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Sensemaker: Pandemic of the unvaccinated

Sensemaker: Pandemic of the unvaccinated

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The director of tomorrow’s opening ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics was sacked after footage emerged of him appearing to make jokes about the Holocaust.
  • China said a World Health Organization proposal to audit Chinese labs as part of an investigation into the origins of Covid showed “disrespect” and “arrogance towards science”.
  • The UN stripped Liverpool of its World Heritage status after finding that new developments resulted in a “serious deterioration” of the historic city.

Pandemic of the unvaccinated

When Boris Johnson began easing social distancing rules at the end of May, daily cases of the Delta variant were low and so were daily Covid deaths. Predictably, two things then happened: Delta rocketed and, because vaccines weakened but didn’t sever the link between infection and serious disease, deaths slowly ticked up.

And that isn’t even the biggest problem.

  • The latest minutes from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warn that the combination of a high number of infections (now over 50,000 a day, almost all Delta) and a high vaccination rate (around 69 per cent) “creates the conditions in which an immune escape variant” – one that can escape a person’s immune system and possibly compromise vaccine effectiveness – “is most likely to emerge. The likelihood of this happening is unknown, but such a variant would present a significant risk both in the UK and internationally.”
  • There’s a more immediate global risk with the UK as a Delta centre. The variant’s key strength is its transmissibility: it’s between 97 and 115 per cent more contagious than the original strain. It’s now been identified in 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and is on track to become the globally dominant strain.

The unvaccinated world – that is, most of the world – is defenceless against Delta. It’s ripping through Africa where vaccines are in desperately short supply. In South Africa, only 3 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, thanks to long-running supply failures. Delta accounts for 95 per cent of its analysed specimen samples. The consequence is — compare the graph below with the first one on the UK — rapidly rising deaths.

The same picture holds for swathes of Asia and South America: low vaccination rates, Delta dominance, high death tolls. It’s almost as if the variant was designed to take advantage of global inequality. But there may be some redistribution ahead. 

The unchecked spread of the virus in the developing world will likely lead to new variants there, which – like Delta, first detected in India at the start of its catastrophic second wave – will then reach advanced economies. As my colleague Matt d’Ancona argued as part of Tortoise’s Arms Race campaign, “until the international community addresses the vaccine crisis in the poorer nations, all the steps we are taking within our own borders will be provisional, temporary and vulnerable to the wrecking ball of a new and deadly Covid ‘flavour’”.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Ice cream stand
Cookie dough got political this week. Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream brand, demanded that its Israeli licensee stops selling its products in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Unable to accept the demand, the licensee must have known what was coming: Ben & Jerry’s announced it will cancel the licence agreement. The move by Ben & Jerry’s, a wholly owned Unilever subsidiary, amounts to a boycott of Israel, where the brand is popular and offers special flavours for Jewish holidays. Israeli politicians aren’t happy with the company’s clear political message. Israel’s new PM, Naftali Bennett, reportedly told Unilever chief executive Alan Jope that Israel will “take strong action against any boycott directed against its citizens”. It’s not the first time Ben & Jerry’s has waded into activism. The company put its name against Black Lives Matter, climate justice, LGBTQ equality, and criminal justice reform.

New things technology, science, engineering

Don’t hesitate
There’s been a lot of speculation about how TikTok, the wildly popular video-sharing social network from China, is able to make such relevant and accurate content recommendations to its users. Some wonder whether the app is secretly listening to their conversations. It turns out the answer is a lot more interesting. The Wall Street Journal ($) created dozens of automated accounts that watched hundreds of thousands of videos to find that TikTok only needs one piece of information on users to understand what they want: the length of time they linger over a video. By tracking each second a user hesitates over watching a video, the app sees their deepest desires.

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

American life
An American child born today can expect to live 77.3 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down 1.5 years from 2019. It’s the first decline in life expectancy at birth since 2014 when the opioid epidemic escalated before stabilising in 2018. The cause this time is Covid, which has killed more than 600,000 Americans and pushed the country’s health system to its limits. The pandemic’s impact on life expectancy was unequal: Black and Hispanic Americans lost nearly two more years than white Americans. And it also brought back the opioid crisis: more than 40 states recorded increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, suggesting that even if Covid deaths drop the social and economic effects of the pandemic will stay on and cause more loss of life.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Human-made flood
Severe flooding killed at least 25 people with seven missing in Zhengzhou, the capital of China’s Henan province. Videos on social media showed Zhengzhou’s subway trains were full of people standing in shoulder-high water, waiting to be rescued. Twelve of the trapped passengers died. Several major rivers run through Henan while Zhengzhou sits on the banks of the Yellow River, which is prone to floods. A series of dams on the city’s outskirts were at risk of bursting, forcing authorities to discharge water. However, they did so without sufficiently warning the city’s residents. “Even if it was a once-in-a-millennium downpour that caused the Zhengzhou floods, it may not be a natural disaster,” a Chinese article quoted by Financial Times (£) said. “If the dam discharge… caused the flood, then that’s definitely a human-made disaster.”

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Brexit Frost
As trailed, Brexit minister David Frost told parliament the government has changed its mind about the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs trade with the EU after Brexit and which Frost personally negotiated with the EU 18 months ago. He told parliament the protocol is disruptive to trade and damaging to the “fabric” of the UK. He outlined an alternative strategy that tries to eliminate most of the checks on the Irish Sea trade border that came into force in January. But, graciously, he said Britain would not unilaterally suspend the deal before speaking to the EU. In June, perhaps seeing this coming, the EU said it “cannot undo the core of the Protocol”. That core includes a role for the European Court of Justice in policing the protocol, which Frost says in today’s Times “has not worked well”. Translation: the die-hards I work for hate the ECJ. Yes, but you knew that, Mr Frost. What were you thinking?

Thanks for reading, and please share this with your friends.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

Sophia Sun

Photographs Getty Images

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