Delay in vaccine rollout is the top risk to the economic recovery, ECB member says

Bank of Greece governor Yannis Stournaras delivers a speech during a meeting of the bank’s shareholders.

LONDON — A potential delay to the distribution of coronavirus vaccines is the biggest risk facing the economic recovery in the euro zone, a member of the European Central Bank told CNBC. 
Three separate vaccine trials released promising data in November, with the shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna showing efficacy rates above 90%. These developments boosted financial markets and supported the idea that the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis might come to an end sooner than expected.

However, Yannis Stournaras, governor of the central bank of Greece, said that any delays in rolling out these vaccines could damage the economic recovery.
“Perhaps (vaccination) delays, which for the moment, they are not obvious,” he told CNBC when asked about his top economic risks for the euro area.
“Delays in vaccination could be a risk, if it happens — but I do not expect it according to the information we have,” Stournaras, who is also a member of the ECB, said Tuesday.
Distributing the vaccines worldwide while ensuring the necessary preservation conditions is the next big challenge in tackling the public health emergency. 
But, before that, regulators have to approve the rollout. The U.K. became the first country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday with immunizations due next week.

The European Medicines Agency has said that it will give its opinion on the Pfizer-BioNTech work only on December 29. This suggests that it is unlikely that vaccinations in continental Europe will start before year end.
In a note published last week, Goldman Sachs researchers detailed how vaccines could stimulate the economic recovery, but also highlighted some downside risks. The bank considered lower-than-expected demand for vaccines from the global population, and issues with the shots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
“This scenario shows slower vaccinations in Europe, which is more reliant on these (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) developers, but also less medium-run vaccinations elsewhere owing to weaker demand, which appears most fragile in the US and Japan,” the researchers wrote.

Focus on ECB meeting next week

ECB President Christine Lagarde warned last month that despite the progress on Covid-19 vaccines, there could still be “recurring cycles of accelerating viral spread and tightening restrictions.”
This would bring further economic pain at a time when the euro zone is facing one of the deepest crises in its history.
Gross domestic product in the 19-member bloc is expected to contract once again during the fourth quarter and fall by about 8% for the whole of 2020.
As a result, the central bank is set to announce more monetary stimulus next week.
“Everything will be on the table,” Stournaras said when asked about what instruments the ECB will change on Dec. 10.
“But it seems likely in my view that the instruments that have been successful since the beginning of pandemic — which have been the PEPP and the TLTROs — I think these two will be the candidates for recalibration, without of course excluding anything,” he said.
In a speech last month, Lagarde also suggested the central bank is likely to cut borrowing costs for banks (under its targeted longer-term refinancing operations or TLTROs) as well as adjusting its pandemic-related asset purchase program, known as PEPP (Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program).

Barnier warns next 36 hours crucial in Brexit talks

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has warned that the next 36 hours of trade talks with the UK will be crucial as he told ambassadors and members of the European parliament the two sides had not yet overcome their divisions.
Brussels and London need to assess by the end of this week whether there is a possibility to reach agreement in the future-relationship discussions, Mr Barnier said in separate closed-door meetings with parliamentarians and diplomats on Wednesday, according to people present.
He warned that key sticking points remained in the areas of “level playing field” conditions for business, EU fishing rights in UK waters and how any trade deal might be implemented.

Mr Barnier gave an indication in the meetings of how both sides were exploring possible compromises, even if breakthroughs had not been achieved, participants said.
According to one person, Mr Barnier said the two sides were exploring a transitional arrangement for fishing rights, with the idea that a renegotiation at the end of the period would be linked to the two sides’ overall economic agreement.
He said this would allow the EU and UK to have annual negotiations on fish but within a stable system that would protect the EU sector.
As issues stand, it was not possible to say if a deal would be there, Mr Barnier cautioned.
Member states have in recent days expressed concern about the risk that the EU might give too much away in the final days of the talks. One EU diplomat said national governments were “nervous” about the state of play.
“France will not accept an agreement that does not respect our long-term interests,” President Emmanuel Macron warned on Tuesday. “An agreement must allow a balanced future relationship.”

EU diplomats said Mr Barnier was given a clear message by governments on Wednesday to stick to the terms of the negotiating mandate that they gave him earlier this year.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong sentenced to prison over protests

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong has been sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison after pleading guilty to charges linked to last year’s pro-democracy protests.
Wong, 24, was convicted of organising, participating in and inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly when protesters surrounded police headquarters last year.
Agnes Chow, 23, and Ivan Lam, 26, two former leaders of Wong’s disbanded political group Demosisto, were also convicted in connection with the demonstration after pleading guilty to some charges against them. Chow was sentenced to 10 months and Lam for seven months.

The high-profile convictions came against the backdrop of a broader crackdown in recent weeks, following the imposition of a sweeping national security law in June.
The charges against Wong, Chow and Law relate to an incident that predated the new measures. But critics said the vaguely worded and wide-ranging law has eroded the high degree of autonomy granted to the territory following its handover from the UK to China in 1997 and been used by authorities to crack down on the opposition.
This has included disqualifying pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s legislative assembly citing national security, leaving the de facto parliament effectively devoid of opposition.
Authorities have also acted against teachers for allegedly discussing sensitive topics with students, such as Hong Kong independence. An education official resigned in a separate case under political pressure over a test question that asked students to discuss Japan’s role in Chinese history, according to local media.
A journalist at RTHK, the public broadcaster, was arrested after alleging that police had failed to protect civilians under attack from a mob in July last year.
Wong and Lam appeared upbeat ahead of the sentencing, waving to supporters as they entered the court, while Chow kept her head down.

