Oct 12, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • We're starting tonight with the race to vaccinate the world, while saving some time for a potential Trump-Putin nuclear deal (1,466 words, 5½ minutes).
  • Heads up: "Axios on HBO" is back tonight at 11:05pm ET/PT.

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1 big thing: Vaccinating (most of) the world
Data: Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

China's entry into the COVAX initiative means the list of non-participants in the global effort to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines has dwindled down to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, the U.S. and five small island countries or micro-states.

Breaking it down: 183 countries with a combined 93% of the world's population are either eligible for subsidized access or have said they intend to participate, though some have yet to sign formal agreements.

Why it matters: The distribution of coronavirus vaccines may be the defining global challenge of 2021.

  • Led by the World Health Organization, the GAVI vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, COVAX is the one genuinely global effort to address it.

How it works: By pooling resources, COVAX intends to invest in the development of at least nine vaccine candidates, secure lower-cost bulk access and distribute 2 billion doses to all participant countries by the end of next year.

  • Distribution will initially be proportional to population, with guidelines calling for health workers and vulnerable groups to be vaccinated first.
  • What to watch: It will not be easy to balance the interests of 180+ countries, some of which are building up their own vaccine stockpiles or attempting to negotiate the terms of their participation.

Driving the news: China was late to join COVAX, and the terms of its commitment aren't clear. But Beijing is attempting to contrast itself with the U.S. and counter the reputational damage it has suffered during the pandemic.

  • "We are taking this concrete step to ensure equitable distribution of ­vaccines, especially to developing countries, and hope more-capable countries will also join and support COVAX," the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.
  • Polls suggest distrust of Beijing is growing around the world, particularly after a suspected cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
  • But China now has the virus largely under control. It also has four vaccine candidates in phase III trials, and it's promised that some neighbors and strategic partners will have priority access.

The flipside: The U.S. appears to be the only country to have publicly rejected the COVAX initiative outright. It cited the influence of "the corrupt World Health Organization and China."

  • President Trump has instead invested in six vaccine candidates through the $10 billion Operation Warp Speed.

The bottom line: The U.S. is not alone in prioritizing access for its own population — though it is very nearly alone in refusing to join COVAX and withdrawing from the WHO.

  • Joe Biden has said he'd reverse Trump's WHO decision. Asked by Axios, his campaign didn't say whether he'd consider bringing the U.S. into COVAX.
2. State of the vaccine race

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

While the effort to vaccinate the world will likely stretch beyond next year even if COVAX proves successful, the wait for Americans will likely be much shorter.

How it works: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the first vaccine approvals could come in November or December.

  • Millions of doses will be manufactured in anticipation of those approvals, partially through Operation Warp Speed. It aims to distribute 300 million doses by January, relying heavily on the military for logistics.
  • It's unclear whether that target is achievable, but Fauci said the 700 million doses needed to vaccinate the entire population (most candidates require two shots) could be secured by April.

Zoom out: Ten coronavirus vaccines are currently in phase III trials:

  • Four were developed in China (CanSino, Sinopharm, Sinovac, Wuhan Institute) and three in the U.S. (Moderna, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson).
  • The others are from the U.K. (Oxford/AstraZeneca), Russia (Gamaleya Institute), and an international collaboration (BioNTech/Pfizer/Fosun).
  • Russia and China have both given vaccine candidates preliminary approvals despite incomplete testing.
  • Dozens of other candidate vaccines are at earlier stages of development.

What to watch: The AstraZeneca, Moderna and Novavax vaccines are part of the COVAX portfolio, and they're also among the six receiving U.S. investment.

  • The Serum Institute of India plans to quickly scale up production of the AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines (if they're approved) for distribution to the low-income COVAX countries, capped at $3 per dose.
3. State of the outbreak: Pandemic paradoxes
Data: IIF; Chart: Axios Visuals

1. The number of business bankruptcies and insolvencies in most countries has declined this year during a global economic downturn, Axios' Dion Rabouin writes.

  • Yes, but: That's largely thanks to assistance from central banks and government measures restricting things like foreclosures.
  • Why it matters: When the smoke clears, the world is likely to be looking at a sizable increase in the number of zombie companies — firms that owe more on debt than they generate in profits but are kept alive by relentless borrowing.

2. The death rate in Japan has declined this year during a once-in-a-century pandemic.

  • Between January and July, 18,000 fewer people died than during that period in the previous year, per Mainichi Shimbun.
  • Breaking it down: There's been a pronounced drop in deaths from infectious diseases like the flu, due at least in part to steps like social distancing. Meanwhile, just 1,628 people have died of COVID-19.
  • Zoom out: It's not just Japan. New Zealand has reportedly seen a 99.8% drop in flu cases this year.
4. A nuclear surprise from Trump and Putin?

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Trump is looking to Vladimir Putin to close the deal on a nuclear agreement before the Nov. 3 election.

The big picture: They've discussed arms control in a string of phone calls over the last six months and dispatched envoys to negotiate in Vienna. But talks appeared stalled until just a few days ago.

  • National security adviser Robert O’Brien and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, met in Geneva on Oct. 2. 
  • The meeting created enough momentum that Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, made last-minute plans to travel to Helsinki — with Billingslea even cutting short a trip to Asia.
  • On Friday, a source familiar with the discussions said the Trump administration believed it now had an agreement in principle, blessed by Putin and Patrushev.
  • But Ryabkov countered on Saturday that “there are still huge differences in approaches, including to the central elements of such an agreement.” Talk of an imminent deal is hardly “realistic,” he said.

Between the lines: Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator for New START, says a non-binding agreement could still come together quite quickly.

  • “When there’s that much high-level attention, negotiations tend to succeed,” she says with a laugh. “I experienced it with President Obama and President Medvedev breathing down my neck, as well as my Russian counterpart.”

The big picture: Election Day isn't the only deadline driving this process. New START, the last major bilateral treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, is due to expire on Feb. 5.

Go deeper

5. Nobel Peace Prize to World Food Program

David Beasley in Cuba. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize in a pointed assertion that multilateralism is saving lives despite the nationalism espoused by leaders like Trump.

What they're saying: "Multilateralism seems to have a lack of respect these days,” said Nobel Committee director Berit Reiss-Andersen. "The need for international solidarity and multilateral co-operation is more conspicuous than ever."

The flipside: The director of the WFP, former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, was actually a Trump administration pick. Another former Republican governor of that state, Nikki Haley, nominated him for the Rome-based post while she was America's UN ambassador.

  • While President Trump has announced America's withdrawal from the WHO and criticized other UN agencies, WFP has not attracted the president's ire. Washington remains the agency's largest donor.
  • Beasley noted in a conversation with Axios last year that U.S. funding for the program had actually increased on his watch.

Driving the news: The WFP is one of the world's largest humanitarian organizations, and its mission has grown during the pandemic.

Go deeper

6. One to watch: China’s threats to Taiwan

Taiwan is standing at attention. Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty

China has released new footage of an exercise simulating an invasion of Taiwan, the latest in a series of threatening gestures from Beijing.

  • Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen used a speech on Saturday to propose talks aimed at reducing tensions, but Beijing responded by accusing Tsai of colluding “with external forces” — meaning the U.S.
  • The big picture: Beijing has vowed to bring the self-governing island back under Chinese control, by force if necessary. Such statements have grown more forceful amid Washington’s increasingly visible support of Taiwan.
  • The big questions: How can the U.S. deter China from following through on its bluster? And what should it be prepared to do if Beijing can't be deterred?

Three takes:

7. Stories we're watching

Scenes from a shaky ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Aziz Karimov/Getty Images

  1. North Korea unveils new missile
  2. India passes 7 million cases
  3. The huge return on investing in coronavirus tests
  4. Pentagon mulls 5G push
  5. Israeli Cabinet approves UAE treaty
  6. Rugby returns, with fans
  7. Armenian Americans rally in U.S. as Nagorno-Karabakh truce frays
"He was astonished to learn about the details of the COVID-19 pandemic and remarked that it all sounded like some 'zombie apocalypse movie.'"
— Vina Nadjibulla, wife of Michael Kovrig, the Canadian employee of the International Crisis Group who was detained in China in Dec. 2018 in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and had gone nine months without a consular visit.