Saturday, the 25th of July

Talking Points

How many more reasons do you need to go green? PHOTO: AFP
  1. Climate change is expected to wipe out polar bears by 2100
  2. Sudan's ex-leader Omar al-Bashir faced a long-delayed trial
  3. West African leaders met to defuse the political crisis in Mali
  4. A Canadian judge invalidated the US asylum pact
  5. A report found that Russia interfered in UK elections (but not Brexit)
  6. And Boris headed to Scotland to try and keep the UK in one piece
  7. Fox News hosts were accused of rape and sexual harassment
  8. The world's largest pension systems were found to disadvantage women
  9. One of the last Holocaust trials was completed in Germany
  10. A judge unsealed records from a 2015 case against Ghislaine Maxwell

Deep Dive

Global need and corporate greed? PHOTO: Evening Standard

The world has crossed 15 million known cases of coronavirus and 600,000 have died. As countries all around the world grapple with their first or second waves, people wait with bated breath for news of a vaccine. One is coming, the science is close, but now we've got to ask the real question: who's paying for it?

Are we there yet?

Sarah Gilbert's team at the University of Oxford are the much-lauded front-runners in the development of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. They've compressed a years-long process into a matter of months by eschewing traditional vaccine technology and fashioning a microscopic Trojan horse from a gentler virus, and filling it with genetic material from the distinctive protein spikes of Covid-19. The shortcut to provoking an antibody response is a masterstroke – Gilbert estimates the vaccine will be effective in 80% of its subjects. Putting aside the Oxbridge rivalry for once, the Cambridge-based AstraZeneca PLC has agreed to produce and distribute the vaccine – the pharma giant has already on-sold some 2 billion doses. Late-stage (or Stage 3) clinical trials are underway, and are producing immune responses .

But Gilbert is not alone. There are two dozen other university, state, and private labs racing to complete trials. China's state-run SinoPharm was for months lagging behind other efforts simply because the country's successful suppression strategy had deprived it of patients to test on. It has since spun up sites in less fortunate countries and is expecting to complete late-stage human trials in just three months. Could we have a vaccine before the year is out? That would be nothing short of miraculous. But even so, the World Health Organisation's Mike Ryan has sought to temper the optimism, "Realistically it is going to be the first part of next year before we start seeing people getting vaccinated".

As we've previously discussed in this column, the process of developing a vaccine is non-linear, and can best be described as rapid-fire mistake-making. The more people making mistakes, the better. But the glut of coronavirus news confuses this process further. News organisations report on the various breakthroughs and setbacks of vaccines around the world – the result of which is a flurry of seemingly conflicting reports that lose the forest for the trees. Nevertheless, progress is being made, and now many countries are already planing for the next challenge: production and distribution. In Britain, the government has spent nearly £200m on a pair of vaccine-production facilities that are expected to come online in late 2021. Combined they will manufacture millions of doses each month. Then comes the real doozy: deciding who gets it first .

Coughing up for a vaccine

How much is this going to cost and who is picking up the bill? This week the US Department of Health and Human Services went some way to answering that, by spending just shy of $2b on 100 million vaccine shots from Pfizer, in conjunction with Germany's BioNTech . The homegrown pharmaceutical behemoth landed on $19.50 per shot (the regime requires two such doses) to balance the "public health requirements during the pandemic" against its own margin. Investors were clearly more aligned with the latter rather than the former impulse, and Pfizer enjoyed an "extreme" stock surge of 4.8% . The catch is that Pfizer needs to procure those 100 million doses by December. It's an extraordinarily ambitious deadline, though one hardly out of line with the White House's 'Project Warp Speed'.

For a two-dose treatment of around $40, Pfizer and BioNTech can expect a profit in some markets as high as 60-80% . They have established a price ceiling for all the other players in the vaccine race – none can realistically charge more than this for a comparably effective vaccine. And in the States, the vaccine-makers who seek to make a profit include Johnson&Johnson, Merck, and Moderna . The latter told a Congressional panel this week that they do not intend to limit the price of their coronavirus vaccine to company costs, which is corporate-speak for, "yes, we're in this business to make money". It's not the worst business to be in: Novavax executives expect a multimillion dollar reward even if their vaccine never makes it to production.

On the other hand, AstraZeneca has agreed to sell the vaccine at cost-price, which amounts to a few dollars per dose. It will produce one billion shots for the Serum Institute in India and a further 300 million for the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. But AstraZeneca is not a charitable organisation; its no-profit model expires once the crisis is over. Long gone are the days of Jonas Salk, the virologist who refused to patent his polio vaccine for the world's benefit.


EU bigwigs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel. PHOTO: Variety

The art and science of a deal

At 5:15am on Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel simply tweeted, "Deal" . Four late nights of furrowed brows and gritted teeth had led, finally, to the Union's 27 constituents signing off on a historic €1.8tr financial package. The agreement consists of an expanded €1.1tr seven-year budget and an extra €750b in relief to drag the bloc out of the coronavirus recession. It is no ordinary relief measure: the massive injection of subsidies and loans will, for the first time, be raised collectively by the European Commission. The notion of a common bond had been resisted for years by several countries, most notably Germany's Angela Merkel. But the coronavirus has heightened the rationale of the ever-closer union.