Magistrate Wong Sze-lai said it was “necessary to emphasise deterrence and punishment” in handing down the sentences, accusing Wong of challenging the authority of the police in demonstrating outside its headquarters. 
Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, criticised the judgments and called on “Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to bring an end to their campaign to stifle opposition”.
“Prosecution decisions must be fair and impartial, and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong must be upheld,” he added.
The national security law, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, has largely neutralised public protest in the city, although police said petrol bombs were thrown at a sports and recreation club for officers in Kowloon on Tuesday.
Wong had been briefly placed in solitary confinement following his arrest after prison officers claimed a “foreign object” was detected in his stomach in an X-ray, according to his Facebook page.

Rival Peak, a new Facebook cloud game which incorporates adventure and reality TV, will debut on Wednesday, and let users decide what “contestants” will do (Gene Park/Washington Post)

Just weeks into Facebook’s debut into the cloud gaming market, it has its first “exclusive” title that’s a perfect fit for Facebook users: a reality show that lives completely in the cloud.

Coming Wednesday, “Rival Peak” is a Facebook Watch program in which artificial intelligence-driven “contestants” will live, work and exist for every minute of the day within the fictional region of Rival Peak, a mountainous forest region that emulates the Pacific Northwest. With a diverse cast of internationally-based characters, Facebook users will decide what each contestant of the show will do in the game, how they behave, and who will basically be “voted out” by the end of every week of its 12-week run.

The game/show is being developed by Pipeworks Studios and Genvid Technologies, including former staff of the beloved-but-shuttered Telltale Games, who created some of the strongest narrative adventure games of the century, including “The Walking Dead.” So think of it like a mix of a Telltale adventure game with branching stories for each of its 12 characters, with reality shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother.” “Rival Peak” also hides a mystery that’s going to be revealed at the end of its run, but otherwise the audience determines the fate of the cast.

“We are the creators of the show and we have no idea how it will end,” Jacob Navok, cofounder and CEO of Genvid Technologies, tells The Washington Post. “And every single week, we have to change the dialogue, change the weekly wrap-up show. It’s really being built week to week as the audience is collectively deciding what’s going to happen. The storyline that the community decides on is the canonical storyline.”

Remember at the end of Telltale’s chapters, where the game would tell you what percentage of players made the same decisions you did? That’s basically the entire conceit of “Rival Peak,” where the entire playerbase would instead decide a characters’ fate. It’s like the “Twitch Plays” phenomenon from years ago, where Twitch chat would determine a Pokemon trainer’s actions.

The show controls just like a mobile or adventure game would, with taps and clicks to determine dialogue choices or character actions. The rest of the time is spent simply observing your character do the things the community asked it to do, or performing its own stories and actions depending on what else is happening. Since it works on the Facebook mobile app, the game could conceivably be an interesting second-screen experience, having the show running as you watch or do other things at home.

Facebook had been expecting social-first gaming to debut on its new cloud gaming platform. The social network’s vice president of play, Jason Rubin, a former co-founder of Naughty Dog, hinted in October about the possibility of games that could really only work with a social platform as robust and large as Facebook. “Rival Peak” appears to be the first such effort. The graphics are simple, but in line with what Facebook hopes to target with low-latency cloud gaming, where Internet bandwidth won’t be an issue like it would for games demanding precise movement and timed actions.

The game is “the result of the world’s biggest social media platform leveraging our proprietary AI and simulation systems … and recruiting some of Hollywood’s best narrative writers to create a massive “live theater” experiment in just six months,” said Hal Milton, Pipeworks Studios design director. “We’re super proud of creating something entirely different, and excited to see how it’s received by Facebook folks worldwide.”

Navok said the game is absolutely going for Facebook’s global market, like India’s estimated 300 million users, but also wants to play into other social ecosystems, like fandoms rallying around a particular character. Each character will also have a playlist of original music to “chill” to, similar to the “chill hop to study to” livestreams of music that’s become popular over the years. Navok also hopes to see fan “wrapup” coverage of the game’s events, particularly since they only happen live. If you’re not online to watch it, you’ll miss it.

Navok also touts “Rival Peak” as the first true cloud game, as all the AI instances and streaming comes from the same data center.

“Unlike other cloud experiences, it’s functioning everywhere in the world,” Navok said of the global tests. “No rollout. No concerns about latency. No huge bandwidth. It just runs on Facebook.”

This may also be the first preview of what future entertainment efforts could entail. Already, virtual pop stars and idols are being created by computers to stoke fandom and push more content. Navok says he can easily imagine a show with a cast of characters rendered realistically using more advance graphics engines.

“This one was built from the ground up for Facebook, which is to say, we thought of the Facebook audience,” Navok said. “We thought about what kind of interactions they like. But future iterations of this could go way deeper in interactivity. It’s just in this case, it was the design of an interactive television show.”

Navok was also interviewed by The Post last summer about the promise of the Metaverse, the next iteration of the Internet that would feature robust virtual worlds with actual economies and life processes. To him, “Rival Peak” is another block towards building that Metaverse.

“There are 2 billion users on Facebook, but there is only one ‘Rival Peak’ world,” Navok said. “And if those millions start telling AI what to do in a single world, if that’s not the closest thing to the Metaverse we can experience, I don’t know what is.”

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