'We don't know how much money we have'—California fire victims are at the mercy of Wall Street

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CNBC 02 July, 2021 - 07:10am 33 views

Thousands of victims of California wildfires dating back to 2015, who are entitled to payments under a $13.5 billion settlement with the state's largest utility, are learning that the amount that they ultimately receive is subject to the whims of Wall Street.

That is according to the retired California appellate judge overseeing the trust fund set up as part of the bankruptcy reorganization of PG&E last year, as well as court filings and other documents reviewed by CNBC's "American Greed."

"We don't know how much money we have because a substantial portion of the assets that are going to be used to pay you are in the form of common stock of Pacific Gas and Electric," said court appointed trustee John K. Trotter of the Fire Victim Trust, in a video message posted last month to the more than 70,000 fire victims who have submitted claims.

The fund is meant to compensate victims of 24 wildfires, including the devastating Camp Fire, which killed at least 84 people and destroyed much of the town of Paradise in 2018. The largest and most destructive fire in California history, an investigation found that the fire was caused by the failure of a piece of equipment known as a C-hook on a century-old PG&E transmission tower.

"This is the smoking gun. This is the weapon that took out the lives, hopes, dreams and souls of some 84 of our Butte County citizens," said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

Those who survived are still struggling to rebuild. The fire destroyed nearly 19,000 structures.

PG&E's bankruptcy filing on Jan. 29, 2019, effectively barred victims from suing the company, since a bankruptcy automatically puts all other legal actions on hold. Instead, the reorganization plan approved by the court created the fund, with Trotter, who is also a veteran arbitrator, in charge.

Funding a portion of the trust with stock is unusual, experts have said. The trust received 478 million shares of the reorganized company's stock, making it the utility's largest shareholder.

Complicating matters, Trotter said, is the potential tax implication of cashing in the stock to pay the victims. When the trust was established, Trotter said, the stock was valued at around $9 per share. Anything above that, he said, could be subject to hefty capital gains taxes. Recently, the stock has been trading at around $10, a potential taxable gain, on paper, of around $478 million.

"Forty-five percent of that would go to the government," Trotter said.

He said the trust recently received a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service that should allow it to escape the tax bite. But waiting for that ruling, as well as the complicated process to monetize the stock without the tax consequences, has delayed payments to the victims.

Also a concern: while the stock has increased in value since PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last year, it has not gone up as much as some architects of the settlement may have anticipated.

"The stock is down 17% this year, and that's in in the face of a very buoyant stock market. So, it hasn't been doing well," Trotter said. He noted that at current prices, the stock would be worth about $4.8 billion.

"Your settlement called for you to have $6.75 billion worth of stock," he said. "That has not happened."

When a court approved the fund last June as part of PG&E's plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company hailed the establishment of the fund as a "critical milestone" in turning the company around and compensating the victims.

"While nothing will repair the wounds caused by the Camp Fire, we hope the actions we are taking to reduce wildfire risk, harden our system and get victims compensated will begin to help restore the trust of our communities and their confidence that we are working to keep them safe," said PG&E President and CEO Bill Johnson in a statement.

The statement, dated June 20, 2020, noted that the valuation of the stock at $6.75 billion was "based on an agreed-upon formula," and that "the ultimate value of the stock could be higher or lower."

More troubling for victims has been the pace of payments under the settlement. The trust's claims administrator, Cathy Yanni, has said it will likely take at least two years to pay all the claims.

The process got off to a slow start.

According to the trust's first annual report filed by Trotter with the bankruptcy court in April — covering the period from the trust's inception on July 1, 2020 through the end of the year — the fund had paid only about $7.2 million in claims to 499 victims, while racking up $38.7 million in operating expenses. An investigation by KQED in San Francisco found that the trust spent an additional $12.7 million provided by PG&E to set up the claims process, for a total of $51.4 million — more than 7 times what the trust had paid out.

The payments to victims have dramatically increased this year. This week, the trust reported that it had paid more than $436 million to more than 13,000 claimants through June 30. More than half the money was paid out under a special procedure that allows victims to apply for preliminary payments of up to $25,000 with limited documentation in order to get through the initial hardship.

In addition, the trust is suing multiple third parties, including former PG&E officers and directors as well as outside contractors, potentially increasing the pool of money available for victims.

The trust has not provided updated figures on its operating expenses.

