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Health officials 'concerned' about new EU controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports

Health officials are worried new European Union controls on Covid-19 vaccine exports could mean there are not as many doses available in New Zealand. Photo: AFP The rules apply to vaccines made inside the EU - which include the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. The European Union has introduced controls on Covid-19 vaccines bound for countries outside the EU, including New Zealand and Australia. The Ministry of Health admits it is concerned about the new rules and it is urgently working to understand whether they will slow down New Zealand's pandemic response. But in a statement, it says it expects vaccine manufacturers to stick to timeframes in purchase agreements. It says the government has pre-ordered four different vaccines, so New Zealanders will still have access to a vaccine if one agreement fails. WHO criticises EU over vaccine export controls The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the EU's announcement of export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc, saying such measures risked prolonging the pandemic. The EU introduced the measure amid a row with vaccine manufacturers over delivery shortfalls. But WHO vice-head Mariangela Simao said it was a "very worrying trend". Earlier WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said "vaccine nationalism" could lead to a "protracted recovery". Speaking at the Davos Agenda - a virtual version of the global summit - he said vaccine hoarding would "keep the pandemic burning and... slow global economic recovery", in addition to being a "catastrophic moral failure" that could further widen global inequality. What is the EU doing? The European Union is introducing export controls on coronavirus vaccines made in the bloc, amid a row about delivery shortfalls. The so-called transparency mechanism gives EU countries powers to deny authorisation for vaccine exports if the company making them has not honoured existing contracts with the EU. "The protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no choice but to act," the European Commission said. The controls will affect some 100 countries worldwide - including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - but many others, including poorer nations, are exempt. However, the EU has been forced to backtrack on plans to impose restrictions on the export of vaccines across the border on the island of Ireland after outcry from Dublin and London. The EU insists its controls are a temporary scheme, not an export ban. Why is this happening now? The news comes with the EU in a very public dispute with drug-maker AstraZeneca over supplies, and under growing pressure over the slow pace of vaccine distribution. Earlier on Friday the Commission made public a confidential contract with AstraZeneca, the UK-Swedish company behind the Oxford vaccine, to bolster its argument that the firm has been failing to fulfil its promises to deliver to the bloc. The contract stipulates that the pharmaceutical company would commit its "best reasonable efforts" to manufacture and distribute doses. AstraZeneca has blamed the delays on production glitches at plants in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the late signing of contracts. Under the EU's new rule, vaccine firms will have to seek permission before supplying doses beyond the EU. Its 27 member states will be able to vet those export applications. Vaccines produced by Pfizer in Belgium are currently being exported to the UK, and the EU insists that some of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in England is destined under contract for EU citizens. The EU is also in a supply dispute with Pfizer, which is set to fall short of the contracted vaccine volume for the EU by the end of March. Pfizer says the reason for that is the urgent expansion of its facility in Puurs, Belgium. Who is exempt from the export controls? The EU is allowing some 92 exemptions from the export control regime, including: vaccine donations to Covax, the global scheme to help poorer countries; and exports to Switzerland, countries in the western Balkans, Norway and North Africa. Other Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Israel are also exempt. But on Saturday WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC vaccines should be given to all vulnerable groups and health workers across the globe before each country starts giving the jabs out more widely. This would mean wealthy nations, such as the UK, halting immunisations at home once priority groups had been vaccinated and instead helping with vaccinations elsewhere. "We're asking all countries in those circumstances to do that - hang on, wait for those other groups. Rather than rushing to vaccinate one country, we need to be doing the lot and we need to be doing it together," she said. So far 95 percent of all vaccinations had taken place in just 10 countries, Harris said, while only two low and middle income countries had even begun immunisation programmes. Pressure grows as nations grow impatient The BBC's Europe editor Katya Adler says some EU governments are beginning to show impatience with Brussels, which had hoped its vaccination purchasing scheme would be a beacon of European solidarity and strength. The Commission's laboured negotiating process, the tardy approval of vaccines by the EU's medical regulator and delays now in vaccine deliveries have left EU citizens demanding answers and action, Adler says. Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier and Germany's possible future chancellor, told ZDF television on Friday that it was his impression that the commission "ordered too late, and only bet on a few companies, they agreed on a price in a typically bureaucratic EU procedure and completely underestimated the fundamental importance of the situation." On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, describing it as "quasi-ineffective" for the over-65s. The claim was rejected by Sir John Bell, an Oxford University professor who was part of the team behind the vaccine. "I suspect this is a bit of demand management from Mr Macron," Sir John told BBC Radio Four's Today programme. Asked if he thought Mr Macron was trying to reduce demand for the jab, he added: "Well, if he didn't have any vaccine the best thing you could do is reduce demand." - BBC / RNZ
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GameStop: Global watchdogs sound alarm as shares frenzy grows

Regulators have fired warning shots over frenzied share dealing in GameStop and other firms, fuelled by social media chat on sites like Reddit and Facebook. A GameStop store in New York. Photo: CC BY-SA 4/ Tdorante 10 Watchdogs in the US and UK said they were monitoring activity and potential lawbreaking, and warned traders they risked facing huge losses. Traders should ensure they are familiar with all rules, "including market abuse", the UK's regulator said. GameStop is the focus of a trading war between amateurs and Wall Street pros. A screen shows the graph of the Dow industrial average after closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange, on 18 March, 2020. Photo: AFP Shares in the US bricks and mortar video games retailer surged again on Friday, rising 74 percent at the start of trading in New York. Another stock in the traders' sights, AMC Entertainment, jumped 60 percent. That bucked broader market trends, which saw all three main US indexes fall roughly 2 percent in early afternoon trade in New York. Some share trading firms temporarily halted dealings on Thursday amid extreme volatility in GameStop, which has soared as much as 700 percent in the past week. AMC Entertainment and Blackberry, which have also seen huge trading activity, were among the other companies also hit by the restrictions. UK traders have also been sharing their thoughts and tips on trading chat forums amid mounting concerns about misinformation and share ramping. London-listed companies have also been the focus of social media attention, including publisher Pearson and cinema operator Cineworld, although the share price movements were minimal compared with the GameStop surge. In a statement on Friday, the UK's Financial Conduct Authority said: "The FCA is aware of the situation and continues to closely monitor trading in UK markets. UK investors should take care when trading shares in highly volatile market conditions that they fully understand the risks they are taking. This applies to UK investors trading both US and UK stocks. "Firms and individuals should also ensure they are familiar with, and abiding by, all regulations, including the market abuse and short selling regimes in the jurisdiction they are trading in." AMC Entertainment stock has also been caught up in the trader battle. Photo: CCBY-4/ JAH2k In the US, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) warned against illegal "manipulative trading activity". The regulator added: "Our core market infrastructure has proven resilient under the weight of this week's extraordinary trading volumes. "Nevertheless, extreme stock price volatility has the potential to expose investors to rapid and severe losses and undermine market confidence." The SEC also said it would review actions that could "unduly inhibit" and "disadvantage investors". 'This is unacceptable' The war between amateur private investors and heavyweight firms like hedge funds centres on so-called short selling. Over recent months, hedge funds had made big bets that shares in loss-making GameStop would fall. But an army of private investors, swapping tips on social media, spotted a chance for a buying frenzy that would push up the price and "squeeze" the hedge fund short sellers. Many private traders made profits - and losses - along the way, but their actions also dealt a big financial blow to hedge funds that spent billions of dollars gambling GameStop's shares would tumble. The decision on Thursday by several brokerages to halt purchases of shares in GamesStop and some other firms sparked outrage among investors, who accused the companies of working on behalf of traditional Wall Street investors who were losing out to the army of amateurs. Some disgruntled investors said they were preparing legal action. Investor anger over their temporary ban from trading spread beyond the investment community, with rappers and US politicians on both sides of the Washington divide joining the backlash against Wall Street. This is unacceptable.We now need to know more about @RobinhoodApp’s decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit.As a member of the Financial Services Cmte, I’d support a hearing if necessary. https://t.co/4Qyrolgzyt — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 28, 2021 'Years of distortion' "This is unacceptable," tweeted Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat. "We now need to know more about @RobinhoodApp's decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit." Her tweet was shared by Republican Senator Ted Cruz who commented "fully agree." Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose shares have also been a retail favourite, also commented on Ocasio-Cortez's tweet, saying "Absolutely". Much of the anger was directed at Robinhood, a new breed of broker popular among a new generation of younger, tech-savvy investor, but which has been accused of "gamifying" share trading. On Friday, a Robinhood chat forum on Facebook was also removed for breaking its Community Standards rules, although the social media giant did not expand on the reasons. After the backlash, Robinhood late Thursday said it would ease the restrictions. The firm also said it had raised more than $1bn from existing investors to bolster its finances, amid questions about strains caused by the buying frenzy. But Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat known as a supporter of tougher financial rules, said the chaos was another sign of "years of distortion in securities markets that have allowed the wealthy few to artificially inflate and deflate share prices and reap short-term profits, while exacerbating wealth inequality". She said regulators must review the trades and make changes to ensure that markets "reflect real value, rather than the highly leveraged bets of wealthy traders, or those who seek to inflict financial damage on those traders". u can’t sell houses u don’t ownu can’t sell cars u don’t ownbutu *can* sell stock u don’t own!?this is bs – shorting is a scamlegal only for vestigial reasons — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2021 Why have GameStop shares surged? Key to what's going on is "short selling" or "shorting", where a big investment firm such as a hedge fund tries to make money by betting that a company's share price will fall. The hedge fund borrows shares in a company from other investors (for a fee) and sells the shares on the markets at, for example, $10 each, waits until they fall to $5, and buys them back. The borrowed shares are returned to the original owner, and the hedge fund pockets a profit. GameStop - which saw heavy losses last year and was described as "failing" by one big investor - is the most shorted stock on Wall Street. But in the last week, amateur investors who follow the Wall Street Bets forum on Reddit have poured money into buying the company's stock with the aim of pushing up the price. If the price rises dramatically, short sellers face big losses and they need to buy back the shares they have borrowed quickly to prevent bigger losses - a process known as covering. However, buying the shares back only adds to demand for the stock and pushes its price higher still. -BBC
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Covid-19: EU drugs regulator approves AstraZeneca vaccine

The EU's drugs regulator has approved the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine for all adults. Photo: Verwendung weltweit/ AFP The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said the AstraZeneca vaccine was about 60 percent effective in the trials on which it based its decision. The move comes amid a dispute over whether AstraZeneca is breaking its vaccine delivery commitments to the EU. The European Commission has published its contract with the Anglo-Swedish drug-maker, hoping to show a breach. The bloc agreed to buy up to 400 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine last year. In a press conference later on Friday, the drug giant's chief executive Pascal Soriot said that while "of course there will be glitches" in manufacturing, the important thing was that the world had developed several vaccines within a year. Soriot said AstraZeneca had millions of doses ready to ship to the EU, and was working 24/7 to increase capacity. What is the supply row about? Last week AstraZeneca said vaccine supplies would be reduced because of problems in one of its EU factories. The shortfall is expected to be about 60 percent in the first quarter of 2021. The EU has also received fewer than expected doses of the two other vaccines it has approved - from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The EU has said AstraZeneca must honour its commitments and deliver the jabs it ordered by diverting doses manufactured in the UK. The company said its contract for UK supplies prevented this. But an EU source familiar with the matter told the BBC that AstraZeneca's UK facilities were legally obliged to do so, saying: "This is not an option, it is a contractual obligation." The UK plants are not back-up facilities; they are part of the main network, the source added. The company's chief executive, Soriot, said earlier this week that the contract obliged AstraZeneca to make its "best effort" to meet EU demand, without compelling it to stick to a specific timetable - an assertion disputed by the EU. "There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear," European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview with German radio on Friday morning. "'Best effort' was valid while it was still unclear whether they could develop a vaccine. That time is behind us. The vaccine is there. "AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled," she said. What is the EU doing about shortages? The European Commission said on Friday it had agreed a plan to introduce export controls on coronavirus vaccines. This means individual member states will decide whether to allow the export of vaccines produced in the territory. It will be in place until the end of March. EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told a news conference the controls were being introduced to ensure all EU citizens had access to vaccines, and to make sure all parties played by the rules. "This approach is built on trust, transparency and responsibility," she said. "Commitments need to be kept, and agreements are binding. Advance purchase agreements need to be respected. "Today, we have developed a system which will allow us to know whether vaccines are being exported from the EU. This increased transparency will also come with a responsibility for the EU to authorise, with our members states, these vaccine exports." The World Health Organization's Mariangela Simao, assistant director for access to medicines and health products, described the export ban as a worrying trend. How effective is the AstraZeneca vaccine? Germany's vaccine commission has said it cannot recommend the use of the jab in people aged over 65, citing a lack of data on how it affected this age group. Individual EU countries are free to decide who vaccines should be given to, once they have been approved. However, the UK has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine in its mass immunisation programme for weeks now, and public health officials say it is safe and provides "high levels of protection". Research has shown it is highly effective. No-one who received the Oxford vaccine in trials was hospitalised or became seriously ill due to Covid. The vaccine is given via two injections to the arm, the second between 4 and 12 weeks after the first. Confirming it had approved the AstraZeneca vaccine, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said that most participants in the test studies were between 18 and 55 years old. It said that while there were not yet enough results to show how the vaccine will work in older people, "protection is expected, given that an immune response is seen in this age group and based on experience with other vaccines." AstraZeneca has said a US study will shortly provide additional data on the vaccine's efficacy in older adults. - BBC
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China warns Taiwan independence 'means war' as US pledges support

China has warned that attempts by Taiwan to seek independence "means war". This handout photo taken and released on February 10, 2020 by Taiwan's Defence Ministry shows a Taiwanese F-16 fighter jet flying next to a Chinese H-6 bomber (top) in Taiwan's airspace. Photo: AFP / Taiwan Defence Ministry The warning comes days after China stepped up its military activities and flew warplanes near the island. It also comes as new US president Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to Taiwan, and set out his stance in Asia. Responding on Thursday, the US called China's statements "unfortunate" adding that "tensions over Taiwan did not need to lead to confrontation". China sees democratic Taiwan as a breakaway province, but Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign state. "We are seriously telling those Taiwan independence forces: those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war," Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said at a press conference on Thursday. He also defended China's recent military activities saying they were "necessary actions to address the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty and security". The US responded later on Thursday. "We find that comment unfortunate and certainly not commensurate with our intentions to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, in the first statement by the new administration on China-Taiwan relations. Kirby added that the Pentagon "sees no reason why tensions over Taiwan need to lead to anything like confrontation". The new US administration is expected to maintain pressure on China over a wide range of issues including human rights, trade disputes, Hong Kong and Taiwan, amid the deteriorating relationship between the two powers. China and Taiwan have had separate governments since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing has long tried to limit Taiwan's international activities and both have vied for influence in the Pacific region. Tensions have increased in recent years and Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to take the island back. Although Taiwan is officially recognised by only a handful of nations, its democratically elected government has strong commercial and informal links with many countries. Like most nations, the US has no official diplomatic ties with Taipei. But its Taiwan Relations Act promises that the US will supply Taiwan with defensive weapons, and stresses that any attack on Taiwan would be considered a matter of "grave concern" to the US. - BBC
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Poland enforces controversial near-total abortion ban

A controversial near-total ban on abortion in Poland has taken effect, the government announced, with enforcement from midnight on Wednesday. A demonstrator gestures as people take part in a pro-choice protest in the centre of Warsaw. Photo: AFP A court ruling allowing the prohibition prompted huge protests when it was issued in October. Abortion is now allowed only in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. The majority of Poles oppose a stricter ban and demonstrations took place in Polish cities on Wednesday evening. Activists have called for large street protests on Thursday and Friday (Polish time) in the capital, Warsaw. Demonstrations about the new law have taken place in several Polish cities. Photo: AFP The October ruling by the Constitutional Court found that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. In 2019, 98 percent of abortions were carried out on those grounds, meaning that the ruling effectively banned the vast majority of pregnancy terminations. The ruling provoked outrage from supporters of the right to abortion. But Poland's conservative government, which has strong ties to the country's powerful Catholic Church, supports the ruling. The court justified its ruling on the grounds that "an unborn child is a human being" and therefore it deserves protection under Poland's constitution which ensures the right to life. Following the announcement that the ruling would now be enforced, groups defied coronavirus restrictions to protest in Warsaw. Waving red flares and LGBT flags, some carried placards reading "Free Choice, Not Terror". "I want us to have our basic rights, the right to decide about our bodies, the right to decide what we want to do and if we want to bear children and in what circumstances to have children," one protester, Gabriela Stepniak, told Reuters news agency. The mayor of Warsaw Rafał Trzaskowski tweeted his opposition to the move, calling on women to reject the decision on the streets. Leaders of the nationwide Women's Strike movement that opposed the ban wore green headscarves, in a nod to Argentina's women's movement that successfully campaigned to legalise abortion. Some support the new law Groups who support the ban say it is about the human rights of the child. "We are very happy that this judgement has been published. It is a great step towards the realisation of human rights of all human beings," Karolina Pawlowska from the Ordo Iuris international law centre told the BBC. "This also means there will no longer be discrimination against children who are sick or disabled," she said, adding that the court's ruling was in line with the Polish constitution and UN treaties on the rights of the child. Poland already had some of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws, and around 1000 legal terminations are performed each year. An estimated 200,000 women have abortions illegally or travel abroad for the procedure. - BBC
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'GameStop effect' could ripple further as Wall Street eyes short squeeze candidates

The clash between retail traders and Wall Street professionals that sparked roller coaster rides in the shares of GameStop Corp may pose a risk to dozens of other stocks and potentially create a headache for the broader market, analysts said. A GameStop store in Alhambra, California. Photo: AFP Market watchers identified dozens of stocks potentially vulnerable to extreme volatility after a buying spree from an army of retail traders in recent days prompted hedge funds to unwind their bets against GameStop and other companies, fuelling surges in their share prices in a phenomenon known as a "short squeeze." "Unfortunately, it's definitely not a one-off thing," said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Centre for Financial Research. "The type of activity that drove that higher, I believe, has caused people to try to duplicate that in other names." J P Morgan earlier this week named 45 stocks that may be susceptible to short squeezes and similar "fragility events," including real estate company Macerich, restaurant chain Cheesecake Factory and clothing subscription service Stitch Fix. Like GameStop, American Airlines Group, AMC Entertainment Holdings and others that have become targets of retail traders in recent days, all the stocks have high short interest ratios. American Airlines Group, AMC Entertainment Holdings and others have become targets of retail traders in recent days. (file pic) Photo: 123RF Warning of 'dangerous precedent' That means a large percentage of investors have borrowed the stock to sell it in anticipation that they will be able to buy it back at a lower price and profit on the trade. But if the stock rises sharply, those investors may be forced to buy back the stock at a loss. "The unfortunate events in GameStop this week may be building a dangerous precedent for markets whereby retail investors act en masse to leverage their buying powers to spark fragility events," analysts at JP Morgan said in a note. Using derivatives and coordinating buying on websites such as the Reddit forum wallstreetbets, retail investors have had an outsize impact on markets in recent months. Hedge funds Melvin Capital Management and Citron Capital closed out short positions in GameStop earlier this week after buying pressure pushed up the company's shares. GameStop shares were recently down 25 percent on Thursday (US time) as retail brokerages Robinhood Markets and Interactive Brokers restricted purchases of the stock, along with several others that have catapulted in recent days, including AMC Entertainment Group and BlackBerry. Even so, the video game retailer's shares have gained more than 500 percent since last Thursday. Barring wider trading restrictions, similar patterns could play out over several weeks as short sellers unwind their bets, chief executive of Tallbacken Capital Advisors Michael Purves said. Some firms run strategies that involve holding both long and short positions on a stock, he said, and as a result, certain stocks could see a surge and then a sharp drop as those firms adjust their positions. That process could put pressure on stocks more broadly and contribute to market volatility. "I do think the contagion risk is real," Purves said. "Any stock that is heavily shorted is exposed to getting GameStopped." - Reuters
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Strong interest tipped for new UK visa for Hong Kong residents

About 300,000 people are expected to leave Hong Kong for Britain using a new visa route which opens on Sunday. A British National Overseas passport and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport. Photo: 123RF Hong Kong's British National (Overseas) passport holders and their immediate dependants will be able to apply for the visa using a smartphone app. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move honoured the UK's "profound ties of history and friendship" with the ex-British colony. The visa was announced in July after China imposed a new security law in Hong Kong. Beijing has previously warned the UK not to meddle in domestic issues. Those who apply and secure the visa will be able to apply for settlement after five years and then British citizenship after a further 12 months. Although there are 2.9 million citizens eligible to move to the UK, with a further estimated 2.3 million dependants, the government expects about 300,000 people to take up the offer. The prime minister said: "I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BNOs to live, work and make their home in our country. "In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy - values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear." The visa fee to stay for five years will be £250 ($NZ478) per person - or £180 for a 30-month stay - and there is an immigration health surcharge of up to £624-a-year. From 23 February BNO status holders who hold an eligible biometric passport will be able to use an app to complete their application from home. Home Secretary Priti Patel said this was to give applicants greater security amid fears they could be identified and targeted by the authorities. "Safeguarding individuals' freedoms, liberty and security is absolutely vital for those individuals that go through this process," she said. Britain's Prime minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel are both supporting the creation of the special visa for Hong Kong residents. Photo: AFP The BNO status was created before the UK handed responsibility for Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Before Hong Kong was returned, the UK and China made an agreement to introduce "one country, two systems", which meant, among other things, rights such as freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press would be protected. The agreement signed in 1984 was set to last until 2047. But the UK has said this agreement - known as the Joint Declaration - is under threat because the territory passed a new law in June that gives China sweeping new controls over the people of Hong Kong. China has said the law is necessary to prevent the type of protests seen in Hong Kong during much of 2019. However, the law has caused alarm both in Hong Kong and abroad, with opponents saying it erodes the territory's freedoms as a semi-autonomous region of China. - BBC
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