Saturday, the 27th of March

Talking Points

These once-in-a-century floods are happening awful often. PHOTO: Mic
  1. Australia's east coast suffered its worst flooding in decades
  2. Rape and misogyny scandals dogged the country's politicians
  3. Israel held a fourth inconclusive election: same result, new faces
  4. 137 villagers were killed in jihadi attacks in western Niger
  5. Chinese buyers rejected Western brands over Xinjiang boycott
  6. North Korea tested two ballistic missiles in a show of force
  7. America's border crisis saw migrants held under bridges for days
  8. Biden raised eyebrows with his plan to run again in 2024
  9. Britney Spears' captivating legal battle with her father continued
  10. Alexei Navalny's health reportedly deteriorated in prison

Dive deeper

Turns out making them was the easy bit. PHOTO: Bloomberg

Export bans, neighbourhood squabbles, and a country that hoards doses like Smaug. A year into the global pandemic we ask: how's that global vaccine supply chain faring? A lot can go wrong between vaccines clinking their way off the conveyor belt and being shot into your arm.

'The world's pharmacy' pulls down the shutters

In February, India took broad steps to reopen its economy; loosening curbs and encouraging millions to return to work. It's taken just six weeks for the new daily case rate to rise exponentially from a February 15 low of just 9,000 to 53,000 yesterday. Half of the new infections came from Maharashtra alone, a state home to 114 million, on the eve of Holi. On Sunday and Monday, hundreds of millions of Hindus will throng for this celebration of divine love – a famously vibrant affair – across the country. In Nagpur, Maharashtra's third-largest city, Covid-19 restrictions have been eased to accomodate the holiday even though the city's ICU wards are full . Meanwhile in Mumbai, the state's biggest city, health officials are scrambling to document a new strain of coronavirus . It's been dubbed (rather sensationally) the "double mutant" as it shares some characteristics with both B.1.1.7 and P.1.

This new wave has crashed into India's ambitious vaccination plans. Officials in Delhi responded to the threat by delaying export licenses for the local vaccine manufacturer. What this means is that the Serum Institute of India (SII) must reroute 2.4m doses per day of the AstraZeneca vaccine back into the national stockpile. There have been no international shipments in over a week. While this will undoubtedly affect countries like Brazil and the United Kingdom, it is the poorest nations that will be laid low. The SII is by far the largest contributor to the United Nations COVAX program, and was scheduled to release 40m doses this month and 50m next.

A spokesperson from the Centre insisted that " We have not imposed any ban on exports of vaccines, unlike many other countries". A defiant note, and one that isn't entirely unwarranted: India has in fact exported more doses than it has administered to its own citizens. But the definition of whether self-imposed inertia is definitionally better aligned with 'delay' or 'ban' is a moot point. Especially when another foreign official spilled the beans, " No exports, nothing till the time the India situation stabilises". This delay will be measurable in both days and in deaths. As the forlorn director of Africa's Centers for Disease Control said, "As a continent, I feel truly helpless".

Borderline politics disorder

On Tuesday the US National Institute of Health took the unusual step of publicly casting doubt on AstraZeneca's proclaimed trial results (79% efficacy). Even though the vaccine manufacturer corrected the record on Thursday – it's actually 76% – the damage was done. Dr Anthony Fauci termed it, "a really unfortunate unforced error". Since last year's trial dosing-error it has been one stumble after another. The British-Swedish company has established itself as an exemplar for other vaccine manufacturers of what not do . Indeed, one British immunologist spoke of, "the amazing ability of AstraZeneca's press-release messaging to continually rescue defeat from the jaws of victory".

A third wave of infections has already buckled hospital systems in central and eastern Europe , and is a growing threat in France and Germany . Despite the urgency, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca shot has been a constant source of concern and has hampered its rollout. Furthermore, supply has been piecemeal. AstraZeneca's factories in Belgium and the Netherlands have consistently failed to meet their own production targets, impeding inoculation efforts from Canada to Israel. These delays had put even more pressure on the aforementioned SII to meet European shortfalls. You see how this is coming together, right? Last weekend, Italian police raided a warehouse in Rome to ascertain the destination of 29 million doses – a fairly heavy-handed intervention that highlighted just how low on stock Europe is.

European Union politicians have freely offered trenchant criticisms of A straZeneca's exports to the United Kingdom. But what had been a series of vague threats was solidified on Wednesday into punitive emergency legislation . EU chief Ursula von der Leyen laid her cards on the table, "I think it is clear that first of all the company has to catch up, has to honour the contract it has with the European member states, before it can engage again in exporting vaccines". UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that such a move would jeopardise his own vaccine rollout (more than a modest success so far) at a time when the continent's third wave looms back over the Channel.

And so finally to the US, which has secured enough coronavirus vaccines to protect its population five times over. As of Monday some 488 million doses have been shot into arms across the globe. A mere 0.1% of these were administered in the world's 29 poorest nations . The World Health Organisation has described this situation as "grotesque", which we think is entirely too diplomatic.


One of the most 'meme-ready' photographs of recent memory. PHOTO: Reuters

Scraping out the route canal

Big week for the logistics heads out there! Before we begin in earnest, and with full awareness of the financial distress the ship owners and operators are under, it must be acknowledged that this story is funny. A ludicrously large ship losing power and wedging itself deep into the banks of one of the most vital waterways on the planet. Unmistakeable elements of visual comedy at play. Tie-caught-in-a-hot-dog-roller material.

In all seriousness, it is a very big boat. At 400 metres long and 200,000 tonnes, the MV Ever Given can haul 20,100 steel shipping containers at a time. It also happens to be twice as long as the Suez canal is wide. The ultra-large vessel was en route from China to Rotterdam when it ran aground on Tuesday. Mighty crosswinds during a sandstorm pushed the Ever Given off course and it buried its pronounced bow deep into the embankment. Despite the gallant efforts of that excavator and its indefatigable operator, the ship remains firmly wedged in place four days on. The owners of what is currently the world's largest plug have employed the daring Dutch firm SMIT Salvage to dislodge the Ever Given. SMIT are renown for salvaging everything from Russian nuclear submarines to the Costa Concordia. It could take days or weeks to get the Suez clear.

In the meantime 200 odd container vessels, bulk carriers, and oil tankers are stuck in a holding pattern in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. With every passing day the flotilla of stranded ships grows, though some enterprising captains are doing it the old-fashion way and rounding the Cape of Good Hope instead (6,000km and roughly two weeks longer than traversing the artificial watercourse). Regardless of how damaging this is to global trade – 10% of all maritime shipping passes through the canal – it must be noted that it's an improvement to have a crisis on the Suez without people shooting at one another.

A ghostly visitation from Mark Zuckerberg. PHOTO: Axios

Social networking opportunity

If you want to get anything done in Washington you need to pay for it. Whether your business is building tanks, selling oil, or anything equally unpalatable – you need a lobbyist. That's why the official ranking for corporate lobbying expenditure makes for such interesting reading each year. Official is the operative word in that sentence; thanks to those legal black holes known as Super PACs, there is no way of knowing how much is being poured in on the sly. So who was at the top of the pile in 2020? None other than Facebook and Amazon . Both have rocketed up the list, eclipsing actual rocket-makers Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Both the social network and the 'everything store' dropped nearly $20m last year. But apart from unreserved rights to the snacks table and bar at gaudy Washington events, what does one actually find in such deep pockets? Campaign contributions, chiefly. An omnitool that induces positive feelings among recipients. And so you'd think the big F would get some air cover during the Congressional subcommittee hearings this week. But no, Facebook got roasted . In a five-hour hearing, Mark Zuckerberg was repeatedly challenged on the disinformation and misinformation that is ubiquitous on his platform.

But as the Center for Responsive Politics noted in its annual report, existing relationships and past experience are just as critical as donations. Take Nick Clegg. Facebook's chief spinner was the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2010-15! Just the kind of imprimatur that confers believability – something that will come in use while explaining away his boss's point-blank lie to a question about misinformation in political ads.

