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Sensemaker: Greed, capitalism and drugs

Wednesday 24 March 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • At least 400 Rohingya Muslims were reported missing after a fire swept through the world’s largest refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
  • The UK announced new asylum rules that would give even successful applicants only a temporary right to stay if they arrived illegally.
  • The Suez Canal was blocked by a giant Taiwanese container ship.

Greed, capitalism and drugs.

Boris Johnson’s The Thick of It moment in Westminster last night cast a revealing light on his thinking and the realities of fighting Covid.

In a meeting with Tory MPs the PM attributed the UK’s vaccine success to “greed, my friends” and capitalism. He tried to unsay the words, but they were out, and quickly in the Sun, and controversial but by no means wrong – not least because the system he applauds may yet produce a Covid pill.

Points worth noting:

  • Johnson is 56. The key cultural reference in this story is of course to Wall Street (“greed, for want of a better word, is good”), which came out when he was 23 and was formative for his generation. 
  • The timing was awful. The EU decides tomorrow whether to impose export bans on Covid vaccines and vaccine ingredients, and the UK urgently needs supplies from the Halix factory in the Netherlands to keep its rollout going. 
  • Vaccines have not yet defeated Covid even in the UK. Johnson believes a third wave of infection is inevitable, and absent much stricter border controls that seems plausible. The Times reports that 68 per cent of arrivals from France, most of them hauliers, are not subject to quarantine rules.
  • Johnson was wrong about greed in that for the time being AstraZeneca is producing its vaccine at cost, with the explicit aim of being affordable for poor countries.
  • But in a larger sense he’s right. The pandemic is obviously a colossal commercial opportunity for the pharma business, especially for companies like Pfizer, which is earning a substantial margin on each vaccine dose and which has begun trials of an antiretroviral pill to treat people who already have the virus. 

This is not the first serious effort to produce a bespoke Covid treatment (as opposed to vaccine), but it’s the most auspicious: it would be taken like an aspirin rather than via the bloodstream and early preclinical evidence suggests it could work against other coronaviruses and mutations of this one, SARS-CoV-2. Pfizer has been incentivised to throw resources at its development just as Gilead and others were to develop antiretrovirals for HIV. There is no vaccine or cure for HIV, but people can live with it, and commercial rewards for those who produced the drugs are a big part of the reason.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Security and chips
There’s a worldwide microchip shortage that threatens bottlenecks in car production and is forcing the US in particular to reevaluate its supply chains. The FT has a long read (£) on a giant new factory in Taiwan that will dominate global supply of the ultra-tiny chips – with transistors one 20,000th the width of a human hair – used in AI and supercomputing. The WSJ has a big piece ($) on chips too: a gung-ho interview with Intel’s new CEO, Pat Gelsinger, who says that after a lull the company is back in chipmaking “with a vengeance”. There’s a catch, though: Intel is outsourcing its cutting-edge work to that factory in Taiwan. No wonder China sees Taiwan as its next Hong Kong.  


New things technology, science, engineering

Pre-flight checks on Mars
Ingenuity, the helicopter that landed on Mars last month in the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, is getting ready for its maiden flight. Three cool things to note: the martian atmosphere is one hundredth as dense as Earth’s, so there is very little for Ingenuity’s rotors to bite on. But martian gravity is one third of Earth’s, so there’s less holding it down. And it will carry a tiny scrap of fabric from one of the wings of the Wright Flyer, the plane that inaugurated the age of flight at Kitty Hawk 118 years ago. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Peak meat?
Demand for meat in the West could peak within four years. A report by the Boston Consulting Group (former employer of Mitt Romney, not known for wishful thinking) says Europe and America could reach peak meat by 2025 if demand for plant-based alternatives carries on growing at current rates. The report says non-meat alternatives could match meat for price within two years. Not eating meat is an important contribution individuals can make to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but still only has a small fraction of the impact of, say, having fewer children – and demand for meat is rising steadily in China. 


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

Goldman mutiny 
The young bankers’ rebellion has spread to London. Emboldened by the 13 new recruits in New York who told their bosses at Goldman Sachs they’d had enough of 95-hour weeks, at least one of their London counterparts has broken cover to tell the Guardian up to six people per team at the bank’s UK operation are on sick leave for burnout and second-year analysts are quitting without waiting for their bonuses rather than endure more marathon shifts at a lower hourly rate than they would get at McDonald’s. “Emboldened” may not be the right word, though; this banker would only speak anonymously even though Goldman’s global CEO, David Solomon, issued a voice memo over the weekend thanking the 13 for coming forward and saying he would try to make sure they didn’t have to work Saturdays. Many of those raising concerns seem to agree the camaraderie of working together might help, but thanks to Covid that’s been lost.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Australian remorse
Australia’s prime minister says he’s “disgusted” by a widely-circulated video of a man performing a sex act on a woman’s desk in Parliament House in Canberra. Scott Morrison addressed the scandal of the video and broader claims of an atmosphere of toxic sexism in the home of Australian democracy at a press conference on Tuesday at which he said “we must get our house in order”. No kidding. When thousands of women took part in protests to raise awareness of sexual harassment earlier this month, Morrison responded by championing their right to protest and noting they might by shot for doing so elsewhere. A young woman meanwhile claims to have been raped by a colleague in the defence minister’s office, but no one has been arrested.

Thanks for reading; please share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs Getty Images

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