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Sensemaker, 1 October 2020

Thursday 1 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US Commission on Presidential Debates said it would change the format to curb interruptions after Tuesday’s unchecked performance by President Trump.
  • Moscow’s schoolchildren will have a week added to their half-term break to try to slow the spread of Covid.
  • Boris Johnson granted rebellious MPs more say in lockdown decisions as the R number in the UK appeared to be falling (more below).

The Berlin patient. Timothy Ray Brown, the first person to be cured of HIV, has died, and we should mark his passing with more than regret. Brown’s HIV disappeared in 2007 after he was given a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukaemia from a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV. Brown died on Tuesday aged 54 when his cancer returned, but he had become a beacon of hope to many of the 38 million people with HIV who think a widespread cure could be possible.

That you can now live with HIV is extraordinary. A few decades ago it was a death sentence, but activism and science fought back and by 1995 a highly active antiretroviral therapy was enabling people to live virtually normal lives with the virus. Today 25 million people around the world are on antiretroviral therapy – but nearly 13 million people are still waiting for it.

Between half a million and a million people died from AIDS-related illnesses last year, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. For comparison, there have been 34 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, and the death toll recently passed a million.

In the next few months the race for a coronavirus vaccine will, with any luck, enter its final straight. Assuming it comes, it will feel like a miracle. But there are two lessons from humanity’s scarring experience of HIV worth keeping in mind in memory of Timothy Ray Brown: when it isn’t possible to eradicate a virus you have to learn to live with it; and even then there could still be a cure.

In the app today… Read part four of our Big Egg file, in which Ella Hill profiles a new generation of fertility pioneers. Sign up for our conversation with Ruby Wax tonight and for our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn tomorrow lunchtime, at which, in a change of topic, we’ll be discussing egg freezing in light of a new report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (we’ll tackle students, Covid and refunds next week).

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Open, BVI
The British Virgin Islands have pledged to produce a publicly accessible register of company owners by 2023. If you’re the beneficial owner of a BVI-registered company and you don’t want anyone to know, this will vex you. If you’re against money-laundering and hardcore tax avoidance, your heart might actually sing. Known BVI company owners include Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, the boyhood judo pals whom Putin has helped to become billionaires, and thousands more whose identities were revealed or hinted at in the Panama Papers and the more recent US Fincen data. This undertaking is a long-delayed response to a 2016 London anti-corruption conference hosted by an embarrassed David Cameron, whose father parked money in Panama. But better late than never.

New things technology, science, engineering

Fusion latest
A team of Massachusetts physicists think they can do in a few years what hundreds have failed to do in half a century – replicate the sun’s sustained nuclear fusion reaction in a donut-shaped machine to produce limitless clean power. Of course we should admire their chutzpah. Also, their claim that high temperature superconductors will succeed in controlling sun-like plasma at millions of degrees C where electromagnetic coils in Europe’s ITER project have failed… is interesting. But really? In a way the most interesting thing about this story is the space the NYT has given it. The piece has all the requisite caveats about a technology that’s always been at least 30 years away, but it still seems overly credulous. It would be truly wonderful if I’m wrong.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

It’s been snowing
Half a metre of early season snow fell across much of the Alps last weekend and more is forecast tomorrow, down to 1500 metres above sea level. Snow addicts know what happens next. It melts. But then we cling to dimly-remembered school science: as it melts it cools the ground below, so the next fall sticks quicker. In truth, nowadays that tends to melt too. There’s no such thing as a reliable base any more. That won’t stop us dreaming of the mountains and it won’t stop ski resorts dreaming of reopening despite the virus, but sooner or later reality will bite: these are the resorts that incubated some of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks. An interesting tussle between hope and experience looms.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

The Covid curve
Talk about mixed messages: at yesterday’s Downing Street press conference the UK government’s chief scientific and medical officers said all the key Covid indicators – infections, hospitalisations, deaths – were heading in the wrong direction. That supported Boris Johnson’s case for more lockdowns if necessary, in the teeth of a rebellion by those of his own backbenchers who think he’s lost his bottle. Then the latest mass count of Covid cases by Imperial College London indicated an R number falling to 1.1 and a second wave that could be contained to much more specific parts of the country than the first (the northeast, the northwest and parts of the midlands). Whisper it, but arbitrary-sounding instructions like the rule of six may actually be working.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Chinese holiday
It’s Golden Week in China. Autumn has come. The great labours of party, army and people have beaten back a pandemic and ensured a decent economic recovery, all things considered. So 600 million road and rail trips are forecast over the next eight days. The skies will be relatively full, with 15 million passengers. Masks will be worn but crowds will be dense, like old times. And why not? China has recorded no new locally-transmitted cases of Covid-19 in the past 44 days.

And finally, coinage of the day (the first, perhaps, in an occasional series) goes to the Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs for “champagne lockdownism” – a variation on champagne socialism by which left-wing hypocrites stay home and drink sudsy alcoholic beverages on the flimsy justification of not wanting people to die.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood

Giles Whittell