Another top-spinner is Jay Carney, who spent this week managing the latest controversy brewing at Amazon. The smooth-talker was a communications advisor to then-VP Joe Biden in the early years of the Obama administration, and was elevated to Press Secretary from 2011-14. Today he's chief flak-catcher for the internet retail conglomerate. Carney doesn't just bring the gift of the gab – he brings crucial thinking from inside the heart of the American state. Crucial experience to aid in dissembling why Amazon workers feel the need to defecate in plastic bags and urinate in bottles (for lack of toilet breaks), or why it is so intent of suppressing union drives in its warehouses.

The best of times

Thirsty, aren't you? PHOTO: Independent

Powered by beer

As lockdowns continue, the hospitality industry is faced with a problem: what to do with the wasted beer? In Britain, an estimated 87m pints were poured down the sink rather than the gullet last year. To avoid wasting their own stock, the Heineken brewery in Manchester converted its otherwise useless beer into clean energy. Using a process of anaerobic digestion they turned 7m pints into biogas. The resultant energy was enough to heat 28,000 homes for a day. Now there’s no reason to cry over spilt beer if it’s reused .

Predictive spittle

A new technology is paving the way for quicker concussion detection: harvesting spit . The technique works by analysing 14 specific biological markers contained in saliva to diagnose concussion. Researchers had the sticky job of collecting spit from thousand professional rugby players to form the basis of the experiment. By doing so, the group was able to create a test to diagnose concussions with 96% accuracy — it works within minutes and elides the need for costly scans.

The worst of times

Climate change is compounding crop failure. PHOTO: Luis Tato / AFP

Millions on the brink of starvation

An estimated 34 million people are on the brink of starvation in just 20 countries around the world. The estimate comes from a United Nations report released this week which named regions like Northern Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen as ‘hunger hotspots’. Covid, climate change, conflict, or a combination were determined as the main precursors to starvation. Is your country’s foreign aid budget rising or falling in 2021?

Myanmar's women laid low

Myanmar’s coup is reversing the progress in womens’ rights and increasing their risk of physical danger. Prior to the coup, women were increasingly taking up positions of power in politics and business. Now, though, military rule puts all of that at risk as the junta holds control without any accountability. According to the UN, 600 women have been arrested since February 1 — many of which are experiencing sexual harassment and violence. And so, the country’s women are left waiting for the world to intervene.

Weekend Reading

The image

After a year-long delay the Olympic torch relay is off. International tourists or no international tourists – it's nice to see some smiles instead of widespread dread over the fate of the Tokyo Games. Photograph supplied by AFP.

The quote

The Japanese government’s plans will destroy the dignity of war victims … I can barely believe it. Civilians and soldiers are going to be used to build a military base .”

Okinawa resident Takamatsu Gushiken , 67, is aghast at the proposal to excavate earth from the southern tip of the island to extend a US base. When he says "civilians and soldiers" he doesn't mean labourers, he is referring to the literal remains of the 200,000 people who died in the ferocious Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Their soon-to-be interred bone fragments are strewn through the terra slated for relocation.

The numbers


- Zoom's federal tax bill in 2020 on $660m in pre-tax profits. Don't ask how it works if you want to stay sane.

18 hours

- The shifts that some entry-level bankers are required to work at Goldman Sachs. Several whistleblowers have divulged some extremely burdensome work conditions in the hope of sparking change. A labour action at Goldman – strike us dead!

The headline

" Cats recognise their owners’ voices but never evolved to care, says study " The Independent .

The special mention

The small dreams of an octopus .

A few choice long-reads

  • How fast can a Tesla go? Not fast enough. Bloomberg Businessweek discovers that Elon Musk's time at the head of the automaker pack may be limited.
  • The toll on coronavirus victims has been unimaginable. But what of the healthcare workers? Financial Times looks at the pandemic that broke our carers.
  • One of the great questions for the carceral system is why so many people with brain injuries end up in prison. The Economist tackles a question of justice.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting