What just happened
Long stories short
- The UK will take in a total of 20,000 Afghan refugees over the course of five years, starting with 5,000 this year.
- Nuclear scientists in California came closer than ever to a “fusion ignition” reaction, in a significant breakthrough for fusion energy research.
- The Kebnekaise massif, a glacier-topped mountain in Sweden, has shrunk by two metres in a single year due to melting driven by climate change.
The UK, Canada and Australia have been criticised for taking vaccine doses offered through Covax, an equitable distribution scheme backed by the WHO, despite having ordered enough doses through their own deals to vaccinate their populations several times over.
By the numbers
Here’s a breakdown of a) how many times each country could vaccinate its population with the supply agreements it has in place (excluding Covax) b) what percentage of the adult population has had at least one dose of the vaccine and c) how many doses each country has received from Covax so far:
a) Six times over
b) 72 per cent
c) 972,000 doses
a) Four times over
b) 90 per cent
a) Three times over
b) 49 per cent
The number of doses these countries have taken from Covax isn’t large, which almost makes it worse. Altogether, these countries have administered roughly 154 million Covid vaccine doses. The doses supplied to them by Covax will have barely made a difference to the pace of their vaccination roll-outs. Most of them took delivery of the Covax doses only a few months ago, when their vaccination programmes were already in full swing.
By comparison, in many poor countries the vaccine roll-out has still barely started. A total of 13.7 million doses have been administered in low income countries, which equates to fewer than two doses per 100 people.
There is an argument that the UK, Canada and Australia are entitled to these doses: they signed contracts with Covax, they’ve paid their invoices and now they’re getting what they ordered. As part of the deals they gave money for doses for poorer countries; now it’s Covax’s job to supply them.
But it was never Covax’s purpose to supply rich countries. The EU realised it had plenty of doses to cover its citizens and told Covax to give the doses it had bought to low income countries instead. New Zealand, which has privately secured enough doses to vaccinate its citizens three times over, has donated part of its Covax allocation: it gave back the AstraZeneca doses it had ordered (enough to double jab 800,000 people) while keeping 100,000 Covax-supplied doses of Pfizer for its own population.
Covax shares some of the blame. A NYT report earlier this month indicated that Covax has been acting as a buyers’ club first and an equitable distributor second. Insiders told the paper that Pfizer negotiations with Covax in May of this year had stalled because Pfizer wanted its doses to go to developing countries only, while Covax wanted to use the Pfizer doses to fulfil its orders from rich countries too.
Reminder: this follows the suspension of all exports by the Serum Institute of India, one of Covax’s major suppliers, during India’s Covid crisis in March, which left Covax with a severe shortfall of doses. Covax forecast in January that it would have made over one billion doses available worldwide by now. So far, the scheme has delivered 207 million doses.
The AP reports that Covax officials “conceded they had failed to achieve equitable distribution” at their board meeting in June. But they still decided not to stop rich countries accessing more vaccines through the scheme. Without wealthy nations on side “it would be difficult to secure deals with some manufacturers,” they said.
But a “me first” attitude made it worse. We know how this happened: as soon as promising vaccine candidates were identified, rich countries raced to secure preferential deals with the pharmaceutical companies producing them. They paid more to ensure they’d be the first in line when the doses were delivered.
Research by Duke University’s Global Health Institute in January 2021 estimated that rich countries representing 16 per cent of the world’s population had bought up 53 per cent of the supply for the most promising vaccine candidates. Covax – and the world’s poorest countries – were left in the dust.
Rich countries should feel “collectively disgusted with ourselves,” Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the WHO’s director general and one of the coordinators of Covax, said at a public meeting last week. “I can’t help but think, if we had tried to withhold vaccines from parts of the world, could we have made it any worse than it is today?”
Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries
Poland agreed to dismantle its disciplinary chamber for judges after pressure from the European Commission. The chamber was part of a programme of judicial “reform” implemented by the ruling Law and Justice party since 2015, purportedly to improve the efficiency of the courts and root out residual Communist influence. The EU said it would give Poland’s government too much control over the court system. Warsaw’s announcement yesterday met – just barely – an EU deadline to shut down the chamber or face harsh financial sanctions. This doesn’t mean Poland is laying down its weapons. The government also stressed that Poland’s constitution is “the highest law” – a reminder that its constitutional court will soon rule on whether Polish or EU law has primacy in Poland. As we reported last week, the question behind disputes like these is whether Poland stays in the EU.
The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY
Jobs for all?
The number of job vacancies in the UK rose to record levels between June and July, exceeding pre-pandemic levels, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. It’s one of many signs that the labour market is seeing a robust recovery, or inflicting acute shortages, or both, depending on your view. The unemployment rate has been declining since December and fell to 4.7 per cent last month. The labour pool is smaller than it was before the pandemic: many foreign workers have been forced to return home in the past year and a half, while some EU citizens no longer meet skilled worker visa requirements under new Brexit laws. More young people are choosing to remain in education instead of entering the workforce, too. The shortages – particularly in the hospitality sector – are still hurting the economy.
Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics
Planting trees is a seductively simple response to the climate crisis: the scientist Tom Crowther believes that planting more than a trillion trees could remove two-thirds of all emissions from human activities. Now a team from Princeton has worked out – at least by one metric – where it might be best to plant trees and what it is best to plant. It is outside the tropics, the team’s paper shows, that trees best attract low-level cloud cover which reflects sunlight and has a cooling effect – an effect seen most strongly over evergreens. (Note: carbon sequestration is a separate issue and tropical carbon sinks remain an essential if endangered component of the carbon cycle.) The UK only has one cloud forest left, on the island of St Helena where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled. It has shrunk from an estimated 600 hectares before humans were around to just 16 today. Even so it hosts a sixth of the UK’s wild species.
New things technology, science, engineering
Google and Facebook are planning a new subsea cable to boost internet capacity and speeds in the Asia-Pacific region. The Apricot subsea system, due to be launched in 2024, will have a capacity of more than 190 terabits per second and will connect Singapore, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia with over 12,000 km of cable. Facebook announced two other subsea cables in March, Echo and Bifrost, which will connect the US with Indonesia via Singapore. In the past decade, internet infrastructure has become a bone of geopolitical contention between the US and China. So far the tech sector’s response has been to build more of it on the basis that surplus capacity can keep the web running even if individual cables are cut or disabled.
Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity
The end may be nigh for the world’s oldest bank. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena was founded at the advent of modern banking in Renaissance Siena in 1472, when the city was an independent republic and Leonardo da Vinci was 19. Since 2008 the bank has been plagued by overspending, executives who hid losses from shareholders and the suspicious death of its head of communications. It was rescued in 2017 by an €8 billion bailout but regulators judged it last month to be Europe’s weakest lender, whose capital could be decimated by a severe recession. UniCredit, Italy’s biggest bank, is in talks to buy Monte dei Paschi (while passing the bad loans back to the government). Such a takeover would be a blow for the Sienese – not only because of the inevitable job cuts but because the bank has been an iconic part of the city for more than half a millennium.
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Additional reporting by Sophia Sun, Ellen Halliday and Patricia Clarke.
Photographs by Getty Images, Tom Crowther portrait by Frederik van den Berg
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