Jul 20, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • We’re diving deep tonight into the global race toward a coronavirus vaccine.
  • New readers can sign up here. If you give us 6 minutes (1,663 words), we’ll give you the World.
1 big thing: The race for a vaccine

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Vaccines from the U.K., U.S. and China are sprinting ahead in a global race that involves at least 197 vaccine candidates and is producing geopolitical clashes even as it promises a possible pandemic escape route.

Driving the news: The first two candidates to reach phase three trials — one from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, the other from China — both appear safe and produce immune responses, according to preliminary results published today in The Lancet.

  • A vaccine from Moderna, the U.S. biotech firm, is heading into phase three trials after similarly encouraging initial results.
  • There are at least 16 other vaccines currently in clinical trials in Australia, France, Germany, India, Russia, South Korea, the U.K., the U.S. and China, which is experimenting with a variety of vaccine types and has five candidates already in trials.

What they're saying: Experts are increasingly confident that it's no longer a question of if but when vaccines will be available.

  • "Absolutely, for sure, we will get more than one vaccine," Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard, told reporters today.
  • He cautioned that it's not yet clear which vaccines will win the race and that we won't know how effective they are in protecting against COVID-19 — and for how long — until after phase three trials.

Pressed on when a vaccine could be approved, Bloom said that while it seemed "utterly crazy seven months ago," January was looking increasingly realistic.

  • Richard Horton, The Lancet's editor-in-chief, is more cautious: "If we have a vaccine by the end of 2021, we will have done incredibly well."
  • Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, splits the difference: "Seven months after we got the genome, to have three vaccines in phase three is literally unprecedented. If in six to eight months we get a license, that will be, again, totally unprecedented in world history."

But, but, but: "Getting something approved doesn't protect you from COVID," Emanuel warns.

  • The challenges of producing, distributing and delivering a vaccine (particularly in two doses, as the Oxford vaccine requires) around the entire world are hard to even fathom.
  • Even distributing a vaccine in one country will require an unprecedented buildup of facilities, materials (like glass vials), personnel and protocols, assuming enough people are even willing to take it.

The global picture is even murkier. Several countries and pharmaceutical companies have committed to "fair and equitable" distribution.

  • In principle, that would suggest a vulnerable front-line worker in Uganda, say, should get the vaccine before a young, healthy person in the United States.
  • In practice, well ... no one really knows.

The bottom line: "It's very fragmented, and in some ways that's understandable," Horton says. "But the danger of that is that many countries will lose out and only the strongest country, the country with the most money, will win."

  • If countries hoard supplies rather than prioritizing at-risk people elsewhere, Bloom says, "that should be a cause not just of global concern but of global shame."
2. Vaccine politics: “Who do you trust?”

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

For now, governments are prioritizing their own populations.

The Trump administration is pouring at least $3.5 billion into the development and manufacture of three leading vaccine candidates, with the promise of hundreds of millions of doses should they prove safe and effective.

  • Even as the homegrown Oxford vaccine takes a global lead, the U.K. is hedging its bets. The government announced today the purchase of 90 million doses being developed by German and French companies.
  • The U.K. and U.S. have both also put in large pre-orders of the Oxford vaccine, though AstraZeneca says 1 billion doses will also be manufactured in India and distributed mainly to other low- and middle-income countries.
  • The WHO and EU are attempting to create a framework for distributing the vaccine globally, though the U.S. has declined to take part.

What to watch: Managing the largest vaccination project in history will clearly require global collaboration — but it's also becoming a competition between rival powers.

  • “Six months from now, we will be in a situation where a few countries will have vaccines, and we believe those countries will be the UK, Russia, China and the US,” Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund, told the FT.

Between the lines: Others are less certain Russia will be in that group, though Dmitriev says a vaccine bankrolled by his fund and developed by the state-run Gamaleya Institute will move into phase three trials next month.

“Basically other countries will decide, you know, which vaccine to buy ... and who do you trust?”
— Kirill Dmitriev
3. First look: U.S. targets research theft

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There's a clear lack of trust among the competitors.

  • According to the U.S, U.K. and Canada, hackers linked to Russian military intelligence have attempted to steal vaccine research in order to aid their own efforts.
  • The U.S. has also accused China of pilfering American research.

First look: House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy will introduce a bill on Tuesday that would sanction foreign hackers attempting to steal U.S. vaccine research, according to a copy of the bill obtained by Axios' Alayna Treene.

  • The bill authorizes President Trump to impose sanctions on any foreign person that engages in cyber-related activity that threatens America's national security or economy, Alayna reports.

Zoom out: It will be a victory for humanity when the first coronavirus vaccines are approved. But the competition to obtain one early goes beyond national pride.

  • Vaccines will save countless lives, drive economic recoveries, and could provide rare opportunities to generate goodwill and influence abroad.
  • "There's a huge soft power advantage to the U.S. ensuring that other countries can get the vaccine and protect themselves," Emanuel says. The same would, of course, be true for China.

The bottom line: The race is on, but it won't end when the first vaccine is approved.

Go deeper: Coronavirus treatment is improving

Bonus: Pop star nationalism

Dua Lipa at the Grammys in January. Photo: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

You may know Dua Lipa as the voice behind “New Rules,” but she has unexpectedly become the controversial face of Albanian nationalism.

Axios’ Shane Savitsky explains.

4. Lessons for opening schools

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There’s a growing body of evidence from Europe suggesting that schools can operate safely during the pandemic, at least under certain circumstances.

The flipside: No country that closed schools has attempted to reopen them with outbreaks still raging as they are in countries like the U.S. and Brazil. Still, those who are late to open will likely adopt tactics from those who opened first.

Social distancing: Danish class sizes were initially limited to around 12, and arrival times were staggered to avoid crowding.

  • However, some countries have loosened or eliminated distancing rules, particularly for the youngest students.

Masks: Similarly, countries including Austria initially required masks but loosened those restrictions over time.

  • Masks are required for both students and teachers in several Asian countries, including China.

"Bubbles": When the U.K. fully reopens schools in September, smaller subsets of students will spend classes, lunch and recess together — an approach several other countries have experimented with.

  • If a student gets the virus, the logic goes, there are only so many people they could give it to, or who would need to self-isolate.

Schedules: Italy is asking schools to open on Saturdays to allow for lower daily attendance.

  • Belgian students over 12 will attend school four days a week in the fall, with an additional half-day online. If cases increase, so will the proportion of online education.

What to watch: It remains unclear how susceptible children are to the virus, though findings from a hard-hit town in France — which are consistent with other evidence — suggest it spreads significantly less easily among teens than adults, and very little among young children.

5. Data du jour: God and morality

Much of the developed world is gradually drifting away from religion, but the opposite is the case in Russia and some other former Eastern Bloc countries, according to data from Pew Research.

Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals
  • On the one hand: Virtually everyone in Nigeria (100%), the Philippines (100%), Indonesia (98%), Brazil (98%), South Africa (96%), India (95%), Mexico (90%) and Turkey (89%) considers God an important part of their life.
  • On the other: Less than half do in Sweden (21%), the Czech Republic (24%), France (31%), Japan (33%), Australia (38%), the U.K. (40%) and Hungary (44%).
  • Canada (52%), Russia (56%), Poland (69%), Israel (71%) and the U.S. (72%) fall in between.

The question of whether one's fellow citizens must believe in God to "be moral and have good values" marks a clear dividing line.

  • Age: In every country, people over 50 were more likely to link morality to religion than 18- to 29-year-olds. The gap was widest in South Korea (64% for 50+; 20% for 18–29).
  • Income: Also in every country, people with lower incomes were more likely to think only the religious could be moral. The gap was widest in the U.S.
  • Education: That also held true across the board for those with less education. The gap was widest in Argentina and Mexico.
  • Politics: Except in Slovakia, it held true for those who identify as right-of-center politically. The gap was widest in the U.S. (63% vs. 24%) and Poland, which just concluded a presidential election fought over culture wars.
6. The Biden case on Trump and China

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto, and Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

President Trump has attempted to make his tough-on-China stance a key facet of his campaign (though John Bolton's book has made that a harder sell).

Why it matters: Joe Biden, in Trump's telling, wouldn't have the will or capacity to challenge China as he has.

Tony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser to Biden who will likely get a top job if he wins in November, laid out a counterargument on Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

  • "We're engaged in a serious competition with China," Blinken said. "Competition can be a good thing, but we want to make it a race to the top, not a race to the bottom, and that's a race we'll win."
  • "But here's the problem. Right now, by virtually every key metric, China's strategic position is stronger and ours is weaker as a result of President Trump's leadership."
  • Blinken cited power vacuums, schisms with allies, a "green light" to commit human rights abuses and the "debasing our own democracy."

His bottom line: The U.S. needs to get its own economic and political house in order, repair its alliances and then "engage with China from a position of strength."

Worth noting: This is a much more nuanced argument than the one Biden himself made last May, before changing gears on China:

"[T]hey’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us."
7. Stories we're watching

Evening in Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

  1. U.K. suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong
  2. UAE launches first mission to Mars
  3. Cuba’s COVID milestone
  4. New warnings on polar bear survival
  5. Syria elections held amid pandemic, sanctions
  6. U.S. blacklists Chinese companies tied to Xinjiang gene bank
  7. Pentagon effectively bans Confederate flag


"Sometimes you have a transfer of prisoners."
— China's ambassador to the U.K., struggling to explain a disturbing video from Xinjiang