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Commission approves modified €1.1 billion Italian scheme to support internationally active companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has found the modification of the existing Italian direct grants scheme to support internationally active companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak to be in line with the Temporary Framework. The original scheme was approved by the Commission on 31 July 2020 under case number SA.57891. On 10 December 2020 the Commission approved the prolongation of the scheme until 30 June 2021 (SA.59655).

Italy notified an increase in the estimated total budget of the scheme by €828 million, which means an increase in total budget from €300m to €1.128m. Similar to the original scheme, the modified scheme will continue to support eligible companies by facilitating their access to liquidity, and will not take the form of export aid contingent on export activities as it is not tied to concrete export contracts. The Commission concluded that the scheme, as modified, remains necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support will continue not to exceed €800,000 per company, and the scheme is limited in time until 30 June 2021.

On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case numbers SA.60402 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website.

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EU draws up list of which countries should have travel restrictions lifted - UK excluded

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Following a review under the recommendation on the gradual lifting of the temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU, the Council updated the list of countries, special administrative regions and other entities and territorial authorities for which travel restrictions should be lifted. As stipulated in the Council recommendation, this list will continue to be reviewed every two weeks and, as the case may be, updated.

Based on the criteria and conditions set out in the recommendation, as from 18 June 2021 member states should gradually lift the travel restrictions at the external borders for residents of the following third countries:

  • Albania
  • Australia
  • Israel
  • Japan
  • Lebanon
  • New Zealand
  • Republic of North Macedonia
  • Rwanda
  • Serbia
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Thailand
  • United States of America
  • China, subject to confirmation of reciprocity

Travel restrictions should also be gradually lifted for the special administrative regions of China Hong Kong and  Macao. The condition of reciprocity for these special administrative regions has been lifted.

Under the category of entities and territorial authorities that are not recognised as states by at least one member state, travel restrictions for Taiwan should also be gradually lifted.

Residents of Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican should be considered as EU residents for the purpose of this recommendation.

The criteria to determine the third countries for which the current travel restriction should be lifted were updated on 20 May 2021. They cover the epidemiological situation and overall response  to COVID-19, as well as the reliability of the available information and data sources. Reciprocity should also be taken into account on a case by case basis.

Schengen associated countries (Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) also take part in this recommendation.

Background

On 30 June 2020 the Council adopted a recommendation on the gradual lifting of the temporary restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU. This recommendation included an initial list of countries for which member states should start lifting the travel restrictions at the external borders. The list is reviewed every two weeks and, as the case may be, updated.

On 20 May, the Council adopted an amending recommendation to respond to the ongoing vaccination campaigns by introducing certain waivers for vaccinated persons and easing the criteria to lift restrictions for third countries. At the same time, the amendments take into account the possible risks posed by new variants by setting out an emergency brake mechanism to quickly react to the emergence of a variant of interest or concern in a third country.

The Council recommendation is not a legally binding instrument. The authorities of the member states remain responsible for implementing the content of the recommendation. They may, in full transparency, lift only progressively travel restrictions towards countries listed.

A member state should not decide to lift the travel restrictions for non-listed third countries before this has been decided in a coordinated manner.

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China disease expert says COVID-19 origins probe should shift to US - Global Times

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A senior Chinese epidemiologist said the United States should be the priority in the next phase of investigations into the origin of COVID-19 after a study showed the disease could have been circulating there as early as December 2019, state media said on Thursday (17 June), write David Stanway and Samuel Shen, Reuters.

The study, published this week by the US National Institutes for Health (NIH), showed that at least seven people in five US states were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, weeks before the United States reported its first official cases.

A China-World Health Organization (WHO) joint study published in March said COVID-19 most likely originated in the country's wildlife trade, with the virus passing into humans from bats via an intermediary species.

But Beijing has promoted the theory that COVID-19 entered China from overseas via contaminated frozen food, while a number of foreign politicians are also calling for more investigations into the possibility it leaked from a laboratory.

Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state-owned tabloid the Global Times that attention should shift to the United States, which was slow to test people in the early stages of the outbreak, and is also the home of many biological laboratories.

"All bio-weapons related subjects that the country has should be subject to scrutiny," he was quoted as saying.

Commenting on the US study on Wednesday (16 June), foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was now "obvious" the COVID-19 outbreak had "multiple origins" and that other countries should co-operate with the WHO.

The origin of the pandemic has become a source of political tension between China and the United States, with much of the recent focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located in Wuhan where the outbreak was first identified in late 2019.

China has been criticised for its lack of transparency when it comes to disclosing data about early cases as well as the viruses studied at WIV.

A report by a US government national laboratory concluded that it was plausible that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan lab, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

A previous study has raised the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could have been circulating in Europe as early as September, but experts said this didn’t necessarily mean it did not originate in China, where many SARS-like coronaviruses have been found in the wild.

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EU approval of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine delayed, sources say

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European Union approval of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine will be delayed because a 10 June deadline to submit data was missed, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters, diminishing the shot's prospects in the EU's pandemic response, write Andreas Rinke and Emilio Parodi.

One of the sources, a German government official, said the failure to provide the necessary clinical trial data to the EU medicines watchdog would postpone any go-ahead in the bloc until at least September.

"Approval of Sputnik will be delayed probably until September, maybe until the end of the year," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) had previously been expected to conclude its review of the Russian vaccine and issue a decision in May or June.

A second source said the 10 June cut-off date not been met and that the vaccine's developer, Russia's Gamaleya Institute, said it will file the requested data next week or at the latest at the end of the month.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which markets the vaccine, said the EMA review was on track.

"All of the information on the Sputnik V vaccine clinical trials has been provided and GCP (General Clinical Practice) review has been completed with positive feedback from the European Medicines Agency," the RDIF said.

"While it is up to EMA to decide on the timing of the approval procedure, the Sputnik V team expects the vaccine approval with the next two months," it added. EMA was not immediately available for comment.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has held talks to buy Sputnik V but has made any purchase contingent on EMA approval. Read more.

Frustrated by a sluggish immunisation campaign, some regional German states including Bavaria earlier this year flagged interest in placing orders for Sputnik V, but vaccination has since picked up speed.

Slovakia became the EU's second country after Hungary to start inoculating people with Sputnik V this month, despite lack of EU approval. Read more.

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