As the marathon-length negotiation sessions implied, consensus was not exactly forthcoming. And while the funding mechanism broke new ground, the fine-print reopened the old north-south divide. Struggling southern European nations will receive the lion's share of the cash (close to €200b for Italy alone) but the breakdown of loans and subsidies proved to be the sticking point. Dutch PM Mark Rutte led a posse of 'frugal' northern European countries that pushed for the relief to be centred on structured loans (that would add more pressure on the Spanish or Italian budget). He was opposed by Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron who insisted on a more expansive vision of European solidarity and beneficence . After much haggling, the relief will be split between €360b in loans and €390b in grants.

This example of unity, albeit hard-won, will help put to bed some of the lingering worries that Brexit would spell the end of the bloc. Not so.

Nothing to fear but Phobos itself. PHOTO: Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Heavenly questions

In 2011 the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched its mission to the Martian moon of Phobos. It lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, saddled to a Russian rocket that would fail to complete the burns required to leave Earth's orbit. It, along with the pride of China's space program, remained suspended overhead for months before disintegrating upon reentry. The Phobos mission prompted the CSNA to turn inwards (poetically just, given that Phobos was the personification of fear in Greek mythology) and develop its own rocketry. On Thursday the Chinese spacecraft Tianwen-1 (Heavenly Questions) left its launchpad on Hainan in search of Martian answers. Only when the old testament flash of thunder and light had subsided, and Tianwen-1 left the atmosphere, could that old fear be laid to rest.

What's impressive is that the precious cargo ( orbiter, lander, and rover ) is all Chinese-built. The engineering and production nous required to develop such technology is, as history shows, prohibitively difficult to acquire. But it's on its way now to study the Red Planet, hot on the heels of the Emirati Probe of Hope (paid for by the UAE space agency but built in conjunction with American universities). The pair will be followed in less than a week by Nasa's own 2020 Mars mission with its car-sized rover named Perseverance – all three missions will likely arrive in February. The qualifier in that sentence is required because to date our efforts to reach Mars have had a coin-toss chance of success.

While these various space agencies scratch around in the red dust, looking for answers, other researchers will be happily playing with their new model of the universe. A team at the University of Utah took detailed measurements of two million galaxies over five years to help fill in an 11-billion-year gap in our understanding of the universe's expansion.

The Best of Times

The cave entrance. PHOTO: Devin A Gandy

Just off by 11 millennia

A momentous archaeological find in Mexico has revealed that the earliest Native Americans arrived on the continent 11,000 years earlier than previously surmised. Thousands of stone tools were found in a cave in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. The earliest among them date to 30,000 BC – pieces of evidence that entirely overturn our understanding of North American prehistory.

Taking four years off your diagnosis

A research team based in China has developed a non-invasive blood test that can detect the earliest presence of cancer up to four years before symptoms appear . This frankly unbelievable method does not predict cancer so much as find specific methyl 'tags' in your blood DNA that point to tumours in their smallest beginnings.

The Worst of Times

Forced labour in Xinjiang. PHOTO: Reuters

Make your own mask

It's extraordinary how the most important news stories end up overlapping and intertwining with one another. The fight for racial equality is embedded in the fight for economic justice. Global health is tied intricately to climate change. This week we've seen the envelopment of China's persecution of Uighur Muslims, the coronavirus pandemic, and the wilful ignorance of the global fashion industry. Many of the world's largest clothing chains have been found to be complicit in sourcing material from the bonded labour factories of Xinjiang. Now those prisoners of conscience are being put to a new task: manufacturing your disposable surgical face masks .

Embarrassing embassies

China and America are shuttering one another's diplomatic offices in a game of tit-for-tat that is designed to be as petty as possible without provoking an extreme response. Grow up.

Weekend Reading

The image

Attempts to divine a nation's 'character' are reductive, boorish, and ultimately futile. But they sure are hard to resist sometimes... These are the US and Canadian tourist ferries below the Niagara Falls. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Canada is the country with 150,000 deaths and the United States is the one with 9,000. Photograph supplied by the Evening Standard.

The quote

"Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV."

US President Donald Trump crowed about being "cognitively there" by showing off the (apparent) difficulty of a five-word memory challenge that doctors set him.

The numbers

$104 million

- Tesla's second-quarter profit was based on better-than-expected deliveries.

$295 billion

- Tesla's market capitalisation. You can now call it the most-valuable automaker in the world.

The headline

"'How long can you hide a dead body in a prison cell?" Texas Observer and the Marshall Project

The special mention

Our special mention this week goes to the wishful thinkers at Liverpool Football Club, Merseyside Police, Liverpool City Council, and the various supporters clubs who had instructed Liverpool FC fans to stay at home and celebrate as the club lifted its Premier League trophy. Predictably, many thousands of fans flatly ignored this advice, and flocked to Anfield to party all night long.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton