Economy & business

Brazil House Speaker Stands Up to President on Labor Reform

The speaker of Brazil’s lower house vowed Wednesday to fight any changes President Michel Temer makes to a labor reform bill passed by the Senate, highlighting new tension between longtime political allies.

The speaker, Rodrigo Maia, would replace Temer if Congress allows the Supreme Court to move ahead with a corruption charge against the president, a vote that Maia has said he wants to have this week.

The bill, a business-friendly measure modernizing labor laws dating from the 1940s, passed by a wide margin in the Senate on Tuesday following approval in the lower house and will be sent to Temer to be signed into law.

Given that any changes in the Senate would have sent the bill back to the lower house for fresh debate, Temer assured senators Tuesday that he would use a decree to tweak the legislation as they suggested after he signed it into law.

Maia rejected any such arrangement.

“The lower house will not accept any change to the law. Any [presidential decree] will not be recognized by the House,” the speaker said in a Twitter post.

Graft scheme

Prosecutors charged Temer last month in a graft scheme involving JBS SA, the world’s biggest meatpacker. Executives said the president took bribes from the company in exchange for resolving tax matters and facilitating loans from state-run banks.

Temer has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The presidential press office said in a statement that Maia has remained loyal to Temer since becoming speaker last year.

“The presidential palace rebuffs the attempts to create a false crisis between the executive and legislative power without connection to facts and reality,” the statement said.

Under Brazilian law, two-thirds of the lower house of Congress must vote to allow a criminal charge against a sitting president to move to the Supreme Court. The vote could happen Friday or possibly be delayed until early August, after a congressional recess.

Silicon Valley & Technology

French Court Annuls Google’s $1.27 Billion Back Tax Bill

A French court annulled a 1.1 billion-euro ($1.27 billion) tax adjustment imposed on Google by France’s tax authorities, saying Wednesday that the way the California firm operates in France allows it to be exempt from most taxes.

The French tax administration had argued that Google was required to pay taxes in France for 2005-2010 because the American company and its Irish subsidiary sold a service for inserting online ads to clients in France through its Google search engine.

But the Paris administrative court ruled that Google Ireland Limited doesn’t have a “permanent establishment” in France via the French company Google France, another subsidiary of California-based Google Inc.

The court added that Google France doesn’t have the human resources or the technical means to allow it to carry out the contentious advertising services on its own.

The French government can appeal the decision.

Ireland gives Google tax advantage

Google has minimized its tax bill in France and other European countries by keeping its headquarters in Ireland, where rates are lower. The strategy has helped Google boost its profits and stock price.


In their ruling, the judges noted that the ads ordered by French clients could not be put online by the employees of Google France themselves because any ad orders ultimately needed approval from Google Ireland Limited.

During a hearing in the tax case last month, an independent magistrate proposed that the most fitting solution for the dispute was wiping out, but pointed to the “shortcomings of the current legal basis.”

Others countries have issues

France is not the only European country where Google has been at odds with national tax authorities. The company agreed to pay 306 million euros ($349 million) to settle an ongoing dispute with Italy and 130 million pounds ($167 million) to settle a case in Britain. A U.K. parliamentary committee has said the settlement seemed disproportionately small given the size of the company’s operations in Britain.

Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon — a group of firms known by the acronym GAFA — have been criticized for their tax-optimizing practices.

Wednesday’s ruling comes amid mounting criticism that the tech firms and other major U.S. companies have scrimped on their tax bills through a variety of accounting maneuvers that have rankled governments around the world. Google has said it never broke any laws.


Science & Health

Pioneering Cancer Gene Therapy by Novartis Backed by US Panel

Novartis AG’s pioneering cancer drug won the backing of a federal advisory panel Wednesday, paving the way for the first gene therapy to be approved in the United States.

An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration voted 10-0 that the drug, tisagenlecleucel, should be approved to treat patients with relapsed B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of U.S. childhood cancer.

The FDA is not obliged to follow the recommendations of its advisers, but typically does so. The agency is expected to rule on the drug by the end of September.

Approval of tisagenlecleucel would have significant implications not only for Novartis but for companies developing similar treatments, including Kite Pharma Inc, Juno Therapeutics Inc and bluebird bio Inc.

All four are developing chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapies (CAR-T), which harness the body’s own immune cells to recognize and attack malignant cells.

If approved, the drugs, which are infused just once, are expected to cost up to $500,000 and generate billions of dollars for their developers. Success would also help advance a cancer-fighting technique that scientists have been trying to perfect for decades and lift the broader field of cell therapy.

“In the last five years, there have been a significant number of cell therapy companies that have gone public or gotten investment in hopes of moving this type of therapy forward,” said Reni Benjamin, an analyst at Raymond James. “This is our first glimpse from a commercial and regulatory perspective about how the FDA is thinking about this space.”

A clinical trial of Novartis’ drug showed that 83 percent of patients who had relapsed or failed chemotherapy, achieved complete or partial remission three months post-infusion.