In an earlier video message for the victims posted May 17, Trotter defended the large amount of money spent upfront, which he said was necessary because of the complicated task of processing all of the claims — in most cases, multiple claims per victim — not to mention setting up the entire claims system from scratch.

"We have over 250,000 separate claims," Trotter said. "So the enormity of this case, is what also makes it different."

"We're building the process by which you're going to get paid," he said. "I would think you'd be concerned if we weren't spending money. If we weren't hiring 300 people to help resolve your claims, then that's when you should worry."

Trotter said he hoped to ultimately keep expenses to 1% of the payout. He said a more typical expense ratio in cases like this is around 4%.

"One percent is very low," he said. "I don't know if I'm going to be able to keep that. But I'm going to try."

Complicating matters, however, is the price of the stock. Trotter said victims should root for the reorganized company's success.

"You are 25, or 24½ percent, owners of PG&E, and so it's important for you to want PG&E to do well," he said. "The old PG&E, I don't have to tell you, was certainly less than a model corporate citizen. The new PG&E, which now appears regularly in front of the California Utilities Commission, is trying much harder and doing a much better job."

After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2019, the "old" PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Camp Fire. A judge ordered the company to pay a $3.5 million fine.

In a statement to "American Greed," the company denied putting profits over safety.

"While we cannot change the past, we can learn from it," the company said. "We can never let up in our pursuit of safety and doing what is right."

But thousands of fire victims, still waiting to be made whole, remain stuck in a nightmare.

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mRNA vaccines ease breakthrough COVID; Novavax helps block variant

CIDRAP 02 July, 2021 - 09:19am

The few adults who receive a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine but still become infected have a milder, shorter illness and lower viral RNA loads than their unvaccinated peers, finds a real-world US study yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The journal also features a UK study confirming that the Novavax vaccine offers 90% overall effectiveness and protects against the highly transmissible and potentially more deadly Alpha (B117) SARS-CoV-2 variant.

In the first study, a team led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Response Team tested 3,975 coronavirus-naïve healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers who received one or two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccine or were unvaccinated from Dec 14, 2020, to Apr 10, 2021. The study took place in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, and Utah.

Of the participants, 3,179 (80%) received at least one dose by the end of the data-collection period, while 2,686 (84%) were given two doses. Of the vaccines, 67% were Pfizer and 33% were Moderna, while the brand name wasn't recorded in less than 1%.

In total, 204 (5%) tested positive for COVID-19, of whom 5 were fully vaccinated, 11 were partially vaccinated, and 156 were unvaccinated. The 32 remaining participants had an undetermined vaccination status and were excluded from the analysis.

In fully vaccinated participants, adjusted vaccine effectiveness was 91% (95% confidence interval [CI], 76% to 97%), falling to 81% (95% CI, 64% to 90%) in the partially vaccinated group.

Fully or partially vaccinated participants had a 40% lower average viral RNA load (95% CI, 16% to 57%) than the unvaccinated group, a 58% lower risk of fever (relative risk, 0.42; 95% CI, 01.8 to 0.98), and a shorter illness (-6 days of symptoms, -2 days spent sick in bed; 95% CI, 0.8 to 3.7).

Three quarters of those who received at least one vaccine dose had detectable viral RNA loads for 1 week; whereas, detectable RNA lingered longer in 72% of the unvaccinated cohort. The researchers say this means partial or full vaccination lowers the risk for viral RNA detection longer than 1 week by 66%.

"If you get vaccinated, about 90% of the time you're not going to get COVID-19," study coauthor Jeff Burgess, MD, MPH, said in a University of Arizona Health Sciences news release. "Even if you do get it, there will be less of the virus in you and your illness is likely to be much milder."

The genomes of 93 viruses were sequenced, revealing 11 coronavirus variants of concern or interest (Epsilon [B1427 and B1429]), 9; Alpha, 1; and Zeta [P2], 1). Ten such variants were identified among partially or fully vaccinated participants, three of them (30%) Epsilon, compared with 7 of the 70 viruses (10%) found in the unvaccinated group.

Among the coronavirus-infected participants, 26% required medical attention, including three unvaccinated participants who were admitted to the hospital. No deaths were reported.

Most study participants were women (62%), aged 18 to 49 years (72%), White (86%), and non-Hispanic (83%), with no underlying medical conditions (69%).

If the study's results are confirmed after further data collection, the researchers wrote, "the overall results [would] support that mRNA vaccines not only are highly effective in preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection but also may mitigate the effects of breakthrough infections—a finding that is especially important to essential and frontline workers, given their potential to transmit the virus through frequent close contact with patients, coworkers, and the public."

The second study, led by researchers from the Vaccine Institute at the University of London, was part of an ongoing phase 3 trial of the Novavax recombinant nanoparticle COVID-19 vaccine. The study involved 14,039 participants aged 18 to 84 years at 33 sites in the United Kingdom from Sep 28 to Nov 28, 2020. The newly released results come on the heels of the company's Jun 14 announcement of 90% overall vaccine efficacy.

Participants were assigned to receive two doses of the Novavax vaccine or a placebo in a 1:1 ratio 21 days apart. Of all participants, 27.9% were 65 or older, 48.4% were women, 94.5% were White, 2.9% were Asian, 0.4% were Black, and 44.6% had a chronic illness.

Ten vaccinees and 96 placebo recipients tested positive for COVID-19, with symptom onset 7 or more days after the second injection, for an 89.7% vaccine efficacy (95% CI, 80.2% to 94.6%).

In a post hoc analysis, the vaccine showed 86.3% (95% CI, 71.3% to 93.5%) efficacy against symptomatic infections caused by the Alpha variant and 96.4% (95% CI, 73.8% to 99.5%) efficacy against symptomatic infections from other strains.

Solicited adverse local and systemic reactions, while more common in the vaccine group than in placebo recipients, were mainly mild and lasted no more than 2 or 3 days; few serious adverse events (0.5%) occurred in either group. Two deaths occurred, one in the vaccine group and one in a placebo recipient, both of whom died of COVID-19 complications.

The researchers said that although their study was not powered to evaluate vaccine efficacy against all SARS-CoV-2 strains, the results are reassuring. "In particular, the efficacy estimate of 96.4% against the non-B.1.1.7 strains (the majority of which were the prototype strain) is similar to the efficacy of 95.0% reported against this strain for the [Pfizer vaccine] and the efficacy of 94.1% for the [Moderna vaccine]," they wrote.

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The Latest: WHO: 'Dangerous period' with delta variant

Yahoo Singapore News 02 July, 2021 - 12:59am

Keep up to speed at a glance with the Top 10 daily stories

Keep up to speed at a glance with the Top 10 daily stories

Keep up to speed at a glance with the Top 10 daily stories

Keep up to speed at a glance with the Top 10 daily stories

At a press briefing on Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the delta variant, first found in India, is continuing to evolve and mutate, and it is becoming the predominant COVID-19 virus in many countries.

“I have already urged leaders across the world to ensure that by this time next year, 70% of all people in every country are vaccinated,” he said, adding that would effectively end the acute phase of the pandemic.

He noted 3 billion doses of vaccine have already been distributed and, “it’s within the collective power of a few countries to step up and ensure that vaccines are shared.”

Of the vaccine doses given globally, fewer than 2% have been in poorer countries. Although rich countries including Britain, the U.S., France and Canada have pledged to donate 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines, WHO estimates 11 billion doses are needed to immunize the world.

— India confirms 400K dead, half in past 2 months from coronavirus

— No lockdown plans in Russia as virus deaths hit new record

— Experts question if WHO should lead investigation into pandemic origins

— Pakistan gets 2.5M doses of Moderna from U.S.

— Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

LONDON — Public Health England says cases of the more contagious delta variant have increased fourfold in the U.K. in less than a month.

It says a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable cases of delta variant have been identified in Britain — up 46% on the previous week.

The delta variant, which was first identified in India, continues to account for around 95% of confirmed cases of coronavirus across the U.K.

Though cases have been rising sharply in recent weeks, the number of people requiring hospitalization for COVID-19 has not risen as much. That indicates the link between infections and mortality has weakened following the rapid rollout of vaccines in the country.

Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, says most new cases are among younger age groups who are less likely to be hospitalized.

ROME — The Vatican’s bioethics academy and the World Medical Association are calling for an all-out effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and correct the “myths and disinformation” that are slowing the fight against the coronavirus.

In a joint statement on Friday, the groups say some vaccine reluctance in poorer countries is rooted in historical inequalities and suspicions of Western pharmaceutical companies. But they say “a more pernicious form” of hesitancy is being driven by fake news, myths and disinformation about vaccine safety.

They demanded that “all relevant stakeholders exhaust all efforts to ... confront vaccine hesitancy by sending a clear message about the safety and necessity of vaccines and counteracting vaccine myths and disinformation.”

