Feb 8, 2021

Axios AM

Good Monday morning. Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,186 words ... 4½ minutes.

Elon Musk is funding a $100 million innovation contest to find effective, economical ways to remove and store carbon dioxide. Go deeper.

1 big thing: Vaccines shatter expectations

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

No matter how hard you squint, or what angle you look at it from, the coronavirus vaccines are a triumph, Axios health care editor Sam Baker writes.

  • Why it matters: They're saving lives today; they will help end this pandemic eventually; and they will pay scientific dividends for generations.

The big picture: The pandemic isn’t over. There are still big threats, and big problems to solve. But for all the things that have gone wrong over the past year, the vaccines themselves have shattered even the most ambitious expectations.

  • The vaccines represent a "stunning scientific achievement for the world … unprecedented in the history of vaccinology," said Dan Barouch, an expert on vaccines at Harvard who worked on the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Developing a vaccine takes an average of 10 years — if it works at all. Despite years of well-funded research, there are still no vaccines for HIV or malaria.

  • We now have multiple COVID vaccines, all developed in less than a year.
  • The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the world’s first successful mRNA vaccines — which, to oversimplify it, teach our bodies to generate an immune response without relying on weakened or inactivated viruses. It's a milestone that scientists have been working toward for 30 years.
  • Moderna's vaccine is the company's first licensed product of any kind.

Most importantly, all the leading vaccines work extremely well.

  • All four vaccines or vaccine candidates in the U.S. — from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — appear to prevent coronavirus deaths, and to offer total or near-total protection against serious illness.

The catch: South Africa yesterday halted distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it appeared not to work against the dangerous variant discovered there — which is spreading across the world.

  • But that's a reason to lean into the existing vaccines. The best defense against widespread variants is to vaccinate as many people as possible.

The bottom line: "Once the history of this is written, they are going to be referred to as some of the greatest achievements of science," Zeynep Tufekci, a UNC sociologist with a track record of prescience on the coronavirus, told the N.Y. Times' Ezra Klein (subscription).

2. 🎬 "Axios on HBO": Secretary Pete

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

On "Axios on HBO," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told me what it was like to be sworn in as the first openly gay U.S. Cabinet member to be confirmed by the Senate — with the oath administered by Vice President Kamala Harris, and his husband, Chasten, holding the Bible:

Her husband, Doug, and Chasten have become good friends. And just think about that sentence — that the vice president's husband is friends with the secretary of transportation's husband. That's not a sentence you could have said very long ago. And it's a reminder of the changes that are underway and a reminder that we've got some work to do as a country ... so that one day that's unremarkable.

On ways that the pandemic has changed transportation forever, Buttigieg said the department will be thinking more about the "micro": "We think trains, planes and automobiles. But what about bikes, scooters — wheelchairs, for that matter? And getting around in a way that's a little closer to home."

🎞️ Also on last night's episode ... Jonathan Swan interviews AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who said it was a mistake for President Biden to cancel the Keystone pipeline, and that it will cost U.S. jobs. See a clip.

  • And former Parler CEO John Matze tells Dan Primack that negotiations last summer to bring President Trump onto the Twitter rival were a lose-lose proposition. See a clip.
3. COVID worsens digital "homework gap"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

An estimated 12 million kids still don't have the connections they need for distance learning, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill writes.

  • Kids in rural areas and Black, Latino and Native American households are hardest hit, according to a study by Common Sense Media.
  • Texas, California and Florida have the most overall students without adequate internet service. Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama have the highest proportion of insufficiently connected students.

Keep reading.

4. 🎥 "Axios on HBO": World Bank president on COVID inequality

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

In an interview with Dion Rabouin on "Axios on HBO," World Bank president David Malpass, a nominee of former President Trump, discusses his surprisingly outspoken stances on global warming and economic inequality:

  • "There's not much going for people at the bottom end of the scale. The biggest thing that helps them is education and jobs. And those have both been harmed during the COVID crisis."

See a clip.

5. 🐐 Best Brady quote ever
The Boston Globe

Tom Brady, during a regular weekly radio appearance on WEEI sports radio in Boston, in September of 2014 — six years and five Super Bowls ago:

When I suck, I’ll retire. But I don’t plan on sucking for a long time.
6. First look: ACLU to push Southern expansion

ACLU National Conference in Washington in 2018. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The ACLU will announce today it's embarking on an aggressive racial justice agenda that includes support for a reparations bill, expanding resources into Southern states, and pushing for rural post offices to adopt basic banking services, Axios race and justice reporter Russell Contreras writes.

  • Why it matters: The 101-year-old ACLU is shifting its emphasis from defending free speech to forcefully tackling systemic racism amid a racial awakening in the U.S.

Keep reading.

7. New Vandy project: "There's no vaccine for polarization"
Vanderbilt's hometown of Nashville was a center of the civil rights movement. Photo via Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy

Vanderbilt University, in the red state of Tennessee, today launches the Project on Unity & American Democracy, seeking to counter America's drift from evidence and reason, toward ideological certitude and reflexive partisanship.

  • The project — led by co-chairs Jon Meacham, former GOP governor Bill Haslam and former Obama White House fellow Samar Ali — will conduct case studies, host conversations, and engage with business leaders, faith leaders, and urban and rural voices to elevate reason in an age of passion.

Meacham tells me this matters because Vanderbilt is devoting a lot of resources to making a case — showing, not telling — that evidence and reason have been essential to create just enough unity in America to give us our finest hours.

8. Remembering George Shultz: A story about telling stories

On Jan. 9, 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz (center) walks with President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush upon arriving at the White House after two days of arms talks with the Soviet Union in Geneva. Photo: Barry Thumma/AP

In December, when he turned 100, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz — who died Saturday at his home on Stanford's campus — published a WashPost op-ed, "The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years":

One day, as secretary of state in the Reagan administration, I brought a draft foreign policy speech to the Oval Office for Reagan to review. He read the speech and said, "That’s fine," but then began marking it up. In the margin on one page, he wrote "story." I asked what he meant.
"That’s the most important point," he said. Adding a relevant story will "engage your readers. That way, you’ll appeal not only to their minds but to their emotions." ... A story builds an emotional bond, and emotional bonds build trust.

Keep reading.

9. 🏆 Champa Bay ... Tompa Bay

Real fans amid cardboard fans. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tom Brady dispelled any question about whether he was merely a product of the Patriots or Bill Belichick — and proved that he's the greatest quarterback to ever walk the planet, Axios Sports editor Kendall Baker writes:

  • Brady needed just 11 months to turn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the NFL's worst franchise (.393 winning percentage) — into Super Bowl champions, with their 31-9 pummeling of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Brady, 43, has more Super Bowl wins than any NFL team:

  1. Brady: 7
  2. Patriots: 6
  3. Steelers: 6
  4. Cowboys: 5
  5. 49ers: 5

Fun facts: Brady's 19-year span between championships (2001-2020) is a North American major sports record — not far off Jack Nicklaus' golf record of 24 years between majors (1962-1986).

  • Brady's fifth Super Bowl MVP extends his own record, and breaks a tie with LeBron James for second-most championship-round MVPs in NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL history. He trails only Michael Jordan (6).
  • Brady is the first NFL player to win championships in three different decades. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Jim Palmer did this in baseball, Henri Richard in hockey and Pelé in soccer (World Cups).
President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, in a taped message before kickoff, led a moment of silence for those lost to COVID. Photo: Chris O'Meara/AP
10. Super Bowl ads heavy on humor, comfort
Photos: AP

Kendall Baker's hot links:

Photos: AP

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