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Sensemaker: The meaning of Novavax

Friday 29 January 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Novavax said its Covid vaccine was 85 per cent effective against the UK variant of the virus (more below).
  • Chinese warplanes simulated an attack on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier sailing near Taiwan.
  • A study published in the science journal Soft Matter theorised that wombat faeces are cuboid to stop them rolling away, so they can be used to communicate by smell.

The meaning of Novavax

That soft whistling may be the kettle, or it may be the UK government’s long collective sigh of relief. Yesterday’s data from Novavax on vaccine trials in the UK and South Africa adds 60 million doses to the country’s vaccine pipeline subject to regulatory approval. It could even bring forward the day the UK starts giving surplus stocks to other countries. In the meantime…

  • Jack’s alright. If you’re a multilateralist it’s getting embarrassing, but four of the seven vaccines Kate Bingham ordered for the UK early last summer have now been shown to work, meaning 217 million of 367 million pre-ordered doses can be factored into planning for the next phase of the rollout – in a country with a population of 68 million.
  • Number Ten is thrilled. It has nothing against front pages like today’s (“Union Vacc” – the Sun; “Another Shot In The Arm for Britain!” – the Mail), but the real excitement is over a new-look Tory industrial strategy coming into focus based on inshoring pandemic resilience essentials like PPE and vaccines. James Forsyth, husband of Downing Street spokeswoman Allegra Stratton, slides deftly past last year’s PPE and test and trace disasters in his Times column today to note instead that six of the world’s very few “large-scale bioreactors” (important for vaccines) are now in the UK, and that two thirds of Britain’s PPE is now produced at home, up from 1 per cent a year ago.  
  • We are headed for more vaccine nationalism, not less. The European Commission is expected to unveil a “vaccine export transparency mechanism” today to enable it to stop shipments of the Pfizer vaccine from Belgium to the UK if AstraZeneca fails to make good on its commitment of 100 million doses to the EU by the end of March. Tempers are fraying. “We cannot be the only one who plays fair in this game,” the German MEP Peter Liese tells the BBC. “If others say ‘UK first’, ‘US first’, then we have to say ‘EU first’, but I hope – I really hope – this will be sorted out.”

The EU’s beef is that it helped fund both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines and now finds itself at, or close to, the back of the queue having delayed placing firm orders and giving regulatory approval. Germany’s health minister has warned of 10-week delays. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s chief fixer, offered help in principle this week but in the same breath insisted the UK rollout must “proceed precisely as planned”. 

Polite reminder: no one is safe until everyone is safe.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

GameStop latest
A week of wild rebellion against the way Wall Street does business is ending with a surge in support for a Malaysian company that makes rubber gloves.

But first: shares in GameStop, the Texan video game retailer, rallied by more than 100 per cent in after-hours trading after Robinhood and other trading platforms eased restrictions that provoked a storm of recrimination on Thursday. Rappers vented on Twitter about amateurs being shut out of the market while hedge funds were allowed to keep on trading to staunch multi-billion dollar losses. Instant class-action lawsuits were filed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York assemblywoman, demanded congressional hearings. Ted Cruz, the Republican senator, said he totally agreed. AOC hit back that she’d take no help from someone who “almost had me murdered” in the 6 January march on Congress.

And now back to those gloves: Top Glove’s stock jumped 14 per cent this morning as Malaysian Reddit users piled in to support “our national treasure” (questionable, given the company is under investigation for its apparently dire working conditions). 14 per cent isn’t much compared with other stock movements this week, but it’s proof that the rebellion has gone global.


New things technology, science, engineering

Self-parking scooters
A solution is at hand to the street clutter caused by abandoned electric scooters. They will park themselves. Not all of them, but those operated by Spin, which was bought two years ago by Ford. Starting with a pilot scheme in Boise, Idaho, Spin will put self-parking three-wheeled scooters, for hire via app, on the streets of 14 US cities for which its parking partner has obtained permits. After your ride, the scooter parks itself neatly in a rank with others, guided by another green tech transport start-up called – no relation – Tortoise.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

GM goes green
Staying with US personal transport, General Motors has announced it will phase out production of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035. That’s General Motors, maker of Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets and GMC pickups. If any of these brands survive they’ll do so with batteries and electric motors. This is the death knell of the big American V8. The end may be 15 years off, but the most potent symbol in existence of carbon-be-damned extravagance and the freedom of the open road is already a lame duck. In a week when the new US president signed a stack of sweeping executive orders to drag America back into the environmental stewardship business, GM’s announcement may seem like just another big company getting with the zeitgeist, but it’s much more than that.


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

The DofE knew
Schools Week has a scoop that should embarrass even the unembarrassable British education secretary, Gavin Williamson. He claims not to have known about the highly transmissible Kent variant of Covid when his department ordered the London Borough of Greenwich to rescind its demand to be allowed to close schools in mid-December. But his most senior civil servant has now written to Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, to admit the department did know, not least because the health secretary had announced the existence of the variant in the House of Commons before the Department for Education issued its démarche to Greenwich. Was Williamson unaware or did he just not care?


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

UK visas for Hong Kongers
This weekend the UK launches a scheme to welcome up to three million Hong Kongers to Britain as long-term residents with the right to work and the possibility of citizenship. In response, China has said it will no longer recognise their passports. These are the so-called British National (Overseas) (BNO) passports, created before the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The idea was to allow Hong Kongers to retain their ties to the UK. The hope was that the democratic tide that had liberated eastern Europe from communism might at least nurture it in Hong Kong. It hasn’t, and BNO passports have become lifeboats for pro-democracy activists fearful of arrest and jail under the new National Security Law, and golden tickets for anyone who simply doesn’t want to live in a one-party state. The South China Morning Post has a good three-part series on the BNO holders and their hopes for an uncertain future.

One more thing… It was announced today that the family of Emily Whelan, featured in our 4-part podcast series Hidden Homicides, won their lawsuit against the NHS trust that allowed her body to decompose to the extent that a forensic post mortem was unable to completely rule out third-party involvement in her death. You can hear more about Emily’s story, and her mother Caramella Brennan’s fight for justice, here.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs by Getty Images