The statement also repeated calls from the Vatican and the medical establishment for vaccine equity, ensuring the poorer nations have the same access to shots.

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan received 2.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine from the United States on Friday, easing pressure on Islamabad in overcoming the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines.

According to a U.S. embassy statement, the vaccines were delivered to the Pakistani people in partnership with the COVAX global vaccine initiative, UNICEF, and the government of Pakistan.

It says this donation was part of the 80 million doses the United States was sharing with the world, “delivering on our pledge to facilitate equitable global access to safe and effective vaccines, which are essential to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The latest development comes days after hundreds of Pakistani expatriate workers rallied in Islamabad, demanding they should be quickly vaccinated with the Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines so they can travel abroad.

Pakistan has mostly relied on Chinese vaccines, but some Middle Eastern countries want travelers to produce a certificate to show they’ve received specific vaccines.

BANGKOK — Health authorities in Bangkok reported 6,087 confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, setting a record for the second straight day.

Around 90% of total cases and 95% of the deaths have been recorded during a third wave of the coronavirus that began in April. There were 992 deaths in June this year, more than 15 times Thailand’s total for all of 2020.

The government’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration says there’s been a nationwide increase during the past two weeks in the number of patients in ICUs and on ventilators. There are 2,002 people in ICUs, including 566 on ventilators.

Center deputy spokeswoman Apisamai Srirangsan says 39% of the cases reported Friday were found in Bangkok, 25% in neighboring provinces and 36% in the other 71 provinces.

Sixty-one related deaths were reported Friday, bringing the total number of cases to 270,921 and 2,141 confirmed deaths.

ROME — For the first day in nine months, the northern Italian region hardest hit in pandemic has registered no COVID-19 deaths.

“Today zero deaths for COVID in Lombardy, hasn’t happened since Oct. 6,” tweeted Lombardy Vice Gov. Letizia Moratti on Friday.

It was in Lombardy where the first Italian case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in February 2020. As of July 1, the region had tallied 33,782 confirmed deaths, far more than any other region. Lombardy’s hospitals, once overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in ICU beds, on Thursday admitted only one new patient to an intensive care ward.

However, Italian health officials are warning the delta variant has been steadily gaining traction in the country since May. They are expressing concern that people will relax safe-distancing and other practices to combat the pandemic while vacationing this summer.

Some 35% of people older than 12 in Italy are fully vaccinated, and the country is aiming to raise that to 80% by summer’s end.

NEW DELHI — India has confirmed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, half of them in the past two months, as the virulent delta variant infected hundreds of thousands daily.

The grim figure announced Friday is believed to be a fraction of the true total. It is second only to the United States and Brazil.

The Health Ministry says 853 people died in the past 24 hours, raising total confirmed deaths to 400,312 since the start of the pandemic. The first known COVID-19 death in India happened on March 12, 2020, in southern Karnataka state.

India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, has confirmed more than 30.4 million infections. There have been 46,617 new cases detected in the past 24 hours. That total also is believed to be an undercount.

New cases are on the decline after exceeding 400,000 a day in May. But authorities are preparing for another possible wave of infection around September and are trying to ramp up vaccination.

Less than 5% of India’s people are fully immunized. Over 340 million doses have been administered since mid-January, according to the ministry.

About 2 billion doses could be available by December with India’s two main suppliers, Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, ramping up production and five other vaccines potentially available in the coming months.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 826 new cases of the coronavirus, its biggest daily jump in about six months, as fears grow about another huge wave of the virus in the greater capital area.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Friday that 633 of the cases came from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where officials pushed back an easing of social distancing measures as infections soared over the past week.

Dozens of infections were each reported in other major cities and regions, including Busan, Daejeon and South Chungcheong Province.

Some health experts say government officials sent the wrong message to the public by announcing plans to allow for larger gatherings and longer indoor dining hours at restaurants starting this month to ease the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

The experts say a premature easing of social distancing could have disastrous consequences when the country has administered first doses of vaccines to just 30% of its population and most younger adults remain unvaccinated.

South Korea has reported 158,549 cases and 2,024 confirmed deaths.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentine officials say they will study the possibility of combining two different COVID-19 vaccines due to the delayed arrival of Russia's Sputnik V for many who already received a first dose.

Buenos Aires city Health Minister Fernán Quirós tells Radio Mitre that officials would choose a random sample of potential volunteers to receive a second dose of vaccines made by AstraZeneca or China’s Sinopharm, or wait for a second shot of Sputnik likely starting in mid-August.

Several other countries have tried mixing vaccines due to distribution delays or safety concerns.

Some 70,000 people in Buenos Aires got an initial shot of Sputnik V three months ago and are still waiting a second dose. The number is about 300,000 nationwide.

The country has seen a renewed wave of infections at the start of the Southern Hemisphere winter.

All US and NATO troops have left the biggest air base in Afghanistan, officials said Friday, signalling the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country was imminent after two decades of war.

Australia announced a dramatic cut in the number of people who will be allowed to enter the country Friday, as it struggles to contain coronavirus clusters that plunged major cities into lockdown.

Benjamin Glynn, 39, was charged on Friday (2 July) for failing to wear a mask while in an MRT train, causing public nuisance and for threatening police officers who went to his residence.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk heaped praise on China’s economic development and infrastructure as the country’s ruling Communist Party celebrated its centenary, in an apparent bid to sooth tensions with officials and customers. The positive remarks came five days after the US electric carmaker said it would recall all of the vehicles it had manufactured at its Shanghai factory since the beginning of 2020, amid concerns over safety. “The economic prosperity that China has achieved is truly amaz

A cleaner at a Hong Kong quarantine hotel has tested preliminary-positive for a more infectious mutant strain of Covid-19, potentially dashing officials’ hopes that a previous Delta transmission scare had been brought under control. The infection prompted an overnight lockdown of the Port Centre in Aberdeen, where the patient lives, for compulsory screening, but no new infections were detected following the testing of 530 people. If confirmed, the case would bring the city’s 24-day run of zero l

The Ministry of Health (MOH) on Thursday (1 July) confirmed 10 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, taking the country's total case count to 62,589.

A 49-year-old driver who sped and killed a cyclist was on Friday (2 July) jailed for 26 weeks and banned from driving for eight years.

The first international travellers for a quarantine-free scheme will touch down in the holiday hotspot of Phuket, as Thailand tries to reboot its depleted tourism industry despite enduring its worst virus outbreak.Tourism makes up almost a fifth of the economy.

A Chinese magazine marked the ruling Communist Party’s centenary by publishing a detailed outline of a three-stage surprise attack which could pave the way for an assault landing on Taiwan. An accompanying video was also posted on social media platform Weibo by the publication Naval and Merchant Ships, with the message “we must solemnly warn some people that the road of Taiwan independence only leads to a dead end”. Beijing regards the self-ruled island as a renegade province, to be returned to

A recent surge of coronavirus cases in Australia has prompted an expert in Hong Kong to suggest a tightening of the rules for arrivals from the country by raising its Covid-19 risk status. But a government health adviser said the recommendation by Dr Leung Chi-chiu was unnecessary as Australia had already taken measures to prevent people from leaving the country. Australia has been one of the few places that has managed to keep its coronavirus epidemic largely under control over the past few mon

Amid negative global perceptions of China, a new poll says Singaporeans hold largely positive views of China.

China's ruling Communist Party, which celebrates its 100th anniversary Thursday, is characterised by secrecy in leading the world's second-biggest economic power from the shadows.

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The European Parliament is considering a new resolution on Hong Kong in response to the city’s crackdown on the Apple Daily newspaper, which was consistently critical of the local government and Beijing before being forced to shut down. The move would represent the first action by a legislative body at the European Union over Apple Daily’s demise, after strong condemnation by the US and other Western countries. The newspaper printed its final edition last week after senior editors were arrested

If you’ve got a Citibank credit card, you’re in luck. Here are the deals you can enjoy as a Citibank credit cardmember (on top of the credit card’s own perks). A well-known global bank, Citibank offers some of the best credit cards in Singapore. It […] The post Citibank Credit Card Promotions and Deals: July 2021 appeared first on SingSaver Blog - We Compare, You Save.

The IMF is bullish on the US economic recovery, predicting growth will hit 7 percent this year -- much stronger than previously forecast and "the fastest pace in a generation," the Fund said in a report Thursday.

A reformed gang member points out what were once opium dens and brothels on a tour of Singapore's financial district that explores the squeaky-clean Asian business hub's seedy criminal past.

Former president Donald Trump's company and its long-serving chief financial officer are to be charged on Thursday with tax-related crimes, US media reported.

Police deployed across Hong Kong on Thursday to stamp out any sign of dissent as China's Communist Party celebrated its centenary in a vivid illustration of how the once-outspoken finance hub has been successfully muzzled.

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