Patients with ALL who fail chemotherapy typically have a 16 to 30 percent chance of survival.

Novartis is also testing the drug in diffuse large b-cell Lymphoma (DLBCL), the most common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as is Kite. Part of the competitive landscape will include which company is best able to manufacture its product most efficiently and reliably.

The products are made by extracting and isolating a patient’s T cells, genetically engineering them to recognize and target specific cancer cells, and then infusing them back into the patient.

Novartis said the entire process will take 22 days by the time it is launched.

More than half of patients experienced a serious complication known as cytokine release syndrome (CRS), which occurs when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive.

Doctors were able to manage the condition, and the syndrome caused no deaths.

The FDA expressed concern that the drug could cause new malignancies over the long term, but panelists generally felt that risk was low.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Tech Firms Protest Proposed Changes to US Net Neutrality Rules

Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet and dozens of other major technology companies protested online on Wednesday against proposed changes to U.S. net neutrality rules that prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to certain internet services over others.

In support of the “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality,” more than 80,000 websites – from big social media platforms like Facebook to streaming services like Netflix and matchmaking website OkCupid — are displaying banners, alerts, ads and short videos to urge the public to oppose the overturn of the landmark 2015 net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality is a broad principle that prohibits broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane,” to certain internet services over others. The rule was implemented by the Obama administration in 2015.

Changes to the rule are being proposed by the head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commision (FCC), Ajit Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump in January.

Pai wants the commission to repeal the rules that reclassified internet service providers as if they were utilities, saying the open internet rules adopted under former President Barack Obama harm jobs and investment. The FCC voted 2-1 in May to advance a Republican plan to reverse the “net neutrality” order.

During a speech in April, Pai asked: “Do we want the government to control the internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach” in place since 1996 until it was revised in 2015.

At a Capitol Hill press conference, Democrats and internet companies vowed to fight the changes and suggested internet companies could slow internet speeds. Senator Edward Markey said the internet “is under attack.”

“We will not let this takeover happen,” Markey said. “A free and open internet is our right and we will fight to defend it.”

Major broadband providers, including AT&T and Verizon Communications, acknowledged the public support for net neutrality. They emphasized they are in favor of an “open internet”— but made clear they oppose the 2015 net neutrality reclassification order that they say could lead to government rate regulation.

FCC spokesman Brian Hart declined to comment.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat on a commission with two current vacancies, said in a statement on Wednesday she supports “those who believe that a free and open internet is a foundational principle of our democracy.”

The public will have until mid-August to send comments to the FCC before the final vote.

More than 550,000 comments have been filed in the last day with the FCC and more than 6.3 million filed to date and thousands of people called Capitol Hill offices to express concerns.

Online protest

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on the social media platform, “Right now, the FCC has rules in place to make sure the internet continues to be an open platform for everyone. At Facebook, we strongly support those rules.”

Twitter expressed support for the existing rules, encouraging users to protest while promoting the hashtag #NetNeutrality.

“Net Neutrality is foundational to competitive, free enterprise, entrepreneurial market entry — and reaching global customers. You don’t have to be a big shot to compete. Anyone with a great idea, a unique perspective to share, and a compelling vision can get in the game,” Twitter said in a blog.

Online forum Reddit displayed a pop-up message that slowly loads the text, “The internet’s less fun when your favorite sites load slowly, isn’t it?”

Netflix displayed banners on top of the home page while posted a short video explaining net neutrality, urging consumers to send comments to the FCC.

A pop-up banner on The American Civil Liberties Union’s website read: “Trump’s FCC wants to kill net neutrality. This would let the cable and phone companies slow down any site they don’t like or that won’t pay extra.”

Science & Health

Billions of People Lack Safe Water, Sanitation

A new report finds more than two billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than twice that number or 4.5 billion people lack safe sanitation. The report by the World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund is the first global assessment of water, sanitation and hygiene for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The United Nations reports nearly 850,000 people die every year from lack of access to good water, sanitation and hygiene. This includes more than 360,000 children under age five who die from diarrhea and many others from diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

The joint report by the World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund finds people living in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are most at risk of disease and death from poor water and sanitation-related sources.

WHO Coordinator for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Bruce Gordon says this report is the first to assess the importance of hygiene to good health. He says many homes, healthcare facilities and schools have no soap and water for handwashing.

“The one figure I would kind of like to emphasize here is that in sub-Saharan Africa, 15 percent of the population only has access to a hand-washing facility with soap and water,” he said. “And, as we know, good hygiene is one of the simplest and most effective ways to stop the spread of disease.”

One of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals calls for universal and equitable access to safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Sanjay Wijesekera says such progress would have a knock-on effect on other development areas.

“For children, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene not only keeps them alive and healthy, but it gives them a chance to go to school and gain an education. It reduces inequality … and it just gives them a fair start to life,” said Wijesekera.

The SDGs are calling for an end to open defecation, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. Open defecation is practiced by more than 890 million people, mainly in rural areas, who have no toilet or latrine.




Arts & Entertainment

4 Arrested in Connection With Gold Coin Heist From Berlin Museum

Police in Germany have arrested four suspects in connection with a $4 million gold coin heist earlier this year from Berlin’s Bode Museum.

Around 300 special police commandos took part in raids Wednesday morning in Berlin’s Neukoelln area, but still did not find the missing coin.

“We are at the moment conducting searches and executing arrest warrants in several places in Berlin concerning the break-in at the Bode museum in March,” said Berlin police.

The coin “was either cut into small pieces or taken abroad,” said Carsten Pfohl of the Berlin criminal police office during a press conference.

“My hope that we’ll recover even parts of the coin is unfortunately relatively low,” he said, adding authorities have to presume the coin was sold off in parts or whole.

The robbery occurred during the night of March 27, when the thieves used a ladder and rope to get into a window of the prestigious museum, and a wheelbarrow to carry away the 100-kilogram coin.

The image of Queen Elizabeth II is on the face of the coin, which was made by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007 and is known as “Big Maple Leaf.”

Police say the four unidentified suspects have close ties to a Berlin-based crime group associated with an Arabic family clan.

Arts & Entertainment

US Customs Agents Find Cobras Inside Mail at JFK Airport

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents received a slithery surprise when they checked a mail container at Kennedy International Airport.

The agency said Tuesday that officials seized five live king cobras and three geckos during an inspection at the airport mail facility on June 29. Agents first discovered the dangerous contents of the package in an X-ray scan.


The reptiles were sent in a container from Hong Kong.


The agency’s New York Field Operations Office said the seizure shows the wide-ranging responsibility of the agency.


The reptiles have been sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


King cobras are the world’s largest venomous snakes, growing up to nearly 19 feet. (5.8 meters)



Economy & business

Zambia Emergency Declaration Divides Politics, Could Scare Investors

Zambia’s parliament has imposed a 90-day state of emergency, after the president last week declared the need for one. The situation is likely to deepen the political crisis in the country, and analysts say it also could scare away much needed investors to the copper-dependent, landlocked nation.

The president called for the state of emergency after a fire destroyed the capital’s main market earlier this month. He described the fire as an arson attack by “a few unpatriotic citizens” and said, in a speech to the nation, that this and other fires were “premeditated acts, which if left unchecked could have serious socio-economic consequences capable of drawing the country backwards.”

Parliament unanimously passed the measure Tuesday. No opposition lawmakers voted, as 48 of them were suspended last month for boycotting a speech by President Edgar Lungu. Their leader, Hakainde Hichilema, has been in jail since April, facing a treason charge. The few opposition who remained Tuesday boycotted the vote.

Opposition spokesman Charles Kakoma says his opposition United Party for National Development would have voted against the measure, which he says limits citizens’ essential freedoms. Additionally, he says he fears it will scare away visitors.

“People obviously, investors and even tourists will be scared to come to a country that has just declared a threatened state of emergency,” he told VOA. “They are not sure about their investments, and about their safety once they are in Zambia.”

Falling copper prices and an energy crisis had already sent Zambia’s economic growth downward in 2015. That was well before the disputed 2016 poll that pitted Lungu against Hichilema and led to today’s bitter political landscape.

Martyn Davies, managing director of emerging markets and Africa at Deloitte, says local business owners expressed heightened concern to him during his recent visit to Zambia. He notes, though, that Zambia has never quite lived up to its promise.

“The country always had this perennial word which is used for many countries in the region, ‘potential,’” he told VOA from Johannesburg. “The potential doesn’t quite trickle down, didn’t quite result into real strong robust growth and real trickle down economics, i.e. creating a competitive private sector.

“And I think this is something which a small economy — a small, arguably vulnerable economy like Zambia, landlocked as it is, dependent on a single economy source — you have to be stable. You can’t have these sort of swings in policy and fiery political rhetoric. That just undermines the confidence of capital, both domestic and foreign, in your economy,” said Davies.

Analyst Nicole Beardsworth, of the Johannesburg-based Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, notes that parliament enacted Article 31 of the constitution, the milder “Declaration Relating to Threatened Emergency,” instead of Article 30, “Declaration of Public Emergency.” She says the effect is the same, however, and Lungu’s soft-pedaling of the situation could be making things worse.

“He’s trying to play a very dangerous game, which is he is imposing legislation that curbs, or has the potential to curb, the freedoms of Zambians,” she told VOA. “But he is trying to sell it as not being a state of emergency, and not legislation that will curb the freedom of Zambians. I don’t think that anyone really believes him in the statements that he made where he said Zambia is a democracy and people’s rights and freedoms will be respected. Because to be quite honest, his behavior over the last 18 months has proven that to not be the case.”

A spokesman for Zambia’s president told VOA last week that the emergency measure is not intended to curb liberties, but to keep Zambians safe.

Lungu now has three months to apply his new powers to solve the case of the fire that gutted the country’s busiest market and destroyed the livelihoods of some 1,900 traders. Officials have estimated it will take one year and cost $20 million to rebuild.