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Sensemaker: The view from South Africa

Monday 8 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Andres Arauz claimed victory in Ecuador’s presidential election after promising to tax the rich and give $1,000 grants to poorer families.
  • The Guardian published memos showing how the Queen’s private lawyer lobbied UK ministers in the 1970s to hide the scale of her investments.
  • The remains of Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist beheaded by Isis in 2015, have been found near the Palmyra ruins he died trying to protect.

The view from South Africa

What do you do when the vaccine you hoped would protect your citizens from Covid turns out not to work against the dominant variant in your country? Dr Zweli Mkhize is South Africa’s health minister and his answer is: switch vaccines.

Cruel timing: last Tuesday South Africa reopened beaches and bars for the first time since December. On the same day it took delivery of its first one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Then, on Saturday, initial findings emerged from a small study with big implications, the full results of which are published today. In a nutshell: the AZ vaccine doesn’t prevent mild or moderate illness when used against the South African variant, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of cases there. 

Is this really “devastating” for South Africa, as the NYT reported?

It’s a setback, but devastating is probably going too far.

  • The sample size in the new study was small. Of 1749 participants, 42 got sick, of whom 19 had the vaccine and 23 had a placebo, producing an efficacy figure of just 22 per cent. Also, the vaccine doesn’t appear to cut transmission of the South African variant, also known as 501Y.V2.
  • However, no one became severely ill or died.
  • That is partly because participants were young – average age 31 – but also because while the vaccine doesn’t appear to prompt a significant immune response in the form of antibodies specific to 501Y.V2, it does still boost a broader immune response in the form of T cells.
  • So AstraZeneca believes its vaccine still offers protection against serious illness and death from the variant. 
  • In any case, South Africa has shipments of the Pfizer, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on order, and all appear to provide protection against the variant, including among over 65s.

“We do have vaccines that work,” the lead investigator in the new trial said yesterday. The president of South Africa’s Medical Research Council went further and called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a silver bullet. Mkhize, the minister, has approved a plan to start using it on health workers pending regulatory approval. 

The read-across: a total of 142 cases of the South African variant have so far been confirmed in the UK. The real number is likely to be higher but that doesn’t mean it’s spreading out of control or that there is no point in UK residents taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. On the contrary, it’s essential that people go on taking it because the lower the prevalence of the original virus the less chance it has to mutate. 

In the meantime: AstraZeneca (and Pfizer and Moderna, the two leading mRNA vaccine makers) are tweaking their vaccines to tackle 501Y.V2 head-on. Sources say adapted vaccines won’t require full clinical trials and that the approval process could take as little as six weeks. Join us for tonight’s ThinkIn with Nadhim Zahawi, the UK vaccines minister, for chapter and verse. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Money buys buzz
When you want to get into the movie business, sometimes it helps to be rich. That is the approach Apple took last week at the online Sundance Film Festival. It blew away records and the competition to acquire streaming rights for CODA for $25 million, $7.5 million more than anyone has ever paid for anything at Sundance. CODA stands for “children of deaf people” and the film of the title is the story of a fishing family whose members are all deaf except for one daughter who interprets and speaks for them. It’s won raves from everyone who matters in the film distribution business (Variety, the Hollywood Reporter) and Apple wants to be as certain as possible that it has a hit for its TV+ streaming business (33 million subscribers), which is struggling to compete with Netflix (200 million) and Disney+ (86 million). Apple’s market cap is around $2 trillion, which suggests this might be a good time to have a hot spec script for sale.

New things technology, science, engineering

Looking up
SoftBank’s Vision Fund is doing better. Piled high with Saudi and UAE money, the fund seemed nonetheless to have the opposite of the Midas touch a year ago when it took a $17.7 billion loss on its investment in WeWork, the flexible office space company. It has since made a profit of $5 billion on sales of Uber shares, turned a $680 million investment in the DoorDash food delivery startup into a stake worth $11 billion, and tripled the value of its €480 million stake in Auto1, a German online car dealer. And it has done well out of a host of initial public offerings – the kind to which $100 billion tech-based funds tend to have access and mere individuals with day-trading accounts on Robinhood do not. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Incinerators stink
Supposedly low-carbon power from the burning of waste in incinerators can be as dirty as power from coal and at least three times more carbon-intensive than the UK average from all sources. An investigation by SourceMaterial has found that Veolia and Viridor, two of Britain’s largest waste management companies, produce power from their incinerators at 970 and 889 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour of power exported to the grid, compared with 985 grams on average for coal-fired power and 371 for gas. There are 48 working incinerators in the UK and plans for 100 more. Veolia and Viridor say burning waste means less goes to landfill. True, but it only accelerates global warming.

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

Brady’s bunch
Tom Brady was the New England Patriots’ quarterback for 20 years. Then he moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then, yesterday, at 43 years and 188 days, he became the oldest player ever to take part in a Super Bowl, the only player ever to take part in ten of them, and only the second to have won one with two teams. What Brady has for breakfast, how he works out and what he believes in off the field (he meditates, and is a friend of Donald Trump’s) have been subjects of mainstream discussion across America  – but especially in mainly liberal New England – for aeons. According to Men’s Health, the answer to the breakfast question is a smoothie with nuts, and then a protein shake. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Myanmar rising
Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi are not taking her detention lying down. Nor is the Myanmar military coup going entirely to plan. Large crowds of protesters including students and saffron-robed Buddhist monks have taken to the streets of Yangon, as well as the capital, Naypyidaw, and the coastal city of Dawei for the third day in a row. Riot police used water cannon against them this morning but have so far failed to intimidate what seems to be a broad-based pro-democracy movement. The presence of monks in the crowds recalls protests of 1988 and 2007 that were met with brutal reprisals. The younger protesters joining them have taken to using the three-fingered salute borrowed from the Hunger Games films and popularised in real life in Thailand. The US has condemned the coup and on Friday called on China to do likewise. So far Beijing – the world’s most adamant defender of the right to oppress one’s own minorities without foreign meddling – hasn’t obliged.

The week ahead

8/2 – four people charged over Edward Colston statue appear in court; Michael Gove appears before select committee meeting on UK-EU relationship, 9/2 – former first minister Alex Salmond due to testify before Scottish Parliament inquiry into Scottish government’s handling of misconduct claims against him; City of London Corporation report on London’s Covid recovery released, 10/2 – Institute for Government hosts international conference on delivering net zero; port leaders appear before select committee meeting on Northern Ireland Protocol, 11/2 – transport secretary Grant Shapps speaks at UK Chamber of Shipping conference, 12/2  – UK reports fourth quarter GDP; inquest into death of Leon Briggs in police custody concludes; Supreme Court hands down judgment in legal action against Shell by victims of alleged Nigerian oil spill

8/2 – US Covid task force head Anthony Fauci speaks at American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, 9/2 – Senate impeachment trial of former US president Donald Trump set to begin; Tokyo Olympics organisers release Covid safety playbook for athletes; UAE Hope probe set to reach Mars; International Criminal Court trial opens for former militia leaders charged with war crimes in Central African Republic, 10/2 – European Parliament holds debate on EU’s vaccination approach; China Tianwen-1 probe set to reach Mars; UN Security Council meets to discuss terrorist threats, 11/2 – AstraZeneca reports full-year results; Iran marks anniversary of Islamic Revolution; Royal Dutch Shell expected to announce net zero plans, 12/2 – Chinese New Year marks year of the ox, 13/2 – Bulgaria’s annual neo-Nazi march takes place, 14/2 – Valentine’s Day; Daytona 500 car race takes place; Kosovo holds parliamentary elections

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs by Getty Images, Sundance Film Festival