths and nearly 12,000 cases.

The prosecutor’s office said that one video in which a man accused authorities of trying to set up a “digital concentration camp” falsely stated that a coup d’etat was underway.

Another post falsely described a system of special passes allowing holders to move around the city freely, it said.

“The prosecutor general’s office continues to take measures to restrict access to information resources where fake news about the situation with the new coronavirus are published,” it said, adding that communications watchdog Roskomnadzor had been asked to remove the video.

Russia last year passed legislation with tough new fines for people spreading misinformation or insulting the state, bringing criticism from some of increased censorship by President Vladimir Putin’s government.

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Russia's coronavirus case tally surpasses 10,000 after record daily rise

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia on Thursday reported a record one-day rise of 1,459 new cases of coronavirus, pushing its national case total to 10,131.

The number of coronavirus-related deaths rose by 13 to 76, the national coronavirus crisis response centre said.

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